Standing in the Way – Swindon Wildcats 2013/14

8 other EPIHL teams down and one more to go as the season looms large and in the tradition of Standing in the Way, we look at our opening night opponents last to prepare us for tomorrow.

Name: Swindon Wildcats

Home ice: The Link Leisure Centre

Position: (7th, playoff quarterfinalists)

Top scorer: Jonas Höög 39 goals + 81 assists = 120 points

Ticket details: http://www.swindonwildcats.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=49&Itemid=58

Ben Callaghan (Writer of Swindon Wildcats blog, On The Prowl, @slapshot6032)

It’s all change in Swindon since the playoff quarter final defeat to Basingstoke back in March. The rink has been refurbished; the team has also had some major changes to it. Swindon’s off season started in brilliant fashion when it was confirmed Stevie Lyle had signed a two-year contract with the club giving us an ideal start to build on. The signings came very quickly in April with Adam Harding, Alex Symonds, Henri Sandvik, Sam Smith and Matt Towe all putting pen to paper. Aku Pekkarinen joined the side from Finland as our only new import so far. Local youngsters Sam Bullas, Floyd Taylor, Loris Taylor & Stevie Whitfield also joined up with us once again to give us a solid group of British forwards. Other key players to the Wildcats side also signed up again, EPL player of the year Jonas Höög re-signed for his 3rd full season with the Wildcats and Shane Moore also re-signed and has recently been awarded the Captaincy vacated by Aaron Nell after his departure to Sheffield Steelers.

Losing Nell would always be a massive blow for us, in my opinon no-one would be able to replace him (that would realistically drop down to the EPL). His replacement this season is Stevie Lyle, it sounds strange but Aaron was a British player who could win the game for Swindon on his own. That is exactly what Stevie can do but in a different position – instead of scoring the goals, Stevie can stop them going in. Matt Towe would have been a source of British scoring but he requested to be released from his contract before stepping onto the ice opting to sign for Braehead Clan instead.

I think we’re going to do well this season. I think an improvement on last season’s finish is certainly going to happen in my opinion. Stevie gives us solid goaltending week in week out for an entire season which will give us a chance to win every night. Jonas is the best playmaker in the EPL and once Aldy signs the goalscoring centreman which he’s after then those two should form a formidable partnership similarly to what Aaron and Jonas did last season. Question marks have been raised over our Defence this season and I personally believe it’s actually better as a unit than last season. Yes we’ve lost experience and talent in Swindlehurst and Baird but I think bringing in Symonds and Godfrey are actually better on the whole. Juha Silvander has signed from Sweden as the remaining import and his stats read a very good hockey player and will be more than capable for EPL hockey, and alongside Höög should hopefully rack the points up. With the arrival of Juha I would expect the lines to look like:

Höög – Silvander – Smith

Aldridge – Harding – Sandvik

L.Taylor – Betteridge – Bullas

F.Taylor

Symonds – Moore

Pekkarinen – Whitfield

Godfrey

Juha will be a good signing, not just for his points production. There has been some criticism on the lack of experience within the forwards with the loss of Towe, Watt & Richardson. Bringing Silvander in brings a massive amount of European experience and he was captain for his previous team in Sweden so will be able to bring that kind of leadership into our locker room. I’m glad Aldy took his time, many wondered why he couldn’t find someone in the summer but waiting has proved to be a brilliant move and Silvander looks like a very good find for us.

There is a strong emphasis this year on high energy hockey and both home pre-season games have been exactly like this, both resulting in home wins. The team is built well around this ethos and hopefully it can be a successful one for us. If a British player becomes available then Aldridge has said we’d be interested in looking at them but that won’t happen unless someone gets cut from another side. I think if that were to happen then we’d be looking at a Brit for our second line, but at the moment I am happy with how that is looking.

Positives are there for Swindon, it’s a strong team in my opinion who may not have massive amounts of EPL experience but the talent is there on all lines, I think we’re going to surprise a few teams this season and I think a finish of 5th/6th is well within reach.

Banners On The Wall

Apart from the fact that they’re the Bison’s opening night opponents, I might have left Swindon till last anyway because they’ve been the interesting story of the summer. Lose a 115 point British forward, sign then lose and Elite League centre, sign the best netminder in the league, sign a centreman straight out of the Allsvensken; it’s been something of a rollercoaster and that’s not including the refurbishment at The Link (which looks tip-top by the way so congrats to all involved there).

There is a real sense of optimism from a large chunk of the Wildcats fanbase and I don’t really blame them for that. Stevie Lyle’s quest to play closer to his home in Cardiff has landed them with the best netminder in the EPL, there’s no question about that. Lyle is a cut above everybody else in the division at his position but as we learned from last season with the Bison, he can’t do it all alone. Lyle is only human and will have his off nights but when you consider Swindon lost a lot of games by 1 goal and their infamous bad luck streak with overtime and shootouts, you have to think that Swindon are at least in a position to steal a few more of those games that they lost last term.

Backing Lyle up is fellow Welshman, Michael Crisp who signs from Cardiff’s NIHL 2 side, the Satans. Crisp will be under no illusions as to what his role is this season and the notion that Tom Murdy was going to sit around and actively want next to no ice time was a flight of fantasy on the part of Ryan Aldridge.

The defence has suffered with the loss of Paul Swindlehurst who has moved to Dundee and Joe Baird returning to the Bison and have covered those holes with Sam Godfrey from Slough and Alex Symonds from Basingstoke. Symonds, arguably the most underrated player on the Bison roster last term, is a solid defensive presence who can play top pair minutes. Still only 19, Godfrey has lot of potential as a good stay at home defenceman. Not high scoring but positionally sound, the move should see Godfrey’s ice time increase but Swindon fans should expect Godfrey to be absent when GB u20s come calling.

With my “favourite” player Jan Melichar scaling back his on ice work and being used as a spare import, a lot will rest on the shoulders of Finnish import defenceman Aku Pekkarinen. Whilst the Finnish defenceman comes from good stock as part of the KalPa junior system, he had a very disjointed 2012/13 as he managed 19 appearances for 4 different teams having been loaned out left, right and centre. Quality is not the question here and the 28 year old will undoubtedly be a fearsome presence on the blueline but his fitness is an unknown given he’ll be expected to cover a lot of ground over the course of a 54 game season. Returnees Stephen Whitfield and newly minted captain Shane Moore round out the defensive unit and both will be steady, low points scoring, reliable defencemen though I confess I am intrigued to see what the captaincy does to Moore’s style of play given his traditionally high-ish PIMs count.

Having lost Aaron Nell to the EIHL (which is where he should be), the fact that Jonas Höög couldn’t get a deal back in his native Sweden and decided on a 4th season in Wiltshire has naturally been met with raptures. How the lines are made up will obviously impact on Höög’s points count given he was the man who set up a lot of Nell’s (and everyone else’s) goals last season. Given that freshly signed Juha Silvander is, though traditionally a centreman also playable on the left wing and you’d assume you’d want to play those two together with alternate captain Henri Sandvik providing attacking punch from the second line

Having signed from Asplöven in the second tier of Swedish hockey, a lot will and should be expected of 31 year old Silvander. People might read his stats for last season (33games, 1 goal 8 assists) and not be impressed but it’s in a league vastly superior to the EPL. On paper he looks better than Höög but how he settles will play a big part in his success.

The import forwards are not the question mark for the Wildcats but their Brits.

Aside from Nell the top scoring Brit for Swindon was Nicky Watt with 29 points from 28 games. Watt was 4th in final team scoring, about 40 points behind 3rd place. Now obviously there were a few comings and goings for Swindon and points per game from some players would have seen them finish higher but the Wildcats relied a lot on their imports and they need their very capable British players to step up.

Having ultimately lost out on Matt Towe and a mutual parting on the ways from Lee Richardson, the stage is set for former Elite League players Sam Smith and Adam Harding to really step into the breach and be that secondary scoring role. Whilst we all make jokes about Ryan Aldridge playing himself on the top line, Smith might be the ideal fit on the right hand side of a line with Höög and Silvander to add a decent set of hands and size to help create a bit of space for the imports to weave their magic. Harding will likely be added to the second line alongside Sandvik and either the impressive Nottingham developed youngster Ollie Betterridge, the returning Sam Bullas or Aldridge himself. Also with Floyd and Loris Taylor there is certainly talent coming through from the junior ranks so the future is certainly bright even if neither will see lots and lots of ice time this campaign.

Many people will say that coaching from Aldridge is critical this season and it is but Aldridge like Tony Hand, like Doug Sheppard, like Paul Dixon have their way of doing things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The make up of the team for Swindon is the where the uncertainty lies for me.

The Wildcats have the best keeper in the league, the best player in the league and a Finn on paper who looks better than the best player in the league. The question is can the whole be more than the sum of the parts? Lyle is very good but can that defence offer him adequate protection to make save after save? Who steps up and creates offence if Höög, Silvander and Sandvik are injured or shut down during the game? Can Smith and Harding fill that secondary Brit scoring role and get close to around a point per game in their first EPL season? Will Aldridge genuinely play himself on the 1st line, powerplay and penalty kill to just hammer home the stereotype? The last one might be slightly jokey but you get my point.

I think the problem is that whilst the Wildcats have put together a good roster, they look easily solvable. Hockey isn’t played on paper and this team might click and be like the 1950s Canadiens reincarnate when they get out there but on the balance of what we know, Swindon have put a team together similar to last year’s in spirit if not in personnel. People will point to their pre-season results as a marker but, as I told Ben recently, doing well in the warm up and using it as a large indicator of what’s to come is the preserve of the England football team.

Will this team finish better than 7th? I’ll say yes. Will this team secure a top four finish? I have to confess, I’m not that sure.

So that’s it, all 9 opposition teams have been covered and tomorrow we see how it will go. The 2013/14 EPIHL season promises to be the most competitive on record and Banners On The Wall will be there along for the ride. See you along the way and Let’s Go Bison!

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