Standing in the Way – Swindon Wildcats 2014/15

Swindon Wildcats

Home rink: The Link Centre

2013/14 league position: 5th, playoff semi finalists

Tickets: Link

Team preview by Ben Callaghan of On The Prowl

In his 7th season in charge, Ryan Aldridge will look to take the Swindon Wildcats to their first silverware in his tenure as head coach. (c) 5 Hole Photography

In his 7th season in charge, Ryan Aldridge will look to take the Swindon Wildcats to their first silverware in his tenure as head coach.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Last Season In A Nutshell

Last Season was a rollercoaster for the fans of the Swindon Wildcats, out went Perkkiö, Melichar, Murdy and Swindlehurst to name a few and in came Lyle, Silvander, Pekkarinen & Symonds. Whilst Silvander never lasted long, Swindon made the mid-season signings of Aaron Nell, Ryan Watt, Lee Richardson and Jan Kostal. The 4 lifted the Wildcats significantly from a rough start and in typical Wildcats fashion, the period after Christmas saw them become one of the most in form sides in the EPL and a real threat to the other sides. Stevie Lyle was leading the way as we raced into the final stages of the season when 3 consecutive shut-outs were the start of a 7 game winning run we had going into the playoffs. MK Lightning awaited in the quarter finals and despite going to Coventry with a 1 goal deficit, the Wildcats regrouped and a last minute penalty shot by Jan Kostal saw the Wildcats take up a place for the final 4 weekend in Coventry.

The semi-final opponents were the league winners, Manchester Phoenix, an end-to-end affair saw the Wildcats head into the final period with a slight advantage before the Phoenix pulled the game level and took it into overtime. A questionable call in the extra period saw Aku Pekkarinen head to the penalty box and this allowed Frantisek Bakrlik to fire a rocket past Stevie Lyle, and shatter the dreams of all the red and white faithful as well as the players themselves.

It was a rollercoaster of a season for the Wildcats, one I really enjoyed watching and seeing the team develop into the team they were at the end of the season was a pleasure. The memories will not be forgotten and the hurt will remain the same as well. Here is hoping 2014-2015 will be the season we all want it to be.

The Returnee

Over the summer we’ve kept hold of the majority of our squad and some very good players have been re-signed which will be key for the upcoming campaign and to keep that locker room mentality will be key. There a numerous names I could say for this part of the post, Alex Symonds, Aaron Nell, Stevie Lyle, Henri Sandvik… the list is endless. For me though, the biggest re-sign was made before the last season was over. Jan Kostal is back for the Wildcats and it really is huge. When he arrived in Swindon his main objective was to just put the puck in the net. He bought so much more to the side than we expected and he is arguably the player who’s made the biggest impact on the team that Ryan Aldridge has ever signed.

You could see the professionalism that Jan bought to the side on his opening training session, having come in that day and train with such enthusiasm was incredible. The opening game away in Slough he had a hand in all of our 4 goals and a 4 point night led him on his way. He really is the ultimate professional and to bring that into the roster when we did last season was instrumental in our strong season. To have him back in Swindon, not only as an import, but also as an assistant coach is a brilliant piece of business from the Wildcats management. If Jan is anywhere near as good next year as he was last season, we’ve got a very strong import and big fan favourite back on board.

The New Boy

There is a small amount of choice for my ‘new boy’ with only 3 brand new faces joining the Wildcats (Tomasz Malasinski, Callum Buglass and Kenton Smith). For me though, the player I think will have a tremendous impact on the team this year is our new Canadian D man. Kenton Smith joins us from Braehead in the EIHL and brings years worth of experience to the blue-line in both EIHL hockey and hockey in North America. To replace Aku Pekkarinen is going to be tough, as the Finn was a great find last year by Aldridge and shone throughout the 2013-2014 EPL season. Kenton will be a more than adequate replacement in my opinion. I think this signing has slipped under the radar a little, he’ll bring everything we need to the point and should chip in with a fair amount of points along the way too.

He’s no stranger to some of our players either having played with Stevie Lyle, Alex Symonds and Adam Harding in the past. I’m sure they were consulted about Kenton and I’m sure he’ll be a success in Swindon colours.

I’ve always been a fan of having D men who can contribute offensively as well as understanding their main role is to keep the puck away from the net. I have the faith that Kenton will do this well and any successes we’re to have this year, Kenton Smith will be key to it all. He’s a massive pick up for us and hopefully he’ll hit the ground running when we get underway.

How We’ll Do

This is usually a fairly straightforward one for Wildcats fans to consider, it’s a well known ‘joke’ we look good on paper, struggle for consistency in the opening few months, pick up after Christmas, have a good run into the playoffs and then fall at the last few hurdles. The fact is we’ve been improving our roster over the last few seasons and keeping the nucleus together now is key to whatever we do in the 2014-2015 campaign. Whilst I still maintain we’re a forward short at the moment we have a brilliant mix of youth and experience with players like Betteridge, Buglass & Taylor able to learn from Kostal, Smith and Richardson. The league is no doubt stronger this year than last but the Wildcats are the same (bar that 10th forward). A Höög-less Wildcats is a different Wildcats but that’s not to say it’s a worse Wildcats.

I think the aim this season needs to be the top 4. The trio of Guildford, Manchester and Telford are the early favourites to be a clear top 3 but I see no reason as to why we cant compete with the 4th place slot with the likes of Basingstoke and Milton Keynes. With Brits like Symonds, Lyle and Nell we have game-winners in the Brits as well as game-winners in the imports. If we can start as well as we ended the last season I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us have a strong cup run either. I think the key to the new cup this year will be netminding and with Stevie Lyle between the pipes we’ve got a good a chance as anyone of getting the all-important victories we’ll need. With it being his swansong season as well there will be no-one wanting a trophy more than Stevie.

It’ll be an entertaining season, a heart-wrenching season, a frustrating season, an incredible season. Every season is, for every team. Its why we watch the sport but when the Swindon Wildcats step out on the ice for the first time this season, the ending is in their hands and what will be will be, lets enjoy our hockey!

In his final season before retirement, Stevie Lyle (centre) will try to lead the Swindon Wildcats to glory but they will have to do it without fan favourite Jonas Höög. (c) 5 Hole Photography

In his final season before retirement, Stevie Lyle (centre) will try to lead the Swindon Wildcats to glory but they will have to do it without fan favourite Jonas Höög.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The BOTW take:

Seeing as how Ben’s apparently made all the jokes I could make about Swindon before I’ve even started, I’m almost not sure what to say…almost. He’s right though; the jokes that people make about the Wildcats have almost crossed the line from humour and stereotype into accuracy. It happened last season as well where they started off sluggishly then picked up when Aaron Nell returned from Sheffield and went back to his free scoring ways. They overcame the MK Lighting in an enthralling playoff quarter final which they won in the last minute of the second leg with a penalty shot (is there any more last minute than that?) before outplaying Manchester for large chunks of the semi final and falling at the final hurdle…on a powerplay…in overtime. (Just to maintain, soft it might have seemed but it was holding by the rule book.)

With the about to swansong Stevie Lyle in net, Kenton Smith alongside Alex Symonds on defence, a possible top line of Nell, Kostal and Malasinski with the returning Henri Sadvik bolstering the second line alongside Lee Richardson looks a formidable top end of the roster but I never think the issue with Swindon is the quality of their top end players so much as their game plan.

What arguably cost the Wildcats a place in the playoff final last season was they over played their top end players to the point of exhaustion. The gap between the top guys and the depth was too big and coach Ryan Aldridge understandably wants his top guys on the ice for the big plays but be it game 1 of the season or game 60, you need the depth of your roster to carry you through. Manchester won a league title off of it, Basingstoke won two trophies off of it, Swindon didn’t have it last season. It’s all well and good having a team of good players but what you do with them matters as well. There has to be a plan B when plan A doesn’t work. With an EPL that now has even more power players than the 13/14 campaign, there are questions to be asked as to how the Wildcats would approach it and tackle it.

That said the recruiting challenges faced by Aldridge have provided some interesting answers. The loss of fan favourite Jonas Höög has been countered with Polish international Tomasz Malasinski whose record in a league a step above the EPL is established. The retention of the promising Ollie Betteridge and Adam Harding on two way contracts with Nottingham and Cardiff respectively and the addition to the highly touted Callum Buglass, also on a two way with the Devils shows not only an answer to the depth issue but also a willingness of Swindon to develop youngsters for a higher tier albeit someone else’s. Keeping established EPL veterans like Symonds, Richardson and the ever present Shane Moore speaks of a roster that is well rounded not just one full of youthful energy and naïve hope.

The addition of Smith especially is the Wildcats benefitting off of a player wanting to be close to home in the same way as Lyle and good on them for doing it. Smith is an upgrade on Pekkarinen for my money.

This is a much more solid looking Swindon roster than last season’s effort. The core of last season’s group has been kept together and they will be hungry to avenge recent heartbreaking ends to the last 2 campaigns. It looks decent though there are some question marks that still hang over it. As Ben mentioned, despite announcing the roster is complete there is only 9 forwards announced. Whilst the aforementioned Smith is a great addition to the lineup, is that defence good enough to provide the requisite support Lyle needs still?

The team looks alright but given the way the league has gone and recruitment elsewhere, sadly I think Swindon’s fortunes don’t rise above 5th again. The chance for the trophy to send the finest British netminder of his generation off into the sunset lies in the cup or the playoffs for Swindon rather than the league title.

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