Standing in the Way – Guildford Flames 2014/15Posted: 28/08/2014
Home rink: The Spectrum
League position: 3rd, playoff semi finalists, cup semi finalists
Team preview by David Wright (@davidpw)
Last season was a disappointing and somewhat chastening one for everyone’s second-favourite EPL team. Coming off two very successful seasons and with a settled roster the Flames had high hopes of continuing that run of success but a combination of injuries, poor form and a fat wad of notes being waved about somewhere in Shropshire led to a rare potless season. After a solid first couple of months of the season the Flames were hit with an unexpected body blow from which they never really recovered. Rick Plant, the club leader in games played, second-highest scorer ever, team captain, fan favourite, tireless worker and all round good egg suddenly departed for the arriviste Telford Tigers at the start of December. Not only was this a massive blow because of who Rick was for the team, but he was also in some of the best form of his career when he left and the team just never rebounded.
Plant’s uprooting was followed by an injury crisis of epic proportions, and when the dust had settled the Flames had been comprehensively turned out of cup and playoffs by the uppity farmhands of Basingstoke, with the ageless Tony Hand’s Manchester mopping up the league title. To add insult to this injury Telford were now threatening the Flames’ cherished status as ‘big, rich club that is destroying the league and ruining things for everyone’.
David Longstaff: a somewhat divisive figure amongst the Flames fanbase, with some noting that he sometimes displays all the pace and agility of a particularly indolent supertanker. However Lobby has to rank as one of the top five British-trained forwards of the last twenty or so years, and to complain that he has no pace is in my opinion to spectacularly miss the point. He has skill and vision well beyond that of most imports – put him on a line with guys who can skate and the points will pile up.
Branislav Kvetan: a rock in a sometimes troubled defence for three seasons now, and an increasingly central part of the team. The big Slovak showed his versatility and power icing in a forward role during the injury crises of last season, and if he can maintain an increased points production playing at the back he will be integral to any success the Flames enjoy.
Ben Campbell: perhaps not an obvious choice, as a younger player with less than point per game on average, but he represents a lot of what the Flames need if they are to be successful. His attitude and workrate have been outstanding, and if he can get the rest of his game to match his searing pace (he’ll probably get poached by Telford) he’ll be a star in this team.
The New Boy:
Danny Meyers: the most high profile British signing the Flames have made since David Longstaff, and at 31 a relative youngster in Guildford terms. Danny is one of the best British defencemen in the game, and should have a huge impact on the team. With Paul Dixon clearly in the twilight of his on-ice career Danny will hopefully be the man to step in to his skates and lead the team for years to come (or bugger of to Telford for a fatter cheque).
Matt Towe: technically a new signing, despite over 100 games in a Flames jersey, Matt was much missed in his absence and is the best replacement for, well, himself. The 67 assists he put up in 2010-11 shows what he is capable of, and with the collection of import forwards the Flames have piled up his creative play will be key to our scoring potential.
Owen Fussey: the retired ex-Coventry player is undoubtedly the Flames’ marquee signing of this offseason, and a great deal will depend on how quickly he can get back up to speed after two seasons out of the game (and two in Coventry, boom boom…). Has great pedigree, especially for the EPL, and if he is fit and interested he’ll be winning games on his own. If…
The bar has been raised in the EPL by Telford’s new money, and the Flames are one of a number of clubs who have had to respond to that. I think we now have more strength in depth than I can remember us having for a long time, and if all the new signings bed in with the rest of the guys quickly and we get more luck with injuries I think we’ll be right up there. There should be a lot of goals in this team, and if Meyers lives up to expectations and Jez Lundin gets back to being the player he was we’ll be strong defensively. The main question mark for me is in goal, an area where we’ve usually been strong. Following years of injuries, an allegedly iffy attitude and a general failure to deliver on his enormous talent Mark Lee has left the club, and to be honest I am underwhelmed by his replacements. James Hadfield is talented but I’m not sure he’s a starter at a title contender, and while Gregg Rockman is vastly experienced and great on his day he’s just not one of the top guys in the league. But overall we are the best club and the best team, and we are going to crush everyone beneath our chariot wheels. If we don’t expect to see Ovechkin and Crosby adding roster depth next season…
The BOTW take:
It’s OK folks, I’ve bought Dave a packet of crisps to go with that pint of bitter. Jokes aside (and yes folks, before that vein pops in you head Dave is joking…mostly) this is a very different Flames side from last term and that’s the first time we can say that in a while. Last season there were 3 new faces and this season there are 6 including the returns of Matt Towe and Oli Bronnimann and that’s added to the news released as I’m writing this that the ever present Stuart Potts and Milos Melicherik (who has to be a close to a certainty for jersey retirement in Guildford as Tony Redmond is in Basingstoke) are to be part of the coaching rather than the playing staff. Some would argue it’s a changing of the guard in some ways at the Spectrum.
Coach Paul Dixon remains as the man in charge as well as on the roster for another season which will interest many in light of the Potts and Melicherik news. Many wondered, including myself, whether this would be the season that Dixon retires to the bench but he feels he can keep going and fair play to him in that regard.
If Telford have arguably started an arms race within the EPL, Guildford are probably the closest to responding having persuaded former brief NHL’er Owen Fussey out of retirement and Andy McKinney from league champions Manchester as well as having lured Matt Towe back to Guildford from Braehead and Oli Bronnimann back from Bracknell. The big news for me at any rate is the signing of Danny Meyers. The former Nottingham Panthers captain and former Sheffield Steeler, fresh off winning the EIHL playoffs last season and his 9th consecutive season in the national side is back in the EPL for the first time since 2006 and whilst many will see it as a reaction to Telford signing Jon Weaver, I see it as more of a reaction to last term.
Last term was the first time since 2009 that the Flames haven’t won a trophy. 5 years is arguably a decent length of time after which to hit the reboot button but that the crisis of confidence with on ice performances coupled, as Dave mentioned, with a variety of in-house issues with Mark Lee and the departure of the talismanic Ricky Plant to Telford saw what probably translates to the closest they get at the Flames to panic stations.
They have reacted and in a big way. Yes they have the financial clout to compete, even drawing top British players away from the top tier but this is about a change of on ice direction as much as anything else. A core from last season has been kept; names like Longstaff, Lundin, Kvetan, Savage, Liddiard and Hemmings who are essentially part of the furniture return along with other high quality returnees like Marcus Kristoffersson and Curtis Huppe with the additions of some of the names we’ve mentioned and the talented prospect of Sam Godfrey on defence.
The Flames will be running 5 imports this term as well with one of Kvetan, Fussey, Huppe, Kristoffersson and Jozef Kohut sitting out every game combined with the option of re-registering Melicherik if required. Fussey is the highest profile of the import names and also the most interesting. Obviously the EPL is not the highest level of hockey in the world and Fussey who’s been out of the recognised game for 2 seasons (in the sense a cursory search finds no stats) but he has reportedly been playing senior men’s hockey back home as well as the fact that given his pedigree (4 NHL, 200+ AHL appearances) he shouldn’t really have an issue stepping into the EPL and being an impact player.
David mentions about the netminding being a concern and I’d say that’s fair. Rockman and Hadfield as a duo certainly aren’t world beaters but as a duo are they worse than having a recognised number 1 and a number 2 trailing a far way behind. If Rockman starts and goes down injured, I’d be relatively confident in Hadfield coming off the bench and winning the game. Is that possible at other teams?
For those of you who didn’t listen to the Manchester Phoenix podcasts live from the playoffs, Arron Mortimer said that he thought Guildford could rebound this season and do the double. This roster is obviously in contention; of course they are, it’s Guildford! Even with last year’s “disappointing” season they still finished third in the league and made the semis of the cup and playoffs. Most teams would kill for that to be a bad year but that and many things shook the confidence of those at the Spectrum last term.
This summer has been the chance for a new start for the Flames. Paul Dixon deserves credit for putting together a roster that looks very dangerous, certainly the most dangerous of the ones we’ve looked at so far. People can shout about throwing money at players till the cows come home, this is the team that clubs will have to play against. Whether Mr Mortimer is right remains to be seen but this Flames roster could be the most dangerous for years. If the stars align, we could all be in trouble.