Standing in the Way – Telford Tigers 2014/15Posted: 29/08/2014
Home ice: Telford Ice Rink
Last season: 6th, playoff quarter finalists
Team preview: Damon Massey (@M15terRoboto)
Last season in a nutshell
Aim’s for this season? A jump up the table to 8th would be a dream but the way the league has improved as a whole including the teams around us a more realistic target is to continue to surprise the teams at the top, match the teams around us and finish with more points than last season.
Next season though, watch this space…
This was how I signed off last season’s ‘Standing in the Way’ and it appears that the only thing I got right was the “next season though, watch this space” comment!
Where to start? Well they say football is a game of 2 halves but last season for the Tigers more than matches that statement, the season started slowly and we were heading towards November bottom of the league, low crowds and by all accounts the chance was the club were not going to survive past Christmas.
Then in what can only be described as the biggest change in fortunes the sponsor that came on board just before the season started took over the club lock stock and barrel. I do not want to get into the wrongs & rights of what happened next but with the new owner making several bold claims including getting the Tigers to the playoffs the “puck” was set rolling on making changes to the team. Several players were brought in to bolster the squad and this new talent combined with a new belief within the existing squad started a move up the table. 18 wins from 26 propelled the Tigers as high as 5th before finally slotting into 6th place and a quarter final match up against the Flames. After a 4-4 draw on home ice the Tigers went down to the Flames 3-2 and the season was over!
With an all new import line up this season the returning British players fall into 2 category’s, those on long term contracts – Plant, Miller, Davies, Scott & Salem and those classed as being good enough to return and hold their own amongst what could be classed as an all-star line-up – Taylor, Bowley, Bennett, McKenzie, Maynard, Rose, Murdy & Gospel.
I could have easily chosen McKenzie, a fan favourite, last season’s captain and 2nd top points scorer but (and I know it said returnee) I have chosen 2 players who will be vital to this seasons success and that is the netminding duo of Murdy & Gospel, with the departure of Ryan to Manchester it is vital that these two play at the top of their game week in week out.
The New Boy
Where to start? I love that feeling at the start of a new season, the anticipation of seeing that new player you have never seen play before stepping onto the ice for the first time. Knowing nothing about them apart from the stats on the internet or having watched a crappy obscure YouTube video.
Now I do not profess to know every new player we have signed and I have to admit Quiney, Ondrej & Novak are all new names to me, as is the 11th hour import Peter Szabo who Coach Watkins chased all summer and says the wait will be worth it.
The players I do know from time spent watching the Elite league on the TV such as Zajac & Silverthorn have got me excited, then you throw into the mix Weaver, a player whose career highlights fill an A4 sheet of paper & Birbraer and I am salivating!
I have to pick one though and due to the pages of praise from Devils fans who would have had him back in a heartbeat that honour goes to Max “Boom Boom” Birbraer, His style of no nonsense play and eye for the goal will undoubtedly quickly propel him as a fan favourite and possibly one of the players of the season.
How We’ll Do
So we are here, that space……..
As a team the Tigers on paper have massively improved and looking around the league they certainly have one of the top squads, how that works out on the ice is a different matter you only have to ask Swindon that question. Needless to say though Tom Watkins is an astute coach and it has not just been a case of spending x amount of $’s to get top named players through the door, each and every signing will have been thought about and slotted into a place on the squad where he wants them to do the job he wants rather than fitting the squad around them.
Personally I think we will finish top 3 and lets be honest to not finish top 3 with this squad would be a travesty, as always though the majority of the league has improved and Telford are not the only ones to bring in Elite league players so it will not be the smooth journey to the top some are predicting.
The BOTW take
Ladies and gentlemen, the Telford Tigers; the disrupters of the EPL, the new public enemy number 1 for some, the new pantomime villain of British hockey in some ways. Damon however has hit the nail on the head; this piece is not the place for the debates as to the merits of Red Hockey Ltd’s methods but a preview of what we will see from the Telford Tigers on the ice. Torches and pitchforks away, we’ll look at such things another time.
The first thing that strikes you about the Telford roster is the sheer size. It’s not the fact that they’re all 6’5” monsters, I mean just the numbers. The Tigers roster stands at 7 defenders and 12 forwards. That’s an NHL roster size. This is combined with a decent turnover of players from last year with the return of none of last season’s imports as well as players on the periphery like James Smith and Macaulay Haywood being shuffled down to the NIHL Tigers roster or leaving for greener pastures like Declan Ryan and Adam Walker, both of whom head to Manchester.
The Tigers, unlike Guildford who are the ones who have arguably reacted the most to Telford’s spending power, have only the 4 imports registered for the campaign at the moment. The impressive looking Peter Szabo, who signed just before I started writing this piece, is the unknown factor in the import ranks. Whilst the talents of Jason Silverthorn, Martin Ondrej and the charismatic Max Birbraer are well known to fans of the British game, Szabo who signs from Morzine-Avoriaz in the French top flight could be the find of the bunch. The 33 year old has played in levels well above the EPL including spending the last 3 seasons in the Ligue Magnus which is comparable with the EIHL and has a team in this season’s Champions Hockey League. If Szabo settles, he will no doubt he a contender for the scoring title.
Whilst many thought that the Tigers might go the route of carrying an extra import, this was negated by one big signing and one rather shrewd one. The big one is the obvious addition of former Great Britain captain Jonathan Weaver. Now 37, Weaver comes to the Tigers off the back of a 43 point season with Nottingham and will no doubt be the leading voice on that Tigers defence and a great player for already excellent players like Dan Scott and Dan Rose to learn from.
The shrewd signing is the return to British hockey of dual national Blahoslav Novak. Having played a large swathe of his junior hockey in Chelmsford Novak, who counts as British under EIHA rules, made his debut in the old ENL with the Chieftains at 16 and clocked up 109 points in 74 games between 2009-2011 before heading back to Slovakia and spending 3 seasons playing in their under 20s league. A 0.75 point per game average in a junior development league of better quality than here should set him in good stead for the EPL. A player who always played with an edge, it will also be interesting to see how Novak is used and how his experiences in Slovakia have changed the game he plays.
The top end British players that signed for the Tigers during last season were on contracts that carried them into this term so forward lines bolstered by having players like Silverthorn, Birbraer and Novak have the added punch of established top end EPL Brits like Joe Miller, Rick Plant and Dan Davies. The defence has the additions of Weaver and Ondrej alongside other EIHL additions, the most notable for Bison fans being the return to the league of Sam Zajac.
The question mark over the goaltending; whilst Tom Murdy and Sam Gospel are individually decent players, are they are championship netminder combination? Then again, so many questioned Dean Skinns and we know how well that worked out. The defence in front of them looks solid but as the last line of defence, as Damon says, they need to be on point all season for Telford to be ensured success.
The squad on paper should obtain the top three finish predicted above however in true BOTW fashion, this team will be handed no trophies or plaudits without seeing how they do on the ice. This is a new look roster in a new era for the club and the EPL as a result of the position that Telford are now in as financial powerhouses. When I interviewed Wayne Scholes just after the signing of Joe Miller, I said the league clubs would have to respond to the ever increasing roar of the Tigers. The roster in place very much proves that they have the claws. The depth on offer and the talent secured appears to be a formidable task. We await the roar when the season begins.