Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix 2014/15Posted: 12/09/2014
Home ice: Silverblades Altrincham
Last season: League champions, cup semifinalists, playoff runners up
Team preview: Coming to you live from the classiest car park in Altrincham, it’s the team of The Official Manchester Phoenix Podcast
Last season in a nutshell
Last season displayed the usual characteristics of a campaign following Manchester Phoenix – not for the faint hearted. The club brought in two new imports – Frantisek Bakrlik from Slough and the fiery Robin Kovar – but retained the strong core of players that had seen them snatch the EPL playoff title from Guildford Flames in a landmark performance at the end of the previous season.
After a relatively subdued start, in which they lost the pre-season trans-Pennine War of the Roses clash with Sheffield Steeldogs for the second year running followed by a couple of relatively hard-won victories, the side suddenly exploded into life, smashing double-figure tallies past Sheffield, Slough and Peterborough Phantoms in successive home games.
Suddenly, there was giddy talk of running away with the league, but this was quickly dispelled as the other teams worked out the Phoenix style and stifled it, coupled with the club’s own trademark inconsistency as the season progressed. Serious injuries, which had plagued the club in previous seasons, largely passed over the Dome but instead afflicted rivals Guildford Flames, resulting in a two-way contest for the league title with Basingstoke Bison in the latter half of the season.
Phoenix sealed their second title by the narrowest of margins, but after another epic playoff semi-final against Swindon Wildcats, dreams of an historic first double were dashed as Phoenix were comprehensively outplayed by a vengeful Bison in the final.
Rather than an individual, there are a number of returnees this season that will make the difference, mainly because of a change of emphasis in the makeup of the side. The departure of McKinney, Bentham and Chong will be a blow to Phoenix, which had developed a tough, gritty Brit presence on the ice. Along with the ever-dependable James Archer and Luke Boothroyd, the arrival of Shaun Thompson and Bobby Chamberlain will hopefully keep the spice on the ice, but fringe players such as Jack Watkins, Jacob Corson-Heron and Jared Dickinson (brought up from the NIHL side Manchester Minotaurs), will need to make their mark this season. Watkins and Heron started to stake their claims in the latter part of last season as the top liners battled to maintain consistent form, but this will be a season when doing the little things right will count for a lot, and these players will need to ingest every second of experience they get to impose themselves on the EPL and play their part in what will hopefully be another successful season.
The new boy
Who will make the biggest impact? Robert Schnabel, by not being there. Because of his size and age, Schnabel was prone to being caught out of position and in a straight race tracking back he was nowhere, but when he was on his game his vision was second only to Tony Hand’s and his experience was absolutely vital in accelerating the development of players like Ben Wood. His absence leaves a big gap; not just physically, but in terms of the mental strength he could bring to the blue line. Obviously, everyone hopes that new signing Johan Burlin will prove to be another rock at the back, but he will take time to settle and the fact remains that Phoenix have always had a degree of inconsistency in defence, and while players like James Neil need to have an outstanding season, there is a niggling sense that we are not as strong at the back as we have been in previous seasons. It is interesting to note that Tony Hand has signed Declan Ryan from Telford as an alternate goalie. Steve Fone has been (and doubtless remains) the number one nettie, but it is clear that Tony Hand is less content to have a rookie backup between the pipes if and when Fone is injured (maybe he’s not convinced the protection is there), preferring to perhaps rotate goalies through the season.
How will we do?
Clearly, this looks like being the most competitive EPL season so far, and while the Phoenix work ethic will be as strong as ever, that will not be enough to maintain a season-long challenge for the title. The experience of players that have been brought in elsewhere will add depth on the ice and strength in the mind of their rivals and this will be a key factor as we approach next spring. Tony Hand has also reiterated that he does not intend to play as much in what (he says) is his swansong as a player. Time will tell how committed he remains to this idea, but there is no doubt that without Hand on the ice Phoenix are a weaker side with fewer options. If Hand is indeed going to bench himself more than he plays, this will be a season of transition as others strive to fill the gap.
Nevertheless, there is enough quality in the side to mount a steady challenge for other silverware and if the in-season Cup competition does not yield success (which it hasn’t so far), I suspect Hand will be ready and eager to join the fray and head into the post-season-playoffs in full battle cry for a final tilt at a trophy. Final league position; top 3. Cup or playoff win. But not both, sadly.
So we come to the league champions. In some ways the format of the league and playoffs in the EPL is unfair to a team like Manchester; they get to win what is arguably the most coveted trophy in the context of the British way of looking at hockey in the league then make the playoff final and their season ends on something of a down note after losing a playoff final that was nothing short of a classic.
That said the Phoenix march ever forwards and of course have a large target on their backs. One massive area of improvement is in net. Whilst the standard formula for the Phoenix is ride Steve Fone into the floor and have any backup they can lay their hands on, the Phoenix have arguably the best netminding tandem in the league having secured the services of Declan Ryan. Having carried a large amount of the Tigers workload for so long then been edged out at the end of last season by Tom Murdy, a change in personal circumstances has proven fortunate for the Phoenix where they can now deliver a viscous 1-2 punch in net.
The other big signing for the Phoenix was always going to be important was finding a replacement for the retiring Robert Schnabel. The man signed by Tony Hand is 25 year old Swede, Johan Burlin. The former Skellefteå junior joins from Italian side Fassa and speaks to the sort of player that the Phoenix wanted on their blueline to replace the fan favourite Czech; big, imposing, stay at home with a big shot, Burlin has all the makings of the sort of defenceman that is popular in Altrincham and by being Schnabel’s replacement has big skates to fill, figuratively and literally.
Bar Burlin’s arrival, the Phoenix defensive corps is as the title winning season lead by the EPL player of the year Luke Boothroyd. Now 27 and discussions about whether he should be in the EIHL aside, Boothroyd could walk into any team in the EPL without any discussion. The supporting cast of Graham, Neil and Wood are not flashy but they are dependable.
Up front, the return of a large number of last season’s squad including all three import forwards, Bakrlik, Psurny and Kovar will only aid continuity and cohesion. The questions about whether Bakrlik’s wilder tendencies could be reigned in by Hand were answered and the 3 import forwards combined for 256 points. The fact 99 of them were Michael Psurny shows just how potent this trio is.
The Brit forward pack took a knock with the departure of Andy McKinney to Guildford and Liam Chong stepping aside to focus on his off ice career but to Hand’s credit, he responded well. Bobby Chamberlain needed more ice time and seasoning so his signing from Hull works well for both parties. After bolstering Telford last season, a place was found for Adam Walker amongst the Phoenix forward lines. When Bracknell inexplicably withdrew their contract offer for arguably their best player and top British scorer, Shaun Thompson was added to the roster. The champions are clearly taking the defence of their title seriously. With a capable third line including Jack Watkins and friend of the blog, Jacob Corson-Heron, Manchester are not short of quality.
Player/coach Tony Hand does deserve a mention of his own given that he has announced that he intends the 2014/15 season to be his last on the ice. Off the ice, the coach of the Manchester Phoenix will need to use every bit of skill as a coach to retain the EPL title. Teams have retooled, refocussed and are gunning for them. The Phoenix themselves have made necessary moves, moves that have worked out for them and I feel Hand’s record as, a recruiter is proven once again.
As a player? I can say only the following; I wish someone would actually check you, stop moaning at the refs all the time and you’re the finest player our nation has produced. I wish you the best in the final go around.