Standing in the Way – Swindon Wildcats 2015/16

Swindon Wildcats

Home Ice: The Link Centre

2014/15 league position: 5th, cup semi-finalists

Top Cat; new head coach Stevie Lyle will lead Swindon into battle for 2015/16. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Top Cat; new head coach Stevie Lyle will lead Swindon into battle for 2015/16.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Team Preview by Ben Callaghan of On The Prowl

Last Season In A Nutshell

Last season, as ever, was a rollercoaster for the side based in the Swindon Ice Arena. The trio of new arrivals (Kenton Smith, Callum Buglass and Tomasz Malasinksi) all settled into the side quickly and we started the season well. Early wins against Chelmsford in the new cup competition swiftly saw the side get underway on the right foot followed by a penalty shot win against the Phoenix in Manchester. The league was the ultimate focus and we struggled for the consistency needed to be a top 4 side in the EPL.

Despite being the first side to shut out the newly dominant Telford Tigers in early October the call was quickly made to a Wildcat legend to come and aid the lack of scoring problem. Yes, Jonas Höög was back in Wiltshire and made an immediate impact in his opening few games back with the side. It was truly like he’d never been away. Coach Aldridge took the decision to sacrifice Kenton Smith to the bench and the Canadian became an unofficial Assistant Coach for the majority of the season.

Towards the end of 2014 Swindon managed to put together their best winning streak in the franchise history getting 10 victories in a row which included many season highlights. Scoring 11 goals in the new MK Ice Rink, qualifying for the cup semi-finals for the first time and another victory against Telford saw them into the New Year.

A mid-season personnel change was forced upon us when Henri Sandvik, who’d been having a tough 2nd full season in Swindon, decided a career in Norway was the best move for him and left the club on the eve of the cup semi-finals. Tomas Kana was chosen as his replacement and the Czech quickly went about making a name for himself in the EPL for hard-hitting and lethal finishing. Swindon found it tough in the cup from then on and Manchester went through to the final after a massive 10-5 victory in Altrincham.

Heading into the playoffs Swindon the side felt similar to the one that started the season, the consistency couldn’t be found and the Cats weren’t in best shape heading into the playoffs. A tough home leg saw the Cats go 4-0 to Peterborough at home, despite rallying for 3 late goals the Cats were unable to turn the contest around in Peterborough. A tough season came to end against the eventual playoff champions and Swindon had a summer to rebuild under incoming player/coach Stevie Lyle.

The Returnee

There have been lots of changes to the Wildcats roster since the end of the season. However the vital pieces of the puzzle have been snapped up early and one of the most important returnees was the 3rd announcement of the summer. The only player to take home more than one award at the end of season awards night last year. Stevie Whitfield is a massive key to the Wildcats defence this year. Stevie is the exact type of player you want on a team. He will give everything to the shift he is on. A true 110% guy who is loved by the fans and his coaches. Voted Supporters player of the year and Best Defencemen shows how much he is valued in Swindon. He may not be the flashiest of players but that’s not what his game is about. Stevie is the player you want to block every shot on a powerplay (I think in a game against Basingstoke I counted 6 blocks all from Vantroba in the same shift!). He’ll fight scrappily in the corners and clear out the pucks from the front of the net.

At the young age of 24 Stevie still has room for improvement, something which he’s been able to do each EPL season. Heading into the new season Swindon will operate with 6 British D men, the space will be there for one or two to stand up for big minutes and will want to lead the other younger D men through the season. Stevie will be one of these guys I’m sure, he plays hard on every shift and players such as Harvey Stead and Callum Buglass will be able to learn lots from him over the course of the season. As I said at the start, Stevie may not be the most obvious part of the team but he’s probably the guy Swindon will miss the most if he’s not in the line-up, and for that reason he’s the key returnee for me.

The New Boy

Last season there were 3 new arrivals in Swindon, this summer there have been a whole load more arrivals in Swindon. Jordan Hedley, Matt Selby, Harvey Stead, Neil Liddiard, Miroslav Zalesak, Sami Ryhänen and Corey McEwen have all joined the Cats. This season in genuinely tough to name just one who’ll have a big impact on the Cats. For me though, Sami Ryhänen comes with one main aim. To provide the passes for Aaron Nell to neatly tuck away. With Jonas Höög departing once again Sami arguably comes with the ideal pedigree to replace the Swede. He was the top assist scorer in the EIHL a couple of seasons ago, Sami already has a knowledge of the British game having played for the Nottingham Panthers and Dundee Stars.

If he and Aaron can link up well and replace the points of the outgoing Höög then Swindon will have one of the deadliest lines in the EPL with promising youngster Corey McEwen alongside them, it will provide Swindon a great foundation to build their offence behind. They key for coach Lyle will be to keep Sami focused with some criticism in the past of him not being the best guy to have in the changing room, ultimately though as long as he’s scoring points then Swindon fans will be happy and the players will be happy as well. He was a big signing of the off season and should be a hit in this year’s EPL.

How We’ll Do

I almost feel like a broken record by saying how tough this season will be in the EPL and how much it has improved over the summer again. Telford ran away with the league last year and even they have strengthened with the arrivals of Phil Hill and Joe Graham. 5 years ago if Swindon had signed a similar roster I’d have said we’d be league champions come March. For the 2015-2016 season I find myself saying again the aim for us has to be the top 3 or 4. We’ve a new coach with lots of new ideas and new players which should prove to be a breath of fresh air in Swindon. Whilst Stevie Lyle will be in a much unfamiliar role, he isn’t the first person in the world to be a rookie player coach, and also not the first in the EPL. Doug Sheppard and Tom Watkins were just starting out in the EPL and they both have won trophies since. There is no reason to suggest Swindon couldn’t do that under Stevie Lyle.

I think the top 4 has to be the aim again this season, we were incredibly close to it last season losing out to Peterborough on goals in games between the two teams alone. If the new imports find their feet quickly and adapt to the EPL then our import quota could well be one of the strongest in this year’s EPL. They’ll also be backed up well by the experienced brits in the side of Aaron Nell, Stevie Lyle, Lee Richardson and Neil Liddiard. In the past few years Swindon have struggled with depth. This year I do not seeing that being as much of a problem. The forwards we have will allow us to run 4 lines up front and for one of the first times we’ll have 3 full lines of D. The D may not look as strong as others but everyone of them is more than capable of EPL minutes and if they can keep the shot count to around 25 shots a game with Lyle in goal we shouldn’t be conceding as many each night. I would expect our lines to look something like this for the opening challenge game against Manchester:

Aaron Nell – Sami Ryhänen – Corey McEwen

Tomasz Malasinski – Adam Harding – Miroslav Zalesak

Jan Kostal – Sam Bullas – Toms Rutkis

Michael Stratford – Floyd Taylor – Owen Griffiths

Matt Selby – Stevie Whitfield

Lee Richardson – Callum Buglass

Neil Liddiard – Harvey Stead

Stevie Lyle

Jordan Hedley

The coming season will have significant similarities to seasons before. There will be tough nights, there will be moments of genius. There will be moments of frustration and moments of brilliants. There will be defeats and losses. There will be criticisms shouted from the stands as well as joy when the next goal flies in. Ultimately in some regard 2015/2016 will be no different to any other year. In that regard it’s just business as usual, but for Stevie Lyle and his team this is a new chance to create their own history. Will we see some kind of silverware in Swindon this season, who knows but this Swindon Wildcats side will work their socks off to try and bring some back to the Swindon Ice Arena.

The Wildcats have made moves this summer but will it end the silverware drought at The Link Centre? (c) 5 Hole Photography

The Wildcats have made moves this summer but will it end the silverware drought at The Link Centre?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The BOTW Take

So the final ride into the sunset for Stevie Lyle wasn’t to be; shock horror and instead we’ve been treated to the ultimate swerve as Swindon become the first British team that I can remember since the Bison in 2005/06 to have a netminder as the player/head coach.

It’s a brave move, a bold move and something that really I wasn’t expecting out of Swindon. In some ways like MK had been, Swindon had always been the team where you expected some of the same things to happen every year and to see the same faces so if you’d told me that Ryan Aldridge was leaving, I’d have probably put more money on a return for Jan Melichar as coach than Stevie Lyle.

That said, whilst that trope wasn’t adhered too, they managed to adhere to at least one of them.

The Wildcats have slowly become a more rounded side over the last couple of years and looked like the move towards being deeper was really happened…and then they signed Sami Ryhänen and Miroslav Zalesak as their import forwards alongside Kostal and Malasinksi. Sometimes the jokes do write themselves. It’s still a pretty handy looking set of forwards though with the Wildcats looking likely to run 4 lines which will certainly help. It’s pretty much a given that Ryhänen and Nell will be at least tried together though what do they do if that doesn’t work? The top line Ben mentions above is one that’s been mooted in the local Swindon press but I do wonder how long that line of Nell, Ryhänen and new comer Corey McEwan (son of Cardiff and Peterborough legend Doug) will stay together when a goal is needed or doesn’t come as soon as is required and Zalesak is moved up to that top line instead.

McEwan will be an addition worth watching having not played last year but is one of a couple of young additions to this Wildcats forward ranks that I’m actually quite interested in. Okanagan graduate Toms Rutkis caused waves last season with the Wildcats and along with fellow Okanagan player Michael Stratford combined at u18 level for 124 points in 14 games last season. Owen Griffiths joins from the Isle of Wight Raiders after a point per game with the NIHL1 South playoff champions and was one of the Raiders players that really impressed me last season. I personally think that Swindon fans will really take to him if he settles.

The defence has seen a few changes to it thanks to the retirement from the EPL of captain Shane Moore who moved to Oxford and the apparent retirement from the sport of Alex Symonds (which if true is a crying shame as he’s a cracking player). In terms of like for like replacements, Lyle’s done a decent job. Moore’s stay at home game and leadership is replaced by the evergreen Neil Liddiard, a victim of the Guildford cull. The replacement for Symonds appears to be Matt Selby and if fit, that could be the signing of the summer. I don’t watch the Wildcats as much as Ben does but I’m not massively hot on Steve Whitfield but I am on Lee Richardson and there’s the veteran presence and quality on the back end that I think needs to be relied on and can look to lead and guide players like Buglass and the arriving Harvey Stead.

Then there’s Stevie himself; 35 years young, arguably the best netminder in the league last season and he’s upgraded his backup by replacing Michael Crisp with Jordan Hedley. It’s sort of an odd move for Hedley; has he really moved to just sit on the bench? Sure, learning from Lyle is a great idea but at this age and with the potential he has there has to be a way to get him game time in meaningful situations.

So where does this leave Swindon when the chips fall in 2015/16? As far as I’ll pin it down, I think this team finishes top 5 and have a shout at the cup and the playoffs. I wonder about their longevity across the full season. The netminding and forwards look solid but the defence is a question mark for me particularly if Selby struggles for fitness. The “score one more than you” method appears to be the way that this Wildcats side will go which will likely serve them well given the fire power they have. The only problem is what happens when they don’t score.

It’s been a long silverware drought for fans at The Link and in what looks like it’ll be a really close season, this team looks capable of doing it. I’m not as confident about them doing it as I am some other clubs but the Wildcats are finally back in that discussion.

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