Standing in the Way – Peterborough Phantoms 2015/16Posted: 26/08/2015
Home ice: Peterborough Arena
2014/15 league position: 4th, playoff champions
Team preview by Dan Breen, Phantoms match night announcer and host of Centre Ice on Peterborough City Radio
Before I began writing this year’s “Standing in the way” I decided to re-read what I’d written last year. Some of it was spot on, (playoffs, league position), and some of it was way, way off, (Edgars Apelis, Challenge Cup), but such is life.
Last year for the Phantoms was everything that the tail end of the 13/14 season promised: A solid team, playing together and for each other meant that for the first time since That Season the Phantoms finally looked like fulfilling the promise the pre-season had hinted at, and fulfil it they did – reaching the heady heights of 2nd in the league at one point, before settling down and beginning the run into the post season. After the quarter finals had played out with some very surprising results, (Bison and Flames going out), there was a belief in the locker room and among the fans that there was only one team truly in the running. Whether you see that as self confidence or arrogance, (and the line between the two is monomolecular), the results speak for themselves.
The New Boy
The off season was a strange one for a number of reasons, upheaval in normally stable camps, and the reverse here – stability in what is normally one of the more unstable teams. Only 5 new players signed this season and the majority of last year’s team returning for the Phantoms makes picking the new boy almost a default choice.
Lloyd Gibson – as a Steeldog he was a player you love to hate, not a flashy high scoring player but one who seems to have an awful lot of potential. Coach Koulikov seems to have a knack of bringing the best out of players, so this could be a good move by Gibson. If he commits to the Phantoms like he did to the Steeldogs, he’ll be a very good pick up for us.
I have the opposite problem to usual – too many returning players to choose from. I feel I was correct in marking James Ferrara as the key returnee last season, and his re-signing this year is a reassuring one. As with the new boy, the returning player should also be a no-brainer – Janis Auzins – a Player I know all Bison fans absolutely love…or maybe not.
It took him a little while to settle in, but once he did, he showed why Slava had shown so much faith in him. He also learned how to play the league too. While his seasons stats looked mediocre, his play off stats showed him as comfortably the best netminder of the tournament.
Now he knows what to expect, I suspect he will continue where he left off from last year, and show why he should be considered one of, if not the best netminders in the EPIHL and against much tougher opposition this year.
How we’ll do this year
With the improvements among other teams, getting 4th again may be a struggle, however between 4th and 6th looks like it will be a reasonable achievement, although again, I think we’ll be aiming more towards the Playoffs than league or cup success.
The BOTW Take
When the final buzzer sounded on the 2015 EPL playoff final I don’t think many people would disagree with the assertion that over the weekend, the right team won. Slava Koulikov, rightly the EPL coach of the year for 2014/15 had outcoached Tom Watkins on the Saturday and his team had outplayed the Tigers. Heading into the final, many wondered if they’d emptied the tank the night before but they were wrong. Whilst that final won’t go down as a classic game for the ages the Phantoms stuck to their game plan and played a tired and shapeless Manchester off of the ice to send Tony Hand into retirement with a runners-up medal.
In that respect it is understandable why Slava Koulikov has only made minimal changes to a roster that won Peterborough their first trophy since their grand slam in 2009. However the major enforced change was the loss of Luke Ferrara to the Sheffield Steelers. Ferrara was arguably the Phantoms’ best player British or otherwise last season, certainly the most talismanic for the roster and the fans and there’s an argument I think as to whether his offence and his leadership been replaced like for like at the moment. Stats are stats, if you win a game 2-1 instead of 4-1, you still won the game but who will step into that void left by Ferrara remains to be seen.
One player that Koulikov has managed to keep a hold of tha t will stand them in good stead? Janis Auzins. The Latvian was robbed of a place on the all star team because the IHJUK read stats rather than appreciate performances when it comes to the EPL and yes, I laid into him a fair amount over the course of the season because of his attitude and I stand by those criticisms; when you throw a hissy fit and start a bench clearance there’s no other way to paint it but Auzins was superb in net last season. When he settled down and realised Slapshot was a comedy film and not an instructional video, he showed why the investment in an import netminder is such a staple of Koulikov’s game plan. When his eye is in, he’s a brick wall. He’s got decent support behind him in the form of the very able Dan Lane and new addition Adam Long who joins from Chelmsford’s NIHL2 side.
The defence is virtually unchanged with only James Hutchinson leaving the side to join Hull’s new EPL adventure. I wax lyrically about Tom Norton regularly because he should really be playing in the EIHL rather than the EPL. Cam McGiffin and Scott Robson proved themselves to be clutch performers at the playoff weekend, McGiffin in particular was superb against Telford and the key for them will be to start replicating those performances regularly in league competition this term. Rob Ferrara and Jason Buckman will add stability at the back and Greg Pick will add his usual dose of grit.
Up front is where the majority of the minimal changes have been made; Luke Ferrara gone as mentioned and additional British depth added as Lloyd Gibson joins from Sheffield and Craig Scott returns to Britain from Canada and a spell in minor junior leagues and a spell at the University of Manitoba. It’ll be hard to make much of a comment of Scott but I’m really intrigued to see how Gibson will be used by the Phantoms. He was one of the larger proponents of the much maligned “Dogs hockey” during Payette’s reign so now he doesn’t have such pressures on him, I’m looking forward to see his adjustment to a new game plan.
Import wise, an unsurprising return for Milan Baranyk and Darius Pliskauskas was announced and I fully expect the two of them to be leading the scoring for Peterborough with more to be asked of Edgars Bebris to add to his totals from last season. Donatas Kumeliauskas hasn’t been retained which wasn’t a huge surprise. The Lithuanian was good but not great and has been replaced by former Slough forward Ales Padelek and it’s a signing that I have to confess to being slightly confused by. Since staring for the final EPL Jets side and going under a point per game, Padelek has spent most of his time in the Czech 3rd tier. Koulikov obviously thinks a lot of Padelek and he may well be able to get the most out of him but I’m interested to hear how a 35 year old forward who spent the last 12 months playing in a level well below EPL and then in Australia is the man to help take the side forward.
Odd signings aside, the depth guys have always been a strength at Peterborough. Adding Gibson and Scott to names like Marc Levers and Will Weldon added to the regular raft of prospect signings and the impressive potential of Martins Susters makes for a decent mix of skills.
On my appearance on the Bison’s official podcast, I said that Koulikov appears to have made a side built to win the playoffs which is all well and good. Why wouldn’t want to defend your trophy that you worked hard to win. The problem is the most prestigious one to win is the league title and this side doesn’t look like one built to win that. They’re entertaining, I have no doubt that again they will be more than the sum of its parts because Slava is good at getting the most out of his players. That said, Koulikov isn’t a miracle worker and this team looks good, rather than great. They played good hockey regularly last season, the issue is they need to play great hockey regularly to make that dent in the title discussion and I’m not sure this is the team to do that.