Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning 2015/16Posted: 29/08/2015
Milton Keynes Lightning
Home ice: MK Arena aka The Thunderdome
League Position 2014/15: 7th, playoff semi-finalists
Team Preview: Mike Walls, MK match night DJ
A look back at last year’s preview (written by yours truly) highlighted the excitement and anticipation of the Lightning returning to Milton Keynes and there is excitement and anticipation ahead of this season albeit for some different reasons.
No sooner had the final buzzer sounded on MKL getting knocked out of the play-offs by the Phoenix, then fans were speculating on what changes would be made on what was a disappointing campaign for Lightning. Finishing in their lowest ever position of seventh resulted in a number of changes however no one was expecting former GM, Vito Rausa, to announce he was stepping down and Nick Poole was to no longer coach the Lightning and would become the General Manager.
Team owners, Planet Ice, had the unenviable position of replacing the only head coach in the Lightning history but by bringing in GB coach, Peter Russell, they certainly made their objectives clear.
The next shake up was in player personnel, a number of the team had verbal agreements with the previous management but these became null and void with the arrival of the new coach. Out went imports Milan Kostourek, Petr Horava and Curtis Huppe along with Brits Stephen Wall, Jordan Hedley, Ross Bowers, Chris Wiggins, Ben Russell, John Connolly and Jordan Cownie – Cownie joining Braehead Clan in the Elite League.
In the spring, a number of Lightning fans were worried about the upcoming season and future of the side. A fans forum in May was called to ease the concerns and to also confirm the plans for the upcoming season, with the season about to start it appears the concerns were unprecedented.
Russell has put together a squad with established local players in Leigh Jamieson (who moves back into defence), Lewis Christie, Michael Farn, Adam Carr (team captain), Grant McPherson, Ross Green plus Lewis Hook who returns for his second season. Experienced imports in Blaz Emersic (the only import retained from last season), Rene Jarolin from Edinburgh and experienced Finnish forwards Markku Tahtinen and Marko Luomala. The remainder of the squad is then completed with young Brits from other UK teams and also from the US. Defenders James Griffin and David Clements have signed along with Josh Cook, Bobby Chamberlain, Jack Watkins, Ed Knaggs, Glenn Billing and Luc Johnson, the former two impressing with Okanagan Hockey Academy.
The other big change was in the netminding department with Wall and Headley being replaced with James Hadfield and Jordan Marr. An injury to Hadfield a few weeks ago meant that the Lightning then had to move quickly for a number one netminder and they wasted no time in signing Dean Skinns. A move that shows the quality of player Russell can call up at short notice and an established EPL netminder that will fit in at Milton Keynes, despite the “banter” he has endured from the Barmy Army over the years.
One issue with last season, and it was well documented, was the issue with the fourth import. MK started with Stanislav Lascek, before he left shortly after the rink was reopened and replaced by Czech forward, Marek Curilla. It didn’t work out for Curilla and he was then replaced with Huppe, who was slow to get going but did chip in with some big goals in the play-offs.
For MK to succeed this year they need the imports to be firing from the get go. Emersic is Mr. Dependable and will turn up every night, Jarolin will be expected to replace the goals of Kostourek and Tahtinen will be looking to be used as a playmaker for the likes of Luomala, Jarolin, Hook and Chamberlain. With Lightning going with four import forwards, it is expected that goals scored will be higher than previous years.
This year, the team must work on their away form as well. Lightning did not travel well, the fact they only got two four point weekends last season showed why they finished so low down in the standings.
On paper, this is the most skilful Lightning roster assembled and with four full lines, plus the ability to call on other talented the MK, it is the biggest squad in terms of numbers.
The worries are regarding lack of toughness (Wiggins departure especially) and the netminding. In terms of size, players like Jamieson, Griffin and Clements are not small and forwards like Chamberlain, McPherson, Cook and Watkins can stand up for themselves, so this will not be a team that will be bullied off the puck. As for netminding, the coach is a former nettie, so knows how to get the best out of them. Some teams have gone the import netminder route and, if done right, it works as Peterborough proved with Auzins but Marr, Skinns and Hadfield are goaltenders that are solid and dependable – which will win games for the team.
In the preview last year, it was stressed how important it was to get the crowds back and this has been achieved despite the indifferent form by the Lightning. The school programme being run by the club has been a huge hit. Sell-out crowds for the opening night and when Lightning hosted Telford, plus big crowds for the play-off game with Guildford and matches against Basingstoke and Bracknell have shown an increase in attendances.
With Planet Ice backing and a link up with the Coventry Blaze, the set up of a “Southern Planet Ice academy” with a ladder from junior to Elite in place looks to be a good step forward for hockey in the UK. The cynic in me, and others, may say this is a reaction to Red Hockey but if it results in better opportunity for youngsters playing the game, I’m not going to argue with it.
Off-ice the Lightning are in a great position having secured a title sponsor in Smiths Construction & Recycling plus having retained and gained more sponsorship, it is now down to the team on the ice to deliver as expectation in Milton Keynes is high.
The BOTW Take
Despite making the 2015 playoff semi-final and having a nicely refurbished rink to play in, a 7th placed finish was a bit of a disappointment for MK last season. The on ice play was inconsistent despite there being quality in the side. The one word that kept coming up was “stagnation”. The Lightning had always had a familiarity about its roster and its style of play, it was a style and approach that I respected but I am inclined to agree. It was time for the Lightning to change tack.
The movement of Nick Poole “upstairs” and the appointment of GB national team coach Pete Russell was the first big move. Coming off of a gold with the u20s and a silver with the national team, it was a bold statement by the Lightning about how this team was going to be built.
The list of names who have departed made it sound like a true rebuild from the ground up was under way; both goalies were gone, a all-star import defenceman wasn’t re-signed, two of three import forwards gone along with the talented Jordan Cownie lost to Braehead.
However Russell didn’t completely start from scratch and kept the core of what might have been an underachieving side but a good one. Ever presents like Adam Carr, Leigh Jamieson and Grant McPherson have been kept; players who very much embody the spirit of the Lightning and have been there through times both bad and good. The link with the Coventry Blaze has assisted in keeping the very talented Lewis Hook (albeit his performance in the Blaze’s recent pre-season game has people wondering if he’ll last the year in MK) and one of the most consistent imports of recent EPL times, Blaz Emersic is the only import retained from 2014/15.
The new coach has very much put his stamp on the team and that appears to be experienced imports and quality young British players to play alongside them.
The 4 imports including Emersic average age is just under 35; Rene Jarolin joins the Lightning with a record of being over a point per game in the EIHL with Edinburgh with 2 seasons being over 70 points. Finnish winger Marko Luomala joins from Italian side Gherdëina but comes to Buckinghamshire with a long and storied career of over 500 games in the top tier in his home country and regular if not record setting goalscorer whose numbers should translate well to the EPL if he settles. The last import addition is Markku Tähtinen who won the EIHL Challenge Cup last season with Cardiff. Tähtinen has similar numbers in Liiga to Luomala which also bodes well. Combined with Emersic, the Lightning have a case to having the best import unit in the league.
The young Brits around them, lured no doubt with the chance to learn from one of the best coaches in the country will provide ample support; on defence, James Griffin and David Clements with forward Bobby Chamberlain are on two-way contracts with Coventry so will be getting regular training time with higher quality players. Younger prospects like Glenn Billing, Luc Johnson and Edward Knaggs will get the experience of training and playing alongside some quality imports and good British talent like Jack Watkins and Josh Cook.
The netminding was a question for the Lightning with the departure of Stephen Wall and Jordan Hedley. It was originally set to be James Hadfield combined with 24 year old Scot, Jordan Marr who returns to Britain from Finlandia University in Michigan. Then Hadfield got a “lower body injury” widely rumoured to be a broken leg and suddenly Dean Skinns is thrust into the fray. I think Skinns is a better netminder than Hadfield and with it being uncertain how long Hadfield will be out for, adding a netminder of Skinns’ talents and winners medals is no bad thing.
This is the most interesting MK roster of recent times. As I said above, I always had respect for the way the Lightning played but the time had come for change. This is some change and it’s a change that should wake up the EPL. The Bison will get the first look at the new Lightning in a few days time and you know what? I’m quite excited.
This is a roster with a lot of potential but a lot of questions about it; will the old players work in the new systems? Will the young Brits be able to step into their pressure roles? Will a set of imports who should be scoring freely be able to settle? If the answer to those questions is yes, then the Lightning are back in the title discussion. If you asked me solidly to put money on them winning the league, I’d not do it. Aside from not gambling, those questions above need to be answered first. I tell you what though, we’re going to have fun finding out.