Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix 2015/16

Manchester Phoenix

Home ice: Deeside Ice Rink (Phoenix Nest 2.0 coming soon)

League position 2014/15: 6th, cup finalists, playoff finalists

Team preview: Stuart Kilburn, live from a Deeside car park as part of the Official Manchester Phoenix Podcast

His playing days over, Tony Hand will lead the Phoenix from behind the bench for their year's residency at Deeside. (c) 5 Hole Photography

His playing days over, Tony Hand will lead the Phoenix from behind the bench for their year’s residency at Deeside.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

It seems an eternity since we saw Phoenix take to the ice in the playoff final against Peterborough. It has been a long and arduous summer for everyone connected with the Manchester Phoenix organisation, and now thank goodness its time to get back to what really matters – watching and playing hockey!

So, now based out of Deeside Ice Rink in North Wales, what can people expect from the Phoenix Squad for the 2015/16 campaign?

Phoenix has maintained the services of Steve Fone as their starting netminder. In what will be his 7th season with the club. Icing in only 27 games of last season’s campaign, Fone achieved his best save percentage to date with the club of 91.6%, maintaining his status as arguably one of the best netminders in the English Premier League. Declan Ryan, who shared the starting position with Fone last year, has taken some time out of the game this year, and has been replaced by Phil Spanswick. Spanswick aged 22 and originally from Manchester, has spent a significant amount of time in Calgary, Canada and it is from here is where he joins the Phoenix/ There aren’t many stats available about his previous form, but I’m sure he will benefit from training with Fone and will do a good job for the team should the need arise.

A change of flavour in the Phoenix defence this year, sees an all-British unit take to the ice for the first time since we joined the EPL back in 2009/2010. Captain Luke Boothroyd returns to the fold after a lengthy period on the sidelines last season due to injury. The familiar faces of Ben Wood and James Neil keep their place on Tony Hand’s roster, which maintain some continuity in the D core. The addition of Ben Russell from MK Lightning brings a defenseman, who appears to be eager to please, and improve his game under the leadership of #9. The homecoming of ex Sheffield-Steeler Mark Thomas adds a player who it could be argued is as good as, or better than a lot of import defenseman. Icing for 9 years for the Yorkshire outfit, and regular appearances for Great Britain throughout his career, Tommo coming back to the club that gave him his first shot in the Elite League was music to the ears of the Phoenix faithful.

The forward lines have seen a lot of changes this off-season, with only 3 players from last years attacking unit maintaining their place on the Phoenix roster this time out. With Bobby Chamberlain and Jack Watkins departing to play under Pete Russell at Milton Keynes, Frankie Baklirk going to join Bracknell and the monumental hole that had to be filled with Tony Hand retiring to the bench this season, coupled with the uncertainty earlier in the summer of where Phoenix would be calling home for this coming season, recruitment was always going to be a challenge for the Phoenix coach.

The standout signing for Phoenix fans was the addition of Czech centre man Stanislav Gron. With a CV that wouldn’t look out of place in most Elite League rosters, icing over 200 games in the AHL, and over 350 in the top league in Slovakia, it is testament to Hand’s recruitment that he is still able to bring a player of this talent to the club. He is joined by 27 year old Finnish winger Nico Aaltonen, who joins Phoenix from the Kazakhstan league, where he obtained 30 points in 24 games, and has also iced for just shy of 200 games in Liiga in Finland. Michal Satek, a Slovakian left-winger completes the new import recruits for Phoenix this season. Satek joins Phoenix from a stint playing in Romania, where he has averaged over a point a game. He again, has had a sustained stint in the Slovak top league, and along with Aaltonen, Gron and returnee Czech centre man Robin Kovar, I am sure they will prove to be valuable additions to the Phoenix roster.

The Brit Pack of forwards for Phoenix this year will have a crucial part to play in any success the team may enjoy. Gareth O’Flaherty, who guested for the Phoenix last season, signs up full time with the club (on a 2-way contract with Elite league Coventry Blaze). Trent Hope, who like Phil Spanswick has spent some time on the other side of the Atlantic, joins Phoenix for his first season in Phoenix colours. Previously icing for Cardiff Devils in NIHL 12 (2013/14), Hope is said to have improved his game during his time over the pond, and is looking forward to contributing some good numbers to the Phoenix points account. Phoenix stalwart James Archer remains at the club, and is likely to feature heavily on the top line with 2 imports this season. Last years unsung hero, Jacob Corson-Heron keeps his spot on the roster, and one has to think that he will be getting regular minutes this season, rather than being the 10th forward as was the case for some of last season. With Ryan Jones and Ross Kennedy icing on 2 way contacts with the Deeside Dragons, this completes the Phoenix roster for 2015/16

How will we do?

So, the $50 million question… How will we do?

Finishing 6th in the league last season was a disappointment for a lot of Phoenix fans. The team was hit with a lot of injuries, and the character displayed by the boys to make the Crossover Cup Final and the Playoff final in Coventry was testament to the sheer grit and hard work displayed by the team.

As said above, recruitment has obviously been difficult for Hand, particularly in the Brit forward department this year. However, the imports he has brought in appear to of a very high quality, and playing with these kind of players week in week out can only help to improve the game of the young Brits we have on our roster this year.

This season is going to be tough for the Phoenix, there’s no denying that. However, I would write us off at your peril. I think there will be a few surprises from this Phoenix team this year, and they will certainly be looking to take a few scalps.

If we can match or better last seasons performance, both in terms of league position and the knockout competitions, then I for one will be very happy with that.

All that remains for me to say is Lets Go Phoenix and see you all in Wales! Don’t forget your passports when you come to visit.

James Archer will be one of the Phoenix's key forwards. Can he spearhead a banner year for the club? (c) 5 Hole Photography

James Archer will be one of the Phoenix’s key forwards. Can he spearhead a banner year for the club?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The BOTW Take

This is not going to be yet another piece that goes over the summer’s insanity in any great detail. It was avoidable, it was stupid, let’s move on.

It’s a small Manchester roster that Tony Hand has put together; a very noticeable 1 and 2 in net, 5 regular defenders and 8 regular forwards with a couple of additions from the Deeside Dragons. There’s undoubted quality players in the roster but given discussions between myself and my friends from the Phoenix Podcast generally mention them having injuries affecting their season at least two or three times across the season, I do wonder how the smallest injury will affect the campaign.

Stephen Fone is one of those netminders who I have to slightly alter my opinion on. I maintain that there’s a book on Fone (draw him down, shoot high and you need to make him move) but you can’t deny the numbers; he’s incredibly consistent. No matter what seems to get thrown at him, Fone seems to keep rising above it on the ice and keeps making those key saves at key times. He has a decent looking defence in front of him, most of whom knows how he works and it won’t be hard for the others to slot into that system. If there’s an issue with the Phoenix, Fone is low down that list. He’s being backed up for the season by Phil Stanswick for whom there is virtually no book on. Tony Hand’s never been one for picking a backup to particularly challenge Fone (bar Declan Ryan) but the hope will be that Spanswick can step in when and if required.

I’ll be honest, I really like the look of the Phoenix defence. As a regular 5 man unit with the addition of Dragons’ defender Ross Kennedy as a two way player, this is arguably one of the better looking blue line groups in the league and for added joy, it’s all British.

The disappointing Johan Burlin has departed for France and Joe Graham has joined the big brother of the Red Hockey family over at Telford but Hand has made decent replacements in the form of Mark Thomas and Ben Russell. Thomas gets a bit of stick at EIHL level for being too slow but he will be that solid stay at home presence of the Phoenix blueline who will hopefully do for Manchester what Burlin was meant to do. He won’t score tons of points (his highest EIHL points total is 16) but will stand people up at the blueline and just get in the way. Russell (no relation) enters his 3rd senior season and I’ve generally been impressed. He’ll start the season as 5th defenceman but was a bright spot in a somewhat dull season last year for MK. All the noise went on Cownie and Hook but Russell falls under the “solid but not spectacular” category and you need those guys.

Luke Boothroyd, Ben Wood and James Neil are now mainstays of this Phoenix roster and it was unlikely they’d go anywhere anyway but they’ve been the foundation of the blueline for so long, Boothroyd especially, that keeping those guys to be a solid core in front of Fone was key if the Phoenix are going to have any success this season.

It’s up front where the real question marks start to appear about the Phoenix because of the small numbers but make no mistake, there is definitely quality in the forward lines and that’s with the loss of Frantisek Bakrlik to Bracknell and Michal Psurny moving to France.

1 game NHL’er Stanislav Gron is the jewel in the crown of signings for Hand this summer. Part of the Kosice side that won 3 back to back Slovak Extraliga titles, Gron was a 2 time Extraliga all star and comes to the Phoenix after 3 productive years in Italy’s top flight with Cortina where he’s averaged over a point per game and it’s widely expected he’ll do the same here. A lot of offence for Manchester will rest on Gron’s shoulders and any link up he can make with the returning Robin Kovar, largely recognised as the man to step into Hand’s playmaking role is going to be crucial.

Nico Aaltonen joins from Arlan Kokshetau in the Kazakh league but the 27 year old has been a well established player in the SM-Liiga and Mestis in Finland for a number of years, culminating with winning the Liiga title with Ässät in 2013. Aaltonen has not been a massive scorer in Finland but those leagues are not massively high scoring. Coming from Kazakhstan with over a point per game is a good indication of how he’ll score points on the EPIHL.

The reaction to the last import signing Michal Satek was muted from around the league but I think some have been unduly harsh. Satek has a decent record in Slovakia and played most of last season in the MOL Liga (the combined Hungarian/Romanian league) with 36 points in 37 games with a team that finished bottom of the table before finishing off the season in the Romanian league playoffs. It’s not the most auspicious of places to play but he’s not coming in to be the number 1 guy so some of the pressure on him seem odd. He also impressed in the games against Swindon so perhaps it’s a case of the right guy in the right position.

The issue for the Phoenix is British depth; James Archer could walk into any team in the league and Jacob Corson-Heron is starting to blossom under Hand’s coaching. Gareth O’Flaherty is improving but has always been something of a fringe player for Manchester and now really needs to step up as the guys behind him are untested at this level or are additions stepping up.

The recent big pre-season win over Swindon has given some hope that this Phoenix team is more than the sum of its parts and it probably is. For any criticisms of Hand’s coaching, he’s a really good recruiter with the resources given to him and he deserves a lot of credit for that. The issue is this roster really is so small that the inevitable injuries that do come will really have an impact on this roster that at time of writing has 9 forwards including Ryan Jones. Now whilst they’ll have Deeside players on hand to call upon if needed, this will be a long season and this roster will be tested and somewhere it will run into difficulties. Having a big heart is great, Phoenix teams always have a lot of heart but heart alone will win you one or two games, not 30 or 40.

This is a real transition season for the Phoenix as a club given all the upheaval of the summer and playing at Deeside and potentially returning to Manchester for next season. This season will test the players, the club and the fans. A few pundits have the Phoenix missing the playoffs altogether. I am not one of them but I do think this might be a year of trial and tribulation for Manchester more than one of celebration.

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