Standing in the Way – New Import Player Special

Jon Rowson, the guy behind Czech/Slovak hockey blog Velvet Hockey and writer for the Champions Hockey League website gives us a run down of the new imports to the 2015/16 EPIHL.

Despite having no affiliation to an EPIHL club, I always enjoy keeping tabs on the league’s summer signings. Whilst my domestic hockey allegiance lies in the EIHL, I try to keep abreast of all the new imports flocking into the EPIHL from countries far and wide. Throughout the years, it has always been fun seeing names who I’ve watched at some point in time come to the British second division, especially as the vast majority come from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, two countries I have come to know and love.

Obviously, my analysis when it comes to players is subjective, and I do not profess any sort of prophetic guru (although last year, I did predict that Peter Szábo would be the EPIHL’s top scorer), but I hope that I can provide fans with a little more information about their team’s new signings, and the sort of game they can expect.

I see no point in discussing imports who played in the EPIHL last season, as readers would have seen them play more recently, and have a better idea than me of their status at this point in their careers. Furthermore, I must stress that my expertise lies predominantly in Central and Eastern European Leagues, meaning that my eyewitness knowledge of signings from Scandinavia is limited. However, despite these limitations, I believe my objective is a worthwhile task, which I’ll start in the north of England, and slowly work my way southwards.

New Hull Pirates signing Jan Platil comes to Britain with a storied past.

New Hull Pirates signing Jan Platil comes to Britain with a storied past.

If the playing side of the game is totally taken out of the equation, the import signing that I believe to be the most interesting, and the most high-risk, is that of the EPIHL’s new boys, the Hull Pirates. Not only is their prospective performance incredibly difficult to read based on just how good new netminder Jon Baston will be, the signing of Czech defenceman Jan Platil is the potential firecracker their team needs.

Strictly speaking playing wise, I believe Platil is good enough to be a regular defenceman in the Czech Extraliga. With his big frame and solid skating ability, the Kladno native spent a total of four seasons in the RSL/KHL, in addition to spells in the Finnish top division, the Liiga. However, since 2011, Platil’s career has been on something of a downward spiral. After spells in Italy and Slovakia, his home became the Czech 1.liga (second division), a league I believe to be slightly worse than the EIHL.

Last season, Platil played just 13 games in a protracted season with HC Rebel Havlíčkův Brod, who were eventually relegated to the Czech third tier in the spring. Platil weighed up hanging up the skates for the majority of summer 2014, missing the recruitment season and eventually signing with HC Rebel at the end of November. One reason for Platil’s retirement considerations was, in his words, that ‘for three years, I have barely played. I have had one injury after another’ (source: http://hokej.idnes.cz/jan-platil-hokej-rozhovor-havlickuv-brod-fp7-/hok_1liga.aspx?c=A141201_2120740_hok_1liga_ten).

Platil performed well for HC Rebel during November and December, missing a few games with an undisclosed injury, but the walls came crumbling down in January, as Platil was awarded 68 penalty minutes in a game against Kladno for a tirade of abuse against one of the referees, who had his jersey pulled and was pushed by Platil, who also attempted to headbutt the official. As he was escorted off the ice, Platil also flipped the hometown Kladno fans the middle finger. This video does not catch all of what happens, as it took place behind the play, but does get some of what happened – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-HP–M4s1Q. Platil was swiftly excluded from the team, and played no further part in their season bar one playoff game for HC Rebel, who turned to the former captain during the relegation playoffs.

Interestingly, however, this is nothing new for Platil. One colleague of mine, who has worked for one of Platil’s old clubs in the Czech Republic, messaged me after he signed for the Pirates, describing Platil as a ‘funny and crazy guy’, but that he did have some issues which he ‘hoped he can fight’. Throughout his career in the Czech Republic, Platil has had the highs of leaving the ice to dance with the HC Motor fans during his season in České Budějovice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InanXcmClxs), to the lows of causing large amounts of damage to Pardubice’s dressing room whilst a member of Extraliga club HC Oceláři Třinec (http://isport.blesk.cz/clanek/hokej-tipsport-extraliga-rocnik-09-10/88300/trinecky-platil-neunesl-trest-ty-dvere-zaplatim.html).

New Steeldogs import Arnoldas Bosas © DELFI (K.Čachovskio nuotr.)

New Steeldogs import Arnoldas Bosas
© DELFI (K.Čachovskio nuotr.)

Outspoken and never one to shy away from fighting for his teammates, Platil is arguably, the most volatile and most interesting new import signing in the EPIHL this year. No doubt, on his day the guy is a fantastic hockey player, but my goodness does he ever have a temper. Just down the M18 from Platil, the Sheffield Steeldogs’ roster looks heavily reliant on Lubomír Korhoň rediscovering his form of 2013/14. However, the acquisition of 25-year old Arnoldas Bosas  up front is an interesting signing, as the lanky forward joins from Orlik Opole in Poland.

Bosas was part of the Lithuania side which defeated Team GB in Eindhoven to prevent the Brits winning the gold medal and promotion at the 2015 Division 1B World Championships, and he scored the only goal in Lithuania’s 1-0 victory over the Netherlands. His move to Poland came after a four year spell in the Kazakh League, playing predominantly as a third line forward for Arystan Temirtau.

Assessing statistics in the Kazakh League is always difficult, given that it is commonplace for title contenders to defeat the bottom feeders by double figures, meaning that statistics can quickly become inflated. However, Bosas’s five points in nine Polish League games demonstrates that he can find the back of the net, although his scoring clip was quite a way short of Swindon forward Tomasz Malasiński during his time in his domestic league.

As we move westwards, we encounter the Manchester Phoenix, who have revamped their import line-up, signing three new forwards. Lining up alongside Robin Kovář are former Liiga Champion Nico Aaltonen, Stanislav Gron and Michal Šátek. Aaltonen is an intriguing signing, one which I would have had doubts about if not for his positive numbers in Kazakhstan last season with Arlan Kokshetau. Used predominantly as a fourth liner during his time in Finland, his low points scoring totals must be mitigated by the fact that the Liiga is such a low scoring league (the highest points per game ratio of any player was 0.98). Whether or not he can provide the high end offence the Phoenix will demand from him remains to be seen.

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New Phoenix forward Stanislav Gron will be a favourite to make an impression in this season’s EPL

However, one player who will be up there or thereabouts in the EPIHL points scoring charts come March will be Stanislav Gron. Whatever league he has played in, Gron scores goals. From experience of watching him with HC Košice, with whom he won a hat-trick of Slovak Extraliga titles between 2009 and 2011, he was never overly noticeable, but just racked up the points. With an underrated two-way game, the 36-year old centre can play all three situations, and his recent performances with Cortina in the Italian Serie A1 demonstrate that he still has all the tools to go with the toolbox. An incredibly smart player in addition to the buckets of skill he possesses, Gron is one of the best Extraliga forwards I have seen when it comes to his play around the net. Look for him to be camped out in front of EPIHL netminders whenever the Phoenix have a power-play.

The free-scoring trifecta of Kovář, Aaltonen and Gron have been joined in recent days by Slovak forward Michal Šátek (pronounced SHAH-tek). At just 28 years of age, the Skalica native is entering the prime of his career, joining the Phoenix after spells in the multi-national MOL Liga (predominantly based in Hungary) and also in the poorer quality Romanian League.

Šátek was never much more than a third line forward during his lengthy spell with HK36 Skalica, adapt on the penalty kill but lacking the game breaking offensive talent. From memory, I remember the diminutive forward being an incredibly good skater, which may be more of a benefit in the EPIHL than in the Slovak Extraliga. However, I think his season with HSC Csíkszereda, where he was the team’s top scorer, may be a good sign that he will be able to put some points up on the board. Going by CVs, expect Šátek to be the Phoenix’s fourth import forward, playing on the second line and probably taking up the majority the Phoenix’s PK minutes.

Moving southwards, ignoring the Telford Tigers who are running with the same import line-up as last season, we reach the Peterborough Phantoms, whose only new import signing will be somewhat familiar to EPIHL fans, as former Slough Jet, Aleš Padělek (pronounced Al-ESH Pad-ye-lek). In his stint with the Jets, Padělek tallied 32 goals in 51 games, and the 35-year old Czech forward has not lost his eye for net, scoring 20 in 26 for Zdar nad Sazavou in the Czech 2.liga (third division) in 2014/15.

I cannot admit to have seen Padělek in recent years, so recent EPIHL fans will have a better read on him than me, but from memory, despite his good eye for goal, Padělek’s two-way game was always a concern, and he never struck me as being the best skater.

An EIHL mainstay for years, Rene Jarolin will be plying his trade for MK Lightning this season. (c) 5 Hole Photography

The Phantoms‘ main rivals, the Milton Keynes Lightning are another team going with three brand new imports, penning deals with Slovak foward René Jarolin and the Finnish pair of Marko Luomala and Markku Tähtinen. Jarolin joins the Lightning after three solid seasons in the EIHL as a member of the Edinburgh Capitals. Whilst the success of EIHL forwards in the EPIHL is a perennially debated subject (cough: Jeff Hutchins), Jarolin’s 104 goals in 169 EIHL games is testament to his enduring quality. A silky smooth skater, Jarolin is perfectly adept at creating his own offence, and has never been overly reliant on set-up men in his years with the Capitals. If Jarolin is not in the top five EPIHL goal scorers next season, I’d be very surprised.

Signing a player who has played over 550 games in the Liiga is a major coup for the Lightning, and Marko Luomala has had an incredibly distinguished career in the Finnish top division, in particular his 27 goal season for Ässät in 2009/10. Despite being 35-years of age, I feel that Luomala can have success with the Lightning, although it will be interesting to see how Pete Russell utilises him together with Jarolin, as both are predominantly goal scorers. The playmaking talents of Markku Tähtinen will go some way to creating the openings that MK’s two big goal scorers will be looking for. Despite looking a little bit leggy in his time with the Cardiff Devils, Tähtinen can still produce, although look to him to take on a predominantly supportive role with the Lightning this year.

As we begin to near the end of our journey, the Swindon Wildcats are next on the agenda, boasting two exciting new additions to their forward line-up. Finnish forward Sami Ryhänen joins after a solid season in Serie A1 with Fassa, whilst 35-year old Slovak forward Miroslav Zálešák (pronounce ZAH-lesh-AHK) leaves his hometown HK36 Skalica to sign with the Wiltshere club.

Stevie Lyle needed to pull something special out of the bag to replace Jonas Höög, and the Welshman has done exactly that by luring Ryhänen to Swindon. The 35-year old Helsinki native is a pure points scoring machine, evident in his 94 point season with the Dundee Stars in 2012/13. Ryhänen, whilst never the most hard-working of players, can thread the puck through an eye of the needle, and I doubt there will be a better power-play player in the EPIHL. Aaron Nell could not have asked for the Wildcats to get him a better playmaker.

On the other hand, the signing of Miroslav Zálešák should give the Wildcats the scoring depth they have been after for years. A pure one-way forward, Zálešák’s game was all about speed during his years in North America, where the Skalica native reached the 2003/04 AHL All-Star Game folowing a 75 point season with the Cleveland Barons. Zálešák’s prime coincided with Žiggy Palffý’s years with Skalica, meaning that his point totals became somewhat inflated between 2007 and 2011, but Zálešák has recently excelled in Kazakhstan as a key component of Ertis Pavlodar’s 2013/14 Kazakh Championship winning team. I would expect to see Zálešák paired away from Nell and Ryhänen on the Wildcats‘ second line, but I expect him to do some damage at the Link Centre this year, and personally, I think not being “the guy” for the Wildcats will be even better for Zálešák. Also, if he continues his trend for wearing all-white gloves, I’m immediately a fan.

Moving back eastwards we come to the Basingstoke Bison. Whilst my allegiance to Slavia Praha makes it difficult to discuss former Spartan Tomáš Karpov, I will happily dwell on the Bison’s intriguing new signing, Slovak netminer Tomáš Hiadlovský. I was incredibly impressed that Richard Hartmann managed to convince the former Dukla Trenčín junior over to Edinburgh in 2012, and over the past three seasons the youngster did as well as one could expect any goaltender to do on the perennially poor Capitals. Despite being rather small in wake of the recent trend for “big” goaltenders, Hiadlovský is a typical butterfly goalie, relying on technique over agility. Whilst this can see him struggle with second chance opportunities, he will be hoping for a more competitive team in Basingstoke. The obvious comparisons will be made with Phantoms’ netminder Janis Auzins, but Hiadlovský joins the EPIHL at the tender of age 26, and possesses perhaps the best resumé of any import goaltender in the league’s history. Hiadlovský has all the potential to be a true difference maker.

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After a spell in France, Matic Kralj returns to British hockey with Guildford Flames.

The last stop on this whirlwind tour of the EPIHL is Guildford, and perhaps the player I know best out of this crop of new imports. Swedish forward Jens Eriksson joins the Flames after a three season spell in the Lige Magnus split between Villard-de-Lans and Lyon. The Flames also put pen to paper with one of Eriksson’s former team-mates, as Slovene forward Matic Kralj (pronounced Mat-its Kr-AHL) also heads to Guildford this September, and I must admit that I have no clue as to how the former Coventry Blaze forward will do.

Kralj was part of the same Blaze team as former Flame Owen Fussey, scoring five points less than his Canadian team-mate. However, Fussey was more of a one-dimensional forward, whilst Kralj possesses a different set of attributes. A relatively average skater, Kralj is an immensely talented player with the puck on his stick, and can see the ice unlike many others. He suffered last season on a terrible Beibarys Atyrau team, but his statistics from the Ligue Magnus are testament to the skill he possesses. Whilst perhaps a ‘luxury’ player, Kralj will score well, whilst perhaps never truly convincing the fans, but I still believe he is a valuable player for the Flames to have, and will do well considering the pace of the game in the EPIHL. However, having Eriksson alongside him will be a massive boost, considering the two played together for two seasons in Villard-de-Lans, finishing as the team’s two top point scorers in 2013/14.

It is interesting to note that bar Jan Platil, EPIHL teams have shied away from signing deals with import defencemen this offseason. Whilst the Bison and the Bees have retained the services of Miroslav Vantroba and Jan Bendik respectively, certain teams are looking to stack their forward lines, going with four import outskaters up front.

It is always difficult to predict how players will do given the myriad intangibles which factor into a player succeeding in a certain environment. However, if I were to put my neck on the line, I would say that out of the new crop of imports, the two big ones to watch are Stanislav Gron (Phoenix) and Sami Ryhänen (Wildcats). Whilst these are perhaps the “easy” choices to make, having watched Gron play around 50 times, I believe he has all the tools to be a top-five point scorer in the EPIHL, whilst any playmaker seemingly paired with Aaron Nell will do well in Swindon. If I were to pick a dark horse, I would say go for Ryhänen’s team-mate Miroslav Zálešák. Furthermore, when the Pirates come to town, please, and I mean please, make sure you keep one eye on Jan Platil as you just never know what’s going to happen.

I hope this has shed some light onto the new faces joining the EPIHL this year. Having looked objectively through the rosters, I really think the league looks too close to call at present, meaning that the signings I’ve discussed above really will play the all important role in deciding where the silverware goes next season. Personally, I think you guys are in for a treat.

A massive thanks to Jon for his efforts. Remember to check out Jon’s thoughts on Czech and Slovak hockey at Velvet Hockey and to follow him on Twitter.

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