Standing in the Way – Bracknell Bees 2015/16

Bracknell Bees

Home Ice: John Nike Leisure Centre, aka The Hive

League position 2014/15: 9th

After a disappointing 2014/15, Lukas Smital is back to try and bring the Bracknell Bees back to prominence. (c) 5 Hole Photography

After a disappointing 2014/15, Lukas Smital is back to try and bring the Bracknell Bees back to prominence.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Regular readers will know that two of the great credos of BOTW are that we don’t blow smoke up people’s backsides and we don’t really do hyperbole. So we shall continue in that vein; last season was an awful one on the ice for the Bracknell Bees. Despite deserving applause for bleeding in a raft of younger players when the battle for the playoff spots was clearly long gone, that Bees side that finished the season was full of determination and professionalism to try every night but they were not very good. Losing two of their cup games to NIHL opposition and being regularly and soundly beaten by most sides by the end of the campaign, the Bees really needed the summer to come and a chance to regroup. I felt a bit sorry for netminder Alex Mettam, one of the early BOTW Podcast guests and one of the nicest people I’ve spoken to in hockey because there was this belief at the start of the campaign that whilst it would be a dogfight to make the playoffs it was one that they felt they could do but ultimately it bore out that they couldn’t.

The talk as the season went on was that Bracknell were about to do what Slough had done and leave the EPL for the lower leagues but the investment of Red Hockey who now own 49% of the Bees appears to have safeguarded the Berkshire side in the EPL for the time being. To Red Hockey’s credit, their commitment to the clubs they invest in appears to have long term implications as evidenced by some of the contracts being handed out. The Bees have handed out multiyear deals to some of their top end guys this summer and you have to assume that Red Hockey’s investment is linked to that.

With that being said despite finishing bottom last season by some distance, the changes at Bracknell have not been as wholesale as one might have imagined. Player/coach Lukas Smital has kept faith with a large swathe of the players that finished the last campaign.

Both Alex Mettam and Tom Annetts return as the netminding tandem for the Bees and actually I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Both are decent netminders at EPL level who were regularly hung out to dry last season. I think there’s a very definite 1 and 2 in that equation (I’d start Mettam over Annetts) but both are solid enough to start as required and can challenge the other one. It’s arguably a much better set up than some teams have with such a gulf between the starter and the backup that you fear what would happen if the starter goes down.

It’s the defence at Bracknell that was something of a question last term. Team defence was an issue across the board and there’s been a move to try and shore up this unit with a move to a 7 man defence that lost Harvey Stead to Swindon and let Pavel Strycek go but includes two youngsters who got time last season in Thomas Relf who I didn’t see much of and Josh Tetlow who looked decent but raw last time out.

The big headline addition to the blueline was David Savage who heads to the Hive after a 10 year stint in the EPL with Guildford. The argument could be made that Savage was going stale at Guildford and also that he was a victim of Paul Dixon’s apparent desire for a massive shift in how his roster was put together. His decision is Bracknell’s gain as Savage is still a very good player at this level and can only be an asset to Bracknell. You’d imagine that he’d be paired with the returning Jan Bendik on the top line.

Also back in Bracknell is friend of this parish, Carl Graham after his year on the Isle of Wight. Graham won’t start the season due to injury but will add some solid stay and home presence alongside the talented Lewis Turner, who must be on some EIHL radars somewhere and Sam Waller.

Where Bracknell made more headlines this summer was up front. Not having Strycek return was clearly part of the plan when it emerged who the Bees had signed to be import forwards alongside Smital.

Frantisek Bakrlik was arguably one of the better players in the league last year. At times he appeared to be having to win games single handed in Manchester and I think was worthy of an all star spot. After not winning many friends by being something of a loose cannon at Slough, he really thrived under Tony Hand’s coaching. It’ll be interesting to see how he fits into Smital’s systems.

The other signing is the always talked about (and in what terms I’ll leave you to decide) Milan Kostourek. Kostourek earned a reputation last season in Milton Keynes for being a decent player but one with an attitude as his strop thrown on the final day of the regular season in Basingstoke showed. He reminded me somewhat of Bakrlik in his first season in the EPL when I saw him and perhaps playing alongside Frankie will be something of a calming influence…maybe.

Those two appear to have been paired with the talented but also somewhat hot headed Callum Fowler who returns to the EPL after a couple of years with Invicta in NIHL1 South. Fowler is a natural goal scorer and if he settles alongside Barklik and Kostourek then that line should be a handful for any defence.

Smital himself is still a decent forward at EPL level and whilst we naturally do not revel in the diversion his studies had to take, the return to Bracknell of Vanya Antonov after he was originally scheduled to play in Sheffield for the next few seasons is not a bad thing to have fall into your lap. It makes for a much more robust second line with possibly Scott Spearing or possibly new addition Alex Barker playing alongside them depending on the situation.

There’s depth additions in the form of experienced players like captain Matt Foord, Matt Towalski and James Galazzi alongside younger guys like Carl Thompson, Tom Beesley and Josh Smith to round out the forward lines.

The pre-season hasn’t been kind to Bracknell so far; no wins from 4 games and 24 goals conceded including 12 in that one game against Swindon at The Link. It doesn’t exactly bode well.

Whilst I can respect Lukas Smital for sticking to his guns and his players for the majority of the roster, he has made some decent additions; Bakrlik and Savage in particular would walk onto most teams in this league easily. I think the issue for this team is two fold. Firstly, whilst they have a lot of bodies they’re not of top end EPL quality. It’s a team of high end skill and grinders with not much in the middle. Where are the James Archer types on that roster or the Joe Rand types or Andy McKinney types? There’s just something missing from that roster that’s kind of hard to put your finger on.

Secondly it’s partially tactical. Smital’s a great player but they rarely seemed to deviate from the 1-4 forecheck in games against the Bison and it didn’t work very well but they wouldn’t change. They even played that same style against NIHL teams last season when you’d think EPL firepower alone should have dictated a more high press is used. Signing this great players and tweaking the roster is fine but it’s what you do with them.

I have the Bees fighting it out for the last playoff spot at the moment. They will spring some surprises because they always do but I think even the most ardent Bees fan has to be honest and think the title picture isn’t one they’ll be in.

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