Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning

Milton Keynes Lightning

Home arena: Thunderdome

Last season: 5th, playoff finalists, cup semi-finalists

The EPL chapter of the MK Lightning approaches its end but how will the 2016/17 season play out? (c) 5 Hole Photography

The EPL chapter of the MK Lightning approaches its end but how will the 2016/17 season play out?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Team Preview – Mike Walls, Match Night DJ

So, here we are again at the start of another EPIHL season and the sense of anticipation and expectation is rising, especially in Milton Keynes as the Lightning begin their final season at this level before their move to the Elite League.

Last season began with a lot of promise, a mid-season set back culminating in a cup semi-final defeat and a late surge in the play-offs ending in disappointment at the hands of Guildford. However, it was a learning curve for a rather young team and a new coach who are determined to see out the EPL chapter in the team’s history with some silverware.

Recruitment for the 2016/17 campaign began before the 2015/16 season even ended, with Peter Russell quick to announce the returns of Bobby Chamberlain, Jordan Cownie, Tom Carlon (after a year and a bit in Abu Dhabi) and the acquisition of Craig Scott from Peterborough.

One of the keys to Lightning’s successes last season was the strength in depth of the British players last season. The Brit core was something that MK wanted to keep and there were not many changes to the British players on the team.

Jack Watkins, who had an injury filled season, Ross Green, the netminding trio of Jordan Marr, James Hadfield and Dean Skinns plus the retiring Grant McPherson being the departures. The already mentioned Scott and Carlon along with the returning Jordan Hedley and defenceman Sam Jones being the replacements.

The rest of the British players are familiar to the team and the league; Leigh Jamieson, Michael Farn, Lewis Christie, James Griffin, Ed Knaggs, Lewis Hook, Glenn Billing and Luc Johnson all re-sign, once again led by captain, Adam Carr, give the team a solid backbone.

One downside to last season was the performance of the imports. Only two imports, Blaz Emersic and Markku Tahtinen lasted the whole season at MKL. Luomala and Jarolin both having left Buckinghamshire before Christmas being replaced by Frankie Bakrlik and Martti Jarventie.

The imports at Lightning this season look good on paper and their performances will be the key to whether MK will end the season with silverware for the first time since 2010. Emersic and Bakrlik both return and are joined by Milan Baranyk, who has been impressive at Phantoms and Polish international, Mikolaj Lopuski.

It appears that Pete Russell took notice of the recent successes at Guildford, Basingstoke and Peterborough, who all had import starting netminders, by signing Polish netminder, Przemyslaw Odrobny on a two-year deal. The GB and MKL coach has revealed that the squad for this season has been built around the Polish international.

Coaching wise, the Lightning have great strength with Russell back as head-coach for a second season. He’s again assisted by Emersic and Lewis Clifford and is boosted with McPherson joining the coaching setup, the Scot’s passion for the side and respect of MK players gives Russell extra support for when he’s with the GB setup.

The Lightning management will have one eye on the future, this is shown with the Chamberlain, Hook, Cownie, Griffin and Odrobny all being given two-year deals. This does have people wandering where the priorities will lie both on and off the ice as the off-ice team and Planet Ice owners prepare for the jump to the Elite League – it’s already been seen with the push for more team sponsorship opportunities and a ticket price increase.

Whether these components will result in a successful season in terms of silverware remains to be seen, as other teams have strengthened and will be just as hungry for success. The Lightning have the facility, players, coaches and fan base to win all the competitions, it’s making sure that all of the elements come together to get this desired result. Personally, I’d love to see us win the cup that has eluded MKL for all these years!

One thing is for certain is that the MK fans will be sure to savour every second of this season and enjoy the ups and downs of this EPIHL season.

BOTW

Well, this is weird; I’m writing a preview piece for a team that we know are about to leave for pastures new but it gives us a really unique set of circumstances and dynamics across the roster for a club with an established culture and identity that is making a massive (not needed/exciting, delete as appropriate) change.

Last season’s Lightning roster arguably underachieved given the depth it appeared to have but with the impending move to the EIHL, they appear to be wanting to go out on a high but also on their terms.

Whilst there haven’t been that many changes to the Lightning roster, there have been sizeable ones. Having coached GB against Poland before the world championships at the end of last season, Pete Russell went down the road of “if you can’t beat them, sign them” and captured Przemyslaw Odrobny to be the number one netminder from Morzine in France, who just staved off relegation. That aside, you’d have to be a fool to not recognise that Odrobny is going to be legit at this level. He’s been given a 2 year contract so bar any major injuries or him not settling at all, he will be backstopping the Lightning into the top tier. With Jordan Hedley returning to be the backup, it’s a very solid netminding pair in MK.

Last season MK scored less than 200 goals so have responded to that by adding some extra big point scorers. Craig Scott and Milan Baranyk move lock, stock and barrel from Peterborough after a successful season to add some depth and Polish international (deja vu) Mikolaj Lopuski was over a point per game in the Polish league should also help. When you add those names to the returning big names like Cownie, Hook, Chamberlain and Bakrlik, that’s a pretty solid top two lines right there. We’ve also got the established MK names adding depth up front with Adam Carr (congrats on the testimonial), Blaz Emersic and new/old boy Tom Carlon to go alongside the young up and comers Luc Johnson and Glenn Billing.

At the back, Martti Järventie has departed (make your own jokes Bison fans) to be replaced with former BCHL defenceman Sam Jones but otherwise the defence is exactly the same as last season. James Griffin has signed a 2 year deal so will be joining the Lightning in the Elite League and is joined by the names that EPL fans will be really familiar with like Jamieson, Farn and Christie with young Ed Knaggs slotting in to aid his development.

For me, the defence is where some of the questions lie. That’s not to say that the defence looks bad and with Odrobny behind them you’d think that the whole package looks decent. My questions lie more in a bunch of intangibles that are not able to really be previewed until we see the Lightning hit the ice when the games actually matter. Can Odrobny and the defence find a way to work together quickly? Can the defensive corps adjust to the improved fire power of other teams? If something happens and changes do need to be made at the back, who gets moved in and out? If it’s decided a defensive import is needed then it means either sacrificing their headline netminder or one of the scoring forwards.

This is going to be a really interesting year to watch the Milton Keynes Lightning for many reasons. Whether fans like the move to the EIHL or not, it does appear to be happening and as such it sets the club up for the season as going in all directions at once.

For those on two year contracts, it’s a training ground of sorts. It’s a way to get used to the longer term plans that Pete Russell ahead of the league change so that they can be the established corps when the influx of imports comes in to start 2017/18.

For those who are only on one year contracts, the season is a shop window. They get the chance to make their chase to Coach Russell that they are worthy of a spot on an Elite League roster. Yes there are some who might not be suitable for an Elite League roster due to their outside lives or age being against them but a good season for MK will see them in demand when other EPL sides come knocking next summer. It also makes every game against MK a shop window for good young British players. Russell is known for giving young British players a chance and there’s going to be a few slots open even with some players already signed.

The EPIHL without the MK Lightning will be an unusual place. They’ve been a stalwart of the league for so long that to think that we’re counting down the times that we will face them feels very strange. However it seems that they are wanting to go out with a whimper rather than a bang. Whilst I think there are gaps in the armour to be exploited, they certainly could well be heading to the Elite League with one of the three bits of EPL silverware as a farewell memento.

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