Standing in the Way – Swindon WildcatsPosted: 31/08/2016
Home Ice: The Link Centre
Last season: 6th, playoff quarter finalists
Team preview: Ben Callaghan – On The Prowl
So here we are at the start of yet another season of madness in the world of British Hockey. Plenty of things to look forward to this season with the World Championships in Belfast being the perfect end to the season. For Swindon fans, it’s been a summer of familiarity.
Aaron Nell retained as player coach, 3 imports retained, only 3 new players signed for the season. Much of this piece will be the same as I’ve written for BOTW before. For the second season in a row we start with a relatively rookie coach. Aaron shone towards the back end of last season and is someone who I think was born to be a hockey coach. His hockey brain is brilliant and he’s a very methodical person, you can see it in the way he plays and the way he coaches.
The usual questions will be asked of the Wildcats. Do we rely too much on the top line players? Do we have enough experience? Will the team on paper perform on the ice?
The fact is, this team has been put together very well. We knew little change was needed, I think we suit a smaller bench and running with 11 forwards rather than the 12 or 13 we’ve had before. Max Birbraer is the only ‘new’ face amongst the forwards. He’ll bring a style of play the Cats have only had in Jan Kostal and we know how much of an impact he’s had on the team. We’ve always had skilful imports, perhaps having a player with a bit of physicality will give us more of a plan B.
Mark Smith joins the blue-line, a man with tremendous defensive ability. He’s someone who will keep things calm at the back and plays simple hockey. He’s going to block shots and he’s going to be a good player in the EPL. The experience he has will be key for the likes of Callum Buglass, Ollie Stone and Ben Nethersell. All three will improve over the course of the season which will be very good for Swindon.
The OHA graduates are coming through thick and fast with Kyle Smith, Ollie Stone, Ben Nethersell and Adam Finlinson all joining the Cats full time. These kids have already had an impact on the EPL in the past and there is no reason they cannot do so again as full time EPL players. Adam Finlinson in particular is someone to watch, his skill set and ability is of the highest standard. Could he be the Wildcats Ivan Antonov? It’s a massive ask and we have to remain grounded but my point is, teams have played kids before and if they’re good enough they’ll score points. We’ve got 4 very good prospects here, and they could easily be the core of the future of the Wildcats.
Stevie Lyle is back between the pipes again, and expect him to be solid as ever. He’s already been training with the KHL team and this season won’t have the added pressures of coaching, which will allow him to focus purely on the playing side of things. Michael Crisp returns to the Cats and will provide support between the pipes if needed. He knows the club and we know him, he’s been involved with wins with us before and if needed he can do it again.
So where do I see the Cats?
Truthfully, not much difference to last year. The top 4 I see as Milton Keynes, Telford, Basingstoke and Guildford (not in that order..) That said, I think this Cats side could end up 5th. I do think we’re the strongest side outside of those 4 teams. I think we’re looking at a gap between 4th and 5th but with the new playoff format removing the need to have ‘perfect weekends’. I do think the new format will suit us better that previous years. It’s a long way off but it’ll be intriguing to see what happens come March. Ultimately, I’m looking forward to this season more than I have previously. The league is stronger, the Cats are fresher, the fans will be louder. Hopefully we’ll have something to cheer about come April.
So, here we are again; back previewing Swindon. Ben’s a really good sport because I make the same jokes about the Wildcats every year and it seems that reading his piece this year is to nullify all of that before I get a chance to write anything. Damn! That means I actually have to provide some analysis doesn’t it. I’ll get back to what Ben has said in a bit.
You can’t argue with the netminding side of things at Swindon at all. Michael Crisp is a decent enough backup but, as always, this will be the Stevie Lyle show. Having seemingly been on the brink of retirement Lyle decided instead to sign a deal to keep him with the Cats till he’s 39. Having had a chance to speak to him this summer (listen to that here) Lyle seems focussed on going until he can’t perform at a level he’s happy with any more. Luckily for Swindon, he’s one of the best British netminders of a generation so that helps. On his day, there is literally no way past Lyle. It seems that being a head coach whilst playing doesn’t work for him so with that pressure removed, expect him back at his best.
The Wildcats defence is one area that’s always had question marks over it the last couple of years. Matt Selby has gone back to Coventry but the addition of Mark Smith will more than make up for any physicality lost with Selby’s departure. Yes, Smith’s had an injury troubled recent past but at EPL level, he will be a crucial additional bit of quality that the Swindon defence has lacked in recent times. It’s actually now a really well rounded looking defensive unit. Whilst Neil Liddiard won’t beat anyone for pace, neither will Lee Richardson but both are a useful veteran presence. Stephen Whitfield is decent and Callum Buglass is a really exciting prospect along with the two lads promoted from the Okanagen Academy.
Then there’s that set of forwards and the stats fans go wild. The names just give EPL defences nightmares don’t they; Nell, Malasinski, Höög, Kostal, Birbraer, Floyd Taylor…OK maybe less so the last one. Either way, it’s been a recent big strength of the Wildcats is that depth of scoring. The addition of Max Bibraer adds that more natural power forward that the Wildcats haven’t really had, someone in that Joe Rand/Joe Greener/Leigh Jamieson when he played as a forward style to get in to all the dirty areas and get in the way. He will be a crucial space maker and I assume at some stage this season we see Coach Aaron Nell and Tomasz Malasinski out on the ice with Birbraer clearing them a path. Even though it’s a brief 4 week addition, the short term signing of former Bison forward Ben Davies before he reportedly tries his hand overseas will be a good bit of incentive for some of the depth guys and younger players on the roster. Someone will need to step up and take that spot when Davies goes. If his foreign adventure doesn’t pan out, he will be back on an EIHL roster, he won’t be in Swindon but 4 weeks is enough time to make an impression. Who will grab the brass ring? Toms Rutkis, Adam Finlinson and Kyle Smith need to be paying attention.
However this is where we need to go back to what Ben said in his piece. We can make jokes about it until the cows come home but it really is a serious question that continues to hang over The Link Centre. Year after year as long as I’ve been writing BOTW, the Wildcats have put together really good rosters on paper that never translate into executing on the final product. They just never seem to come good in the crunch. Make the playoff semi finals; overplay the top 2 lines in the last period and then have a tired player make a mistake in OT. Make the cup semi finals; get blown out of the water.
Last season’s coaching change mid-season threw a bit of a spanner in the works and, to his credit, Aaron Nell has done a decent job of recruitment in my opinion. I’m oddly more optimistic about the Wildcats than Ben seems to be. Then again, Ben watches the club week in, week out so I can be allowed an optimism that he wouldn’t necessarily have. The thing is that this roster needs to click. Swindon can’t be a Telford or a Guildford whose winning rosters bulldozer through teams when they win things. They need to be more than the sum of their parts. Having seen the Bison win trophies, part of me wants my friends at other teams to experience that feeling. Can this Swindon team finally get themselves over the line? I really don’t know, sadly I don’t think so judging by the form book. I am prepared to be proved wrong.