Standing in the Way – Telford Tigers

Telford Tigers

Home Ice: Telford Ice Arena

Last season: 4th playoff quarter finalists

Sam Zajac is one of those who remain in a very changed Telford Tigers roster. Can they rise back to the top of the table? (c) 5 Hole Photography

Sam Zajac is one of those who remain in a very changed Telford Tigers roster. Can they rise back to the top of the table?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Team preview: THF user, “notsure”

Where did it all go wrong? Firm favorites to dominate the league again with high hopes for further silverware to, a slog of a season, resulting in a visit to 9th place and an eventual 4th place league position. An empty trophy cabinet. Not even a day trip out to Coventry. That’s the position Telford Tigers found themselves in last season.

As a result, I heard that in the close season Tom Watkins developed an addiction to Sudoku and Connect4. Ok, you got me, I made that up. But the key puzzles he’s got to crack, whether he likes puzzles or not, are;

Organised defences backstopped by talented netminders. Tigers suffered 5-1 series defeats against Bison and Wildcats along with a 4-2 series defect against Flames. Tigers will be in the same position as last season if we can’t breakdown the top teams.

Tigers’ own PR reveals another issue that Watkins wants to address “Penalty kill wise, we were tied fifth with 82% and fifth in goals conceded on the kill. Special Teams are extremely important to the outcome of games. Your goalie needs to be your best killer every night”. I wonder where this one is heading?

Not enough centres. Options were non-existent when Davies was injured last season.

Team toughness. Or should I say lack of.

Before we look at the new faces to help crack these puzzles, who has left? Excluding call-ups from the NIHL Tigers team, nine faces have departed most notably Dan Davies, Novak and imports; Szabo, Birbraer, Ondrej and Makrov.

A word on Szabo. His departure generated little reaction from the Tigers’ fan base, which was a surprise. Whilst never the flashiest of players, his partnership with Silverthorn was key to the success of the first line. The right replacement is crucial.

So let’s take the penalty kill conundrum first. Exit 5’8” Murdy, enter 6’3” import netminder, Raszka who, incidentally, is nearly as heavy as Bakrlik (if you trust Elite Prospects). With a .928 save percentage last season in the Polish topflight, this should deliver the improvements Watkins wants on the PK and make lighting the lamp that bit harder for opposition teams.

Moving onto defence. Import, Ondrej, is replaced by 20 year old Adam Jones and with that Tigers have joined the all-Brit d-core club. Assuming Jones will partner Scott on the second line, this is one of the biggest unknowns in this season’s team. If things don’t work out, there’s little wiggle room. Could this see the formidable partnership of Zajac and Weaver split to balance the defensive lines?

Options. Give me options! That’s exactly what Watkins has given himself with his forward additions; Brittle, McEwen, Tait, Matty Davies, Satek, Clarkson and Kolena. In fact, the line combinations now available across all 4 lines, in conjunction with those who remain from last season, are mind boggling. Predicting lines is futile and will boil down to chemistry between players. This flexibility is likely to be how the Tigers’ coach will attempt to answer the riddle of those pesky, stingy opposition defences.

But has enough been done to answer this problem? Well…

Can Clarkson deliver point production while encouraging a team toughness that was sorely missing last season? If so, opposition teams will have more to think about, rather than “just” keeping the Tigers on the boards in the offensive zone.

Then there’s the intriguing signing of Kolena. The 22 year old Slovakian joins following a rough couple of seasons, impacted by serious injuries caused by a car accident. A year of recovery followed by 5pts in 29 games in Slovakia last season, now sees him on a plane to the UK. The hope will be that Kolena is returning to the player that earned him the Slovakian U18 and U20’s international captaincy along with a call up to the KHL. There’s no doubt this one’s a big gamble.

One to watch. The low key signing of Tait, who is likely to transform the lower lines both offensively and defensively and in turn provide valuable rest time for other lines.

So, back to those puzzles

Cracking those tight-fisted opposition defences. There are certainly more options available and different dimensions, which should keep the opposition on their toes.

Not enough centres. Solved. There are now five in the roster, giving depth throughout.

Team Toughness. Clarkson will hopefully galvanise and encourage a more physical Tigers team

Defence. Notable netminding upgrade, but is there enough depth on the defensive lines?

Unlike the last two seasons, Tigers aren’t coming in as favorites. There’s an unpredictability in this year’s roster that’s exciting and it’ll be fascinating to see how the team evolves. If some of the unknowns above prove to be successful, Tigers just might be in the running for some silverware this season. Oh, and I ran out of words to mention the Matty Davies coup…

BOTW:

The saying goes “how the mighty have fallen” and the mighty did fall. At the end of 2014/15, the Tigers were close to the grand slam only to return in 2015/16 to be realistically out of the running for the league in February, the cup slipped away and the playoffs eluded them again. It seems strange for the Tigers to be disappointed in a 4th placed finish after their horrendous start but given the resources they had at their disposal, it was just that.

A slight switch in ownership later, the Tigers have responded in force with a bit of a clear out and what can only be described as tooling up as they look to immediately thrust themselves back into contention for all the trophies.

It’s a clear out to a point when you look at some of the names who have not come back; Max Birbraer headed to Swindon, Dan Davies to Basingstoke and Tom Murdy to Cardiff whilst the former EPL player of the year Peter Szabo, Andrei Markov and others have vanished to unknown destinations.

The core has been maintained; names like Weaver, Zajac, Hill, captain Jason Silverthorn, Dan Rose and Joe Miller remain including the veteran presence of Rick Plant and one of my favourite up and comers in Macauley Haywood. Tom Watkins has very much kept the heart of a team that will play his system whilst trying to strengthen its weaknesses.

Where Tom Murdy didn’t have his best of years, his move to Cardiff and the addition of an extra import to the league has allowed Tom Watkins to Polish international netminder Ondrej Raszka which, with all due respect to Murdy, is a significant upgrade. Whilst there’s an argument that the Tigers could have taken the chance on Sam Gospel and a backup like Denis Bell (now of Manchester who played for Telford’s NIHL side last year), the focus for Telford is getting back to dominating ways quickly and if Raszka settles then he gives them a chance to do that.

Where Blahoslav Novak and Max Bibraer added some toughness with some points, Novak was a loose canon and Birbarer wanted to be closer to home so in steps Doug Clarkson and Corey McEwan.

Alongside Clarkson in the import ranks comes last season’s surprise package import wise in Michal Satek. Having signed from the MOL Liga, not much was expected for Satek but alongside Robin Kovar lit up the scoring charts.

The other new import is something of a interesting story; Milan Kolena who joins from from Piestany was once heralded as a decent prospect and was the captain of the Slovak u20 side before he was involved in a drink driving incident. The 22 year old now finds himself in Telford on a road to redemption of sorts as he a joins a team looking to re-find its once mighty touch.

Watkins has also added some extra depth to the side. Veteran Warren Tait joins from Hull after still proving that he can hang at EPL level as well as Luke Brittle who returns to the league after time in the NIHL 1 and Spain. They’re joined by defender Adam Jones who returns from the US.

The big coup of course was Matty Davies joining. When it became clear that the Hull born forward wasn’t going to stay in the EIHL (and Lord knows why) a 40 point EIHL scoring Brit suddenly became available and everyone assumed that he was heading home. Instead Tom Watkins appears to have used his resources to make an offer that couldn’t be refused and has now added even more firepower to what looks like an already potent Telford lineup.

That said, the issue in some ways wasn’t the players but making it all click. Tom Watkins’ game plan was worked out early with the roster that he had and teams easily countered them. Combined with their starting netminder having a less than stellar season and it saw Telford massively underachieve with the roster that they had. Changing the roster is fine but if they play in the same way to start this season as they did to start 2015/16 then the same problems will arise irrespective of whoever wears the orange shirts. They battered Hull in pre-season but pre-season is one thing. Opening night presents them with a very different task. This Tigers team should be there or thereabouts for every trophy, you’d have to be blind to rule them out but the book has been written on how to counter Tom Watkins’ usual game plan. If he’s adapted and finds a way to make this team unplayable then the entire league is in a lot of trouble.

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