Standing in the Way – Swindon WildcatsPosted: 29/08/2017
Home Ice: The Link Centre
Last season: EPL 6th, playoff group stages
We’ve done a couple of the newer Bison opponents for this season so let’s look an older foe in the form of the Swindon Wildcats.
The 2016/17 campaign felt like many recent campaigns for Swindon as it was a case of “good but not quite” for the Wiltshire side. Having assembled another really good roster, the Wildcats had something of an injury hit campaign as they rarely played at full strength throughout the season for one reason or another; the biggest of those reasons being the loss of player/coach Aaron Nell to a shoulder injury that he sustained in an altercation with Bison captain Aaron Connolly.
Nell stepped behind the bench and the Wildcats continued to add big name attacking players when Telford’s issues allowed them to sign Phil Hill and Manchester’s demise allowed them to capture Robin Kovar. However despite playing an entertaining brand of hockey, the Wildcats lacked consistency and it bore out in the end of season results. Guildford snatched 5th place in the league table and the Wildcats couldn’t match up to the Bison and the MK Lightning when the playoffs rolled around leaving Nell to go back to the drawing board until the league changes came.
How they got here:
A constant in the EPIHL since the late 90s (albeit with the occasional different name), the Wildcats were one of the first sides to announce their intention to apply for the NIHL following EIHA chairman Ken Taggart’s recommendation that clubs do so.
Whilst a fair few players have returned to the Wildcats from the final EPL season, there is arguably no bigger returnee than Nell himself. Nell was the highest British scorer in the later years of the EPL and with the correct linemates could score for fun. Arguably never given a fair crack at EIHL level, Nell’s scoring numbers before his injury were game winning on their own let alone without playing alongside imports the quality of Jonas Höög and Tomasz Malasinski.
If Nell is recovered from his injury then there is no reason not to believe that the 27 year old won’t be the top scorer in the NIHL nationally, let alone in the south. The question becomes who Nell’s linemates will be this season and what sort of service he will get. Nell is good but he can’t do everything on his own.
The new boy:
The talk will be about the signing of Sam Zajac to bolster the defence is a big talking point but a lot is going to fall onto the shoulders of new starting netminder Renny Marr. Stepping into the shoes of a popular and talented netminder like Stevie Lyle is a big step for any player, let alone a 19 year old with only 51 senior games under his belt.
However Marr is no shrinking violet. Aside from the fact that surely the point of a development league is to give players like Marr, last season’s backup for the Coventry Blaze, a place to play the current GB u20 netminder will be expected to hit the ground running which is what a young netminder would surely be wanting. After waiting for his chance at Coventry as the backup to Brian Stewart, the weight is now firmly on Marr’s shoulders. He will have assistance from Matt Smital but Marr will be shouldering the majority of the load to begin with whilst still training with the Blaze on a regular basis. He has a alright defence in front of him so let’s see what magic Marr can bring to the Link Centre.
How will it go?
I can hear all of my Swindon supporting friends sighing and rolling their eyes already guessing what I am going to say. It’s because I’ve ended up having to say close to the same thing for the last few years, pretty much as long as I’ve been doing this preview series. There’s a really good reason for that; it’s because that whoever’s in charge since I’ve watched the EPL, be it Pete Russell, Ryan Aldridge, Stevie Lyle and now Aaron Nell, the rosters have all been built in a similar way. Up front it’s generally been firepower upon firepower with questionable depth and a slightly questionable backend. The thing this season is that they’ve almost done it again but not quite.
I like Swindon as an organisation; they’re not perfect but they try to do things in the right way and play entertaining hockey with it. I can appreciate that. As a fanbase, I’ll be really pleased for them when they finally break their silverware drought because it’ll be nice for a good club and some good people to be able to celebrate. Whilst I think there are weaknesses to this Wildcats roster that can and should be exploited, if the Wildcats don’t win a trophy this season then it won’t simply be a disappointment. It will be an abject failure.
The questions about the defence still remain for me; the big name of Stevie Lyle in goal transfers to having Sam Zajac on the blueline but for me it’s a blueline with a number 1 defencemen but no number 2 and then decent rather than good depth. I like Renny Marr but there’s a lot of pressure on a young netminder with a defence that is good rather than great in front of him. If Marr falters or gets injured then Matt Smital goes in and Smital is a capable backup but he’s not at the level to be starting yet based on what we saw of him last season.
However up front, I think the Wildcats have this close to spot on. The biggest issue that the Wildcats have had for years with their forward depth was not having true depth. They had a top line then a large drop off to their depth players. This year, in a 2 import league I think Nell has constructed his set of forwards brilliantly. If he uses Jan Kostal and Max Birbraer well then Nell has enough British quality through the lines to blow games wide open and teams out of the water.
The Wildcats look like they’ll be winning games 5-4 and 6-5 rather than 2-1 or 1-0 to me. I’m more than prepared for the defence to prove me wrong though. Ultimately at the end of this coming campaign, I’m predicting a trophy of some description finally being paraded at the Link Centre. If it doesn’t then something’s gone wrong and owner Steve Nell will need to ask some very big questions of the on ice performances.