Ten Teams Ten Days IX: Belfast Giants: “A Terrible Beauty Is Born”

Am I beautiful
As I tear you to pieces?”

In This Moment: “Sick Like Me”

INTRO

The Belfast Giants have once again gone through an offseason of change. Last offseason it was a change of coach and ownership from the all-conquering 2013/14 team of Paul Adey, which ran roughshod over the league, to the organisational system that saw Steve Thornton take over the reins of running the club both on the ice (as coach) and off (as GM). A strong but ultimately fruitless season followed.
So the Giants went back to the drawing board again. After a season last year that saw evolution rather than revolution, this season saw the opposite, starting at the top. 

They changed their structure to move Steve Thornton back into his GM role, and brought in a new man at the helm as player-coach. That man is Derrick Walser, a Canadian who’s become something of a European hockey superstar and an Eisbaren Berlin legend as well as one of the most skilled defencemen the EIHL has ever seen. But can he build a team to take the Giants back to the top of the mountain?

NETMINDERS

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson

After all that talk about change, we come to the most settled netminder pairing in the EIHL. Familiar faces in net for the Belfast Giants, as they go with the same netminder pairing to start the season as they have for the past five seasons, and the same starter they have for the past seven…consistency that isn’t just rare in the EIHL era…it’s unheard of. Murphy, at 33, seems to have been around the British game forever since bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old prodigy with Fife – the Scot has been GB starter for years, although he’s recently faced a new challenger in Ben Bowns and missed the majority of last season with injury…a lot will depend on if he can regain the sharpness that has seen him so dominant in seasons past.

Behind him is perennial backup, crowd favourite and Ballymoney’s finest Andrew Dickson, who’ll once again take the thankless backup role and hope for his moment in the sun to make the Kilraughts Road and Church Street proud.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #8 Johan Ejdepalm, #17 Mike Wilson, #23 Mitch Ganzak, #43 Derrick Walser, #50 Matt Nickerson

The first word that comes to mind when you look at the Giants’ defence this season is “experienced”. There’s only one player under 30 in this group (Mike Wilson, at 28) and the average age of the six d-men is 32, the oldest defensive group in the EIHL.

However, while some have focused on the age of the group, we’re going to focus on the sheer all-round quality that this six provide. The Giants, like Braehead, have eschewed the traditional EIHL thinking of “defence-first” or “roles”, ensuring that this is a fast, mobile unit that’s still more than capable of taking care of business in its own end, sometimes in the same shift with the same player.

Player-coach Derrick Walser is a gifted offensive defenceman who’s lit up leagues at far higher levels than the EIHL – even at 37 his passing and shot are sublime, combined with a hockey brain that can see chances before they happen – he’s without doubt better than Neal Martin, still seen by many as the standard to which EIHL offensive D should aspire. He’s backed up in the offensive stakes by the speedy and talented Mike Wilson and Giants stalwart (and former EIHL All-Star) Jeff Mason. Any defensive group that runs Jeff Mason as its third offensive D has some serious talent on it.

On the other side of the ice, the more defensive side of things will be taken care of by three solid two-way players with no mean size to them – Johan Ejdepalm comes to the EIHL after extensive experience in the DEL and Austria as a shutdown D, while Mitch Ganzak is a tank of a player who is equally comfortable at both ends of the ice and more than capable of either throwing a hit or a hard accurate shot on net, depending on what’s required.

Certainly the most noticeable signing though is Matt Nickerson – the bearded beast of a defenceman has become a cult hero in Fife and elsewhere during his time in the EIHL with his unashamed willingness to play physically, a guided-missile approach to smash anything that moves in an enemy jersey on-ice and his warm and friendly off-ice persona. He’ll provide the stay-at-home snarl in this group along with the will to deal with some of the more pugilistic sides of the game.

This is a D-group built to be equally initimidating going forward and retreating to hold its own fort, and it should accomplish that role with the minimum of fuss-attacking there is the potential for some serious fireworks and surgical play, too, as well as arguably the best offensive D the EIHL has ever seen. A tantalising prospect that’s sure to excite the SSE Arena crowd.

FORWARDS

#7 Mark Garside, #14 Mike Forney, #15 Kris Beech, #19 Colin Shields, #26 Brandon Benedict, #29 Mike Radja, #47 Adam Keefe, #68 Chris Higgins, #71 Craig Peacock, #72 Daryl Lloyd, #79 James Desmarais, #89 Jonathan Boxill

This forward group is built for speed and skating, with a side of pure aggression. In the best traditions of Giants and EIHL forward packs, it combines a mix of creative wow-factor and the rapier-sharp goalscoring teams require to capitalise on it with the workrate, grit and sandpaper of what is still the most effective agitating/grinding pairing in the league in Adam Keefe and Daryl Lloyd-two players who forecheck with the hunger and tenacity of a pair of starving dogs hunting down the last sausage in town.

 Adding Nottingham’s Jonathan Boxill to that group creates a line that will be an absolute nightmare to play against every single night and wear down opposition defences. There is a savage beauty in the way they seek and destroy opposition defencemen.

Speaking of “seek and destroy”, the Giants have more than their fair share of goalscoring forwards who can capitalise on those tired opposition players and contribute their own brand of hunting, only they’re after goals, not bodies. Standouts of the group are Sheffield goal machine Mike Forney (42 goals last season), and the centre he’ll likely be paired with, former Washington Capital and Pittsburgh Penguin Kris Beech. The 34-year-old is a skilled playmaker who loves to play the role of setting others up for scores, and is also an excellent faceoff winner. 

He’ll be joined in the creative role by another veteran centre, James Desmarais, who is a little small at 5’10 and 174lbs but a superb playmaker (44 assists in the Swiss NLB last season – a league in which he’s scored at a rate of nearly two points a game as well as scoring at over a point a game in Austria). He’ll likely pair with American scorer Mike Radja, who’s been prolific in the Asia League the past few seasons, for a similar pairing to Forney & Beech on the 2nd unit.

Providing the skilled wing-play are the “Belfast Datsyuk” Chris Higgins, who returns to the Giants after a season away in Nottingham, British playmaking’s finest Colin Shields, and sniper Craig Peacock, along with the grit and sandpaper of Mark Garside and extra forward/assistant coach Brandon Benedict to round the group off.

This is a forward group that may be somewhat lacking in raw power, but it’ll attempt to beat you with skill and skating. It’s very similar, in fact, to the Coventry Blaze’s group in terms of sheer creativity, but unlike them it also has the assassin in the shape of Forney to finish off the bullets his team-mates load for him, and the grinding wheel in the shape of arguably the best checking line in the EIHL. It’s a very, VERY good group indeed-a deep one, too. It’s a group that can wear you down with hitting, pull you all over the ice with creative play and then drive a dagger into your heart.

In that way, like Cardiff and Braehead (two teams the Belfast group resemble strongly) it has a surgical, clinical beauty about it.

PLAYER TO WATCH – Kris Beech (C)

Much of the attention may be focused on Mike Forney as the goalscoring star of this group, but Forney is a pure sniper whose success came to a large part last season because he had Mathieu Roy alongside him to both score and feed him the puck. Beech will be the player expected to do that this season – he’s a skilled passer whose faceoff ability will be key all year and will be the pivot Forney will look to to load his rifle of a shot. The 34-year-old from Salmon Arm, BC is no mean scorer himself given the chance, but in this team he’ll be expected to play the role of provider extraordinaire to whoever he’s paired with-and if he can, then the Giants could be lighting the lamp a lot more this season..

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Mike Forney-Kris Beech-Chris Higgins

Mike Radja-James Desmarais-Craig Peacock

Jonathan Boxill-Adam Keefe-Daryl Lloyd

Mark Garside)-Colin Shields

Brandon Benedict (spare)

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Johan Ejdepalm-Derrick Walser

Mitch Ganzak-Mike Wilson

Matt Nickerson-Jeff Mason

Stephen Murphy/Andrew Dickson

COACH – Derrick Walser (1st season)

Walser is a Euro hockey/minor league legend – a gifted offensive defenceman who now gets the chance to implement his coaching philosophy and start on a new career.

And an exciting philosophy it is, too. In interviews the 37-year-old comes across incredibly well and speaks of his wish to play speedy, skilled hockey with an emphasis on skating – a refreshing change to the usual “hard work, solid, gritty” stereotypes you usually get from “traditional” EIHL coaches. He speaks a lot of “accountability” – a concept that according to some in the EIHL didn’t exist in hockey before Chuck Weber mentioned it last season.

Perhaps most refreshingly, though, Walser is focused on giving his team a killer instinct. He wants his squads to be ruthless, to rip opposition teams apart. To break them.

That’s the kind of killer instinct many coaches are afraid of expressing so openly, and it’s refreshing to see an EIHL coach relaxed about saying “no, I want to win, and win handsomely”.

He’s started beautifully. Now to deliver.

SUMMARY

While many coaches will build their squads to be either brutally ugly or sophisticated but ultimately clinically simple and easily replicated given the right tools-Derrick Walser’s first EIHL squad is, by contrast, elegant, savagely pretty, but still ultimately put together with one aim in mind-to kill an opponent stone-dead.

It’s a squad designed to look good and catch the eye even as it’s ripping the heart out of an opponent.

While the traditional EIHL approach is to build a battering ram, an assault rifle or at best a machine gun, what Walser has fashioned is more of a handmade rapier fashioned by a master swordsmith. A work of carefully-fashioned art, with an ugly purpose.

A thing filled with the savage joy of hunting down the opposition’s weak spot, wearing down their defences and then ruthlessly dispatching them with a perfect thrust.

It is a lethal weapon, but one with a terrible, perfect beauty about it that could make the heart sing even as it tears it out.

And that makes it a very attractive prospect for fans in Belfast indeed.

Ten Teams Ten Days VIII: Fife Flyers: Hidden And Dangerous

Now I’ve got you where you need to be
and the dark has left your eyes…”

Marmozets: “Move, Shake, Hide”

INTRO

The EIHL’s oldest team are preparing for another season in Kirkcaldy – and this season, like the last few, is one where they’re trying to break out from their perennial position treading water towards the lower reaches of the EIHL playoff race and begin to climb up the table. They’re always fun to watch and the Fife Ice Arena crowd love to roar their team on whatever the performance…but who are the players who’ll be making the Kirkcaldy Roar take the roof off this season?

NETMINDERS

#30 David Brown, #35 Craig Douglas

An offseason of major change in Fife starts in net, as Kevin Regan retires and Blair Daly is forced to give up his backup role due to an off-ice work transfer to London after originally re-signing with the team once again. This means two new faces in net, and they’re both sure to sp hasn’ark some interest.

Starting will be Canadian David Brown, who joins from the defunct Hull Stingrays, where he had an up-and-down year in net for a Hull team that did the same thing. He showed flashes of real brilliance, particularly in the truly epic playoff semi-final against the Sheffield Steelers, but also had nights where he appeared to be very beatable indeed.

A stocky netminder with an unconventional style that often makes it appear he’s fighting the puck off with every save rather than controlling it, the Stoney Creek, Ontario native can have fans with their hearts in their mouths but is also very effective at stopping pucks when on his game.

Backing him up is local netminder and ex-Kirkcaldy Kestrel Craig Douglas – the 25-year-old hasn’t seen much game action recently as backup to Renny Marr at SNL level – like most EIHL goalies he’ll only be used in spot relief.

DEFENCEMEN

#2 Tom Muir, #4 Chris Wands, #5 Nicolas Rioux, #7 Phillipe Paquet, #24 Matt Delahey, #55 Kyle Haines

Fife’s defence returns only three players from last years defence and only one import, with Jamie Milam and Matt Nickerson moving away to pastures new (Nickerson to Belfast and Milam to Slovakia’s HK Nitra) which means that it’s a unit boasting very different names. However, the key player in last year’s unit, Kyle Haines, returns, which is big news…the man from Saskatchewan was their top offensive D and also captain last season, and is a cultured offensive defenceman with no mean amount of skill.

Among the new faces, the standout is Quebecer Nicolas Rioux, who joins from the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards and also spent some time with the AHL’s Iowa Wild last season – he’s a solid two-way defenceman with a useful amount of attacking ability.

The Nickerson-sized-hole in the defence will likely be filled by Phillipe Paquet-a 6’3, 214lbs Quebecer with a strong playing style who spent last year in Denmark with Rungsted and has also played with Fredrikshavn when they finished 2nd in 2012/13. Joining him on the “strong, physical” side of the Flyers D is Canadian Matt Delahey, who at 6’1 and 212lbs comes from a solid career in junior and the CIS and figures to be the 2nd pairing equivalent of Paquet.

The defence corps is completed by Fife stalwarts Tom Muir and Chris Wands, who are both quiet, no-nonsense defencemen more than capable of eating up some time and holding up their own end.

This isn’t a flashy group, but it’s an effective one and will likely give David Brown some strong protection in front of him.

FORWARDS

#9 Justin Fox, #10 Stephen Gunn, #15 Josh Scoon, #18 Allan Anderson, #19 Ryan Dingle, #20 Michael Dorr, #22 Jeff Lee, #23 Jamie Wilson, #27 Shayne Stockton, #39 Danny Stewart, #61 TJ Caig, #67 Patrick Cullen

This forward group may be the most impressive both in strength and in depth that Fife have assembled in the EIHL era. It’s one that sees a wholesale clearout of imports (only assistant coach Danny Stewart survives among them) as coach Todd Dutiaume goes for a whole new group among his forwards.

They’re a strong group that are very likely to trouble opposition goalies, too…containing a mix of imports who’ve been prolific in some very good European leagues and NA minor league scorers-as even a cursory look will prove. Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart know that goals win games, and they’ve got them here.

Ryan Dingle is an excellent top-line centre, fast and creative, excellent on faceoffs and with a very strong scoring record indeed in Italy. He’ll likely be flanked by veteran sniper TJ Caig, who has played his whole pro career in Europe, with the exception of two widely-separated seasons in North America with Tulsa Oilers. He’s scored 246 goals in just over 300 games in Europe, and only had one season in which he didn’t score at least 20 in a ten year pro-career. Now that’s consistency.

Continuing the scoring theme are strong wingers Justin Fox and Jeff Lee-Fox scored 58 points in 71 games for the ECHL’s Quad City last year, while Lee was a team-mate and scored 12+31. Diminutive sniper Michael Dorr, who didn’t play much last season but in his last full season in 13/14 scored 32 goals in Germany’s DEL2, will likely provide a major secondary scoring threat on the 2nd line, which will probably be centred by big power-centre Shayne Stockton, who comes to the EIHL after a strong season with Amiens in France’s Ligue Magnus.

Patrick Cullen is an intriguing signing on the 3rd line – the winger is described as a dynamo with relentless workrate who will be a perfect partner for Danny Stewart on a grinding, agitating line that will see locals Jamie Wilson, Stephen Gunn and Josh Scoon fight for the third spot (although Gunn is likely to get the majority of the time).

This is a group geared more to goals than grit, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t mix it up where required – they’re one of the bigger groups in the EIHL and in Cullen and Stewart they potentially have two of the best pests in the league on their third line. This will not be a fun group to face, and could surprise a few teams…certainly the goalscoring potential and pedigree is very impressive in this group and more than comparable to the vast majority of other EIHL squads.

PLAYER TO WATCH – #61 TJ Caig (RW)

Any time you have a player who’s only scored less than 20 goals once in a ten-year pro career, you have to figure he’s going to be very good at what he does. Caig is a strong, experienced goalscorer who at 34 knows every goalscoring trick in the book. If he forms a partnership with Ryan Dingle early in the season than it could be another prolific season in Fife for him…which can help carry the Flyers a long way.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Justin Fox-Ryan Dingle-TJ Caig

Jeff Lee-Shayne Stockton-Michael Dorr

Patrick Cullen-Danny Stewart-Stephen Gunn

Josh Scoon/Allan Anderson

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Phillipe Paquet-Nicolas Rioux

Kyle Haines-Matt Delahey

Chris Wands-Tom Muir

David Brown/Craig Douglas

COACH: Todd Dutiaume (10th season)

At this point, it seems that the only way Todd Dutiaume will leave the Fife coaching job is when he decides to – the Canadian is part of the fabric in Kirkcaldy and as solid and constant a presence as the biting wind coming in off the North Sea that rattles the Auld Barn’s rafters on winter nights. Along with his assistant Danny Stewart, he’s quietly put together what is probably the best roster seen at Kirkcaldy in years-and he’s done it with almost no fanfare. The EIHL has improved again this offseason, but Fife have done so right along with it.

SUMMARY

Fife fans have a lot to be optimistic about this season. The Flyers are a club who traditionally love to fly a little under the EIHL radar, often leaving long gaps between signing announcements and taking their time building their roster.

With this season, that has paid off greatly. Todd Dutiaum and Danny Stewart have taken last years Fife roster, taken the blows of some of their best players leaving, and still built a roster that looks even better, particularly in the forwards – it’s deeper, stronger and more rounded. There may still be questions over David Brown in the minds of some after his struggles for Hull early last season, but if the Flyers can get their forward lines firing, watch out.

The Flyers way isn’t to make big promises and shout about how good they are, but perhaps they should be. This Fife team is the best the EIHL has ever seen in Flyers jerseys, and it has some serious potential.

If they’re beating the big guns later on this season and making some waves in the EIHL come midseason, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Ten Teams Ten Days VII: Dundee Stars: Redemption Songs

Won’t you help to sing, this song of freedom.
Cause all I ever had….redemption songs.
Redemption songs…

Bob Marley & The Wailers: “Redemption Song”

INTRO

Sometimes it’s hard to find a song lyric for these previews that sums up the thrust of an article. But in Dundee this season, there’s only one word that sums up the aim of both the team and their new coach this season – and luckily it’s also the title of one of the greatest songs of all time.

This season in Dundee sees Marc Lefebvre, a coach who had a nightmare year (at least while in the EIHL) last season, pair with a team for whom 2014/15 couldn’t have gone any worse, as they both bid to repair reputations that might have taken something of a kicking recently. A coach and a team both looking to write their own Redemption Songs, if you will.

So who are the players Marc Lefebvre has chosen for the job, and what does this Dundee team look like?

NETMINDERS

#33 Vlastimil Lakosil, #31 Craig Holland

The Dundee Stars under Lefebvre bear almost no relation whatsoever to that of last season, starting in net, where the beleaguered Marc Cheverie is gently and firmly taken out behind the back of the barn and disposed of in favour of Czech veteran Vlastimil Lakosil. The 36-year-old will be one of the oldest players in the league this year and by far the oldest netminder, but comes with a strong pedigree after playing his whole career in Eastern Europe.

Last year the 5’11, 180lb native of Uherske Hradiste backstopped his HK Nitra team to 2nd in the Slovakian Tipsport Extraliga while also playing in the Champions’ Hockey League – Lakosil has also won the Continental Cup with MHC Martin in his career, too. He’s small and strong and plays a somewhat unorthodox scrambling style which isn’t always the prettiest but is very effective indeed.

He’ll be backed up by the Sheepdog, Craig Holland, who, like all EIHL backups, will be expected to be injury cover and spot duty but will likely not play much outside that.

DEFENCE

#2 Kevin Hart, #14 David Turon, #17 Jason Gray, #19 Sam McCluskey, #27 Cory Pritz, #65 Craig Moore.

The Stars D is the kind of D you’d expect built by a team that’s not able to go out and recruit the stars the big-budget teams can…like Edinburgh and to a slightly lesser degree Fife Marc Lefebvre has had to concentrate on finding solid players and the odd hidden gem to staff the Stars blueline.

In Czech D David Turon he might have found one-the 6’2, 195lb offensive blueliner scored 12 goals with KH Sanok in Poland last season and has split his time between North American minor leagues and European leagues comparable to the EIHL, performing consistently wherever he’s played. He’ll likely be the key offensive producer.

Behind Turon is a mix of solid but slightly unspectacular North Americans and eager young British players…Kevin Hart is probably the pick of the bunch among them with one season in the ECHL with the Elmira Jackals and a solid NCAA career in Providence. Jason Gray and Cory Pritz come from the Canadian university system looking to make their mark on the pro ranks, although Gray has shown flashes of offensive ability too with the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths.

The young Brits are the most intriguing on this team though – Sam McCluskey has been on the edge of making the leap to the top rank of Brit D the past few seasons, while Craig Moore returns to the EIHL from North America, where he was a team-mate of Coventry’s David Clements and part of the leadership group there, as well as captain of GB u20s, too. Not a bad resumé for a youngster. Expect to see him look to make a mark this year, too.

FORWARDS

#11 Curtis Leinweber, #16 John Dolan, #18 Justin Faryna, #20 Mikael Lidhammar, #21 Bobby Chaumont, #25 Brett Switzer, #28 Riley Wetmore, #54 Lou Dickenson, #93 Doug Clarkson

This is a workmanlike forward group for the Stars, although the top line has been assembled from the ghost of Scottish EIHL teams past, with Curtis Leinweber and Bobby Chaumont, who’ve both been free-scoring players in their EIHL careers, joining the lightning-quick Lou Dickenson in a reunion of two former Edinburgh Capitals and one Fife Flyer/Braehead player for a full set of Scottish hockey team bingo on the top line. Dickenson in particular is an impressive pickup for Dundee – a big sniper who has been prolific in Denmark, Italy, Finland and Norway since his brief stay with Edinburgh in 2006/07.

Leinweber, too, comes back to the EIHL hoping to repeat his form with the Edinburgh Capitals which saw him score 28 goals in 13/14-he’ll act as the playmaker to Dickenson and player/assistant-coach Bobby Chaumont, who is a consistent 25-goal-scorer in the EIHL.

Behind this top three is Doug Clarkson, one of the more impressive stories in Cardiff last season, hoping he doesn’t suffer 2nd-season-syndrome in Dundee, with Dundee’s perennial stalwart, the quietly effective John Dolan, joining him. An intriguing signing is Mikael Lidhammar, a speedy Swede who’s played SHL hockey with his hometown Lulea squad and spent the past few years in the Allsvenskan with Oskarshamn. North Americans Brett Switzer and Riley Wetmore provide a mix of creativity and speed at the centre position, while gritty forward Justin Faryna will handle the pugilistic duties where required and hope to add a little scoring touch, too.

This is not the most star-studded forward group – however it is a very intriguing one – that top line has the potential to be one of the better ones in the league and the emphasis appears to be aimed towards speed rather than size – although Clarkson and Faryna will be more than capable of bringing the gritty play where required. It’s very much a case of seeing what hidden diamonds Lefebvre can coax into the light, and whether or not the likes of Leinweber, Dickenson and Clarkson can continue their impressive showings in the EIHL so far. If they can, then the Stars could be an enticing prospect to watch next year.

PLAYER TO WATCH – Lou Dickenson (F) 

The British-Canadian forward is one of the more exciting signings to hit the EIHL this season – he’s a speedy, exciting sniper with good size and skill and a lightning shot, and will be the Stats’ go-to forward. In his last visit to the EPL he scored 23 points in 22 games, and Marc Lefebvre will be hoping he can score at a similar rate this season. If he can, then it will take the Stars a long way to ensuring they’re no longer the EIHL’s basement club.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Lou Dickenson – Curtis Leinweber – Bobby Chaumont

Doug Clarkson – Riley Wetmore – Mikael Lidhammar

John Dolan – Brett Switzer – Justin Faryna

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

David Turon – Jason Gray

Kevin Hart – Cory Pritz

Sam McCluskey – Craig Moore

Vlastimil Lakosil

COACH – Marc Lefebvre (2nd season)

Last year was one to forget for Lefebvre. Given the keys to his own EIHL team for the first time in Coventry, the Canadian found a star in Brian Stewart but couldn’t find the consistency or performance expected of a coach at one of the EIHL’s more demanding jobs expectation-wise, and found himself out of the EIHL by December. This year he has his chance to change the script and build at a team and environment arguably more suited to his development – the expectations are lower and the fans slightly more forgiving.

That’s not to say that he won’t be wanting to take the Stars as far as he possibly can – indeed now more than ever he has the motivation not only of wanting to prove the doubters wrong but repay the faith shown by the Stars owners in what some have seen as a risky appointment – after receiving a bloody nose in his first EIHL coaching role this is a chance for Lefebvre to pick himself back up off the canvas and get back into the fight.

SUMMARY

For the Stars, nothing can be as bad as last year’s horror-show of a season. In Marc Lefebvre they have a coach motivated to come back from his own personal bad year, and leading the Stars back up the table would be an excellent way to do that.

In fact, the Stars and Lefebvre are a perfect fit this year-both looking for redemption after a struggle-filled 14/15. In the roster he’s built Lefebvre has certainly given Stars fans cause for hope.

This will certainly be a year where Dundee and Lefebvre will come together at the perfect time. Just how fruitful that pairing will be in the East of Scotland, only time will tell.

Ten Teams Ten Days VI: Nottingham Panthers: Locked And Loaded

No mercy, no quarter
They’ll pay for their sins
Now lower the cannons the battle begins”

Dropkick Murphys: “Hang ‘Em High

INTRO

The Nottingham Panthers last year were a team constantly in a state of flux-a team not quite sure what it wanted to be. Corey Neilson attempted to juggle the competing demands of the CHL early on and the EIHL later. His Panthers team, like many others, showed flashes of brilliance but was too inconsistent to mount a serious title challenge – the highlight of the season came early on with a win over the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers, and culminated in the Panthers not even making the playoff weekend in their own rink after a loss to the eventual champions, the Coventry Blaze.

This year sees a Panthers team reloaded, rearmed and built to bulldoze their way through the EIHL with a barrage of firepower rather than dance through it as Corey Neilson changes approach slightly. But what does it look like?

NETMINDERS

#20 Miika Wiikman, #34 Dan Green

The Panthers have another new face in net this season – the first in some while after Craig Kowalski has finally stepped away from the team with which he became an EIHL legend. The work-permit rules and changes with EIHL goalies have meant something of a change in the EIHL netminding landscape, with the predominantly North American group beginning to change a little and add slightly more of a European flavour. Miika Wiikman is a relatively small (6′ and 176lbs) Swedish-Finn who has played extensively in the Finnish Liiga and also in the AHL, but whose career has seen a recent slide downhill, first into the Finnish 2nd Division and then Slovakia.

He’s an agile goalie who relies on positioning and movement to cover his net, although his style does lead to a lot of rebounds, most of which are controlled pretty well. In the EIHL he should be a more than serviceable goalie if allowed to see the shots and seeing his crease kept clear-something that, as we’ll see, Corey Neilson has taken strongly into account.

Wiikman will be backed up once again by perennial Panthers backup Dan Green, who is among the better EIHL backups, but once again will only be called upon when Wiikman is injured.

DEFENCEMEN

#4 Bryan Schmidt, #6 Jeff Dimmen, #23 Paul Swindlehurst, #24 Theo Peckham, #27 Sam Oakford, #44 Geoff Waugh, #45 Stephen Lee

The Panthers defensive group is built first and foremost with the intention of making the Panthers zone a punishing place to be for opposition forwards. The undoubted star of this group is former Edmonton Oiler Theo Peckham, once considered one of the brightest prospects in the Oilers system. Peckham has the potential to be a beast – at 6’2 and 216lbs he’s a punishing hitter who loves to make opposition forwards’ lives hell on earth in front of his net – a task in which he’ll be backed strongly by Croatian-Canadian Geoff Waugh, who is the same weight but two inches taller. American Bryan Schmidt is a steady, calm two-way player who’ll likely be anchoring the third pairing.

The main offensive drive from this blue-line will be provided by American Jeff Dimmen, who comes to Nottingham off a stellar few offensive seasons in the Asia League with Anyang Halla, including a 40-assist-in-42-game performance in 2012/13.

The British contingent, meanwhile, has Stephen Lee and Paul Swindlehurst as its anchors with Sam Oakford as a strong backup option. This is a defensive unit that’s not the prettiest, but it’s built to do a job of making the Panthers zone an unwelcoming place for forwards, and it does that very well while not skimping too much on the offensive side.

FORWARDS

#5 David Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #8 Matthew Myers, #9 Andy Bohmbach, #13 Juraj Kolnik, #14 Stephen Schulz, #17 Evan Mosey, #19 Rob Farmer, #20 Brad Moran, #39 Logan MacMillan, #55 Cam Janssen, #74 Oliver Betteridge

Corey Neilson’s forward group is built with an equal mix of skill, scoring and power, but the power it contains will, in some cases, have to be very carefully managed. However, while the defence is built with protection of its own zone in mind, the emphasis on the offence is about shock-and-awe and withering firepower.

There are many names that stand out when looking at this group-the sheer offensive potential it contains in particular is extremely impressive-in fact, it may be among the most impressive collections of firepower ever assembled on an EIHL squad.

Brad Moran is a top-line centre many EIHL teams would kill for, providing an equal mix of scoring and playmaking ability that will be perfect to feed accomplished snipers like Juraj Kolnik and Andy Bohmbach the bullets for them to fire, while more than capable of pulling the trigger himself when needed. Deal with that line, and there’s players like Stephen Schulz, Rob Farmer and David Clarke to contend with. Rob Lachowicz and Evan Mosey provide even more speed and scoring, while Logan MacMillan and Matt Myers provide the two-way savvy and balance that this group needs, and young talent Ollie Betteridge will have the chance to develop once again.

The most curious name on that list, though, is the last one. The Panthers have made a lot of fanfare about signing NHL tough-guy Cam Janssen, but he’s not a goalscorer or a playmaker…the man himself says he sees his role as to “go out there and hurt people, put the fear of God into them”. He’s supposed to be the toughness on this Panthers squad…but does he really represent the best use of their resources when even in the EIHL he’s likely to be a 3rd/4th-line “energy” player?

The EIHL’s moving away from the “beat the crap out of teams and fight a lot” template…and one-dimensional players like Janssen (23 points in 500+ pro games but 1400 PIMs over that same span) are slowly being eased down the pyramid – there was no place found for him in the NHL, AHL or ECHL this season and no team in Europe really fancied him either.

It’s all very well the Panthers trumpeting “toughness”, “grit” and “hitting” but they already have that in the likes of Peckham & Waugh on D and Myers, Farmer and MacMillan in the forwards. Neilson will have to keep a very tight rein on a player known to have rushes of blood to the head and as one of the dirtiest players in every league he’s played in. Failing that, the Panthers will need to do a whole lot of work on their penalty kill.

When even one of the Panthers management team is saying they expect Janssen to play a fourth-line role and hit things:

you have to wonder just how much he’ll actually contribute in a league where even now imports have to have a more rounded role. It’s even money right now whether or not Janssen’s antics will harm the team more than it helps it.

Leaving that issue aside and returning to the positives, this Panthers forward group has firepower to burn. That’s their biggest asset, and should see them become a contender in the EIHL this season once again.

PLAYER TO WATCH – BRAD MORAN (C)

Much as attention will be focused on ex-NHLers and physical cornerstones of this team Peckham and Janssen, the key to this team and the player whose performance will really make this team tick is the ex-Columbus Blue Jacket Moran. A silky-smooth playmaker who arguably should still be playing at a much higher level, Moran will be the player who’ll make sure the Panthers snipers have the bullets to fire. His passing and vision are superb, and he can create chances out of nothing-which makes him particularly dangerous on the PP. Opposition teams won’t be able to give him an inch of space or a second of time, or he’ll punish them.

Fans and indeed the Panthers themselves can talk all they like about Janssen’s hits being crucial and how they love to see physical play, but they’re not what the scoreboard counts. It counts goals, and Moran will be one of the best creators of the chances to score them in the EIHL.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Andy Bohmbach-Brad Moran-Juraj Kolnik

David Clarke-Matt Myers-Stephen Schulz

Rob Lachowicz-Logan MacMillan-Rob Farmer

Oliver Betteridge-Evan Mosey-Cam Janssen

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Theo Peckham-Jeff Dimmen

Geoff Waugh-Stephen Lee

Bryan Schmidt-Paul Swindlehurst

Sam Oakford

Miika Wiikman

THE COACH: Corey Neilson (8th season)

Now the longest-tenured coach in the EIHL, with the exception of Todd Dutiaume, Neilson has matured from a slightly rocky beginning into a career that’s seen him become the most successful coach in the EIHL era. He is an intelligent man who is very much in the “thinking hockey” mould of coaching – no fire and brimstone, just systems and carefully-thought-out lineups (which makes the signing of someone like Cam Janssen more surprising).

Neilson and his assistant Rick Strachan have given themselves arguably he most talented roster they’ve ever had this season – it’ll be very interesting indeed to see what they can make of it and if they can get it to fulfil its potential.

SUMMARY

The Nottingham Panthers this year look like a team determined to make a mark on an Erhardt Conference that has become an arms race of talent. While some teams have gone with organisation, the Panthers have taken the approach of trying to build a team that will be a threat whoever is on the ice, much like Cardiff and Braehead, whether that be a threat to the scoreboard (particularly the first two lines) or to the opposition’s physical safety (whenever Cam Janssen is on the ice).

The potential firepower this team carries is shock-and-awe level impressive, while the defensive unit should ensure that any team crossing the Panthers blue-line is going to have to work very hard to put the puck past Miika Wiikman. However, question marks remain over one thing…can the “unsavoury” element in this team be controlled well enough to enable the component parts to do their work, or in the quest to react to criticisms of the Panthers being “too soft”, have they committed to a signing that will hurt their team more than help it?

We shall see.

Ten Teams, Ten Days V: Edinburgh Capitals: Lions Rampant?

“The past is steeped in shame
But tomorrow’s fair game
For a life that’s fit for living
Good morning Britain

Aztec Camera: “Good Morning, Britain

INTRO

The Edinburgh Capitals are looking very different this season. There’s a new approach, a new optimism and a completely new mentality sweeping the Scottish capital. Riley Emmerson has come into his job as player-coach with all the impact of a locomotive going through a vase, smashing through the remnants of his predecessor’s roster and building something new and…well, galvanizing.

The Canadian has made it clear that this is his team from the very start, talking of the vision he has for how it will play, the culture in the locker room and the pride he has in being given the chance to coach in a historic British hockey town.

So what does this “New Capitals” look like? Can they bring Edinburgh back from the Fringes of the Elite League playoff race and back to prominence in the Gardiner Conference? Let’s take a look:

NETMINDERS

#1 Carsen Chubak, #31 Craig Mallinson, #33 Kevin Forshall

The Emmerson Era states its intentions almost immediately, as popular but volatile Slovak netminder Tomas Hiadlovsky is cast aside after three seasons in favour of the Canadian and former Belfast Giant Carsen Chubak. Chubak had a solid first season in the EIHL for Belfast when brought in as starter to cover for the injured Stephen Murphy – a save percentage of 90.2 over 39 games didn’t light any fires in Belfast, but was solid enough.

This year in Edinburgh, with a team he’ll settle in with from the start, could be a true breakout year – there is considerable puck-stopping talent in his 5’11, 170lb frame, as a 2.3 GAA and 92% SV in an 11-game AHL stint in 2013/14 demonstrate. “Chewie” will be expected to show that talent in Edinburgh as the unquestioned starter – Emmerson has already been glowing in his appraisal of the Prince Albert, SK’s abilities, and this season he’ll get plenty of chance to show them. Chubak is backed up by local SNL goalies Kevin Forshall and Craig Mallinson, who will likely not see any starts except in emergency situations…this is Chubak’s gig, pure and simple.

DEFENCE

#7 Jay King, #24 Tyler Plews, #27 Nate Fleming, #28 James Wallace, #54 Kyle Flemington, #58 Jacob Johnston, #84 Kyle Bigos

The Caps defence is impressively balanced recruiting by Emmerson. Given the much-publicised budget disparity between Edinburgh and the “big” EIHL teams, the Caps often have to concentrate on finding hidden gems and diamonds in the rough, and this group has several of both.

Smooth-skating offensive D Jacob Johnston may be the brightest diamond among them – the 27-year-old from Sudbury has spent much of his career in the Canadian and US university systems but comes to the Caps off a 40-point ECHL season on the Greenville Road Warriors and Utah Grizzlies’ blue-lines last season, scoring at the rate of a point every other game from the blue-line during his time in the ECHL. He’ll be the main offensive driver from the blue, and will likely be partnered by one of the two massive Kyles (Bigos and Flemington) Emmerson has recruited to take care of business in front of their own net. Bigos, a former Edmonton draft pick who stands at 6’4 and 236lbs who comes to Edinburgh off a solid few years in the ECHL, will likely be used as the team’s premier defensive rock and punish opposition forwards while also contributing at the other end with his cannon from the point, while Flemington, who’s even taller at 6’7 but weighs in at a “mere” 216lbs, will be his back-up and probably handle the majority of policing duties for the team.

Joining one of them on the 2nd pair will be Nate Fleming – a calm and versatile player who can play both defence and centre according to need but will likely offer a 2nd offensive option on the blue for the Caps. This is Fleming’s first pro season after a solid four years in the Canadian university system with the UBC Thunderbirds.

Rounding out the defensive unit are the intriguing prospects James Wallace (who has signed a long-term deal in Edinburgh as a development project but had an injury-hit first season with the team), Jay King (a feisty, versatile youngster who is equally at home at D or forward) and the shining potential of 17-year-old Tyler Plews, one of GB’s hottest defensive prospects. At 6’1 and 212lbs at 17 Plews is massive for his age, and a very talented player indeed. Stolen from under the noses of Caps’ rivals in Fife, he’s a player GB fans would be well advised to monitor closely even if he only receives limited time on ice this season.

FORWARDS

#14 Luke Judson, #18 Sean Beattie, #19 Ryan Hayes, #23 Craig McCallum, #26 Riley Emmerson, #37 Everett Sheen, #81 Taylor Dickin, #83 Trevor Gerling, #89 Callum Boyd, #91 Paul Zanette

This forward group is built very much on an emphasis of skill and endeavour in equal measure. It’s a group that is very much aimed at being more than the sum of its parts, and also a hungry one – Riley Emmerson has placed an emphasis, intentionally or otherwise, on players looking to prove themselves in the pro ranks after college careers, or players who are looking for a place to break out and show what they can do as go-to players on a team.

The shining light in this forward group, though, is probably Ryan Hayes – the 26-year-old from Syracuse, NY is a small, speedy sniper with a lethal eye for goal, having regularly scored over 20 and on several occasions 30 goals in an ECHL season. If Hayes can find a man to feed him, he’ll be a good outside bet to be among the top goalscorers in the league.

That player could be Everett Sheen, a skilled playmaking centre who has impressive NCAA stats and scored well in relatively limited time for the Ontario Reign last season, or Paul Zanette, a Canadian-Italian winger who’s been a useful playmaker in Italy’s Serie A for Asiago and Bolzano and is just coming into his prime as a player. Emmerson himself found a decent scoring touch last year and will provide size and power once again on the left wing, while Taylor Dickin, Trevor Gerling and (currently-injured) Luke Judson provide enough work-rate and effort to push a bus up Arthur’s Seat and back down again.

The most intriguing among them, perhaps, is Craig McCallum, who joins from the University of Saskatchewan – another player on his first pro team. McCallum is fast, skilled and named as a “difference maker” by Edinburgh staff, and comes with a recommendation from Carsen Chubak as a dangerous scorer. McCallum himself is also likely to be popular in the community – he prides himself on being a role-model to fans both young and old, and takes great pride in his Canadian First Nations heritage.

British talent is in the form of promising locals Callum Boyd and Sean Beattie – Beattie in particular will look to continue his growing into a third-line role, while Boyd will hope to improve his scoring touch once again as he works

Riley Emmerson has built a forward group with all the qualities EIHL fans are known to love, and it could pay dividends for Edinburgh both on and off ice this year.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Riley Emmerson – Paul Zanette – Ryan Hayes

Craig McCallum – Trevor Gerling – Everett Sheen

Taylor Dickin – Luke Judson – Callum Boyd/Sean Beattie

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Kyle Bigos – Jacob Johnston

Kyle Flemington – Nate Fleming

Jay King – James Wallace

Tyler Plews

Carsen Chubak

COACH – RILEY EMMERSON (1st season)

I wrote recently that Emmerson was arguably the perfect coach for Edinburgh right now. In that piece I say this in summing up:

“Nobody knows how Riley Emmerson’s first season in charge in Edinburgh will go – and nobody is expecting miracles. However, in building his roster the 29-year-old Burnaby native has shown himself to be a savvy recruiter with an astute mind and sharp awareness of how to get the most bang for his buck. That alone, coupled with the fact the man himself is a PR natural, means that the Caps are arguably in a better position to begin building than they have been in a long time.” 

Looking at this roster with a critical eye, it’s hard to change that opinion one iota. Yes, the Caps roster may not have the “star power” of the rich teams and yes, this is Emmerson’s first season in charge, but he’s hit the ground running and shown an aptitude for the role that promises good things to come. In the EIHL we’ve seen rookie coaches rise to the occasion spectacularly before and achieve way above expectation, and we’ve also seen them flame out spectacularly. But in the case of Emmerson, his own structured and meticulously planned approach and an ability to built what looks a pretty useful roster on a tight budget bode incredibly well.

There is a lot of potential here.

SUMMARY

When looking at a roster, you have to take into account what its (realistic) objectives are likely to be. Edinburgh’s roster is built to compete. It’s built to make sure teams have to work incredibly hard to beat it and it’s built to be able to match rosters with far more illustrious names on them. That objective, it achieves.

The Riley Emmerson era has begun with a lot of promise – a roster that could make those disenchanted with the Caps’ style under Richard Hartmann fall in love with their team again.

It’s a group built to make Edinburgh Capitals a team that’s tough to beat every single night and make them able to compete with honour and pride against very tough competition.

That it will do very well indeed.

Riley Emmerson and this Caps team has the potential to do its city proud this year.

Ten Teams Ten Days 15/16 IV: The Cardiff Devils: All Hell Let Loose

Build me a future, splendid and graceful.
Make it better by design.
Perfected strategies, applied technologies.
A brighter future for a darker age”

VNV Nation: “Streamline”

INTRO

Last year the Cardiff Devils were a revelation – the success story of the EIHL. Under the vibrant, dynamic coaching of Andrew Lord and Neil Francis the Red Army marched up and down the country reclaiming their place at the top end of British hockey. A Challenge Cup victory and narrowly losing out to Sheffield and Braehead in an enthralling title race on the last weekend was just reward for a team that reignited the Red Army’s passion for hockey in a way that was probably beyond even the new owners’ wildest hopes.

This year, the Devils have built with one aim in mind-the league title. They’ve kept the nucleus of the team that made them so successful last year, but Andrew Lord has honed his roster to give the Devils even more of a bite this season – this is a squad that’s looking to do great things.

But can it? Let’s take a look.

NETMINDERS

#33 Ben Bowns, #43 Michael Will

When you’ve got the GB starting goalie coming off a season where he established himself as one of the elite netminders in the league along with one of the best British backups as your netminder tandem, you probably don’t need to do much tinkering.

The main question in Cardiff this off-season wasn’t so much who they’d have in net season but how long a fight they’d have to sign him, and it was a relatively short wait before the pride of Sheffield, Ben Bowns, returned to the Welsh capital. Bowns is big, fast and agile, and possesses reactions that a cat would envy. This year he’ll once again be the last line of defence for a squad and coach that are both fully confident in his ability, while coming off another excellent World Championships that has made the national starting job his to lose. “Riding high” might be an understatement.

Backing up Bowns once again is Mike Will, who is more than comfortable in his role and makes a good case for being the most solid backup in the league (although Dan Green might have something to say about that)

DEFENCE

#2 Carl Hudson,  #17 Mark Richardson, #22 Tyson Marsh, #24 Andrew Hotham, #41 Josh Batch, #45 Callum Buglass, #74 Trevor Hendrikx

Again, no new names here. The Devils run with exactly the same goalie and defensive unit that did so well for them last season-the only difference this year is the invisible but incalculable one made by the fact this defensive unit knows itself inside out. In Andrew Hotham the Devils have last year’s Defenceman Of The Year. Hotham is an offensive force, with 20 goals from the blueline last season leading the league by some distance.

The next most prolific D? His team-mate, Carl Hudson, showing that this team have the offensive side of things covered.

Tyson Marsh is an inspirational captain, quietly going about his work at both ends of the ice, much in the same fashion as Mark Richardson, who rivals Sheffield’s Ben O’Connor for the title of best British defenceman. Josh Batch and Trevor Hendrikx provide the meat and defensive presence – both are big bodies who love to throw a fearsome hit and play strongly in their own zone, while 19-year-old Callum Buglass rounds out the group again.

FORWARDS

#12 Guillaume Doucet, #14 Zach Hervato, #16 Chris Jones, #18 Brent Walton, #21 Luke Piggott, #27 Joey Haddad, #42 Leigh Salters, #47 Jake Morissette, #57 Chris Culligan, #71 Andrew Lord, #88 Joey Martin, #91 Tomas Kurka.

The Devils forward group keeps everything that made it excellent last year, and then makes it even better. It’s Lord Hockey 2.0, with the same emphasis on skill and power as complimentary skills rather than absolutes, but with better players brought in in each role. For Jesse Mychan, read Zach Hervato. Doug Clarkson? Leigh Salters. Matt Myers? Tomas Kurka.

This group is like last season’s with the weaknesses and rough edges pared away. In Joey Martin it has one of the best playmakers in the league, in Leigh Salters one of the best power forwards.

Oh yeah, and to add to the killer instinct provided by the likes of Brent Walton and Joey Haddad, it also has one of the most dangerous goalscorers in Guillaume Doucet. That’s one hell of a terrifying top line…potentially the best in the league.

The biggest thing about this Devils forward group, though, and also the most important factor in how exciting it looks, is that it doesn’t have a top line like most other EIHL teams.

It has three of them. Seriously.

The top nine forwards in this squad could probably be mixed and matched in any combination Andrew Lord and Neil Francis can devise and would still combine equally well and provide an equal mix of speed, power and skill. That kind of depth is almost unheard of at EIHL level. The versatility of Chris Culligan means that there will always be options and competition for places too-Culligan is the very definition of an underrated workhorse.

Couple that with the fact that this is a unit built to thrive on its own ice that also has proven its ability on the wider ice-pads, and you have one hell of a group.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Leigh Salters – Joey Martin – Guillaume Doucet

Tomas Kurka – Andrew Lord – Brent Walton

Joey Haddad – Zach Hervato – Jake Morissette

(Chris Culligan) – Chris Jones – Luke Piggott

POTENTIAL LINES (D/G)

Andrew Hotham – Tyson Marsh

Mark Richardson – Carl Hudson

Josh Batch – Trevor Hendrikx

Ben Bowns/Mike Will

PLAYER TO WATCH – LEIGH SALTERS (LW)

The big winger from London, Ontario has already established himself as arguably the league’s premier power forward in his two seasons in the EIHL, combining the tenacity and attacking snarl of an angry bulldog with the striking ability of a cobra around the net and no mean skill. At 6’4 and 225lbs he’ll be a holy terror whether in the tight confines of the Big Blue Tent or the slightly wider area of the new Cardiff Ice Arena later in the season.

He is the battering ram that will make space for Joey Martin and Guillaume Doucet to weave their magic, while causing no mean amount of havoc in front of the net himself. Carl Hudson and Andrew Hotham will be licking their lips at having him screen opposition goalies for their hard and accurate point shots, too. This could be Salters’ best season yet.

COACH – Andrew Lord (2nd season)

The Devils player coach, along with his faithful “Hand Of The King” figure Neil Francis, are one of the strongest coaching duos the EIHL has seen in many years. I recently argued that Lord himself was the best coach in the league, and this is a view that he could only solidify further this season. Lord and Francis are a perfect duo with complementing skillsets, and Lord himself appears to have a gift for building motivated, tightly connected teams. He’s also a very useful two-way forward who can lead by example.

Many say that player-coaches are an example of how the EIHL is a league that still can’t be taken truly seriously by the “big” leagues in European hockey, but Lord bucks that trend. Along with Omar Pacha now and Sylvain Cloutier before him he’s a perfect example of a player making an almost seamless transition between playing and coaching. The sky is the limit for him after his rookie season.

SUMMARY

This may be slightly controversial – but the Devils have never had a team with more potential in the EIHL era than the one they have right now. Andrew Lord has built the Erhardt counterpart to Ryan Finnerty’s Braehead Clan – a squad that took the lessons learned from going all the way to the final weekend before losing the league title last season and used them to make themselves better. Few if any teams in the EIHL can boast the chance to roll three first lines like the Devils can, and at the back the defence and goalie know each others’ play inside out.

The culture Andrew Lord has instilled in the Devils is also deeply ingrained in this team – the coach knows his players and the players know the coach. Even the new players are EIHL-blooded and Tomas Kurka has played for Cardiff with Andrew Lord before. That chemistry is the kind of advantage that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stats sheets and will mean that the adjustment period that may slightly hamper other teams early on in the season is minimal.

Last year saw the Devils explode back out of the hell they’d fallen into the previous season.

This year, they’re ready to finally (potentially) break that EIHL title drought. All the ingredients are there.

The Cardiff Devils are an army on the march, ready for battle.

Ready to paint hell red.

Ten Teams, Ten Days III: Coventry Blaze – Double Dragons?

“A second chance carries expectation. The books you’d written no longer exist. The future is in your pen. Ink to paper, now begin”

Arch Enemy: “As The Pages Burn

INTRO

We all know the story of Coventry’s season last year-the nightmarish first half turned round into playoff triumph by a mild-mannered Messiah from Lockport named Chuck Weber. I’ve argued before that what Weber did wasn’t the revolution in hockey thinking that Blaze fans like to portray it as, so much as a coach recognising instantly that he had a massive advantage in the best goalie in the league by some way and playing a system designed to give a workmanlike but anodyne team a way to make the best possible use of it. I called it “as pretty to watch as an autopsy”-but it worked.

It’s also led to the most anticipated off-season in Coventry in some considerable time…given his own team to recruit rather than someone else’s, would Weber stick to the suffocating, cautious but effective style that had brought the team success last year, or would we see a coach whose biggest asset is apparently his “different thinking” take the Blaze in a different, more open, spectator-friendly direction? What WOULD a “Chuck Weber team” look like in the EIHL? And could  it take the Blaze back to the top of British hockey, like so many fans seem to think it would? Let’s find out.

NETMINDERS

#41 Brian Stewart, #30 Renny Marr

The UK didn’t really know who he was last year, but everyone in British hockey knows who Brian Stewart is now. The 6’5, 201lb bear of a goalie from Burnaby, BC has set the standard in net that every other team in the league is looking to match this season. Unquestionably the EIHL’s best netminder last year, his return was clamoured for and then greeted with jubilation in Coventry as he prepares to once again become the centrepiece of a Chuck Weber squad and intended as the cornerstone of a successful year.

If he can come even close to his form and consistency last season, then once again the Blaze will have a chance to win every night-even when they shouldn’t have to. With a completely different defence in front of him this season, the plan from Weber is doubtless that he won’t need to repeat the heroics of last year-but as every Blaze fan will tell you, it’s comforting for them to know that he more than likely can if they do.

Backing Stewart up is one of GB’s brightest goalie prospects in Scot Renny Marr-the 17-year-old from Kirkcaldy steps up from the SNL in a development plan that will also see him spend time in Milton Keynes and Coventry’s NIHL team this season. However, if he does make it off the bench, it means that Stewart’s injured-and that’s an injury that could be disastrous.

DEFENCEMEN #5 Mike Quesnele, #7 Josh Godfrey, #11 Jim Jorgensen, #14 Kevin Noble, #15 James Griffin, #28 Steven Chalmers, #48 Boris Valabik, #58 David Clements.

The Blaze defence is very clearly split into “offensive” and “defensive” roles – in fact, if you were building a set you could easily place one of each on a pairing in a ladder system…this is a utilitarian group carefully assembled so that it can be split into pairs that complement each other and do a simple, effective job – letting Brian Stewart see pucks.

Standing out are the hulking defensive guard dog Slovak Boris Valabik (ex of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, though with a career that has been hampered by injury problems recently), who will also team with the very attack-minded blitzkrieg bomber Josh Godfrey as a twin cannon barrage from the point, while behind them Jim Jorgensen & Kevin Noble are more versatile, two-way options.

Mike Quesnele and Steven Chalmers will likely complete the “starting” top six, with James Griffin adjudged to need more development on a two way in the EPL, along with the very exciting prospect that is Coventry’s own David Clements…the 20-year-old will spend the majority of the year along with Griffin in Milton Keynes, but is an accomplished player who’s already captained GB u18s while playing in North American junior, and is very definitely one for Blaze fans to watch closely.

FORWARDS

#8 Ned Lukacevic, #9 Lewis Hook, #14 Cale Tanaka, #17 Russ Cowley, #18 Chris Lawrence, #19 Neil Trimm, #20 Drew Fisher, #21 Ashley Tait, #23 Brett Robinson, #59 Ross Venus, #90 Bobby Chamberlain, #91 Carl Lauzon

Perhaps the most striking thing about this group of players is the amount of creativity in it. This group is overflowing with players who like to make things happen offensively, preferably as flashily as possible…and the vast majority of them have been doing it in the EIHL’s Gardiner Conference. Ned Lukacevic, Neil Trimm, Carl Lauzon…there’s more show ponies here than your average day at Royal Ascot.

That’s before we add in set-up men like Drew Fisher (59 assists in the ECHL last season), Carl Lauzon (one of the most creative players in the EIHL and consistently Hull’s most dangerous forward each season) and Chris Lawrence (who went from world-beater to carpet-beater and back again last year several times, sometimes within the space of the same game).

It’s an undoubtedly talented forward group, with the young British pair of Lewis Hook and Bobby Chamberlain already established EPL players but two-way contract depth on this squad. Russ Cowley, Ashley Tait and Cale Tanaka are the third-line workhorses. Brett Robinson, too, could be a very popular player in Coventry indeed – the closest the Skydome has seen in a long while to a certain Dan Carlson in his play style.

Weber has decided to go for balanced, spread scoring, and has reacted to the criticism of last year’s lack of offence by ladling it on with a trowel – but it’s interesting that the players he’s picked (at least those from the EIHL) all have a tendency to like the flashy play – they’ll never pull just one deke when three will do. There’s seemingly no assassin there – no player like Mathieu Roy or Guillaume Doucet, who’ll simply aim to make sure puck and twine meet as quickly and as often as possible after they get it without all the bells and whistles of arranging a dance-party in the offensive zone beforehand. Could that hurt the Blaze over a full season?

If Weber can get this forward group focused on the destination rather than how pretty the journey is when attacking, though, they could give more than one opposition defence a sleepless night or two.

POTENTIAL LINES (F)

Drew Fisher-Carl Lauzon-Chris Lawrence

Ned Lukacevic-Brett Robinson-Neil Trimm

Ross Venus-Russ Cowley-Cale Tanaka

Ash Tait-Lewis Hook-Bobby Chamberlain

POTENTIAL LINES (D)

Kevin Noble-Josh Godfrey

Boris Valabik-Jim Jorgensen

Mike Quesnele-Steven Chalmers

Brian Stewart, Renny Marr

PLAYER TO WATCH – #23 Brett Robinson (C)

The 30-year-old centre from North York, Ontario will anchor one of Blaze’s top two lines this season, and he could be a sleeper star in the EIHL. Fast and creative with an eye for goal, but also very responsible in his own end, the two-way centre is a hard-working, deft playmaker who loves to feed his linemates. He’s also got a reputation as performing in big games from his previous teams in Idaho and Cincinnati. Sound familiar? It should…it reminds me very much of the description of a certain Dan Carlson in Coventry.  And that is the kind of comparison that makes a player instantly worth keeping a very close eye on indeed.

COACH – Chuck Weber (2nd season)

The man from Lockport, NY can do no wrong in Coventry fans’ eyes after last season, and is popular around the rest of the league too. This is unsurprising after his miracle-working on ice last season – but also because off-ice the 43-year-old has a calm, personable interview style and a very impressive CV indeed. He’s also very quickly put his own stamp on Coventry, making it clear that he’s here to coach hockey games, not play politics – an approach that ruffles feathers in all the right places but could lead to isolation if the wrong people want it to, as other coaches have found in the EIHL. Tactically astute, this is the first real test for him in the EIHL – a season where he and he alone will be responsible for the way the team is constructed, motivated and performs, the culture it follows, the systems it plays.

This is the season where we really see what a Chuck Weber team is made of and just how good he is. It’ll be a fascinating year to watch now Weber’s no longer the new boy and other coaches have had a summer to study and react…

SUMMARY

This is a very useful Blaze team. It’s a big improvement on last season offensively, and defensively the pieces appear to be selected with care.

Is it a team that can bring silverware to the Skydome again? Potentially. Certainly if Weber can get the forward lines producing as they have individually elsewhere – and if Brian Stewart gets his game going in net again they will be tough to beat. That’s two very large “ifs” – if either doesn’t happen for a prolonged stretch of time, then it’ll be interesting to see for how long the other can compensate.

However, this is a very different team to the one Chuck Weber inherited. It may still play with an emphasis on systems and making sure their own end is covered first, but if Weber feels confident enough to loosen the leash a little and let his players play, there is real potential here..

In a very tough Erhardt Conference, can the Blaze become Double Dragons with another trophy this season? Can Weber work his magic now that he’s no longer an unknown quantity? Much will depend on how the Blaze react to the notorious EIHL season-killer that is European competition, and if the skill players can be worked into a defensive brand of hockey.

There’s certainly a lot of cause for optimism in Coventry if you’re a Blaze fan, though.

The new season is a blank page. This year, Chuck Weber is ready to begin writing his own chapter in Coventry, rather than being the happy ending to someone else’s.

It’s time to pick up the pen again at the Skydome.