The British hockey season officially starts tonight, with Coventry Blaze taking on the Cardiff Devils in South Wales, and naturally, that means it’s time for the Chasing Dragons Elite League Season Preview!
(quick note-if you’re not familiar with British hockey, have a quick click on the “British Hockey Primer” tab above-it’ll give you the briefest of introductions to teams, basic league rules and competitions. Added this after I noticed I was getting a fair few hits from North America)
With the EIHL split into two conferences this season, the Northern (except Belfast) Gardiner Conference and the Southern (except Hull) Erhardt Conference, we’ll be considering them both team-by-team, starting with the Erhardt today and continuing with the Gardiner tomorrow. Each team will get a summary, a “Player To Watch” who I think will be more than worthy of your focused attention this season, an unsung hero and an “X-Factor” to their season. They’ll also, because it’s me, get an appropriate song lyric to introduce them.
Shall we begin, then?
BELFAST GIANTS (coach: Doug Christiansen)
“Though it seems the past and the future look the same…suffice to say that you’re still here”
VNV Nation: “Carry You”
The Giants are a team that look very similar to last season. And that should be a big worry for the rest of the league, since they were champions last time out. The names may have changed a fair amount from the roster of last season, but the ethos hasn’t. Stephen Murphy is a solid netminder to build upon, allowing for an extra import outskater, but it’s moving forward from him where Doug Christiansen’s building really starts to show. This is a team that has a solid, non-genuinely flashy defence with two major offensive point producers (last season it was Jeff Mason and Jeremy Rebek, this season it looks like being Sam Roberts and the returning Robby Sandrock who will be relied upon for the forward charge), However, this is a unit in which every player is comfortable at both ends of the ice, and any pairing can contribute points. David Phillips will want to rebound from a poor EIHL outing with Coventry last year, and in Graeme Walton and new arrival and Brock Matheson the Giants have a 5/6 d pairing most teams would kill for.
Forward-wise, Noah Clarke and Greg Stewart are the big signings most will be focusing on, along with the returning human beltsanders that are Darryl Lloyd and Adam Keefe to add the grit. However, while Clarke can score, as can Stewart, they’ll both be replied upon to make space for the likes of Daymen Rycroft and Scott Champagne to get creative in front of the net-Champagne and Rycroft, however, appear to edge more towards the “setup” role. The Giants’ third line will be the envy of many in the league-Matt Towe, Mark Garside and particularly Craig Peacock can all pull high-line/PP/PK duty-expect Peacock in particular to be placed on a scoring line with either Rycroft or Champagne. In fact, the Giants have such an embarassment of riches at forwards that my player to watch may have slipped a few people by…
PLAYER TO WATCH: #9 ANDREW FOURNIER (LW): I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the native of Amherstview, ON is a dark horse for EIHL top points scorer already. His signing wasn’t greeted with the excitement of Clarke or Stewart, but 71 points in his last ECHL season (including 38 goals) and 50 points last season. He’s well-built at 5’11 and 190lbs, too, and will have Stewart and Clarke making space. Fear the Fournier.
UNSUNG HERO: #47 ADAM KEEFE (RW): Sure, Keefe may get a lot of stick for his brash agitator/enforcer persona. But watch him play and you’ll see one of the hardest working players in the EIHL-an excellent penalty-killer and checking forward who knows his role and does it incredibly well.
X-FACTOR: CAN SMURF DO IT AGAIN?
Dave Simms’ expert view that “you can’t win the league with a British goalie” was proven wrong last season…but can Stephen Murphy keep his form going when he’ll be facing the cream of the EIHL’s forwards more often than not due to the new conference system? In this league, he simply can’t afford to take a night off.
CARDIFF DEVILS (coach: Gerard Adams)
“black coat, black shoes, black hat, Cadillac, yeah…the boy’s a time bomb”
Rancid: “Time Bomb”
The boys from South Wales have built another roster worthy of serious consideration in the honours race this season. Gerard Adams knows what type of team he likes to build-a tough, hard-hitting squad tailormade for the narrow confines of Cardiff’s Big Blue Tent rink. He’s done it again this season, retaining the power of Max Birbraer and agitation of Phil Hill up front and convincing one of the league’s top goalies to return to the Devils in Phil Osaer. Moving forward, though, you can see that his defence is built with strength in mind. Tyson Marsh, Adams, Josh Batch and Mark Smith will take care of affairs in their own end well, as will Jamie Milam, although his main reason for signing is a little further up the ice. Kenton Smith provides the attacking guile from the blue line while Milam has an absolute cannon of a shot that will strike fear into the hearts of goalies and screening team-mates alike when he unleashes it from the blueline.
Forward wise, it’s a similar story-hard working and in-your face. Stuart Macrae returns to cement his place in Devils’ fans hearts, joined by Mac Faulkner after the latter has spent several seasons scoring impressively in Italy. Birbraer has support from Chris Blight (a team-mate of Faulkner at Ritten-Renon last season so expect those two to pair up again) and Bari McKenzie, Ben Davies, Luke Piggott and Adam Harding are the Brit pack up front. But there’s one other Devils forward who has pretty much earned his spot in the next paragraph by right this offseason.
PLAYER TO WATCH: #24 DEVIN DIDIOMETE (LW): The player in whose honour the lyric at the start of this preview was chosen. DiDiomete is 5’11 and 201lbs of pure, refined hate which coaches pack into a hockey jersey and point in the direction of the opposition team. He’s already made a name for himself on Twitter this offseason with his replies to British hockey fans. On the ice, however (dare I say it) he is EXACTLY the kind of player that’s perfect for the Devils. Players will have nowhere to hide to avoid him in the Big Blue Tent, and having watched a few videos of him he appears to only have one setting: ATTACK. The guy is utterly relentless in his pursuit of opposition players, and can put the puck in the net too, as evidenced by his 12 ECHL goals last season. He will become the player the EIHL loves to hate-angry and utterly unpredictable-and for that reason alone, he earns the Player To Watch spot.
UNSUNG HERO: #18 STUART MACRAE (C): Now entering his third season with the Devils, the native of Coxheath, NS is the heartbeat of the team and the one most likely to assume Brad Voth’s “franchise player” mantle. Committed, skilled and with quietly effective leadership, Macrae will once again be a big part of the Devils this season.
X-FACTOR: DEVIN OR HELL?: If the Devils can use Devin DiDiomete effectively, he may become one of those players who can earn a 3rd assist on goals just by being a distraction or his agitation gaining the team a powerplay. If not, it could be the Devils’ PK units who are tested the most this season. Either way, it’s going to be fun watching the Red Army come to town, wherever you are.
COVENTRY BLAZE (coach: Paul Thompson)
“I’m picking my head up off the floor. I’ve never seen so perfectly clear.
Things are getting a little better, Forget about the last few years“
Rust Belt Lights: “Chutes And Ladders”
This is a Blaze squad with a point to prove. After two seasons of club/fan infighting, arguments, disillusionment within the club and without, and nearly going bust last season the Blaze appear to have come back stronger than ever. They’ve done so by coach Paul Thompson starting almost from scratch, with only three imports and seven players remaining from last season’s team. Shea Guthrie has been handed the captaincy after he appeared to drag the team along on his back at times last season, and continuing the redemption theme, Mike Danton has been signed to play for the Blaze as the latest stop on his road to personal redemption (visa permitting), and the team is crammed with leadership thanks to the likes of the Leeb brothers, Michael Schutte, and even former OHL captain Gerome Giudice. Peter Hirsch returns in net, but in front of him the defence is almost unrecognisable from last season, with Jerramie Domish the lone returnee among the imports. Mike Egener and Benn Olson add size while Schutte will quarterback the powerplay. Forward wise, Shea Guthrie, Dustin Cameron and the Leeb brothers Brad and Greg will be relied upon for scoring, as will Danton if he arrives, but Brits Sam Smith and Russ Cowley can provide goals where needed, as can Giudice. It all depends on the line combinations Thompson chooses to use as to who slips into which role. This is a team that can definitely compete with the likes of Belfast, Nottingham and Sheffield given the resources…but it remains to be seen if they can, especially starting the season light.
PLAYER TO WATCH: #20 DUSTIN CAMERON (LW): Danton was the easy pick here, but given that there’s still a question hanging over his arrival, I’ve gone for the 23-year-old native of Saskatoon. He scored 22 goals for Trenton in the ECHL last season, and could be a force paired with either Guthrie or the Leeb brothers on a line. Like Andrew Fournier for Belfast, other signings may have got more of the limelight but that’ll probably be just fine to Cameron, as he quietly prepares for another hopefully productive seaosn.
UNSUNG HERO: #13 GEROME GIUDICE (LW): It’s generally thought that Giudice will be more of an agitator/shutdown forward by many EIHL fans, but where this guy is concerned it’s probably best to expect the unexpected. Giudice led his OHL team in Sudbury for two years, captaining current NHL players like Marcus Foligno, so it’s fair to say he can lead. He’s also scored decently in Italy, where many of the EIHLs better forwards come from this season, so may well have far more to his game than just stopping the opposition.
X-FACTOR: DANTON OR NO DANTON?
This was bound to be the pick here. The Blaze have based a lot of their offseason plans on Mike Danton, and are now leaving a space on the roster for him for at least the preseason while his visa issues are sorted out. This means they’re short on forwards, with only 8 to start the season. This is a serious worry for Blaze fans given the strength of the rest of the Erhardt Conference…will they have a backup plan in place or will a visa refusal for Danton derail their season before it’s begun?
NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS (coach Corey Neilson)
“Are we growing up or just going down?
It’s just a matter of time until we’re all found out”
Fall Out Boy: “Sophomore Slump or Comeback Of The Year”
Once again, it’s been an offseason where the Nottingham Panthers have thrown money around, gone for splashy signings and had everyone saying “This is DEFINITELY the team to beat. No question”. Retaining Craig Kowalski in net, tempting Jonathan Weaver away from Coventry on defence and signing one of the best players to come to this country in the EIHL era in David Ling, as well as the all time EIHL leading scorer in David Clarke-surely this is finally the year the Panthers break their 56-year league drought, right?
Don’t be so sure. While the Panthers roster looks impressive-look a little closer and a few cracks appear. For example, Weaver. Sure, many think he’s one of the best offensive British d-men ever, but take this from someone who’s watched him week in week out for the past five years-he’s not a patch on the player he was. If the Panthers can use Weaver sparingly and make him their key PP guy, he’ll be a great signing. Any more than that and the legs could start to go again-that 35-year-old body has taken a lot of punishment over the past few seasons.
There is no denying the Panthers have talent, from Stevie Lee and Jason Beckett at the back end to Ling, Jordan Fox (arguably the best two-way C in the league) Patrick Galivan and the massive Bruce Graham up front. But the Dmen they’re relying upon to drive offence are 35 and 36, and their star forward is 37. Their average age is the highest in the league at nearly 29, with many above that. And defensively, behind Corey Neilson and Weaver there is…almost no offensive drive whatsoever. It’s experienced, but it’s not quick.
Up front, as well…there is a lack of genuine in-your-face physicality. Bruce Graham is big but doesn’t like physical contact-Fox and Brandon Benedict will mix it up where needed, but aren’t genuinely intimidating-where is the player to stand up to a DiDiomete or respond to physical play with a wallop of their own? Last year the Panthers had Guillaume Lepine, and his departure is massive loss. Ling will need to be protected to do his best work, as will Galivan…and frankly, the protection compared to some of the other teams isn’t there. This is a team built for the big ice of the NIC, which is a fine strategy but could harm the Panthers against the likes of Cardiff, Coventry and the Northern Conference teams. We’ll see how things turn out as the season grinds on.
PLAYER TO WATCH: #19 DAVID LING (RW): The 37-year-old has done it all. He’s played in the AHL, the KHL, many European leagues and most importantly the NHL. If he’s motivated, Ling will rip the league up. The question is-at 37 is this one final pay packet before retirement or not? Will that advancing age mean he’s as happy to go charging into the corner at the NIC with a raging DiDiomete behind him as he might have been five years ago? We will see. On skill level alone, though, Ling will be a MASSIVE asset.
UNSUNG HERO: #8 MATT MYERS The Centre is vital to the Panthers-he holds their third line together, wins faceoffs and ensures that any line he’s on is a scoring threat. A wind-up merchant par excellence, too, he’ll go after anyone he thinks needs a tap or a slash to put them off their game, and his vision will create opportunities all night long.
X-FACTOR: ONE SEASON TOO FAR FOR COREY, WEAVER?
The Panthers need Jon Weaver to perform. Corey Neilson, too, has that 1956 league title hanging over him like a millstone despite two Challenge Cup and playoff doubles. Neilson has to win the league soon, or the natives will get restless. In Britain the playoffs and cups are nice, but it’s the league title that counts most for many fans. East Midlands Expects, Corey. You can’t let them down again.
SHEFFIELD STEELERS (coach, Ryan Finnerty)
“Good times come and good times go,
I only wish the good times would last a little longer”
Social Distortion: “Story Of My Life”
So, the Steelers conclude our Erhardt Conference preview. And they’re a team who are always there or thereabouts…and may well be this season. Poaching Danny Meyers after his surprise release from Nottingham was a big capture, but more important perhaps is managing to grab fellow top Brit Colin Shields on his return to the country from a year in France. John DeCaro returns in net with the shamefaced look of a boyfriend realising his steady girlfriend is better than the stranger who made eyes across the bar, and Jeff Legue keeps Steelers fans happy by once again bringing his silky skills to Yorkshire. On D, Meyers is joined by returnees Matt Stephenson and Mr. Sheffield Rod Sarich as the recognisable faces.
However, in the new signings the Steelers have made they’ve recruited well. Cory Pecker will not only give endless scope for innuendo to commentators like me but will also score freely, Steven Goertzen will make space for the skill players, Shawn Limpright will provide a mix of snap, snarl and skill, and Jim Jorgensen and Drew Fata will provide added skill and bite to the defensive corps. Added to that, the Steelers have the best Brit Pack in the league by far, with Shields and Meyers joined by Ash Tait, Jason Hewitt, Lee Esders, captain Jonathan Phillips, Mark Thomas and Danny Wood in a group teams would kill their own mothers for, and the ability to run four lines
However, somewhat surprisingly, my player to watch is none of those:
PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 TYLOR MICHEL: The ex-Cardiff Devil is one of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen in Britain. He can give and take hits for fun, and his 62 points with Cardiff last season he was in Britain show a player of no mean skill, too. The Sudbury native will probably center the Steelers’ 3rd line, when on most other teams he’d comfortably be on the 2nd. That alone should show the strength and depth Sheffield have up front. Given the right linemates he could have a big year.
UNSUNG HERO: #48 MATT STEPHENSON: The native of Midland, ON is probably one of the least flashy players in the EIHL-he doesn’t shout about his job, land big hits often or start fights-he just plays both defence and attack on the blueline very, very well indeed, as his 37 points and career in the AHL before coming to the UK show. This defenceman is one I’d love to see in a Blaze jersey-he simply does his job when and where required, and does it better than all but a few in the league-in fact, he does it so well you probably don’t notice him often. But you should.
X FACTOR: JOHN DeCARO
The Steelers goalie looked unsure at times last year, and his commitment to the Steelers can be questioned by the fact that he’d already signed for a team in Norway before having to return due to his post-hockey employers wanting him to finish his uni degree in Sheffield.. Can he backstop the Steelers to a tite in a very tough conference? More to the point-will his heart be in it?
That’s the end of your Erhardt Conference Preview. Coming Soon-the Gardiner Conference.