Elite League Preview 2012/13: The Gardiner Conference

I wrote 3000 words on the Erhardt Conference last week…if you missed it, firstly…why? and second…Here it is for your reading pleasure..

If you’re not familiar with the format-each team gets a song lyric, a summary, a Player To Watch, Unsung Hero and an X-Factor which’ll affect their season. Clear? Good. Away we go. And warning, this preview has one rude word in it. You’ve been warned. 🙂

The Gardiner Conference is supposedly the poor brother to the Erhardt, talent wise, with the four Scottish teams and Hull working their way through the summer quietly recruiting and preparing for the new season without all the fireworks of their Southern counterparts. Indeed, some seemed to think Braehead would walk the conference compared to some of the other teams…but this is not the case. As I shall now try to prove.

And coincidentally, we start at the top with…

BRAEHEAD CLAN (coach: Jordan Krestanovich)

“I’m outta your reach now
So give me some rocket fuel
Hookin’ a beat down, let’s do the impossible”

Styles Of Beyond: “Second To None”

There’s been a quiet revolution going on in the West of Scotland over the past few seasons. Braehead are a new club but they could show many in the EIHL how a British hockey club should be run, working on playing entertaining hockey and creating a buzz to get players through the door through excellent use of social media and treating fans as valued members of the club and not walking wallets. There is a hockey tradition in the area thanks to Ayr Scottish Eagles, Paisley Pirates, Solway Sharks and going back a little further the Dumfries Border Vikings-the Clan have aimed to tap into all of these fan bases and carved out a niche in the football-mad city of Glasgow.

This season is the third for the Clan, and having got past the “difficult second season” syndrome, they enter this one with a new player coach in Jordan Krestanovich and a roster that looks like it could challenge for honours, with quality all the way through.

In goal is Garret Zemlak, who performed wonders for the Fife Flyers last season and was for many the best goalie in the league. The defence in front of him is quietly effective, built not for excitement but strength. Steve Birnstill scored 47 points for Sheffield last season and will be the main blue-line offensive threat, but he’s joined by Matt Hanson and Mitch Maunu, who at 214 and 225lbs are two big slabs of muscle on the Clan blueline to make sure Zemlak sees the majority of pucks fired at him. Sam Zajac and Kevin Phillips are two solid Brits who can both perform steadily-Zajac in particular is small in stature at 5’7 and 165lbs, but definitely a rising star on the GB blueline after serving his apprenticeship in the North East cradle of British hockey.

But moving up front is where the Clan have really loaded up this season. The mercurial Jade Galbraith was the EIHL’s top point scorer last season, and has the skills to rip league defences apart when he wants to. Ash Goldie has joined from the ECHL after a few years in Europe-back in 2007/8 he scored 43 goals in an ECHL season and 44 points in the Asia League in 2010/11 so clearly knows where the net is. Krestanovich himself scored 69 points in the last EIHL season and is only 31, but the major capture for the Clan this off-season is ex Coventry Blaze and Sheffield Steeler Robert Farmer, who is one of the top British  forwards and hoping to repeat his breakout year of 30 goals last season. Bobby Chaumont and Brock McPherson return too, and both of them can put the puck in the net…leaving experienced centre Ryan Campbell to do a job on the third line alongside Matt Haywood and Adam Walker. Make no mistake-this team has some serious depth about it. Depth that many of the supposedly “better” teams in the Southern Conference would envy.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #27 BROCK McPHERSON (RW)

Jade Galbraith is the player that gets all the attention both from opposition defences and the media, but this 6’1, 223lb slab of prime Canadian muscle should be the player that gets the credit for making Galbraith the space to weave his magic. The 27-year-old Toronto native signed almost unheralded from the CIS’ Lakehead University last season, and then quietly set about blasting a path through opposition defences with his bulldozing style. Even some Clan fans would probably be surprised to see he scored 33 goals last season. But he did, and most of them were from that land of flying sticks and whirling bodies known as “in front of the net”. McPherson is, very quietly, one of the best old-fashioned power forwards in the league. And boy, is he good at being one. Watch him in front of the net-assists are only given if you touch the puck in a lead up to a goal, but if they were given for work off the puck too, then McPherson would lead the league. Watch him next time the Clan set up in the zone…

UNSUNG HERO: #37 RYAN CAMPBELL (C)

We like to give credit here at Chasing Dragons for players who do the little things to let everyone shine, and Campbell is one of them par excellence. A two-way center who wins faceoffs, plays responsibly at both ends of the ice and can be relied upon in any situations, Campbell will never lead a team in points but he’ll always be part of the glue that holds it together.

X FACTOR: CAN THEY CROSS THE BORDER?

The Clan will likely win more than they lose in the Northern Conference if the formbook goes to plan, but it’s against the Erhardt Conference where their title will be won and lost. If they can pick up points against the likes of Belfast, Nottingham, and Sheffield, the Clan will not only have an influence on who wins the Erhardt Conference but also strengthen their own title aspirations considerably.

DUNDEE STARS (coach, Jeff Hutchins)

I’ll be awful sometimes, weakened to my knees
But I’ll learn to get by, with little victories”

Matt Nathanson: “Little Victories”

Dundee are another team that have probably not been given enough credit in the “Braehead are going to win everything” talk of preseason. They’re a team that haven’t really recruited any stars. Jeff Hutchins appears to have followed Miracle’s Herb Brooks’ philosophy when recruiting the 1980 US Olympic team, of “I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones”.

And we all know how that turned out, don’t we?

Let’s get this straight. This will not be a team that’s pretty to watch. It won’t be a team that will leave the DIA crowd gasping at flashes of individual skill, sizzling blasts from the blue-line or coast to coast rushes. But, on many nights, it’ll get the job done. It’s a team built to win each little battle, in the hope of winning the war each night.

Nicola Riopel is an enigma in net-the Canadian has bounced between the AHL and ECHL but never solidified a spot as a starter-he’s eager to seize the responsibility in Dundee.

On defence, Pat Bowen appears to have a somewhat high opinion of himself, describing himself as “excellent at both ends of the ice”. His 20 points in the ECHL last season don’t really back that up, but Matt Baxter could be a useful player going forward and back. Doug Krantz and Greg Moore, too, look safe enough. But the major player to watch will be Sam McCluskey, a young Scot who’s now coming into his own after two seasons with Hull and the Stars. Euan Forsyth is another solid local who will eat up minutes and do the simple things well.

Up front, Bill Bagron is the creative centrepoint, along with fellow center Sami Ryhanen, around which the Stars offence will revolve. The Alaskan from Eagle River will likely play on the second line, with Finn Ryhanen (who impressed with his slick playmaking skills for the Nottingham Panthers and has extensive SM-Liiga experience) on the top line. Around them are a crop of workmanlike but not flashy forwards-Hutchins, captain AJ MacLean and Tristan Harper can all put the puck in the net if necessary, but the Stars still lack a genuine sniper, a hole they will no doubt look to fill since they still have two import slots remaining. But time is running out…

PLAYER TO WATCH: #21 SAMI RYHANEN (C):

The Finn is a very skilled player indeed. If he’s firing, then so will the players around him. Ryhanen is the kind of player who can see a killer pass even before the recipient can-as shown by his 27 assists in 29 games with Nottingham last year, and his point-per-game average in the same league. If the Stars can sign a genuine goalscorer, expect how that player links with Ryhanen to be crucial in how the Stars season goes.

UNSUNG HERO: #15 AJ MACLEAN (LW):

The Stars captain epitomises the team philosophy. He isn’t particularly skilled, particularly big or particularly good at putting the puck in the net-he just works very, very hard indeed and does the job he has to do at that particular moment in time, whether it be checking, scoring, penalty killing or working the powerplay. The Nova Scotian is a fine leader, too, and will be key in coaxing the team through those long winter nights in Belfast or Sheffield.

X FACTOR: BISCUITS IN BASKETS

The Stars, at the moment, don’t look like a team that can score at will. They will score, don’t get me wrong, but they lack a genuine matchwinning goalscorer who will conjure a goal out of nothing. And that is something they’ll need, particularly in a Gardiner Conference that’s looking tighter than a duck’s backside. Get that, and they’ll start to look a lot more interesting, both on the ice and in the points race.

EDINBURGH CAPITALS (coach: Richard Hartmann)

“We really need to see this through,
we never wanted to be abused
We’ll never give up, it’s no use,
if we’re fucked up you’re to blame

Blink 182: “Anthem Part Two”

Poor Edinburgh. They’ve had yet another offseason where all the star players have ended up elsewhere, signing news has been few and far between, and even now their roster isn’t complete, three days before the season starts, with many people picking them to have another painful season down in the basement of the league. Small crowds, small mercies, and fighting against a mix of seeming disinterest, budget poverty, and having to compete with arena teams driving up wage costs again and again are all the kinds of things Richard Hartmann knows well from last season. The Caps are a team who know what it’s like to be forced into the underdog role by the power spenders down south. But despite that, he’s built a roster that contains several major flashes of hope for Scotland’s capital. A roster that will come out fighting tooth and nail when everyone else expects them to simply lay down and die, just like the Scottish tribes of old.

For a start, it’s a roster unlike any other in its mainly Eastern European look-in fact, of the foreign players only one (Jade Portwood) is North American. Second, Hartmann himself is no mean player even at the age of 36, able to play both forward and defence well. And thirdly, the Caps have pulled off a major coup in tempting Rene Jarolin to return. The Slovak was a revelation last season, scoring 43 goals and singlehandedly giving the Caps fans something worth watching on some nights. Latvian Marcis Zembergs returns and is quietly making progress once again on the Caps second line, while Hartmann has pulled off recruiting magic in convincing D Michal Dobron and goalie Tomas Hiadlovsky to join the Caps from the Slovak league-Dobron in particular has a VERY impressive CV with many years in the Czech Elite League, one of the top leagues in the world. Then, of course, there’s the homecoming of Martin Cingel to Edinburgh after a season away and the recruitment of several useful young local Brits which mean that the Caps have, once again, made the very best use of a VERY limited budget-and they still have two more imports to sign. Don’t bet against Hartmann finding some more Eastern Promise…

PLAYER TO WATCH: #36 JADE PORTWOOD (RW)

At 6’3 and 205lbs, the sole Canadian on the Caps roster is another unheralded bit of business by Hartmann, coming straight out of college in the NCAA after captaining the University of Alaska-Anchorage last season. His stats don’t look that impressive based purely on numbers, but the level of play in the NCAA is very high indeed, and Portwood will have no trouble adjusting to the British game with his size and hard work. Remember what I said about Braehead’s Brock McPherson earlier on? Portwood could just be this season’s version…an unheralded player signed from college who goes out and surprises everyone.

UNSUNG HERO: #29 MARTIN CINGEL (LW)

It couldn’t be anyone else for the Caps. The native of Povaszka Bystrika is one of my favourite players in the EIHL, and a genuine Edinburgh legend. Now aged 36, he’s spent 10 of his 15 pro seasons with the Capitals, and is almost viewed as a god amongst their fans. Joining the team first in 2001/2, he captained the Caps for five seasons from 2006, holding on through money problems after arguments after boardroom upheavals while quietly and proudly leading the team, before finally leaving for Manchester in the EPL last season. One season later, he’s back. Never one of the leading scorers (although he has a decent eye for goal, scoring an average of around 40 points a season), Cingel is a true professional who’s one of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen and deserves to be called not just an Edinburgh legend, but a legend of British hockey. As he enters his testimonial season in Edinburgh, the respect held for him around the league can only grow.

X-FACTOR: HOW GOOD IS HIADLOVSKY?

Because he’ll need to be. With the best will in the world, the Caps may struggle some nights against the offensive powerhouses, and so it’s those games where their goalie will have to come to the fore. If he’s good, then the Caps will always have a chance of causing an upset due to their organised and hard-working system. If not, it could be a long season at Murrayfield once again.

FIFE FLYERS (coach, Todd Dutiaume)

“When you can’t go on, you got to get up and try.
This is it, can you feel me?
When the bombs come down, you will make it alive,
But only if you want to believe.”

Angels And Airwaves: “Call To Arms”

Last year was a nightmare year for the Fife Flyers. A tough introduction to Elite League hockey meant that the wave of excitement of Fife’s return to the top level in Britain faded a little. Roster turnover, injuries to key players and money questions (from other teams’ fans if not from Fife themselves) dogged them throughout the season.

As if that wasn’t enough, coach Todd Dutiaume had to deal with the tragic death of his wife Kelly, and unborn children-an event that not even the worst enemy of the Canadian would wish upon him. The quiet dignity with which Dutiaume and the team handled an almost unbearable burden and the bonding of the team around their coach (epitomised by Garrett Zemlak’s selling of kit to raise money for Todd and his daughter) showed the Flyers at their best. They kept going through some of the darkest days ever seen at the Kirkcaldy Arena, and have rebuilt for this season stronger and more battle-hardened under coaches Dutiaume and Danny Stewart.

In net, Bryan Pitton joins from South Carolina of the ECHL, backed up by arguably the best in the league in Blair Daly.

In front of him, the Flyers have built a smallish but mobile defence, with Canadian speed and guile backed up by Scottish brawn. Chris Wands and Tom Muir return from last season, while Kyle Horne, that stalwart of Scottish hockey, pulls on a Fife jersey for what seems like the umpteenth time-this will be his 17th season in pro British hockey despite being only 31-he made his debut for the Flyers in the BNL at 15. The import contigent consists of Zach Carriveau, Jeff Caister and Derek Keller…all in their 20’s and all not the biggest-expect Caister to be the main source of offence with Carriveau backing him up.

Up front the Flyers have made something of a coup in signing John Dolan from Dundee-Dolan has been tempted away from his hometown club for the first time in his career after scoring 46 points last season. He joins a host of young Scottish forwards in the Brit pack, the most prominent of which is Steven Gunn, who got 12 goals but only three assists last season. Import-wise the Flyers have Casey Haines and Kris Hogg, who both look useful, the evergreen Dutiaume (who at 39 is probably in his last season) and Danny Stewart, now in his seventh UK season after four with Coventry, one with Newcastle and one with Fife.

However, one name stands out above them all…

PLAYER TO WATCH: #71 JASON PITTON (LW)

Pitton (brother of goalie Bryan) is a big forward with skilled hands. A former NY Islanders draft pick, he’s spent a career bouncing between the AHL and ECHL before moving to Italy last season. He wasn’t a big scorer in the ECHL, but showed enough to convince me that he’ll trouble EIHL defences-his skill and hockey brain, coupled with his 6’2, 194lb frame, should mean that he’s always a danger around the net and more than able to handle himself in the physical stuff, too.

UNSUNG HERO: #39 DANNY STEWART (LW)

“Stewie” is the heart and soul of any team he’s played on. He doesn’t try to do it intentionally-it just happens. The man from Fort McMurray is the very prototype of an agitator, flying around the ice nipping at people’s heels and making a nuisance of himself. He’ll block shots, score goals, or drop the gloves if it’ll give his team an advantage, and very few players will outwork him.

X FACTOR: SIZE DOES MATTER?

The Flyers aren’t that big a team defensively-the Scottish boys are a decent size (around 6’1 190lbs on average) but the imports are small (Zach Carriveau, for instance, is 5’11 but only 172lbs, which is lightweight for a dman). With a lot of teams loading up on decent-sized physical forwards this year, can the Flyers hold a physical onslaught on Pitton’s goal back with speed and smarts? We’ll see.

HULL STINGRAYS

“There’s a chance I’ll start to wonder
If this was the thing to do
I’ll start to wonder
If this was the thing to do”

Tegan & Sara: “Call It Off”

Sorry, Hull fans, but I think we’re looking at a team that’ll be dogfighting all year to avoid last place here. Sylvain Cloutier has put together a typically workmanlike Hull roster this season. The big news we get right off the bat, as young British prodigy Ben Bowns is given the Elite League starting role many have been calling for him to get-but with the defence placed in front of him, Bowns could well find himself thrown in at the deep end.

Kurtis Dulle returns as captain, while Shane Lovdahl comes in from the CHL to add a little size, but the other defencemen are Tomas Valecko (signed from the Edinburgh Capitals) and ex-Coventry Blaze dman (briefly, at least) Jeff Smith, along with Ryan Hand as the enforcer-type dman and young local Scott Robson as the sixth dman.

Ouch. That’s neither the most mobile nor the most prolific defensive top five we’ve ever seen, with the exception of Dulle. It’s certainly not the kind of D most coaches would stick an untried 21-year-old starter behind for his first full season.

Up front, things don’t get much better. Jereme Tendler can be prolific given the right linemates, Dominic Osman and Jason Silverthorn, too are useful scorers and it’ll be interesting to see how Janis Ozolins’ scoring exploits at EPL level translate to a higher level…but behind that, there’s not much to get excited about. Cale Tanaka looks a spectacularly underwhelming signing, Matty Davies is workmanlike but will never set the scoring tables alight and the others are Hull youngsters of which it’d be unfair to assume too much.

Sylvain Cloutier is a good coach, but to get more than a last place finish out of this bunch, he’ll have to do something special or hope that they can shut teams down, because I’m not sure where the goals are coming from.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #33 BEN BOWNS (NM)

The young Brit star finally gets his chance to start at Elite level after impressing in the EPL for the past few seasons. And boy, is he getting thrown in at the deep end. This is a team that looks like it’ll give up a fair few shots, so Bowns should see plenty of practice. He’ll have to stop a fair number of the shots, too, because goals look like they could be tricky to come by at times this season for the Stingrays. Can he hold up under the pressure?

UNSUNG HERO: #21 JASON SILVERTHORN (LW)

The Canadian from Owen Sound, Ontario has been a good servant to the Stingrays over the past few seasons, consistently being among their top scorers and performing in all situations due to his hockey sense, nose for the net and quick skating. He’ll be expected to do that again this season-and will set himself to the task with a will.

X FACTOR: COACHING GENIUS REQUIRED

Doubtless Sylvain Cloutier has an idea how he wants this roster to play. He’d better after PS losses to the Steeldogs in their first game caused a few tremors of disquiet to run through the fanbase already. In fact, if the Stingrays are to avoid seeing Ben Bowns shelled every night and being rooted to the foot of the Gardiner conference, then Cloutier had better have a master plan lined up already, otherwise it could be a long year for the Stingrays indeed.

There you go. 3700 words later, the Gardiner Conference is previewed, just in time for the start of the new season. Puck drop time. 🙂

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One thought on “Elite League Preview 2012/13: The Gardiner Conference

  1. Don’t know where you got your information that the Flyers had money worries last season.
    Flyers have never had money worries, we have a budget that we srick and will not break and will never do the speculate to accumulate ethos of some of the teams in the Erhardt Conference.
    From the weekend both Carriveau and Keller will be offensive D men for Fife and will do really well in the Gardiner Conference where the ice is bigger and teams haven’t gone for the bigger players that you suggest.
    Good piece though, it is always difficult to do pieces on teams you haven’t seen play especially as they will have a different game plan on the smaller surfaces such as Coventry compared to the larger surfaces such as Fife

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