Ten Teams Ten Days Day 7: Belfast Giants

Ten Teams, Ten Days is a series looking in depth at each of the EIHL teams in the leadup to the EIHL season, although it’s been thrown off its original schedule as we wait for the final teams to complete their rosters. Yesterday, the Belfast Giants completed theirs, and so today they become team number 7.

“I tremble
They’re gonna eat me alive
If I stumble
They’re gonna eat me alive…”

Metric: “Help, I’m Alive

OVERVIEW

It’s been an offseason of both change and continuity in Northern Ireland. The offseason started in the worst possible way for the Giants, with the loss of their coach Doug Christiansen after he got the team to the playoff final in 2012/13-before the groans of disappointment at their final loss had died Christiansen was poached by Sheffield, and the Giants New Era had begun, whether the fans wanted it to or not. Paul Adey was brought back into the EIHL to be the Giants’ new coach ten years after he last led an EIHL team (in Nottingham) and the Giants began to rebuild once again. And rebuild they have-Paul Adey recruiting a whole host of names familiar to Giants fans and several strong newbies in a workmanlike roster built seemingly on an ethos of steady, two way hockey-amongst them one of the strongest defences in the EIHL-one that rivals Sheffield in the strength of it as a unit. But is this really a Giants New Era, or will the return of a lot of old faces from the Giants past mean the same results? Let’s take a look at the squad:

NETMINDERS

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson

The Giants have the GB number one in net in the experienced Stephen Murphy, who despite seemingly being around for ever is in fact only 31-he was starting for Fife at 19 in the BNL and has been amongst the top British goalies ever since, spending time in Sweden and Norway as well as several EIHL clubs-this is his fifth season as the Giants starter, with his best season being 2011/12 (59 starts, 92.3% SV, 1.90 GAA). By any estimation Murphy is currently the best British goalie in the EIHL and better than many imports, and will be a strong foundation to build upon. Ballymoney boy Andrew Dickson will once again take on backup duties and look to take his chance to continue improving when he can.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #6 Robby Sandrock, #13 Davey Phillips, #24 Calvin Elfring, #25 Cody Brookwell, #62 Kevin Phillips

This is a strong defensive unit, with Hull’s finest the Phillips brothers providing two of the better British d-men in the game to back up the returning Jeff Mason and Robby Sandrock, who are joined by two Canadians at the opposite ends of the age scale in Cody Brookwell and veteran Calvin Elfring. The 37-year-old Elfring is an intriguing signing who joins after a 20-year career spent mainly in the German leagues, nine of them with Straubing Tigers in first the Bundesliga and then the DEL proper. He is a wily old head of an two-way defenceman who will be expected to provide secondary offence but particularly use his equal experience in his own end to be the defensive linchpin and one of the leaders of the squad. Speaking of wily old offensive defencemen, they don’t come much better than Robby Sandrock-the 35-year-old is another who’s played around the top leagues in Europe in between stints at the ISL Giants and his return to the UK last season-and the Williams Lake, BC native showed just how dangerous he could be, his fearsome shot netting him 16 goals from the blueline and his passing meaning he was a massively key part of the Giants powerplay. He’s joined in this by American Jeff Mason, one of only two US-born players on the Giants, who is another lethal blueline threat-in his last full season with the Giants he got a staggering 21 goals from the blue and added 44 assists. Although his scoring was considerably down last season with only 6+16 in 38 games, he’s still one of the top offensive d-men in the EIHL. Cody Brookwell is a big solid player who, like Elfring, will provide the foundation for Mason and Sandrock to build on, while the Phillips brothers David and Kevin will also hold the fort at the back, David in particular going forward whenever he can. This is a well-balanced, solid group to rival the best in the league.

FORWARDS

#7 Mark Garside, #9 Evan Cheverie, #10 Chris Higgins, #11 Dustin Whitecotton, #12 Jeff Szwez, #19 Colin Shields, #22 Kevin Saurette, #32 Robbie Brown, #39 Gareth Roberts, #47 Adam Keefe, #72 Daryl Lloyd

Paul Adey has built a group based seemingly more on collective scoring and sensible two-way play in the main, though the acquisition of Jeff Szwez as his last signing is a big one-Szwez scored 42 goals in his last visit to the EIHL and, while the league standard as a whole has improved since then, he’ll still be good for at least 30 if everything goes as planned. There are goals through the lines from the likes of Cheverie, Szwez and Saurette, solid two-way play and more goals possible from Dustin Whitecotton and Chris Higgins, creative skills from Cheverie, Colin Shields and Whitecotton again, and arguably the best agitating/penalty-killing/shutdown pair in the EIHL in talismanic captain Adam Keefe and his partner in crime Daryl Lloyd. This is a nicely balanced forward group, but Giants fans will fear that if Cheverie, Szwez and Saurette are shut down or hit a slump none of the other forwards with the exception of Shields are out-and-out goalscorers. Mark Garside is a very effective player and has formed a formidable shutdown/energy line with Keefe and Lloyd in recent years, and the Giants will rely on them and the experience of the rest of their forward group to stifle the opposition. Other teams may have more scorers grouped in the higher reaches of the league, but few will run a more balanced three-line group than Belfast. And in Keefe and Lloyd, few forward groups have more ability to get under the opposition’s skin than the Giants do…Keefe is always willing to lead the charge when it comes to pugilism being required, too. Gareth Roberts and Robbie Brown will step in where needed as depth forwards. This is a lunch-pail group who will go to work every single night and give their squad a chance to win.

COACH: PAUL ADEY

The Canadian-born Adey is a man who’s represented Great Britain with distinction as a player and is a legend in Nottingham as a player and also, to a lesser degree, as a coach. He’s also the most experienced man behind the bench in the EIHL, having been a head coach for 13 years, mainly in Britain, Italy and Switzerland. He’s a student of the game who will know the task facing the Giants in a very tough Erhardt Conference, and also a man whose teams in recent years are characterised by scoring by committee rather than relying on one or two massively prolific players, an approach he’s taken in building the Giants this season. There can be no doubting his experience or knowledge of the European game-but can he bring it to bear for the Giants?

PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS

Jeff Szwez-Dustin Whitecotton-Kevin Saurette

Chris Higgins-Evan Cheverie-Colin Shields

Mark Garside-Daryl Lloyd-Adam Keefe

Gareth Roberts

Robbie Brown

PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE

Robby Sandrock-Cody Brookwell

Jeff Mason-Calvin Elfring

Davey Phillips-Kevin Phillips

NETMINDERS: Stephen Murphy/Andrew Dickson

PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 JEFF SZWEZ

The final piece of the Giants jigsaw this season is also the most important. The 32-year-old Ontarian from the Toronto-area town of Etobicoke was ridiculously prolific in his last visit to the EIHL, scoring over a point a game including 42 goals in 50 games. A few years have passed since then, though, and Paul Adey is counting upon the 6’3, 212lb power forward to be similarly deadly in front of the net this time round. As one of the great hopes of the Giants offence and with previous scoring exploits still fresh in Giants’ fans minds, they’ll be looking to him to see if he can repeat them. So will the rest of the EIHL.

SUMMARY

This is a Giants squad that, despite the trumpeting of “#giantsnewera” by the team still contains more than a hint of Doug Christiansen about it-it’s an evolution rather than a revolution. Paul Adey has brought in some new players with impressive pedigrees (both Elfring and Whitecotton, for example, are long-time DEL players) and also the most experienced (with an average age of 29.58 yrs only the Fife Flyers are older, though they still have three players at least to sign so will likely drop below the Giants). However, it’s genuinely hard to measure this team in comparison to the rest of the EIHL-while others appear to have got markedly better over the offseason and often looked for a major restructuring with new faces, Paul Adey has in the main elected to stick with what he knows.

To this end, the Giants squad appears to be built with the aim of stifling other teams first and foremost, then using the wiles of their experienced forwards and possession dominance (Whitecotton is very good in the faceoff circle, as are Cheverie and Lloyd) to take advantage while the best third line in the EIHL throttles the life out of the opposition’s top line. It’s a team seemingly built with a brief of quietly easing the squad and fans into a new era rather than going all out or promising too much from the off. However, as the lyrics at the beginning of this article hint, it’s an approach that could potentially go very wrong-if the Giants don’t get scoring from more than just their “top” line, the system breaks down, or more than one or two key players go off form at the same time, then they may struggle in the run-and-gun Erhardt Conference-in fact, there is a chance they could slide dramatically.

If Szwez and his fellow forwards can find the net on a reasonably prolific basis, then there’s no question the Giants will be around the top half of the table once again-they’re well built defensively and have two of the star defensive forwards in the EIHL in Keefe and Lloyd. However, if they can’t, then problems could ensue.

This Giants squad is finely balanced, and one slip could be costly, particularly against an Erhardt Conference opponent. This Giants squad, good as it is, can’t afford to make too many of them.

Ten Teams, Ten Days 6: Sheffield Steelers

There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you”

The Eagles: “New Kid In Town”

OVERVIEW

This is the season of put up or shut up for the Sheffield Steelers. All off-season we’ve heard the rhetoric from owner Tony Smith about the “big budget” the team have, and Doug Christiansen has arrived from Belfast determined not to repeat the recent problems of the Ryan Finnerty era. No team, except perhaps Nottingham (and even that’s pushing it), has been more vocal in stating their ambitions to sweep the EIHL before them this year.

But as the saying goes “don’t let your mouth write checks your body can’t cash”. On September 7th the talking will have to stop, and the Steelers will have to prove that all their big talk and the optimism of their fans isn’t misplaced. And the rest of the EIHL will be eagerly watching in the hope they fall. So can they back it up? Let’s take a look.

NETMINDERS

#1 Frank Doyle, #40 Geoff Woolhouse

The capture of the 32-year old Doyle after he originally signed for Cardiff Devils was a source of great excitement in South Yorkshire as they celebrated nabbing the best goalie in the league…right up until the Devils signed Dan LaCosta. But Doyle will still be a force to be reckoned with in net-extensive experience in the AHL, DEL, and Italy plus a two year contract in Sheffield means opposition forwards will be seeing a lot of him this season, and he’s a very solid foundation for the team to build upon. Behind him Geoff Woolhouse continues to back up after swapping places with Dan Green a few seasons ago-and is solid enough in the short term when called upon…but don’t expect to see him starting games unless Doyle is a) injured or b) has a catastrophic loss of form.

DEFENCEMEN

#2 Chad Langlais, #8 Gord Baldwin, #23 Danny Meyers, #26 Dustin Kohn, #44 Mark Thomas, #49 Drew Fata

Continuing the theme of building from the back, this is a defensive unit that’s arguably the strongest unit in the EIHL. It leans equally between being physically dominating, with Baldwin a physical force on the blueline, and skilled, with Christensen bringing Chad Langlais with him from Belfast after the American’s silky-smooth skating and magical hands proved a late-season revelation on the Giants blueline (much to Steelers’ Dave Simms’ discomfort after he questioned the American’s pedigree on signing). Danny Meyers is one of the best native British d-men, if not the best right now, while Mark Thomas is solid. But perhaps the strongest pairing are Dustin Kohn, only two years removed from playing in the NHL with the NY Islanders, and the returning Drew Fata-both players who are equally capable in either end and with enough physical presence to play any game the opposition want to. This is an intimidating unit and if defence wins championships, Christiansen has clearly gone all out to make sure that on paper at least his has the best chance to do so.

FORWARDS

#10 Stefan Meyer, #11 Jeff Legue, #12 Maxime Lacroix, #13 Rylan Galiardi, #17 Jason Hewitt, #18 Steven Goertzen, #19 Aaron Nell, #20 Jonathan Phillips, #21 Tim Spencer, #75 Rob Dowd

No prizes for guessing which forward the Steelers are happiest to have captured this season-to listen to them talk for a lot of the offseason you’d have thought the rest of the roster was incidental to the return of Rob Dowd, claimed as Sheffield’s “Golden Child” despite being born a fair bit further north in Billingham. There can be no denying that Dowd is viewed as the jewel in the crown of British forwards by many, though personally I’m not sure whether he’s being hyped at the expense of equally good players like Matt Myers in Cardiff or Rob Lachowicz in Nottingham. Leaving Dowd’s undoubted talent (and serious wagepacket) aside for a moment, though, this is a strong group indeed. Stefan Meyer is a big, heavy battering ram of a power forward who will perfectly complement the quicksilver darts of Jeff Legue and Dowd, while Max Lacroix is an ideal 2nd-line centre and Steven Goertzen is quietly one of the most effective forwards in the EIHL. Nell, Phillips and Hewitt too make up a very powerful Brit forward pack, and somewhere in this group you also need to find room for Rylan Galiardi and team policeman/grinder Tim Spencer. In fact-there are only two problems Christiansen may have with this group-firstly finding enough icetime for everyone and secondly, this group is more left-wing-focused than a Stalinist rally. Goertzen is the only player listed as a natural right-winger, and with Max Lacroix already saying he is unhappy if played anywhere other than centre and Rob Dowd and Jeff Legue both fighting for the top-line centre spot, we could see a case of this group being too rich for someone’s blood. Alternatively, with the amount of competition for ice-time forwards will be under pressure to be perform-slump and there’s always someone else to take your spot. Christiansen has, whether intentionally or not, created a truly Darwinian atmosphere amongst his forward group, where only the fittest will survive.

COACH: Doug Christiansen

The American’s EIHL coaching abilities are unquestioned. He’s been successful in extracting the most from a meagre budget in Edinburgh and consistently building a competitor in Belfast-but has probably not faced a pressure-cooker quite like the Steelers job. If his team struggles, there’ll be no honeymoon period either from owner Tony Smith or the equally demanding Steelers fanbase. This squad has to win, or it’ll be Christiansen’s backside on the hotseat sooner rather than later. His utilitarian coaching style also divided crowds in Belfast-with a Sheffield crowd that loves to be entertained, how will they take to him if all the promise doesn’t materialise?

PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS

Stefan Meyer-Jeff Legue-Aaron Nell

Rob Dowd-Max Lacroix-Steven Goertzen

Jonathan Phillips-Jason Hewitt-Rylan Galiardi

Tim Spencer

PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE

Dustin Kohn-Drew Fata

Chad Langlais-Danny Meyers

Gord Baldwin-Mark Thomas

NETMINDERS: Frank Doyle/Geoff Woolhouse

PLAYER TO WATCH: #10 STEFAN MEYER

At 6’2 and 201lbs, Meyer is a physical handful who’s built like a brick outhouse. He likes to hit and loves to get his nose dirty in front of the net, which makes him an ideal foil for the creative talent of Jeff Legue and the pure sniping of Aaron Nell. Nell is returning to the EIHL after a ridiculously prolific spell back down in the EPL, but he and to a lesser degree Rob Dowd both need someone to feed them the puck-Jeff Legue is that man. Meyer will be the perfect man to park himself in front of the net, take the punishment and feed off the scraps generated from these players working the perimeter and the slot-expect him to play a key if slightly unglamorous role both even strength and on the powerplay for the Steelers, and pot more than a few goals himself as a result.

SUMMARY

As I said in the opening, this is put-up-or-shut-up time for Doug Christiansen and his team. All summer we’ve heard about how the Steelers will be the team to beat and that they’re building a roster to sweep away Nottingham and ensure that the struggles under Ryan Finnerty will very quickly become a distant memory. Doug Christiansen has recruited like a kid in the candy shop, plucking choice morsels from North America and Europe and giving himself the luxury of leaving a grinding forward import or a very good British player as the tenth forward-we’ve seen the luxury of Tony Smith’s spending power and links with Sheffield universities squeezed until the pips squeak as Christiansen has built a roster which on paper looks like the best in the league.

Trouble is, EIHL games are played on ice.

There can be no denying that in their recruitment and offseason bluster the Steelers have made a lot of extravagant promises on paper both to their fans and the rest of the EIHL about how good they’ll be this season. And in their recruitment at least, they appear to have been as good as their word.

But pride comes before a fall. Now, the Steelers have to keep them on the ice against nine other teams just waiting to see if the seeming Steel colossus has feet of clay. And one thing’s for sure-this team is a very good one indeed, but it won’t be easy for them.

Buckle up, Sheffield. Now the real work begins.

Ten Teams, Ten Days 5: Coventry Blaze

Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. Today, at the halfway point, the Coventry Blaze come under the microscope.

Celebrate in all the things you say
The part where everything is safe or explodes
And we’ll call it a change of days”

Smith’s Cloud: “A Change Of Days”

OVERVIEW

This season is a new era for the Coventry Blaze. The first season in nearly 15 years without Paul Thompson behind the bench. A new approach and an urge to lay the ghosts of several seasons of underachievement and disappointment. This, more than any other “new start” promised by the Blaze over the past few seasons is an ideal chance to break with the past and forge on into a new future as the Matty Soderstrom Era begins. But have they-or will the spectres of past successes (and failures) put more pressure on Soderstrom this first season than he or any other coach deserves? Clearly, success will be key to avoid certain sections of the Blaze fanbase turning on their new coach early. Let’s take a look at the 2013/14 Blaze team:

NETMINDERS

#1 Mike Zacharias, #30 Adam Goss

Just like the coaching staff, the Blaze net will have a new man guarding it this season, as 28-year-old American Mike Zacharias replaces the departing Peter Hirsch. The Plymouth, Minnesota native joins with a solid if not spectacular resume, spending the last two seasons in France and another bouncing around the ECHL with three teams after four years as a starter with the MSU Mavericks in NCAA Div I. Questions have been asked over whether he can adjust to starting over twice as many games a season as he’s been used to the past few years, but this shouldn’t be much of a problem. On paper there are several goalies in the league with more impressive resumés than the Blaze starter, but as we know the game is played on ice and Blaze fans should expect him to be solid. Young local Adam Goss will continue to back up, but Blaze fans shouldn’t expect to see him in game action unless Zacharias suffers an injury.

DEFENCEMEN

#6 Mike Egener, #15 James Griffin, #28 Steven Chalmers, #33 Benn Olson, #44 Kenny Kallstrom, #51 Sean Erickson

The defence is the most stable part of the Blaze roster this season, with Kallstrom and Erickson the only new faces-a source of mild concern to some as the Blaze defence gave up the second-most shots of any team last season with Peter Hirsch facing 2172 pucks on net, 300 more than the next goalie (Ben Bowns of Hull) and over a thousand more than the best defensive unit (Belfast’s, who gave up a relatively paltry 1172. However, with James Griffin and Steven Chalmers having another year of development under their belts and a noticeably more defence-focused forward group Mike Zacharias and Adam Goss will hope to be called into action a lot less this season. Mike Egener will captain the squad from defence and his calm two-way play and physical presence will be a key influence on how the unit plays. Benn Olson will be expected to keep things simple and impose himself physically on the opposition forwards, but the key work will be done by the two new recruits Kallstrom and Erickson, as they’ll be expected to provide the offensive thrust from the blueline. Erickson has gaudy offensive stats from his time in the CHL but the real X-factor in this unit will be Kallstrom-the 23-year-old Swede has a good pedigree coming from the Allsvenskan and could be one of the hidden gems of the offseason signing spree. With coach Soderstrom being a former defenceman himself, you can expect this unit to be well-drilled and know their respective roles.

FORWARDS

#7 Matt Selby, #9 Brian McMillin, #10 Dale White, #14 Cale Tanaka, #17 Russ Cowley, #19 Michael Henrich, #21 Ashley Tait, #27 Kevin Harvey, #41 Ryan Ginand, #42 Adam Henrich, #59 Ross Venus

This is a forward group with some real potential in it-one that arguably looks better than the one the Blaze finished last season with despite the blow of losing Shea Guthrie. Adam Henrich’s re-signing was greeted with joy in Coventry after his late-season arrival and subsequent tearing up of opposition defences (he scored at a rate of near-as-makes-no-difference a goal a game after his arrival) provided one of the highlights of last season-this year he returns and brings his playmaking-centre brother Michael with him in a pairing which is sure to have opposition defenders readying themselves for a tough battle. Ryan Ginand is a pure run-and-gun forward who loves to shoot, and Brian McMillin, for my money, could be one of the signings of the season-the American was playoff MVP for the Allen Americans last season and will have the chance this season so showcase both his offensive skills and the two-way play he was signed for. Ashley Tait returns from Sheffield to provide some British scoring and experience-he’s 38 now but is still more than capable of playing at this level as his 50 points for the Steelers last season prove. Kevin Harvey will be one of the Marmite players of the league-loved by his own fans but hated by the rest of the EIHL for his hard-hitting agitating play, while Cale Tanaka will provide speed and hard work on the third line, likely alongside Russ Cowley and Ross Venus. Dale White & Matt Selby will compete for icetime and either rotate in and out of the third line or provide a fourth with a double-shifting import where necessary.
This is a forward group that has the potential to compete with the best in the EIHL if it clicks-Soderstrom has clearly signed each and every player with a role in mind and with an eye on defensive as well as offensive responsabilities. If they come together, they could give EIHL teams problems all season.

COACH: MATTY SODERSTROM

Soderstrom arguably has the most pressure on him of any EIHL coach this season. He’s replacing one of the most successful coaches in British hockey history in Paul Thompson, coming into a team desperate for success and looking to impose his own stamp upon it, while knowing that there’s a large section of the fanbase who see him as either keeping the seat warm as a glorified caretaker in Thommo’s shadow or who’ll be ready to turn on him instantly if the team struggle. Couple that with a fanbase desperate to see their team get back to success and it’s an unenviable position for a rookie coach to be in. But he knows the team, knows the league and will be working with his players from the off to get them playing his way-having spoken to Matty he’s quite clear that while Paul Thompson may have helped with finding the players, the team is set to his blueprint and only his. Ashley Tait and Mike Egener will be able lieutenants, experienced, respected by the players and Tait already having experience of the role in Sheffield. If Soderstrom can stand up to the pressure (and there’s no reason to think he can’t) then Paul Thompson’s exploits will be consigned to the history books where they should be. The Coventry Blaze are Matt Soderstrom’s team now.

PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS

Brian McMillin-Michael Henrich-Adam Henrich

Kevin Harvey-Ryan Ginand-Ashley Tait

Russ Cowley-Cale Tanaka-Ross Venus

Matt Selby, Dale White

PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE

Mike Egener-Sean Erickson

Kenny Kallstrom-Benn Olson

Steven Chalmers-James Griffin

NETMINDERS: Mike Zacharias/Adam Goss

PLAYER TO WATCH: #9 BRIAN MCMILLIN

There could have been any one of five or six players in this slot-Kevin Harvey looks like he could be very entertaining indeed, Ryan Ginand reportedly fires shots like a Gatling gun, and Kenny Kallstrom and Sean Erickson could be the key to the entire Blaze defence.  But I’ve picked McMillin as the player to watch-the Roseau, MN native was the CHL playoff MVP last season and is also more than capable in his own end. When he signed I theorized he could be the new Dan Carlson for the Blaze, and since then that opinion’s only grown stronger…he’s looking like one of the Blaze’s top defensive forwards and his scoring heroics when given a more offensive role by Allen last season show that he can find the net with regularity. I’ve pegged him on the top-line to do the hard work in the corners and allow the Henrichs to play their free-wheeling game and concentrate on playmaking and scoring-he’d also make an ideal 2nd line centre if Soderstrom decides to put Ryan Ginand or Kevin Harvey on top-line duty.

Either way, his versatility and ability to play at both ends of the ice will make him one of the Blaze’s key players this season.

SUMMARY

The rhetoric coming out of the Blaze camp is already optimistic, with several players saying that they expect this group of players to contend for a league title. Given that there are rosters with more illustrious pedigrees out there, that looks to be a bold statement at this point, especially with a rookie head coach. But the key thing this season is that the EIHL is so close-there are genuinely five or six teams who could all lay a claim to having a chance at the EIHL league title, and the Blaze are one of them. Whether they will do it depends heavily on Mike Zacharias having an excellent season in net and the team being tighter defensively than they were last season…however, Soderstrom has recruited well and seemingly with the express aim of addressing the Blaze’s problems from last season of secondary scoring and defensive strength.

The key thing for the Blaze will be taking points against their Erhardt Conference rivals, all of whom will make for very tough opposition. However, there’s a lot of reasons for optimism in this Blaze squad-perhaps Coventry needed some fresh blood both on the ice and behind the bench, and this season they’ve got both. While it would be a bold prediction indeed to anoint the Blaze as league champions, the players are right in saying silverware is definitely achievable.

After a few seasons’ slumber, the dragon might just be wakening again.

Ten Teams, Ten Days 4: Hull Stingrays

Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. Today, it’s off to Humberside and the Hull Stingrays.

“we hope that restrictions vanish and let your dreams come true…”

Red Lights Flash: “The Time The Lights Went Out”

OVERVIEW

The only way is up for the Stingrays. One year after their glorious victory against Sheffield to make the playoff weekend for their first appearance, the Stingrays battled hard and manfully, but despite Sylvain Cloutier’s best efforts, they finished bottom of the EIHL itself. However, it’s not all bad news on Humberside-they have a small but dedicated fanbase that’s slowly growing again as fans warm to the hardworking hockey Sylvain Cloutier’s teams play, and young British stars like Ben Bowns, Matty Davies and Bobby Chamberlain are flourishing with responsibilities they simply wouldn’t be given at the so-called “big clubs”. So what’s in store for the team this season?

NETMINDERS

#33 Ben Bowns, #30 Greg Blais, #31 Liam Jackson

Like the Belfast Giants, the Stingrays opt to go with a British starting netminder in Sheffield product Ben Bowns, who is the heir apparent to the starting job for Great Britain and arguably one of the jewels in the British hockey crown already. The 22-year-old from Rotherham deservedly got his chance in the EIHL last season after three seasons as an EPL starter, and seized it with both hands, recording a 90.5% save percentage in 54 games despite only two goalies in the EIHL (Coventry’s Peter Hirsch and Dundee’s Nic Riopel) facing more shots. This year, with a full EIHL season under his belt, he can be expected to get better still. Behind him, Greg Blais will be available to pass on his knowledge and experience as goalie coach and provide injury cover, with local youngster Liam Jackson also available to back up and allow the Stingrays to make full use of the extra import outskater a British goalie will provide them.

DEFENCE

#4 Jeff Smith, #5 Matt Suderman, #6 Martin Ondrej, , #11 Scott Robson, #21 Jamie Chilcott, , #22 Tom Ralph, #55 Omar Pacha, #77 Chad Huttel

The Stingrays defence this season is stronger than last, with Cloutier ranging far and wide in an attempt to get the best possible quality for the cheapest possible price. Individually, none of the names jump out at you as genuine stars, with the unit being a mixture of current Stingrays (Martin Ondrej, Jeff Smith), local youngsters (Sam Robson, Tom Ralph), former EIHLers returning from a year away (Matt Suderman, Chad Huttel) and left-field talented players plucked from semi-obscurity abroad (Jamie Chilcott, Omar Pacha). Chad Huttel and Matt Suderman in particular are very astute signings indeed-both proven EIHLers who will have flown below the rivals of many EIHL squads. Martin Ondrej and Jeff Smith are useful enough in what they do, though they’ll never tear up the offensive charts, and the Hull youngsters can expect to be used as cover where necessary and continue developing. However, the really intriguing pair are Pacha and Chilcott, two players who are unknown to the rest of the EIHL but who look to have useful offensive ability and may well be counted upon to provide the thrust forward from the blueline-Chilcott in particular has potential to be a breakout star similar to Stevie Lee in Hull a few years ago. Pacha scored a point a game in France last season from the blue-line, and will likely counted upon to be the major offensive threat. This is a unit that will have to be much greater than the sum of its parts for Hull to be successful, but it has a chance of doing so.

FORWARDS

#10 Tom Squires, #12 Guillaume Doucet, #16 Sam Towner, #18 Sean Muncy, #21 Jason Silverthorn, #26 Matty Davies, #27 Jereme Tendler, #37 Derek Campbell, #83 Sylvain Cloutier, #90 Bobby Chamberlain, #91 Lee Bonner.

The star of the Stingrays forward group is of course Jereme Tendler-the Viceroy, Saskatchewan native has scored at an average of 70 points and 43 goals a season in his time in the EIHL, and he’ll once again be expected to take the weight of the Stingrays attack on his shoulders. However, this time round he has some very useful looking help indeed, not least in the shape of French Canadian Guillaume Doucet, who scored at nearly a point a game in the QMJHL during his junior career, and matched that rate in France the past few seasons. Jason Silverthorn may not be as quick as he used to be but he too still has a deft touch in front of net in what will likely be the Stingrays’ main attacking line. Behind him, Derek Campbell will return to provide goals and grit alongside new arrival Sean Muncy-but the player to watch here is Matty Davies-the 23-year-old local boy is quietly becoming one of the premier British forwards in the league and scored 48 points last year including 39 assists and yet was somehow still left out of the GB squad to the surprise of many-expect the little playmaking centre to have another excellent year this season. The third like will see Cloutier lead the agitator par-excellence Bobby Chamberlain and skilled forward Tom Squires to provide three balanced lines. Sam Towner will be the tenth forward as he continues his development while 16-year-old Lee Bonner will likely spend the majority of the season in the NIHL while training with the EIHL squad.

This is a better, more balanced forward group than the Stingrays had last season-if Muncy or Doucet can replace the scoring of Dominic Osman, Matty Davies can continue his rise to the top and the local youngsters can keep improving then it could be a season of promise for the Stingrays.

COACH: Sylvain Cloutier

Cloutier is a vastly experienced player who builds his teams in his own image-not flashy, but gritty and hard working. Now into his fourth season as Stingrays coach he’s become adept at using the meagre budget of the Stingrays as well as possible, and he’s happy to embrace the “underdog” mentality imposed upon the Stingrays by the rest of the EIHL. This will be another hard-working year for the man from Mont-Laurier as he looks to drag his team back up from the basement.

PROSPECTIVE LINES-FORWARDS

Jason Silverthorn-Jereme Tendler-Guillaume Doucet

Sean Muncy-Matty Davies-Derek Campbell

Bobby Chamberlain-Sylvain Cloutier-Tom Squires

Sam Towner

Lee Bonner

PROSPECTIVE LINES-DEFENCE

Matt Suderman-Omar Pacha

Chad Huttel-Martin Ondrej

Jamie Chilcott-Jeff Smith

Scott Robson-Tom Ralph

NETMINDERS: Ben Bowns/Greg Blais (Liam Jackson)

PLAYER TO WATCH: #26 MATTY DAVIES

We’ve already mentioned the little Brit several times in this profile…but he’s a player that really deserves far more recognition than he gets from the rest of the EIHL and indeed the GB setup. Quick and skilled and playing with a physicality that often belies his small stature, Davies is one of the keys to a successful Hull squad and will be one of their main offensive drivers this season, even if he doesn’t put the puck in the net himself as often as he’d perhaps like.

SUMMARY

Let’s be honest-nobody is picking the Stingrays to challenge for the league title. The gap in resources between those Cloutier has to work with and the likes of those enjoyed by Doug Christiansen or Corey Neilson is huge. However, the aim for the Stingrays this season isn’t as high as that-it’s simply to get off the basement of the table and make the playoffs. The Stingrays have improved, but so has the rest of the Gardiner conference and like every year it will be a battle for the Humbersiders. But the key this season is that Jereme Tendler has some strong help around him in scoring on all three lines. If the Stingrays defence can play well as a unit and Ben Bowns continues to improve at the rate he has, the playoffs are a more than realistic target. Certainly, the Stingrays will be outworked by few teams this season as they strive to defy the odds.

Ten Teams, Ten Days 3: Cardiff Devils

Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. Today we head for the valleys and take a look at the Cardiff Devils.

I have reason to believe, that I have victories to taste…”

Dashboard Confessional: “Reason To Believe”.

OVERVIEW

The Cardiff Devils have one of the proudest records in the EIHL-they’ve never failed to reach the Final Four of the playoffs in ten years of the EIHL era, losing in the final in three out of the last four, and never finished outside of the top five-an impressive achievement indeed for a team that’s seen more of its fair share of turmoil throughout its EIHL life. Last season they once again finished fifth, but with Edinburgh only two points behind them the gap was close enough to give the Devils a few sleepless nights near the end of the season. Gerad Adams and Neil Francis are widely viewed as among the best coaching teams/recruiters in the EIHL, and the Red Army are fiercely proud both of their team and their status defending the ice-hockey honour of Wales. So all the ingredients for the Devils to once again have another good season are there off the ice-let’s take a look at them on it.

NETMINDERS

#30 Dan LaCosta, #15 Joseph Myers

After the signing and then loss of Frank Doyle to Sheffield, who was arguably the best netminder recruited this season, many wondered if Gerad Adams could match that recruitment coup. He not only did that, he surpassed it. Former Columbus Blue Jacket Dan LaCosta has the potential to be the best netminder in the EIHL this season by some distance, posting a save average of over 95% in his four NHL games and hitting the prime of his career at 27 as he comes to Cardiff. Goalies this good simply don’t play in Britain normally in their primes…but LaCosta’s unique circumstances (he spent a season away from hockey in 2010/11 before playing in the Canadian University system the past two seasons, otherwise he could well still be an AHL starter or even NHL backup) meant that Adams was able to snap him up in a deal that means missing out on Frank Doyle may be the best thing that happens to the Devils this season. Behind him, local product Joe Myers once again assumes backup duties.

DEFENCE

#5 Mark Smith, #17 Mark Richardson, #20 Brad Plumton, #22 Tyson Marsh, #41 Josh Batch, #42 Adam Ross

Some teams like their defence to contain an abundance of flashy skaters and offensive skills. Others like their D to be a hard-hitting group that will punish opposition forwards who have the temerity to enter their zone. The Devils unit is definitely of the second type. In Adam Ross, Josh Batch, Tyson Marsh and Mark Smith Adams has four d-men who love to impose themselves physically on opposition forwards, Marsh is also an asset going forward as a big body and big blue-line shot on the powerplay. Mark Richardson is arguably Great Britain’s top offensive defenceman after taking the crown from the aging Jonathan Weaver over the past few seasons, and Brad Plumton can play both ways and will be a solid secondary blue-line offensive threat, while Batch continues to develop into one of GB’s brightest young stars. This is a unit perfectly built for the friendly confines of the Big Blue Tent while also able to perform on the bigger ice, and will provide Dan LaCosta with a solid unit in front of him all season.

FORWARDS

#2 Rupert Quiney, #4 Adam Harding, #6 Ben Davies, #8 Matthew Myers, #11 Mac Faulkner, #16 Chris Jones, #21 Luke Piggott, #23 Max Birbraer, #25 Phil Hill, #55 Gerad Adams, #61 Chris Blight, #71 Andrew Lord, #88 Andrew Conboy.

When you look at the Devils forward lines the two words that jump out immediately are “depth” and “physicality”. The Devils can easily roll four lines of forwards if required, and with the majority of British players locally-born it’s a clear testament to the strength of the Cardiff junior system. However, starting at the top the import star of the group is undoubtedly Mac Faulkner. The King City, Ontario native is one of the most dynamic forwards in the league, scoring at a clip of 1.5 points a game (including 35 goals) despite having last season interrupted by injury-indeed, he was joint-third EIHL goalscorer last season despite playing twelve games less than his rival David Ling. Faulkner is a genuine game-winner, along with his less-heralded but equally good partner in crime Chris Blight. The other massive signing for the Devils this offseason is Matt Myers, who is amongst the best two-way players in the league and gives the Devils an enviable one-two punch at centre with Ben Davies another local product whose stock is rising and becoming more and more skilled each season behind them.

Speaking of punching, the Devils have more than a few forwards who are unafraid of the physical stuff. Gerard Adams, Andrew Conboy, Max Birbraer and Andrew Lord will all ensure defencemen never get a moment’s peace in their own zone with Birbraer in particular more than capable of finishing off an attack too-Conboy too is a very good power forward/agitator.

The depth keeps coming, too…the Devils arguably have the best Brit pack in the league with Phil Hill likely to take 2nd line wing duties and the energetic Adam Harding and Luke Piggott ensuring that the opposition will never get a moment’s rest. Chris Jones and Rupert Quiney will step in as injury cover or to spell the others for a shift or two or to form a fourth line where required. One thing Adams and Neil Francis can’t complain about is the options they have at forward-the competition for icetime will be truly intense.

COACH: Gerad Adams (with Neil Francis)

Adams is currently the longest-serving coach in the EIHL-and he and Francis have evolved into a formidable team both in terms of recruitment and tactics…in fact, they are the reason the Devils have remained competitive season after season in an era of rising budgets and wage bills. They’re amongst the Devils’ greatest assets and will continue to be this season, building a team ideal for their rink every year. This time round, though, like in 2010/11, they’ve built a team to win everywhere.

PROSPECTIVE LINES: FORWARDS

Max Birbraer-Mac Faulkner-Chris Blight

Andrew Conboy-Matt Myers-Andrew Lord

Phil Hill-Ben Davies-Gerad Adams

Adam Harding-Chris Jones-Luke Piggott

Rupert Quiney

PROSPECTIVE LINES: DEFENCE

Mark Richardson-Tyson Marsh

Josh Batch-Brad Plumton

Mark Smith-Adam Ross

Goalies: Dan LaCosta/Joseph Myers

 

PLAYER TO WATCH: #88 Andrew Conboy

We’ve already touched upon the skills and game-winning ability of the Devils’ top line and suggested that Conboy will be a useful player, but we haven’t looked at just how important the 26-year-old from Burnsville, Minnesota could be. Conboy is a prototypical Gerad Adams player-he’s hard-nosed and has a motor that only runs at one speed-fast forward. He’ll quickly become known to opposition fans and defencemen alike as he comes barreling into the zone looking to flatten anything in an opposition jersey…but 8 and 10-goal seasons while being used mainly as a fourth-liner in the AHL in his career show that he can find the net too, while 216 PiMs in only 49 ECHL games show that he’s not scared of the rough-stuff or the more sandpaper-like aspects of the game.. It’ll be interesting to see just what he can do given more freedom to play than he perhaps has been in the past.

SUMMARY

Gerad Adams and Neil Francis have always built workmanlike teams, but this season they’ve built one that looks genuinely threatening once again. The closest the Devils have come to an EIHL title was in 2010/11 when they missed out on the final day of the league season, and this team looks better than that one…in fact, this team looks like the best Devils squad of the EIHL era.

If Dan LaCosta plays as well as he is capable of and Mac Faulkner continues his scoring form, the sky is the limit for this squad. It has depth, grit, and scoring ability all by the bucketload, and the signings of Myers and LaCosta may be the most crucial signings of the offseason. This team reminds me of nothing so much as the Nottingham team from last season-built perfectly for its own rink and more than capable of winning on any ice surface. As an opposition pundit they frankly scare the heck out of me.

In short, Adams and Francis have spent years trying to find the magic formula to push the Devils over the top from a team that can come so close and yet not close enough due to either bad luck or an Achilles heel  to genuine league title contenders. They came closest to date in 2010/11. This year, I think they’ve done it.

This could be the year the Red Army finally celebrates an Elite League title. And there probably isn’t a team, coaching staff or fanbase that will deserve it more.

If you’re a betting person, it just might be worth putting a few quid on the Devils this season.

It may be a left-field prediction, but if it all comes together, then I think the Cardiff Devils will be the 2013/14 Elite League Champions.

 

 

Ten Teams, Ten Days #2: Braehead Clan

Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. Today, we move north for a look at the first Gardiner Conference team we’ll preview-the Braehead Clan.

“Can’t you hear us coming?
The fight has only just begun
Can’t you see we’re coming?”

Creed: “Freedom Fighter”

OVERVIEW

2012/13 was a year of turmoil, regret and broken promises for the Clan. After establishing themselves in the EIHL over the previous few seasons, there was a lot of talk that the new Conference system would play right into the Glasgow club’s hands and allow them to make a push for the top of the table, with some even tipping them as unlikely champions. That didn’t happen-in fact the Purple Army didn’t even come close, using 31 total players and struggling for consistency throughout the season before (barely) winning the Conference. Clearly, changes were needed and in this off-season they got them, with Ryan Finnerty taking the Clan job after being dismissed by Sheffield and promising no repeat of the troubles of last season. This offseason the Clan have built and recruited like a team with a point to prove-a team with ambition. Merely solid finishes aren’t enough-they want to shake up the status quo in the EIHL this season. Let’s take a look at them position by position.

NETMINDERS

#29 Kyle Jones, #33 Michael Will

After the much-publicised struggles of great goalie hope Garret Zemlak last season, Ryan Finnerty has looked outside of the EIHL for his starter this season, picking up 29-year-old Canadian Kyle Jones from the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles. The North Delta, BC native is both well-built at 6′ and 203lbs, and experienced as a starter, and is coming to the UK looking to prove just how good he is after being squeezed out of the role in Colorado by a younger goalie last season. Youtube highlights have shown him to have a very fast glove hand and be agile for a bigger goalie, but there will be a big weight on his shoulders after the Clan’s struggle with consistent netminding last season-however, Jones has the pedigree to be a solid EIHL netminder. Behind him Michael Will once again performs backup duties, and may have an eye on continuing to increase his own icetime after playing a career-high 13 EIHL games last season. However, Jones is the clear starter and will likely take the vast majority of games, as long as he performs.

DEFENCE

#4 Sam Zajac, #Scott Aarssen, #8 Craig Mitchell, #22 Chris Frank, #25 Kevin Bergin, #28 Ray Macias

The Clan defence has a new look once again this season, with only Zajac returning from last season’s unit-the diminutive 25-year-old from Whitley Bay is a fan favourite with the Purple Army and continues to get better season upon season. However, all attention will be focused on Ray Macias, who has spent the vast majority of his career in the AHL and two games in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche…Macias will be expected to provide the main offensive thrust to the blue-line unit. Behind him, Chris Frank, who knows the EIHL well having spent time with Sheffield (under the coaching of Finnerty) and Cardiff, along with another player who knows the EIHL in Kevin Bergin, converting to defence after spending his previous EIHL spell with Basingstoke and Nottingham as a forward. Canadian university product Scott Aarssen (who comes to the EIHL from the same Austrian team as Coventry Blaze new recruit Michael Henrich) and young Scot Craig Mitchell round out the unit.

This isn’t the strongest D-unit in the EIHL on paper, and a lot will depend on the play of Macias and, to a lesser degree, Frank, Aarssen and Bergin. That top four will have to be on its game or Kyle Jones may be seeing a lot of rubber this season. Several questions hang over the unit-can Bergin play defence as well in the EIHL as he did in the (slightly lower standard) French league? Can Chris Frank adjust to the probable responsibility of being a number 2 defenceman when other EIHL teams have used him as a #4 or even a forward?

However, in Zajac they have a very under-rated British defenceman and Aarssen is an unknown quantity who could be the X-factor in this unit. The simple statement is-this D unit will be as good as they want to be. It’s simply that no-one knows how they’ll compare to far more heralded units like those of several Erhardt Conference teams yet.

FORWARDS

#9 Ed McGrane, #10 Nathan Moon, #11 Matt Haywood, #15 Ash Goldie, #17 Lee Esders, #18 Julien Corriveau, #23 Shane Lust, #26 Tristan Harper, #64 Joel Champagne, #74 Matt Towe, #93 Aidan Fulton

While there’s a little uncertainty over the strength in depth of the Clan’s defensive unit, the forward group in the West of Scotland will likely be the best in the Gardiner Conference and amongst the best in the EIHL. Ash Goldie is a HUGE returnee for the team after being the linchpin of their offence last season-this time round though he’s got the kind of scoring help many Erhardt teams will envy. The major characteristic of this group is that, with the exception of Goldie and experienced playmaker Ed McGrane they are to a man a young and hungry group-only three players (McGrane, Goldie and Shane Lust) are over the age of 25. Lack of years should not be confused with lack of skill, however…in Nathan Moon, Joel Champagne and Julien Corriveau the Clan have three very talented and dangerous forwards indeed. Moon and Champagne in particular look like they have the potential to be true stars in the EIHL-Moon scored a point a game in the OHL and nearly matched that in the ECHL while Champagne is an ECHL Kelly Cup champion from last season and carries some serious size and skill at 6’4 and 218lbs. Corriveau, too, may be something of a hidden gem, scoring at a clip of a point-per-game in the French Ligue Magnus last season as a team-mate of Kevin Bergin. McGrane and Goldie have been there and done it and will provide the wise heads to the youthful impetuosity of the Clan attack. In the Brit group of Lee Esders, Matt Haywood, Matt Towe and Tristan Harper the Clan have one of the better third lines in the EIHL, too, with Aidan Fulton ready to step in where needed. If there were question marks over the Clan defence, the only question over this group of forwards is “just how good can they be?”. If they click as a group, then both Gardiner and Erhardt defences will be in for some nervy and torrid trips to the West of Scotland this season.

COACH: Ryan Finnerty (with Kevin Bergin)

Finnerty was much maligned for his lack of trophies won with a big budget in Sheffield, and it still remains to be seen just how good a coach he can be, but with the Clan this season he’s certainly recruited well, particularly on the forward lines. He’ll also no doubt be a much wiser coach after his time with the Steelers. Bergin is also a relatively inexperienced assistant, but both men have been quick to state that they’ve formed an excellent working relationship, and it’ll be interesting to see how Finnerty does in a role which arguably has far less pressure than that of his first coaching job, and just how much influence Bergin has as an assistant coach. This move could be the making of Finnerty as an EIHL coach.

PROSPECTIVE LINES-FORWARDS

Ash Goldie-Ed-McGrane-Nathan Moon

Julien Corriveau-Joel Champagne-Shane Lust

Matt Haywood-Matt Towe-Tristan Harper

Lee Esders

Aidan Fulton

PROSPECTIVE LINES-DEFENCE

Ray Macias-Chris Frank

Scott Aarssen-Kevin Bergin

Craig Mitchell-Sam Zajac

GOALIES: Kyle Jones/Michael Will

PLAYER TO WATCH: JOEL CHAMPAGNE

We’ve already touched upon Champagne’s physical gifts in the preview, but whilst many have focused on fellow young import Nathan Moon, it’ll be Champagne who has the chance to be Braehead’s real star. Friends in Reading tell me that during their Kelly Cup run he was their standout player, solid in his own end, physical and able to create chances for both himself and his linemates out of nothing. It’s a tough pick between Champagne and Nathan Moon with a nod also to Julien Corriveau, but if I could take one player off the Clan roster who I thought would be an EIHL star it would be the native of Chateauguay, Quebec. This kid will be a good one.

PREDICTION

The Clan have the potential to be an offensive powerhouse, particularly in the Gardiner Conference. However, there remain a few question-marks over their defensive unit, which may be exposed and leave Kyle Jones facing a lot of rubber, particularly against Erhardt teams-the Clan will have to develop a responsible system in order to avoid that happening. Questions over the defence coupled with the debacle of last season and the fact that other Gardiner teams have yet to complete their roster mean it’s tricky to predict just where the Clan will end up-they could finish anywhere from top three to sixth.in the league. However, it’s not out of the question that there will be silverware coming to Glasgow this season-however, I think the best chance of it doing so will be in the cup competitions. If the Clan can dominate their conference and the Erhardt teams take points off each other all season, though, who knows how far they can go? The Clan are probably the hardest team to predict for in the entire EIHL. The only thing for sure is-it’s going to be one hell of an interesting ride for the Purple Army this season, and it has the potential to end up anywhere.

Prediction-Gardiner Conference winners. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Ten Teams, Ten Days: Nottingham Panthers

Ten Teams in Ten Days is the 2013/14 Chasing Dragons EIHL season preview, looking in depth at one EIHL team a day from now up until the August Bank Holiday weekend-the last weekend before the start of EIHL preseason. It starts today-and where better to start than with the current reigning EIHL Champions, the Nottingham Panthers?

“The dogs are comin’ swift and mean
But I’m hungrier than they have ever been”
Murder By Death: “Sometimes The Line Walks You”

OVERVIEW

The Nottingham Panthers are the team everyone wants to beat. Staring down from the top of the mountain after winning league, playoffs and Challenge Cup last season, Corey Neilson could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels a little-or even retaining all of last season’s roster-a team that easily ranked among the top five best squads of the EIHL era. But real-life intruded with a bump as Matt Myers is headed home to Cardiff, talismanic forward David Ling seemingly giving in finally to the ravages of time, and their fearless leader Jordan Fox, one of the most effective and versatile two-way players of the EIHL era, leaving for the St Charles Chill back in North America to name but three losses. This is a Panthers roster that looks very different to last year’s, although Neilson has managed to retain stars like David Clarke, Rob Lachowicz and perhaps most crucially for the Panthers, goalie Craig Kowalski and D-man Eric Werner, who was a revelation on the Panthers blue line last season. But how do they stack up? Let’s take a look, position by position. Imports will always be listed in bold.

NETMINDERS

#31 Sam Gospel, #33 Craig Kowalski, #34 Dan Green

This is without doubt a solid group in net. Gospel will spend the season on a two-way to continue developing, possibly taking the odd backup duty, but it will once again be American Craig Kowalski and Brit Dan Green carrying the responsibility in net. Kowalski is a proven quantity…the experienced 32-year-old from Clinton Township, Michigan has been the best netminder in the EIHL the past two seasons, leading the league in save percentage both in 11/12 and 12/13. He’s also won three playoff titles, three Challenge Cups and a league title in his time in Nottingham. The simple fact is-he’s the netminder any other masked man in the league will have to beat. An incredible 1.98 GAA and 92.3 SV% in 60 games in 11/12 was his best season, but last season’s 2.07 GAA in 55 games wasn’t far behind. If necessary Green is a more than capable substitute, but with an average of around four goals a game and 15 games a season in his EIHL career, the Panthers won’t want to be relying on him too much. Like most imports in the EIHL Kowalski is the clear starter, and his game will no doubt only be further improved by the likes of Frank Doyle and Dan LaCosta threatening his spot at the top of the EIHL tree.

DEFENCE

#2 Tom Norton, #14 Jonathan Weaver, #20 Chris Murray, #43 Brent Henley, #45 Stephen Lee, #68 Eric Werner

This defence is once again another strong Panthers unit, but it perhaps doesn’t have the depth of, say, Sheffield’s, Eric Werner is a massive resigning-he ran games from the blue-line last season and will likely be the #1 defenceman. Brent Henley is an intimidating figure at 6’7 and 249lbs, and comes with extensive AHL experience. Chris Murray is a question-mark, having played at a high level in the AHL but coming back to hockey after a season out through injury, while Jonathan Weaver provides a lot of experience, but at 36 Neilson will have to be careful to use him as well and sparingly as he did last season. Stephen Lee continues to rise in the ranks and is fast becoming one of the top British d-men if he hasn’t already, while Tom Norton will be expected to step up and take his minutes well. As a unit, it may be a gamble going with only three imports, implying that Weaver or Lee will be expected to take a lot of minutes-both can but if it’s Weaver who does, fatigue may become a factor. All in all, it’s a solid unit, but a lot hangs on the shoulders of Werner, Henley and Murray this season-if one of them struggles, then it could knock the whole unit out of alignment.

FORWARDS

#5 David Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #9 Bob Wren, #15 Ollie Betteridge, #17 Matt Francis, #21 Matt Ryan, #23 Chris Capraro, #24 Leigh Salters, #26 Brandon Benedict, #27 Lynn Loyns, #89 Jonathan Boxill

Going forward, the Panthers once again look very dangerous. In Clarke and Lachowicz they have two of the top British forwards in the EIHL, with Lachowicz in particular primed to take his place amongst the elite this season. Bob Wren is vastly experienced (including NHL experience) at 38, playing in the Swiss league last season, while Loyns and Ryan have also spent time in the best league in the world. Leigh Salters is touted as a top-line EIHL power-forward and brings size and skill in a package few will match, while Benedict and Francis are two of the best two-way forwards in the EIHL while also carrying a soft touch in front of the net. The most intriguing newbie, however, is Chris Capraro…at 5’7 he’s amongst the smallest forwards in the EIHL but has shown a scoring touch in the ECHL before having a few quieter seasons-he could be primed as a breakout player. Boxill and Betteridge will fight for time on the third line as the Panthers look to once again build in depth. It’s a strong group, but will it be as effective as last years?

COACH: Corey Neilson (with Rick Strachan)

Despite being often derided, there can be no doubt that Neilson’s got better and better as a coach each season, consistently winning titles in a way that can be also credited to his assistant Strachan. Neilson isn’t the flashiest of coaches, and finally hit the jackpot last season as he built his team to a plan rather than collecting a group of flashy individuals and expecting them to mesh as he had in his first couple of seasons. Now also given a role as Team GB coach, there can be little doubt of the man from New Brunswick’s ability…the question now is, with his team carrying massive targets on their backs this season and the expectations of the Panthers fanbase raised to fever pitch-can he keep the run going?

PROSPECTIVE LINES:

FORWARDS

Lynn Loyns-Matt Francis-David Clarke

Leigh Salters-Matt Ryan-Rob Lachowicz

Brandon Benedict-Bob Wren-Chris Capraro

Jonathan Boxill/Ollie Betteridge

DEFENCE

Brent Henley-Eric Werner

Jonathan Weaver-Chris Murray

Stephen Lee

Tom Norton

GOALIES: Craig Kowalski/Dan Green

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Once again, Corey Neilson has built a team that will be the envy of many, a team to defend the title doggedly. The Panthers will likely be one of the teams to beat once again…but they face a potential struggle early on to force their way out of the shadow of the sublime hockey played by the treble champion squad. The loss of Matt Myers is a big one, although by loading up on import forwards Neilson has offset this, and at the same time shown a lot of confidence in both Stevie Lee and Jonathan Weaver to take that number four spot most teams would rely on an import for.

For the most glaring positive, however…just look at those forward lines. There’s no discernible drop in quality between the “first” and the “third”-a depth that was one of the keys to the Panthers doing so well last year as at least one EIHL coach said “most teams roll lines 1,2, and 3. Panthers roll 3 first lines!”-an approach Neilson can also take this season.

However, the Panthers aren’t invincible. Kowalski has challengers to his “top goalie” crown and having two key players over the age of 35 may come to bite the Panthers in the hectic EIHL schedule-they dodged the bullets last season but can they hold again? Also, the defence is much more of an unknown quantity-Henley and Murray will have to be key players at both ends of the ice and Weaver and Lee will have to hold that second-line D spot and make it their own.

Looking across the rosters, particularly in the Erhardt Conference, it’s clear that the Panthers raised the bar quite considerably last year and, while Corey Neilson has done a good job of holding that high standard, the rest of the EIHL has done its best to catch up. I’m sure the Panthers will still be in the title mix this season and they have a very good squad indeed once again-the problem for them is…now they’ve set the new bar for EIHL teams and held to it this season, how much closer have the rest got, and what effect will Continental Cup ambitions have on their domestic chase? We shall see.

Prediction: Title Challengers once again. But retaining the title will be tough this season.