Ten Teams Ten Days I, 15/16: Braehead Clan – Purple Reign?

Now I must go-do you hear the drums? We will prevail, whatever comes.
Don’t worry child, don’t you fear at all

Don’t worry child. We will kill them all”  
Rotersand: “We Will Kill Them All”

INTRO

Teams in the EIHL this season all have a point to prove, for different reasons. Whether it be Dundee looking to bounce back from a horrendous season, Sheffield looking to prove they made the right decision in sacking a league-winning coach or Cardiff looking to prove they can keep the momentum going, there are storylines everywhere.

Fewer are clearer than they might be in Braehead-the Clan are going for the title this season, unashamedly. With many saying they should perhaps have won the title last season, Ryan Finnerty has reloaded and built a roster that keeps the best of the old team and makes it even better. As they head into the Champions Hockey League, the Canadian has built a roster that says as clear as anything “There’s a new big dog in town, EIHL, and it’s wearing purple.” This Clan team is a straight-up powerhouse waiting to happen. Let’s take a look at it.

The Team (imports in bold)

NETMINDERS
#31 Chris Holt, #1 Gary Russell

They say netminding wins tities, and the Clan may have already signed a title-winning netminder in Chris Holt. Finnerty has clearly looked at the impact Brian Stewart had in Coventry last season and decided “right, he’s good. So we’ll get a netminder to blow him into the weeds”. In the 6’4, 227lb behemoth from Vancouver, they might have found just that netminder. Brian Stewart just lost his pedestal.

The 30-year-old has prototypical size and speed, and has played (and played well) in one of the best leagues not just in Europe, but in the world. KHL starting goalies, particularly those who’ve been among the top 10 KHL starters, simply don’t come to the EIHL. Until now.

Holt has also represented the US internationally, and is in that rarified air of goalies who’ve scored a goal – he did it in the AHL in 2009/10. He’s also in that rare group of goalies who’ve played in the NHL, but never conceded a goal. This guy could be among the best goalies the EIHL has ever seen.

Holt will be backed up by Glasgow’s own Gary Russell, who will not be expected to play much but has been among the NIHL’s best goalies the last few seasons, so can hold the fort capably in spot relief.

DEFENCEMEN
#2 Jamie Fritsch, #4 Marcus Gotz, #6 Scott Aarssen, #7 Nathan McIver, #21 Zach Sullivan, #55 Ric Jackman

The defensive unit of the Clan is one that continues the “take what we have and get better versions” template in net-it combines the very best of the old with a new that’s better still. Lose Zach Fitzgerald? OK, he was good, but we’ll bring in Nathan McIver-a calmer, better, more rounder version. Need a new offensive defenceman to lead the line & take the pressure off Aarssen? How’s a Stanley Cup winner who could be among the best the EIHL has ever seen in Ric Jackman? Need some more bite & two-way skill? OK then, we’ll add to the incredibly solid Jamie Fritsch with Marcus Gotz. A Brit? How about one of the best young prospects out there in Zach Sullivan in his second season?

The key thing about this Clan defensive unit, and the one that shows how it’s raised its level, is that Jamie Fritsch and Scott Aarssen are now no longer the number-one pairing. They don’t need to be. The Clan unit is a fine example of the developing trend in hockey, where D-men are no longer “offensive” and “defensive” but simply “blueliners”. They have to do everything. And this Clan unit does. Any player on this unit can play any role the Clan need.

And that’s what makes it such an excellent group. It’s a Swiss Army Knife of a unit…one tool, many applications.

FORWARDS
#5 Ben Davies. #8 Matt Keith, #9 Bari McKenzie, #10 Stefan Meyer, #11 Matt Haywood, #12 Alex Leavitt, #14 Jordan Cownie, #16 Chris Bruton, #17 Lee Esders, #19 Tom Nesbitt, #26 Tristan Harper, #49 Brendan Brooks, #61 Scott Pitt

Again, the Clan have gone for four full lines of forwards this season. In a league that traditionally only runs three, Finnerty has adapted to the European model and built a group that once again has a key for every lock. Despite losing Leigh Salters to Cardiff, the Clan have reloaded with a team that can score every which way.

Want lethal speed and sniping with a creative twist? Scott Pitt, Brendan Brooks and Alex Leavitt are your guys. Veteran savvy and guile? Brendan Brooks. Power and skill combined? Stefan Meyer and Matt Keith. Snarl and toughness? Chris Bruton. Wearing the opposition down through relentless hitting and work? Pick any number of the Brits, with a side of sniping and one of GB’s most exciting prospects in Jordan Cownie.

This is a rounded group in which the key word is “relentless”. The Clan forwards will attack in the same way a zombie pack does…they simply don’t rest and keep hunting down their victims without cease, without pause and without mercy. They. Will. Not. Stop. And that is how they’ll win games. By grinding teams into the dust with wave after wave of blitzkrieg. It’s a war machine in purple.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #8 Matt Keith
People pick out players to watch for different reasons. The obvious names in Braehead are the big-money signings in key positions (we’ve expounded greatly on Chris Holt, for example) or the guys with big pedigrees (see, Ric Jackman). If defence is your thing, there’s also Jamie Fritsch’s flawless calm, or the different-looking but equally explosive fireworks Stefan Meyer, Alex Leavitt or Chris Bruton might produce.
But sometimes, the diamonds are the players that sparkle the brightest. Sometimes a quiet beauty can be found in seeing something or someone just do its job perfectly, economically and beautifully, however outside the traditional notions of “beauty” it might be.
Matt Keith is a perfect example of this. His game will never be full of highlight-reel goals or end-to-end passes, but there are few players more important to the Clan than their Edmontonian captain. He’s brutally effective in his play at both ends of the ice, positionally almost perfect, and if there’s a loose puck in front of the opposition net, there’s a good chance Keith will be fighting for it.
In fact, the big centre’s game is the hockey equivalent of Brutalist architecture. It makes no apologies for what it is and the occasional rough-edge-in fact it sometimes almost takes joy in its lack of unnecessary frills, and makes the utilitarian beautiful.
Keith does a job so well, you often don’t realise he’s doing it at all. If the Clan as a whole are a car, Captain Keith is the engine.

COACH: RYAN FINNERTY (3rd season)

This is the 3rd year of Finnerty’s Five Year Plan-one that has seen him take the Clan from mid-table consolidation to the verge of powerhouse status. A lot of the Clan’s development can be placed at his feet – but now is the time he can finally, once and for all, destroy those critics who still jibe that Clan success is despite him, and failure is his alone.
In short, this year is Finnerty’s big one. In all that he’s done so far, the 34-year-old from Lethbridge has faced his critics – those quick to say that he’s somehow made all this happen through luck, not judgement. An opinion that ranges from probably unfair to downright wrong, depending on how vehemently it’s expressed.
This roster could be Finner’s masterwork-the one that finally wins him that title the doubters say he may not have the consistency to win. It’s a team built to roar with Glaswegian pride at both home and abroad and bring a title to Scotland’s powerhouse city.
For Ryan Finnerty, this year is the one all the others so far have been leading to. The one to silence the doubters once and for all.
This one could shape his coaching career for a few years to come. And he knows it.

POTENTIAL LINES – F

Stefan Meyer-Matt Keith-Scott Pitt
Chris Bruton-Alex Leavitt-Brendan Brooks
Jordan Cownie-Ben Davies-Tom Nesbitt
Tristan Harper-Matt Haywood-Bari McKenzie
Lee Esders

POTENTIAL LINES – D
Jamie Fritsch-Ric Jackman
Nathan McIver-Scott Aarssen
Marcus Gotz-Zach Sullivan

GOALIES
Chris Holt
Gary Russell

SUMMARY
The sky is really the limit for this Clan team. In a league that’s probably the closest it’s ever been, this is a Clan roster that on paper looks among, if not the best in the league. Four lines of capable forwards, a Swiss Army Knife of a defensive unit and a goalie who if he plays to his potential will make Brian Stewart’s performance last season look run-of-the-mill, this is a purple monster of a squad.
If this team plays even NEAR its potential, there are titles in its future. Possibly more than one.
And that includes the big one. This could finally be your year, Braehead.

Get ready for one hell of a season, Purple Army.

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