EIHL Preview 16/17: Coventry Blaze: Hustle, Loyalty, New Respect?

“I built a time machine to escape from
All the pain in the back of my car
Living’s a problem because everything dies babe
Save yourself you’re not too far away”

Biffy Clyro – “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies

The Coventry Blaze, however they sold making the playoff finals, had the worst season they’ve ever had last year. Bottom of the league for the first time ever during the season, barely scraping into the playoffs, and being quietly outclassed by Nottingham in the playoff finals as they fought desperately for redemption after a massively underwhelming season, the Chuck Weber era ended with a whimper. And that whimper was “but there’s much to be proud of this season”.

This is a new Coventry Blaze season, though. This year, they’ve gone backwards to come forwards, hiring Blaze legend Danny Stewart as the new head coach. Stewart is exactly the type of coach a team that has almost unashamedly betrayed its oft-trumpeted claim that “OK is not good enough”…it’s been more than sufficient for the Blaze for about five years now, in fact. Whatever the claims may be.

Can Danny Stewart succeed where so many others have failed and deliver the raze-and-rebuild this team needs? Can he finally light the raging fire  under the Blaze which has long since gone out?

GOALIES

#41 Brian Stewart, #30 Renny Marr

It’s the same goalie pairing as last year…which means you can almost copy-and-paste what we said last season. Brian Stewart has often been seemingly carrying the Blaze single handed on his broad shoulders during his time at the Skydome, and has proved time and again that he can be a bona-fide matchwinner…he is, in fact, arguably the greatest reason Coventry have any titles since 2012. Renny Marr, meanwhile, is a young British talent given the chance to spend another year learning behind arguably the best starter in the league this season.

DEFENCE

#7 Jordan Stokes (2-way with Hull, EPL) #11 Jim Jorgensen, #15 Josh Godfrey, #26 Marc Cantin, #27 Shawn Boutin, #56 Kevin Noble, #58 David Clements, #64 Matt Selby

The key thing with this defensive unit is that Danny Stewart has kept the lynchpin (in Jim Jorgensen) and the great new hope (David Clements) while adding around it. In Josh Godfrey Stewart has given a second chance to a player who was to some degree a victim of his own hype last year – he was trumpeted as an elite offensive D with a huge shot but his 13 points were a disappointing return indeed from a player who was supposed to drive the team forward. As for playmaking – only Clements had fewer assists than Godfrey, and his six goals were eclipsed by his supposedly more defensive partner Jorgensen comfortably.

Kevin Noble will be his usual playing-on-the-ragged-edge self on defence – although it will be interesting to see how teams deal with him now they’re aware of his “wind-up-at-any-cost” style and if they allow him to take penalties without giving the many retaliation penalties he drew so well last year.

The new additions to this unit are the most valuable. The Quebec pairing of Shawn Boutin and Marc Cantin are both sold as calm, minute-munching two way players equally at home anywhere on the ice and in any situation. Add them to Jorgensen and the Blaze have a very strong top two pairs indeed, along with the delightful-to-watch Clements and pugnacious and brutally effective Matt Selby to fill the gaps.

This is a very well-put-together unit on paper, and will provide the Blaze with a nice mix of speed, skill and defensive power in front of Stewart – a much more well-balanced one than last season.

FORWARDS

#9 Darcy Zajac, #16 Jordan Pietrus, #17 Russ Cowley, #18 Bjorn Bombis, #19 Garrett Klotz, #21 Ashley Tait, #23 Brett Robinson, #28 Matt Marquardt, #59 Ross Venus, #74 Liam Stewart, #88 Robin Bergman

Danny Stewart’s first forward crop is built to do everything. It has the pure muscle (Klotz, at 6’5 and 233lbs, is among the most imposing figures on EIHL ice this season), the PR star power (Liam Stewart – yes, he is Rod and Rachel’s son, but he’s also a useful checking forward coming off a solid if unspectacular junior career) the European flair (Swede Robin Bergman and German Bjorn Bombis are both skilled players, although their skillsets lie in different areas with Bergman being the shooter and Bombis the setup man)  and the power and two-way ability (Matt Marquardt is a very astute signing indeed – one of the sleeper stars of this roster and indeed the EIHL season, while Brett Robinson, Darcy Zajac, and Jordan Pietrus can be relied upon to contribute either a goal or an assist exactly when the Blaze may need it – Pietrus in particular made a habit of scoring massively important goals almost at will last season). There’s also the experienced Brits in Russ Cowley and Ash Tait, and the massively underrated two-way winger that is Ross Venus.

This is a forward group light-yeats ahead of that assembled the past two years. More importantly, it’s one assembled with an actual purpose in mind.

That makes it potentially very dangerous indeed. If Danny Stewart can do what Chuck Weber, Marc Lefebvre and even Paul Thompson have failed to do the past five years or so and get a forward group playing as a cohesive unit every single night, then this is a very good group indeed.

COACH – Danny Stewart (1st season)

Stewie is just what the Coventry Blaze have been crying out for since about 2013 – a coach fully committed to the idea that his team lives and dies by the example the coach sets. He has served his apprenticeship with distinction in Newcastle and Fife, and now is his chance to bring the club he served so well as a player back to the heights they reached while he was doing so. He is a passionate, thinking man’s coach who will work night and day to solve problems and more importantly, can treat people with respect while having absolutely no time for politics, bullshit or impressing anybody by stroking their ego-two qualities the Coventry organisation sorely needs. He just wants to win. Anything else is a failure.

PREDICTED LINES – FORWARDS

Matt Marquardt – Brett Robinson  – Jordan Pietrus

Bjorn Bombis – Darcy Zajac – Robin Bergman

Ashley Tait – Russ Cowley – Ross Venus

Garrett Klotz – Liam Stewart

PREDICTED LINES – DEFENCE

Jim Jorgensen – Marc Cantin

Shawn Boutin – Josh Godfrey

Kevin Noble – David Clements

Matt Selby

GOALIES 

Brian Stewart

Renny Marr

SUMMARY

Danny Stewart’s first Blaze team could be the team Blaze fans have been promised and not delivered for several years – one that’s just as comfortably winning games the hard way as it is the easy way. With a defence much-improved from last season, Brian Stewart should be able to use his talent with repeated tough saves only when necessary as opposed to on every single opposition foray into the zone, and that top line in particular looks like it has a lot of potential goals in it. This is the best-looking Coventry team in some years-one that looks capable of a far better season display than that delivered by peaking for a four game lottery in late March and early April.

The Blaze media and fans have love to talk about how they’re delivering a “bigger and better” team than years past, and promise that it’ll be a challenger for trophies.

This year, Danny Stewart may have done what previous coaches have failed to and delivered a team that’s actually worthy of that rhetoric.

By drawing upon one of the shining stars of their past, the Blaze have finally given themselves a believable promise of a much brighter future in 16/17

 

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EIHL Season Preview 16/17: Belfast Giants: “…And You Can’t Teach That”

Let’s break out our old machines now
It sure is good to see them run again
Oh gentlemen, start your engines”

Sleater-Kinney: “Combat Rock”

The Belfast Giants have retooled this summer, and they are going with the mantra “tried and trusted” this season. Derrick Walser has decided that the best way to respond to accusations of a team that didn’t perform as well as it could have hoped for is to build a team who’ve been there and done that. This is the oldest team in the EIHL, and the only one with an average age over 30. But have these old dogs got new tricks?

Let’s take a look at them.

GOALTENDERS

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson, #1 Jackson Whistle

The Giants have gone with what they know in net yet again with Stephen Murphy – arguably the best British netminder of his generation…but in an interesting twist they’ve gone with a young ex-WHL player with Giants connections in Jackson Whistle, former Kelowna Rocket and son of British hockey legend Dave Whistle in what looks like being a 1A/1B netminding pairing rather than the traditional “starter/backup” used by most EIHL teams. Whistle counts as British due to time in the Bracknell junior system while his dad was coach there, thanks to British import rules. Ballymoney’s proudest export Andrew Dickson provides clear depth at the netminding position, ready to step in wherever necessary…but it is Whistle who is the real unknown and potential X-Factor here…he provides constant pressure on Murphy and allows for a new young wrinkle in the Giants goaltending battle in his first pro season. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #7 Mark Garside, #9 Jim Vandermeer, #43 Derrick Walser, #50 Matt Nickerson, #88 Ryan Martinelli

This is a defense just like last year for the Giants – it has one of the finest offensive brains the EIHL has ever seen in Derrick Walser to lead the charge forward, now backed up by the imposing, strong-at-both-ends Ryan Martinelli, who spent last year with Szekeskfehervar in the EBEL and has consistently played among Europe’s best.Behind him, the pure muscle is provided by another two familar faces – the hulking Jim Vandermeer and the unmistakable mohawked destroyer that is Matt Nickerson. The third pairing of Mark Garside and Jeff Mason are a quietly solid and beautifully composed pairing who can be relied upon to munch minutes and rarely make a wrong step.

As a unit, this is a balanced one that’s a) capable at every level and b) knows exactly what’s required. They’re not by any means the most flamboyant (although Derrick Walser in particular is an absolute joy to watch) but they are going to be an effective one.

FORWARDS

#12 Steve Saviano, #14 Mike Forney, #19 Colin Shields, #23 Alex Foster, #25 Blair Riley, #26 Brandon Benedict, #47 Adam Keefe, #68 Chris Higgins, #79 James Desmarais, #89 Jonathan Boxill, #91 David Rutherford

The forward group built by Derrick Walser this year is one that’s built in the same template as last – a mix of speed and grit with moments of both blinding skill and power. It is a forward line that’s had to adjust slightly to the loss of one of its most effective members in pest extraordinaire Daryl Lloyd, but it’s still one that will come at you relentlessly and test your defence in myriad ways. Steve Saviano and Alex Foster are the headliners among the new additions, along with very capable power forward Blair Riley. James Desmarais is a silky-smooth joy of a playmaking center, Mike Forney and Chris Higgins provide the skill and scoring nous, but it is Foster who’s the player to watch – he is a superb up-and-down centre who is equally comfortable in his own zone or the oppositions, while Saviano is jet-fuelled and wily as a linemate.

The bulldog known as Adam Keefe will once again anchor the third line, too, while Brandon Benedict is among the top defensive forwards in the league and Jonathan Boxill, too, is arguably the ideal replacement for Daryl Lloyd.

This is a team that isn’t the prettiest – it may not be the most hyped…but it is quietly very, very good. One that’s battle-tested and ready to go.

COACH: Derrick Walser (2nd season)

Walser is looking to learn his lessons from a sometimes disappointing, other times underwhelming first season (at least by the high expectations in Belfast) – he is a coach who knows how he wants to play and has built a team that is in his own image – intelligent, highly experienced and ready to learn its lessons. Now with a season of coaching experience under his belt, he’ll be expecting to be much better this time around.

PROJECTED LINES – FORWARDS

Steve Saviano – Alex Foster – Chris Higgins

Mike Forney – James Desmarais – David Rutherford

Blair Riley – Adam Keefe – Colin Shields

Jonathan Boxill – Brandon Benedict

PROJECTED LINES – DEFENCE

Derrick Walser – Jim Vandermeer

Matt Nickerson – Ryan Martinelli

Jeff Mason – Mark Garside

GOALIES 

Stephen Murphy

Jackson Whistle

Andrew Dickson

SUMMARY

The Giants are the oldest team in the Elite League this season, and the only team with an average age over thirty. They’re a team very much built around the philosophy of “old dogs with new tricks” – this is a team that has travelled far, seen much, and learned lessons the hard way in rinks from Vancouver to Vienna and Budapest to Bakersfield. It has the one thing that you simply can’t teach – experience. There is probably nothing you can throw at this team that someone on it hasn’t seen before – and used properly, that will be worth its weight in gold, particularly when things are going wrong on a rainy midwinter night far from home.

The Giants will be hoping that that veteran mindset will carry them a long way this season, and that the combined hive mind of the Giants roster will be able to out-think any danger it comes across.

It’s not a bad strategy at all. A very solid one, in fact.

But only more time passing will tell if it’s a winning one.

EIHL Season Preview 2016/17: Cardiff Devils: Redesign, Rebuild, Reclaim

I’m coming up on infra-red – no more running, I will find you.”

Placebo: “Infra-Red”

INTRODUCTION

The Cardiff Devils have one thing on their mind this season, one driving force that forces them forward in their 30th season in existence.

Revenge.

It’s been fascinating to watch Andrew Lord evolve as a coach over the past two seasons, and work his way through the growing pains of being a player coach. In his third season, he’s once again showing that he’s willing to make changes and aim higher still to capture the league title that has so far eluded him. The ownership group at the Devils has once again come through with support above and beyond, including arranging an extensive preseason preparation against, amongst others, KHL opposition in Medvescak Zagreb. The Devils will arguably be the best prepared team this season as they go on their revenge mission. Let’s take a look at them.

NETMINDERS

#33 Ben Bowns, #30 Tom Murdy

The Devils are going with what they know in net – and when what they know is Ben Bowns, a starting goalie who is now also the undisputed Great Britain starter and has overtaken long-time incumbent “best British goalie” Stephen Murphy in both positions, that is a very good strategy indeed. Bowns is a match-winner by himself – big, agile and a star in his own right. He’ll be backed up by Tom Murdy, who has been around the game so long it’s easy to forget he’s still only 25…Murdy will be more than capable in spot duty if needed and will push Bowns hard to keep his performance up, in a very strong British tandem in net.

DEFENCEMEN

#4 Mark Louis, #17 Mark Richardson, #20 Gleason Fournier, #24 Andrew Hotham, #41 Josh Batch, #79 Scott Hotham

The Devils have gone with what they know on defence this offseason. Andrew Hotham has proved himself to be one of the best defencemen in the EIHL, if not the best. Mark Richardson will consistently rival Ben O’Connor for top British defenceman, Josh Batch has become a truly solid contributor, and Gleason Fournier impressed in his late-season audition with the Devils last year as a defenceman equally good in his own zone or someone else’s.

The most intriguing part of the group, though, is in their new additions. Scott Hotham, Andrew’s brother, is more of an offensive-minded player than his brother, which has led to criticisms from previous coaches in higher-level leagues than the EIHL for being a little defensively weak. He is undoubtedly talented offensively with a truly vicious slapshot, which may see him given a key role on the PP in a Hotham one-two punch that will see his brother expected to play much more of a two-way role…something Andrew is more than capable of doing.

The last new addition is Mark Louis. This former Orlando Solar Bear may well become one of the unsung heroes of the EIHL season. He’s big, powerful and superb at winning physical battles as well as getting the puck out of the zone by hook or by crook –  a smart, unassuming defender who does his job simply and consistently superbly well.

This is a Devils unit that is arguably improved upon even more than last season by its new additions, and can leave Cardiff confident that whoever is in front of Ben Bowns, they’ll be exactly who Bowns will want to see in front of him at any one time. That’s the mark of a very good defence indeed.

FORWARDS

#8 Matthew Myers, #11 David Brine, #12 Guillaume Doucet, #16 Chris Jones, #18 Layne Ulmer, #21 Luke Piggott, #23 Patrick Asselin, #27 Joey Haddad, #47 Jake Morissette, #57 Chris Culligan. #71 Andrew Lord, #85 Sean Bentivoglio, #88 Joey Martin

This is a forward group that looks considerably different to last season – while many of the names are the same, it’s the changes that are most telling. Andrew Lord has added teeth to his team in every department and this is a group that is built with the new surroundings of Ice Arena Wales very much in mind. While it still contains the grind and grit of players like Jake Morissette, Matt Myers (returning from Nottingham) and Chris Culligan, there is more of a focus on pure skill – Joey Martin and Sean Bentivoglio will cut through teams with speed and guile  and Patrick Asselin, Layne Ulmer and Guillaume Doucet are pure goalscorers who will be only too willing to exploit the openings they’re given-Ulmer having been Bentivoglio’s linemate for many years will make this easier. David Brine, meanwhile, has been singled out by some experts as a player who won’t last in Cardiff. That is because that “expert” doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Brine will be the latest in big, solid, two-way players, who will allow the likes of Martin to shine while chipping in with points themselves.

Returning to Ulmer, though-he in particular is the best signpost of the way Cardiff are changing-he will be a clever, cunning player who will enjoy out-thinking opposition defenders rather than simply smashing his way through them, which will be an education and probably even confuse some EIHL fans stuck in their “hit things” ways.

It’s another sign that Andrew Lord is very much evolving as a coach, though, as the trend in hockey has been overwhelmingly towards skill over pure muscle – it’s encouraging to see an EIHL coach embrace the new way so cheerfully in a league traditionally resistant to change.

This is a very exciting forward group indeed.

COACH – Andrew Lord (3rd Season)/Neil Francis (sixth season), 

Yes, Andrew Lord is the head coach and very much the “visible” face of the Devils, but you can’t discuss the Devils coaching team and its efforts without including Director Of Hockey and bench coach Neil Francis – the two men together give the Devils, in my opinion, the best coaching team in the Elite League, and it’s not really that close. Both truly passionate students of the game who’ve probably forgotten more than many of their rivals in the EIHL know, Lord and Francis as a team are a two-headed monster of coaching excellence.

These may seem like hyperbolic words, but you only have to look at what the pair of them have achieved together – turning the Devils into an EIHL powerhouse who are consistently among the contenders for any trophy going. Indeed, there are many who will say they should have won it last season – and there won’t be any person who feels that more than these two.  They will combine together this season with a team they’ve made even better this season, with an extensive pre-season preparation. There will unlikely be a team this season with more thought and discussion put into it than this one. And that – the sheer amount of thinking, planning and consideration that will go into this team from two of the best hockey brains in the EIHL – is arguably one of the Devils’ best weapons.

PROJECTED LINES – FORWARDS

Sean Bentivoglio – Layne Ulmer – Joey Martin

Patrick Asselin – David Brine – Guillaume Doucet

Jake Morissette – Andrew Lord – Joey Haddad

Chris Culligan – Matt Myers – Chris Jones

PROJECTED LINES – DEFENCE

Mark Louis – Andrew Hotham

Mark Richardson – Scott Hotham

Josh Batch – Gleason Fournier

GOALIES – Ben Bowns/Tom Murdy

SUMMARY

If the last Cardiff Devils team was built like a battering ram and a heavy bomber, this is a team built like a Flying Fortress – firepower absolutely everywhere. It’s one that will contain a goal threat in any situation. But it’s also a team built in a way not seen that often in the EIHL – a team built as much with an eye towards guile and out-thinking an opponent as one to smash its way through.

Andrew Lord and Neil Francis have built an EIHL team that mirrors the current trend elsewhere in the hockey world to emphasise skill over pure muscle – an approach that isn’t seen massively often in the EIHL. It’s going to be a joy to watch.

Is it a title winning team? Certainly it’s one that carries a very strong hope indeed of being one. It’s a very strong formula redesigned, rebuilt, and ready to reclaim a title for Cardiff.