“I’m coming up on infra-red – no more running, I will find you.”
The Cardiff Devils have one thing on their mind this season, one driving force that forces them forward in their 30th season in existence.
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.
#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.
#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.
#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
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.