“I’ll go for another second place but, once again, first place is within our reach if we can just get that one red hot line working ….. “
So that’s pre-season done and dusted and now the real business starts with back-to-back games with the Bracknell Bees this weekend.
Based on a blend of logic and plain stupidity, I like to put my neck on the line every pre-season with a forecast of how I think it might go in the season ahead but I have to admit, this is the latest I’ve ever left it and the least confident I’ve ever been as to the likely accuracy. Why ? Because the format of the new National League introduces some (much welcomed) uncertainties and because the last two pre-season forecasts I’ve got completely correct both in terms of who wins the league and where Phantoms will finish and, being highly superstitious, that scares me into thinking I might put a jinx on my team if I don’t predict them to finish first but hey ….. time to give it a go !
Who are our opposition this season and what are they shaping up like ?
Let’s start with the Basingstoke Bison. Coach Ashley Tait has readily subscribed to the “no changes” formula for this season with only Russ Cowley’s departure to Milton Keynes and Danny Ingoldsby’s move to Streatham being of any note ….. on the flip-side he has brought in an influx of talented young prospects on two-way deals that will give him no shortage of lively and enthusiastic skaters. Maybe a question mark over where the goals will come from if you keep imports Bordowski and Klejna quiet but Tait proved his prowess as a coach last season, they tick the box of having big numbers and strength in depth and there is no way the top four places won’t include Bison.
Bracknell Bees appear to have gone against the trend by offloading a number of senior players. Coach Doug Sheppard had clearly had enough of the indisciplined hardcore that too often undermined any semblance of progress last season but that was quite a sizeable hardcore and, on the face of it, those senior, experienced players have not been replaced other than by a small number of relatively inexperienced youngsters. There are question marks over the availability of certain key players, their netminding looks a little threadbare and with pre-season rumours of discontent off-ice already, the Bees may find themselves struggling to keep pace in the early part of the season ….. at least.
Hull Pirates have already shown their hand in pre-season. They readily talk the talk over what they are going to win this season but performances appear to be backing up that confidence and with more than 75% of Phantoms fans suggesting Pirates will be the team to beat, they will definitely start the season as favourites for the NIHL National title. If they have a weakness, it will be depth of squad which doesn’t match up to some of their rivals and possibly disciplinary issues with a few loose cannons in their ranks. Otherwise its a return of the very successful 2018/19 team and they’ll be fast, slick, organised and fearing of nobody.
Leeds Chiefs have yet to open their new rink and are starting the season with a roster that mixes some up and coming talent from last season’s NIHL1 North with a few experienced heads such as player-coach Sam Zajac, James Archer, Steve Duncombe and Luke Boothroyd. You can certainly assemble two very decent lines from their roster but after that, it looks paper thin at the moment so expect the odd eye-catching result early doors but I can’t see then challenging at the top end this season.
Milton Keynes Lightning should be an interesting addition to the NIHL ranks. The team has little or no link with last season’s EIHL side and have picked up the best of last season’s Thunder and wrapped them around returning experienced heads from Lightning days of old. Its a roster that will look appealing to locals wanting to relive past glories and there is certainly enough talent to give coach Lewis Clifford something to work with but he’ll have his work cut out to create a strong team from some head-strong individuals mixed with players of limited experience at this level. There is potential for a good season but my hunch is that they will be hugely reliant of last season’s stand-out netminder Jordan Lawday who, if he finds his A-game every week, is worth several positions in the table in his own right, otherwise its mid-table for me.
Romford Raiders, London Raiders or just Raiders will be reliant on coach Sean Easton to work his magic as he did so very well last season with a very lively and very energetic team. He has certainly rung the changes with eight departures from last season, including some very experienced players but its looking like another youthful side who are sure to provide sixty minutes of hi-tempo hockey, particularly in their own barn but its mid-table at best for me unless their two imports turn out to be big point scorers.
Sheffield Steeldogs have really kicked on of late under player-coach Ben Morgan who clearly has the buy-in of his players and they will once again fit the bill of being a strong team even if their roster doesn’t necessarily catch the eye in comparison to others. Ten players lost from last season but a couple of lively Polish import forwards are in camp along with a couple of very nice two-way deals with the club over the road from the EIHL. Those two-way signings have already shown their worth in pre-season, so much may depend on the availability of these players during the NIHL season but undoubtedly a team that will take some beating as is always the case with the Steeldogs.
Swindon Wildcats were my tip to win last season’s NIHL1 South and they delivered albeit not quite in the manner I expected them to win it. Last season’s plan to go with the same team was the reason I fancied them to do well and they’ve largely done the same this season albeit with one change of import. Its a roster with no passengers, they are all proven players so they tick the box for roster strength but can this fundamentally similar roster serve up another winning season or does it all look a bit stale ? They will undoubtedly feature in the top half of the table but something is telling me they’ll come up short this time ….. call it a gut feel and no more !
Telford Tigers are another side adopting the “same again” mentality with a largely unchanged roster made up of a small number of (extremely) experienced players and a large swathe of hard skating, enthusiastic youngsters moving up from Telford’s own development programme. Good old Jason Silverthorn will be back along with import Dominik Florian who played with EIHL Blaze last season but their strength will be in their coaching. Tom Watkins is Telford’s very own Slava Koulikov, a man with huge experience of the British game and who can deliver a balance of a pragmatic playing style with systems that every player, young and old, can and do buy into. As with the Steeldogs, Tigers will prove a very tough opposition home and away and you won’t escape with much unless you are on your game for sixty minutes.
Okay …… so that’s the opposition. What about Phantoms ?
Its a tough one to call this season as the new league structure poses so many questions and uncertainties but there are a number of factors that I believe will be key to success, or otherwise, for Phantoms.
The first one is team. I’m completely confident that the top side this season will be the best team rather than the roster with the “best” players. It will be the team that has good bench depth such that they can roll three, preferably four, decent lines. It will be the team that has total buy-in to the coach and the coaching systems and, equally, it will be the team that play for one another and who can get the best out of one another in pursuit of ambitions they all share ….. no individuals, nobody playing for the name on the back of the shirt rather than the badge on the front. I’m happy we can tick that box for Phantoms 2019/20 and the fact that we (just) missed out on the two big majors last season should provide the hunger and drive to stave off any apathy that an unchanged roster might otherwise serve up.
The second was the same caveat I threw in at this point last season and that is that the fundamentals we had then and that we have again now WILL place Phantoms in the top four, which in itself could (and probably should) be defined as success in its own right. We have a solid, experienced defensive unit, we have at least three capable offensive lines, arguably four going on what we have already seen this season and we are and will produce goals across the lines rather than just from a small number of players. The caveat was and still is that to make #1 we need what I described last season as one “red hot” line and, in truth, we never produced that line last season which is why we never quite made it in those two missing majors.
For me, the key line will again be the SMS line of Susters/McEwen/Stepanek. We know the Ferrara/Billing/Padelek line will be there every night and they will churn out regular performances and points through the season as they did last time out but we need that SMS line to ignite if we want to chase down that top spot.
If I was asked to rank our roster in order of individual talent, I’d rank all three of the SMS line in the top five and if somebody suggested they were the top three then I wouldn’t argue so the potential to be not only that “red hot” line but the best and most formidable line in the NIHL is there and we need that potential to be realised in order to make the jump from “top four” to #1. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know why that line doesn’t quite work, whether its confusion over roles, whether its feeling uncomfortable with those roles or whether it is a simple lack of chemistry, I really don’t know. What I do know is that to realise that potential needs them to move the puck around in such a cohesive and telepathic way that they can almost play blindfolded because they know each others games so well that they know exactly where they will be at any time. That isn’t happening and it should be happening given how long they have been together.
So …… top four for Phantoms and if you really push me hard then I’ll go for another second place but, once again, first place is within our reach if we can just get that one “red hot” line working that will see us home in tight games where teams are well matched ….. and you can be assured there will be plenty of those in the months ahead !
Based on some very sketchy logic and theories, here’s my final league table for 2019/2010 …….
- Hull PIRATES
- Peterborough PHANTOMS
- Basingstoke BISON
- Swindon WILDCATS
- MK LIGHTNING
- Telford TIGERS
- Sheffield STEELDOGS
- Romford RAIDERS
- Bracknell BEES
- Leeds CHIEFS