The Erhardt Conference looks as strong as ever following Coventry Blaze’s switch to the newly formed Patton Conference.
Left behind are the true Elite League heavyweights – last season’s double winners Cardiff Devils; play-off champions Sheffield Steelers; Continental Cup champions Nottingham Panthers, and the Belfast Giants who finished as runners-up in the league last term.
With this season set to be one of the closest we have ever seen, the race for silverware is truly anyone’s for the taking.
That said, do not be surprised if the three domestic cups up for grabs end up exclusively in the hands of one or a handful of the following four sides.Nottingham Panthers
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 1st in the Erhardt Conference
Key additions: Evan Mosey, RW; Zack Phillips, C; Mike Garnett, G; Mark Derlago, LW
Key departures: Brad Moran, C; Alex Nikiforuk, FW; Brian McGrattan, RW; Miika Wiikman, G
Nottingham’s 2016/17 season was your proverbial mixed bag. Indifference and inconsistency on the domestic stage was tempered by the fact Corey Neilson’s side became the first ever British club to win a European competition, claiming the Continental Cup earlier this year and, with it, qualification to the Champions Hockey League (CHL).
Neilson himself conceded soon after the conclusion of last season that it was an inability to fix an ailing defence that cost his side last year.
Versatile forwards Logan MacMillan and Erik Lindhagen often deputised for the Panthers at the back end, making their defence one of the key priorities for Neilson to fix heading into the new season.
Their recruitment on paper has been positive. With one eye on the here and now and one on the future, the Panthers have secured some top British talent and some excellent looking imports.
Replacing the netminding trio of Miika Wiikman, Jindrich Pacl and Dan Green are former NHL and KHL goalie Mike Garnett, young Russian prospect Eduard Zakharchenko, and Brit Sam Gospel – with the Panthers going down a two-import netminder route once again.
Nottingham’s search for a return to silverware domestically has also seen the acquisition of some big name skaters, at least on paper.
You may want to look out for Brett Perlini, the older brother of current Arizona Coyotes forward Brendan Perlini.
Or perhaps former Vancouver Canucks defenceman Yann Sauve, former Minnesota Wild prospect Raphael Bussierres and ex NHL first round draft pick Zack Phillips who have all arrived in the East Midlands.
The Panthers also captured prolific forward Mark Derlago, and Alexander Mokshantsev from KHL side Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Josh Shalla, meanwhile, has been in good form in the early part of their CHL campaign.
And complementing them is the return of fan favourite Evan Mosey following a season away with AHL side Rockford IceHogs.
Gelling them together and shaping a winning side is always the key, but Nottingham’s roster looks well placed to challenge on all fronts.
It is exactly what the Panthers front office will hope when the puck drops this month as Nottingham will be expected to push their league rivals all the way in the hunt for honours this term.Cardiff Devils
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 2nd in the Erhardt Conference
Key additions: Justin Faryna, RW; Drew Paris, D; Bryce Reddick, D; Matt Pope, C/LW
Key departures: Guillaume Doucet, RW; Scott Hotham, D; Patrick Bordeleau, LW; Chris Culligan, C
Beaten in the 2017 play-off final after a thrilling double-overtime against the Sheffield Steelers, the 2016/17 season was still a truly special one for Andrew Lord’s Devils having won the league title for the first time in the Elite League era and the Challenge Cup to boot.
And qualification for the Champions Hockey League has delivered an exciting European adventure for a side who have remained largely, and unusually by EIHL standards, intact following an historic season.
Only five new imports have strolled through the door at Ice Arena Wales, with the core of their double winning squad remaining in place.
Chief among them is star Canadian defenceman, and reigning EIHL player-of-the-year, Andrew Hotham who has re-signed for a fourth season.
The retirement of Chris Culligan is a blow and the departure of former NHLer Patrick Bordeleau means this Cardiff side arguably do not carry the glitz they had last season, but they are still a force to be reckoned with.
Lord is a top player/coach in this league and, with Cardiff’s budget, playing four lines and carrying spare imports beyond the 14 on the ice limit is par for the course.
They managed to snag a star at this level in former Dundee Stars winger Justin Faryna who quite literally packs a punch while also combining a deadly streak in front of goal too.
He will not be relied upon to find the net as much as he was with a low-budget Dundee side, yet you can be sure that the Canadian is more than capable of slotting into whatever role Lord sees fit.
Their raid on Tayside did not end there as they also captured promising 21-year-old British defenceman Craig Moore as well.
It is likely Moore’s ice time will come predominantly in his second position as a forward rather than at the back, with Lord presumably viewing the Scot as more of a developmental prospect than a starter.
Nevertheless, with strength in depth to make other sides spit with envy and plenty of combinations up his sleeve, Lord and the Devils are well placed to repeat their trophy haul from a year ago heading into an intriguing 2017/18 season.Sheffield Steelers
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 3rd in the Erhardt Conference
Key additions: Tim Wallace, C; Joonas Ronnberg, D; Matt Marquardt, LW; Mark Matheson, D
Key departures: Guillaume Desbiens, RW; Luke Ferrara, RW; Jace Coyle, D; Anders Franzon, D
Last season was underwhelming by Sheffield’s high standards, but they had the last laugh as they claimed the play-off trophy following a thrilling victory over the Cardiff Devils in April.
It was a campaign in which the Steelers had to make do with playing second fiddle in each of the other two domestic competitions – losing out to the South Wales side in both the league and Challenge Cup.
And their determination to claim silverware once more is typical of a side with a lust and penchant for success.
Their recruitment began speedily under the watchful eye of head coach and GM Paul Thompson and was completed well before anyone else, with the arrival of Canadian defenceman Scott Aarssen from Braehead Clan coming as early as 7 July.
Eight new faces and half a dozen departures means this year’s edition of the Steelers squad will have a combination of freshness and continuity about it.
Crucially the club managed to hang on to the likes of star forwards Mathieu Roy and Colton Fretter, while also retaining netminder Ervins Mustukovs and defenceman Zack Fitzgerald.
The new U23 rule for British players did however take its toll with Luke Ferrara reluctantly released by the club to allow the Steelers to offer professional deals to young U23 forwards Cole Shudra and Liam Kirk.
The Steelers though look to have the perfect blend of youth and experience, grit and finesse, and toughness and skill – crucial components in any balanced and, more importantly, successful side.
Look then, as always, for Sheffield to be sniffing around the domestic trophies and to be battling up at the right end of the table.
And they will be especially determined to regain the league title they surrendered to Cardiff a year ago.
Their knack for winning and the culture of success that has been forged in the Steel City since the formation of the Elite League in 2003 means that anything less than winning trophies year-to-year is considered a failure.
It will be a tough task owing to how competitive a conference theirs will be. This is especially true considering the fine margins that could realistically see any of the four sides emerge victorious.Belfast Giants
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 4th in the Erhardt Conference
Key additions: Jonathan Ferland, RW; Sebastien Sylvestre, C; Dustin Johner, FW; Cole Jarrett, D
Key departures: Mike Forney, LW; James Desmarais, C; Derrick Walser, D; Jerome Leduc, D
It is all change at SSE Arena Belfast following the departure of player/coach Derrick Walser after two seasons in the role.
The Giants’ Head of Hockey Operations Steve Thornton did not have to look far for his replacement though, promoting Belfast captain Adam Keefe to the position of head coach – a move that strangely provides a sense of continuity amidst change.
Veteran Belfast players Brandon Benedict and ex NHLer Jim Vandermeer, who both return for the 2017/18 season, simultaneously take on the additional role of assistant coaches alongside the Giants’ incumbent veteran assistant Rob Stewart.
They came to within touching distance of winning the Elite League out right, but last season will be remembered as one of what might have been with Belfast edged out in each of the domestic competitions.
However, a fresh recruitment drive has seen Keefe combine the youthful promise of the likes of Sebastien Sylvestre, Kevin Raine and Darcy Murphy with the veteran presence of Dustin Johner, Jonathan Ferland and Cole Jarrett.
And the Canadian will be keen to start as he means to go on in a bid to end Belfast’s trophy drought in year one.
Despite having laid claim to three EIHL regular season titles, two play-off championships and one Challenge Cup title, the Giants have not won anything since 2014 when they last won the league.
You have to go even further back, to 2010, for their last play-off success and to 2009 for the only time they have lifted the Challenge Cup, so it is clear where Keefe and co. need to improve moving forward.
Having lost the experience of Mike Forney, James Desmarais and Matt Nickerson, the mantle will fall on former captain Colin Shields who, at 37, proved he can also still deliver in front of goal last term.
Keefe wasted little time in appointing winger Blair Riley as captain heading into the new campaign, with Belfast trying to find a winning blend to complement their strong league finishes in recent years.
This conference is well and truly up for grabs but Belfast appear to be something of outsiders in the race for the Erhardt title despite a promising off-season of recruitment.
Stock EIHL Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals