The Elite League’s expansion to three conferences ahead of this season means all eyes will be on the newly formed Patton Conference, and with good reason.
Comprising of the league’s new boys Milton Keynes Lighting and Guildford Flames, alongside the ambitious Manchester Storm and the Coventry Blaze, determining the destiny of the Patton Conference title looks to be an impossibility owing to how wide open the race is set to be.
It goes without saying that Milton Keynes and Guildford, who have stepped up from the now defunct English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL), are not simply going to make up the numbers. Indeed recruitment has been strong among them both.
And with Manchester Storm looking well equipped for a Conference push and Coventry desperate to lay the demons of last season to rest, we look to be in for an enthralling race in this conference –perhaps more so than the other two.
Time will tell then whether the four Patton sides can arrest the Erhardt dominance of the recent past in what is set to be one of the most wide open races for silverware in years.Manchester Storm
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 1st in the Patton Conference
Key additions: Matt Beca, FW; Jay Rosehill, LW; Dane Byers, LW; Mike Hammond, FW
Key departures: Darian Dziurzynski, LW; Paul Phillips, D; Trevor Johnson, D; Eric Neilson, RW
Manchester Storm enter a new era, and a new conference, with Ryan Finnerty’s arrival as head coach following in the footsteps of the much talked about Gordon Greig led takeover of the club.
The Storm made the Elite League post-season for the first time in franchise history last term, pipping Coventry into 8th place in what turned out to be Omar Pacha’s last year in charge.
Rumours linking Finnerty with a move to Manchester were rife when he was finally confirmed as Storm’s main man following a tumultuous end to his four years at Braehead Clan.
His arrival heralds the beginning of a new ambitious era and you can be sure the Canadian arrives with a point to prove having never quite delivered the silverware that everyone in Glasgow craved.
And his recruitment has matched the belief that the Storm are on the cusp of something special, with three of last year’s imports – netminder Mike Clemente, defenceman Dallas Ehrhardt and centre Matt Bissonnette – all returning.
Finnerty has recruited both size and speed. Crucial components in any hockey side they may be but, on the smallest ice in the league at Altrincham, it’s a potentially winning combination.
The toughness of ex NHLer Jay Rosehill and the firepower of Matt Beca and Mike Hammond not only represented something of a raid on his former employers, but also mean Manchester are well equipped.
With the speed to stretch the play, combined with the physicality that Rosehill, Dane Byers and their defensive unit promise to bring, it suggests that few teams will enjoy visiting the Storm this campaign.
It is, however, something of a work in progress. Off the ice the Storm still need to justify that Altrincham is an arena that will make and not lose money in the long term.
And on it they will need to navigate a saturated conference full of three other sides more than capable of launching a Conference push of their own.
If they can make Altrincham something of a fortress then Finnerty’s side may well spring a surprise this year. With a wide open conference, and indeed entire league, Manchester could be one to watch.Coventry Blaze
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 2nd in the Patton Conference
Key additions: Ryan Dingle, C; Kevin Nastiuk, G; Marc-Olivier Vallerand, RW; Adam Courchaine, C/LW
Key departures: Barry Almeida, RW; Brian Stewart, G; T.J. Syner, LW; Matt Marquardt, LW
Coventry Blaze will be looking for a bounce-back season having missed the play-offs for the first time in the Elite League era in 2016/17.
Danny Stewart’s first year as head coach following his arrival from the Fife Flyers was a turbulent one, indeed common consensus was that he was perhaps fortunate to remain in his post.
Roster changes mid-way through the season ran parallel to some disappointing on-ice form as the Blaze endured their most difficult season since the EIHL was formed in 2003.
In the end 43 points and a 9th placed finish was hardly the dream start Stewart would have wanted to life at the SkyDome, though things are hardly doom and gloom now.
There is no doubting, though, the baptism of fire would have done Stewart and Director of Hockey Operations James Pease the world of good, and having switched conferences the onus will be on Coventry to respond to last season’s shortcomings.
Their conference form last year was nothing short of abysmal and it was only their wins in cross-conference fixtures that kept their hopes of squeezing into the top eight alive.
There were allusions that much of last year’s roster was not comprised of players of Stewart’s choosing, particularly given the large amount of returnees from the previous year.
But with the departures of long-serving Blaze players Russell Cowley and Ashley Tait, combined with the exits of the likes of Brian Stewart and Jim Jorgensen, Stewart has had the opportunity to shape the roster in his own image.
They will lean heavily on new arrivals Marc-Olivier Vallerand and Adam Courchaine for the goals, two players who have put up good numbers wherever they have played, while the arrival of Brit forward Luke Ferrara from the Sheffield Steelers is also a good pick-up.
The experience and prolific finishing, meanwhile, of former Fife Flyers captain Ryan Dingle will be invaluable on the ice, a player criminally underrated by league observers.
In the newly formed Patton Conference it is truly anyone’s for the taking. And Coventry will rightly fancy their chances of a strong year if they can register some strong conference form of the kind that evaded them so spectacularly last term.Milton Keynes Lightning
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 3rd in the Patton Conference
Key additions: Guillaume Doucet, RW; Matt Nickerson, D; Kevin King, RW; Carl Hudson, D
Key departures: Milan Baranyk, RW; Leigh Jamieson, D; Antti Holli, LW; Jordan Cownie, C
Milton Keynes Lightning’s long awaited step up to Elite League level has finally arrived having first been announced way back in March 2016, with the Buckinghamshire club forming one half of the expansion teams.
The move has been met with a fresh takeover by Graham and Monica Moody, and with it a logo re-brand, as MK get set for their first ever taste of top level hockey since their formation in 2002.
Their recruitment, overseen by Lightning and GB national team coach Pete Russell, has been strong and was concluded well before the beginning of pre-season which will give the MK coaching staff plenty of opportunities to blood them before the season opener in September.
Deliberate or not, Milton Keynes have largely managed to bring in imports who will be familiar with each other, if not always necessarily the Elite League.
Raiding French Ligue Magnus champions Gap for three imports, the Lightning have the makings of a strong line should they choose to pair Canadian wingers Kevin King, the Lightning’s new captain, and Kyle Essery either side of American centre Christian Isackson.
At the back, the arrival of Matt Nickerson from the Belfast Giants not only equips them with four seasons worth of Elite League experience (two with Fife, two with Belfast) but gives them one of the toughest players around at this level.
Jonathan Boxill’s move from Northern Ireland to England also strengthens their Brit pack as does the arrival of promising Scottish forward Alex Forbes, while Guillaume Doucet – a class act in this league – and Denny Kearney arrive fresh off the back of helping Cardiff to the double last season.
Make no mistake, MK will not be pushovers this campaign and nor were they ever likely to be. Their roster is full of playmaking ability and the necessary experience as they acclimatise to the step up in class the Elite League will throw at them.
Whether they have enough in year one to challenge for the Patton Conference title remains to be seen, but they are sure to play their part in a conference that promises to be perhaps the most open out of the three.Guildford Flames
The Student Sport’s Prediction: 4th in the Patton Conference
Key additions: John Dunbar, FW; David Lilliestrom Karlsson, C; Brian Stewart, G; Mikael Lidhammar, LW/RW
Key departures: Marek Maslonka, FW; Matic Kralj, LW; Daniel Meyers, D; Dean Skinns, G
Guildford’s ascent to the Elite League was confirmed in February 2017 when they took the second expansion place that saw the league increase to 12 teams from September.
It is, however, fair to say that league observers are more likely to emphasise Milton Keynes’ prospects of a strong first season than those of the Surrey side.
That is rather unfair in truth. With predictions based purely on paper with tenuous comments made about recruitment, Guildford are in fact well placed to make a success of their maiden EIHL season.
Head coach Paul Dixon’s recruitment, like MK and several other sides in the league, has focused on snagging players from the same employers.
Three players arrive from Conference rivals the Coventry Blaze with former EIHL netminder of the year Brian Stewart, Welsh centre Ben Davies and Liam Stewart – the son of Rod Stewart – all committing their futures to the Guildford Spectrum.
Elsewhere, Swedes Carl Ackered and David Lilliestrom Karlsson have both swapped Ostersunds IK of the Hockeyettan for England, while Canadians Brennan Yadlowski and Rhett Rachinski have both signed their first pro deals fresh out of the University of Alberta.
The addition of Swedish winger Mikael Lidhammar from the Dundee Stars will provide Guildford with two seasons of EIHL know-how, and the arrival of promising English defenceman Adam Jones from Telford Tigers bolsters their Brit corps.
Guildford will enter the season as one of the most intriguing sides to watch in 2017/18. They will step out on the ice in a wide open conference and will fancy their chances of causing an upset or two this campaign.
But despite the optimism emanating out of a franchise with a history of winning, the Flames are unlikely to be in the frame for the Patton Conference in year one.
Manchester, Coventry and MK look stronger – on paper if nothing else – leaving Guildford as the best of the rest and battling to avoid propping up the rest of the conference.
Should the Flames manage to be competitive in a tight looking league and conference, and if they were to make the play-offs in their first year in the top flight, that should be considered a success.
Stock EIHL Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals