So we’ve seen the Gardiner Conference reviewer by Marty. This time around John turns the attention to the Erhardt Conference, or as many are calling it; the Arena Teams.
The Belfast Giants, the Cardiff Devils, the Nottingham Panthers and the Sheffield Steelers will duke it out for conference silverware and perhaps even the league trophy itself, the Monteith Bowl. The four teams look to each other as the main competitors for all four trophies on offer this year and look at the other two conferences as likely fodder in their wake.
Let’s see how things ended last season and how things might go this time around.
First thing’s first, we wear teal-tinted spectacles here, so we make no apologies if people feel we are either over or under critical of the Giants.
As things stood at the end of the 2016/17 season, the Giants were a solid top end mid-table team. A comfortable run through the initial stages of the Challenge Cup, a fairly well intended shot at the League (with a second place finish) and a Playoff run that was ended by a shutout to the Sheffield Steelers. But what was the story of the year? Great on the road, woeful at home.
The outgoing Derrick Walser saw out a second year at the helm as player-coach and we saw a distinctly different kind of team as he was able to deliver his own image, rather than take the reigns of one that was picked for him. We didn’t get the “clean house” as he often alluded to, and with a majority returning team with a few notable exceptions including Blair Riley (a revelation) and Jackson Whistle, to name but two, the team moved onwards but unfortunately not upwards.
Stand out players were never hard to come by though, with the ever indomitable figure of Colin Shields posting 26 goals, 23 assists for 49 points in the regular season, with another 2 goals and 4 assists for 6 points in the post season, for a year total of 55 points for the Giants. Epic! Mark Garside, the quiet and often unsung (no pun intended to the singer that he is) hero of the Giants also had another quiet but highly influential year, working away quietly for the team.
This season though, we see a far more changed teal squad most poignantly highlighted by the appointment of ‘Coach Keefe’. Belfast’s #47 Adam Keefe follows in the footsteps of his brother Sheldon and steps behind the bench to lead his first campaign for silverware in a shirt and tie rather than a sweaty jersey. Wasting no time, Keefe has made some statement signings, with everything from veteran leadership in the form of defenceman Jonathan Ferland; and youthful potential in the likes of forwards Spiro Goulakos and Kevin Raine.This year sees the first signing from the Friendship Four tournament in the 24 year old forward Darcy Murphy, who last played in the SSE Arena with Colgate University in 2015.
The 2017/18 Belfast Giants are shaping up to be a team to be feared in the EIHL and hopefully (from this clearly unbiased writers’ point of view) the SSE Arena will once again become the fortress it once was. However, as the only team in the Erhardt Conference not taking part in European hockey either through the CHL or Continental Cup, can the Giants capitalise on the fuller schedule of their conference rivals to secure a trophy or two for the first time in a few years?
EIHL League and Erhardt Conference Champions, Challenge Cup Runners Up & 2nd Place at Playoffs.
The Sheffield Steelers….what can be said….well, Thommo’s men ended the 2016/17 season as 3rd place runners up in the league and as Playoff Champions. The result? The Steelers will take up the EIHL’s automatic Continental Cup slot in the 2017/18 season. What does that mean for their domestic season to come? Who knows!? The past curse of EIHL teams competing in European hockey tournaments at the expense of their home league performance seems to have been lifted (unless you’re the Nottingham Panthers that is) and Paul Thompson is clearly one of the most talented coaches in the Elite League (ouch, that hurt) who could pull off something spectacular given the right group of players under his wing.
The Steelers recruited early and they recruited hard for the season to come, having filled their roster by the middle of the summer. Some returning names come as no surprise for the Steelers, with goaltender Ervins Mustukovs going back between the pipes and forwards Mathieu Roy and Colton Fretter, amongst others all signing up for another season. New faces to Sheffield include some big internal EIHL grabs, such Scott Aarssen for the Clan and Matt Marquardt from the Blaze but new names to the league are also well worth some attention from teams around the country.
Swedish born forward Jonas Westerling comes from Södertälje SK where he posted 12 points in 10 games in postseason (4 goals and 8 assists) and more excitingly, young 16 year old British born Kieran Brown comes to the Steelers having played his hockey for the last two years for the Iowa Wild, having posted 74 points in 73 games at under 16 level.
All-in-all, the Steelers have a roster with strength and depth, but also with a fine balance of youth and experience – but can it produce the goods both at home in the EIHL as well as in Europe, or will the strain show?
2nd Round Knockout in Continental Cup, 3rd Place in EIHL and Erhardt Conference.
The 2016/17 season was one both bitter and sweet for the Nottingham Panthers. Coach Corey Neilson had his eyes on one prize seemingly, the Continental Cup, which they took part in following their Playoff success in 2016. This was clear from the off, with a team which was far more suited to competing against faster, more puck-happy ‘euro hockey’. Nothing should be taken away from that, as the Panthers became the first EIHL team to successfully reach the final of the competition, and walk away with the ‘trophy’ (dinner plate) no less, and along with it, the Elite League’s third entry into the Champions Hockey League for 2017/18! However, this was to be at the expense of their domestic season.
A fourth place finish in the league and a loss at the quarter final stage of playoffs capped off a significant failure to perform on a domestic level, much to the concern of the fan base, let alone the very public displays of disenchantment with the teams’ ownership. Regardless, Corey Neilson remains for another season with the Panthers along with their somewhat lacklustre on-ice inflatable mascot, and in the summer, has made a swath of changes to their roster.
Out goes Mikka Wiikman from between the pipes along with Brit Dan Green, and in comes a new netminding trio; Ukrainian Eduard Zakharchenko, Canadian Michael Garnett and from the Telford Tigers, young Brit Sam Gospel. Gospel isn’t the only young Brit getting a shot with the Panthers this season however, with new signings Joseph Hazeldine, Joshua Tetlow and Jordan Kelsall also signing up to wear yellow. How much ice time they will see remains to be seen, however, credit where it is due to the Nottingham outfit for giving these young Brits the chance to play as the next generation of GB players starts to make their way through the ranks.
The Panthers won’t be relying on youth alone however as amongst the few but notable names to remain with the team such as Robert Farmer and Robert Lachowitcz, comes the return of Evan Mosey from a year away in the AHL/ECHL and off the back of a successful gold medal World Championships with Team GB.
There’s fresh foreign blood coming into the team too, with worth mentions for the likes of defenceman Mathieu Brisebois and forward Raphael Bussieres, but the stand-out name (to my untrained eyes) seems to be the signing of Canadian forward Mark Derlago with an outstanding season in the Asia League behind him with 62 points in 54 games (and 66 points in 50 games the previous season!).
Can this seeming points-machine make the difference for the Panthers as they look to shake their European v Domestic curse? We’ll see, but I find it hard to believe…
1st Round Knockout in CHL, 5th Place in EIHL, 4th in Erhardt Conference. Challenge Cup Champions
What can be said about the Cardiff Devils that hasn’t been said already? A team that a few seasons ago were playing out of a glorified tent, were in substantial problems relating to the on-ice product as well as embroiled in off-ice issues as well, with ownership and fans at loggerheads.
But then, something happened, and it came from Belfast….by way of Canada, ‘The Kelman Era’ began. A new ethos, a new coach, a new arena, and what came with all that? Success and trophies in 2016/17, and a triple no less. The Devils captured not only the Erhardt Conference but also the Challenge Cup and EIHL League trophies all finding a new home in the cabinets of the all-new Ice Arena Wales. With that success, a place in the CHL beckons and with that in mind, Player-Coach Andrew Lord has taken the best of his championship squad and….well, done some tinkering and not much else!
With one retirement, two foreign leavers and a couple of poaches by new kids on the block, the MK Lightening. Lord moved quickly to retain the core of what proved to be the strongest squad by some ways last year and made some key signings to bolster that. Devils’ mainstays such as Joey Martin, Matthew Myres and Andrew Hotham will remain in red for at least another season, along with the Devils now franchise name and GB #1 starting netminder, Ben Bowns staying put in front of the twine.
In all, the Devils will see 14 players remain with the team, but Coach Lord hasn’t rested on his laurels and has done some local poaching of his own by signing not one, but two former Dundee Stars, in the shape of young 22 year old Scottish defenceman Craig Moore and the ever impressive Canadian forward Justin Faryna. Faryna proved to be a natural goal scorer and creator, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Having 86 and 151 penalty minutes over the previous two seasons with the Stars, makes him a perfect fit for the Cardiff Devils.
The Devils have also been a team to sign young local talent, with 22 year old Cardiff born Callum Buglass signing a two-way deal along with the Cardiff Fire; another sign of teams starting to look towards the development of future talent, but they haven’t just looked at local talent. Defencemen Drew Paris and Bryce Reddick bring with them a wealth of experience from European leagues, a sign of intent for the CHL perhaps from Andrew Lord?
In a similar vein to both the Panthers and the Steelers, will European hockey come at the price of domestic success…?
2nd Round Knockout in CHL, 2nd Place in EIHL, Playoff Champions.
So what do you make of John’s predictions on the Erhardt Conference? Do you agree, disagree, or want to comment on anything? If so, let us know on Twitter @Door14Hockey or on Facebook or even just follow us there!