Tonight is the first game of the Swindon Wildcats winter, so it’s time to put my head on the line once again and say where I think each team will be finishing this season, and the players I think it’s worth keeping an eye on over the course of the campaign.
10th – Bracknell Bees
It’s been yet another tough off-season for the Bees, but they survived the prospect of going bust, and live to survive another day. Lukas Smital has built a young roster, with a few promising young British forwards but there isn’t much experience in the roster. The imports (Smital aside) are generally young and unproven. It could be a case that Smital has unearthed a gem like Telford did with Tomas Karpov. The Bees goal threats seem to be Luka Basic, Krystof Kafan and the familiar names like Smital, Galazzi and Scott Spearing.
Unfortunately for Bees fans I don’t see them finishing anywhere other than 10th. They’ll cause a few upsets along the season and with the new management, they’re going to much stronger off the ice. This is going to be a long building process in Bracknell, with Lukas Smital at the club they’ve got the right man to be in charge.
OTP One To Watch: Luka Basic
9th – Sheffield Steeldogs
This Sheffield team is an interesting one, they’ve got some very good imports in Arnoldas Bosas & Donatas Kumeliauskas but I do think their Brit pack is lacking the scoring touch a bit. Tom Squires will be a massive loss, and I think the duo of Liam Kirk and Cole Shudra may be quality prospects but to be the leading Brits for Sheffield will be a massive ask. I mentioned the imports being good and the duo of Bosas and Kumeliauskas will cause havoc in the EPL, they’ll both be in the top 10 EPL point scorers. The netminding of James Hadfield will be something to keep an eye one as well, a talented player but coming off a year out injured to an EPL starter is going to be a tough job.
This Dogs team reminds me of the Bees team a few years ago. Pinc and Cesky tore the league up and the Bees just missed out on the playoffs. I think the Dogs will be similar. They’re going to make a very good run at the top 8, I just think they’ll be the unlucky side to come up a little short come March.
OTP One To Watch: James Hadfield
8th – Manchester Phoenix
Another crazy off-season for the Phoenix, another temporary home this time further north in Blackpool. Although the promise is there of EPL hockey in Manchester by November. We’ll wait and see on that front (no puns intended). Much of the same really for Manchester at the back-end of the team. The household names like Boothroyd, Fone, Wood and Neil are all there but up front it is much different. The likes of Archer & Corson-Heron have moved on and as we write this only replaced by Edgars Bebris, who’s sure to be a hit with the Phoenix fans, even if he has Steeldogs links.
The imports look top drawer again, we know what Robin Kovar can bring, but the new duo of Roman Malinik and in particular Jakub Langhammer look like they could be real threats in the EPL. They’re going to rack up ice time and they should rack up points. Plus, let’s be honest when does Tony Hand sign bad import forwards? They need more British depth if they want to be nearer the top 4 but unfortunately I don’t see where they can get that at this stage of the season. They’ll be competitive and if they get their move back home, they’ll win games in Manchester, for now though I see this team in 8th place.
OTP One To Watch – Jakub Langhammer
7th – Hull Pirates
Second season for the Pirates and they’ve had their first full summer to recruit. Dom Osman hasn’t wasted his opportunity and some good players have joined the Pirate ship. Jason Hewitt, Ryan Watt, Lee Haywood and Nathan Salem give them some real strong British depth to complement the likes of Bonner and Gent who they relied on last year. The main question mark I have about this team is the netminding. Jordan Marr is good, but I’m not sure he’ll be consistent enough for 54 games over a season. That said, if he surprises me the Pirates have a very good team, and will be higher than 7th.
The imports will be solid enough, Stan Lascek has scored points at every club he’s played for in the EPL. Ugnius Cizas and Andrej Themar look decent enough and Jaroslav Sarsok will be a towering D man at the back. Ultimately I see a massive improvement on the team that finished the season in Hull but again, it’s a developing process.
OTP One To Watch – Lee Bonner
6th – Peterborough Phantoms
They say offense wins you games and defence wins you championships. I don’t think the defence in Peterborough is enough to win silverware but I think it’ll be strong enough for a top 6 finish. Janis Auzins will be absolutely massive for the Phantoms this season. If he plays at his best, they’ll be hard to score on and thus hard to beat. With the likes of Tom Norton, Scott Robson & Rob Ferrara in front of him, opponents will definitely have their work cut out. The Phantoms have lost a lot of firepower this summer with Craig Scott, Milan Baranyk and Edgars Bebris moving on. James Archer and Marc Levers will be relied upon as will Darius Pliskauskas and new arrival Petr Stepanek.
The Phantoms may not be a free-flowing as in previous years but perhaps a focus more on the defensive side of the game will suit them this year. Slava has proved to be a shrewd coach in the league and is someone who’ll get a lot out of the likes of Owen Griffiths, Sam Towner and Martins Susters. The netminding of Auzins will help them to a 6th spot finish in my eyes.
OTP One To Watch – Tom Norton
5th – Swindon Wildcats
The summer has been a steady one in Swindon. Not too many changes and a team which is much of the same. Mark Smith and Max Birbraer the only two completely new faces to the side which should make it easier for the team to gel into the first few weeks of the season. The OHA graduates will provide a breath of fresh air and they’re going to be determined to take their chances when they come to them. Adam Finlinson in particular certainly has the potential to go a long way in the EPL. The top line will cause trouble in every ice rink but the depth scoring will need to improve for the Cats to make it into the top 4.
Stevie Lyle in the pipes will relish the chance to focus purely on the netminding aspect again and will be at his best once again. Callum Buglass has had a very impressive pre-season for Cardiff and will be looking to make a real step forward again this season.Ultimately Aaron has assembled a good side, with a lot of experience and potential. I’m really excited to see what he can bring out of this team this season.
OTP One To Watch – Callum Buglass
4th – Guildford Flames
Last years playoff winners haven’t made too many changes either. Mike Will has joined to provide netminding cover and Sam Waller has joined up to increase the potential of the best defensive unit in the EPL in my opinion. The D in front of Ullberg was the reason the Flames won the playoffs in the way they did. They were spectacular in the playoffs and will make the Flames incredibly hard to beat again. Sam Waller only improves this unit who at times was only 4 men strong last year.
Up front the Flames will struggle with the loss of Lee Esders and more prominently Matt Towe. They also have only 9 forwards on the roster, whilst every forward they have is good I think depth may cause them a couple of problems this year. There is a lot of hockey to play in the EPL and with just the 9 forwards if they find themselves with an injury or two I think they’ll begin to come unstuck no matter how good the defence is.
OTP One To Watch – Ben Campbell
3rd – Basingstoke Bison
The league champions didn’t need to change the roster up, they were the best side last year for a reason. Adding Vanya Antonov and Lewis Turner from Bracknell only increases the strength of the side. Peter Polodna will be relied upon to replace the points of Joe Greener who retired. Tomas Hiadlovsky will be strong between the pipes again and hopefully will be playing the entire season and can stay injury free.
Familiar Bison names such as Ciaran Long, Aaron Connolly, Alan Lack and Tomas Karpov will be threats as usual but a team like this is used to winning and they’ll be contending once again this season without a doubt. Even the late departure of Miroslav Vantroba won’t be enough to stop the Bison finishing top 3 in my opinion. No matter what state the rink might be in, the Bison ice rink will be a formidable place to go and play again this year.
OTP One To Watch – Vanya Antonov
2nd – Telford Tigers
I’d said all summer, Telford’s finishing position would depend on their import signings. Ondrej Raszka, Doug Clarkson, Milan Kolena, Michal Satek and Jason Silverthorn may be the best import line up in the league. This is before you add GB internationals Jonathan Weaver and Matty Davies. This is a very well put together team. Tom Watkins has done well, he addressed the changes that had to be made and as recruited well this summer.
They’ve got good depth, they’ve got goals, they’ve got speed and they’ve got very good netminding. There isn’t much this Telford team doesn’t have and their opening pre-season results will be things to smile about for the Tigers fan base. Ultimately, I see only one thing stopping them from winning the league this year and that’s the MK Lightning.
OTP One To Watch – Matty Davies
1st – MK Lightning
In what will be their final EPL season the Lightning recruited quickly to secure a roster worthy of winning the league. Przemyslaw Odrobny will be up there with the best in the UK this year let alone the EPL. The defence looks very strong with the familiar names of Farn, Jamieson, Christie & Griffin all returning. Up front Mikolaj Lopuski could be a real find. Frankie Bakrlik will be at his usual destructive best, the Peterborough duo of Craig Scott and Milan Baranyk will score for fun. Tom Carlon is no slouch in the EPL even if he has been away for a year and I’ve not even mentioned the tremendous duo of Lewis Hook and Jordan Cownie.
This MK team has everything, strength in-depth, strong imports, exciting young British players. I can’t see past them in the title race. With Pete Russell on the bench as well they’re going to be chomping at the bit to make sure their last EPL season will be a memorable one. They’ve got ticks in all the boxes and for me will be league champions come March.
OTP One To Watch – Mikolaj Lopuski
So there we have it, the predictions are down. Watch me be totally wrong by March but hey, it’s only a bit of fun!
The EPL is back, enjoy the season!!