A new owner, new coach and a new beginning. After two years of consolidation you get the feeling that expectations have been ramped up a notch ahead of year three at Manchester Storm, and that should not come as the greatest surprise.
The new three conference structure leaves the field wide open when it comes to predicting the contenders in the Elite League, and all the moves coming out of Altrincham point to Manchester being amongst them.
In Ryan Finnerty they have an experienced campaigner, that much is obvious. But he also moves south after an ignominious ending to his (largely successful) stint at Braehead Clan. To say that he has a chip on his shoulder may be a gross understatement.
And it seems like the perfect fit. Here we have a coach who will be desperate to deliver what he could not in Glasgow – play-off success.
Conference titles lay the foundations for a deep play-off run, but they also simultaneously increase the expectations – something Finnerty was never able to placate during his four years in Scotland.
Now it would be wrong to expect everything to fall into place in year one. It is a developmental process. Finnerty himself would say as much having achieved near conference domination without ever translating that to the post-season.
But what Storm have done is begin to put those pieces in place. An impressive recruitment drive – at least on paper – has followed the much anticipated Gordon Greig led takeover.
Big names do not always deliver results and they come with no guarantees – again, ask Finnerty about that. They do however help to grow the team both on and off the ice, something Braehead for the most part did rather well under his stewardship.
He joins another ambitious organisation who are not content to make up the numbers. Under predecessor Omar Pacha they tasted play-off hockey for the first time last season and the framework being put into place under his successor would suggest this is just the start of something much bigger.
In the likes of Jay Rosehill, one of three who have joined their former coach in swapping Braehead for Manchester, and former NHLer Dane Byers, arguably one of the most decorated players to ever move to the EIHL, the Storm are building a mean roster.
On a small ice pad, indeed the smallest in the league, Manchester will do well to combine the speed and toughness Finnerty clearly desires. At this early juncture it certainly appears as if Manchester are sitting pretty.
The arrival of Canadian centre Shane Bakker on Monday completed a menacing looking forward corps. With the grittiness of Rosehill, the scoring capability of the likes of Byers and Matt Beca, alongside the intriguing Mike Hammond and Luke Moffatt, Storm will be no pushovers next campaign.
Defensively Finnerty is recruiting size. The re-signings of Dallas Ehrhardt and Paul Swindlehurst and the acquisition of English defenseman Declan Balmer from Basingstoke Bison would suggest as much.
However size, like other misleading stats, is not everything. Sure it gives an indication of how things might shape up but does little to divulge how things will slot into place once that puck drops in September.
Arguably it is in the ‘D zone’ where Finnerty has the most to prove. It was not for the want of trying but Braehead’s defence last season was woefully sub-par, acting as the catalyst for an underwhelming season that concluded with the Canadian packing his bags.
Getting that right in Manchester will be a top priority, as it is in every season and at any level. You can be sure the Storm will pack a punch offensively, judging by the pad he is inheriting and the speed and attacking prowess he believes he has recruited.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that no side will enjoy playing in Altrincham. The small ice was already something of an advantage in previous seasons and combining that psychological edge with the physicality the roster promises to bring is a frightening prospect.
They represent one of several fascinating sub-plots to what is already promising to be one of the most competitive EIHL seasons we have ever witnessed.
With Guildford and Milton Keynes joining league and the newly formed Patton conference alongside Manchester and Coventry, this along with the Erhardt conference appear to be anyone’s for the taking.
How Finnerty gels his big characters will be imperative. Get that right and look for Manchester to be something of a surprise package this season, with the potential to break into that top four/five bracket.
It means little at this stage of course. It is all speculation, all conjecture, and Finnerty more than most will be acutely aware of keeping the lid on expectations – at least initially.
Equally getting off to a good start will help his cause too. It is not the be all and end all, it is a long season after all, but anyone connected with Braehead will recall a disastrous start to the 2016/17 season that left them in a rut on the ice and in player transition off it. They never really recovered.
What better way for Finnerty to avenge past shortcomings and lay down a marker, than a Challenge Cup home-and-home double-header to begin the season against none other than his former employers, Braehead Clan? That is something to relish.
(Image permission: Al Goold Photo)