NIHL North has steadily improved over the past few years and the 2016/17 season promises to deliver even more excitement across both divisions.
Blackburn Hawks’ recent domination of Moralee D1 will be severely tested, with at least five other teams harbouring realistic title hopes.
In Laidler D2, Widnes Wild will hope to secure promotion at the fourth time of asking, but they face stiff competition as their bid to move up a level.
Here’s the BIH preview of what we can expect over the next few months:
Blackburn Hawks – After winning the league and play-off double for the last two years, Hawks have endured a summer of upheaval.
With just a handful of players staying with the club, new boss Matt Darlow faced a massive rebuilding job.
Much will be expected of new import forwards Patrik Nyman and Mikko Sierman, while former EPL ‘D’ man Steven Duncombe has been added to the Hawks’ defensive options.
It would be foolish to write off Hawks’ title chances, but their squad doesn’t appear to be quite as strong as the last two seasons.
Whitley Warriors – David Longstaff sparked a Warriors revival last year, guiding his team into the runners-up spot.
With experienced enforcer Andre Payette agreeing another season, Warriors will be tough to beat once again – particularly at home.
Warriors’ failure to significantly strengthen their forward ranks could hinder their title ambitions, but they should be capable of challenging for a play-off spot.
Solihull Barons – Finished third and reached the play-off final in their debut year in D1 and are strongly fancied to build on that this time around.
Barons’ boss Perry Doyle has retained the majority of last season’s squad, including top import Niklas Ottosson, while Richard Slater’s return to the forward ranks is an added bonus.
Dale White and Paul Davies are other notable additions to a roster that seems certain to push for honours this season.
Solway Sharks – Head Coach Martin Grubb has had a busy summer as he bids to break the Hawks’ stranglehold on D1.
Former Elite League and EPL defender James Hutchinson is arguably the standout signing of the summer, while ex-Hawks duo Kim Miettinen and Richard Bentham further strengthen Grubb’s options.
With a promising bunch of youngsters to call on, Sharks should be firmly in the title mix.
Billingham Stars – Inconsistency and injuries hit Stars’ hopes last season, but their roster now looks significantly stronger.
Swedish forward Daniel Palmebjork has linked up with his former teammate Dennis Bostrom on Teesside and the pair will no doubt rack up the points this term.
Jack Watkins’ return to the North East after spending the last few years in the Elite League and EPL is another shot in the arm for the Stars’ title ambitions.
Telford Tigers NIHL – Daniel MacKriel won the double with the Hawks last year and he’ll be hoping to repeat the trick with the Tigers.
Forward Adam Brittle has joined the club after three successful years with the Hawks, while James Smith has agreed another season after impressing last term.
Tigers are likely to be formidable at home, but they’ll need to improve their away form if they’re to mount a serious title challenge. Call-ups to the Tigers’ EPL team could also hamper their progress.
Sutton Sting – New Head Coach Simon Butterworth has been tasked with progressing Sting’s development ethos this year.
Butterworth has assembled a roster littered with promising youngsters, which will be complemented by experienced older players such as Ryan Johnson and James Goodman.
Forward Lloyd Gibson has been signed from the EPL’s Peterborough Phantoms, while ex-Sheffield Spartans trio Chris Wilcox, Scott Morris and David Pyatt add further depth to the squad.
Deeside Dragons – Won promotion from D2 at a canter, but new Player/Coach Scott McKenzie faces a much tougher task at the higher level.
Star import Adrian Palak has moved up to the EPL, with Finnish forward Markus Kankaanranta brought in to replace him.
Fellow import Filip Supa will be keen to make his mark on D1, but McKenzie needs to strengthen the Dragons’ defensive unit to give them a fighting chance against the league’s big hitters.
Widnes’ D2 promotion hopes have been handed a big boost with the appointment of former Spartans captain Ollie Barron as their new Player/Coach.
Barron has added numerous former teammates including Stuart Brittle and Nick Manning to a roster which looks certain to challenge at the top of the table.
Nottingham Lions, Blackburn Eagles and Altrincham Aces are likely to be Wild’s main competition, although Sheffield Senators will be keen to put last season’s relegation from D1 behind them.