Following on from our season preview of NIHL2 North (Laidler Conference), Coast to Coast looks at the NIHL1 (Moralee Conference) teams and their chances of glory in the coming year:
Solway Sharks – Last year’s league and cup winners have seen a number of their squad leave, but Coach Martin Grubb looks to have added plenty of quality ahead of the new season. Mark McGill’s arrival from Dundee Stars strengthens their netminding team, while Juraj Senko and Frazer Goldie are back after spells away to add to Grubb’s blueline options. Craig Mitchell’s surprise return from Braehead Clan is an added bonus, while forwards Iain Bowie and Craig Thurston can be expected to lead their scoring. Will be there or thereabouts.
Billingham Stars – The only team to beat Sharks during the regular season last term, Stars should be in the mix once again. Ex-Bracknell Bees defenseman Andy Munroe is a quality addition, while netminder James Flavell’s return is a welcome boost. Michael Bowman is likely to lead the scoring again, with the ever-improving line of Michael Elder, Cal Davies and James Moss providing great support. If Stars keep Stephen Wallace fit they should push Sharks all the way.
Sutton Sting – Keen to improve on last year’s third place, Coach Ian Johnson has had a busy summer. New imports Thomas Stuart-Dant and Vjaceslavs Movko could make a big impact in NIHL North, while the experienced Chris Colegate is a shrewd addition. Influential defenseman Ryan Johnson averaged over a point per game last year, while Sting will no doubt be delighted to have netminder Dmitri Zimozdra and forward Chris Sykes for a full campaign. Don’t rule them out for the title.
Blackburn Hawks – Their surprise play-off win in 2012/13 ended a 23 year wait for a trophy, leaving fans dreaming of more success. With major new-sponsors on board Player/Coach Jared Owen admits the next step has to be the title, but Hawks must be more consistent if they’re to close the gap on Solway. Much will rest on the shoulders of ex-EPL forwards Adam Brittle and Dan MacKriel, while the returning Ric Hughes has plenty to prove after a disappointing year at Deeside Dragons. It’s long been suggested Blackburn Arena haven’t backed the Hawks, yet that doesn’t appear a factor now. That being the case there’s no excuse not to deliver an elusive first league title.
Whitley Warriors – Flirted with relegation last term, but improved late season to avoid the drop. Simon Leach returns as Coach after a couple of years away and will hope to repeat his previous success at Hillheads. The loss of defenseman Harry Harley and forward Callum Pattison to the EPL is a blow, though Leach has added Dan Harris and Ross Hanlon to his blueline. Callum Watson and DJ Good should put up decent numbers again, while the return of Adam Reynolds from Solway will ensure Warriors are vastly improved this season. With Leach back in charge a top four slot isn’t beyond them.
Sheffield Spartans – Suffered a disappointing 2012/13, but new Coach Martin White could spark a revival this time. White has added GB U20 defenseman Jonathon Kirk to his roster, while Michael Alexander arrives back in NIHL after an unbeaten season with Bradford Rattlers in Canada’s GMHL. Ex-EPL and Elite League netminder Brandon Stones is keen to step back up the ladder and with captain Ollie Barron back in the fold after a summer bust-up, Spartans could be a surprise package.
Telford Titans – Could be set for a difficult winter. Titans have seen a number of players move on, leaving their roster packed with promising youngsters. Experienced trio Ashley & Ryan Stanton and Karol Jets remain with the club and they’ll be expected to help guide the new faces along. Titans will no doubt be difficult to play against, but could lack the experience of some of the bigger clubs. Expect them to struggle on the road but spring a few surprises on home ice.
Manchester Minotaurs – Suffered a miserable time last season, winning just three games, but new Coach Kevin Cassidy has quietly assembled a decent looking roster. Max Drakeley, Jake Nurse and John Murray are still in their early 20s, yet have plenty of experience of NIHL. Brian Worrall returns to Altrincham after an excellent season at Deeside, but it’s the addition of import Lukas Zeman which really catches the eye. The Czech forward looked hugely impressive during pre-season and could be a big hit in NIHL. Minotaurs have the potential to cause a few shocks this season.