by James Reeve (@JamesRJReeve)
THE SEASON THAT WAS
The 2018/19 EIHL season was one that virtually every fan of the Milton Keynes Lightning would prefer to forget. The on-ice performances of the team were difficult to take, when it was clear that the squad was lacking so many bodies.
Player-coach Tim Wallace, now with Nottingham Panthers, did his absolute best to get results for the fans after taking over from Doug McKay early in the season, but his hands were tied and the players themselves did the very best they could.
There were some great performances across the season, including the victory over the Glasgow Clan live on FreeSports and a really strong showing against the Panthers on home ice, but those kind of results were few and far between.
Once the season was over, some shocking revelations came to light regarding alleged player salaries not being paid and how the team had been under a transfer embargo, further adding to the frustrations and disappointment experienced by the fans.
Once the season was done, the announcement that the team would drop out of the top tier and move into the newly established second tier was met with a variety of reactions. The drop in quality from the Elite League to a league with just two import players was seen as a huge step back by some, while others truly felt it was the best for the future of the club.
A change in ownership has softened the blow of dropping down, with hopes of moving back up in the not-too-distant future now something that a lot of fans cling to.
With the change in ownership, a lot of differences have been seen in the team as they move forward, while also acknowledging their previously successful past.
This included a brand new Zeus-inspired logo as well as a return to the club’s original colours of black, white and gold, with grey being included to match the new logo.
Lewis Clifford has been brought in as the head coach, after many years as an assistant coach with the team and head coach with the Milton Keynes Thunder.
Clifford has a strong ‘Milton Keynes’ mentality that has seen him look towards bringing in players that have developed their game locally and can truly connect with what the club is about.
Some old fan favourites of the team’s time prior to the Elite League have returned, with Leigh Jamieson, Grant McPherson and Ben Russell all returning after various periods away from the club.
Some of the players that experienced the top tier with the club last season have also returned, with defenceman James Griffin about to enter his fifth consecutive season with the club and promising Scottish forward Harry Ferguson also opting to return to the club.
The club has gone for a nice mixture of veteran players, including former Team GB’s Russ Cowley and former NHLer Tomas Kana, as well as some truly promising up-and-coming players such as Calum Robertson and Jordan Stokes.
The capture of Cale Tanaka has been particularly well-received, with the Canadian-born former EIHL champion viewed as an extra import-level player, despite being classified as a Brit for the upcoming season.
The squad that Clifford has been building has truly begun to grow hope amongst the fan base and the disappointment of dropping down a level appears to have been reduced with such a promising group of players being compiled.
While the Hull Pirates are viewed as the slam-dunk favourites for winning the league title, the Lightning are expected to be firmly in the conversation for all three pieces of silverware this season.
The continuity of players that are already familiar with each other, as well as the upside of the new players coming to Milton Keynes, there are very high expectations for the season ahead.
After a difficult two years in the top tier, the fans are in desperate need of some positive results and on a personal level, I truly believe this team can compete with the very best and will have a strong chance at winning one or more of the cups and titles available this campaign.
The quality of players that have been brought in are a testament to head coach Lewis Clifford, who is highly respected within the game.
MY TOP LINE
His top forward line will likely line up with Cale Tanaka on the left wing, Russ Cowley in the centre and Tomas Kana out on the right wing.
For the team’s top defensive pairing, it is likely to be an experienced partnership of Leigh Jamieson and James Griffin, who have both played together previously for the Lightning.
The starting goaltender position is currently up in the air, but Jordan Lawday, who is now on a two-way contract with the EIHL’s Cardiff Devils, is likely to be given the reins, while Brandon Stones competes for more minutes.
That starting five would certainly be a threat every time they step on the ice and could cause plenty of headaches for the other nine teams in the league if that is the line-up that Clifford decides to roll with this season.
On the whole, there is a rejuvenated sense of positivity around the club and while many would’ve hoped to be entering a third season in the EIHL, the upcoming season and the return of a number of old, familiar faces will be an enjoyable one.