The pucks drops on the new Elite League season on Saturday and it looks set to be the most exciting campaign to date.
It’s perhaps cliched to say such a thing in an attempt to build things up and really get the juices flowing as the teams prepare to start another long few months.
But if you look at each team and how they square this season, you can genuinely get an idea of where in the table they’ll be, but as for where they’ll finish exactly, that is the trick.
Last season, Cardiff Devils saw what should have been their league title snatched from the jaws of victory as Belfast Giants just didn’t give up on and although the final night was a nervy one, it proved to be a great one.
So, what about this season? The league is reduced to ten with Milton Keynes Lightning moving to the NIHL National so it’s unlikely we’ll see a team cut away from the rest of the league.
That leaves ten spots, with the top eight for the play-offs as we try to break down and predict how this season could go. Crystal balls at the ready..
Where last year’s title race saw a two-horse, I can’t help but think this year’s is going to involve three with the potential for it to go right to the wire again.
You could almost assume that Belfast and Cardiff will be back up there after the way they’ve strengthened their teams, but they’ve gone about their teams in very different ways.
Cardiff, again, have kept the core of a very experienced team with the likes of Joey Martin, Gleason Fournier, Joey Haddad and Ben Bowns all back for another campaign. They’ve supplemented that with the additions of Sean McMonagle, Mike McNamee and Sam Jardine and look good already.
There’s perhaps been more alterations to the Devils team compared to recent years, but having that core there gives them the best possible grounding for the season ahead.
Belfast, on the other hand, have had to basically start from scratch as their title winning team has been decimated with departures.
Darcy Murphy, Tyler Beskorowany and Blair Riley, among others all left, with the latter strengthening the Devils ironically and five retirements, Adam Keefe had to start again.
Patrick Mullen, Matt Pelech, Bobby Farnham and Liam Reddox have come in and have shown this new-look Giants team will have a strong say in this year’s race.
The third team that should join them has to be Sheffield Steelers, who have scored goals aplenty in the early phase of the season, but with better quality in the team compared to last year, they have a realistic chance of being the third wheel.
Players such as Martin St Pierre and Nikolai Lemtyugov come with big CVs and coach Aaron Fox is embracing his new role with the sort of enthusiasm rubbing off on the fans.
The key games will be against Devils and Giants and it’s certainly fair to say there’s more about them to be able to mount a proper challenge this season.
This is where it gets tricky as you try to separate the other seven teams in the Elite League and it’ll be like trying to sort out Brexit over a cup of coffee.
Nottingham Panthers, to start and in no particular order, have adopted a new approach for the new campaign with Guillaume Doucet coming in as Director of Hockey and bringing in Tim Wallace as his head coach.
Wallace did a decent job in the face of trying times at Lightning last year, so will no doubt enjoy of coaching a club on more stable footing. The players he’s brought in have shown promise, but it might not be enough to see them barge their way into the highest echelons.
They start against Guildford Flames, a team on the back of such a great campaign last year and even emulating that in the face of increased competition this season seems a tough act to follow. Keeping the majority of the players is a big help certainly, but I can’t help thinking it could go one of two ways.
A great success as they hang on the coat tails or some early bad results could see them struggle slightly. Personally, I’d love to see them up there mixing it, but the gut feeling I have for them is that it will go one way or the other for them.
Glasgow Clan is another one that’s hard to judge. Had Pete Russell stayed on, I would be backing them to push on, but a new coach in Zack Fitzgerald and on paper, some exciting players signed then it’s difficult to say where they could end up.
The opening Challenge Cup weekend with Dundee Stars is one fans will hope is a mere blip. The quality is there for them to succeed and keep going where Russell left off, but, like Guildford, early results could determine what kind of season they have.
Fife Flyers had a good start to the campaign to begin with last season and even flirted with the top places for a spell, but they fell away to the point where their play-off spot was only secured in the final couple of weeks of the season.
The addition of Tim Crowder and retention of Danick Gauthier, not to mention the return from injury of influential Chase Schaber could make the difference, but there’s no doubt they have to make a much better case for themselves in the latter stages of the season.
Taking us to Coventry Blaze and this is a team that, rightfully, want to be more than a team that scrapes their way into the play-offs. With a pedigree of success in the EIHL, there are expectations at the Skydome and comfortably reaching the top eight is the very least of them.
Coach Danny Stewart has built a team capable of doing just that, but in the face of stern challenges from the other teams, might just find themselves in that position again. And yet, in a strange way, if results go their way, could find themselves as a surprise package. But it will be a tough one for them again.
That just leaves the two teams who didn’t make the play-offs last year and starting with Dundee Stars, if their opening two games with Glasgow Clan in the Challenge Cup are to be a marker, then the fans will be feeling good for what may come.
Omar Pacha has revamped his team and the blossoming partnership between Elgin Pearce and Anthony Beauregard is one to look forward to. Can three years without play-off hockey be finally put to rest? The Stars fans will hope so.
That just leaves Manchester Storm, who went from second place to ninth in the space of a year and Ryan Finnerty has had to oversee a rebuilding job ahead of a tough campaign ahead.
Two players in Lukas Lundvald and Ned Lukacevic have moved on before a puck was dropped, but having Layne Ulmer and Jared Aulin will give them the push they need to reacquaint themselves with the top eight.
Overall, it’s one of the hardest seasons to call and anyone who can call it right is in the wrong job. But it’s definitely a season to get excited about and as fans, we should relish every single moment.
Elite League standings:
- Cardiff Devils
- Belfast Giants
- Sheffield Steelers
- Guildford Flames
- Nottingham Panthers
- Glasgow Clan
- Dundee Stars
- Fife Flyers
- Coventry Blaze
- Manchester Storm
Challenge Cup Winners: Sheffield Steelers
Play-off Winners: Belfast Giants