EPL Weekly Roundup Wk 51

SWINDON, UK – A big wodge of late player news from the Phantoms saw last season’s ‘prospect player’ Luke Barber added to the roster on a 2-way deal with the NIHL Islanders. That made him the 34th teenager added to the EPL this season, which sounds like a record to me.
And in fact it is. Last season the EPL saw 37 teenagers take to the ice, but that was by the end of the season whereas by this time last year nineteen were allocated to rosters. Obviously the remainder were seconded during the campaign to provide cover for injuries, international commitments and the like, so the current tally of 34 is a huge jump and, on the face of things, a great testament to the junior systems.
By the looks of things thirty-seven won’t be a difficult barrier to overcome or take long either because, for instance, 18-year-old D-man Declan Balmer signed a 2-way contract with the Solway Sharks in the NIHL which allows him to train with the Phantoms, so the chances are he will make the bench before the season is over. Then there are two 16-year-olds – forward Alex Whyte and D-man Peter Burai – along with 17-year-old netminder Sam James who were all announced as the Phantoms’ prospect players for the season. One or more of those, too, could find themselves on the Phantoms’ bench before season’s end.
The best news for the Phantoms this week, though, concerns Canadian captain Jeff Glowa who has undergone knee surgery and is expected to be fully fit for the start of the season proper; fingers being crossed his durability won’t be marred by the problem as it was last season especially as Coach Jon Kynaston has said he expects his side to be more physical.   ‘…we need to ensure we are in charge of our home ice,’ he said, and if this policy comes to fruition, then the teenagers may be in the fray sooner rather than later.    
Just when we were wondering whether or not the Bees’ roster was complete, especially as there are some who, according to the local press, felt with nine forwards the Bracknell side were a bit light on the ice up front if injures should take their toll, Coach Gareth Cox cleared things up – sort of. While not actually saying the squad is complete, Cox announced the signing of five players on 2-way contracts with the National League Hornets. Tom Fisher, Ryan Webb and Nick Minhinnick are yet three more in their teens and will join the forward pack along with the older Grant Rounding, while Sam Waller, who has already seen service with the Wildcats, Jets last season and previously with the Bees, joins the blue line.  
Did I say three more teens for a record? Well, there you have it, that’s thirty-seven which matches last season’s total and before a game being fired in anger, so to speak.
The only other side not to have definitively stated their roster is complete are the Tigers where you have to wonder if the missing – and I say missing because he has been there since leaving the Wildcats in 2007 – Slovakian forward Marek Hornak is going to be sneaked in at the last minute despite suffering from a long term injury. On the other hand, recently departed Canadian netminder Greg Blais was finally announced as on the EIHL Hull roster.
Then, in a curious manoeuvre involving the Jets and Tigers, Slovakian forward Juraj Senko, who it was made clear in July would not be back with the Tigers, was signed by the Slough side just a week ago and almost immediately dropped. The Jets said Senko was carrying an injury he sustained in the summer which they only became aware of during a training a session, and which would make it impossible for him to start the season. With July being pretty close to summer, at least on the calendar if not weather-wise, there is clearly more to this than meets the eye.
Another surprise move, because the club had already announced the completion of their roster, saw the Wildcats bring back netminder Graeme Bird who as backup to Tom Murdy last season barely saw the ice and when Murdy was injured was ultimately replaced by Dean Skinns who’d had a less than happy time with the Bison. Murdy, still pestered by the problem, now raises the question as to whether he will be fit enough to start the season.
The big news of the week has to be the appointment of Andre Payette, the Steeldogs coach who has proven he knows how to work some magic on younger members of his squad, as head coach of the GB Under 20 side. Payette, who was last season recognised by the Ice Hockey Journalists UK as EPL Coach of the Year, commented: ‘I feel I am the perfect fit for the national junior team as my strongest attribute as a coach is working with young players.’   His first test will be the World Championship in the Ukraine in December. GB head coach and Phoenix boss Tony Hand said, ‘He has done a fantastic job with the Steeldogs in the last few years. He is working with this age group on a daily basis, which I believe is really important.’
As for Hand himself and the question of his future playing career, on Friday’s Meet the Players evening in Manchester he finally cleared the matter up declaring he would play, but not as much. ‘I will be combining playing with coaching from the bench,’ he said. ‘Last year was frustrating with my injury but the upside was that I was able to take a good look from the bench. I missed playing but the team did pretty well without me going on that long winning streak.’ But will they be able to afford being without the veteran top-scoring Brit, I wonder, with the way things are shaping up?
Well, the first indicators came with the week’s pre-season games which saw the Steeldogs win at home against the Phoenix in the first leg of the War of the Roses. Coach Hand remained on the bench, meanwhile, Steeldogs’ Coach Payette took a few minutes and then introduced himself to Robert Schnabel who has a 10cms (4ins) and 25 kilos (over 2 stone) size advantage. Penalties, however, at least in their rough and tumble, were more even at 2+2 apiece. Bizarrely there were some who opined that Payette scurried away from the altercation with his tail between his legs, an occurrence about as likely as the pope being discovered in a lap dancing club. In the second leg on Sunday the Steeldogs really upset Manchester by holding them to a goalless conclusion which gave them an aggregate win, a cup, but more importantly, improvement.
The weekend also had the Bison and Flames double clash in a prelude to what promises to be an interesting series of encounters once the season starts. The new look Bison took the lead both nights, and the weekend ended with a pair of draws, which was an improvement on last year.
Unfortunately, in the first game Bison’s Coach Doug Sheppard retired early after a hit on the head in the first period.
But that was nothing compared to the carnage involving the Bees and the Jets in a game. With over 150 penalty minutes and three match penalties the match ended in a debacle with the ice being cleared before any presentations. But, although going down, the Bees had fifty-per-cent more shots on goal, and looked far more settled in the return, which must also be good news.
The Phantoms raced to a three-goal lead over NIHL Solway Sharks on Saturday only to throw it away, but managed to regain the lead through a hat-trick by Maris Ziedins which wasn’t enough to secure the win with the Sharks equalising in the final minute. The rematch at home and the Phantoms might have done better against a National League side when you consider they threw over 120 shots at their goal over the weekend and it was only a couple of late goals by Luke and James Ferrara that eventually wrapped up the win. But, on the positive side Joe Graham showed there is at least one player willing to press his nose to the glass and poke his tongue out if needs be, which again is an improvement.
In a bold, and I think brilliant confidence-testing, move on Saturday the Lightning put 16-year-old Jordan Hedley between the pipes against the Tigers. The youngster didn’t perform well – he excelled! I mean, saving a penalty shot and a shut-out ain’t bad for EPL starters, bearing in mind on Sunday the Tigers put six past the Wildcats.
But while still trying not to make too much of the latest round of challenge match results, it is hard not to make something of them when the Tigers not only visit Swindon and win in a frenetic eleven goal match, but do so with the help of released Wildcats’ import Jaroslav Cesky who stuffed in a hat-trick in the first half an hour. This time last year in the same game the Tigers didn’t even get off the coach, and have already matched their only hat-trick last season thanks to Thomas Soar.
So, if any more indicators of improvements are needed, then it really only   leaves the Wildcats and Jets to provide them in the coming week because, while the Phantoms and Lightning clash for the Ashes series next weekend, by then the season will be upon us.
Can’t wait. For more EPL facts and stats, news and a headline mailing list take a look at www.iceman-epl.com  

Contact Bill.Collins@prohockeynews.com

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