It’s almost time for the NIHL South 2 (Wilkinson) season to kick off, with two teams having already been in pre-season action and six other teams starting their league campaigns this weekend.
There are only a few changes to the league this season; firstly, only the top four teams will qualify for the playoffs (down from eight last year), and secondly there is a new team joining the division as the Raiders enter a second team into NIHL2.
In part 1 of our season preview, we take a look at the aforementioned eight teams that have either already been in action or will be in action this weekend, and rate their chances ahead of the new campaign.
It is now six years since the Bristol Ice Rink on Frogmore Street closed, and the Pitbulls have done an admirable job since then to keep the club going. There was hope that a new rink at Cribbs Causeway would open this year, but it has run into delays and the Pitbulls will continue to play their home games out of Oxford in the near future.
Considering it is six years since the club played a home game in the city of Bristol, they have done a remarkable job of staying competitive; in the six seasons since being rendered homeless, they have recorded league finishes of fourth, third, first, third, second and eighth while also winning the South 2 Playoffs in 2014-15. They have also kept a very stable roster together in that time.
Last season, they struggled initially as they got used to the newly-unified league with the “big four” teams also dropping down from the league above. However the Pitbulls hit their stride late in the season, ultimately finishing eighth and qualifying for the playoffs, in which they fell 14-4 on aggregate at the quarter final stage to fellow rink tenants Oxford.
As we have come to expect from the Pitbulls, they have kept an almost identical roster this season compared to the last, which is a testament to the great work player-coach Richard Hargreaves does in keeping the side together. The only players not re-signing from last season at the time of writing are defenceman Giovanni Raffaelli and forwards Macaulay Coppock (moving to Oxford), Ryan McFarlane (Dundee Tigers of the SNL), Logan Prince (MK Thunder of NIHL South 1), Zachary Dolphin, Daniel Murrells and Grant Richardson (all destination unknown).
There are a few additions too; netminder John Dibble returns after two years in NIHL South 1 with the Invicta Dynamos to form a strong goaltending trio with Andrew Leckie and Ross Miller; young d-man Jack Hayes arrives from Bracknell where he split time between the NIHL1 Bees and the NIHL2 Hornets last season; and forwards Nathan Chilcott, Adam Coakley (both Swindon NIHL2 Wildcats), David Manning (Cardiff Fire) and Steve Osman (Invicta Dynamos) also join up.
Osman in particular is a proven goalscorer at NIHL1 level, so in the NIHL2 should be a top player for the Pitbulls. And the signing of Australian utility player Manning is an interesting one, as it gives the Pitbulls two non-British trained players – the other one being Finnish veteran Janne Virtanen – of which the club can dress only one in each game.
The club can also call on six of their top eight scorers from last season, with Oliver Shone, player-coach Richard Hargreaves, 37-year-old veteran Adrian Smith, Welsh-born Giacomo Raffaelli, 32-year-old Jamie Newton and the remaining Dolphin brother, forward Joshua, staying on. Matthew Thornhill will also play his last season for the club before retirement, while at the back the Pitbulls can once again rely on experienced defencemen like Tom Asprey, Tom Egerton, Josh Galea, Michael Hargreaves, Christopher Moore and Sam Shone.
With a largely unchanged roster which looks strengthened by the additions of Dibble and Osman in particular, the Pitbulls will back themselves to beat last season’s eighth place finish – while also hoping that maybe this is the last season they have to spend away from home before being able to return to Bristol. Their first game this weekend is against Haringey, another team that are likely to be involved in the mid-table battle, so expect a close game in that one.
The Chieftains were one of four teams that dropped down from NIHL South 1 to South 2 ahead of last season, having dominated the league above for many years. However, after losing head coach Sean Easton and many key players to the Raiders in the off-season, last campaign was something of a rebuilding year for the Chieftains.
They had an odd year, with a mid-season blip seeing them lose four games from seven which took them right out of title contention, before a run of 13 wins from their next 14 games saw them finish fourth in the league standings. In the playoffs, they hammered the Peterborough NIHL2 Phantoms 17-5 over two legs in the quarter-finals before surprisingly beating league champions Oxford 5-3 in the semi-final. They couldn’t win the big one however, falling 6-1 to Solent in the playoff final.
They have had to deal with some big departures in the summer, none more so than the polarising Bartlett twins Grant and Cameron – who scored 127 combined league/playoff points between them last season but also took a total of 223 penalty minutes – who move back up to NIHL1 to join the Invicta Dynamos. Also moving to the Dynamos is captain Anthony Leone, while defenceman Robbie Veares moves to the Raiders’ new NIHL2 side and import forward Michal Oravec switches to league champions Oxford. Experienced forward Darren Brown has also not re-signed at the time of writing.
There are thus not many holdovers left from the Chieftains’ days in NIHL1, with netminder Sonny Phillips, defensive stalwart Danny Wright, and forwards James Ayling and Ross Brears – the latter taking on the mantle of captaincy after Leone’s departure – the only big names left from those days.
In terms of new signings, the Chieftains have brought in another polarising player in hard-hitting defenceman Charlie Phillips. The twin brother of netminder Sonny, Charlie’s undoubted talent has not been fulfilled as of yet due to a number of incidents and suspensions – but if he can play to his strengths after a couple of years away, he could be one of the best defencemen in NIHL South 2 this season.
Other signings include dangerous forwards Jake Luton and Bradley Moore, signed from the Invicta Mustangs and the Peterborough NIHL2 Phantoms respectively, as well as defenceman Kyle Goddard from league rivals Solent and netminder James Tipple, formerly of Lee Valley and returning to league hockey after a few years away.
Chelmsford’s success this season will not only rest on how well they have replaced their departing players, but also how they handle their unique schedule. Due to rink refurbishment taking place at the Riverside during the season, the Chieftains will play eight of their first nine games at home, before a run of 13 away games in the next 14 – with the sole home game in that time due to be played at Lee Valley. They will then finish the season with five home games, although it is unclear at the moment how many of those will be played at Lee Valley and how many will be able to be played at a refurbished Riverside. This will provide a unique challenge for the Chieftains this season, and it will be interesting to see how they master it.
The Phoenix were last season’s surprise package in NIHL South 2. The newly-formed side finished in sixth place in the league standings with a squad made up almost entirely of former Guildford junior players, before surprisingly dumping third-placed Bracknell out of the playoffs at the quarter final stage and making it to the final four weekend. There, the Phoenix lost 6-1 to eventual champions the Solent Devils in the semi-finals; but nonetheless the season was a big success for Guildford.
Subscribing to the notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the Phoenix enter their second season with an almost identical side to last season. At the time of writing, Guildford had announced the return of two netminders, five defencemen and twelve forwards from their inaugural squad, with the only non-returnees being third-choice netminder Harry Buckingham; defencemen Dario Gorianz, Harry Hatfield and Ellis Sandy; and forwards Malik Adeniran-Adams, Scott Greenfield, Michael Krogh and Calum Marchant.
Only two newcomers have been announced so far too, with German defenceman Bela Rohmer stepping up from Guildford’s Under 18 side, and Taylor Wootton returning to hockey after an injury-enforced lay-off to join twin brother Haydn and older brother Bailey in the squad.
Guildford will be happy to have held on to all three of their top-scoring forwards from last season; player-coach Andrew Hemmings impressed as much as a player with his 48 points (15 goals, 33 assists) as he did with his tactics as a coach, while both Josh Abbott and the aforementioned Bailey Wootton scored 21 goals each. The three will likely form a deadly trio on the ice once again this season. Captain Nick Minhinnick and alternate captain Luke Tull are also back to add leadership to the team, while goalie duo Sam Calder and Jake Stoodley will hope to build on their impressive performances last season and make the next step forward in their development.
With an almost unchanged team and a highly-rated coach in Hemmings, the Phoenix will fancy their chances of making a run for the top four this season and getting into the playoffs. It won’t be easy, but they showed last season that they can beat the bigger teams in the division – so it will be fascinating to see how they get on in their second campaign.
Last season was the first campaign for the Huskies, as they took over the ice time contract at Alexandra Palace from the Racers side that had played there since 2013. With a roster made up partly of ex-Racers players and partly of new recruits, the Huskies started the season on fire before fading towards the end and ultimately finishing in 10th, two places outside the playoffs.
This season only the top four teams will make the playoffs, so the aim for the Huskies is likely to be a season of consolidation. The North Londoners have managed to keep hold of four of their six top scorers from last season in Stephen Woodford, Ben Osborne, Stuart Appleby and Sam Park – all of whom will be expected to contribute big points again this time around.
However the Huskies have also lost some big players in forwards Daniel Clayton (moved to Bracknell) and Sam Roberts (Romford), as well as defenceman Lewis Jones who moves to the Nottingham Lions in NIHL North. At the time of writing, another key blueliner from last season, Sam Jackson, has also not re-signed.
In terms of new faces, former Racers defencemen Jack Lee and Mark Robinson sign up, as does the towering presence of Daniel Tamasauskas from London rivals Lee Valley. Up front, Hungarian import forward Gheorghe Dragomir signs up after five years out of the game, while Seb Downing joins from the Invicta Dynamos of NIHL South 1 and 18-year-old Elliott Davies returns to the Palace after a year in Canada. Former Haringey junior forward Ross Sin-Hidge also follows Tamasauskas in making the cross-London move from Lee Valley to Haringey.
At the time of writing, the Huskies have only announced one goaltender in Harry Buckingham who joins from Guildford, so it is unclear whether either one of last season’s duo of Jussi Lynch-Grut and David Wride will return between the pipes, or whether the Huskies will field an all-new goaltending team.
Only time will tell whether the Huskies have adequately replaced the players they have lost, and it is sure to be an interesting season at the Palace with the Huskies likely to be right in the middle of a hotly-contested mid-table battle.
Lee Valley Lions
The Lions finished last season bottom of the pile without a win to their name, with their six points coming courtesy of three overtime losses and two cancelled games. It has been a summer of upheaval for the East London side, with head coach George Alley stepping down and being followed by the likes of brother and captain Nick Alley (moved to Peterborough), defenceman Daniel Tamasauskas (Haringey), and Romford-bound duo Matthew Hamilton and Matt Brown.
Defensive stalwart James Joseph – who enters his 14th season as a Lion and has played every season since the club reformed in 2005 – steps up as player-coach this season and faces a tough task as he looks to help the Lions off the foot of the table.
The Lions have made some interesting signings as they look to rebuild their squad, with the key addition perhaps being Czech forward Tom Hnilica who comes in as their non-British trained player. Hnilica has a good record in NIHL North 1 (42 points in 52 games) but hasn’t played in three years. The hopes of the Lions may rest on the 25-year-old Prague native’s shoulders this season.
The club has also brought back several players who have worn the green and white jersey in the past, with forward Joe Berry returning after two years away to play his 11th season at the club, and the likes of forward Michael Jacobs and defenceman Jack Ball and Joe Weare also returning after time away from the club. A handful of players return from last year’s roster too, including netminder James Andrew; defenceman Simon Jones; and forwards Ben Gillingham and Oliver Glover.
Time will tell how the new-look Lions squad gets on this season – but with no wins last time out, the only way is up. Their first game is away to Chelmsford, a side they suffered two heavy defeats against last season, so it won’t be an easy start to James Joseph’s coaching tenure. The roster also looks thin with just 13 skaters confirmed at the time of writing. The main aim for this season for the Lions will have to be win a few games and move off the bottom of the table – anything else would be a bonus.
Peterborough Phantoms NIHL2
After a dominant 2016-17 season in which they scooped the treble of the South 2 (East) league title, the South 2 Cup and the Playoffs, the club formerly known as the Islanders faced an entirely different challenge last season; not only did South 2 return to a combined league after three seasons of being split into conferences, but the league was also significantly strengthened by four teams dropping down from the league above.
The Phantoms started last season well but, as they played more and more games against the new big four, they fell away from the front. Peterborough eventually finished the season in fifth place, the “best of the rest”, and were dumped out of the playoffs at the quarter final stage by Chelmsford with a surprisingly large aggregate score of 17-5 over two legs.
The key strength of Peterborough over the last few seasons has been the continuity in the squad, with many established players forming the core of the side and very few roster changes year-on-year. Their squad depth has also been key, with the Phantoms usually able to run a full bench due to a large roster.
This season, both of those strengths will be negated a little bit. Although several key players do remain on the roster for this campaign, the Phantoms have also lost some important faces; and the squad has reduced from the three goalies, 10 defencemen and 16 forwards who appeared last season down to (at the time of writing) two, six and 11 respectively.
Key players remaining from last season include netminder Dan Lane, who may also “play up” for the NIHL1 Phantoms at some point (although he is now outside the age range of being able to do this more than 3 times); defencemen Sam Barlow, Connor Hunter and Rob McDonald; and forwards Kenny Bavin, James Pentecost, Conor Pollard and Shaun Yardley.
Meanwhile major departures include five of last season’s top 10 scorers in forwards Bradley Moore (Chelmsford), Connor Stokes, Leon Groom and captain Clint Herring (all destination unknown); and defenceman Craig Wallis who moves to NIHL North to join Sutton. Veteran blueliner Jonathan Brammall and club stalwart Dale Jowett – 48 goals and 79 assists in 191 games for the club – are also not returning.
Additions to the roster include a trio of signings from Coventry in forwards Jordan Liddell and Samuel Dean (both from Blaze NIHL) and and defenceman Jon Binder (Blaze U20s), forward Nick Alley who comes over from the Lee Valley Lions, and defenceman Callum Worthington-Evans who returns to the club after a season in the NIHL North.
As with a number of clubs in the league this season, the success of Peterborough’s campaign will rest on how quickly they can replace their departed players and bed in their new faces. Their opening game against Guildford could therefore not be more tricky, with the Phoenix fielding an almost unchanged roster and the Phantoms looking to rebuild. Last season the Phantoms finished one place ahead of Guildford in the final standings – and they could be battling for that fifth spot once again this season. It should be an exciting battle.
The aim of Raiders management is to build a pathway from the Romford junior system up into NIHL1 where the senior Raiders team play, and the newly-formed NIHL2 squad will be a key part on that player development ladder as they make their debut in the league this season.
Seven players on the NIHL2 roster are on two-way deals with the senior Raiders side, with 16-year-old forward Tommy Huggett perhaps being the most talked-about of all. Huggett captained Chelmsford’s U15 and U18 teams over the last three campaigns and has also played for Team GB Under 16s, and will look to make the next step in NIHL2 this season.
The other players on two-way deals are netminders Zach Grandy-Smith and Brad Windebank; defencemen Callum Burnett and Daniel Hitchings; and forwards Ewan Hill and Brandon Webster. The trio of Grandy-Smith, Burnett and Webster have already seen action at NIHL1 level; while Windebank, Hitchings and Hill will all make their senior debuts this season.
But it is not just the highly-rated young players that the NIHL2 Raiders’ opponents will have to look out for this season; the team has also added several experienced players to create balance in the squad. Former EPL and NIHL1 forward Alan Lack comes out of retirement to bolster the side, and will be joined by fellow ex-Raiders NIHL1 forward Sam Roberts (joining from Haringey), 35-year-old veteran Matt Brown (formerly of Lee Valley and Haringey), Czech import forward Kamil Kinkor (formerly of Oxford, Streatham and the NIHL1 Raiders) and defenceman Robbie Veares, who joins from Chelmsford and is another ex-NIHL1 Raider.
The mix of youth and experience in this NIHL2 Raiders team will make them extremely tough to beat this season. The aims for their debut campaign will be two-fold; firstly to finish as high up the table as possible, but also to develop players who go on to play key roles for the senior Raiders side.
They have already played one pre-season game, that coming last Sunday against the NIHL1 Raiders. In the “battle of the Raiders”, the short-benched NIHL2 team suffered an expected heavy defeat – but the likes of Windebank, Hitchings and Huggett all impressed and showed that the future does indeed look bright for ice hockey in Romford.
After a disappointing 2016-17 season in which the Berkshire club were harmed by the uncertainty surrounding their refurbished rink, the Jets were THE surprise package of the league last season. They finished seventh in the standings, thereby making the playoffs, in which they lost to eventual playoff champions Solent at the quarter final stage.
A lot of last season’s success was down to three main factors: the tiny temporary rink they played out of; veteran goaltender Chris Douglas who helped them steal several games against more fancied opponents; and player-coach Lukas Smital who dropped down to NIHL2 after many years playing at a higher level, showing all his class as he scored 20 goals and added 47 assists for a points total of 67.
This season, only one of the three above factors are still present; while Smital remains as player-coach, veteran netminder Douglas moves over to the Cardiff Fire to take on a similar role. His place between the pipes will be taken on by coach Smital’s son Matthew, who spent last season with Swindon in NIHL South 1, as well as 17-year-old Brett Shepherd who spent last season on loan at Lee Valley from Streatham.
Rink-wise, the club can now move back into their permanent home after the refurbishment works were completed in the spring. While this is great news for the club in the long-term, it will mean that they lose the short-term advantage of playing at a much smaller facility than the rest of the teams in the league – indeed Slough knocked off Chelmsford, Peterborough and Bracknell at the “mini-Hangar” last season, all top-five teams.
Apart from in goal, the rest of Slough’s roster is very settled – the club’s top nine points scorers from last season all return, including captain Timo Lindgren who bagged 24 goals last season, forwards Liam Underdown (36 points) and Nathan Darmanin (28 points), and blueliner Like Reynolds who was voted on the second line of the NIHL South 2 All-Star Team in last season’s End of Season Awards.
Slough have already played two pre-season games against the Invicta Dynamos from NIHL South 1, suffering two defeats as is to be expected against a team from the league above. However there were promising signs for Slough, with former Bracknell and Swindon junior Samuel Talbot making his senior debut in Sunday’s game and scoring two goals, while former Streatham forward Danny Rose bagged 1+4 over the two games.
Slough’s success this season will likely come down to how they get used to their new rink, as well as how their young goaltending duo – their average age is 18(!) – gets on in place of Douglas between the pipes. Another top eight finish is very much within the realms of possibility.