NIHL South 2 Season Preview 2018/19 – Part 2

Six teams started their NIHL South 2 (Wilkinson) league campaigns last weekend, with four more sides – Invicta, Oxford, Raiders and Slough – playing their first league game this upcoming weekend.

While we already looked at Raiders and Slough in part 1 of our season preview last week as both sides have been in pre-season action, this week we take a look at Invicta and Oxford as well as the other five sides in the division who will start their league campaigns a little later.

Basingstoke Buffalo

The Buffalo finished last season in 11th place, missing the playoffs by six points. However the biggest news out of Basingstoke probably came off the ice; in November it was announced that the NIHL2 Buffalo side had officially become a part of the Basingstoke Ice Hockey Development Club, providing a clear pathway from juniors all the way up to senior hockey.

The aim of the partnership is to “ensure that whenever possible 30% of the roster of Basingstoke’s NIHL2 team the Basingstoke Buffalo will be filled by players from our Junior U18 program”, as per chairman Stewart Tempest.

And this strategy can already be seen in the club’s recruitment; of the nine players announced by the team at the time of writing, only one is over the age of 20, with five of them directly graduating from the Basingstoke U18 side and two more being former Basingstoke juniors.

In goal, the club has secured the signature of 19-year-old Aaron Burton, a former Oxford junior who has also made three NIHL2 appearances for Bristol and spent last year playing in the US. it is currently unclear whether last season’s star goalie Aaron Craft – voted Player of the Month for March by the EIHA – is returning to the club.

On the blueline, both Thomas Banner and Oliver Bower graduate from the Basingstoke U18 side while former Basingstoke and Bracknell junior Matthew Byrom returns to the sport after nine years away. From last year’s side, Samuel Compton has moved on to Solent but it is not clear which of the other blueliners will stay put this season.

The five forwards announced by the club so far have an average age of 16.8(!) with William Birch (who already played one NIHL2 game for the Buffalo last season), Jack Peacock and Lucas Swierc also all graduating from the U18 side, while Jason Newman joins from Bracknell and former Basingstoke junior Christian Han returns to the sport after a year away.

Again, no returnees have been announced up front. The only confirmed departure is Daniel Lackey to Solent, so we will have to see which of the experienced forwards such as Blair Dubyk, Mark Austen, Warren Jones, Neil Leary, Gregory Martyn and Marcus Russell stay on from last season. Their first game is not until the 23rd of September against Cardiff, so there is still time for more players to be confirmed.

With only nine players announced and such a low average age in the side so far, it is hard to predict how the Buffalo’s season will go. They are likely to be in a battle for a top ten place as they were last year, but if they are able to elevate a significant number of junior players into senior hockey – and perhaps even see them graduate to the NIHL1 Bison side – then they will have done a good job and stayed true to their junior development motto.

Bracknell Hornets

As one of four sides that dropped down from NIHL1 prior to last season, a lot was expected of the Hornets. They started the season well, but didn’t quite have enough in the tank to take the league title as they finished in third place, three points behind champions Oxford and two behind Solent. In the playoffs, they were then surprisingly dumped out by Guildford at the quarter final stage, ending their season on a low note.

The Hornets have managed to keep almost the same side together this season as they look to go one step further and win silverware this time around. The trusted partnership of Will Sanderson and James Richardson will remain in goal, while on the blueline the Hornets can still boast players with significant EPL/NIHL1 experience such as Jack Tarczycki, Carl Graham and Matt Jordan. They have also added two blueliners from the NIHL1 Bracknell Bees, as 27-year-old Tom Avery adds more experience to the defensive corps and 19-year-old Luke Jackson looks to take the next step forward in his career.

Up front, the Hornets have kept hold of six of their top seven scoring forwards from last season; captain Steve Fisher stays on, as do the Ealey-Newman brothers Ben and Josh, while player-coach Danny Hughes, 20-year-old Will Stead and EPL veteran Adam Bicknell have all also re-signed.

The Hornets have also added Daniel Clayton from Haringey, who is a proven scorer at NIHL2 level, whilst also reactivating Liam Rasmussen after a year out of the sport. Rasmussen has tons of NIHL1 experience, and will bolster the ex-Streatham contingent in the squad alongside the likes of Sanderson, Tarczycki, Fisher and Clayton.

The last addition up front is Czech import forward Jakub Fojtik, who has the unenviable task of replacing popular American import forward Sean Scarbrough. The California native Scarbrough bagged 23 goals and 21 assists in just 16 games last season, but didn’t play for the Hornets after the 24th of February – his absence could be seen as one of the main reasons that the Hornets didn’t win a trophy last year. 31-year-old Fojtik has played in the 3rd and 4th Czech leagues, however has been out of hockey since 2012 – so his signing is a risky one. However if he performs well, it could be an inspired addition.

If the relatively few new signings for the Hornets can be bedded into the team quickly, and if Fojtik proves to be an adequate replacement for Scarbrough, this season could be a good one for the Hornets. Whether they can win a trophy, only time will tell. Their first game will be against Haringey on the 22nd of September.

Cardiff Fire

The Cardiff Fire ran two separate teams last season, entering sides in both NIHL South 1 and South 2. While the NIHL1 side struggled and finished in last place, the NIHL2 squad finished level on points with eighth-placed Bristol, only missing the playoffs on a tiebreak.

This season they have gone back down to one side “following a series on unforeseen circumstances”, and will only field a team in NIHL2. After their baptism of fire in the league above last season, that is probably no bad thing for the Fire – who can now focus their efforts solely on building a winning team at this level, and growing their fanbase.

The big move for the new season is the signing of veteran netminder Chris “Disco” Douglas as player-coach. Disco rolled back the years last season with some sensational performances in the Slough Jets net, bagging him a first-line spot in the end of season ‘All-star’ team, and now makes the move to Wales where his experience will undoubtedly help the team both on and off the ice. Re-signing in net are junior starlet Lewis Davies, who impressed last season for both the NIHL1 and NIHL2 fire at the age of 17, and long-time Cardiff NIHL netminder James Whiting.

At the time of writing, five d-men had been confirmed; four of them being returnees from last season. 34-year-old Phil Manny has tons of experience from the EIHL, EPL and NIHL1 and will once again be an important veteran presence at the back, while 23-year-old Joe Morris has been a member of various Cardiff sides for many years now. Combative 21-year-old Elis Sheppard and 19-year-old Iwan Davies will hope to develop further under Douglas’ tutelage, while former Cardiff NIHL Devils player Tom Smith returns to Wales after four years in Canada. In terms of departures, 17-year-old blueliner Sam Smith has moved to the NIHL1’s Basingstoke Bison, but apart from that it is currently not known which other defencemen from last season’s Cardiff sides will leave or return.

Up front, six forwards have been announced to date – also all returnees. The most popular of those is probably 42-year-old Alan Armour, who enters his 28th(!) season of senior hockey, the last four of those coming with the Fire. The other returnees are Hungarian-born Tamás Éliás and 20-year-old quartet Samual Bryant, Elliott Murdoch, Ben Smith and Lewis Stevens. Again it is not known at the moment which other players will return from last season, with Australian utility man David Manning the only confirmed forward departure.

Cardiff’s success this season will partly depend on how the rest of their squad looks; however if it is anything like previous years, we can expect an interesting mix of locally-based veteran players and junior players stepping up to senior hockey. If coach Douglas can get the team all singing from the same hymn sheet, they could be dangerous opposition for any side in the league this season, with a spot in the top eight looking like a realistic aim. Their first game comes against Basingstoke on the 23rd of September.

Invicta Mustangs

The Invicta Mustangs have always been one of the smaller sides in NIHL South 2, with the Kent side finishing last season seven points adrift from the playoff places in 12th position.

However the success of the Mustangs isn’t solely measured on results on the ice; the club always does a great job of bringing young players through from the Invicta junior system and giving them a first taste of senior hockey. A good example of this is forward Jake Stedman, who played three seasons in NIHL2 with the Mustangs before last season stepping up to the NIHL1 Invicta Dynamos on a two-way deal.

With an average age as things stand of 22.38 years old, the Invicta squad is the fourth youngest in the league out of 15 teams – and that average is skewed upwards by a couple of veterans in the team. It is mostly a youthful team with the majority of players coming through the ranks of the Invicta junior system, and a lot of the players have been playing together for many years meaning that the core of the team has been together for quite a few seasons now.

In goal, 25-year-old Matthew Passmore will play his third season in a row – and fourth in total – with the club, and will look to be the undisputed #1 in net this season with fellow netminder John Abbott not (yet) confirmed as returning this year. Providing further goaltending backup will be the versatile Lucy Gruber, who can play both in net and as a skater.

At the back, the club has kept hold of all five of their defencemen who finished last season; as captain Tom Dennis, fellow team veteran Michael Stokes, former NIHL1 Dynamos blueliner Jarvis Mewett, 19-year-old Regan O’Neil, and Ashley Bushell – who returned to the sport last season after nine seasons away – all sign up for the new campaign.

Up front, the main departure is that of tricky forward Jake Luton, who departs the Mustangs after six seasons to play for Chelmsford. Also not announced as re-signing at the time of writing are fellow forwards Loyde Fuller, Luke Gonzalez, Kwame Holt and Chris Norris.

Other than that, the majority of the forward group has stuck together; seven of last season’s eight top scoring forwards will return as former Dynamos forward Bradley Gutridge and the aforementioned Stedman – who will once again be on a two-way deal with the Dynamos – both stay on for the new campaign, as do Aaron Ferris, James Laming, Anthony Baskerville, Thomas Mallett and Richard Harris. A potentially exciting signing is that of 16-year-old Owen Dell, who will also be on a two-way deal with the Dynamos.

With a similar roster to last season, we can expect the Mustangs to once again be in the scrap for a top ten place, but probably not too much more. But if they can produce a few more players like Jake Stedman who go on to play in the league above, then they can be proud of their efforts as a true development club – after all, the NIHL is defined as a development league.

Oxford City Stars

After dropping down from NIHL South 1 last summer, the City Stars were the cream of the crop in the 2017-18 campaign – winning the South 2 league title as well as beating the Sutton Sting of the NIHL North 2 in the NIHL2 Championship Game in Coventry.

The only blot on their copybook was the playoffs, in which they went down 5-3 to fourth placed side Chelmsford at the semi-final stage. Nonetheless, the 2017-18 season could be considered a big success for the Oxford side, not only on the ice but also off it; as the club saw several impressive attendances for their home games.

Worryingly for their league rivals, the Stars look to have strengthened several areas of their side during the off-season; with a few key additions that should make them even more dangerous – certainly up front.

Starting in goal, Oxford have retained the title-winning duo of 22-year-old Hungarian-born Milan Ronai and 30-year-old former Bracknell keeper Mark Duffy. There were a few question marks surrounding the goaltending going into the season with neither netminder being a proven starter in the league at that point, but both keepers soon proved that they could get the job done as both Ronai and Duffy posted identical .913 save percentages in the regular season.

Defensively, the Stars have lost long-serving blueliner Andy Cox to retirement, while at the time of writing they have also not retained Jason Ikin or veterans Paul Gore and Andrew Shurmer. They have not brought any new d-men in either, meaning they retain the remaining six defencemen who played for them last season. This means that the duo of Alex Staples and Dominic Hopkins – both voted on the first line of the NIHL South 2 All-Star Team in last season’s End of Season Awards.- have both re-signed for the upcoming campaign, as have Stewart Tait, Martyn Gray, Jake Florey and Will Harrison. Whether Oxford bring in any more defencemen, or rely on the six that they have, remains to be seen.

It is up front where the Stars have made all their additions so far, with three players in particular standing out. Michal Oravec joins the club as their non-British trained forward this season, with the man from Slovakia already having played for Solihull, Streatham, Invicta, Raiders, Bracknell and Chelmsford on these shores. He will be tasked with replacing the points scored by Kamil Kinkor, who departed mid-way through last season and will now play for Raiders 2. Another big addition is that of Tom Davis, the power forward moving down to NIHL2 after spending the majority of his career with the Romford/London Raiders – the last four of those as captain. Finally, Oxford have tempted Swindon Wildcats EPL forward Lee Richardson out of retirement to bolster their ranks. In the case of both Davis and Richardson, they can also play on the blueline if required.

The Stars have also retained the likes of Josh Oliver, Joe Edwards, Conor Redmond, Josh Florey, Matthew Lawday, Dax Hedges and Darren Elliott – all proven forwards at this level and all of whom put up big points last season. The main departure up front is that of Michael Whillock, who moves to Svenstaviks HK in the Swedish fourth tier to play for former Stars head coach Simon Anderson.

With most of their key players retained, as well as some dangerous new players joining the club, the Stars will be targeting the league title again this season – and will hope to go one better in the playoffs and win that piece of silverware, too. Their first game is at home to Slough on Saturday.

Solent Devils

In their five seasons in NIHL South 1 between 2012 and 2017, the Devils made an art form out of punching above their weight. It was quite astounding what they were able to achieve as a small-budget team in a rink that isn’t loved by everyone.

After the league re-organisation last season, the south coast side decided to drop down to a level at which they felt they could be competitive, and returned to NIHL South 2. What followed was a successful season in which they missed out on the league title by one solitary point, but made up for that by taking the playoff crown at the finals weekend in Bracknell – winning 6-1 in both the semi-final against Guildford, and in the final against Chelmsford.

This season, the aim is to go one better and take the league crown too. And the Devils definitely have a good chance at that, retaining most of last season’s side and making a few interesting additions.

Starting in goal, the Devils retain star netminder Christian “Chico” Cole, and add a big name in former Wightlink and Streatham goalie in NIHL South 1, Matt Colclough. This gives them probably the strongest goaltending duo in the whole league, with both netminders boasting significant experience at a higher level.

Defensively speaking, the Devils have held on to captain Alex Cole as well as Kieran Annis, Jamie Fitzpatrick, Ben Lock and Mason Wild – the latter was originally announced as moving to Streatham in NIHL1 but will now stay with the Devils. 19-year-old Samuel Compton arrives from Basingstoke while Calumn Perella-Fox returns to the sport after almost five years away. Kyle Goddard to Chelmsford is the only confirmed departure from the blueline to date.

Up front, a big blow could be the retirement of talismanic Canadian forward Drew Campbell, who was still lighting up the league last season at the age of 42 – scoring 57 points in just 26 league games, and following that up with nine points in three playoff games. To date, the Devils have not announced a non-British trained forward to replace Campbell – if they are unable to adequately replace him, that could be a blow to their title chances. Also not announced as re-signing at the time of writing is forward Mitchell Murray, who returned from a long suspension in January of this year and banged in 19 points in just nine games at the back end of the season.

Mitchell’s brother Alex does return as player-coach and will look to maintain or even beat the 76 points he bagged in 29 league and playoff games last campaign; and of course the man voted as NIHL South 2 Player of the Year for the 2017-18 season, Richard Facey, has also re-signed off the back of a barely believable 95(!) point season last time out. Other returning faces up front include Evan Crockford, Rhys McCormick (on a two-way deal with the NIHL1 Basingstoke Bison), Christopher Hocquigny, Mark Pitts, Daniel Shier and Alexander Trendall.

As of now, the Devils roster looks a bit thin on numbers with only seven defencemen and ten forwards confirmed; however their first game is not until the 22nd of September against Invicta so they have time to add a few bodies to the lineup. if they can find a replacement for Campbell and also get Mitchell Murray back, there’s nothing to say that the Devils won’t go all the way and win the league this time around.

Swindon NIHL2 Wildcats

The aim of the NIHL2 Wildcats side has always been to bring through young players from the Swindon junior ranks and give them a first taste of senior hockey. This also means that the NIHL2 Wildcats often have a changeable line-up depending on which players are available for any given game. This instability in the line-up seemed to hurt them last season, as they finished in 13th place with only winless Lee Valley behind.

That’s not to say the NIHL2 Wildcats didn’t have talent in the side; but with twelve different defencemen and eighteen forwards suiting up for at least one game, player-coach Daniel Sullivan had a challenge to get a consistent line-up out on the ice.

For the upcoming season, precious little is known about their roster, with only player-coach Sullivan confirmed thus far. We do know a few key departures though, with captain Loris Taylor stepping back up to the senior Wildcats side in NIHL1 after a number of years at this level and being joined at the “big” Wildcats by netminder Michael Crisp. Three players move to local rivals Bristol too, as Jack Clark, Nathan Chilcott and long-serving forward Adam Coakley swap the red of Swindon for the blue of the Pitbulls.

The roster for this season will likely be made up once again of the best players from the Swindon-based Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA) as well as a few local veteran players – but the exact make-up of the team is unknown at this time.

18-year-old netminder Tyler Perre has already played a game for the NIHL1 Wildcats in pre-season having impressed for the OHA U18 side last season, so could be a candidate to play in net for the NIHL2 side. Another 18-year-old, Welsh forward Eliot Randall, has also signed up for the parent side and will likely see game time for the NIHL2 team too.

Apart from that, we will have to wait a bit longer to find out how the rest of the roster will look – but with the NIHL2 Wildcats’ first game not coming until the 30th of September, they have plenty of time to fill their squad. Only then will we really be able to predict how their season will go – but a top ten finish is unlikely, particularly after the loss of Loris Taylor.

September 14th, 2018 by