Elite Ice Hockey League: Gardiner Conference Preview – Braehead Clan

The Student Sport’s Prediction: 1st in the Gardiner Conference

Key additions: Mike Embach, LW; Ryan Nie, G; Ryan Potulny, C; Tyler Scofield, LW

Key departures: Scott Pitt, C/LW; Alex Leavitt, FW; Mike Hammond, FW; Matt Beca, RW

The expansion of the Elite Ice Hockey League to three conferences of four sees the Gardiner Conference retained, albeit now comprised exclusively of the four Scottish clubs.

With Manchester Storm moving to the newly formed Patton Conference, Braehead Clan, Edinburgh Capitals, Dundee Stars and Fife Flyers will do battle for the conference title and perhaps a bit of national pride too.

Things though are far from being as you were. That much is not the greatest surprise given the expected annual player turnover, but with three of the four clubs sporting new coaches, and with it new rosters, the Gardiner Conference will once again be a prolific source of juicy sub-plots during the 2017/18 season.

For keen eyed observers, Braehead Clan will once again start the season as favourites for the conference crown, but can the other three sides mount a serious challenge in an attempt to dethrone the Clan for the first time since 2014?

The import total remains at 14, with clubs allowed to have up to 19 skaters icing on game day. The EIHL have also since introduced a new U23 rule ahead of the 2017/18 season in which clubs can dress up to three British players under the age of 23.

Braehead Clan

There is no doubting Braehead’s continued ambition, but few will predict everything to come together in year one under new head coach John Tripp. The Canadian born German, whose CV can lay claim to a stint in the NHL as a player, replaced Ryan Finnerty at Braehead Arena after arriving from German DEL2 side ETC Crimmitschau.

The re-tooling of the roster, undertaken by Tripp and Director of Hockey Operations Gareth Chalmers, has seen a concerted effort to move away from the flashy big names of yesteryear.

Clan tried and ultimately failed to find the right balance last season despite offensive production that most sides in the league would envy.

Forget your big name stars, it seems Braehead are, by and large, recruiting players not based on their CVs or those wanting one final pay check but for genuine hockey reasons.

And what is certain is that the Clan are in unfamiliar territory. Finnerty’s four years at the helm delivered consistent conference domination but little else in the way of play-off success or trophies.

A quarter-final play-off exit at the hands of the unfancied Dundee Stars last term commenced a necessary, but nonetheless ambitious re-build.

Few were surprised to see the club dispense of Finnerty, but even fewer are making the kind of confident predictions we have seen from Clan quarters in previous years.

That leaves Braehead as one of the more intriguing sides to watch this season. What will become of Tripp’s re-build? Can Braehead realistically expect to challenge for all three trophies in year one, and can the Clan replace the offence they have lost this off-season?

There is little doubt that losing the likes of Matt Beca, Scott Pitt, Alex Leavitt and Mike Hammond represent big holes to fill for Braehead.

Three of those four players (Beca, Pitt and Leavitt) finished in the top four in EIHL scoring last year with 75, 74 and 69 points respectively, while Pitt ended the 2016/17 season as the league’s top scorer with 32 goals.

That production is not easy to replace, nor is the kind of veteran leadership that the departures of incumbent captain Matt Keith, the retirement of Leavitt, and the exits of veterans Jay Rosehill and Scott Aarssen represent.

Some may describe the exodus as necessary in light of the disastrous season Braehead endured last term.

A horror start effectively ruled Clan out of league title contention by Christmas while mid-season arrivals only appeared to paper over the cracks. Another premature play-off exit simply drew the line under an underwhelming campaign and Finnerty’s fate was sealed.

Roster clear-outs are commonplace and multi-year deals remain less common than your standard one-year deal. In this instance why are we surprised that a new coach is undertaking open-heart surgery of the playing staff?  Tripp, after all, will have his own ideas about how he wants to build the team.

Some may see it as necessary, others perhaps would point to Chalmers’ own admission that the front office only wanted to retain two players from last season – presumably the aforementioned Pitt and Beca. Big change though has arrived.

Clan fans will be disappointed to see some of their favourite players depart, but they should also consider how they would have felt had Braehead retained the bulk of last year’s roster.

Scoring was not an issue last term but their defence was woeful, providing little in the way of protection for last year’s starter Michal Zajkowski or back-up Gary Russell.

A re-build, especially at the back, was not only necessary because of how the season panned out but was paramount if the club really wanted to provide Tripp with the opportunity to re-stock the roster in his own image. That takes time and patience.

Simply put, anything less than a clear-out would have made a mockery of the very statement the Clan hoped to make by changing coaches.

By bringing in Tripp the club collectively recognised that the time for fresh ideas had come, and in appointing him they hope to have found the right man to spearhead that revival.

Braehead, with a bigger budget than their three conference rivals, will be expected to reign supreme in the Gardiner Conference again. In fact, it was their cross-conference form which let them down last term more than games against their local rivals.

The Clan come into this season in relatively uncharted waters. Few are talking up the club as we have seen in previous seasons, but maybe that will suit Tripp who perhaps can settle in and acclimatise to his new surroundings without a glaring spotlight being placed on him.

Of course internally the club will have their own expectations and Tripp will not afford himself that bedding in process, but few observers in league circles will genuinely feel that the Clan have what it takes to gate-crash the top four – at least in year one.

Look for the Clan then to be in the second bracket of sides looking to make the top five. A conference title, a decent Challenge Cup run and a top five league finish would, dare I say, be deemed a success by most connected with Braehead.

And victory in the inaugural Scottish Elite Cup pre-season tournament at Murrayfield earlier this month suggests the overhaul is well on schedule.

Recruitment

Braehead will lean heavily on American winger Mike Embach, newly signed from ECHL side Fort Wayne Komets, to light the lamp, while former NHL centre Ryan Potulny is perhaps the star name on this year’s roster.

They have brought back Canadian Brendan Brooks as player/assistant coach, a man who demonstrated that, even at 38, he can still provide the goods having racked up 48 points for Fife last season.

Having lost Rosehill, one of three to defect to Manchester, bringing in players with size and toughness would have been top of the agenda. In American Jacob Doty, brought in from Missouri Mavericks of the ECHL, they may have struck gold.

Tripp has also used his knowledge of the DEL2 to good effect by landing three players from the German second tier.

Experienced Canadian goaltender Ryan Nie follows Tripp to Glasgow from ETC Crimmitschau, while 30-year-old American defenceman Cameron Burt and 33-year-old Canadian winger Tyler Scofield have both swapped Starbulls Rosenheim for a crack at the EIHL.

Both Brit U23 Josh Grieveson and fellow defenceman Craig Cescon have travelled relatively little distance, with both joining Braehead from conference rivals the Dundee Stars.

For Canadian tough guy Cescon, he returns to familiar territory having spent the second half of the 2012/13 season at Braehead Arena. As a veteran, Cescon will be leant on to provide the leadership on and off the ice and the toughness Tripp is looking to install in his side.

Moreover, having someone in Cescon with notable EIHL experience to call upon in this transition period cannot be deemed a bad thing.

Elsewhere, fellow Canadian Landon Oslanski bolsters a blue line in need of a fresh start, arriving from ECHL side Toledo Walleye, while Canadian winger Adam Brace will re-unite with former Florida Everblades teammate Burt in Glasgow after arriving from ECHL side Reading Royals.

 

Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals

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