The Student Sport’s Prediction: 3rd in the Gardiner Conference
Key additions: Peter LeBlanc, LW/C; Evan Bloodoff, LW; Danick Gauthier, LW; Andy Iles, G
Key departures: Ryan Dingle, C/LW; Shane Owen, G; Brendan Brooks, C/RW; Phil Paquet, D
In an off-season where Fife surprisingly can lay claim to having the most continuity out of their Gardiner Conference rivals, there is a strange vibe coming out of Kirkcaldy.
Perhaps this is because the Flyers faithful were split about whether head coach Todd Dutiaume deserved to return for a 13th season, or whether the Kirkcaldy club should have started afresh with new blood.
And rather than playing up the Flyers’ prospects of snatching the conference title with Braehead, Edinburgh and Dundee in transition, there is a sense, albeit a calm one, of malaise in the building. You may even call it quiet pessimism about the true destiny of the 2017/18 season.
In some respects it is justified. No one really knows how the new additions will slot into place and whether they will gel into anything like the side that Dutiaume and assistant coach Jeff Hutchins envisage.
Then there is the small matter of coming to terms with the scale of the exodus at Fife Ice Arena. Clear outs are not unprecedented, indeed they are common practice at EIHL level, but to lose arguably your two best players from the previous season will hurt.
Out go captain Ryan Dingle to Coventry Blaze, a star turn at this level, while incumbent netminder Shane Owen has swapped the EIHL for BIK Karlskoga in Sweden.
Equally as crushing a blow is to lose Brendan Brooks back to Braehead after a solitary season, the very team he joined from a year ago.
38 he may be, but 48 points last term and a starring role for the GB national side in April show the veteran forward still has much to offer.
His departure left Fife fans scratching their heads. Why didn’t the Flyers do more to offer Brooks a player/coach role? Of course there is no guaranteeing even if such an offer was on the table that he would have accepted it, judging by Brooks’ comments on his Clan return.
Moreover, where would that have left incumbent assistant Hutchins, who also combines the role alongside his title of Director of Player Development?
Some Fife fans would blame the dithering attitude of the front office after the conclusion of last season, the kind of uncertainty that does not appeal to players who want nothing more than a bit of clarification and certainty.
It is, after all, worth mentioning that the delay over announcing the new league structure was rumoured to be down to Fife, along with Dundee and Edinburgh, stalling over the planned two conference structure instead of the eventual three.
Whether that factored into the aforementioned departures is all conjecture, pure speculation and nothing more. But there is no denying that it momentarily set Fife’s recruitment plans back as they belatedly confirmed their participation in the expanded league for this season.
It only added to the animosity thrust squarely in the face of the front office, owing to Fife’s recent history of losing promising Brit prospects from their own development ranks – whether the Fife Falcons at Scotland U20 level or the SNL’s Kirkcaldy Kestrels.
The Robertson brothers, Aaron and Calum, became the latest in a string of players to move to pastures new, joining former Kirkcaldy Kestrels defenceman Tyler Plews on the Edinburgh Capitals’ roster.
And that’s not forgetting other names like netminder Renny Marr who was poached by the Coventry Blaze two years ago.
Last campaign will still be fresh in the memory after all, yet it hardly had most supporters connected with the Flyers bouncing with the kind of optimism you would hope to see.
Fife finished in a respectable 6th place in the league standings, but in an underwhelming 3rd in the Gardiner Conference.
A premature group stage exit in the Challenge Cup was followed by a comprehensive two-legged defeat at the hands of the Belfast Giants in the play-off quarter-finals.
On the face of it, that looks to be a respectable season for a club with Fife’s budget – minus the disappointment of not making the Challenge Cup knock-out stage.
But common consensus suggests it was the style of hockey employed by Dutiaume that frustrated the Flyers faithful more than anything else, not being the most pleasing on the eye by all accounts.
Then you had the haphazard recruitment with defenceman David Turon quickly released and Kyle Haines, a man who moved on initially from Fife at the conclusion of the 2015/16 season, re-signed in October.
James Isaacs and Bryan Cameron were later recruited as stop-gaps more than anything else, short-term fixes and not the desired longer-term solution.
Meanwhile, a common league wide criticism is that Brit players don’t get enough ice time, in what is unsurprisingly an import-driven league environment.
Playing most Brits on the top two lines just isn’t realistic and, on the bigger budget teams who can accommodate four lines, getting them on the ice at all for meaningful shifts is even harder.
Surprisingly though the lower budget teams, including Fife, while bucking the trend to some degree do not necessarily fare better when it comes to giving Brits a fare crack. That’s despite operating only three lines.
Which brings me back to one of the key criticisms levelled at the Fife coaching staff and front office last campaign.
Fans love nothing more than seeing ‘one of their own’ – a cliché that may be but it rings true. When your side is winning and you have a settled line-up it makes sense to stick with what you have, thus relegating fringe players, usually young or veteran Brits, to the periphery.
For Fife though this became the subject of scrutiny. They lost star centre Shayne Stockton to a season ending injury relatively early in the season, but no import replacement forward arrived until Cameron walked through the door in January 2017.
Indeed, they even resorted to using defenceman Isaacs as an auxiliary forward for much of the season.
Yet even though the Flyers were playing short benched, they often underutilised their Brit corps – surprising given Chris Wands’ better than expected performances at the back end.
The emergence of Kirkcaldy-born forward Chad Smith was but a fleeting flicker of promise among the domestic players, even if Smith figures to have a bright future having committed for the foreseeable future.
The new Brit U23 rule further compromises the futures of Flyers Brit veterans Thomas Muir, Jamie Wilson and Stephen Gunn, and indeed plenty of over 23 players from around the league.
And with some Flyers fans simply happy to see their side remaining an EIHL team, for now at least, perhaps the isolated pessimism from some quarters will give way to an optimistic vision of how this season will play out.
After all, Fife did have a comprehensive pre-season programme featuring home double headers against EC Kassel Huskies of the German DEL2 and Danish Metal Ligaen side Herlev Eagles.
That is unprecedented whatever way you look at it, providing Fife with ample opportunities, alongside the Scottish Elite Cup, to get up to speed for the new season.
There is no doubt that Fife should be competing for the Gardiner Conference title year in year out. They have often got the better of Forth rivals the Edinburgh Capitals, and the Murrayfield men as well as Dundee and Braehead are something of unknown quantities owing to their rebuilds.
Fife then are ideally placed to make a push for the crown this year, but the destiny of their season will rest on how the rest of their recruitment comes together and whether they can adequately replace some star names from 12 months ago.
Fife’s recruitment has involved signing players with experience of playing with each other. New starting netminder Andy Iles arrived from ECHL side Elmira Jackals, alongside defenceman Ian Young.
Incidentally Iles also played with Evan Bloodoff and Danick Gauthier in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades, so familiarity is clearly the name of the game.
Elsewhere, the club poached Kirkcaldy native Sean Beattie from rivals the Edinburgh Capitals, while also bringing in former Manchester Storm defenceman Ricards Birzins from Nice.
The club re-signed Shayne Stockton for a third season, a player who began last season well before injury curtailed his season in October. His fitness will be key for Fife.
And can Chase Schaber, back for a second season, prove his worth as a potential top line centre?
Fife’s returnees did not finish there. Also returning to the Flyers is veteran defenceman Russ Moyer who will surely be a candidate for the captaincy, while James Isaacs and Carlo Finucci also re-up in Kirkcaldy for second seasons.
Image courtesy of Edinburgh Capitals