Ice Hockey: The '˜wow' factor in Gardiner Conference's summer signings
The Gardiner Conference is shaping up to be the most competitive, and toughest, yet.
The northern section has long been regarded as the poor relation within an EIHL routinely dominated by southern teams such as Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers.
Could the 2016-17 season finally change that?
The signings made north of the border this summer have included more than a few which caused jaws to drop among fans around the rinks.
Team building is still a work in progress for most, but sufficient names have now been added to rosters to allow fans to start weighing up the calibre of the opposition coming their way when the puck drops in September.
Braehead Clan have certainly raised the bar.
They have retained their stand out skaters from last season and made some serious upgrades across the bench.
They started by confirming the return of team leader Matt Keith, swiftly added impressive GB forward Craig Peacock from Belfast Giants, and responded to news of Brendan Brooks’ switch to Fife by unveiling an NHLer in the shape of Jeff Ulmer.
It’s a return to the UK for the former New York Rangers player – he iced with Cardiff Devils in 2003, underlining his skills with 18 points in nine games.
A decade older and aged 39, he’ll still be a huge player in Clan’s roster; one which now has another bona fide NHLer in the shape of Jay Rosehill.
This guy was skating in ‘The Show’ just three seasons ago – he iced with Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers across 100 games - and comes to Braehead from AHL outfit, Leigh Valley Phantoms.
Add in the grit of Trevor Hendrix, formerly of Cardiff Devils, who will provide the muscle to protect the talent – not that it can’t take care of itself – and Clan again look like being the team to beat.
But they’re not the only Gardiner Conference side with an NHLer in their ranks.
Edinburgh Capitals have delivered a few ‘wow’ signings of their own, and if this team stays the course, it could be their most successful EIHL campaign ever.
Hockey fans did a double take when they unveiled Jared Staal among their summer additions.
He is one of four Staal brothers to play in the NHL – he iced with Carolina Hurricanes – and at six-three and 210lbs, he’s going to be a mighty presence up front for the city side.
Staal comes to Caps from the AHL, while their other eye-catching signing, Pavel Vorubyov is arguably one of the most experienced to hit these shores in a long time.
The 34-year old Russian forward was a first round draft pick with Chicago in 2000, played 57 NHL games, skated in the AHL and then went home to make 200-plus appearances in the KHL, the world’s second biggest league.
A mighty CV, and a potentially huge player for a side that has long been regarded as the league’s weak link.
Caps have also added netminder Trevor Fullerton, formerly with Braehead, and confirmed the return of Garrett Milan and Jacob Johnston, back after injury cut his 2015-16 campaign short, among others.
Dundee Stars grabbed most of the early headlines with a spate of swift signings while everyone else was still sweeping out the dressing-rooms back in the spring.
Marc Lefebvre, coach, has retained his key players from last season, brought in some familiar faces, and added a few new to these shores.
Justin Faryna, Scott Brannon, Kevin Hart and Craig Moore are among the returnees, while Stars have added Craig Cescon, back from a spell in France after previously playing with Braehead and Coventry, plus Vinny Scarsella who stacked some 74 points with Manchester Storm last season, and former Coventry Blaze forward, Cale Tanaka.
New faces include Matt Ford, from ECHL outfit Indy Fuel,and Joey Sides from Wichita Thunder.
Manchester, meanwhile, have gone for young talent out of uni as well as a few seasoned veterans for their second EIHL campaign.
Eric Neilson comes to the club after 11 seasons in the AHL, Mark Heatley, brother of NHLer Danny, joins after eight in a row in Germany, while Jack Prince is a hot young prospect out of the NCAA.
But all the teams, including Fife Flyers, still have spaces to fill on their roster; Fife fans are still waiting on their impact signing too.
As always, what looks awesome on paper doesn’t always transfer to the ice.
Some players won’t set the rink alight, some may not settle, and some dressing-rooms may need a mid-season shake to get them going – the early results will give an indication as to who may blink first and make the cuts.
But it’s safe to say the conference has stepped up a gear all round, and may well be in the best shape yet to rattle cages south of the border.