A breakthrough year for the Gardiner Conference?
The ice is down, the new strips have been unveiled, and all the rosters are finalised '“ now it's showtime.
And there is much to look forward to in the 2016-17 ice hockey season.
But, could this be the year the Gardiner Conference finally makes its mark?
The northern section has long been regarded as the poor relation of the EIHL as it followed in the skate trails of teams such as Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers.
The budget differentials remain evident, but there is absolutely no doubt that the signings made north of the border have caught the eye, and hopes are high the conference perceived as the ’easier’ of the two can step up to the plate.
If any one team raised the bar last season it was Edinburgh only to then limbo under it before tumbling into an undignified heap.
Riley Emmerson gave the club back its pride and more than ruffled a few feathers among the big guns before injuries and departures ripped the heart out his ambitions
He has now passed the baton on to Michael Dobron and, once again, Caps’ summer recruitment has been impressive and imaginative.
Their fans did a double take when they unveiled Jared Staal among their 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 one mighty presence up front. Good luck to the defencemen trying to shift him from in front of their goalie!
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.
Two big names in a Caps side that looks pretty good – on paper.
The challenge now is to deliver on the ice. A formidable, consistent Caps would certainly add a whole new dimension to the conference … and threaten the play-off ambitions of the rest!
A summer of serious upgrades in the west too as Braehead seek to shrug off the tag of ‘nearly men.’
They bagged the conference title last year with more difficulty than absolutely necessary, but again came up short in the race for the league title.
There is no doubt Braehead have set the standard for the rest of Scotland to follow, on and off the ice, and are the conference’s best chance of smashing the Erdhart stranglehold.
Clan’s roster bristles with strength, skill and experience; a combination that ought to see them push for the league crown.
Team leader Matt Keith is back, impressive GB forward Craig Peacock added from Belfast Giants, and the loss of Brendan Brooks’ to Fife was offset by the signing of NHLers Jeff Ulmer – a former New York Ranger who iced with Cardiff Devils in 2003 – and former Maple Leaf and Philly Flyer, Jay Rosehill, who was skating in ‘The Show’ just three seasons ago.
They sat happily in the slipstream last season, avoiding the horrors that marked the end of Jeff Hutchins’ reign in Tayside.
The play-offs beckoned and pride was restored, so what now for Stars?
Fans will be expecting to see more progress this season.
Marc Lefebvre, coach, has kept the core of his team – Justin Faryna, Scott Brannon, Kevin Hart and Craig Moore are among the returnees – and added some familiar names.
Craig Cescon is 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.
All eyes will be on newcomers including Matt Ford from ECHL outfit Indy Fuel, and Joey Sides from Wichita Thunder.
Lefebvre needs a winning start to build momentum and, if he does that, then the conference suddenly becomes the most competitive ever.
Their debut season in the EIHL saw them win many friends and re-establish the sport in Manchester.
Storm freewheeled at times, had bundles of fun and only just missed out on the play-offs.
But, now comes that tricky second season.
Omar Pacha has to manage expectations off the ice, and it will be interesting to see how gets the best out of some young, raw talent, and uses his experienced heads to guide them through their first season in UK hockey.
The newbies include Eric Neilson who has a decade plus in the AHL – and is expected to make an impact with the club – Mark Heatley, brother of NHLer Danny, who has skated in Germany these past eight seasons, while Jack Prince is a hot young prospect out of the NCAA.
A new-look side that seems packed with experience and potential firepower but one which fans still feel could benefit from an enforcer to protect its skilled skaters.
The team’s toughness will be put to the test as soon as the puck drops – if it’s there collectively, then Todd Dutiaume’s side can have a decent tilt at the conference title and should make the play-offs with something to spare.
He also needs it to develop a winning habit from the start though, rather than finding a groove later in the season.
Ric Jackman is key on the blue line, much will be expected of new netminder Shane Owen, while, up front, all eyes will be on Brendan Brooks and Sebastien Thinel.