Life on the Blue Line: The NIHL Defender

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Home to the powerful penalty killer, the long-distanced lamp lighter and the speculative shooter, the NIHL blue line has presented its fair share of defencemen over the years, but just how important is the role of NIHL defender and why is the hard work of blue liners so frequently overlooked?

Though strong offensive play often steals the limelight when it comes to ice hockey, with high praise endowed on those who make an impact in front of goal, it is also important to recognise the efforts of the sport’s defencemen, particularly as success rates often depend upon the quality of such players.

In recent years, a compact, sturdy defence has been a key factor to achieving league success in NIHL North Division One. In their 2012-13 campaign, Solway Sharks reached the heights of poll position in the Moralee Conference, but this would not have been possible without the vast experience and dexterity the side displayed in defence. Playing EPL and Elite League-standard defencemen on the blue line, Solway possessed great quality in their defensive zone, with characters such as Craig Mitchell having iced for Braehead Clan, Dundee Stars and Hull Stingrays; John Connolly making numerous appearances for Edinburgh Capitals, the Clan and EPL side Slough Jets; and Aidan Fulton starting in Paul Gardner’s line-up for Braehead on sixty eight occasions, before signing for the Sharks.

At this time, Declan Balmer and Jordan Crowe were also on Solway’s roster as they strove to break into Solway’s senior team. Since then, Balmer’s defensive aptitude has been recognised by EPL side Peterborough Phantoms and Basingstoke Bison whilst Crowe has made it to the North American 3 Eastern Hockey League to ice for LA Fighting Spirit. The excellence of these defencemen combined with a reduced goals against rate (the side only conceding fifty goals in thirty two games to attain a goal difference of one hundred and two) suggests that the Dumfries outfit were in possession of a first rate defence. As success swiftly followed the club in a second consecutive title-winning season, the great contribution of Martin Grubb’s stalwart defence was undeniable, with Solway Sharks appearing unshakable at the summit of the league standings.

In the season that followed, Blackburn Hawks were next to storm to the title, conceding only forty five goals in twenty four games. Again, this was largely due to the experience of Blackburn’s defence with captain Chris Arnone, alternate captain Craig Rogers, Chris Butler, Ollie Lomax and Richard Ravey collectively racking up forty five seasons worth of experience at the ENL/NIHL club. With import Pavel Slowik also added to Hawks’ defence in their 2014-15 campaign, the Czech Republican managed one goal and ten assists for Blackburn, thereby effectively influencing the offensive play of Jared Owen’s line up.

In fact, an impressive twenty three goals and a further fifty three assists were achieved by Hawks’ defencemen over the course of this season, meaning their input was invaluable as Blackburn journeyed to title success. Currently, Blackburn sit top of the NIHL league table, continuing from the success of last season and it is captain Arnone who is the league’s most influential defenceman with ten goals and twenty five assists for his club. Bestowed with one of the most important leadership roles, Arnone has once again impressed this season, so much so that he has even made an appearance for the Elite League’s newest franchise, Manchester Storm. So far, Blackburn have only conceded thirty seven goals, meaning they have the best goal difference in the league.

Now in his tenth season with the Hawks, Arnone broke through the ranks of Blackburn’s junior set up, briefly played for Kingston Jets and finally returned to his hometown club where he has remained ever since. Becoming alternate captain in 2011-12, Arnone’s worth was clearly recognised as he stepped into the captaincy role in the season that followed. Achieving thirty eight points in his best season to date, Arnone is one of Hawks’ greatest assets and continues to produce as much offensive play as the side’s forwards, making him a highly versatile resource.

Another of the NIHL’s most experienced blue liners is Whitley Warriors’ Dan Pye. Starting out with Sunderland Arrows at junior level, followed by Newcastle Vipers’ development team in the ENL, Pye has played in divisions one and two of the English National League, the Elite League and the National Ice Hockey League in both the North and South. Playing for the Warriors last season, Pye has since been made alternate captain at the club for away fixtures along with fellow blue liner Joe Stamp. Again, this evidences just how influential defencemen are in the NIHL, as player-coach David Longstaff has awarded the hard work of both with the responsibility of leadership. So far this season, Pye has iced on thirteen occasions and was particularly effective in Warriors’ fixture against Telford Tigers, picking up a Man of the Match award, having scored the game-winning goal with a long-distance shot for the Hillheads outfit. Also worth noting is the success of converted defenceman Harry Harley who is one of the NIHL’s best blue liners, after Arnone and Kim Miettinen of the Hawks, picking up sixteen points in nineteen games.

The mixed results of Division One’s newly promoted sides Solihull Barons, Telford Tigers and Sheffield Senators can also be attributed to the defensive depth, adeptness and efficiency of their respective defences. Solihull Barons’ player-coach Perry Doyle has lead his team into the top four spots of the NIHL league table this season and, as one of the league’s most experienced blue liners, the forty three year old has scored twice and assisted on eight occasions to become the highest points scorer of Barons’ defence. With the support of alternate captain Phil Knight, creative player Richard Crowe and the skilful Ryan Selwood, Doyle has a powerful, goal scoring defence but their offensive attributes perhaps explain why the Barons have conceded as many goals as eighth placed Sutton Sting at present. Playing offensive ice hockey, the Barons have been punished on the counter-attack this season but their own attacking play has ensured that the team have maintained a positive goal difference.

Likewise, Tigers captain Daniel Croft has also ensured that his side have reached the top four, sitting in third in the early stages of the season before being displaced by fellow former Laidler Conference side, Solihull Barons. There is a great deal of youth in Tigers’ defence with junior Joshua Cosgrove and eighteen year olds Corey Goodison and Matthew Lees making up 50% of Telford’s regular defence. However, these youngsters have certainly proven themselves, Goodison hitting home four goals and grabbing two assists whilst Lees also has an assist to his name. Also instrumental on the blue line, Daniel Harrison remains strong to protect netminder Denis Bell and links up with Tigers’ forwards to create opportunities, already grabbing assists against the Barons, the Sharks, Sutton Sting and both Sheffield outfits. In the absence of forward Callum Bowley, Harrison has also taken on role of alternate captain for his team alongside experienced Slovakian import Karol Jets, suggesting the blue liner is held in high regard by Head Coach Jason Parry.

The success of both the Barons’ and Tigers’ defences differs greatly to that of Sheffield Senators which has been crushed by offensive play this season, Andrew Chapman’s side conceding on a staggering one hundred and forty one occasions and scoring only thirty one goals in comparison. Though Senators’ defence appears the perfect balance of youth and experience on paper, there are many players who have missed out on several seasons at a time; Sam Hurst played junior ice hockey for Sheffield Greyhounds in their 2007-08 campaign but did not sign for a team until 2014; Jamie Lewis completed a senior season in the same year but again only began playing again in 2012; captain Andrew McEwan began his ice hockey career in 2012 with Sutton Sting in his late twenties; Jamie Pyewell’s playing career was disrupted between 2006-10 and he also missed out last season; Arran Bell completed a season with the Steel City Scorpions in 2007 but did not feature for a senior side until 2009 with the Spartans; and Jonathan Bell also sat out between seasons with the Nottingham Lions before joining the Senators in 2012.

This, combined with the inexperience of junior Lewis Otley, Under 20s Jordan Martin and Matthew Pigott, and Thomas Barry’s split ice time between the Spartans and the Steeldogs, means any strong offensive play is unfortunately always cancelled out by the heavy concession of goals for the side. That is not to say that the Senators have no quality in defence as they certainly do with Jonathan Bell, alternate captain Arran Bell, Martyn Gray, Lewis Jones, Otley and Pigott all registering points for the struggling side. Furthermore, like so many other NIHL teams, Senators have opted for leadership to be disseminated from their defence with captain McEwan and alternate captain Arran Bell fulfilling these roles soundly in light of the Senators’ circumstances at the foot of the table.

Success often follows the strongest defencemen in the NIHL and that is true of Billingham Stars’ Richie Thornton. Beginning his career on Teesside, Thornton moved to Wightlink Raiders in the EPL before signing for BNL line up Newcastle Vipers, making it to the playoffs with both sides over three consecutive seasons. Appearing for Billingham Bombers , the EPL’s Hull Stingrays and Basingstoke Bison besides the Vipers, Thornton made the switch to Whitley Warriors in 2009, commencing the refurbishment of Billingham’s Ice Rink, and found himself crowned ENL League Champion and ENL North Champion in two title-winning seasons at Hillheads. A return to Billingham saw the defenceman achieve the same feat again with the Stars where he has since enjoyed captaincy, the role of player-coach in the Stars’ 2013-14 campaign and the role of assistant player-coach alongside right winger Michael Bowman for the last two seasons.

Likewise, versatile Shark Juraj Senko has also contributed to the Solway’s champion status in 2014, accumulating an outstanding fifty points, nineteen goals and thirty one assists, when playing as a blue liner and now finds himself alternate captain for the team. ENL and EPL experienced James Goodman, now of Sutton Sting, played as captain for the club for four consecutive seasons and, though the role has changed hands since, the captaincy remains in defence, Simon Offord taking the responsibility in his sixth season with the Sting. Also, import Martin Finkes of Sheffield Spartans has proved himself to be a great resource on the blue line for his club, with four goals and seven assists, though his team have felt the pressure of their opposition of late to slide down the NIHL table.

The following tables provided by NIHL statistics expert Anthony Lowe show just how effective NIHL defencemen are in the Moralee Conference, with points production, penalty kills and shots against recorded below:

 

Name Team GP G A P
Chris Arnone Blackburn Hawks 20 10 25 35
Kim Miettinen Blackburn Hawks 19 7 16 23
Harry Harley Whitley Warriors 19 5 11 16
Ryan Johnson Sutton Sting 19 6 8 14
Andre Payette Whitley Warriors 18 5 7 12
Sergevs Jegorovs Sutton Sting 20 5 7 12
Juraj Senko* Solway Sharks 14 8 3 11
Martin Finkes Sheffield Spartans 21 4 7 11
Thomas Keeley Billingham Stars 17 7 3 10
Perry Doyle Solihull Barons 18 2 8 10

 

PK
Team PK’s PPGA PK%
Blackburn Hawks 88 8 91%
Solway Sharks* 46 7 85%
Billingham Stars 58 9 84%
Sheffield Senators* 66 12 82%
Telford Tigers 73 14 81%
Whitley Warriors 72 15 79%
Solihull Barons 90 19 79%
Sheffield Spartans 98 21 79%
Sutton Sting 77 18 77%
SA
Team SA SAPG
Blackburn Hawks 657 32.85
Solway Sharks* 500 35.71
Whitley Warriors 704 37.05
Billingham Stars 672 37.33
Solihull Barons 782 39.10
Telford Tigers 768 40.42
Sheffield Spartans 881 41.95
Sutton Sting 870 43.50
Sheffield Senators* 926 54.47

*Please note: the stats asterisked have been recorded without the EIHA game sheet from Solway Sharks fixture against Sheffield Senators on Saturday 9th January 2016.

These tables show that so far Blackburn are highly effective in defence with a 91% success rate on the penalty kill whereas Sutton Sting sit rock bottom, conceding on eighteen occasions with a penalty kill percentage of 77%. Meanwhile, the Senators have shown themselves to be weaker in defence, facing nine hundred and twenty six shots in eighteen games and, though they have a penalty kill percentage of 82%, the Sheffield outfit have conceded twelve power play goals to date.

Making for interesting reading, these tables show just how complex the role of the NIHL defenceman is. Expected to prevent their opposition from scoring, but always aiming to create offensive opportunities for their line mates, NIHL blue liners are incredibly versatile. They can compete at a high standard and at a fast pace to engage in creative play and continually dig in deep in their own defensive zone when it is required of them. From game-winning goals to leadership roles, these players often fulfil important duties which are often overshadowed by the brilliance, creativity and originality of NIHL forwards. Showing grit, resilience and courage to prevent the puck from lighting the lamp at one end, and doing everything to ensure it does at the other, defenders have perhaps one of the most demanding tasks in ice hockey and continue to accomplish this duty to a high standard, confirmed by the longevity of blue line playing careers for Perry Doyle, former Warrior Kevin Bucas, former Billingham Star Garry Dowd and Telford Tiger Daniel Croft, to name but a few.

Statistics credit: Anthony Lowe

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