2018-19

The Blaze roster underwent another major overhaul during the summer of 2018. Among the forwards, leading goal scorer Marc Olivier Vallerand left for the Alps League, while captain Jordan Pietrus and player/assistant coach Brett Robinson, among others, moved on to new challenges.

There were major changes on the blue line too, with only Kevin Noble (who was appointed player/assistant coach) and talented young British defenceman David Clements retained from a defensive unit that had proved frustratingly porous during the previous season.

Head coach Danny Stewart began building a team round a returning core of Noble, Clements, the impressive Ben Lake, GB gold medal-winning forward Luke Ferrara, fellow Brit Ross Venus, netminder Kevin Nastiuk and feisty fan favourite Danick Paquette. On offence, he added skill and know-how in former Nottingham Panther Alex Nikiforuk, and speed and scoring potential in American Jake Hansen and Canadian Kelin Ainsworth. Canadian defenceman Justin Hache, Norwegian international Nicolai Bryhnisveen and American Chris Joyaux headlined the new defensive signings, and the team had a new captain, AHL experienced 25-year-old American forward Kevin Morris, assisted by Ferrara and Venus.

However, Stewart’s plans suffered a double blow when, with the start of the season looming, first Nastiuk and then Paquette announced they wouldn’t be returning after all, with Nastiuk taking a break from the game for personal reasons and Paquette signing for a team in North America before telling the Blaze he had changed his mind about coming back.

Stewart turned to Elite League veteran Miika Wiikman to take over from Nastiuk, whilst Tim Crowder joined in placed of Paquette. Wiikman started the season between the pipes before suffering a broken finger in training, and veteran Czech netminder Miroslav Kopriva answered the SOS call to temporarily replace him, marking the start of his Blaze career with three man-of-the-match awards. Wiikman then returned, only to be released and replaced again by Kopriva weeks later, before the Czech left the club in early January when former NHL netminder Matt Hackett was signed. The constant changes in goal didn’t help the search for consistent on-ice performances.

The Blaze often found themselves either fighting back after conceding early goals or failing to hold leads when they did get in front. While it made for exciting and high-scoring games, with numerous contests going to overtime or penalty shots, the inability to string a consistent run of results together left the club facing another tough battle to make the play-offs. It was a battle that lasted until the final weeks of the season, when the team finally secured a place in the post-season, later succumbing to league Champions Belfast Giants in the quarter-finals.

In addition to the goaltending merry-go-round, other adversities also tested Danny Stewart’s side as in early December, Ainsworth left to join Aalborg Pirates in Denmark and first-year pro Canadian defenceman Trey Lewis announced his retirement due to injury. With the speedy high-point scoring Hansen lost to a long-term injury as well, Swedish forward Thom Flodqvist and Croatian international defenceman Ivan Puzic were brought in to reinforce the roster. Dominik Florian, a Czech-born forward with NCAA experience studying at Coventry University, was also brought in to add depth.

The loss of Hansen deprived the team of a significant offensive threat. But fellow American Shawn Pauly stepped up, forming a potent forward line with Lake and Crowder, and Flodqvist proved an astute addition. Elsewhere, young Brit Alex Forbes and Canadian forward Dillon Lawrence made the most of the initially limited opportunities they were given to earn increased ice time as the season progressed.

There were other bright spots, too. Hache brought skill and poise to the defence, as well as proving to be a key part of the powerplay; the tenacious Bryhnisveen also added further offence from the blue-line; Clements continued his development as one of the best young British defencemen in the Elite League; and Jordan Hedley proved a more than capable back-up netminder when called upon.

But the brightest spot by far was Lake. Having ended his debut Elite League campaign in a decent vein of goal and points scoring form, the Canadian (who holds a British passport courtesy of English parents) followed up with a sensational season that defied expectations, finishing with 34 goals, 43 assists for 77 points in 60 regular season games (second for goals, and points and sixth for assists in the league's scoring charts), making an irresistible case for inclusion in the GB squad for the World Championship in Slovakia. With Nikiforuk and Crowder both registering more than 50 points, and Pauly finding the net regularly as the season progressed, fears about the roster’s scoring depth proved unfounded. But the team’s instability in net, until the final week’s when Hackett proved his undoubted quality, and the defensive issues which that hindered, meant that the goal-scoring didn’t translate into as many wins as it perhaps should have.