2019/20 Milton Keynes Lightning Season Preview

    Image Credit: Jez Tibbetts

    The Milton Keynes Lightning face some familiar teams in the 2019/20 season, their first in the newly established NIHL National league.

    The 2019/20 NIHL season is less than a month away and the Milton Keynes Lightning will be feeling pretty confident about their chances of earning some silverware.

    The NIHL National league will see the Lightning reunited with some familiar faces, with the likes of long-time local rivals the Peterborough Phantoms as well as the Swindon Wildcats and Hull Pirates helping to make up the ten-team league.

    The Lightning will also face the London (formerly Romford) Raiders for the first time since the team originally dropped out of the old EPIHL, while the brand new Leeds Chiefs team will be a new away experience for fans.

    With the team set to take to the ice in September, let's take a look at the season ahead.

    Off-Season Moves

    Having dropped out of the Elite League, there have been sweeping changes to the Milton Keynes Lightning organisation - from the very top to the very bottom.

    The new ownership group is intent on making the team operate in the most professional way they can, with new directors overseeing all forms of business and on-ice operations.

    The hiring of Lewis Clifford as head coach has been a masterstroke by the club, with Clifford having a truly strong sense of identity for the team and the connections to bring in some big-name players such as Russ Cowley, Tomas Kana and Cale Tanaka.

    As the import limit is significantly lower than the EIHL (two compared to 14), Clifford has set about bringing in a wide range of experienced British players to support the up-and-coming talented young Brits he has brought in.

    Old Lightning players such as Grant McPherson, Leigh Jamieson, Ben Russell and James Griffin are all back, bringing with them the familiarity that the team lost during the Elite League years.

    Having Harry Ferguson return after a strong EIHL season with the Lightning is positive, with the 20-year-old Scot joining the likes of Callum Robertson, Brodie Jesson and Jordan Stokes as some of the top young British talents that Clifford hopes to develop.

    The familiar faces will help the continuity of the club, but with so many changes being made in such a short time, it truly does feel like a fresh start.

    Key Players

    The most influential players in the dressing room this season will likely be the veterans, such as McPherson, Cowley and Jamieson. They will help Clifford develop the young guys and be model professionals on and off the ice.

    Arguably the most important players, however, will come in the form of Tanaka and Kana - who could line-up together and form a truly threatening offensive line.

    The two experienced players have had their fair share of success, with Kana featuring a few times in the NHL and Tanaka having had a long and successful career in the Elite League, lifting the title with the Coventry Blaze.

    Many fans reacted very positively when Tanaka was announced, with the Canadian-born forward counting as a British player this season. To have an import-level player not count against you is an excellent bit of business from Clifford and gives the team another strong option in front of the net.

    Goaltending also looks to be one of the strongest areas of the team heading into the new season, with Jordan Lawday playing for the Lightning on a two-way contract with the Cardiff Devils.

    Lawday is very familiar to hockey fans in Milton Keynes after being named an All-Star for NIHL 1 South's the Milton Keynes Thunder, as the best goaltender in the division after making 40 regular-season appearances and guiding the team into the playoffs.

    Alongside him will be Brandon Stones, who helped the Sheffield Steeldogs lift the NIHL 1 North title in 2017/18 and has posted strong numbers as a starter in his own right.

    The competition for ice time between the pair will help the team in the long-run, with both goalies eager to claim the starting role out-right and help lead the team to some silverware.

    The Lightning have a strong squad overall that has a nice balance of experience and youth, with plenty of talent to go around.

    Season Prediction

    So much change can often lead to uncertainty in any sports team, but the positive steps the club have made since the end of the 2018/19 EIHL season have them ready for a competitive and, hopefully, a successful season in the NIHL.

    Clifford has built a team with a Milton Keynes identity, drawing on players' experiences and connections to the town to truly give the fans a team that they themselves can connect with.

    The return of the old Lightning faithful will help the team progress and the quality of new faces, at both ends of their careers, should see a truly competitive team hit the ice this season.

    While it still appears that the Hull Pirates are the favourites to win the league, there's no reason why this Lightning team can't put up a good fight and push for any of the three cups that are up for grabs this year.

    Playoffs is a must for this team, but a strong cup run and a close race in the regular season should be viewed as a successful season and any form of silverware that this team wins will be even better.

    It's hard to tell where the team will finish in the league, but Top-3 should be the target and an appearance in the playoff finals would be a great accomplishment in Clifford's first season in charge.

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