One week into the SHL’s second season, and one thing seems clear: The league is more balanced than it was last season. There are no winless teams left, unlike last year, when it took the Saskatchewan Shockers three weeks to notch their first victory. There are also no undefeated teams standing.
“It really feels like anyone can win on any given night,” said Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor, whose team is off to a 3-2-0 start.
Perhaps the best indication of the topsy-turvy nature of the season’s opening week are the two teams at the top. The league points leaders aren’t the teams you’d expect: not the defending champion Igloos, or the Michigan Gray Wolves team that chased them all season, or the Eastern division-winning Washington Galaxy. Instead, the teams with the matching 3-1-1 records are an expansion club and a squad that had a major rebuild in the offeason.
The Quebec Tigres made a big splash before they ever took the ice, hiring Michigan coach Martin Delorme to guide the construction of the new franchise. Delorme is well-known for his love of hard-nosed defense, and the Tigres built their squad in the image of their new coach. Outside observers were impressed with the cast of scrappy no-names that Quebec assembled, but it was widely assumed that they were bound for the basement, as is usually the case for expansion clubs. In particular, it was assumed that the Tigres lacked the sort of offense necessary to contend.
At least so far, Quebec has foiled those expectations. Their offense hasn’t been elite, but it has been functional; the Tigres have scored 15 goals so far, more than three other clubs, despite missing scoring RW Flint “Steel” Robinson for a couple games. The good-enough attack has been backed by a hard-working, hard-hitting defense that has surpassed even the most optimistic projections. The Tigres have surrendered 10 goals so far; only Michigan has allowed fewer.
Several Quebec players have credited Delorme for the strong start. “This is a hungry group,” said Tigres D Ward Jones. “We’re eager to make a name in the league. Coach Delorme has done a great job getting everybody on the same page and making sure we’re prepared. Everyone thinks that expansion teams are weak and disorganized, but not us. We’re driven and discipline, and that starts at the top.”
Another key to Quebec’s success: rookie netminder Riki Tiktuunen. The Tigres picked the 21-year-old Finn with the second overall selection in the entry draft. He came highly touted, but was expected to encounter typical rookie struggles. So far, though, he’s played like an old hand. His 3-0-1 record, 1.71 GAA and .940 save percentage rank him with the league’s elite. Teammates and opponents alike have been tremendously impressed by what they’ve seen.
“Riki is just exceptional,” said Tigres LW Pascal Royal. “He is incredibly athletic; he can reach over and block shots out of nowhere. But really amazing is his instincts; he almost never gets fooled or plays out of position. Very smart.”
It all adds up to a strong start for a team expected to finish in the Eastern division cellar. Perhaps more surprising is that the team that most people expected to join them there has instead joined them in the division penthouse.
The Hamilton Pistols had a tumultuous and disappointing season last year. They finished last in the East with a 22-35-3 record. After that pratfall, Pistols management decided to clean house in the offseason. Veteran coach Ron Wright departed by mutual consent to take the Michigan job, and the front office dealt several highly-paid players and focused on stockpiling draft picks.
With a roster full of kids, Hamilton was expected to struggle badly this season. Instead, under the tutelage of first-time head coach Keith Shields, the Pistols have soared. Hamilton has scored 19 goals, one off of the league lead, and that powerful offense has propelled them to the top. The high-flying top line that escaped the offseason purge – LW Steven Alexander (8 points), C Rod Remington (10 points), and RW Claude Lafayette (7 points) – has a lot to do with that. But some of the rookies have made a splash as well.
C Calvin Frye, one of Hamilton’s first-round picks, has put up 3 goals and 5 points in his first week in the SHL. D Clayton “Crusher” Risch has provided the punishing defense that the team was looking for, along with a surprising passing touch (3 assists so far).
The biggest surprise, though, has been a redemption story. Last season, goaltender Brandon Colt fizzled, posting a 16-17-3 record and a 3.79 GAA. Wright pointed to the Pistols’ porous goaltending as a key reason for the team’s failure last season. In the offseason, Hamilton shopped Colt aggressively but was unable to find a taker. Left with no other option, the Pistols returned Colt as the starting netminder this season, and he has rewarded them handsomely so far. Colt finished the first week 3-0-1 with a 2.67 GAA and a .915 save percentage.
“I don’t know what the situation was last year, but Brandon’s been terrific for me,” said Shields. “Hard worker, super athletic, just a great teammate and a solid goalie. I’m sure glad we have him!”
The Pistols are equally glad to have Shields as a coach. According to team sources, Pistols players became frustrated playing for the disciplinarian Wright last season. The 33-year-old Shields, who is in his first head coaching position, is much more of a players’ coach: loose, fun-loving, and relaxed. “Coach Wright was kind of like a drill sergeant,” said Alexander. “Keith is more like your cool uncle or older brother. He wants us to win, but he figures the best way to do that is to relax and have fun. I can go for that.”
Obviously, it’s still early in the season, and the fast starts by the Tigres and Pistols could prove to be a mirage. But if the upside-down nature of the first week sets the tone for the rest of the season, it could be a fun one for players and fans alike,