The Galaxy look like the favorites to capture the Eastern division title for a third straight season. They navigated the offseason successfully, patching their few holes and not losing any key contributors. Their biggest move was signing free-agent winger Piotr Soforenko to bolster the third line, which was a huge problem last season. They upgraded their backup goalie, replacing Gus Parrish with veteran Ron Mason, who won the Vandy with Anchorage in 2015. And while they unexpectedly lost D Rusty Anderson, they signed a replacement (Patrick Banks) who is an even stronger defender. It’s hard to find any vulnerabilities with this squad. But after two straight losses in the SHL Finals, Washington’s real goal this year is to capture the elusive Vandy. Do they have the horses to take down whoever comes out of the West? That’s far from clear, but they very likely do have more than enough to win the East again.
After their heartbreaking loss in last season’s final game, in which the Bliss blew a two-goal third-period lead to drop the division, Hershey’s very eager to get over the hump and take the division this season. But given their lofty goals, it’s surprising that Hershey had such a ho-hum offseason, failing to get significantly better and possibly taking a half-step back. Last season’s big deadline deal for netminder Jesse Clarkson turned out to be a bust, and one that could prove very costly down the road. Hershey didn’t win the division, and they gave away a couple major assets (their first-round pick and goalie prospect Buzz Carson) that could have helped them land a major upgrade for this season. Compounding the pain, the Bliss lost Clarkson in free agency; ex-Hamilton Pistol Brandon Colt will tend the twine instead. Hershey GM Scott Lawrence seems to be banking once again on the high-powered Love Line of Christopher Hart, Justin Valentine, and Lance Sweet to lead the team to victory. And indeed, the trio is talented enough to have a shot at pulling it off. But Washington has more depth and a better goalie. Can the Bliss overcome all that to make their first Final? They’ll go as far as their top line can take them.
Last season was a grim one for the Night, as their season imploded in a storm of finger-pointing, bad press, and locker-room infighting. In the wake of that fiasco, New York fired coach Preston Rivers and set about cleaning house in order to build a championship-caliber club. New head man Nick Foster is a well-regarded hire, and he and GM Royce McCormick have made some bold moves this offseason. They started by making a major push to improve the team’s netminding, signing Clarkson in free agency and drafting top prospect Sherman Carter. The Night also looked to shake their well-earned reputation as an all-offense/no-defense team. They shipped out C Mike Rivera and let winger Ben Summers depart in free agency; both were poor defensively. They added C Phil Miller, LW Misha Petronov, and F Andrei Volodin, all of whom should improve the team’s balance. Will that be enough? Maybe not; the Night still lack any shut-down blueliners and will likely still need to prevail in high-scoring shootouts. Also, apart from Rivers, all the players in last season’s clubhouse drama are still around. The bad juju of 2016 might spill over to this season. But Foster seems like the right man for the job, and the Night are definitely a team to watch going forward.
The Pistols’ careful rebuild continued this offseason, as they traded up in the draft to land star goalie prospect Lasse Koskinen and added hard-nosed D Jack “Hercules” Mulligan. Koskinen should help Pistols fans forget the departed Colt, and Mulligan steps into the second-pairing slot vacated by Dmitri Kalashnikov, who was dealt so that the Pistols could move up in the draft. If the two hot rookies play up to their potential and the veteran top line continues to produce, Hamilton could be a dark-horse contender in the East. More than likely, though, it will be another season of slow but steady growth under coach Keith Shields. The Pistols seem to be moving toward embracing a hard-nosed, defense-first identity, which is at odds with the fast-paced, high-scoring style exemplified by star LW Steven Alexander. If Shields can balance the team’s competing styles, this could be a team to be reckoned with in a couple years. If not, though, their rebuilding may reach a crossroads sooner than expected. Is Shields up to the task? Can the Pistols take the next step and become contenders? Stay tuned.
The Tigres’ offseason plans were thrown into disarray during the draft. Holding the second selection, Quebec was set on picking LW Rod “Money” Argent, a Quebec native with 25-to-30-goal scoring potential, who could have paired with Stephane Mirac to give the team the scoring threat it so desperately needs. But Seattle foiled those plans by taking Argent with the top pick, and the Tigres were seemingly left at a loss. Rather than give themselves a potential league-leading goaltending tandem by picking Koskinen or strengthening their ferocious defense by taking Mulligan or addressing their void at center by grabbing Titus Jameson, Quebec instead moved down in a deal with Hamilton. They wound up with quantity over quality, receiving Kalashnikov and a pair of lesser picks (which they used on winger Rupert MacDiamid and D Hal Pugliese). It was a solid return, but not the home-run pick that Argent would have been. As such, it’s hard to see Quebec making noise in a strengthening division. Just like last year, they’ll hope that star netminder Riki Tiktuunen and their hustling, swarming defense can overcome their abysmal offensive attack. Apart from Mirac, there are no serious scoring threats in this lineup. Coach Martin Delorme will continue to preach his hard-working, hard-hitting, selfless style, but Quebec’s punchless offense will almost certainly doom them to the basement for another season.