2018 SHL Season Preview – East

Hershey Bliss

Coming into last season, the Bliss had a reputation as a team with talent, but a persistent habit of coming up short in the clutch.  Then they outlasted Washington to win the East, then stunned heavily-favored Anchorage in 7 games to win the Vandy.  Now, the Bliss head into 2018 as favorites to repeat as division champs, and perhaps become the first SHL team to win back-to-back championships.  The “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart remains intact, as does their top defensive pairing of Reese Milton and Joel Baldwin.  The second line (LW Russell Nahorniak, C Spencer Kirkpatrick, and RW Noah Daniels), which took a key step forward last year, is still in place.  The only key contributor who isn’t back is veteran C Henry Constantine, a vocal clubhouse leader.  Meanwhile, the team added several quality rookies (D Cedric Meloche, C Yegor Nestorov, F Anton Lapointe) along with a couple of key free agents (D Jean-Luc Aubin and LW Trevor Green).  Put it all together, and it should be the same formula for victory that worked so well last season: a fast, high-scoring offense and a reliable defense.  If there are any question marks here, they’re in net.  Brandon Colt shocked the world in last season’s Finals and earned the MVP award.  If he can approach that level during 2018, Hershey has a fine shot to be back-to-back champs; if he reverts to the solid-but-unspectacular form he’s displayed in the rest of his career, the Bliss could be vulnerable.  Backup Milo Stafford defied the odds in 2017 with another great year, but he’s turning 36 and seems destined to decline eventually.  If that happens this year, the Bliss might not have such a sweet finish.

Washington Galaxy

As long as there’s been an SHL, the Galaxy have been contenders for the title.  They made back-to-back Finals trips in ’15 and ’16, then finished a close second to Hershey last season.  This year, though, they’ll likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark.  What went wrong?  Primarily, how they’ve bungled free agency.  Last season’s big signing was D Patrick Banks, who inked a three-year deal amid much fanfare.  He flopped in DC, scoring only 2 goals while struggling to mesh with Grant Warriner on the second pairing.  The Galaxy left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was selected by Boston.  Backup goalie Ron Mason, another big-money signing, put up a much better season (11-10-0, 2,78 GAA, .911 save percentage); unfortunately, Washington had only inked him to a one-year deal, and he bolted to rival Hamilton this offseason.  Instead, the Galaxy will rely on rookie Darrell Bondurant, who didn’t wow anyone in the minors last year.  Coming into this offseason, the Galaxy had two big names to re-sign: wingers Casey Thurman and Walt Camernitz.  Washington made a priority of Thurman, and they inked him to a five-year, $20 million contract.  However, they wound up alienating Camernitz; the gritty and underrated forward wound up in Quebec instead, blowing a huge hole in Washington’s second line.  (C J.C. Marais, coming off of a bad year at age 33, is another concern.)  Next, the Galaxy declined to tender an offer to rugged third-line RW Sindri Pentti, declaring that he was over the hill at age 35.  Pentti ended up joining Camernitz in Quebec, while Washington filled his slot with Roman Bandikoff, who is just as old, put up similar numbers, and has a worse defensive reputation.  The bottom line: the Galaxy will likely be worse on offense, defense, and in net.  Meanwhile, Hamilton, Quebec, and even New York all improved, often at Washington’s expense.  Making matters worse, Washington’s store of prospects is pretty thin.  It seems unlikely that the Galaxy could tumble from second to fifth, but that’s arguably more likely than the chances of them winning the division again.

Hamilton Pistols

If there’s a team that can topple the Bliss atop the East, it’s most likely to be the Pistols.  Hamilton has plenty of star-quality talent in its ranks; LW Steven Alexander may be the SHL’s best pure scorer, C Calvin Frye its finest young player, Raymond Smyth its finest blueliner.  What’s held them back in the past is a lack of balance and depth.  In particular, the Pistols’ third line was a disaster last season; they gave up tons of shot opportunities whenever they were on the ice.  To fix the balance problem, Hamilton acquired several solid veterans: C Henry Constantine (who got a ring with Hershey last year), G Ron Mason (who won the Vandy with Anchorage in ’15), and D Craig Werner.  Then they overhauled the third line and bottom defensive pairing, calling up a number of players who showed well with their affiliate in Oshawa last season.  The new bunch is green and may take some time to mesh, but they should hold their own against the bottom-end units on other clubs.  With the four-team playoff field this year, there’s a good shot that Hamilton makes the postseason for the first time.  But the picture feels unfinished; the Pistols seem a piece or two away from becoming a truly elite team.  Maybe they acquire the missing pieces at the trade deadline, or maybe they add them next season.  Either way, this seems like a team on the rise; it seems likely we’ll be seeing Keith Shields‘ crew in the postseason for some time to come.

Quebec Tigres

In their second season, the Tigres showed signs of growth and improvement; they finished out of the cellar, and the hard-nosed defensive ethic preached by coach Martin Delorme appeared to be taking root.  But their upside potential was limited by a stagnant, impotent offense; by and large, Quebec seemed content to jam up the neutral zone and try to win ugly, 1-0 games.  This approach worked all right when Riki Tiktuunen was between the pipes, but not at all when the fragile netminder was absent.  (The Tigres went 17-14-7 in Tiktuunen’s starts, and 3-19-0 with anyone else in the crease.)  GM Pete Gondret made aggressive moves to shore up the Tigres’ weak spots; they may be the most improved team this season, and that’s not even including their sharp new uniforms.  To bolster the attack, Gondret signed a pair of ex-Washington teammates, LW Walt Camernitz and RW Sindri Pentti.  Both are rugged two-way players that are well-suited to Quebec’s style of play, but they should also give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm.  To shore up the goaltending situation, Gondret signed Riley Lattimore to back up Tiktuunen.  Lattimore posted a respectable 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage in Anchorage last season; he should ensure that the Tigres can compete on nights when Tiktuunen isn’t in net.  So the Tigres will be better… but will they be a contender?  That likely depends on two things: whether Tiktuunen can stay healthy, and whether Camernitz is able to take the scoring burden off of Stephane Mirac and help the latter bounce back from his sophomore slump.  If those things pan out – and if Delorme can get his messy personal life under control – this is a team that could surprise.

New York Night

Last season, new coach Nick Foster came in determined to shake up a struggling club.  He was determined to fix the sour team chemistry and improve the team’s leaky defense while maintaining their usual offensive pop.  Foster certainly shook things up; he called out his team publicly, juggled lines freely, and didn’t hesitate to bench, demote, or trade players who didn’t get with the program.  After all the upheaval, though, things didn’t work out as Foster hoped; instead, the offense dropped back to the middle of the pack, while the defense remained as porous as ever.  The one bright spot was the goaltending, with Jesse Clarkson and rookie Sherman Carter both turning in solid seasons, but they were under constant siege.  And while there are some new faces, most of the changes were lateral moves.  And with many teams in the East making serious upgrades, it’s tough to picture New York moving up.  If the Night are going to contend, they’ll need to see improvement from their existing players.  Last year, almost everyone on the team had a down year.  RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Rocky Winkle were two of the only exceptions; the rest of the squad would do well to copy their energetic two-way play.  Perhaps the biggest key to New York’s success is RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson.  The enigmatic star had a dismal season, clashing repeatedly with Foster and scoring only 20 goals while showing the same disinterest in passing and defense that he always has.  The most notable “highlight” of his year was getting beaten up in a bar fight.  Foster reportedly pushed to get rid of Nelson in the offseason, but owner Marvin Kingman blocked the move.  If Nelson can swallow his pride and step up his game, he could be the difference maker that pushes the Night to a playoff spot.  If he can’t, it could be another long year in the Big Apple… and Foster might wind up paying with his job.

Boston Badgers

The big victory in Boston this season already happened, when the Badgers were chosen as one of the SHL’s new expansion teams.  GM Jody Melchiorre, who came up with the Igloos organization, has emphasized the desire to build a “blue-collar team.”  He’s done well at that, assembling a youthful collection of muckers and grinders through the expansion draft.  This is a scrappy team that should be good at wall work and winning puck battles in the corners; they won’t be a fun opponent, to say the least.  But it’s best not to expect too much from this bunch, because of the missing ingredient: offense.  LW Lix Darnholm, a Swedish prospect who was the first overall pick in the draft, is the only legitimate scoring threat Boston has.  Opposing defenses will stack up to stop him, as there’s no one else on the team who can make them pay.  They’re likely to try the Quebec route of slowing the pace and trying to win low-scoring games on fluke goals.  But the Tigres had a secret weapon to make that strategy work: Tiktuunen, one of the league’s best young netminders.  Neither of the Badgers’ goalies, Dennis Wampler or rookie Carson Wagner, is anywhere near Tiktuunen’s class.  This should be a hard-working and reasonably entertaining team that will endear itself to the fans in Beantown, but don’t expect a lot of victories.  Not yet, anyway.

Projected Finish:

  1. Hershey
  2. Hamilton
  3. Quebec
  4. Washington
  5. New York
  6. Boston
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2018 SHL Season Preview – West

Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos are certain to be in the championship mix again this season.  Their high-octane offense – led by C Jake Frost, the SHL’s top scorer – returns largely intact, as does their formidable defense and rock-solid netminder Ty Worthington.  All that top-shelf talent will be enough to make the Igloos dangerous, and their shocking upset loss in last year’s SHL Finals should add some fuel to their competitive fires.  A potential return trip to the Finals, however, hinges on a couple of key factors.  LW Jerry Koons had a breakout season in 2016 with a 44-goal, 90-point effort.  If he can duplicate that performance, it will prevent opposing defenses from overloading on Frost and make the Igloos’ attack nearly unstoppable; if he takes a step back, Frost will need to pick up the slack.  Anchorage lost a chunk of its young depth in the expansion draft, as both RW Tyler Cloude and C Derek Humplik were plucked away.  As a result, they could be vulnerable to injuries.  They’re thinner still in the crease; previous backup Riley Lattimore was a salary-cap casualty, so if Worthington goes down for an extended period, they’ll need to rely on rookie Wendall Cantillon.  Given good health and a strong performance from Koons, there’s no reason not to pick the Igloos to go back to the Finals and win this time.

Michigan Gray Wolves

Well, maybe there’s one reason to pick against the Igloos.  The Wolves have been Anchorage’s fiercest competitor since the SHL began, and with the expanded four-team playoff field, it’s likely they’ll meet in the postseason.  Michigan’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners defense remains its calling card, backstopped by all-world goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  There are likely to be a lot of low-scoring games again at Cadillac Place this season.  The Wolves have a weakness, though: age.  A lot of their key players – Cs Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow, D “Mad Max” Madison, LW Vladimir Beruschko, RW Gordon Lunsford, D Frank Mudrick, LW Todd Douglas, and RW Oskar Denison – are on the wrong side of 30.  Last year, Bailes and Marlow both missed significant time with injury, and Michigan’s offense went down the drain when they were out.  If they or any of the other players on the above list get hurt, the Wolves could find themselves in trouble.  Michigan has a couple of rising young stars, most notably D Fritz Kronstein and RW Benoit Poulin, but their core is aging rapidly and may not have too many more bites at the apple.  And the Wolves are always a Lundquist injury away from slipping back into the pack.  The sun hasn’t set on this bunch yet, though, and Michigan could easily have another Vandy run left in them — if they can stay healthy.

Saskatchewan Shockers

The Shockers continued on their path of slow, steady improvement in 2017; they got a strong performance from rookie C Elliott Rafferty (23 goals, 40 points) to complement LW Troy Chamberlain (27 goals, 59 points) and C Napoleon Beasley (29 goals, 57 points), and they finished in a surprising third-place tie, albeit with an unimpressive 23-35-2 record.  Their moves for 2018 promise more modest improvement; they drafted a quality young center in Riley McCrea, made a surprise free-agent signing in LW Vonnie McLearen, and promoted several promising minor-leaguers (RW Colton Jabril and Ds Robby Rohrman and Valeri Nistrumov).  Perhaps their most impressive move was jettisoning the yellow-and-seafoam color scheme that made them the joke of the league.  With all those steps forward, it’s not hard to imagine Saskatchewan reaching the .500 mark for the first time.  It’s a lot harder, though, to imagine the Shockers challenging either Anchorage or Michigan for a playoff spot.  (They were reportedly in hot pursuit of RW Elliott Pepper from the Jackalopes; if they had acquired him, this team might have been truly dangerous.)  It’s harder still to imagine them holding a promotion that owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz doesn’t screw up somehow.  And it’s still tough to figure out the Shockers’ end game.  Are they trying to become the next Dakota, a team that’s talented enough to post respectable records but not talented enough to go all the way?  Or does Doofenshmirtz think he has the nucleus of a true contender on his hands?  If so, is coach Myron Beasley the man to get them there, or is he merely a quippy nice guy who needs to be replaced with a taskmaster who can make this team elite?  This season should say a lot about the direction of this promising but incomplete young club.

Dakota Jackalopes

Last season, the Jackalopes shot for the moon, loading up on free agents to take a shot at a title.  Instead, they fizzled, finishing tied with Saskatchewan at 22-35-2 and firing coach Harold Engellund at season’s end.  Since then, things have only gotten worse, as Dakota has slashed payroll and shipped out several big names.  They lost C Mike Rivera in the expansion draft, and have traded away RW Elliott Pepper and Ds Doron Lidjya and Craig Werner, all for prospects.  Rumor has it that they’re fielding offers on D Rusty Anderson and Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore as well.  The roster churn leaves new coach Flim Dahlgren in a challenging position, trying to evaluate and develop the team’s young talent while trying to keep up morale among the veterans.  It’s likely to be a long season at Black Hills Arena, as the Jackalopes are unlikely to contend.  But there will be a lot of young players thrown into the fire; if some of them are able to seize the opportunity and show promise, then this rough season may wind up paying long-term dividends.

Seattle Sailors

Seattle is likely the most improved team in the West, as GM Jay McKay made several aggressive moves in hopes of building a contending team.  The Sailors drafted LW Alphonse Gaspard, signed C Foster Culp and G “Jersey Mike” Ross as free agents, and acquired RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya in the Dakota fire sale.  Seattle upgraded behind the bench as well, dumping the volatile Stewart Corrigan and hiring ex-Jackalopes boss Engellund.  Clearly, the Sailors will be better this season… but how much better?  Seattle should be able to surpass rebuilding Dakota, and they should be competitive with Saskatchewan.  The Sailors will be superior offensively, while the Shockers have the better defense and goaltending.  But the question that applies to Saskatchewan applies here: is this the nucleus of a true contender?  The Shockers seem like they might be a top-flight scorer away from challenging Anchorage and Michigan.  For the Sailors, the question is whether Vince Mango can be the superstar that the team needs him to be.  The winger is one of the SHL’s leading scorers, but he’s generally regarded as a one-dimensional player, being a mediocre passer and an indifferent defender.  Many around the league also question his maturity and leadership credentials, as he’s better known for his theatrical goal celebrations than for hard work or heads-up play.  If Seattle is going to become an elite club, they’ll need Mango to become proficient in other aspects of the game than shooting.  If Rocky Goldmire can step it up between the pipes, that would help too.

Kansas City Smoke

Like most expansion teams, the Smoke seem destined for a last-place finish.  The team lacks the offensive firepower to compete, and neither Oliver Richardson nor Brooks Copeland has much experience as a starting goalie.  There will likely be two interesting storylines in Kansas City this season.  The first is how coach Randy Bergner, a highly-regarded minor-league bench boss who won a division title in Omaha last season, will handle the trials and tribulations of an expansion squad.  Bergner has expressed a desire to build a cohesive, team-first organizational culture; if he can pull that off with a ragtag squad that’s likely to pile up the losses, he’ll definitely have earned his stripes.  The other thing to watch is what the Smoke does with their flippable assets.  Unlike their counterparts in Boston, who focused on picking as many young players as possible, Kansas City nabbed a number of veterans (Richardson, C Phil Miller, LWs Pascal Royal and Piotr Soforenko, and Ds Doug Wesson, Hans Mortensen, and Vitaly Dyomin) who could turn into attractive trade pieces.  They also signed free-agent D Tony Hunt and LW Louis LaPlante, who could potentially have value if they can bounce back from down seasons.  If KC finishes the season with the same roster that takes the ice on opening night, they’ll have screwed up royally.  All eyes will be on GM Garth Melvin, who will have to make some shrewd moves to turn those journeyman vets into prospects that might help the Smoke down the road.  If you’re going to Kansas City this season, though, expect to find good barbecue and bad hockey.

Projected Finish:

  1. Anchorage
  2. Michigan
  3. Saskatchewan
  4. Seattle
  5. Dakota
  6. Kansas City

Shockers, Tigres Lead List of Uni Changes for 2018

The SHL’s 2018 season will see the addition of two new teams, the Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke.  But Boston’s and Kansas City’s uniforms aren’t the only new threads that fans will see on the ice this year.  Almost half of the league’s existing teams are making changes to their looks, with two teams – the Quebec Tigres and Saskatchewan Shockers – making major overhauls.

New Quebec Tigres Home Uniform

According to Quebec GM Pete Gondret, the Tigres’ revamp was the brainchild of owner Marc Delattre, who felt that the team’s old uniforms – which famously featured striped sleeves and socks – were too busy.  “Mr. Delattre was not a fan of our old costumes,” said Gondret.  “When he watched our games, he said ‘We look like a junior team, not professional.'”  Delattre wound up hiring fashion designer Rene Saramond to develop something cleaner.

Saramond’s design, which was reportedly inspired by vintage hockey sweater designs of the 1920s, preserved the stripes, but compressed them into a narrower band across the chest, sleeves, and socks.  Each band contains seven stripes, which symbolize the seven gates in the ramparts that surrounded the old city of Quebec.

“These uniforms are a perfect blend of old and new,” said Gondret.  “They speak to the history and tradition of both hockey and of Quebec, but at the same time they are fresh and sleek and modern.”

The Tigres unveiled their new jerseys at a season-ticket holder event in late November.  Captain Stephane Mirac, who modeled the home jersey, said that he is a fan of the new look.  “The old uniforms, they were a bit too garish,” Mirac told reporters.  “Now, we have a better look, and as we start winning more games, we can be proud of how we look and how we play.”

Meanwhile, the Shockers’ uniforms are largely similar in design to last year’s, but they’ve made a significant change to their color scheme.  Previously, the Shockers were notorious around the league for sporting the eye-searing combination of yellow and seafoam green  Reportedly, this unusual look was chosen by owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz, as those are his favorite colors.

New Saskatchewan Shockers Home Uniform

The fact that the colors clashed with one another apparently did not trouble the owner, although it did trouble Shockers fans and players.  Former Saskatchewan RW Daniel Bellanger, who played for the Shockers for half a season in 2015, likened the color combo to “a wound that is infected and filled with pus.”

After years of lobbying by the players, coaches, and front office, Doofenshmirtz finally relented this season, dropping seafoam and replacing it with electric blue.  GM Cooper Matthews hailed the new look, calling it “striking and eye-catching, but more pleasant to look at.”

Upon receiving news of the new colors, Saskatchewan players erupted in celebration.  C Napoleon Beasley declared the new combination “really cool!  We’ve got a new look we can be proud of.  The old look kind of made guys a little sick just looking at it, to tell the truth.  And we definitely came in for a lot of heckling about it from fans in other arenas.  But that’s over now!  Now they can just heckle us for our play instead, and that’s way better.”

A couple of other teams are making smaller but still noticeable changes to their uniforms for the new season:

  • The New York Night are are making a number of tweaks, adding drop shadows to the numbers on the back of their uniforms and adding more silver to their black-and-white-heavy palette. They’ve also gone from single-color stripes to a two-color pattern on their home and road unis (and changed the stripe pattern on their alternates to match.)  GM Royce McCormick called their new look “sophisticated and classy, just like our city.”
  • The Washington Galaxy have added white outlines to the logo on the front of their home jersey and to the numbers and name on the back.  According to GM Garnet “Ace” Adams, the team made the tweaks in response to feedback from fans, who sometimes had a hard time reading the jerseys from the upper rows of the Constellation Center.  “We always put the fans first,” said Adams, “and we want them to be able to see who they’re cheering for.”  In addition, the team switched from gold to blue numbers on their road jerseys, as well as changing from red socks and helmets to white.

 

CHL Update: Screaming Eagles Move to Colorado Springs, Affiliates Shuffle

Change is coming to the SHL for 2018, as the Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke will be joining the fold.  Similarly, change is coming to the SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League.  The CHL will also be adding two teams to match the SHL’s expansion; in addition, several teams will be swapping affiliates, and one team – the Albuquerque Screaming Eagles – will be relocating.

The Screaming Eagles lasted only one season in New Mexico, finishing fourth in the West with a 24-34-2 record that led to coach Butch Slazenger‘s firing.  The team drew poorly, finishing last in the league with an average attendance under 3,000 per game.  Arguably the most memorable features of the team was their garish uniforms, featuring gigantic stars on the sleeves and flames on the breezers.

“It’s going to be a lot easier on the eyes this year with the Eagles gone,” quipped Utah Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.

The Eagles franchise was purchased by shipping magnate Rick Gilborn, who will relocate the team to his hometown of Colorado Springs.  In addition to a new home, the franchise will have a new nickname: the Zoomies.  Gilborn, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, said that the name is a slang term applied to cadets at the Academy.  “Speed, valor, skill,” said Gilborn.  “Makes for a great cadet, and makes for a great hockey player.”

To go along with their new city and name, the Zoomies will have a new parent club.  The Screaming Eagles were affiliated with the SHL champion Hershey Bliss, The Bliss wanted an affiliate closer to home, so they chose to partner with the Milwaukee Hogs, one of the CHL’s expansion clubs.  Colorado Springs will instead link up with the Seattle Sailors.  Seattle was in the market for a new minor-league club after their previous affiliate, the Omaha Ashcats, decided to link up with the Smoke.

“We couldn’t be happier to be in Colorado Springs,” said Sailors GM Jay McKay.  “It’s closer to us, so I should be able to get out and see our prospects in person more often.  And it should be a strong market with a great bunch of fans.  I can’t wait for the new season!”

Over in the CHL’s Eastern Division, the picture is less complicated, as no teams will be moving or changing affiliates.  The division’s expansion team, the Hartford Harpoons, will be affiliated with (and partially owned by) the Badgers.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said veteran coach Mel Lonigan, who was hired as the Harpoons’ first bench boss.  “Hartford’s a great hockey town – hell, the Whalers never should have left – and we’re getting in on the ground floor with a new team.  I see no reason why we can’t compete right out of the box.  We’re going to bring some exciting, competitive hockey here to Whale Country.”

SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell is excited by the growth and change in the CHL.  “There’s been a little reorganization between seasons, but in a good way,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “By adding two great expansion teams in Hartford and Milwaukee and relocating to Colorado Springs, our minor league is stronger then it’s ever been, just as the SHL is stronger than it’s ever been.  2018 is going to be our best year yet.”