The Tigres were the SHL’s feel-good story last season. Free agent signee LW Walt Camernitz rewarded the team for the five-year deal they gave him, leading the team with 31 goals and 74 points. RW Stephane Mirac, freed from the burden of being Quebec’s only scorer, bounced back from his sophomore slump. Riki Tiktuunen continued his ascent into the league’s netminding elite. And coach Martin Delorme got to live out his childhood dream, guiding his home-province team to its first-ever Finals appearance and within one win of the title. The Tigres may not have won the ultimate prizes, but they cleaned up in the postseason awards: Camernitz was named MVP, Delorme captured Coach of the Year honors, and Tiktuunen earned the nod as Goalie of the Year. Unsurprisingly, Quebec returned much the same roster that did so well last year; rookie blueliners Kirby Hanlon and Hampus Olsson are the only real additions. Quebec is likely to contend again in 2019. However, there are a couple statistical quirks from last season that may temper the optimism slightly. The Tigres’ success is built on defense and goaltending, and they were second in the league in both shots allowed and GAA last year. But another key to their success was their offense, which improved from atrocious to decent. That improvement was built on a league-best 10.3% shooting percentage, which seems likely to slip back a bit. Quebec’s 89% penalty-kill percentage topped the league, and that seems sustainable… but their league-low 586 penalty minutes definitely doesn’t. The proudly physical Tigres are unlikely to stay out of the sin bin as much this season. In short, Quebec was both lucky and good in 2018. They’re likely to be good again in 2019, but what happens if they aren’t quite so lucky?
For most of the 2018 regular season, the Pistols enjoyed a wild ride, rocketing to the top of the division and staying there most of the way. In the last few weeks, though, Hamilton stalled and Quebec caught up to them. The Tigres then prevailed in five games in a hard-fought division playoff. Coach Keith Shields said that the Pistols’ late-season adversity has made them stronger and bonded them tighter together. He may be right. Certainly, his squad is a talented one; they finished last year in the top three in both goals scored and GAA, and their power play topped the league (23.3% conversion rate). But Hamilton seemed like they were a piece or two away from going all the way last year. They tried mightily to secure that piece in free agency, but they wound up with a series of swings and misses. They tried to sign Remi Montrechere to fill the hole on their second-line right wing… but wound up re-signing journeyman Kenny Patterson instead. They tried to sign Harvey Bellmore to center their third line… but had to settle for fading veteran J.C. Marais. They tried to bolster their blueline corps be re-uniting with Doug Wesson… but missed again and opted for depth option Moose Baker. It doesn’t help that their first-choice options all ended up signing with the Pistols’ division rivals, either (Montrechere with Hershey, Bellmore with Washington, Wesson with Quebec). On the bright side, Hamilton didn’t lose any key contributors to free agency; the young and frisky squad of last year should be strong again. If the Pistols come up short again, GM Marcel LaClaire may look at the free-agent derby as a real missed opportunity. But either way, it figures to be another fun season at Gunpowder Armory.
The team that everyone outside the Big Apple loves to hate, New York surprised most observers by finishing above .500 for the first time ever. Coach Nick Foster may not have a lot of friends around the league, due to his penchant for slinging insults and ruffling feathers, but his methods have proved effective. After trying to overhaul the clubhouse and build a more balanced roster in his debut 2017 season, Foster took a different tack in 2018, abandoning his attempts to get his forwards to play defense and leaning into the Night’s fast-paced, shoot-first, bad-boy reputation. It worked surprisingly well, as New York led the league in goals and stopped just enough shots to succeed. And given that rookie bottom-pairing defender Bobby Hitchcock is the only new face on the roster, Foster appears set to try the same strategy again in 2019. Firewagon hockey has its limits, though, given that there’s only one puck on the ice at a time. The Night can’t count on winning every game 7-5. (Also, New York’s rise was arguably fueled as much by the stunning collapses of Washington and Hershey as anything.) Given that there’s little room for improvement on offense and little hope for improvement on defense, the team’s best hope for reaching the next level lies in net. Jesse Clarkson turned in another quietly solid year in 2018, but backup Sherman Carter regressed a bit after a strong rookie season, going 11-12-1 with a 3.81 GAA and .899 save percentage. In the long term, New York is counting on Carter to become elite in order to contend; in the short term, a step up might be the difference between real contention and falling back toward the basement in the hotly-contested East.
In our preview of the Galaxy last season, we predicted that they would finish fourth in the East and forecasted that they’d “likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark.” This was a surprising prediction at the time, but it proved to be right. The underlying statistics suggest that their 31-32-1 record was no fluke; they improved somewhat on offense from 2017 (largely thanks to their shooting percentage reverting toward the mean), but slipped backward on both defense and goaltending. Washington’s front office didn’t take this stumble lightly; they fired coach Rodney Reagle and vowed a new direction in 2019. New coach Peter James will definitely provide a style contrast from Reagle’s goofy antics, but it’s not clear that the Galaxy really understands what its “new direction” might look like. The Galaxy splurged on C Harvey Bellmore to bolster their third line, which suggests a go-for-it mentality. But then they allowed netminder Roger Orion to depart in free agency and replaced him with prospect Buzz Carson. Granted, Orion’s 2018 numbers (17-22-0, 3.10 GAA, .914 save percentage) weren’t quite up to his usual standards. But he remains a top-five SHL goalie. Carson (10-15-2, 3.48, .896 with Dakota last season) is a promising young player who might, with diligent effort, become as good as Orion three or four years from now. Dropping Orion and signing Carson suggests that Washington is ready to rebuild. But if that’s the plan, why sign Bellmore? Why not try to flip veterans like LW Charlie Brooks, RW Nori Takoyaki, and D Leonard Wright while they still have value? And if they plan to contend, why not keep Orion and upgrade their second-line wings (likely more effective than signing Bellmore)? By not fully committing to either path, GM Ace Adams risks stranding his team on the treadmill of mediocrity.
While our prediction on the Galaxy’s 2018 season was accurate, our prediction for the Bliss was way off the mark. We picked the Bliss to repeat as division champs, only to see them collapse in shocking fashion: they got off to a horrendous 3-16-1 start and were unable to dig themselves out of that hole, ultimately finishing fifth. Coach Chip Barber and players believe that the performance was a black swan, a worst-case scenario driven by poor puck luck. There’s definitely a case to be made there: Hershey’s 8.3% shooting percentage was one of the league’s worst, they allowed a surprising number of goals despite their strong defensive numbers, their special teams had off years, and they inexplicably led the league in penalty minutes (rookie Cedric Meloche was a prime offender). There’s a good chance that things will revert to the mean in most categories in 2019. The Bliss also made some key upgrades: they landed prized free-agent winger Montrechere, and called up promising young blueliners Steve Cargill and Bruce Minnik. (There’s a good chance we’ll see top draft pick Gabriel Swindonburg and prospect C Vance Ketterman later this season as well.) Everything points to a strong rebound for the Bliss, except one: goaltending. They tried desperately to pilfer Orion away from their DC rivals, but missed out. Instead, they wound up re-signing incumbent Brandon Colt, who had a dismal season (23-25-1, 3.07, .893) and might be washed up at age 33. Ageless backup Milo Stafford finally retired, and Hershey replaced him with… 34-year-old Ollie Richardson, whose numbers were only a bit better than Colt’s. Prospect Hobie Sanford waits in the wings, but the organization clearly thinks he needs more seasoning. It would be a shame if such a talented team was undone by a collapse in the crease.
It was a long season for the expansion Badgers, as expected. A decent young defense was undermined by an abysmal offense, weak penalty kill, and unimpressive goaltending. But in a surprising move, Boston is moving aggressively to improve in its sophomore season. In fact, believe it or not, GM Jody Melchiorre had the most active free-agent period in the SHL. They landed Orion to upgrade in the crease and provide a mentor for prospect Carson Wagner. They gave their offense a boost by signing LW Pascal Royal and taking C Alain Beauchesne with the top draft pick. In a buyer’s market for veteran blueliners, they signed a pair of hard-nosed bangers in Dmitri Kalashnikov and Bjorn Tollefson. Will all that turn the Badgers into overnight contenders? No; their offense is still not weak, and their defense isn’t quite good enough to compensate. But this team is starting to resemble Quebec from a couple of seasons ago. They’re not good enough to compete yet, but they’re on a promising path. At the very least, they aren’t going to be a fun or easy opponent to play in 2019. They’ll grind and scrap and and make life miserable for the contending clubs in the East. This division is going to get very interesting in the years to come.
- New York