Last season was a typical one for the Wolves: they bulldozed their way through the regular season on the back of their unparalleled defense and goaltending, winning the division by a comfortable 14 points. This was the first year for the SHL’s expanded four-team playoff field, however, and that came back to bite Michigan; they suffered a stunning sweep at the hands of Anchorage in the Western Division finals. Ron Wright’s crew will no doubt enter this season with fierce determination and a thirst for revenge. Pity the fool that tries to stand in their way. But there are a few questions surrounding this team. For instance, is this the year that age finally catches up with the Wolves? They’re largely returning the same roster as last year (with the exception of D Bjorn Tollefson), but that roster includes eight players over 30 – including everyone on their top line, two-thirds of their second line, and two of their top four blueliners. In a league that’s getting younger and faster, the Wolves are at risk of being left behind. Their team has remained impressively healthy; only D Max Madison and LW Scot Davenport has significant DL stints last season. Can their good injury luck continue? And netminder Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist – who has been the biggest component of this team’s success – was merely excellent last year, not otherworldly as usual. Was it a temporary blip, or is he starting to decline? The smart money is still on Michigan to make the playoff and contend for the Vandy… but for how much longer?
After losing the Vandy in 2017 in a major upset, the Igloos seemed to spend much of 2018 stuck in a funk. They hovered around the .500 mark for most of the season, only to get hot down the stretch, upset the Wolves in the division finals, then withstood a spirited challenge from Quebec to take home the title. This offseason, salary cap constraints cost Anchorage a key contributor, as RW Remi Montrechere departed in free agency. In spite of that, the Igloos should remain one of the SHL’s top offenses. Combined with a solid defense and good goaltending from Ty Worthington, that should be enough to give this team a shot at becoming the league’s first back-to-back champions. But in a division that’s getting stronger every year, the Igloos can’t afford a repeat of last year’s regular-season sleepwalk. Coach Sam Castor needs to keep this team hungry and sharp, or rising powers like Saskatchewan and Seattle might wind up eating their lunch. One key player for the Igloos: LW Les Collins, who has developed into a major scoring threat and has provided crucial depth beyond their star-laden top line. With Montrechere gone and linemate Nile Bernard on the decline, Collins will need to anchor that second line. Like their rivals in Michigan, the Igloos might be living on borrowed time… not so much because of age, but for financial reasons. Several players, including Collins, are in line for major raises this offseason. GM Will Thorndike will likely have some painful decisions to make next offseason. For now, though, the fans at Arctic Circle Arena can focus on what should be a great year and save the worrying for later.
It’s difficult to figure out what direction the Sailors are heading for 2019. After the team fired GM Jay McKay and replaced him with Hamilton’s draft wizard Taylor Teichman, it seemed clear that the team was headed for a rebuild centered around young talent. But Seattle had no picks in this year’s draft; McKay had traded them away in his disastrous shoot-for-the-moon deals at last year’s deadline, and Teichman didn’t acquire any. That set the stage for a weirdly quiet offseason in which the Sailors didn’t move the needle with any signings or trades. As a result, they’ve largely returned the same roster that produced a sub-.500 finish in 2018. They didn’t re-sign top-line C Lars Karlsson, but they replaced him with a similar player in Napoleon Beasley. RW Philippe Durien, who won the minor-league scoring title in 2018, earned a promotion to the big club, but he’s the only significant addition. It all adds up to a weird state of stasis for a team that feels like it needs either a serious go-for-it upgrade or a total teardown. Maybe Teichman is trying to evaluate what he has before making any major moves. Or maybe he’s trying to figure out if star Vince Mango is a scorer he can build around, or an albatross who’s more interested in reality TV fame than in hockey. Or maybe he’s waiting to see where the team lands after the NHL expands to Seattle and boots the Sailors out of town. Whatever the reason, this feels like a squad that will look very different in 2020 than it does now.
Over the last few seasons, the Shockers have slowly risen from being the league punchline to a strong young squad and possible contender. Is this the year that Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s club makes the leap and challenges Michigan and Anchorage for a playoff spot? They certainly haven’t stood still. Saskatchewan jettisoned nice-guy coach Myron Beasley last season, and hired Ron Wright protégé Morris Thompson to instill toughness and discipline. They signed Karlsson to anchor their top line. They promoted a pair of high-scoring blueliners, Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, from their title-winning CHL affiliate in Virginia. They signed veteran winger Piotr Soforenko to add badly-needed depth. They drafted RW Samson Kucharov, a rugged two-way player, to supply some grit. Will that be enough? Maybe not; this team might still be missing a piece or two. (If LW Troy Chamberlain can step up and become a truly elite scorer, or if Vonnie McLearen can start living up to the fat free-agent deal he signed with the Shockers last season, that would help.) But the gulf separating them the Igloos and Wolves is getting narrower every year. If Anchorage gets off to another slow start, or if Michigan’s injury luck runs out, the Shockers are positioned to capitalize, especially if they make a smart trade or two along the way. Saskatchewan’s not a joke any more… it’s time to start taking this team seriously.
In 2018, the Jackalopes kicked their salary purge into high gear, dumping top centers Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore for prospects and draft picks. The team managed to finish below all but the two expansion teams, as expected. However, Dakota finished only six points behind Saskatchewan, Seattle, and 2017 champ Hershey. Coach Flim Dahlgren earned rave reviews for making the most out of a young and fairly cheap squad. The Jackalopes have developed a promising core of young defensemen, and they might be in a position to return to contention sooner than expected. But the question of finances hovers over every move GM Paul Mindegaard makes. Dakota is the smallest market in the league by far, and it’s an open secret around the league that owner Roger Scott has been hemorrhaging money over the last several seasons. Even though the Jackalopes’ payroll is the second-smallest in the SHL, it’s rumored that further cuts might be needed. The team’s top blueline pairing, Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, are on expiring contracts and will command hefty raises. Will Mindegaard be able to pony up and keep the pair? Will he even try? Can Dakota afford star winger and fan favorite “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston’s max contract? Can they afford the backlash that would ensue if they dealt him? Can the team continue to survive in a market this size, or will hard economic truths force them to relocate to a larger city like Milwaukee or Portland? The Jackalopes have a roster of young guys with upside, a smart and patient coach, and a rabid (if small) fan base, not to mention the fabulous Corn Palace. Is that enough, or not? Dakota has no real hope of contending, but they’re playing for much larger stakes than that.
In 2018, the Smoke entered their debut season with low expectations and a roster of marginal veterans who could be flipped for young talent. They lived up to expectations, finishing with the league’s second-worst record and dealing many of those veterans at the deadline. They enter this season with a younger roster, including some of the fruit of those deadline trades, but the same low expectations. It’s not that the Smoke have no talent; RW Zachary Merula and C Darien Picard had impressive rookie campaigns, and C Mike Rivera had a bounce-back season with increased ice time. But KC is badly lacking in scoring; no one on this team seems likely to have a 30-goal season or a 60-point campaign. If Merula or Picard (or worse yet, both) hits a sophomore slump, this team is in big trouble. The situation in the crease is also fairly dire. The Smoke traded veteran Ollie Richardson, who provided what little consistency the team had, and will now be depending on the tandem of Brooks Copeland (who went 5-18-1 with a 4.26 GAA and an abysmal .872 save percentage last season) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (who almost certainly would not be in the majors for any other team). The Smoke are arguably moving in the right direction, but given the competitive division they play in, they could easily finish with a worse record than last year. And for a team whose first-year attendance numbers weren’t overwhelming, that could be a long-term problem.
- Kansas City
Hamilton def. Hershey
Michigan def. Anchorage
Michigan def. Hamilton