The Seattle Sailors came into the 2019 season in a very uncertain place. Their 2018 was a huge disappointment. The Sailors started the season with playoff aspirations and finished with a sub-.500 record. GM Jay McKay made a couple shoot-for-the-moon trades that wound up backfiring, a gamble that cost him his job. Star winger Vince Mango seemingly couldn’t decide whether he’d rather be a hockey player or a reality television star. And hanging over everything was the specter of the NHL’s planned expansion to Seattle, and the likelihood that the Sailors would need to find a new home.
When new GM Taylor Teichman arrived and largely left the roster as-is, observers around the league were puzzled. Surely Teichman didn’t think this strange and underachieving bunch was the nucleus of a contender, did he? Our season preview evinced skepticism, decrying Seattle’s “weird state of stasis” and predicting a fourth-place finish.
So far, though, it appears that the skeptics were dead wrong. The Sailors are off to a red-hot start, winning 12 of their first 16 games and remaining hot on Michigan’s heels for the Western Division lead.
“A lot of folks had already thrown us in the trash before the season even started,” said Seattle coach Harold Engellund. “But we decided to just focus on our game, and it looks like we’re not so bad after all.”
The Sailors’ success so far starts with their top line – and specifically, with Mango. The high-scoring star was privately stung by the blame he received for the Sailors’ failures and the allegations that he wasn’t passionate about the sport. “Everyone has this idea that just because I have interests and projects off the ice, that I don’t really care about hockey,” Mango said. “I try to ignore the haters, but it seemed like my teammates and coaches felt the same way, and that hurt.”
Mango also looked in the mirror and took a hard look at his playing style. “I realized that no matter how much you score, you can’t make it as a one-way player in this game,” he said. “Scoring is always going to be my strength, but I didn’t want to be dead weight on the other end.”
During the offseason, Mango sought out the coaching staff to work on defensive and passing fundmentals. The coaches were shocked but pleased that the notoriously practice-averse Mango wanted extra offseason work. “I think [assistant coach] Manny [Obronski] just about fainted when Vince said he wanted to do defensive drills,” Engellund quipped. “At first, he thought he was getting punked for Vince’s TV show.”
Mango remains an offense-first player, but he’s shown a much more balanced game this season. He’s also clicking well with his linemates. LW Rod “Money” Argent had clashed with Mango in the past over scoring opportunities and the latter’s indifferent defense, but now they coexist peacefully. A lot of that has to do with their new center, Napoleon Beasley.
Beasley signed with the team as a free agent from Saskatchewan, and his easygoing personality and low-ego playing style has meshed perfectly with Mango and Argent. “The first thing I said to them was, ‘Whatever you need me to do, tell me and I’ll do it. I just want to fit in here.’” They’ve combined to form one of the league’s best lines, with a cumulative 56 points and a +6 rating.
On the other end, netminder Rocky Goldmire is putting together a career year. The 27-year-old Goldmire was once Dirk Lundquist’s protégé in Michigan, but he never seemed to live up to his potential; the barrage of shots in Seattle left him overwhelmed, and his penchant for partying seemed to dull his skills. Now, in his contract year, Goldmire is finally living up to the hype, going 8-2-0 with a 2.38 GAA and a .927 save percentage, all top-five figures in the league.
“Goldy’s had some bumps in the road, but he’s really put it together this year,” Engellund said. “It’s really great to see.”
And if the Sailors do wind up leaving town after the season? That’s next year’s problem. “We’re just focusing on what we can control,” Mango said. “If we leave [at the end of the year], at least we can leave a nice going-away present for the people here.”
The Sailors haven’t won anything yet. Saskatchewan and Anchorage will certainly fight hard to knock Seattle out of the playoffs. But it’s a sweet life so far for a team that’s happily proving the doubters wrong, one game at a time.