The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division. Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason. Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime. That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.
In the East, however, nothing seems certain. There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention. Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses. At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.
“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields. “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”
The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around. They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth). They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.
However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating. “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber. “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”
Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one. The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes. They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt. Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating. If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.
The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey. They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected. But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end. This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).
“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster. “He’s really saved our bacon.”
There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend. New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league. If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.
In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays. Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.
The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run. They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL. Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league. They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927). And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.
So why haven’t they broken out of the pack? One key reason is their special-teams play. Last season, those units were among the league’s best. This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.
Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star. LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team. It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York. Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip. But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.
The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season. So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline. Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.
Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always. And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be. They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league. Good, but not top-tier. Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season. The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.
Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard. “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said. “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.” The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.
The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season. Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.
“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.
In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season. They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome. “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned. “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”
Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism. Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean. Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start. And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).
“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello. “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”
There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack. For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.