The last several seasons have been a strange odyssey for the boys from Chocolate City. The Bliss went from winning the Vandy in 2017 to a fifth-place nightmare season in 2018 to a division title in 2019. So what will 2020 hold? The Bliss are largely returning the same roster as last year, adding a couple of depth pieces in D Wayne Snelling and F Mason Kilborn. This means that their above-average offensive and defensive numbers should remain intact. The one major change they made is in net, where they got younger and (arguably) better, replacing thirty-somethings Brandon Colt and Ollie Richardson with Christien Adamsson and rookie Nash Gould. Goaltending has long been a sore point in Hershey, and Adamsson’s presence should provide a definite upgrade. (Whether rookie nerves will get the better of Gould remains to be seen, but minor-leaguer Hobie Sanford provides a solid alternative if Gould falters.) Assuming Adamsson performs as expected, the Bliss‘s success will likely rest on their ability to improve their shot quality. Hershey has always been a volume shooting team, but their shooting percentage frequently ranks among the league’s worst. Last season, only Michigan’s was lower. If the Bliss can learn to wait for the right shot instead of the first shot, they could be serious Vandy contenders.
After rocketing to the top of the standings in 2018, the Pistols showed they were no fluke in 2019, earning a return trip to the playoffs and marching all the way to their first SHL title. Facing a cap squeeze, they were unable to bring back deadline rental Eddie Costello, but GM Marcel LaClaire made a couple of bold moves to bolster the second line, adding veteran C Marco Venezio and RW Ben Summers on surprisingly affordable deals. They also called up D Elvis Bodett, a dynamic offensive defenseman, from their affiliate in Oshawa. It all should add up to a high-octane attack; no one should be surprised if the Pistols lead the league in scoring this year. None of their new additions are particularly strong in their own end, though; Hamilton’s defense should still be solid, but probably a step down from last year. Goalie Lasse Koskinen, who posted the best season of his career in 2019 (26-11-2, 2.25 GAA, .925 save percentage), will need to be sharp again for the Pistols to defend their title. One player to watch: star LW Steven Alexander. Last season, after a lackluster first half, Alexander got married and wound up lighting the league on fire in the second half, willing his team to a title and garnering MVP honors. How will he react to reaching the mountaintop? Will a taste of success dull the edge of his competitive drive, or will it make him hungry for more? The answer to that question will likely determine Hamilton’s fate this season.
After the Tigres made a surprising run in 2018 that fell one win shy of the Vandy, we warned that their success was driven in part by luck: they had a surprisingly high shooting percentage and managed to stay out of the penalty box more than you’d expect from such a physical team. Our warning proved prescient. The Tigres didn’t collapse in any particular area of their game last season, but they declined just a little in every way… and that proved to be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home. The roster looks pretty much identical to last season; their big deadline acquisition, D Matt Cherner, departed in free agency, but the Tigres acquired Kevin Buchanan from Washington to replace him. GM Pete Gondret is clearly betting that a couple more puck will bounce Quebec’s way and get them back into the postseason. He might be right about that. The Tigres’ defense will once again be ferocious; in particular, top pairing Laurie Workman and Richard McKinley continue to improve with experience. The team lacks top-notch scorers, but they do have decent offensive depth; seven players recorded double-digit goals in 2019. And their goaltending remains a strength; Riki Tiktuunen (25-19-4, 2.19, .923) remains one of the league’s top non-Lundquist netminders, and Riley Lattimore is a more-than-adequate backup. All of this should keep Quebec in the mix. But while their competitors in Hamilton and Hershey made clear upgrades in the offseason, the Tigres didn’t. Will standing pat be enough in this division?
It feels like Nick Foster’s bunch might have missed their window. In 2018, with traditional powers Hershey and Washington declining, the Night surged into third place and looked like they were ready to contend. But they stagnated last season; with Hamilton and Quebec rising and Hershey rebounding, New York seemed a step behind. New GM Jay McKay made some significant changes this season, but it’s not clear if they’ve made the team better. The most obvious upgrades were on the blueline, as the Night added Rusty Anderson and Dave Frederick on sizable deals. On offense, they picked up reliable veteran LW Charlie Brooks from DC, but lost Misha Petronov in free agency; at best, that’s a wash. The move that will likely do the most to determine the Night’s fate came in the crease. McKay decided that youngster Sherman Carter was ready to become the starter, and so he let incumbent starter Jesse Clarkson depart and signed fan favorite “Jersey Mike” Ross to be Carter’s backup. Carter posted solid numbers in 2019, but he has yet to establish a record of consistent success in the SHL. Clarkson rarely received the spotlight, but he has been a quietly effective goalie throughout his career. And given that the Night play an up-tempo firewagon brand of hockey, their netminders tend to take a beating. Their chances of contention (and possibly Foster’s chances of continued employment) rest on Carter’s ability to withstand that beating.
If there’s any silver lining to Washington’s dismal performance in 2019, it left no doubt as to whether the team needed to rebuild. After a reported reluctance to commit to a teardown, GM Ace Adams was shown the door. New front-office boss Wilson Shuster has been more willing to start over, moving blueliners Buchanan and Leonard Wright and winger Brooks during the offseason. There’s a decent chance that some of the other big names – LW Casey Thurman, C Harvey Bellmore, even RW Jefferson McNeely – might also be headed out the door. Suffice it to say that the Galaxy won’t be contending this season. But does this roster have long-term potential? It’s a very young group; half the roster has less than a season’s worth of SHL experience. Unsurprisingly, this means a team full of question marks. LW Alan Youngman and C Tucker Barnhill showed great scoring promise in the minors; will that translate in the SHL? Can Ambroz Melicar be the strong two-way defenseman in DC that he was in Baltimore? Can Buzz Carson and Darrell Bondurant (whose combined 3.73 GAA and .894 save percentage were second-worst in the league) develop into a quality goaltending tandem? Is coach Peter James the right fit to help this young squad grow and mature, or will the Galaxy regret letting Rodney Reagle go? The results this season will tell a lot about the long-term direction of this franchise.
Last season, the Badgers made a big splash by signing several prominent free agents, led by G Roger Orion and LW Pascal Royal. But after a mildly promising start, the Badgers quickly sank back into the basement, handcuffed by an abysmal offense. This offseason, Boston landed another big-name free agent, signing Cherner away from Quebec. He makes the team stronger on both ends; he’s one of the league’s best offensive defensemen, while also providing rugged and reliable defense. With Cherner on board, as well as promising youngsters Brody “Bruiser” McCallan and Kermit Kaufman, the Badgers may have the league’s best defense. Their top draft pick, RW Levi Rudyard, shows promise. And another year of experience should help their top scorers, LW Lix Darnholm and C Alain Beauchesne, become even more dangerous. But in the end, this team’s lack of scoring punch will be too great a hurdle to overcome. Even with their excellent defense and Roger Orion in net, the Badgers won’t be able to win every game 1-0. The Badgers are continuing to build in Quebec’s mold, and new coach Kyle Barrow should be able to impart the important lessons he learned as Sam Castor’s assistant in Anchorage. The Badgers are on a path to contend, perhaps as soon as next season. If they can add another secondary scorer – and if they can keep their pugnacity directed at their opponents – they could become a threat in a hurry.
- New York
Hamilton def. Hershey
Portland def. Anchorage
Hamiton def. Portland