Igloos Land Bellmore at Deadline

It’s been a strange season for the Anchorage Igloos.  The defending division champs have struggled to find all momentum all season; their record has hovered around the .500 mark, and they have won more than three games in a row only once this season.  Coach Sam Castor called out his team last month when they stood at 12-13-0 and were tied with Saskatchewan for second place; they’ve improved a bit since then, going 10-7-0, but not enough to lock down a playoff berth.

Harvey Bellmore

With the Seattle Sailors making major moves to take a run at the spot down the stretch, the Igloos made a significant deal of their own to solidify their position, acquiring C Harvey Bellmore from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Mason Kilborn and a second-round draft pick.

“We’ve been clear from the start that this is a playoff team,” said Igloos GM Will Thorndike.  “We know we’ve got the personnel here to go all the way, and we didn’t see the need for any major moves that might disrupt our chemistry.  But bringing Harvey on board gives us a little extra firepower on the bottom line, and that kind of depth always helps in the playoffs.”

Bellmore is the second Dakota center to be dealt today; the rebuilding Jackalopes sent Lars Karlsson to Seattle in the biggest deadline move.  Bellmore is in the middle of a strong season, putting up 11 goals and 18 assists, although he is arguably better known in Dakota for his practical jokes than for his on-ice performance.

Like Karlsson, his contract expires at the end of the season.  Unlike Karlsson, he was publicly unhappy with the team’s direction and made it clear that he wanted out.  He created a stir in Dakota earlier this season when he crashed the team’s “Faith Day” celebration and gave a sermon on the virtues of alcohol.  He denied at the time that the stunt was intended to force a trade, but several of his teammates read it that way.

“As a player, it’s always more fun when you’re on a contending team,” said Bellmore after the deal was announced.  “So this is exciting for me.  Let me say to the fans of Dakota: So long, and thanks for all the wheat.  I’m packing up my joy buzzers and my dribble glasses and headed north to Alaska!  Hope I don’t get eaten by a grizzly.”

Bellmore should give Anchorage’s third line a significant offensive boost; he displaces veteran Broni Zhlotkin, who is slow and not a great shot creator.  Bellmore is considered a careless defender, however.  It’s also not clear whether his goofy nature will fit in with the more serious-minded Anchorage clubhouse.

Mason Kilborn

Bellmore was a considerably cheaper rental than Karlsson, who cost Seattle a pair of top prospects in addition to a draft pick.  The 22-year-old Kilborn made his debut this season; he showed promise in limited action, posting a goal and 4 assists in 10 games with the Igloos.

“We’re glad to add a promising youngster like Mason Kilborn to the fold,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard.  “He’s an energetic and athletic player who can make an impact on both ends.  We’re excited to get him.”

With Bellmore on board and the playoffs the expectation, the heat may be on Castor if the Igloos wind up missing the postseason.  But the coach says he welcomes the pressure: “This is our chance to show what we can do.  The spotlight’s on me and on all of us.  Let’s get it done.”


Interview of the Week: Nile Bernard

This week’s interview is with Anchorage Igloos C Nile Bernard.

SHL Digest: We’re here in the SHL’s northernmost outpost, talking to one of the Igloos’ key contributors, Nile Bernard.  Nile, thanks for speaking with us.

Nile Bernard

Nile Bernard: Sure thing.

SHLD: You’re not one of the famous names in the league, and a lot of fans might not recognize you, but your teammates say that you’re the glue that holds the team together.  How do you do that?

NB: I think that’s really more about the culture we have here.  On a lot of teams, the stars set the tone.  They decide whether the locker room is playful or serious, what kind of music we play after the games, and so on.  But here, it’s not like that.  Here, we all treat each other equally, from Frosty [Jake Frost] to last guy off the bench.  We’re like the Three Musketeers: all for one and one for all.

SHLD: Ah, but it’s more than that.  Your teammates say that you’re sort of the dad of the group.  For instance, when you’re on the road, you’re the one who scouts out new restaurants and makes reservations for the team.

NB: Yeah, I do that.  That’s mainly because I like food, and I like to explore different cities.  Most guys, they’re happy to go out when the game is over, but they just want to go have a good time.  I want to make sure we’re going to places worth going to.

SHLD: You’re also the player that new guys on the team go to for advice or to get situated.  You’ve even had several of the young players stay at your house.

NB: Yeah, that’s true.  I remember how it was when I was a rookie, how difficult it was to adjust to life in the pros.  Especially in a city like Anchorage.  It’s a great city, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a big change if you’re not used to it.  I try to make sure guys feel welcome, help them get their footing, get them pointed in the right direction.  When you’re with the Igloos, you’re part of our family.

SHLD: That’s a good attitude.  Do you think that’s helped the Igloos be one of the SHL’s most successful teams?

NB: Absolutely.  Don’t get me wrong, Coach [Sam] Castor has played a big role, and we’ve got a lot of talented guys.  But that family feeling definitely plays a role.  We trust every last guy on the roster.

SHLD: This year, you guys haven’t been as dominant as usual.  What do you think the issues have been?

NB: I don’t think it’s any one thing.  I think losing the Vandy last year was a blow, and it took us a while to shake it off.  I think our passing has been a little sloppier, our shots not quite on target.  But I think we’re starting to get sharper, and I expect a big second half from us.

SHLD: The trading deadline is coming up.  Do you expect any big moves for the Igloos?

NB: I don’t think so.  We might look for some additional depth, but we’ve all got confidence in the team we have.  Michigan’s going to be a tough battle [in the playoffs], but we’ve got the talent to take them down.

SHLD: Sounds good!  We appreciate the interview, as always.  Good luck in the second half!

NB: Thanks.  Look forward to talking to you again when we win the Vandy!

Igloos Prevail Over KC In Wild OT Battle

When the Anchorage Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke on Friday, they were hoping for an easy win over a team on an eight-game winless streak, which would allow them to solidify their second-place standing in the West.  While the Igloos did ultimately prevail over the Smoke, it was anything but easy.  Twice, Anchorage had to rally from three-goal deficits, and needed overtime before they escaped with a wild 8-7 victory.

“Man, that was a battle we weren’t expecting!” exclaimed C Jake Frost after the game.  “We showed a lot of fight, a lot of heart, but boy, KC put a scare into us.”

The Smoke showed up ready to play.  It only took 15 seconds for LW Louis LaPlante to get on the board with his first goal of the season, a slapper past Igloos netminder Wendall Cantillon. Frost evened things up two minutes later with a shot from the right faceoff circle, but rookie C Noel Picard put the Smoke back ahead just over a minute later with a tip-in from the slot.  Midway through the first, Kansas City struck twice to take a 4-1 lead, leaving the crowd at Arctic Circle Arena in an uneasy silence.

Igloos coach Sam Castor considered lifting Cantillon at that point.  But given that it was the backup’s first action all week, the coach stayed with his goalie.  “Wendall’s got to have a chance to deal with adversity,” said Castor.  “I wanted to see how he’d react, and how the team would react.”

Anchorage rallied to Cantillon’s rescue, with RW Remi Montrechere and D “Chilly Willy” Calligan scoring to pull within one by the end of the period.  Four minutes into the second period, Montrechere struck again to tie it up and bring the crowd to its feet.

“We felt like the mommentum was going our way,” said Montrechere.  “We were in control and ready to pull away.”

As it turned out, the momentum was about to shift back to the visitors.  Three minutes after Montechere’s tally, Smoke LW Piotr Soforenko deflected a shot past Cantillon to retake the lead.  C Phil Miller went top-shelf to make it a 6-4 game at the end of the second period.

47 seconds into the third period, Kansas City D Tony Hunt notched a power-play tally to give the Smoke another three-goal lead and putting the Igloos behind the eight ball.

“We needed a jolt, and fast,” said Frost.

They got a pair of jolts in short order.  Five seconds after Hunt’s score, Montrechere blasted a shot just inside the pole to complete his hat trick.  Then, a minute later, C Broni Zhlotkin took exception to a rough hit from Hunt and dropped the gloved with him at center ice.  Although the donnybrook completed Hunt’s “Gordie Howe hat trick” (a goal, an assist, and a fight), it fired up both the Anchorage bench and the crowd.

Twenty seconds after the fight, LW Les Collins banged home a juicy rebound to pull the Igloos within one.  Six and a half minutes later, C Nile Bernard went five-hole on KC goaltender Brooks Copeland and tied it up.  Bernard jumped up against the boards in the corner as the fans banged the glass in delight.

Although the atmosphere in the arena remained near delirium for most of the third period, the Igloos couldn’t push the go-ahead goal across.  Frost and Collins each hit the post, and Copeland made a tremendous sprawling stop with three minutes left in regulation to rob Montrechere of a fourth goal.

The game went to overtime, with both teams and the fans exhausted.  “In OT, that was all adrenaline,” said Frost.  “We had no energy left.”  With a minute and a half left in the extra session, RW Nicklas Ericsson faked a pass to Frost in the slot and slid it up to the blue line, where D Ted Keefe fired a blast that hit the crossbar and went in for the game-winning goal.

Keefe’s goal delivered the Igloos their fourth straight win and their fifth in the last six games.  It also moved Anchorage seven points clear of Saskatchewan and Seattle for second place; it’s their largest lead of the season.  But Castor remains dissatisfied with his team’s performance.  “We had no business winning this game,” the coach said.  “We’ve looked a lot better this week, but we’re going to need to tighten it up on a night-to-night basis if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Castor’s players were happier with the outcome. “Coming back from a three-goal [deficit] in a game is a game is impressive,” said Frost.  “Doing it twice in one game?  That doesn’t happen.  We’re pretty awesome!”


Igloos Coach Calls Out Team During Skid

The Anchorage Igloos had a brilliant run in 2017, seizing the division lead midway through the season and never looking back on the way to the Western title.  But the Igloos suffered a stunning loss in the Finals to the Hershey Bliss, and they haven’t looked the same since.  After slogging through an uninspired preseason, Anchorage has continued to underwhelm during the regular season.  Over the last couple week, the Igloos’ play has taken a turn for the worse, to the point that coach Sam Castor took the rare step of publicly criticizing his team this week.

The Igloos are currently on a swing through the East, a trip that got off to a rough start.   They opened their trip with back-to-back one-goal losses against the Bliss and Boston Badgers, the worst teams in the league.  The next night, the Igloos put up a listless effort against the Hamilton Pistols, getting drilled 4-1.  It was Anchorage’s fourth straight loss and the seventh in their last nine games.  After the game, Castor stepped to the podium and roasted his team’s lack of effort.

Sam Castor

“Look, I understand that the loss in the Finals was a blow,” said Castor.  “It knocked us off our stride.  But at some point we’ve got to put it behind us and move on.  We haven’t looked like ourselves this season.  We’re going through the motions.  It feels like we’re taking the playoffs for granted.  But if we keep playing this way, we might not even make the playoffs.”

Castor specifically criticized the team’s top line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson.  “We rely on Koonsy, Frosty, and Nick to drive our offense,” the coach said.  “This season, the feel hasn’t been there, the spark hasn’t been there.  Our lower lines are doing their job, but the top line needs to take on more of the load.”

The coach also dinged his team’s play in its own end.  “We’ve been sloppy and careless on defense,” said Castor.  “It’s the little things, a sloppy pass to set up an easy chance, a missed check there, shying away from wall work, not clearing the dirty areas in front of the net.  W’re giving up too many high-quality chances, and we’re getting burned.”

He concluded by saying, “The whole division is a traffic jam right now, except for Michigan.  That’s a good thing for us, because it’s keeping us in the race.  If the Shockers or Sailors go on a run, we could find ourselves in a hole quick.  We’ve got time to pull it together, but probably not a lot of time.”

The Igloos largely agreed with Castor’s assessment.  “We could all be doing better right now, starting with myself,” said Frost.  “We’re too talented to be limping along the way we are.  We can do better, and we need to start doing better.”  Koons added, “It’s time for us to look in the mirror.  We need to take the intensity level up a notch and get on a winning streak.”

Anchorage looked good in their next game, thrashing the New York Night 7-1 on Friday.  But the Igloos closed out the week still below the .500 mark, tied with Saskatchewan for second place.  “It’s a good win for us,” said Castor, “but one win doesn’t fix everything.  We need to see this kind of performance night in and night out.”

Might Castor have spoken up because he’s starting to feel the heat?  Despite the fact that he’s taken the Igloos to two Finals in three seasons and won the Vandy in 2015, some irate fans have been calling for the coach’s head.  GM Will Thorndike shot down any rumors, though.  “Sam’s not going anywhere,” Thorndike told reporters.  “He’s a big reason why we’ve been as successful as we have.  This is a bump in the road; it will pass.”


West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”


Frost Gives to Fight Lupus, Support Collins

Anchorage Igloos C Jake Frost is a big believer in standing up for his teammates.  This season, Frost has decided to put his money where his mouth – or rather his hockey stick – is.  In support of LW Les Collins’ sister, Frost is giving $100 to the Lupus Foundation of America for every goal he scores.

Les Collins

Collins’ sister was diagnosed with the disease back in 2015.  When that occurred, the winger wore purple armbands in solidarity with her, a gesture that initially drew a fine from the league until they discovered the meaning behind it.

The soft-spoken and intensely private Collins has been reticent to discuss his sister’s situation since then, but during the preseason, his teammates learned that her condition had worsened and she had to be hospitalized for a time.  The Igloos wanted to do something to support her; they sent her a jersey signed by the entire team, and they recorded videos encouraging her during her treatment.  But the Anchorage star decided that he wanted to do something more.

Jake Frost

“Les is like a brother to me,” said Frost.  “And although I’ve never met his sister, she’s family to me, too.  And I want to support them any way I can.”  He offered to help pay for the cost of the treatment, but Collins indicated that they were in good shape there.  So instead, Frost decided to give to the Lupus Foundation.

According to their website, the Lupus Foundation of America is “devoted to solving the mystery of lupus, one of the world’s cruelest, most unpredictable, and devastating diseases, while giving caring support to those who suffer from its brutal impact.”  The Foundation has raised over $80 million for lupus research and education, and they also host support groups for lupus patients and their families.

“I don’t need any extra motivation to score goals,” said Frost, “but it means a little more now, since I know that every time I score, I’m helping the fight [against lupus] too.”

Frost made his plan known to his teammates, but at Collins’ request he did not speak publicly about it.  A team beat reporter found out, however, and Frost confirmed it for the record.

“One thing I want to make real clear, though,” said the Igloos star.  “This is not a story about me.  This is about Les and his sister.  That’s what I’m doing this for.  This is all about taking care of my hockey family.”

Collins said that he was deeply touched by the gesture.  “It means a lot, you know, not just the money,” said the winger.  “Knowing that Jake and everybody here has that support for [my sister], it’s more than I can say in words.  We are a family here.”

Frost isn’t the only Igloos player to donate.  Upon learning of the gesture, D Tony Citrone announced that he too would give to the Lupus Foundation… $500 for every fight.  “I don’t score a lot of goals,” said Citrone.  “But I do get in lots of fights, so this is better.  Now when I’m punching a guy in the face, it’s also like I’m punching lupus in the face too.”


2018 SHL Season Preview – West

Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos are certain to be in the championship mix again this season.  Their high-octane offense – led by C Jake Frost, the SHL’s top scorer – returns largely intact, as does their formidable defense and rock-solid netminder Ty Worthington.  All that top-shelf talent will be enough to make the Igloos dangerous, and their shocking upset loss in last year’s SHL Finals should add some fuel to their competitive fires.  A potential return trip to the Finals, however, hinges on a couple of key factors.  LW Jerry Koons had a breakout season in 2016 with a 44-goal, 90-point effort.  If he can duplicate that performance, it will prevent opposing defenses from overloading on Frost and make the Igloos’ attack nearly unstoppable; if he takes a step back, Frost will need to pick up the slack.  Anchorage lost a chunk of its young depth in the expansion draft, as both RW Tyler Cloude and C Derek Humplik were plucked away.  As a result, they could be vulnerable to injuries.  They’re thinner still in the crease; previous backup Riley Lattimore was a salary-cap casualty, so if Worthington goes down for an extended period, they’ll need to rely on rookie Wendall Cantillon.  Given good health and a strong performance from Koons, there’s no reason not to pick the Igloos to go back to the Finals and win this time.

Michigan Gray Wolves

Well, maybe there’s one reason to pick against the Igloos.  The Wolves have been Anchorage’s fiercest competitor since the SHL began, and with the expanded four-team playoff field, it’s likely they’ll meet in the postseason.  Michigan’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners defense remains its calling card, backstopped by all-world goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  There are likely to be a lot of low-scoring games again at Cadillac Place this season.  The Wolves have a weakness, though: age.  A lot of their key players – Cs Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow, D “Mad Max” Madison, LW Vladimir Beruschko, RW Gordon Lunsford, D Frank Mudrick, LW Todd Douglas, and RW Oskar Denison – are on the wrong side of 30.  Last year, Bailes and Marlow both missed significant time with injury, and Michigan’s offense went down the drain when they were out.  If they or any of the other players on the above list get hurt, the Wolves could find themselves in trouble.  Michigan has a couple of rising young stars, most notably D Fritz Kronstein and RW Benoit Poulin, but their core is aging rapidly and may not have too many more bites at the apple.  And the Wolves are always a Lundquist injury away from slipping back into the pack.  The sun hasn’t set on this bunch yet, though, and Michigan could easily have another Vandy run left in them — if they can stay healthy.

Saskatchewan Shockers

The Shockers continued on their path of slow, steady improvement in 2017; they got a strong performance from rookie C Elliott Rafferty (23 goals, 40 points) to complement LW Troy Chamberlain (27 goals, 59 points) and C Napoleon Beasley (29 goals, 57 points), and they finished in a surprising third-place tie, albeit with an unimpressive 23-35-2 record.  Their moves for 2018 promise more modest improvement; they drafted a quality young center in Riley McCrea, made a surprise free-agent signing in LW Vonnie McLearen, and promoted several promising minor-leaguers (RW Colton Jabril and Ds Robby Rohrman and Valeri Nistrumov).  Perhaps their most impressive move was jettisoning the yellow-and-seafoam color scheme that made them the joke of the league.  With all those steps forward, it’s not hard to imagine Saskatchewan reaching the .500 mark for the first time.  It’s a lot harder, though, to imagine the Shockers challenging either Anchorage or Michigan for a playoff spot.  (They were reportedly in hot pursuit of RW Elliott Pepper from the Jackalopes; if they had acquired him, this team might have been truly dangerous.)  It’s harder still to imagine them holding a promotion that owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz doesn’t screw up somehow.  And it’s still tough to figure out the Shockers’ end game.  Are they trying to become the next Dakota, a team that’s talented enough to post respectable records but not talented enough to go all the way?  Or does Doofenshmirtz think he has the nucleus of a true contender on his hands?  If so, is coach Myron Beasley the man to get them there, or is he merely a quippy nice guy who needs to be replaced with a taskmaster who can make this team elite?  This season should say a lot about the direction of this promising but incomplete young club.

Dakota Jackalopes

Last season, the Jackalopes shot for the moon, loading up on free agents to take a shot at a title.  Instead, they fizzled, finishing tied with Saskatchewan at 22-35-2 and firing coach Harold Engellund at season’s end.  Since then, things have only gotten worse, as Dakota has slashed payroll and shipped out several big names.  They lost C Mike Rivera in the expansion draft, and have traded away RW Elliott Pepper and Ds Doron Lidjya and Craig Werner, all for prospects.  Rumor has it that they’re fielding offers on D Rusty Anderson and Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore as well.  The roster churn leaves new coach Flim Dahlgren in a challenging position, trying to evaluate and develop the team’s young talent while trying to keep up morale among the veterans.  It’s likely to be a long season at Black Hills Arena, as the Jackalopes are unlikely to contend.  But there will be a lot of young players thrown into the fire; if some of them are able to seize the opportunity and show promise, then this rough season may wind up paying long-term dividends.

Seattle Sailors

Seattle is likely the most improved team in the West, as GM Jay McKay made several aggressive moves in hopes of building a contending team.  The Sailors drafted LW Alphonse Gaspard, signed C Foster Culp and G “Jersey Mike” Ross as free agents, and acquired RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya in the Dakota fire sale.  Seattle upgraded behind the bench as well, dumping the volatile Stewart Corrigan and hiring ex-Jackalopes boss Engellund.  Clearly, the Sailors will be better this season… but how much better?  Seattle should be able to surpass rebuilding Dakota, and they should be competitive with Saskatchewan.  The Sailors will be superior offensively, while the Shockers have the better defense and goaltending.  But the question that applies to Saskatchewan applies here: is this the nucleus of a true contender?  The Shockers seem like they might be a top-flight scorer away from challenging Anchorage and Michigan.  For the Sailors, the question is whether Vince Mango can be the superstar that the team needs him to be.  The winger is one of the SHL’s leading scorers, but he’s generally regarded as a one-dimensional player, being a mediocre passer and an indifferent defender.  Many around the league also question his maturity and leadership credentials, as he’s better known for his theatrical goal celebrations than for hard work or heads-up play.  If Seattle is going to become an elite club, they’ll need Mango to become proficient in other aspects of the game than shooting.  If Rocky Goldmire can step it up between the pipes, that would help too.

Kansas City Smoke

Like most expansion teams, the Smoke seem destined for a last-place finish.  The team lacks the offensive firepower to compete, and neither Oliver Richardson nor Brooks Copeland has much experience as a starting goalie.  There will likely be two interesting storylines in Kansas City this season.  The first is how coach Randy Bergner, a highly-regarded minor-league bench boss who won a division title in Omaha last season, will handle the trials and tribulations of an expansion squad.  Bergner has expressed a desire to build a cohesive, team-first organizational culture; if he can pull that off with a ragtag squad that’s likely to pile up the losses, he’ll definitely have earned his stripes.  The other thing to watch is what the Smoke does with their flippable assets.  Unlike their counterparts in Boston, who focused on picking as many young players as possible, Kansas City nabbed a number of veterans (Richardson, C Phil Miller, LWs Pascal Royal and Piotr Soforenko, and Ds Doug Wesson, Hans Mortensen, and Vitaly Dyomin) who could turn into attractive trade pieces.  They also signed free-agent D Tony Hunt and LW Louis LaPlante, who could potentially have value if they can bounce back from down seasons.  If KC finishes the season with the same roster that takes the ice on opening night, they’ll have screwed up royally.  All eyes will be on GM Garth Melvin, who will have to make some shrewd moves to turn those journeyman vets into prospects that might help the Smoke down the road.  If you’re going to Kansas City this season, though, expect to find good barbecue and bad hockey.

Projected Finish:

  1. Anchorage
  2. Michigan
  3. Saskatchewan
  4. Seattle
  5. Dakota
  6. Kansas City