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.
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.
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 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.
- Kansas City