Interview of the Week: Sam Castor

This week’s interview is with Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor.

SHL Digest: Hello, Coach Castor.  Are you excited that the SHL’s new season is here?

Sam Castor

Sam Castor: Absolutely! During the offseason, I get bored and irritable.  It’s hard for me to sleep.  During the season, that’s when I feel normal.

SHLD: Glad the season is back, then!  So, it seems like everyone’s assuming it’s going to be you and Michigan for the Western division.

SC: I don’t assume that at all.

SHLD: You don’t?

SC: Nope.  I mean, Michigan’s going to be a tough competitor, for sure.  But Dakota got a lot better this offseason, and Seattle’s looked surprisingly competitive this week.  I don’t automatically assume it’s going to be Michigan or us.

SHLD: Fair enough.  But Michigan won the division – and the Vandy – last year.  The year before, it was you guys.  I know you’d like to take it back.

SC: No question about that.

SHLD: So if you are going to win it all again, what will you need to do to beat Michigan and the rest of your competition?

SC: For us, the key is going to be balance.  The Wolves have a great goalie in [Dirk] Lundquist and a top-notch defense, and that’s their game and their identity.  Us, on the other hand, we try to be equally strong on both ends.  That allows us to match any style of play that we have to face.

SHLD: Are there particular players that you’re looking for to step up and take you to the next level?

SC: Offensively, obvious Jake [Frost] is our catalyst, but we’re looking at our secondary options taking on more of the load.  Jerry [Koons] has really done great so far.  Les [Collins] has been getting better every season.  Ben Summers got off to a great start before he got hurt.  Those are the guys we’re looking for to come up big.

SHLD: And on defense?

SC: We have a new third pairing this year; Sebastian [Pomfret] promoted off the bench and then the rookie, Tony Citrone.  In our system, all three of our lines get plenty of playing time, so we’re counting on them to get up to speed quickly.  If they can do that, we’re going to be deep and dangerous from top to bottom.  Overall, I like out chances.

SHLD: Getting back to you and Michigan for a second, the rivalry even extends to your mascots.  Do you expect any further hostilities between Petey the Polar Bear and Wally Wolf?

SC: Nah, I don’t think so.  Ever since they buried the hatchet back at the end of ’15, they’ve actually become close.  They exchange Christmas cards and everything.  They’re cool now.

SHLD: So, is it safe to day we’re not expecting any polar-bear-themed mishaps this season?

SC: I think that’s a pretty safe assumption.  Although you never know… some idiot on another team might decide to take a poke at Petey, and none of us are gonna stand for that.

SHLD: One challenge that your Igloos face that’s different from the rest of the league is travel.  You guys spend more time on planes that any other team in the league.  The closest road city is Seattle, which is almost 1,500 miles away.  Does that put you at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the league?

SC: Yeah, I suppose so.  But we aren’t looking for excuses.  When other teams fly out to play us, they’re at a disadvantage.  The travel wears on us sometimes, but we’re professionals and we’re here to do a job.  That’s where our focus is.

SHLD: Makes sense!  Well, good luck the rest of the season, Coach.

SC: Thanks, it was a pleasure.

SHL 2017 Season Preview – West

Michigan Gray Wolves

The defending SHL champions return largely intact for the 2017 season.  They lost only one significant contributor in D Patrick Banks, who went to Washington in free agency (rookie Brooks Zabielski takes over Banks’ spot in the third pairing).  But the loss of Banks should be offset by the arrival of LW Todd Douglas, bumping struggling Travis Gauss to the bench.  While their offense – particularly LW Vladimir Beruschko – showed some signs of age last season, the Wolves’ dominant defense and the peerless goaltending of Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist remain as strong as ever.  And it seems unlikely that coach Ron Wright will let the team rest on its laurels.  So what could slow them down?  The West is a tough division; Anchorage and Dakota should put up strong challenges.  But the biggest risk this team faces is injury, particularly to Lundquist.  If their star netminder goes down for any extended period, is rookie Brooks Copeland up to the job?  The Wolves hope they won’t have to find out.


Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos have made no secret of their desire to get back to the form that won them the 2015 SHL title.  Have they made the progress they needed?  It’s possible.  The biggest new addition is LW Ben Summers, a 10-goal scorer with New York last season.  He replaced Misha Petronov, whom the Igloos let go after a disappointing season.  But Anchorage’s fortunes are likely to hinge on the performance of their youngsters and their stars.  The Igloos are moving LW Les Collins, who had a breakout 35-point season in 2016, up the second line; they’re depending on him continuing to blossom as a scorer.  Their third defensive pairing is also new, combining rookie Tony Citrone with Sebastian Pomfret, who looked solid in limited action last year.  If those three have strong seasons, Anchorage should do well.  But their title chances likely rest on the shoulder of sniper Jake Frost.  Last season, Frost put up 45 goals, which would be a fine year for most players but an off year by Frost’s standards.  Since he is the key to Anchorage’s offense, a return to his typical output would make the Igloos dangerous.  If he has another off season, they’re likely to come up short again.


Dakota Jackalopes

For 2017, the Jackalopes have a new name (they changed from the Rapids) and a number of new faces.  After a couple disappointing seasons falling well short of contention, Dakota’s hoping that combination will be enough to help them catch up with the Western powers.  They did more to improve themselves than any other contender, adding C Mike Rivera via trade and D Rusty Anderson in free agency.  They also acquired D Scott Hexton from Hershey to make their defense that much stouter.  While the Jackalopes will always be an offense-first club, they’re arguably stronger on both sides of the puck than they’ve ever been.  If they were in the weaker East, Dakota would be at least a co-favorite to win the division.  This is the West, though.  If there’s an area where the Jackalopes may come up short, it’s between the pipes.  They’re relying on a pair of young goalies, Buzz Carson and Christien Adamsson.  Carson, the likely starter, had an impressive rookie season in 2016, and clearly improved as the season went on.  But nobody considers Carson to be in the same class as Michigan’s Lundquist or Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.  If Dakota finishes out of the money yet again, they may wind up ruing the day the front office ran Jesse Clarkson out of town.  But if Carson can take another step forward, the Jackalopes’ high-octane offense would make them a dangerous team.


Saskatchewan Shockers

Last season was a tale of two halves for the Shockers.  In the first 30 games, the fine goaltending of Zeke Zagurski and the scoring punch of rookie winger Troy Chamberlain had Saskatchewan hovering around the .500 mark and attracting notice as a young team on the rise.  The second half saw a dramatic fall from grace, as the Shockers lost 11 of their final 13 games and 23 of their last 30, and the team suffered a string of embarrassing personnel incidents that suggested a franchise coming apart at the seams.  The team improved in the offseason, drafting C Elliott Rafferty and trading for veteran G Oliver Richardson to back up Zagurski.  But the Shockers clearly lag far behind the contenders, with a subpar offense and a mediocre defense.  As a result, there are far more questions than answers headed into 2017.  Is coach Myron Beasley’s job in jeopardy if the Shockers stumble out of the gate, or fade in the second half again?  Can the front office get its act together and run the team in a more professional manner?  Can the team’s slow but steady building plan ever lift Saskatchewan into contention?  Should they consider dealing Zagurski and other veterans and go for a hard rebuild?  Can the team last in Saskatoon, or will owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz be forced to relocate?  Will the team ever abandon its bizarre yellow-and-seafoam color scheme?  Can this team ever be a real contender, or will they forever be a poorly-run, mistake-prone joke?  It’s hard to know what the future holds for this truly strange team, but it’s safe to expect that there won’t be a ton of wins this season.


Seattle Sailors

The Sailors had a rough inaugural season, looking weak on both ends of the ice.  Their star rookie, RW Vince Mango, turning in a disappointing campaign, scoring only 33 goals and lacking the explosive shot that made him such a highly-regarded prospect.  The Sailors are likely to finish last again, so the 2017 season is all about showing signs of growth.  The team defied expectations to draft LW Rod “Money” Argent with the top pick in the draft; Seattle hopes that he’ll add some scoring punch to the top line and force opposing defenses to stop overloading on Mango.  The Sailors will be eager to see progress from Mango, Argent, and D Benny Lambert.  In a surprising signing, they added D Timothy “Cyclone” Winston to bolster their leaky blueline corps; the defense is still nowhere near Michigan’s level, but it should be better.  Last season, goalie Rocky Goldmire struggled and looked shell-shocked at times; a stronger defense should help him get more comfortable in the crease.  If Seattle’s going to become a contender down the road, they’ll need to see their young core come together and take a step forward.  They’ll also need to decide if volatile coach Stewart “Popeye” Corrigan has the temperament to be a leader of men.  Sailors fans should try not to fixate on the win-loss record this season; instead they should watch to see if they have a solid foundation for the future.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 12

Nicklas Ericsson

Anchorage SmallThe SHL selected Anchorage Igloos RW Nicklas Ericsson as its Player of the Week.  Ericsson had one of the most prolific offensive weeks in SHL history, putting up an astounding 16 points, with 6 goals and 10 assists.  Ericsson put up his first career hat trick on Sunday, powering the Igloos to a 6-3 win over Seattle.  He also had a pair of three-assist games in the season’s final week, once on Tuesday in a 5-1 pasting of Dakota and again during the season finale, a 5-1 win over Michigan.  In between, he had a two-goal, two-assist game as Anchorage shellacked Saskatchewan 8-2.

Ericsson finished the season with 82 points, which put him fourth in the league.  His 63 assists were second only to Chase Winchester of New York, who set a new league record with 88 assists (and also won the league points title with 104, another new record).

“Because Jake [Frost] is the big goal scorer, he’s usually the one who gets all the attention and all the credit,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “But Nicklas is the one feeding him for all those chances, and he’s the best in the business.  We came up short this year, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Jake or Nicklas’ part.”

Michigan Clinches West, Loses Beruschko

Michigan SmallLast season, the Michigan Gray Wolves had a frustrating season: they finished with the second-most points in the league, but were shut out of the SHL Finals thanks to the Anchorage Igloos.  This year they turned the tables, seizing the Western division lead early and holding off the Igloos on the way to their first Finals berth.  The win came at a cost, however, as the Wolves will enter the Finals missing a key player.

Vladimir Beruschko

Michigan entered the final week of the season on the brink of clinching, leading Anchorage by eight points with five games remaining.  But they suffered a surprising setback on Saturday, blowing a 2-0 third-period lead and losing to Dakota while Anchorage turned aside Quebec 4-1.  Compounding the problems for the Wolves, LW Vladimir Beruschko crumpled awkwardly after taking a puck to the lower leg and left the game.  The team later confirmed that Beruschko appears to be finished for the season.  The winger was a stalwart on Michigan’s first line this season, providing strong play on both ends; he finished the year with 4 goals and 38 assists.

After the game, Wolves coach Ron Wright called out his team for a lack of effort.  “It seems that some of the guys in our locker room think we’ve already clinched it,” said Wright in his postgame press conference.  “Well, we haven’t won a damn thing yet.  And if we’re going to keep playing like this, Anchorage is going to come right up and take it away from us.  We’re going to have to do this without Vlad, so everybody better be ready to step up.”

The Wolves responded the next night, downing Hershey 3-1 and pushing the Igloos to the verge of elimination.  On Tuesday, Michigan toppled hapless Saskatchewan by the same 3-1 margin to punch their ticket to the Finals.  In an emotional locker-room celebration, Wright fought back tears as he saluted his players.  “When we got together in training camp, I told you that we had the talent here to go all the way, if we were willing to work for it,” Wright said.  “You’ve given it everything I could have asked for, and this is your reward.  Savor it!”

By all accounts, the Wolves followed their coach’s instructions and savored it immensely.  The team reportedly partied hard the rest of the week and staggered through their final two games, particularly their season-ending 5-1 loss to Anchorage.  This time, even the famously hard-driving Wright declined to admonish his team for not working hard.  “They deserve to have a little fun,” the coach said with a wink.  “Just as long as they dial it back up in time for the Finals.”

According to his players, Wright needn’t be worried.  “I guarantee you, nobody in this room thinks we’ve reached our goal yet,” said C Hunter Bailes.  “We won the division, and that’s sweet.  But we all started this season with one goal, and that was to win the Vandy.  If we don’t get there, we’re not going to be satisfied.  We’ve got one more step to go, and we’ll be ready.”


SHL Player of the Week – Week 9

Jerry Koons

Anchorage SmallThe SHL selected Anchorage Igloos LW Jerry Koons as its Player of the Week.  For the week, Koons scored 4 goals and recorded 11 points.  Koons was the primary creator on the Igloos’ first line, which scored 14 of the team’s 20 goals this week.  Thanks to the fine work by Koons and the top line, Anchorage went 4-0-1 on the week, closing the gap on first-place Michigan to just four points.

“We’ve got an amazing mix of skills on the first line,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “I’m the big scorer, of course, and Nicky [Ericsson] threads perfect passes.  But Jerry is just all-around brilliant.  He’s got a good heavy shot, and he can make beautiful passes, and he can get greasy goals in front of the net.  I know he doesn’t get noticed like I do, but he’s just as good.”

Added coach Sam Castor, “If we’re going to make it back to the Finals, it’s going to be because Jerry’s stepped his game up to another level when we need it.”

West Race Tightens as Wolves, Igloos Clash

Michigan SmallAnchorage SmallSo far this season, the Michigan Gray Wolves have maintained a steady lead in the West all season.  They’ve known they can’t rest easy, however, as the defending champion Anchorage Igloos have gotten past their early-season stumbles and are hot on Michigan’s heels, just waiting for the leaders to stumble.

The Igloos got their opportunity on Friday, after a rare bad week by the Wolves allowed Anchorage to whittle down a deficit that had reached double digits as recently as Sunday.

“This has been a brutal race,” said Michigan C Hunter Bailes.  “You kill it all year, then you hit one bump in the road and suddenly you’re at risk of getting left behind.”

Michigan opened the door for the Igloos by losing three in a raw, a surprising development for a team that had lost only five games all season prior to that and hadn’t had even back-to-back losses.  On Sunday, the Wolves fell behind early to red-hot Dakota and couldn’t quite complete the rally in a 4-3 loss.  On Tuesday, Michigan suffered a shocking 3-2 overtime loss to Seattle despite holding the Sailors to a mere 15 shots.  On Wednesday, they dropped another nail-biter to New York, again by a 3-2 score.

Meanwhile, the Igloos went on a three-game winning streak.  By the time the travel-weary Wolves arrived at Arctic Circle Arena on Friday, Anchorage had a chance to get within two points with a win.

Prior to the game, Michigan coach Ron Wright stressed the stakes of the game for both teams.  “A couple weeks ago, [the Igloos] said they were treating these head-to-head matchups like playoff games,” said Wright.  “Well, here we are.  This is a chance for us to show that we’re the class of this division.”

Unsurprisingly, Friday’s game was tense, well-played, and highly competitive.  The first period wound up scoreless, as Wolves goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist rebounded from his recent stretch of subpar play to turn aside 15 Anchorage shots.  Meanwhile, Igloos netminder Ty Worthington stopped 11 shots on his end.

“The last couple of games, we’ve been sleepwalking a little bit early on,” said Bailes.  “But today, we were in top gear from the drop of the puck.  Both teams were.  We both know the stakes.”

The temperature on the Michigan bench got a few degrees warmer when the Igloos broke out on an odd-man rush, and star Jake Frost beat Lundquist glove-side to put the home team ahead.  Wright, who hasn’t hesitated to chew his team out for lackadaisical effort, didn’t yell this time.  Instead, he told them in measured tones: “Well, you let them get the jump on us.  Time to get back.”

After taking the lead, though, the Igloos opted for a more defensive posture, focusing on keeping the Wolves from starting an offensive blitz rather than trying to increase their advantage.  “With two teams this good, one goal could mean the game,” said Anchorage coach Sam Castor.  “You don’t want to take a big risk and wind up letting them take advantage and have an odd-man rush on you.”

Time and again throughout the second period, the Igloos stymied Michigan in the neutral zone, keeping the Wolves from gaining entry to the offensive zone.  “It’s like they built a damn wall on the blue line,” said Wright.  “They just weren’t letting us through, whatever it took.”

Finally, with about six minutes left in the second, Michigan’s third line finally broke through Anchorage’s intense pressure.  Wolves LW Travis Gauss eluded a pair of Igloos defenders, then slid a pass at the blue line to D Patrick Banks, who fed RW Benoit Poulin for a tip-in to tie the score at 1.  The Wolves bench thumped their sticks on the boards in vigorous approval.

The tie persisted through the end of the period, setting up a furious final stanza as both teams went all out to secure a win.  The Wolves found themselves in trouble early, as D “Mad Max” Madison was hit with a double minor for clipping Frost. Michigan managed to kill the penalty, however, and shortly after Bailes slipped a shot between Worthington’s pads to give the Wolves their first lead.

“That felt real good,” said Bailes.  “This was one of those games that you give everything you’ve got, and I’m glad I was the one to put us over the top.”

Before he and the Wolves could celebrate, though, they had to battle through a furious comeback attempt by the Igloos, and kill another power play, over the final dozen minutes.  They held firm, though, and emerged with the 2-1 win.  Lundquist stopped 34 shots to secure the victory.

“About time I got back on track,” said Lundquist.  “I’d been a blink slow the last few games, which isn’t like me.  But today, I think the adrenaline kept me on my toes.”

Instead of seeing their lead shrink to two points, Michigan ended the week six points up on the Igloos.  Wright, though, said the race was far from over.  “Is this an inflection point in the season?  Maybe,” the coach said.  “But we damn sure better not take our foot off the gas.  I know Anchorage won’t.  We’ve got a long way to go.”