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.
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.
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.
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.
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.