Smoke, Jackalopes Make Trade, Raise Questions

Ordinarily, a trade between two of the SHL’s worst teams wouldn’t attract much attention.  Just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, a cynic might say.  But this week’s deal between the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke raised eyebrows around the league, and prompted the persistent whispers about the Jackalopes’ financial stability to grow a bit louder.

On its face, the deal looks like an old-fashioned challenge trade.  The Smoke shipped G Brooks Copeland and D Geoff Moultrie to Dakota in exchange for backup netminder Dennis Wampler and reserve D Terry “T-Rex” Hendricks.  There’s a case to be made that the parties involved could use a change of scenery.

Geoff Moultrie
Brooks Copeland

The 24-year-old Copeland began the season as KC’s starting goalie, and the team hoped the former Michigan draft pick would seize the opportunity.  However, he quickly lost the job to rookie Jim Fleetwood; he was later banished to the minors after compiling an 0-5-0 record with an unsightly 5.00 GAA and an .843 save percentage.

Kansas City acquired the 22-year-old Moultrie from Quebec last season, but struggled to find a spot in the Smoke’s blueline rotation.  Like Copeland, he was demoted to Omaha after recording a single goal and a -6 rating in 8 games with KC this season.  He had reportedly asked for a trade.

Like Copeland and Moultrie, the players KC received had worn out their welcome with their former team.

Dennis Wampler
Terry Hendricks

The 24-year-old Wampler has underwhelmed for Dakota this season, going 1-4-0 with a 4.50 GAA and an .865 save percentage.  According to sources within the organization, the Jackalopes were considering sending him to the minors before working out the trade.

The 24-year-old Hendricks was drafted by Dakota in 2016 and became a fan favorite due to his hard-hitting style.  However, his ice time has steadily decreased from season to season, and he seemed virtually certain to leave in free agency this offseason.  He appeared in 7 games for the Jackalopes this season, recording 2 assists.

So why the fuss about the deal?  In a word, money.  Dakota is the SHL’s smallest market, and their financial troubles have been an open secret for several years.  The organization has pared payroll sharply in the last couple seasons, causing fan discontent to grow and attendance to shrink.  It’s a negative spiral that may ultimately force the team to relocate.

This year, according to rival GMs, Dakota has been trying to dump its few remaining high-salary players.  They’ve aggressively shopped their top defensive pairing of Matt Cherner and Rusty Anderson, both of whom are on expiring deals.  They haven’t directly shopped star winger “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, but they’ve said to be listening to trade proposals.  Dakota’s payroll is among the league’s lowest; if those players (especially Airston) are traded, they’d be well under $10 million, an alarming figure in a league with a $25 million salary cap.

Given that, it’s hard to ignore that the trade saves the Jackalopes $650,000 in salary.  While it’s not certain that this motivated the deal, it did raise some red flags around the league.

Trading Wampler, in particular, seems curious.  The Jackalopes signed him to a three-year deal worth $750,000 per season.  The contract was intended in part to reassure skeptical fans that Dakota was willing to spend.  Could the organization really have soured on him after less than half a season?

Wampler seemed perplexed by the trade.  “When I signed on with [the Jackalopes], I thought we were making a long-term commitment to each other,” the goalie told reporters.  “I knew it was going to be a long season, but I thought we were building toward the future.  A month later, I’m packing my bags.  Go figure.  But hey, I like barbecue, so KC should be fun!”

As if to prove his value to his new club, Wampler debuted on Thursday, stopping 24 of 25 shots to lead the Smoke to a 2-1 win over Quebec.

Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard vigorously denied that he’d made the trade for financial reasons.  “I know everyone thinks we’re passing the hat in the stands to keep the lights on, but it isn’t true,” Mindegaard said at the press conference.  “We made this deal for hockey reasons.  Brooks Copeland is a promising young netminder; we’ve had our eye on him for a while.  In the right environment, he can thrive.  Geoff Moultrie is a rugged two-way defenseman who fits right in with the corps of young, talented blueliners we’re trying to create.  That’s what matters to us.  We didn’t make this trade just to make payroll.”

The deal didn’t seem to trouble the team.  In their first game post-trade, the Jackalopes tied New York 2-2, snapping their 11-game losing streak.

Smoke GM Garth Melvin, meanwhile, likes his team’s return in the trade.  “We’re real glad to have Wamp on board,” Melvin said.  “He’s a rising young player, and I look forwarded to seeing what he and Fleet can do together.  And T-Rex is a great young D-man.  Our fans are going to love him!  We might not win the Vandy this year, but we’re in for a fun season.”

Advertisements

2019 SHL Week 3 Transactions

  • On Monday, the Dakota Jackalopes placed star LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston on the 10-game DL.  Airston was knocked out with an upper-body injury on Sunday against Saskatchewan.  Airston’s injury was a major blow to Dakota’s feeble offense, as he is one of their leading scorers.  To take his place, the Jackalopes promoted LW Van Dyke Browning from their minor-league affiliate in Idaho.  Browning, 20, was off to a strong start in Idaho (2 goals and 4 assists in 9 games); he made his SHL debut on Thursday against Kansas City
  • On Friday, the Boston Badgers placed D Patrick Banks on the 10-game DL.  Banks suffered an upper-body injury during Thursday’s game against Quebec.  It’s the second injury-marred season in a row for Banks, who missed most of 2018’s second half after suffering a broken leg and torn ACL.  To fill Banks’ roster spot, Boston called up D Kermit Kaufman from their minor-league affiliate in Hartford.  The 21-year-old Kaufman, who appeared in 21 games for the Badgers last season, recorded 3 assists in 11 games with Hartford.
  • Also on Friday, the Quebec Tigres placed D Richard McKinley on the DL.  McKinley left Thursday’s contest against Boston with an upper-body injury; he is expected to be out of action for up to 4 weeks.  McKinley was one of Quebec’s top blueliners, posting 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) and a +7 rating.  The Tigres promoted RW Luc LePettier from their CHL affiliate in Maine to fill the open roster slot.  LePettier had recorded 4 goals and 5 assists on the season with the Moose.
  • On the good-news front for Quebec, they activated LW Stellan Fisker on Saturday.  Fisker went on the DL with a lower-body injury during the season’s opening week.  Fisker was an essential piece of last year’s Eastern Division-winning Tigres squad, as he scored 23 goals and anchored the second line.
  • On Saturday, the Kansas City Smoke demoted G Brooks Copeland to their affiliate in Omaha, and called up G Bill Bates from Omaha.  The Smoke’s 4.30 GAA and .875 save percentage are worst in the league, both by significant margins.  Copeland is off to a dismal start between the pipes, going 0-5-0 with a 5.00 GAA and an .843 save percentage.  He lost the starting netminder job this to rookie Jim Fleetwood.  With Omaha this season, Bates recorded a 4-2-1 record with a 2.51 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

2019 SHL Season Preview – West

Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season was a typical one for the Wolves: they bulldozed their way through the regular season on the back of their unparalleled defense and goaltending, winning the division by a comfortable 14 points. This was the first year for the SHL’s expanded four-team playoff field, however, and that came back to bite Michigan; they suffered a stunning sweep at the hands of Anchorage in the Western Division finals. Ron Wright’s crew will no doubt enter this season with fierce determination and a thirst for revenge.  Pity the fool that tries to stand in their way.  But there are a few questions surrounding this team. For instance, is this the year that age finally catches up with the Wolves?  They’re largely returning the same roster as last year (with the exception of D Bjorn Tollefson), but that roster includes eight players over 30 – including everyone on their top line, two-thirds of their second line, and two of their top four blueliners.  In a league that’s getting younger and faster, the Wolves are at risk of being left behind.  Their team has remained impressively healthy; only D Max Madison and LW Scot Davenport has significant DL stints last season. Can their good injury luck continue?  And netminder Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist – who has been the biggest component of this team’s success – was merely excellent last year, not otherworldly as usual.  Was it a temporary blip, or is he starting to decline?  The smart money is still on Michigan to make the playoff and contend for the Vandy… but for how much longer?

Anchorage Igloos

After losing the Vandy in 2017 in a major upset, the Igloos seemed to spend much of 2018 stuck in a funk.  They hovered around the .500 mark for most of the season, only to get hot down the stretch, upset the Wolves in the division finals, then withstood a spirited challenge from Quebec to take home the title.  This offseason, salary cap constraints cost Anchorage a key contributor, as RW Remi Montrechere departed in free agency.  In spite of that, the Igloos should remain one of the SHL’s top offenses.  Combined with a solid defense and good goaltending from Ty Worthington, that should be enough to give this team a shot at becoming the league’s first back-to-back champions.  But in a division that’s getting stronger every year, the Igloos can’t afford a repeat of last year’s regular-season sleepwalk.  Coach Sam Castor needs to keep this team hungry and sharp, or rising powers like Saskatchewan and Seattle might wind up eating their lunch.  One key player for the Igloos: LW Les Collins, who has developed into a major scoring threat and has provided crucial depth beyond their star-laden top line.  With Montrechere gone and linemate Nile Bernard on the decline, Collins will need to anchor that second line.  Like their rivals in Michigan, the Igloos might be living on borrowed time… not so much because of age, but for financial reasons.  Several players, including Collins, are in line for major raises this offseason.  GM Will Thorndike will likely have some painful decisions to make next offseason.  For now, though, the fans at Arctic Circle Arena can focus on what should be a great year and save the worrying for later.

Seattle Sailors

It’s difficult to figure out what direction the Sailors are heading for 2019.  After the team fired GM Jay McKay and replaced him with Hamilton’s draft wizard Taylor Teichman, it seemed clear that the team was headed for a rebuild centered around young talent.  But Seattle had no picks in this year’s draft; McKay had traded them away in his disastrous shoot-for-the-moon deals at last year’s deadline, and Teichman didn’t acquire any.  That set the stage for a weirdly quiet offseason in which the Sailors didn’t move the needle with any signings or trades.  As a result, they’ve largely returned the same roster that produced a sub-.500 finish in 2018.  They didn’t re-sign top-line C Lars Karlsson, but they replaced him with a similar player in Napoleon Beasley.  RW Philippe Durien, who won the minor-league scoring title in 2018, earned a promotion to the big club, but he’s the only significant addition.  It all adds up to a weird state of stasis for a team that feels like it needs either a serious go-for-it upgrade or a total teardown.  Maybe Teichman is trying to evaluate what he has before making any major moves.  Or maybe he’s trying to figure out if star Vince Mango is a scorer he can build around, or an albatross who’s more interested in reality TV fame than in hockey.  Or maybe he’s waiting to see where the team lands after the NHL expands to Seattle and boots the Sailors out of town.  Whatever the reason, this feels like a squad that will look very different in 2020 than it does now.

Saskatchewan Shockers

Over the last few seasons, the Shockers have slowly risen from being the league punchline to a strong young squad and possible contender.  Is this the year that Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s club makes the leap and challenges Michigan and Anchorage for a playoff spot?  They certainly haven’t stood still.  Saskatchewan jettisoned nice-guy coach Myron Beasley last season, and hired Ron Wright protégé Morris Thompson to instill toughness and discipline.  They signed Karlsson to anchor their top line.  They promoted a pair of high-scoring blueliners, Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, from their title-winning CHL affiliate in Virginia.   They signed veteran winger Piotr Soforenko to add badly-needed depth. They drafted RW Samson Kucharov, a rugged two-way player, to supply some grit.  Will that be enough?  Maybe not; this team might still be missing a piece or two.  (If LW Troy Chamberlain can step up and become a truly elite scorer, or if Vonnie McLearen can start living up to the fat free-agent deal he signed with the Shockers last season, that would help.)  But the gulf separating them the Igloos and Wolves is getting narrower every year.  If Anchorage gets off to another slow start, or if Michigan’s injury luck runs out, the Shockers are positioned to capitalize, especially if they make a smart trade or two along the way.  Saskatchewan’s not a joke any more… it’s time to start taking this team seriously.

Dakota Jackalopes

In 2018, the Jackalopes kicked their salary purge into high gear, dumping top centers Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore for prospects and draft picks.  The team managed to finish below all but the two expansion teams, as expected.  However, Dakota finished only six points behind Saskatchewan, Seattle, and 2017 champ Hershey.  Coach Flim Dahlgren earned rave reviews for making the most out of a young and fairly cheap squad.  The Jackalopes have developed a promising core of young defensemen, and they might be in a position to return to contention sooner than expected.  But the question of finances hovers over every move GM Paul Mindegaard makes.  Dakota is the smallest market in the league by far, and it’s an open secret around the league that owner Roger Scott has been hemorrhaging money over the last several seasons.  Even though the Jackalopes’ payroll is the second-smallest in the SHL, it’s rumored that further cuts might be needed.  The team’s top blueline pairing, Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, are on expiring contracts and will command hefty raises.  Will Mindegaard be able to pony up and keep the pair?  Will he even try?  Can Dakota afford star winger and fan favorite “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston’s max contract?  Can they afford the backlash that would ensue if they dealt him?  Can the team continue to survive in a market this size, or will hard economic truths force them to relocate to a larger city like Milwaukee or Portland?  The Jackalopes have a roster of young guys with upside, a smart and patient coach, and a rabid (if small) fan base, not to mention the fabulous Corn Palace.  Is that enough, or not?  Dakota has no real hope of contending, but they’re playing for much larger stakes than that.

Kansas City Smoke

In 2018, the Smoke entered their debut season with low expectations and a roster of marginal veterans who could be flipped for young talent.  They lived up to expectations, finishing with the league’s second-worst record and dealing many of those veterans at the deadline.  They enter this season with a younger roster, including some of the fruit of those deadline trades, but the same low expectations.  It’s not that the Smoke have no talent; RW Zachary Merula and C Darien Picard had impressive rookie campaigns, and C Mike Rivera had a bounce-back season with increased ice time.  But KC is badly lacking in scoring; no one on this team seems likely to have a 30-goal season or a 60-point campaign.  If Merula or Picard (or worse yet, both) hits a sophomore slump, this team is in big trouble.  The situation in the crease is also fairly dire.  The Smoke traded veteran Ollie Richardson, who provided what little consistency the team had, and will now be depending on the tandem of Brooks Copeland (who went 5-18-1 with a 4.26 GAA and an abysmal .872 save percentage last season) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (who almost certainly would not be in the majors for any other team).  The Smoke are arguably moving in the right direction, but given the competitive division they play in, they could easily finish with a worse record than last year.  And for a team whose first-year attendance numbers weren’t overwhelming, that could be a long-term problem.

Projected Finish:

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

Division Finals:

Hamilton def. Hershey

Michigan def. Anchorage

Finals:

Michigan def. Hamilton

Jackalopes Coach Ponders Winning and Losing at Season’s End

Flim Dahlgren

On Saturday, the Dakota Jackalopes defeated Saskatchewan 4-2 to finish out their season.  That evening, coach Flim Dahlgren held a state-of-the-season press conference, at which he got a bit philosophical about the nature of winning and losing, particularly in the case of a rebuilding club like his.

Dahlgren’s musings began when a reporter asked him, “How would you rate your team’s success this season?”

The coach paused and reflected on the question before responding.  “That’s a very interesting question, isn’t it?” Dahlgren began.  “The point of this game is to win, and we didn’t win that many times, so perhaps the season wasn’t too successful.  On the other hand, we’re supposed to be rebuilding, and the more we lose, the better our draft pick.  So perhaps then we were successful.”

Dahlgren cocked his head and continued.  “My players tried very hard all season to win.  Perhaps I should have been telling them to lose instead?  But still, we finished with the third-worst record, which is bad, but also good. It’s quite curious.

“Winning is better than losing, unless you lose too much, and then it’s better to lose.  But you’re not supposed to say that, are you?  They set up a system that rewards losing, at least if you’re already losing.  But then you’re still supposed to try to win, or at least you’re supposed to act like you’re trying to win.  If I say it’s a good season because we lost enough to get a good draft pick, am I violating the code?”

Dahlgren then paused and smiled at the reporter who asked the question.  “I imagine you’re sorry you asked that now, aren’t you?  You were just looking for a simple answer to put in your story.  Instead, you got a philosophical treatise on the meaning of winning.  I’m sorry, the season has put me through the looking glass.  Remind me again what your question was.”

The reporter repeated his question, and Dahlgren replied, “I’d rate the season a 5.  On a scale of what to what, I’m not sure.”

After the room filled with laughter, Dahlgren smiled and said, “I don’t really think in terms of a rating.  This season was all about discovery.  I took the job knowing that the team was rebuilding, and that my best players might be traded away at any moment.  My job was to identify and grow young players who might help us compete later on, and I think I’ve done that.”

Dahlgren cited RW Arkady Golynin, LW “Jumbo Joe” Freelander, RW Asher Ravenbloom, and Ds Sergei Trefilov and Alex Angelos as examples of such promising young players.  “So we have a core that we can build around,” the coach concluded.  “And we have a number of draft picks and some promising players in the minors, so there is hope.  That is success to me, for this season.  I don’t know how to put a rating on it, but that’s my answer.”

He then paused and smiled before adding, “Okay, philosophy class is dismissed.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 12

Ryan Airston

The SHL selected Dakota Jackalopes LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston as its Player of the Week.  The Jackalopes have dealt away most of their top-shelf talent, but Airston remains with the team and put up a strong week, with 8 points (3 goals and 5 assists) in Dakota’s four games this week.  Airston has 27 goals on the season, which puts him in the SHL’s top 10.

The winger was at his best against the East’s top teams in interdivision play this week.  On Sunday, Airston scored the game-winning goal in overtime as the Jackalopes stunned Hamilton 2-1.  Then on Saturday, he had a pair of goals and a pair of assists in Dakota’s 6-0 shutout of Quebec.

“It’s a long season, and when you’re not contending it can be easy to check out a little bit,” said Jackalopes coach Flim Dahlgren.  “But Ryan’s still giving it 100%, and that’s a great example to our younger players.  He’s a terrific leader for us.”

Foster Pokes Fun at Dakota, Corn Palace

Continuing their annual tradition, the Dakota Jackalopes hosted a game at Mitchell’s famous Corn Palace.  For this season’s “Corn Classic” on Tuesday, the Jackalopes faced off against the New York Night.  New York coach Nick Foster made waves by turning his pre-game press conference into a roast of Mitchell, the Corn Palace, and the Midwest generally.

Nick Foster

Foster made his speech in response to a reporter who asked him how he liked it in the Dakotas.  “I always enjoy our trips to flyover country,” the coach replied.  “It’s always nice to see how the other half lives.”

Foster then poked fun at the town of Mitchell, calling it “the actual middle of nowhere.  I mean, I thought that our usual games here [in Rapid City] were the middle of nowhere.  But this time, we flew in, then got on a bus for two hours just to get here.  It’s a nice clean little place, though.  I took a walk around downtown today.  Took me five minutes, but it was nice.”

Corn Palace

The coach then poked fun at the Corn Palace.  “I figured in a place this small, we’d be playing on a rink in someone’s backyard,” Foster said.  “But instead, we came here.  Somebody took a barn and slapped a bunch of corn on the outside and called it a ‘palace.’  Wow!  I guess it gives you guys something to do out here.  And I have to admit, it’s the nicest corn-based art I’ve ever seen.”

Predictably, Foster’s jibes inspired outrage among the Jackalopes and the Dakota fans.  “I’m sorry if our town and our arena aren’t fancy enough for him,” said Dakota LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  “But some of us like the life out here.  It might not be as glamorous as New York, where everyone lives on top of each other and the air smells like hot dogs and bus exhaust and the rats are as big as dogs.  But we love it.  We love our state, and our city, and our Corn Palace.”

Jackalopes coach Flim Dahlgren added, “I don’t want to get into this, because I know it’s all part of Nick’s act.  He likes to pretend he’s a wrestling heel, and he’s always trying to stir the pot.  But if you come here and make fun of the Corn Palace, we can’t let that stand.  We have to defend the corn.  Let’s go out there and win big!”

The sellout crowd of 3,200 greeted Foster with boos and signs bearing slogan like “Yankee Go Home” and “Shuck You, Foster.”  As the New York coach came down the tunnel to the bench, one irate fan dumped a can of creamed corn on his head.  Foster responded by tasting the corn and flashing a thumbs-up in response.

The Jackalopes delivered their best revenge to Foster on the ice, edging the Night 3-2 as D Matt Cherner scored a pair of goals.  “We may have a small crowd here, but it feels like they’re right on top of you,” said Cherner after the game.  “I think we have the best home-ice advantage in the league here.  And with [Foster’s] comments, that gave the whole thing a little extra juice.”

Dakota now joins the growing list of places where Foster has made himself persona non grata; earlier in the season, he infuriated the fans in Hamilton by calling their arena a “dump” and accusing Pistols star Steven Alexander of cheating.

“At this rate, I’ll have every other city in the league hating my guts by 2020,” Foster said.  “Dare to dream!”

Continue reading “Foster Pokes Fun at Dakota, Corn Palace”

Interview of the Week: Matt Cherner

This week’s interview is with Dakota Jackalopes D Matt Cherner.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with Matt Cherner, top defenseman for the Dakota Jackalopes.  Matt, thanks for speaking with us.

Matt Cherner

Matt Cherner: Sure thing, it’s my pleasure.

SHLD: At last week’s trading deadline, your name was one that came up often as a possible trade candidate.  But the deadline came and went, and you remained with Dakota, even as teammates like Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore were traded.  Are you happy to still be with the Jackalopes?

MC: Absolutely, I am.  The trading deadline can be tough on a guy, especially if he has a family like I do.  I’m very happy to still be here in Dakota.  My family is here, and my teammates and friends are here.  This is where I want to be.

SHLD: Even though it’s a rebuilding team that’s not going to the playoffs?

MC: Yes.

SHLD: You wouldn’t rather be on a contending team?

MC: I think it would be great if we were contending.  But leaving Dakota to go to another team… I’m happy here.

SHLD: What is it about Dakota that you like so much?

MC: Well, for one thing, it’s a small town, and I’m a small-town guy.  This reminds me a lot of my home back in Red Deer.  I feel at home here more than I would in New York or Seattle or Washington.  And there’s a real family feeling here.  The fans, the players, the coaches… we’re all part of one big family.  I love that.

SHLD: Speaking of Dakota being a small town: Your stats make a strong case for you as one of the league’s best defensemen.  And yet, when people talk about the best blueliners in the league, your name often gets overlooked.  Do you think that playing for Dakota hurts you in terms of league-wide recognition?

MC: I don’t know, it might.  Maybe if I played for New York or Michigan, more people would know about me.  But who cares?  I’m not doing this for glory.  I’m in this for love of the sport and to try to win games.  That’s what counts.

SHLD: Obviously, the Jackalopes have a lot of new faces this season: a new coach and a lot of new young players.  How do you feel about all the change?

MC: I think it’s great.  Coach [Flim] Dahlgren is a smart, patient guy, and he’s been doing a good job bringing everybody along.  And I like the young guys we’ve got, especially the defensemen.  We used to be an all-offense, super-aggressive kind of club, and we’re becoming more balanced.  I think we’ve got a great up-and-coming group, and I’ve taken it on myself to try to teach them whatever I can.

SHLD: Are there any young blueliners that you think we should really keep an eye on?

MC: Alex Angelos is a really remarkable guy; so fast, a terrific shot, a great head for offense.  You can’t teach natural talent like that.  I’ve been working with him on polishing his defensive skills: backchecking, gapping up, things like that.  And Sergei Trefilov is a great, rugged defender.  He reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger.

SHLD: One more question.  Your contract is up at the end of next season.  Are you looking to sign a long-term extension to keep you in Dakota?

MC: I can’t speak to what the team has in mind, or if I’m in their plans long-term.  But I can say that I’m definitely open to that.  I’m happy here, and I think we’re building in the right direction.  If the team is interested in making that kind of commitment, I’d love to have that conversation.

SHLD: Well, Matt, thanks for your time and good luck the rest of the season!

MC: I appreciate it.