Bliss Acquire McLearen, Make Push for East

The SHL’s trading deadline occurred this week, which meant that the league’s contenders were all looking for ways to shore up their squads for that playoff push down the stretch.  By all accounts, no team was more active in seeking upgrades than the Hershey Bliss.  Although the Bliss spent most of the first half out front in the East, the Washington Galaxy have caught fire the last couple of weeks, winning 9 of their last 10 and passing Hershey for first place.

Eager to avoid falling behind Washington, Hershey GM Scott Lawrence pursued numerous options for strengthening his roster.  In the end, he made a single deal, acquiring LW Vonnie McLearen and D Gustaf Bergstrom from the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for F Kelvin Starkey, minor-league D Alex Angelos, and a 2nd-round draft pick.

Vonnie McLearen

In McLearen, the Bliss add a rising star who will give their already-solid offense a boost.  The 23-year-old winger was one of Dakota’s top scorers, putting up 12 goals and 20 assists on the season.  Over the last couple of seasons, McLearen has risen from a lightly-used reserve to become a key offensive contributor.  He has a reputation as a hard worker and a strong two-way player.

“Honestly, I was a little surprised to discover that Vonnie McLearen was available,” said Lawrence.  “Great young guys like that are usually tough to come by.  He’s a tremendous pickup for us.  We’re really excited about the energy and spark he’s going to bring to our team.”

Gustaf Bergstrom

The Bliss also added a veteran grinder in Bergstrom.  The 30-year-old blueliner will be the seventh defenseman for Hershey, replacing rookie Kermit Kaufman.  He was a longtime starter for the Jackalopes before being demoted to reserve duty this year.  He appeared in only 6 games with Dakota in the 2017 season, recording an assist.

“When you’re playing those tough games down the stretch and in the Finals, you could always use a little extra grit,” said Lawrence.  “Bergstrom’s an old-fashioned banger, the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to scrap and does the dirty work.  He gives us that quality depth, a guy we can count on when we need him.”

While the acquisition was welcomed by Bliss fans, the deal got a chilly reception in Dakota.  McLearen has long been a favorite among Jackalopes rooters, who have enjoyed watching him blossom into a top-notch starter.  The fans were heartbroken to see McLearen dealt, and they bombarded the front office with angry tweets and emails.

“This was a tough deal to make,” said Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard.  “Everyone around here loves Vonnie.  Heck, I love Vonnie, and I hated to give him up.  But sometimes you have to make tough deals in this business.”

According to team sources, the trade was financially motivated.  The small-market Jackalopes spent freely this season in hopes of building a contender.  Instead, the team has languished around the .500 mark, well behind Anchorage and Michigan.  McLearen will be a free agent this offseason and is likely to command a significant raise.  The strapped-for-cash Jackalopes are unlikely to be able to re-sign the young winger, and they wanted to get a return for him rather than see him walk away for nothing.

Kelvin Starkey

In exchange for McLearen, the Jackalopes received a pair of young prospects.  The 24-year-old Starkey was signed by Hershey before last season, and displayed considerable promise.  He had worked his way into a starting role for the Bliss prior to the trade.  In 11 games with Hershey, Starkey scored 8 points (1 goal and 7 assists).

“We’re hoping that we got ourselves the next Vonnie McLearen in this deal,” said Mindegaard.  “Kelvin is a guy who has worked his way up the hard way, and we think he’s got considerable room to grow with some additional playing time.”

Alex Angelos

The 20-year-old Angelos is an offensive-minded defenseman who flashed considerable promise with Hershey’s minor-league affiliate in Albuquerque.  With the Screaming Eagles, Angelos put up 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in 44 games.

“Alex Angelos is a guy who fits well with our team concept,” said Mindegaard.  “He’s a fast skater, and he’s shown that he can contribute in a high-tempo environment.  He’s also a strong shooter and he has a great passing touch.  He’s a player who has the potential to have a long and successful career here.”

While the Jackalopes are gearing up to get younger, the Bliss are hoping that the acquisition of McLearen will put them over the top.  Each of the last two seasons, Hershey has come up short against the Galaxy, and the team and their fans are growing impatient for a shot at the title.  “Everyone in this organization is hungry for a championship,” said Lawrence.  “We believe that this trade puts us in position to make that run to the title.”

Interview of the Week: Harold Engellund

Dakota SmallThis week’s interview is with Dakota Rapids coach Harold Engellund.

SHL Digest: We’re here today with Coach Harold Engellund.  Coach Engellund, thanks for speaking with us.

Harold Engellund: You betcha!  I’m always glad to talk hockey.

Harold Engellund
Harold Engellund

SHLD: So, it’s fair to say it’s been an eventful year.

HE: (laughs) Yeah, that’s a way to say it, for sure.  Never a dull moment around here.

SHLD: How would you evaluate your season?

HE: Well, we put together a team we thought was going to contend for a title, and we haven’t really done that.  So it’s hard to call our season a rousing success.  But I think we’re gotten better, stronger over the course of the year.  I think some of those storms we had to weather drew us together better as a team.  We’ve got each other’s backs, and team chemistry is real strong.

SHLD: What do you think is the primary reason you haven’t been able to succeed as much as you’d like?

HE: I’m sure some of the stat wizards could slice and dice the numbers and tell you our Corsi is too low or our PK percentage drops on Wednesdays or whatever.  But I’m from the High Plains, and we keep it simple.  And the truth is, there’s two darn good teams in Michigan and Anchorage that we’ve gotta compete with.  They set a real high bar, and we’re not there yet.

SHLD: Your point total would put you in the thick of the race in the East, for sure.

HE: Exactly.  But someone asks you why you didn’t compete, you can’t say “Geography.”  We’ve got to play the teams on our schedule.  And defense is still an area where we struggle.  We’re never going to be a lockdown team like the Wolves, but we’ve at least got to keep the puck out of our end more.

SHLD: It’s sort of ironic that a guy like you would be coaching a team like this.  After all, you were Harry the Hit Man in your playing days!

HE: (laughs) Yep, I sure was.  I was a guy who never hesitated to settle things with my fist.  My minor-league coach told me that they were gonna retire my number and hang it in the penalty box, ‘cause that’s where everyone was used to seeing it.  Me being in charge of a team of little fast guys is kind of like a teetotaler running a saloon.

SHLD: I’ll bet it was hard for you to get used to that.

HE: A little, sure, at first.  But I gotta tell the truth: Players today are faster and more talented than they were in my day.  A guy like me probably couldn’t have made it.  The game has changed, and I understand that.  I’m not gonna claim it was better in the old days when it was line brawls all the time.

SHLD: That’s a pretty enlightened attitude.

HE: Honestly, it’s my guys who helped me see it.  Watching them skate around lickety-split, make real sharp passes, thread the needle with great shots… there weren’t a lot of guys in my day who could play like that.  It’s pretty to watch.

SHLD: Now, you’re a native of North Dakota, right?

HE: Yep, a proud Fargo native.

SHLD: What does it mean to you to coach a team representing the Dakotas?

HE: Real proud, you betcha.  When I was growing up, the rest of the world thought Fargo was the middle of nowhere.  Even later on, most people only think of the movie.  But now, we’ve got a team that’s putting the Dakotas on the map in a good way, and I couldn’t be happier.

SHLD: One more question, at the risk of poking a sensitive area.

HE: Hey, that happened all the time when I was a player. (laughs)

SHLD: Ha!  Anyway, you know about all the rumors of the power struggle between you and the front office over the situation in net.  And after the team dealt Jesse Clarkson at the deadline, the perception was that you’d lost the fight.  Is that an accurate perception, and how are you dealing with it going forward?

HE: That whole story was always overblown.  Yeah, I was a big believer in Jesse, and he’s done a heck of a job with Hershey.  But the organization wants to see Christien [Adamsson] have a chance to grow and blossom, and that’s fair.  We talked it out before they pulled the trigger.  And we agreed that given the reality of where we are, it’s a good time to see what we’ve got in Christien.

SHLD: So you were fine with the deal?

HE: Absolutely.  And I’ve gotta say, Christien’s really stepped up.  He’s shown me a lot since the trade.  He seems like a keeper.

SHLD: Well, thanks for a frank and interesting interview.  Good luck with the rest of the season!

HE: Thanks for the time.

Rapids, Shockers Make Minor Deal

Dakota SmallSaskatchewan SmallAlthough the Dakota Rapids made one deal with an eye on the future, trading away their starting goaltender, they made another minor deal designed to make the team stronger now.  A few minutes before the deadline, the Rapids acquired center Phil Miller from the Saskatchewan Shockers in exchange for rookie forward Dwight Flynn and a second-round pick.

Phil Miller

The deal plugs an ongoing hole for Dakota at the third-line center position.  The Rapids picked up Florian Theroux from Hamilton at the deadline last year to play the position, but Theroux was claimed by Quebec in the expansion draft.  Dakota has struggled to replace him all season.  Vonnie McLearen had gotten the bulk of the work centering the third line; while he has had a good season overall, he is a natural winger and has had a hard time adjusting.  Rapids fans had taken to calling the third line the “Donut Line,” because it had a hole in the middle.

In the 27-year-old Miller, the Rapids add a capable passer and defender (8 goals, 13 points on the season) who should fit well with Dakota’s uptempo style of play.  “This is a move that helps us now and later,” said GM Paul Mindegaard.  “Phil’s been on our radar for a while as a guy who could help us.  Saskatchewan hadn’t wanted to part with him, but finally we got to a point where the price was right.”

For his part, Winnipeg native Miller took the deal in stride.  “I’m a good loyal Canadian, so it feels wrong to be traded south of the border,” said Miller.  “But on the other hand, I’m probably closer to home now, and I’m going from one small Midwestern city to another.  Dakota is sort of an honorary Canadian state anyway.”

Dwight Flynn

For the Shockers, who are much improved over last year’s dismal performance but are still building, this deal was all about stockpiling assets.  The 23-year-old Flynn, a Syracuse native who was drafted out of SUNY-Rochester this season, didn’t appear much for Dakota, recording 3 assists in 9 games.  Scouts consider him a rangy, promising prospect with excellent speed, although they feel that he will need to bulk up some in order to compete physically at the professional level.

“We’re at a stage where we can afford to let guys grow with us,” said Shockers GM Cooper Matthews.  “We know what Phil Miller can do. We don’t know what Dwight Flynn can do yet, but I’m looking forward to find out.”


Bliss Nab Goalie at Deadline

Hershey SmallDakota SmallUnlike last year, there were some significant deals made at the trading deadline this year.  Perhaps the most significant deal involved the Hershey Bliss acquiring goalie Jesse Clarkson from the Dakota Rapids in exchange for netminder Buzz Carson and a first-round pick.  With the trade, Hershey patched their biggest hole to prepare for a playoff run, while Dakota finally pulled the trigger on a move they’ve seemingly planned to make since the SHL began.

“Going into the deadline, our #1 target was picking up a top-quality goalie,” said Bliss GM Scott Lawrence.  “Jesse was far and away the best guy available, and we got what we needed.  Now we’re ready to make a run at the division.”

Jesse Clarkson

Goaltending has been a consistent problem for Hershey since the SHL’s inception.  Last year, the Bliss shuffled between Riley Lattimore and Milo Stafford between the pipes, with neither producing consistent results.  So in the offseason, the Bliss shipped Lattimore to Anchorage and drafted Carson, a highly-regarded prospect from Lake Ontario State.  The 22-year-old has shown flashes of promise (10-11-2, 2.88 GAA, .901 save percentage) and has improved with experience, but the Hershey front office felt that neither he nor Stafford was capable of providing playoff-caliber netminding.

“This wasn’t an easy deal for us to make,” said Lawrence.  “We really like what Buzz has shown, and he’s really blossomed with experience.  I believe he could be a goaltender in the Finals someday.  But we’re ready to get to the Finals right now, and Buzz isn’t quite there yet.  Jesse’s the guy we need now.”

Buzz Carson

Dealing Clarkson represents a victory of sorts for Rapids GM Paul Mindegaard.  The 27-year-old Clarkson has provided solid netminding for Dakota since the league’s inception (including a 15-10-3 record, 3.21 GAA, and .914 save percentage this season), but Mindegaard has reportedly never been sold on him as an elite goaltender.  The GM has expressed a clear desire to give more playing time to youngster Christien Adamsson, a South Dakota native.  Rapids coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, preferred Clarkson.  This created a rift between the two that reportedly put the coach’s job in jeopardy after a lackluster start to the season.

The Rapids’ recent 10-1-1 streak was enough to save Engellund, but it apparently wasn’t enough to spare Clarkson.  Mindegaard noted that the Rapids trail division-leading Michigan by 17 points as justification for the deal.  “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to contend right now,” said the Dakota GM.  “With that in mind, we made a deal that will open up some more opportunities for Christien, sure.  But we’ve also got another high-quality goalie prospect in the deal, plus we’ve got a pick that will allow us to land another top young player.  We’re looking down the road at what it’s going to take to get by Michigan and Anchorage.”

Clarkson expressed relief that the deal had finally been made and expressed excitement at joining the Bliss.  “It feels like I’ve been on my way out of town for two seasons now,” said Clarkson.  “That really wears on a guy, so I’m glad that it finally happened.  And I’m really glad to go to a team that’s got a real shot to go all the way.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Carson, meanwhile, had a more mixed reaction.  “I really liked it in Hershey,” said the young goalie.  “I liked my teammates and the chemistry, and I really liked the chocolate.  But I’m hoping to have a good opportunity where I go next.  I think Christien Adamsson and I will inspire each other to get better.”

Engellund Is Safe, But Are Rapids Stuck in the Middle?

Dakota SmallTimes have changed for the Dakota Rapids.  As recently as last month, the Rapids were sputtering along in fourth place, and coach Harold Engellund’s job was reportedly in jeopardy.  Lately, though, it’s a different story, as the Rapids have caught fire over the last two-plus weeks, winning their last six games in a row and going 10-1-1 over their last 12.  That’s definitely good news for Engellund: This week, GM Paul Mindegaard confirmed that the coach will be retained for the rest of the season.

It’s less clear, though, whether it’s all good news for the Rapids.  The team may have traded one set of problems for another.

During his press conference on Thursday, Mindegaard made clear that Dakota’s players were firmly behind their coach.  “Harold never needs to worry about his guys having his back,” said the Rapids GM.  “Obviously, the way they responded with this winning streak tells you a lot.  But they’ve also come to my office privately, and they’ve all said the same thing: If you want to blame somebody for the way we’ve played, blame us, not the coach.  He’s done great.”

Harold Engellund
Harold Engellund

A visibly moved Engellund thanked his players for their support.  “It’s been a tough time for sure,” said the coach.  “But they say that it’s when you’re in trouble that you find out who your friends are.  I know that these guys went to bat for me, and it means a lot.”

Happy ending, right?  Not necessarily.  Despite their recent rise, the Rapids remain far behind in the division race, trailing first-place Michigan by 14 points and second-place Anchorage by 8.  So the Dakota front office has a tough choice to make: Should they keep the team intact and hope that they’ll be able to catch the big boys, or should they look to retool?

If the Rapids had continued to stumble, the way forward would have been painful but clear: dismiss Engellund, sell at the trading deadline, and look to stockpile prospects and build a young core that might be competitive a few seasons down the road.  Now, they’ve apparently got a team that’s too good for a rebuild, but not good enough to catch the top two.  They’ve also got a team that’s fairly expensive for a small market.  So how should they proceed?

Their decision could create major ripple effects at next week’s trade deadline.  Most notably, there’s the question of goalie Jesse Clarkson.  The netminder has put up a solid season, going 14-10-2 with a 3.27 GAA.  If the Rapids are going to contend, it will be with Clarkson between the pipes.

However, there’s been a long-running rumor that the Dakota front office would prefer to dump Clarkson and develop prospect Christien Adamsson.  According to those rumors, the team feels that Clarkson is not a championship-caliber goalie.  But if the team were to deal Clarkson, they’d throw away any shot at competing this season.

At the press conference, Mindegaard declined to discuss Clarkson or any specific player moves that the team might consider.  “Obviously, I’ll be working the phones this week, as will all my fellow GMs,” said Mindegaard.  “Any moves we make will be in the interest of making us a better team.  As far as trading or not trading specific players, I’m definitely not talking about that.”

But as the deadline draws closer, the Rapids have a tough decision to make.  Do they keep it together and risk being stuck on the “pretty good” treadmill for seasons to come?  Do they blow it up and kick the can down the road?  Or something in the middle?  Both Engellund’s and Mindegaard’s future job security may depend on choosing wisely.

Stick Gets Stuck in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan SmallDakota SmallThe Saskatchewan Shockers’ arena crew has gotten quite a workout this season.  A couple weeks ago, they had to scramble to deal with the fallout of the Kazoo Night fiasco, when fans delayed the game multiple times by throwing objects on the ice.  In Wednesday’s game against the Dakota Rapids, the crew was challenged again, this time by another unusual cause: a wayward stick that got wedged in the boards.

“That’s a new one by me, for sure,” said Rapids coach Harold Engellund.  “It’s just one surprise after another this season.”

Apparently, it was all Justin Bieber’s fault.  The pop star had played a concert at the Shockers’ home, Potash Arena, the previous night.  As a result, the crew had to rebuild the hockey rink on a compressed timeframe.  In doing so, they apparently neglected to fasten the bolts at the top of the boards in one end of the arena.

The problem wasn’t evident at first, but as the players banged into the boards over the course of the game, the gap between the boards began to widen.  Then in the third period, Rapids RW Elliott Pepper swatted at a puck that had popped in the air, and his stick got stuck in the gap.  After several furious tugs failed to dislodge it, Pepper skated away sans stick to rejoin the play.  The referees then tried to yank it out and had no more success than Pepper.

At the next stoppage in play, the Shockers crew came over to pull it loose and failed again.  Finally, Pepper was able to dislodge the stick with the help of teammate Lars Karlsson.

“I asked the refs if that meant we could stop the game immediately and declare us the winner,” joked Pepper.  “They said no, but according to the prophecy, I believe this makes Lars and me king of hockey.”

After Pepper finally retrieved his stick, the crew worked feverishly to get the bolts attached properly.  They managed to get things fixed with only a minimal stoppage in play, although they did need to ask some of the fans in the first couple rows to scatter so they could work.

“That was a prime-time performance by our crew,” said Shockers GM Cooper Matthews.  “They were real professionals out there.”

Unfortunately for the home team, the game didn’t turn out as hoped: Saskatchewan trailed 5-3 at the time of the incident, and they wound up losing 6-3.  “When they stopped play to fix the boards, I was kind of rooting for a postponement,” said Shockers C Napoleon Beasley.  “We were already doomed.”

With five weeks left in the season, what’s next for the Shockers?  “Is it frogs, or locusts?” said Matthews.  “I haven’t read through the Bible in a while, but I think it’s locusts.”

Dakota Coach on Thin Ice?

Dakota SmallThe Dakota Rapids entered this season full of optimism.  Having made their high-flying offense even stronger and tightened up their leaky defense, the Rapids were widely picked to challenge the defending champion Anchorage Igloos for the Western title.  Instead, the Rapids find themselves floundering in .500 purgatory for the second straight season, well behind both Anchorage and the first-place Michigan Gray Wolves.  According to team sources, coach Harold Engellund may soon pay with his job if Dakota can’t execute a quick turnaround.

Harold Engellund
Harold Engellund

Engellund always seemed like an odd fit for the Rapids.  In his playing days, Engellund was a burly enforcer known as “Harry the Hit Man,” and he makes no secret of his fondness for physical, hard-hitting hockey.  The Rapids, a team built around speed and finesse, are the polar opposite of Engellund’s preferred brand of hockey.  But according to team sources, it’s not the clash in styles that has proved problematic; rather, the coach seems too fond of his players to discipline them.

“I never thought I’d be saying this,” said one team executive, “but Harry the Hit Man has gone soft on the guys.  He really likes them, and thinks of them like his kids.  That’s the problem.  He likes them too much to drive them hard.”

The Dakota front office was particularly disappointed with Engellund after a surprising 5-4 loss to expansion Seattle last week.  The Rapids appeared sloppy and disorganized, allowing three goals in the first period and surrendering the deciding goal on a 3-on-1 rush with less than five minutes left in the game.  The front office figured the loss would be a good opportunity for the coach to lay down the law and warn his players to get it in gear.

Instead, Engellund’s postgame remarks were strangely subdued.  He didn’t call out any of his players, remarking that Seattle was “better than we thought they were.”  He didn’t shake up his lines or make his players take extra practice.

“He treated it like just another loss,” said the same team executive.  “If you’re going to be a contending team, these are the games you’ve got to win.  But he’s not displaying any urgency, and neither is the time.  This is the time to challenge the players and say, ‘Hey, you’re better than this.’  But he won’t do it.”

Engellund defended his approach in a postgame press conference after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Anchorage.  “Nobody I know ever did a better job because someone was screaming at them and telling them they’re lousy,” the coach said.  “I know when I was a player, a lot of coaches took that approach, ‘cause they thought it made them look tough.  But if you’ve got to scare your players into playing hard, you’re not really coaching.

“I could stand up here and pound the podium and yell and scream and throw my players under the bus, but I’m not gonna do that.  Are we playing as well as we’d like to?  No.  But pounding my chest and making my guys run extra laps isn’t gonna fix anything.”

Engellund’s supporters believe that the front office’s disenchantment stems from another source: an ongoing power struggle over the team’s future in net.  According to these sources, Rapids executives are pushing Engellund to give more playing time to 22-year-old goalie prospect Christien Adamsson, a native South Dakotan who could potentially spur ticket sales.  The coach, on the other hand, prefers veteran Jesse Clarkson, believing he gives the team a better chance to win.

“They’re using the team’s record as an excuse to push [Engellund] out,” said a source with ties to the coach.  “After they get rid of him, they can say that the team’s too far behind to compete and that it’s a rebuilding year, and they can get a new coach who will play Adamsson more.”

Engellund declined to comment on those rumors, but did say, “I pick my starters on merit, and nothing else.”

One thing that both sides agree on: If the Rapids don’t show significant improvement by midseason, Engellund is likely to be dismissed.  That gives the coach and his players only a couple weeks to execute a turnaround.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” said Engellund.