Pistols Add Soforenko, Dyomin for Stretch Run

It was an active trading deadline this season, with almost all contending teams making moves to strengthen their position.  The first-place team in the East, the Hamilton Pistols, made the first move several days before the deadline, acquiring LW Piotr Soforenko and D Vitaly Dyomin from the Kansas City Smoke on Sunday to bolster their depth.

Piotr Soforenko

The Pistols have been leaning heavily on rookies on their third line (LW Jamie Campbell and RW Michael Jennings) and bottom defensive pairing (Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz).  GM Marcel LaClaire had already been contemplating a move to add a couple of veterans, but when Glasco went down with an injury on Friday and Campbell was hurt on Saturday, the matter became a priority.

“We’re getting to a critical point in the season, where we cannot afford to lose our ground,” LaClaire told reporters.  “With Piotr and Vitaly, we have a pair of proven, reliable players who can give us some additional grit and solidity, and they can fill holes that we have right away.”

The 32-year-old Soforenko has been one of Kansas City’s leading scorers this season, with 12 goals and 20 assists.  He is a graceful skater and smooth passer, and he has worked well with the Smoke’s rookies; he has helped linemates C Darien Picard and RW Zachary Merula compile strong debut seasons.  On the other hand, he is not a rugged player and is considered below average on defense.

Vitaly Dyomin

The 29-year-old Dyomin is a stay-home defenseman who has a reputation as a grinder.  He has put up respectable offensive numbers with KC (3 goals, 11 assists), but his primary contributions are through checking and wall work.  He is not particularly fast, but he makes up for it with hard hits.  Unlike Soforenko, who is a pure rental, Dyomin is signed through next season; this made him an appealing pickup for Hamilton.

In the short term, Soforenko and Dyomin will fill in for the injured Campbell and Glasco; once the latter two return to health, it is expected that the new players will take over for Jennings and Kratz.

Last week, LaClaire publicly agonized over whether to part with some of the team’s top prospects to take a shot at winning now.  In this deal, they dealt a pair of youngsters with promise, but held onto their most highly-regarded players.

Gary Hermine
Owen Griffin

C Owen Griffin was one of the last cuts in training camp, and he has put up solid numbers with their minor-league affiliate in Oshawa (13 goals, 16 assists).  The 21-year-old reported to the Smoke’s affiliate in Omaha in the immediate aftermath of the trade, but he is likely to see time with the big club before season’s end.

D Gary Hermine is well-regarded as an offensive-minded defenseman; the 20-year-old has thrived with Oshawa, putting up 12 goals and 35 assists in 38 games this season.  He reported directly to Kansas City, where he joined their bottom pairing and is expected to see time on the power play.

“I’m excited to have Owen and Gary join our team,” said Smoke GM Garth Melvin.  “As an expansion club, our eyes are firmly fixed on the future, and we’ve got a couple of young guys who we believe can be a key part of our club for years to come.”

LaClaire stated that he does not expect the Pistols to make any more deals before the deadline.  “We have the players we want,” he told reporters.  “And we believe we have struck the balance, taking our shot now and still being strong for the future.”


Hamilton Faces Tough Calls As Deadline Approaches

As the SHL season winds toward next week’s trading deadline, the Hamilton Pistols find themselves in an admirable position.  They’ve been on top of the Eastern Division all season, and they’re virtually certain to make the playoffs.  They’ve even got a decent chance to go all the way and win the Vandy.

That all sounds pretty good.  So why is Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire saying that his team is in a “painful position”?  When LaClaire says that “we have some difficult decisions to make over the next week,” what does he mean?

The awkward truth is that Hamilton arrived to contention ahead of schedule.  Coming off a 29-30-1 finish in 2017, the Pistols organization looked at this as a building season: get over .500 for the first time, possibly contend for a playoff spot, and give their young core a chance to get its feet wet in meaningful games.  But after the Hershey Bliss bellyflopped out of the gate, there was an unexpected vacancy at the top of the stands, and the Pistols have filled it.

But Hamilton’s unexpected ascendance has scrambled the calculus of their deadline decisions.  If they were a fringe contender, the Pistols might make a minor deal for a veteran or two to provide experience and depth, but they’d leave their store of prospects largely untouched.  But now that they have a realistic shot to go all the way, should they consider dealing some of those prospects and going all in this year?

That’s the quandary that’s keeping LaClaire up at night.  “I realize that this is a very lucky problem to have,” said the Pistols GM.  “How do spend your lottery winnings?  But this choice could affect our course for years to come.”

The case for going all in this year is simple: The league may never be this wide open again.  With Hershey effectively out of the picture, the East is Hamilton’s for the taking.  Both the Quebec Tigres and Washington Galaxy are having solid seasons, but both have obvious weaknesses: Quebec is limited by a so-so offense, while Washington’s success is heavily dependent on its top line.

Out West, the defending division champion Anchorage Igloos have been stuck around the .500 mark and don’t look likely to repeat.  The Michigan Gray Wolves are the consensus Vandy favorite, but even they have chinks in their armor; goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist hasn’t been his typical dominant self, and top D “Mad Max” Madison has battled injuries.

And if the Pistols are inclined to load up for a deep run, there’s no shortage of targets available.  The Dakota Jackalopes are shopping Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore, and may be willing to deal D Matt Cherner.  The expansion Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke are both entertaining offers on their veterans.  And other struggling teams like the Bliss, New York Night, and Saskatchewan Shockers may be willing to deal as well.

“Flags fly forever,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander.  “We’ve got a real shot to win this thing, and I’m all for anything that helps us get there.”

On the other hand, the Pistols have made no secret of their desire to build a dynasty.  “We don’t think that we only have this one shot,” LaClaire said.  “We believe we have the talent to be a top team for many years.”  Their minor-league affiliate in Oshawa is currently leading its division, and they’ve got a number of highly-touted prospects.  If the Pistols were to trade those players away for veterans on short-term deals, they might maximize their chance to win this season but cost themselves a shot at building an affordable contender down the road.

“It is not an easy thing,” said LaClaire.  “I want us to be good for the next ten years.  But if this is our best chance for a title… I want the title.”

For his part, Hamilton coach Keith Shields retains his trademark optimistic outlook.  “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got a championship-caliber team in our locker room right now,” the coach said on Friday.  “We don’t need to make a single deal and we’re awesome.  If Marcel decides to go and get me a player who makes us even better, I love it!  I’m happy either way.”

Easy for him to say.  But for LaClaire – the man who has to find a way to balance the present and the future – the decisions are anything but easy.  “I’ll be happy when [the deadline] is over,” he said.  “After that, we just have to go settle it on the ice.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 6

Calvin Frye

The SHL selected Hamilton Pistols C Calvin Frye as its Player of the Week.  Frye had a fantastic week for the first-place Pistols, putting up 11 points (8 goals, 3 assists).  Frye now has 51 points for the season, second in the league.  His 24 goals is third-highest in the SHL.  With Frye leading the way, Hamilton remained tied with Michigan for the best record in the league.

Frye had a career-best day on Sunday, scoring four goals as the Pistols smoked Kansas City 5-1.  On Tuesday, he had a hand in all of Hamilton’s goals, scoring twice and adding an assist in a 5-3 loss to New York.  On Friday, Frye notched a goal and assisted twice, including the pass that allowed LW Steven Alexander to complete his hat trick, as the Pistols whipped Washington 5-2.

“Watching Calvin grow and mature into a superstar is one of the joys of my job,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Every game, it seems like he’s finding another gear, another new wrinkle in his game.  There’s no ceiling with this kid.”


“Brothers” Alexander and Lafayette Propel Pistols

If asked to name the SHL’s longest-running friendship, most fans would point to the “Love Line.”  The trio of Hershey Bliss forwards have been friends and teammates since high school, and are well known for their tight partnership both on and off the ice.  But there’s another pair of SHL players who’ve known each other even longer, and are currently fueling the success of 2018’s breakout team, the Hamilton Pistols.

Steven Alexander

LW Steven Alexander is the undisputed star of the Pistols; his blistering shot and goal-scoring prowess makes him a headache for opposing defenses, who try in vain to contain him.  But in Alexander’s words, “I wouldn’t be half the player I am without my right-hand man.”  He’s referring to RW Claude Lafayette, his linemate and best friend.  “We are brothers,” Lafayette says of Alexander, “not by blood, but just that close.”

The two first met when Alexander was 11 years old.  The winger hails from the small Alberta border town of Milk River, but he outgrew the local competition at a young age.  “None of the goalies wanted to face me because my shot was too hard,” Alexander recalls.  “Even playing shinny, no one could give me a game.  Guys would have fistfights over who got me on their team, even though I was the youngest kid on the ice.”

Seeking a higher level of play, Alexander moved in with an uncle in Lethbridge, a much larger town about an hour away.  It was there that he met Lafayette, who was then 15.  “We played in an old, broken-down rink on Whoop-Up Drive,” Alexander recalls.  “When I first showed up, I was so young and scrawny that nobody took me seriously.  But then I started raining shots from all over the ice, and they had to take me seriously.”

Claude Lafayette

Despite his obvious talents, it took Alexander’s new teammates in Lethbridge a while to warm up to him.  They made fun of his ragged clothes and cocky attitude.  Lafayette was an exception.  “A lot of the guys treated Steve like a mangy mutt, always barking,” Lafayette says.  “But I liked that he was so self-confident, especially for a young kid from the sticks.  And he obviously had a ton of talent.”  Soon, Alexander and Lafayette were virtually inseparable, despite their age difference.

At age 17, Lafayette signed on with a junior team in Calgary.  Although he was too young for junior, Alexander moved to Calgary anyway and lived with Lafayette and his family.  They continued to practice and play together when they could.  But then at 20, Lafayette signed to play in the German league, and Alexander couldn’t go with him.  It was the first time they’d been separated since Alexander first arrived in Lethbridge nine years before.

“That first year in Germany, I probably talked to Steve more than my family,” Lafayette said.  “My teammates used to call Steve my girlfriend.”

But over time, their communication became less frequent as Lafayette focused on his career.  Without his best friend, Alexander became moody and difficult.  His own junior hockey career stalled after getting into a few too many scrapes with coaches and teammates without his friend to bail him out.

“Honestly, without Claude around, I was kind of lost,” Alexander admits.  “He was always able to cool me down when I got too angry.  With him gone, I went off the deep end.”

Eventually, Alexander all but gave up on the idea of playing hockey professionally.  Then came the SHL.  Lafayette signed a deal with the Pistols.  He tried to get the organization to offer Alexander a contract, but after they heard about the winger’s struggles in junior, they passed.

But when Hamilton held an open tryout, Lafayette urged his old friend to come out.  “I paid for his plane ticket,” Lafayette explains.  “At first, I said it was to celebrate my new gig.  But when he got here, I told him about the tryout.  He brushed it off at first, but I told him, ‘Come on.  Don’t you want to play together, like we used to?’  That got him on board.”

Alexander came to the tryout and dazzled the coaches with his shooting, they signed him up, and the rest is history.  “I am forever grateful to Claude for bringing Steven Alexander to us,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “Even when I was skeptical, he insisted.  And because of that, we have a great team.”

With Hamilton, the two remain as close as ever.  Alexander has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since the league’s beginning (he’s currently tied for the league lead), and Lafayette is currently the league’s top assist-getter.  They bought houses across the street from each other, and Alexander is the godfather of Lafayette’s young daughter.

“We’ve always got each other’s back,” says Alexander.  “If they ever tried to get rid of one of us, they’d have to get rid of us both.  We’re not letting anybody split us up again.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the old friends will be able to bring the Vandy to Hamilton; life doesn’t always offer such storybook endings.  But either way, this pair of almost-brothers are writing a real success story together.


Night Coach Calls Hamilton Arena A “Dump”

New York Night coach Nick Foster has made no secret of his desire to kindle a feud with the Hamilton Pistols.  Earlier in the season, Foster took a jab at Pistols star Steven Alexander, accusing him of cheating.  This week, he took his war of words up a notch.  After last Friday’s game against the Pistols, which New York lost Foster blasted Hamilton’s arena, the Gunpowder Armory.  Built in 1941, the Armory is the SHL’s oldest facility by far, and Foster ripped the arena as decrepit and disgusting.

Nick Foster

“The place is a total dump,” said Foster.  “The whole joint smells like sweat, cigarette smoke, stale popcorn, and motor oil.  There are rats running around the place that are so big you could slap a saddle on ‘em and go for a ride.  It’s an embarrassment to the league, to tell you the truth.”

When asked what he thought would improve the facility, the Night coach replied: “A bulldozer.”

New York’s arena, the Neon Sky Center, is only five years old, and is well-known for its wide array of concessions options and high number of luxury suites.  “We’re a first-class city, and we have a first-class facility,” said Foster.  “Hamilton is a broken-down, worn-out city, so they have a broken-down dump for an arena.”

Several of the Pistols took umbrage to Foster’s remarks.  “The Armory might not be the most modern arena, but it’s good enough for us,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Hockey’s a blue-collar sport, and this is a blue-collar town and proud of it.  Maybe we’re not fancy enough for Nick, but we don’t need fancy.  We’re just here to have a good time and win some games.”

RW Kenny Patterson, a Toronto native who previously played for New York, stood up for the city.  “Remarks like that are why I was so happy to get out of New York,” said Patterson.  “They’ve got a beautiful building, but it’s an empty shell, just like the team.  Their games are full of so-called fans sipping Chablis in their luxury boxes and ignoring the game.  Me, I’d rather be here, with real fans who drink beer and cheer us on.

“I thought it was an upgrade when [the Night] got rid of [ex-coach Preston] Rivers, but it seems like they just got another guy who likes to run his mouth.  He can’t win on the ice, so he’s taking cheap shots in the papers.  That’s all right; we’ll just take care of our business, just like we did on Friday.”

When told of Shields’ and Patterson’s remarks, Foster laughed and rubbed his hands together.  “We’re cookin’ now, boys!”  the coach crowed.  “I’m Public Enemy Number One!  Can’t wait for the next time we come back to Tank Town.  If that dump doesn’t fill up with boos the minute I walk in, I’ll be disappointed.”


SHL Player of the Week – Week 3

Lasse Koskinen

The SHL selected Hamilton Pistols G Lasse Koskinen as its Player of the week.  The Finnish-born netminder had an exceptional week, going 3-1-1 with a 1.57 GAA and a .949 save percentage.  Koskinen opened his week with a pair of shutouts, downing Dakota 5-0 and acing Anchorage 2-0.  After the back-to-back blankings, Koskinen had a three-game shutout streak going, all on the road.  Then on Friday, Koskinen went into Cadillac Place and turned aside 34 shots as the Pistols battled mighty Michigan to a 3-3 tie.

Koskinen ran his record to 10-2-1 on the season.  His 2.06 GAA is fifth-best in the league, while his .934 save percentage is second only to Michigan’s legendary Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.

“If you gave me the pick of any goalie in the league, I’d go to war with Koski,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “It’s hard to believe a 21-year-old kid has this level of maturity and patience.  He can make those acrobatic saves, but he usually doesn’t have to because he knows how to postion himself and anticipate.  I’m looking forward to a career with Koski.”


East Full of Surprises Early

Through roughly one-quarter of the SHL season, the race in the Eastern Division has defied expectations.  As Washington Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely put it, “If anybody correctly predicted the standings so far, you ought to get to Vegas and start playing the tables, because you must have ESP or something.”

The most shocking storyline by far has been the collapse of the defending champion Hershey Bliss.  Widely favored to capture a second straight division title, the Bliss instead fell toward the division basement and have remained there since.  Their incredibly slow start hasn’t been the result of injuries (they haven’t suffered any) or key departures from last season (their roster returned largely intact).  In fact, the exact cause of their struggles has been a mystery.

After Hershey lost 3-0 in Saskatchewan on Friday to run their losing streak to five, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber called out his club, saying that the championship had gone to their heads.  “When you win a title, that’s a real sugar high,” Barber said.  “But after the high comes the crash.  We made the mistake of believing our own press.  We’ve gone as soft as a bag of Kisses in a hot car on a summer day.”  C Justin Valentine, on the other hand, thinks the problem is “mostly bad puck luck, honestly.  You look at the underlying numbers, they’re pretty similar to last year.  We’re getting the looks and the shots, doing our work on the defensive end, but we’re not getting the breaks.”

One obvious trouble spot for the Bliss is a perennial problem in Chocolate City: goaltending.  After Brandon Colt came out of nowhere to win the Finals MVP last season, the hockey world was eager to see if he could repeat the feat.  So far, he hasn’t.  Colt’s GAA has ballooned nearly a full goal since last season (from 2.77 to 3.68), while his save percentage has plummeted from .909 to .872.  Meanwhile Milo Stafford, the ageless backup who defied the skeptics by producing strong numbers year after year, suddenly looks as though he might be washed up at age 36.  “It’s a hard time for Milo and me,” said Colt.  “We feel like we’re letting the whole team down.”

With Hershey down and out, a couple of surprising teams have jumped up to grab the spotlight.  The Hamilton Pistols looked to be a young team on the rise, finishing just below the .500 mark last season.  But now it appears they’ve arrived ahead of schedule.  After going 3-1-1 on a tough run through the West this week, culminating in a 3-3 tie with mighty Michigan at Cadillac Place, the Pistols ran their record to 11-3-1 and are five points clear in the division.

Last season, Hamilton’s strong top line was dragged down by a lack of depth and experience.  GM Marcel LaClaire made some modest but shrewd moves this offseason. He acquired a pair of seasoned veteran leaders in C Henry Constantine and D Craig Werner, and called up a bunch of prospects (wingers Jamie Campbell and Michael Jennings and defensemen Albie Glasco and Buster Kratz) to fix their dismal bottom line.  The result has been a high-octane offense that’s scored 62 goals and compiled a +27 rating so far, along with a solid defense in front of Lasse Koskinen, who appears to be the league’s next great netminder.

“Everyone talked about how this wasn’t our year, but we were really going to be something a couple seasons down the road,” said coach Keith Shields.  “I told our guys, why the heck shouldn’t it be our year?  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young or too green to compete.  And they sure haven’t!  What we’re doing night in and night out is an inspiration.”

Slotted in behind high-flying Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  Ever since the Tigres joined the league in 2016, they’ve been built on a hard-nosed defense and a great goalie in Riki Tiktuunen.  The question was whether they could ever develop a functional offense that would allow them to compete.  In their third season, they’ve finally done it.  Quebec made a splash in free agency, signing ex-Washington winger Walt Camernitz to a 4-year, $20 million deal.  Skeptics wondered whether Camernitz was really worth that much money.  The early returns have been extremely encouraging; not only is Camernitz producing at a point-a-game pace so far (7 goals, 9 assists), he’s also sparked his linemates, C Mikhail Ilyushin (6 goals, 13 assists) and RW Stephane Mirac (6 goals, 7 assists).  They’ve also added a new top pairing of strong two-way defenders, top draft pick Laurie Workman (4 goals, 6 assists) and minor-league callup Richard McKinley (3 goals, 5 assists).  They’ve almost doubled their goal output from the same point last season (from 26 to 44).  Their newfound offensive prowess has allowed them to post a 9-6-0 record despite Tiktuunen looking a notch less dominant than usual.

“Before, everyone said the only way we could win was to make the game a bloodbath and win a 1-0 rock fight,” said coach Martin Delorme.  “But now we show that you can be a tough, hard-working team and also score the goalies.  Perhaps our new uniforms have made us more stylish.”

Lurking close behind Hamilton and Quebec are a pair of familiar foes.  The Washington Galaxy were expected to take a step back this season after losing Camernitz and D Patrick Banks.  But they’ve shown unexpected resilience, surviving an early injury to C J.C. Marais and posting a solid 8-7-0 record.  Their success has been fueled by a resurgence of their top line, led by McNeely.  The D.C. star leads the league in points (28) and is tied for the lead in goals (13) with Hamilton’s Steven Alexander.  “People rushed to bury us, but we’ve got the experience and the bloodline.”

Meanwhile, the New York Night may be best known for coach Nick Foster‘s attempt to start a feud with Hamilton, but they’ve looked decent so far with a 7-7-1 record.  They’ve rediscovered the firepower that went missing last season; after hanging a 10-spot on Seattle Friday, they now lead the league with 63 goals.  While their defense remains a mess, much-maligned goalie Jesse Clarkson has quietly provided a steady performance (5-4-0, 3.11 GAA, .913 sv%) that has kept them in games.

“There’s a lot of hockey still to be played,” said Foster.  “This division’s still wide open.  Stay tuned, ’cause anything can happen.”