Coming into last season, the Bliss had a reputation as a team with talent, but a persistent habit of coming up short in the clutch. Then they outlasted Washington to win the East, then stunned heavily-favored Anchorage in 7 games to win the Vandy. Now, the Bliss head into 2018 as favorites to repeat as division champs, and perhaps become the first SHL team to win back-to-back championships. The “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart remains intact, as does their top defensive pairing of Reese Milton and Joel Baldwin. The second line (LW Russell Nahorniak, C Spencer Kirkpatrick, and RW Noah Daniels), which took a key step forward last year, is still in place. The only key contributor who isn’t back is veteran C Henry Constantine, a vocal clubhouse leader. Meanwhile, the team added several quality rookies (D Cedric Meloche, C Yegor Nestorov, F Anton Lapointe) along with a couple of key free agents (D Jean-Luc Aubin and LW Trevor Green). Put it all together, and it should be the same formula for victory that worked so well last season: a fast, high-scoring offense and a reliable defense. If there are any question marks here, they’re in net. Brandon Colt shocked the world in last season’s Finals and earned the MVP award. If he can approach that level during 2018, Hershey has a fine shot to be back-to-back champs; if he reverts to the solid-but-unspectacular form he’s displayed in the rest of his career, the Bliss could be vulnerable. Backup Milo Stafford defied the odds in 2017 with another great year, but he’s turning 36 and seems destined to decline eventually. If that happens this year, the Bliss might not have such a sweet finish.
As long as there’s been an SHL, the Galaxy have been contenders for the title. They made back-to-back Finals trips in ’15 and ’16, then finished a close second to Hershey last season. This year, though, they’ll likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark. What went wrong? Primarily, how they’ve bungled free agency. Last season’s big signing was D Patrick Banks, who inked a three-year deal amid much fanfare. He flopped in DC, scoring only 2 goals while struggling to mesh with Grant Warriner on the second pairing. The Galaxy left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was selected by Boston. Backup goalie Ron Mason, another big-money signing, put up a much better season (11-10-0, 2,78 GAA, .911 save percentage); unfortunately, Washington had only inked him to a one-year deal, and he bolted to rival Hamilton this offseason. Instead, the Galaxy will rely on rookie Darrell Bondurant, who didn’t wow anyone in the minors last year. Coming into this offseason, the Galaxy had two big names to re-sign: wingers Casey Thurman and Walt Camernitz. Washington made a priority of Thurman, and they inked him to a five-year, $20 million contract. However, they wound up alienating Camernitz; the gritty and underrated forward wound up in Quebec instead, blowing a huge hole in Washington’s second line. (C J.C. Marais, coming off of a bad year at age 33, is another concern.) Next, the Galaxy declined to tender an offer to rugged third-line RW Sindri Pentti, declaring that he was over the hill at age 35. Pentti ended up joining Camernitz in Quebec, while Washington filled his slot with Roman Bandikoff, who is just as old, put up similar numbers, and has a worse defensive reputation. The bottom line: the Galaxy will likely be worse on offense, defense, and in net. Meanwhile, Hamilton, Quebec, and even New York all improved, often at Washington’s expense. Making matters worse, Washington’s store of prospects is pretty thin. It seems unlikely that the Galaxy could tumble from second to fifth, but that’s arguably more likely than the chances of them winning the division again.
If there’s a team that can topple the Bliss atop the East, it’s most likely to be the Pistols. Hamilton has plenty of star-quality talent in its ranks; LW Steven Alexander may be the SHL’s best pure scorer, C Calvin Frye its finest young player, Raymond Smyth its finest blueliner. What’s held them back in the past is a lack of balance and depth. In particular, the Pistols’ third line was a disaster last season; they gave up tons of shot opportunities whenever they were on the ice. To fix the balance problem, Hamilton acquired several solid veterans: C Henry Constantine (who got a ring with Hershey last year), G Ron Mason (who won the Vandy with Anchorage in ’15), and D Craig Werner. Then they overhauled the third line and bottom defensive pairing, calling up a number of players who showed well with their affiliate in Oshawa last season. The new bunch is green and may take some time to mesh, but they should hold their own against the bottom-end units on other clubs. With the four-team playoff field this year, there’s a good shot that Hamilton makes the postseason for the first time. But the picture feels unfinished; the Pistols seem a piece or two away from becoming a truly elite team. Maybe they acquire the missing pieces at the trade deadline, or maybe they add them next season. Either way, this seems like a team on the rise; it seems likely we’ll be seeing Keith Shields‘ crew in the postseason for some time to come.
In their second season, the Tigres showed signs of growth and improvement; they finished out of the cellar, and the hard-nosed defensive ethic preached by coach Martin Delorme appeared to be taking root. But their upside potential was limited by a stagnant, impotent offense; by and large, Quebec seemed content to jam up the neutral zone and try to win ugly, 1-0 games. This approach worked all right when Riki Tiktuunen was between the pipes, but not at all when the fragile netminder was absent. (The Tigres went 17-14-7 in Tiktuunen’s starts, and 3-19-0 with anyone else in the crease.) GM Pete Gondret made aggressive moves to shore up the Tigres’ weak spots; they may be the most improved team this season, and that’s not even including their sharp new uniforms. To bolster the attack, Gondret signed a pair of ex-Washington teammates, LW Walt Camernitz and RW Sindri Pentti. Both are rugged two-way players that are well-suited to Quebec’s style of play, but they should also give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm. To shore up the goaltending situation, Gondret signed Riley Lattimore to back up Tiktuunen. Lattimore posted a respectable 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage in Anchorage last season; he should ensure that the Tigres can compete on nights when Tiktuunen isn’t in net. So the Tigres will be better… but will they be a contender? That likely depends on two things: whether Tiktuunen can stay healthy, and whether Camernitz is able to take the scoring burden off of Stephane Mirac and help the latter bounce back from his sophomore slump. If those things pan out – and if Delorme can get his messy personal life under control – this is a team that could surprise.
New York Night
Last season, new coach Nick Foster came in determined to shake up a struggling club. He was determined to fix the sour team chemistry and improve the team’s leaky defense while maintaining their usual offensive pop. Foster certainly shook things up; he called out his team publicly, juggled lines freely, and didn’t hesitate to bench, demote, or trade players who didn’t get with the program. After all the upheaval, though, things didn’t work out as Foster hoped; instead, the offense dropped back to the middle of the pack, while the defense remained as porous as ever. The one bright spot was the goaltending, with Jesse Clarkson and rookie Sherman Carter both turning in solid seasons, but they were under constant siege. And while there are some new faces, most of the changes were lateral moves. And with many teams in the East making serious upgrades, it’s tough to picture New York moving up. If the Night are going to contend, they’ll need to see improvement from their existing players. Last year, almost everyone on the team had a down year. RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Rocky Winkle were two of the only exceptions; the rest of the squad would do well to copy their energetic two-way play. Perhaps the biggest key to New York’s success is RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson. The enigmatic star had a dismal season, clashing repeatedly with Foster and scoring only 20 goals while showing the same disinterest in passing and defense that he always has. The most notable “highlight” of his year was getting beaten up in a bar fight. Foster reportedly pushed to get rid of Nelson in the offseason, but owner Marvin Kingman blocked the move. If Nelson can swallow his pride and step up his game, he could be the difference maker that pushes the Night to a playoff spot. If he can’t, it could be another long year in the Big Apple… and Foster might wind up paying with his job.
The big victory in Boston this season already happened, when the Badgers were chosen as one of the SHL’s new expansion teams. GM Jody Melchiorre, who came up with the Igloos organization, has emphasized the desire to build a “blue-collar team.” He’s done well at that, assembling a youthful collection of muckers and grinders through the expansion draft. This is a scrappy team that should be good at wall work and winning puck battles in the corners; they won’t be a fun opponent, to say the least. But it’s best not to expect too much from this bunch, because of the missing ingredient: offense. LW Lix Darnholm, a Swedish prospect who was the first overall pick in the draft, is the only legitimate scoring threat Boston has. Opposing defenses will stack up to stop him, as there’s no one else on the team who can make them pay. They’re likely to try the Quebec route of slowing the pace and trying to win low-scoring games on fluke goals. But the Tigres had a secret weapon to make that strategy work: Tiktuunen, one of the league’s best young netminders. Neither of the Badgers’ goalies, Dennis Wampler or rookie Carson Wagner, is anywhere near Tiktuunen’s class. This should be a hard-working and reasonably entertaining team that will endear itself to the fans in Beantown, but don’t expect a lot of victories. Not yet, anyway.
- New York