Sailors Go All In at Deadline

The Seattle Sailors are in a tenuous position in the Western playoff race.  The Anchorage Igloos, widely expected to be a slam-dunk playoff team, have struggled to get much above the .500 mark.  In theory, the second Western playoff spot should be up for grabs.  However, hampered by a dreadful defense, the Sailors have been unable to take advantage, and have been hovering 5 to 7 points behind Anchorage for the last month.

Jay McKay

Given the situation, Seattle essentially had two options: concede the race, or go all in.  “The race has been static for a while now,” said Sailors GM Jay McKay.  “If we stuck with the roster we had, we were going to die fast and quiet.”

Instead, McKay elected to go all in.  The Sailors made a pair of major deals to acquire a couple of big names, at a significant cost in prospects.   “We’re pushing our chips to the middle of the table,” said McKay.  “We think we’ve got the chance to do something special here.”

Lars Karlsson

Seattle’s largest acquisition was the deadline’s top prize.  C Lars Karlsson was the biggest name rumored to be on the block.  The 30-year-old center is a proven star and is having a fantastic year, having scored 19 goals and 25 assists.  But his previous team, the Dakota Jackalopes, are in the midst of a payroll purge, and Karlsson’s contract is up at the end of the season.

The Sailors had a clear need at the center position, and they targeted Karlsson from the start.  But they’d already dealt their first-round pick to Dakota before the season.  In order to rent Karlsson for the stretch run, Seattle had to part with a pair of top prospects – C Dale Wilcox and D Duncan DeShantz – as well as their second-round pick.

“Lars definitely didn’t come cheap,” said McKay.  “But he’s the kind of talent that can really move the needle.  He plugs right into our top line – which was already doing great – and the effect ripples through our entire offense.  He’s a game-changer.”

Hans Mortensen

Of course, Seattle’s offense hasn’t been the issue; it’s their leaky defense that has doomed them.  To address that, the Sailors picked up veteran D Hans Mortensen, 30, from the Kansas City Smoke.  The defender has provided airtight defense in KC and put up 17 assists in 40 games.  To land him, Seattle surrendered another prospect blueliner, T.K. O’Neill.  The 20-year-old O’Neill struggled in his SHL debut, failing to record a point in 22 games before being sent down, but he is regarded as an elite defensive prospect.

“Hans is one of those lockdown D-men that you love to have,” said McKay. “He’s a solid veteran with championship experience, and he can contribute on both ends.  He’s going to really help our playoff push.”

These two moves make Seattle a more formidable opponent, but will it be enough?  And if the Sailors miss the playoffs and Karlsson walks at the end of the season, will they regret their deadline splurge?

“I won’t regret it a bit,” said McKay.  “If you’re not going for it, really going for it, what’s the point?  Maybe this all blows up in my face and I get fired.  That’s okay.  We’d rather take a chance and miss than muddle along and do nothing.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, who used to coach Dakota, agrees with that assessment: “It’s really nice to be with an organization that goes all out to win, that’s not afraid to spend money and take a shot.  I’m not used to it, but I love it.”

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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.”

Interview of the Week: Pascal Royal

This week’s interview is with Kansas City Smoke LW Pascal Royal.

SHL Digest: We’re here today with another one of the league’s surprising top scorers, Pascal Royal of the expansion Kansas City Smoke.  Pascal, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Pascal Royal

Pascal Royal: But of course!  It is my pleasure.

SHLD: Last week, we spoke with Misha Petronov, who is having a mid-career breakout season.  The same thing is happening for you!

PR: Thank you for noticing. I am very happy with my performance so far.

SHLD: You’ve been a consistent 15-goal scorer throughout your career; this year, you’re only 20 games into the season and you’ve already scored a dozen.  The most points you’ve ever scored in an SHL season is 53, back in 2016; you’re already at 28 for this year.  What is the secret to your success?

PR: Just lucky, I guess. (laughs) To be serious, I worked very hard this offseason.  When you are an expansion player, you feel as though you have been left out with the garbage.  I felt I had much to prove.

SHLD: Well, you’re definitely proving yourself.  You’ve already racked up nearly as many points as you did all of last season.  Do you think you can keep this pace up?

PR: Yes, I believe so.  It helps that our offense is going very well.  That was a problem last year.

SHLD: It’s interesting that you mention last year.  You were with the Quebec Tigres, and even though you led the team in points with 34, they still left you unprotected in the expansion draft. Did that surprise you?

PR: No, if I am being honest.  Coach [Martin] Delorme was never happy with my defense.  They only picked me to begin because I am Quebecois, and they thought it would sell tickets.

SHLD: The Tigres are having a good year, and might even make the playoffs.  Are you sorry you’re not still there?

PR: Not really.  I want to be where I am wanted, and in Kansas City I am wanted.  I am looking forward.

SHLD: How do you like Kansas City?

PR: I like it!  It is a very fun place.  I love good music and good food, and there is a lot of both here.  Quebec is a nice town, but it is a little bit sleepier.

SHLD: Of course, when you’re on an expansion team and you do well, there’s always a risk that you might get traded.  How would you feel if you were dealt?

PR: I would be fine with it.  When you are a pro hockey player, you get used to being traded.  And if I am traded, I expect it would be to a contending team.  It would be fun to contend!  I have not in my career.

SHLD: Great attitude!  Well, thank you for an interesting interview, Pascal.  Good luck with the rest of the season!

PR: Thank you.  I am hopeful that the rest of my season will be so good.

West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”

Smoke Hosts “KC Bar-B-Q Battle”

The expansion Kansas City Smoke want to provide their fans with, in the words of team president Eddie Whitmore, “an authentic KC experience.”  As anyone who’s ever been to the city knows, barbecue is an essential part of that experience.  So it comes as no surprise that during Tuesday’s game, the Smoke treated their fans to the “KC Bar-B-Q Battle.”

Between the second and third periods, public address announcer Curtis Burton told the fans that “it’s time to settle the oldest question in Kansas City once and for all: Arthur Bryant’s or Gates?”  At that moment, two teams of youth hockey players skated onto the ice.  But instead of wearing Smoke jerseys as usual, they were sporting the logos of Kansas City’s oldest and most venerable ‘cue chains.  One team was clad in red and yellow with the familiar script of Arthur Bryant’s, a KC institution since 1940.  The other team was dressed in black and red, emblazoned with the logo of Gates Bar-B-Q, which opened its doors in 1946.

“For generations, folks in KC have argued about whose ‘cue reigns supreme,” Burton continued.  “Tonight, we declare a winner on the ice!”

The fans roared as the teams of youngsters raced up and down the rink, in search of slow-cooked glory.  The Bryant’s team got on the board first, as 8-year-old Danny Kneuven buried a shot from the hash marks.  But the Gates team didn’t have to wait long to get even, as 7-year-old Sam Gillard slipped one through the five-hole to make it a 1-1 game.  Gates fans roared approval for the tally, and the whole stadium expressed their delight when Gillard celebrated by dropping to the ice and doing the swim.

In the final minute of the contest, Gates got a goal from 8-year-old Millie Watkins, and it looked as though they would be the victors.  But in the waning second, Kneuven got free on a breakaway and banked one home off the right post to make it 2-all.  Rather than settle the contest with overtime or a shootout, Burton indicated that the winner would be determined by which restaurant had the highest sales at that night’s game.  (Both Bryant’s and Gates have stands at Heartland Telecom Center.)  Fans of both joints lined up well into the third period to put their favorite over the top.

After the final horn sounded, Burton announced that Gates was the winner, prompting a joyful celebration from some fans and a moan from others.

The Bar-B-Q Battle proved so compelling that coach Randy Bergner hardly cared that the Smoke lost the game.  “To tell you the truth, I was more invested in the Bryant’s-Gates contest than the actual game,” Bergner told reporters.  “Too bad the wrong side won.  Bryant’s for life!”

Whitmore proclaimed himself delighted with the event.  “This one was a real hit with the fans,” he said.  “Since it happened, I’ve been flooded with emails from people wanting us to include other places.  ‘What about Joe’s?  What about L.C.’s?'”  Asked if he planned to stage the event again with a wider selection of restaurants, the president smiled and said, “Stay tuned.”

Whitmore indicated that the team was planning to expand the contest to music at future games.  “There are other KC arguments that we want to settle,” he said.  “Who’s the king of KC blues?  Who’s the best jazz band in the city?  We’ve got plenty of material to work with, because we’ve got such a deep and rich cultural history.  As deep and rich as the sauce on Gates’ burnt ends.”