Foster Hints Change Is Coming in New York

When Nick Foster signed on to coach the New York Night this offseason, it was widely assumed that he had a mandate to make changes, potentially sweeping ones, in order to mold the team into a contender.  With the team mired in the Eastern basement with an unsightly 3-7-0 record, Foster held a press conference on Friday to suggest that those changes might be coming sooner rather than later.

Nick Foster

“I’m not the kind of guy to beat around the bush,” said Foster.  “And right now, I’m looking at a team that’s not built to compete, and a team that’s not as good as they think they are.”

These statements were a major departure for Foster, who has responded to most personnel questions so far by saying that he’s “still evaluating.”  But he hasn’t been shy about making moves, and sources close to the coach say that he’s fed up with the team and weighing a major housecleaning, possibly including trades of some of the team’s biggest names.

“Nick was hoping that this was a champion in the rough, one that just needed a few tweaks and a new voice in charge,” said the source.  “But he’s quickly figured out that he’s got a team full of lazy, undisciplined egomaniacs, and that the best solution might be to take a fire hose and clean out the locker room.  The hard part will be getting ownership on board.”

It took Foster all of four games to decide the Night needed a kick in the pants.  After getting shut out by Quebec 1-0 last Wednesday to fall to 0-4-0, Foster called for an unscheduled practice on their off day Thursday.  RW Daniel Bellanger and D Teddy Morrison skipped the practice, and Foster responded by benching both of them for the next day’s game, in which the Night finally recorded a win in an 8-5 romp over Hamilton.

As New York continued to struggle in Week 2, Foster continued tinkering with his lineup.  He booted D Tuomas Nurmi and RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson off the top line, while promoting RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Shane Gladchuk up to that line.  He benched D Jean-Luc Aubin for a couple of games as well.

After Friday’s 4-3 loss to Hershey, Foster finally sounded off publicly for the first time.  He didn’t call out any players by name, but team sources say that the coach is especially disenchanted with Nelson, Bellanger, and goaltending duo of Jesse Clarkson and “Jersey Mike” Ross, who have been roughly equally ineffective.

Foster is reportedly weighing benching Nelson and demoting Bellanger and either Clarkson or Ross to the minors.  “We’re not going to get anywhere unless we try something different,” the coach said at his Friday press conference.  “We’ve been trying the status quo for two seasons, and it’s gotten us nothing but mediocrity.”

The grand plans of Foster may meet resistance, however, from owner Marvin Kingman.   Kingman is eager for a Vandy, but he reportedly believes that the Night can get there with the current roster.  “He spent a lot of money on these guys,” said the team source, “and he want to keep them around.”

Asked on Friday if he expect Kingman to object to his planned shakeup, Foster responded, “Ownership wants to win, same as I do.  We’re all looking for results, and I’m going to keep making moves until we get there.”

Assistant coach Biff Lombardi, who was a finalist for the head job, thinks Foster is on the right track.  “Let me tell you, Nick’s not afraid of nobody,” said Lombardi.  He’s not about talk; he’s all about action.  Everyone’s going to need to get with the program, or they won’t be around long.”

SHL 2017 Season Preview – East

Washington Galaxy

The Galaxy look like the favorites to capture the Eastern division title for a third straight season.  They navigated the offseason successfully, patching their few holes and not losing any key contributors.  Their biggest move was signing free-agent winger Piotr Soforenko to bolster the third line, which was a huge problem last season.  They upgraded their backup goalie, replacing Gus Parrish with veteran Ron Mason, who won the Vandy with Anchorage in 2015.  And while they unexpectedly lost D Rusty Anderson, they signed a replacement (Patrick Banks) who is an even stronger defender.  It’s hard to find any vulnerabilities with this squad.  But after two straight losses in the SHL Finals, Washington’s real goal this year is to capture the elusive Vandy.  Do they have the horses to take down whoever comes out of the West?  That’s far from clear, but they very likely do have more than enough to win the East again.

Hershey Bliss

After their heartbreaking loss in last season’s final game, in which the Bliss blew a two-goal third-period lead to drop the division, Hershey’s very eager to get over the hump and take the division this season.  But given their lofty goals, it’s surprising that Hershey had such a ho-hum offseason, failing to get significantly better and possibly taking a half-step back.  Last season’s big deadline deal for netminder Jesse Clarkson turned out to be a bust, and one that could prove very costly down the road.  Hershey didn’t win the division, and they gave away a couple major assets (their first-round pick and goalie prospect Buzz Carson) that could have helped them land a major upgrade for this season.  Compounding the pain, the Bliss lost Clarkson in free agency; ex-Hamilton Pistol Brandon Colt will tend the twine instead.  Hershey GM Scott Lawrence seems to be banking once again on the high-powered Love Line of Christopher Hart, Justin Valentine, and Lance Sweet to lead the team to victory.  And indeed, the trio is talented enough to have a shot at pulling it off.  But Washington has more depth and a better goalie.  Can the Bliss overcome all that to make their first Final?  They’ll go as far as their top line can take them.

New York Night

Last season was a grim one for the Night, as their season imploded in a storm of finger-pointing, bad press, and locker-room infighting.  In the wake of that fiasco, New York fired coach Preston Rivers and set about cleaning house in order to build a championship-caliber club.  New head man Nick Foster is a well-regarded hire, and he and GM Royce McCormick have made some bold moves this offseason.  They started by making a major push to improve the team’s netminding, signing Clarkson in free agency and drafting top prospect Sherman Carter.  The Night also looked to shake their well-earned reputation as an all-offense/no-defense team.  They shipped out C Mike Rivera and let winger Ben Summers depart in free agency; both were poor defensively.  They added C Phil Miller, LW Misha Petronov, and F Andrei Volodin, all of whom should improve the team’s balance.  Will that be enough?  Maybe not; the Night still lack any shut-down blueliners and will likely still need to prevail in high-scoring shootouts.  Also, apart from Rivers, all the players in last season’s clubhouse drama are still around.  The bad juju of 2016 might spill over to this season.  But Foster seems like the right man for the job, and the Night are definitely a team to watch going forward.

Hamilton Pistols

The Pistols’ careful rebuild continued this offseason, as they traded up in the draft to land star goalie prospect Lasse Koskinen and added hard-nosed D Jack “Hercules” Mulligan.  Koskinen should help Pistols fans forget the departed Colt, and Mulligan steps into the second-pairing slot vacated by Dmitri Kalashnikov, who was dealt so that the Pistols could move up in the draft.  If the two hot rookies play up to their potential and the veteran top line continues to produce, Hamilton could be a dark-horse contender in the East.  More than likely, though, it will be another season of slow but steady growth under coach Keith Shields.  The Pistols seem to be moving toward embracing a hard-nosed, defense-first identity, which is at odds with the fast-paced, high-scoring style exemplified by star LW Steven Alexander.  If Shields can balance the team’s competing styles, this could be a team to be reckoned with in a couple years.  If not, though, their rebuilding may reach a crossroads sooner than expected.  Is Shields up to the task?  Can the Pistols take the next step and become contenders?  Stay tuned.

Quebec Tigres

The Tigres’ offseason plans were thrown into disarray during the draft.  Holding the second selection, Quebec was set on picking LW Rod “Money” Argent, a Quebec native with 25-to-30-goal scoring potential, who could have paired with Stephane Mirac to give the team the scoring threat it so desperately needs.  But Seattle foiled those plans by taking Argent with the top pick, and the Tigres were seemingly left at a loss.  Rather than give themselves a potential league-leading goaltending tandem by picking Koskinen or strengthening their ferocious defense by taking Mulligan or addressing their void at center by grabbing Titus Jameson, Quebec instead moved down in a deal with Hamilton.  They wound up with quantity over quality, receiving Kalashnikov and a pair of lesser picks (which they used on winger Rupert MacDiamid and D Hal Pugliese).  It was a solid return, but not the home-run pick that Argent would have been.  As such, it’s hard to see Quebec making noise in a strengthening division.  Just like last year, they’ll hope that star netminder Riki Tiktuunen and their hustling, swarming defense can overcome their abysmal offensive attack.  Apart from Mirac, there are no serious scoring threats in this lineup.  Coach Martin Delorme will continue to preach his hard-working, hard-hitting, selfless style, but Quebec’s punchless offense will almost certainly doom them to the basement for another season.

Night Name New Coaches

The New York Night announced this week that they hired Nick Foster as their new coach for the 2017 season.  Foster replaces Preston Rivers, who was fired after two seasons of disappointing results on-ice and tremendous dysfunction off of it.

“It’s no secret that we have high aspirations as an organization,” said New York GM Royce McCormick.  “We want to be a championship organization, and we think Nick is the guy to get us there.  He’s got the qualities that we were looking for: he’s smart, tough, and he knows the game inside out.  There’s no limit to how far he can take us.”

Nick Foster

Sources close to the organization say that the Night strongly preferred a veteran coach, and Foster definitely fits the bill, with over 15 years of experience coaching at a variety of levels, from college to junior to the minor leagues.  “This isn’t my first rodeo,” said Foster.  “I know we’ve got some work to do, but that doesn’t scare me.”

Foster has a reputation as a turnaround artist; at several stops, he’s taken poor and struggling teams and turned them into contenders.  “He’s a guy who knows how to get results, and quickly,” said McCormick.  “That’s exactly what I want to see.”

Foster was coy about setting expectations at the press conference.  When asked if he thought the Night would make the Finals this season, the new coach replied with a grin, “I’m not going to make any guarantees.  That’s a good way to get run out of town in a hurry.  But we’re going to be competitive, and we’re going to win sooner than later.  That’s why I love New York; it’s a winner’s town.”

The Night certainly expected to be competitive under Rivers, and the coach never shied away from boasting about his team’s prowess.  But New York’s grand ambitions crumbled into a wreck of poor defense, inconsistent effort, and internal dissension.  Several players took public shots at their teammates and Rivers, with star RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson even bolting the team in the final week of the season.

Foster acknowledged that repairing the Night’s toxic clubhouse is a priority.  “Obviously, things got out of control here last year, and that can’t happen again,” said Foster.  “I want to get us focused on winning and working together.  I’ve always found that it’s a lot easier to keep everybody happy when you win.”

Asked if he planned to seek trades for any noted troublemakers, Foster said, “Nah.  Not right away.  As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got a clean slate with me.  Everybody’s got a chance to get on board with what we’re doing.”

Biff Lombardi

Along with Foster, the Night introduced new assistant coach Biff Lombardi, replacing Cam Prince.  Lombardi was reportedly a finalist for the head job as well.  Lombardi has been an assistant for almost 20 seasons, primarily in the minor leagues.  He is known for his defensive instruction, and he hopes to address the team’s defensive issues.

“Look, let’s be honest: this team is never going to be Michigan in terms of defense,” Lombardi said.  “That’s not our identity.  But if we can make more of an effort, police our own end better, that goes a long way.  We don’t have to turn into a bunch of grinders and trappers, but we need to make that effort.  I’m OK with winning 5-4, but we can’t give up 5 or 6 goals a game and expect to win.”

New York players responded positively to the hirings of Foster and Lombardi.  “Nick Foster seems like a good guy and a serious, professional guy,” said Nelson.  “He’s not going to be out glossing himself all the time.  He’s into winning, and that’s what we’re into too.  Let’s do this.”

SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 3:

The Quebec Tigres made a huge deal at the top of the draft after their planned choice went awry.  The Tigres had planned to take scoring winger Rod “Money” Argent with the #2 pick, addressing their major shortcomings on offense.  But after the Seattle Sailors surprisingly drafted Argent with the first pick, Quebec found themselves with no obvious choice.  So they traded down, dealing the #2 pick to the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for the #5 pick, a second-round pick, and D Dmitri Kalashnikov. Hamilton sought the #2 pick in order to grab G Lasse Koskinen, who immediately became the team’s top netminder.  While Quebec did not wind up with an impact player of Argent’s caliber, they traded quality for quantity.  With the #5 pick, they plucked RW Rupert MacDiarmid, who put up 15 goals and 39 points in juniors last year.  In Kalashnikov, the Tigres added an elite and ferocious defender, whose 109 penalty minutes were the second-most in the SHL last season.  The Tigres used the second-round selection to nab D Hal Pugliese, who took Penn Tech to the NCAA tournament three times in his collegiate career.

The Dakota Jackalopes also dealt a first-round pick, sending the #6 selection to the New York Night along with C Phil Miller in exchange for C Mike Rivera.  The trade represents a bold gamble for both teams.  For Dakota, adding Rivera augments their high-flying offense, as the Jackalopes attempt to catch up with their division rivals in Michigan and Anchorage.  Last season, Rivera banged home 23 goals and collected 39 points with New York. He is expected to anchor Dakota’s second line this year.  For New York, the trade reflects new coach Nick Foster’s desire to build a more balanced club.  Although Rivera was a strong contributor on offense, he is widely considered a defensive liability.  Miller, who put up 18 goals and 30 points between Saskatchewan and Dakota in ’16, is regarded as more of a two-way player.  With the sixth pick, the Night grabbed goaltending prospect Sherman Carter, who recorded a 2.27 GAA and a .930 save percentage in juniors last season.  In addition to drafting Carter, New York signed the top free-agent netminder, Jesse Clarkson, to complete an overhaul of one of their weakest positions.

After the draft, the Night made a pair of deals aimed at improving their third line.  First, they swapped G Oliver Richardson to the Saskatchewan Shockers for the rights to G Hector Orinoco, then sent Orinoco’s rights along with F Dill Howlter to Hamilton for winger Andrei Volodin.  Richardson, who posted a 6-10-0 mark with a 4.37 GAA for New York last season, became expendable after the Night drafted Carter and signed Clarkson.  He represents an upgrade for the Shockers, who have struggled to find a solid backup for Zeke Zagurski since the league’s inception.  Orinoco played last season in the German league, where he record a 17-11-2 record with a 3.06 GAA.  He will likely spend the season in the minors for Hamilton, barring an injury.  The 25-year-old Volodin should bring a little extra scoring punch to New York’s third line.  He scored 18 goals and 34 points for Hamilton in the 2016 season.  The 20-year-old Howlter failed to record a point in 9 games for New York last season.

The Washington Galaxy sent longtime backup goalie Gus Parrish to the Seattle Sailors in exchange for F Yann Eberlein.  The deal was a bit disappointing for the fans, as Parrish was a beloved figure in Washington, adored for his boyish enthusiasm and flair for colorful quotes.  Last season, Parrish went 7-6-0 with a 3.21 GAA as the Galaxy defended their Eastern Division title.  But after Washington signed free agent Ron Mason in the offseason, Parrish found himself without a job.  Eberlein struggled in limited action with the Sailors last year, recording 2 goals and 7 points in 34 games.  Washington hopes that the 25-year-old Swiss forward can provide a solid presence off the bench.  The Galaxy suffered from poor third-line and bench production last season, as rookies Henry Van Alpin, Barry Sullivan, and Oliver Wallington all turned in disappointing campaigns.

The Jackalopes and the Hershey Bliss made a minor deal just before the start of the season, swapping bottom-pairing defensemen.  Dakota sent Pierre Chappelle to Hershey in exchange for Scott Hexton.  The Jackalopes were looking to strengthen their blueline corps a bit, and Hexton (3 goals, 12 points last season) grades out as an above-average defender.  On the other hand, the Bliss were looking to enhance their offensive production beyond their loaded top line.  Chappelle (5 goals, 20 points last year) provides an upgraded scoring threat relative to Hexton.  The 28-year-old Montreal native is on his third team in as many seasons; Dakota picked him up from Hamilton during last offseason.

New York Fires Rivers After Tumultuous Year

New York smallIn a move that comes as a surprise to few, the New York Night fired coach Preston Rivers.  The move came at the end of a season of acrimony and disappointment, as the Night slogged to another mediocre season and an enormous and public rift developed between the coach and several key players.

“The only shocker was that he made it all the way to the end of the season,” said one player.

Preston Rivers
Preston Rivers

Rivers finishes his New York career with a record of 54-61-5, not nearly good enough for an organization that makes no secret of its lofty aspirations.  Night GM Royce McCormick focused on the record as the prime driver behind the firing of Rivers.  “Our goal is championships, nothing less,” said McCormick.  “Preston failed to deliver on that expectation, so we decided it was time for a new voice to get to that next level.”

According to team sources, though, Rivers’ record wasn’t the real cause f0r the dismissal; rather, it was the fact that New York’s star players were increasingly open in their disdain for the coach.  It started in midseason, when D Tuomas Nurmi claimed that Night players were being harassed as payback for Rivers’ boasting and taunting.  Later in the season, RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson bashed his coach and called for him to be fired.  The feud ultimately escalated to the point that Nelson and Rivers nearly came to blows in the locker room, after which the star winger left the team for three games.  It took McCormick’s intervention to get Nelson to rejoin the team.

The situation went from bad to worse over the final week of the season.  The entire team boycotted a mandatory practice on Monday as a show of no confidence in Rivers.  The coach stopped addressing the team in the locker room before or after games, preferring to lock himself in his office.  RW Daniel Bellanger went home to Montreal with two games left in the season.  G “Jersey Mike” Ross refused to take the ice for the final two games, although he did attend the games.  And the entire team just went through the motions in the last game, a 6-4 loss to struggling Saskatchewan.

The team announced the firing while Rivers and the Night were still in Saskatoon.  Rivers did not fly back to New York with the team, avoiding a potentially awkward situation.

Predictably, the coach went down swinging.  “I know everyone’s thinking they’ve seen the last of me,” Rivers told reporters.  “But they’d better think again.  You can’t keep a good man down, and you sure as hell can’t keep this man down.  I’ll be back, unless I go to work for Mr. Trump’s administration.  Either way, you haven’t heard the last of me.”

Meltdown in New York: Rivers, Nelson Escalate Feud

New York smallAs the New York Night skid toward a second straight disappointing season, rumors are flying that the situation in the locker room is deteriorating rapidly.  “This is Dysfunction Junction, right here,” said one anonymous player.

The situation seems to have come to a head this week.  Last week, New York star winger Rick “The Stick” Nelson openly called for the firing of coach Preston Rivers.  This week, according to team sources, the two nearly came to blows after a game, after which Nelson mysteriously disappeared from the team, with no explanation given.

When Nelson blasted the Night and Rivers last week, he joined a growing chorus of current and former New York players lamenting the team’s dysfunction.  D Tuomas Nurmi and RW Kenny Patterson have expressed similar sentiments in recent weeks.  At the time, Rivers seemed to take Nelson’s comments in stride, saying that they reflected understandable frustration with a season gone wrong.

Preston Rivers
Preston Rivers
Rick Nelson
Rick Nelson

Off camera, though, the coach’s attitude was different.  Nelson found his ice time decreasing in the games following his sound-off, similar to Nurmi earlier this year.  When arriving at a hotel during a recent road trip, Rivers reportedly said, “I’d better go in last, so Nelson doesn’t have a chance to stab me in the back again.”

The situation boiled over after the Night’s 5-4 loss to Hamilton.  According to team sources, Rivers started to address the team, then stopped.  “Wait, hold everything,” said the coach.  “Since I don’t know [expletive] about hockey, why am I trying to tell you anything?  I should let Rick come up here and tell you all that you suck.”  He then mockingly gestured for Nelson to take the floor.

In response, Nelson snapped, “Grow the [expletive] up.  If you’ve got something to say to me, say it.”

Rivers shot back, “According to you, all I do is talk.  How about I let my fists do the talking instead?”

Nelson sneered, “You want a piece of me?  Let’s go.”

Rivers took a couple menacing steps toward his star, but the two were quickly separated.  Nelson stormed out of the locker room, while Rivers retreated to his office.

After that fracas, Nelson did not appear on the Night’s bench for the next three games.  He didn’t show up for morning skates or join the team on the road, either.  Initially, teammates were mystified: Had Nelson been suspended, or was he refusing to report?

Rivers didn’t help matters, refusing to discuss Nelson’s absence with reporters or teammates.  “It’s an internal matter, and we’re dealing with it internally,” was all the coach would say.

Finally, Nelson’s teammates were able to reach him via text, and he confirmed that he had jumped the team.  He added that he had gone to GM Royce McCormick and issued an him-or-me ultimatum.  McCormick is reportedly trying to broker a peace between the two, to no effect so far.  It’s not clear whether Nelson intends to rejoin the team for the season’s last week, or whether Rivers would let him.

“I don’t see how they both come back next year,” said the anonymous player.  “And given the feelings about Rivers in the clubhouse, I bet he’s gonna take the fall.  Firing a coach is easy.  Trading a star and getting fair value is hard.”

McCormick declined to comment on the fracas, saying only that “We’re going to evaluate the status of everybody after the season.  Coaches, players, everybody.  We’re obviously not where we expect to be.”