- On Monday, the Quebec Tigres activated D Ward Jones from the disabled list. Jones had missed more than a month with an upper-body that he suffered before the All-Star break. To make room for Jones on the active roster, the Tigres reassigned D Serge Rimbaud to their farm team in Maine. The 18-year-old Rimbaud appeared in 13 games with Quebec, recording 8 assists and a +1 rating.
- Also on Monday, the Hamilton Pistols placed goaltender Lasse Koskinen on the disabled list. Koskinen suffered an upper-body injury during Sunday’s 7-4 win over New York. He is expected to miss 2 to 3 weeks, a serious blow for a Pistols team that is trying to snatch a playoff spot in the East. To replace Koskinen, the Pistols called up Hector Orinoco from their affiliate in Oshawa. The 23-year-old Orinoco has gone 13-11-0 with a 2.69 GAA and a .902 save percentage with Oshawa this season.
- On Tuesday, the Tigres placed LW Stellan Fisker on the disabled list. Fisker suffered an upper-body injury during the Tigres’ 3-0 win over Hershey. He is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks. To replace Fisker on the roster, the Tigres called up LW Carl Bleyer from their farm team in Maine. Bleyer has put up 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) with the Moose on the year.
- Wednesday was the trading deadline. The following trades were consummated at the deadline:
- The New York Night traded RW Mickey Simpson, D Andy Ruger, and a 3rd-round draft pick to the Washington Galaxy for RW Nori Takoyaki. (More details here.) After making the trade, the Night promoted D Craig Werner from their farm team in Utah and signed D Sheldon Harville to a minor-league contract.
- The Galaxy traded Ruger to the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for a 3rd-round pick.
- The Michigan Gray Wolves traded RW Cleo Rodgers, G Gus Parrish, and a 2nd-round pick to the Smoke in exchange for LW Kevin Starkey and D Scott Hexton. (More details here.) After the trade, Kansas City called up Parrish and LW Veikko Sikanen from their CHL affiliate in Omaha, and demoted G Jim Fleetwood to Omaha. They also released G Toby Kemper. Meanwhile, Michigan released D Igor Shovshenkov, demoted F Yann Eberlein to their affiliate in Cleveland, and signed Kemper to a minor-league deal.
- The Saskatchewan Shockers traded C Tanner Brooks to the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for D Rusty Anderson. (More details here.) After the trade, the Shockers demoted D Valeri Nistrumov to their farm team in Virginia. They also released D Knute Skoeglin and signed F Marvin Cascio to a minor-league deal.
- The Hamilton Pistols traded C Pat Collistone, D Buster Kratz, and a 1st-round pick to the Galaxy in exchange for C Eddie Costello. (More details here.) After the trade, the Pistols called up D Russ Klemmer from their CHL affiliate in Oshawa, and demoted RW Michael Jennings to Oshawa. They also signed D Gresham Sourwine to a minor-league contract. The Galaxy demoted Kratz to their affiliate in Baltimore and promoted C Tucker Barnhill from Baltimore. They also released D Sheldon Harville.
- The Quebec Tigres traded D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and a 1st-round pick to the Jackalopes in exchange for D Matt Cherner. (More details here.) After the trade, Dakota released RW Omar Zdurchek; Quebec then signed him to a minor-league deal.
- Finally, the Seattle Sailors traded D Serkan Mratic to the Galaxy for D Stan Gallagher. (More details here.)
- On Saturday, the Jackalopes activated D Rodney Black from the injured list. Black, who was sidelined in only his second SHL game, missed two and a half weeks with an upper-body injury. Since Dakota was one player short of the roster limit, they did not make a corresponding move.
- Also on Saturday, the Hershey Bliss placed LW Lance Sweet on long-term injured reserve. Sweet was carried off the ice on a stretcher after being crunched into the boards late in the second period during Saturday’s 6-3 win over Saskatchewan. Sweet underwent surgery on his right leg, and is expected to be out for the rest of the season. To fill Sweet’s roster spot, Hershey called up D Seth Dowd from their CHL affiliate in Milwaukee. The 33-year-old Dowd, who last played in the SHL in 2016, recorded 27 points with Milwaukee this season.
One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability. The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive. Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal. They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.
With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further. They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.
Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble. GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press. “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard. “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”
Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player. “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated. “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”
The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans. The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen. Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes. When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.
“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said. “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy. This has become my home. I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”
In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota. The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists). Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.
“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard. “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first. I’ll stand behind that.”
Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race. “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret. “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline. I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”
To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks. The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season. He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.
“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard. “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area. We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”
This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul. “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters. “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that. But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”
It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league. Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team. “
“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM. “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”
This week’s interview is with Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski.
SHL Digest: We’re here this week with a longtime SHL netminder, Zeke Zagurski of the surprising Shockers. Zeke, thanks for talking with us.
Zeke Zagurski: Thanks for inviting me. We usually don’t get chosen for much, so this is awesome!
SHLD: With the way your team has been playing, it’s well-deserved. How does it feel to be a contender at last?
ZZ: It’s honestly amazing to finally feel like we have a real chance. It’s great to see the guys working together to get the wins.
SHLD: What do you think has been the secret to your success this year?
ZZ: I think we have a strong team that is finally playing at the same pace as each other
SHLD: Do you think your new coach [Morris Thompson] has helped with that?
ZZ: Certainly. He really prioritizes teamwork and even has us do team bonding exercises pretty often.
SHLD: Oh yeah? Like what?
ZZ: You know that activity where you lean back and the other person is supposed to catch you? Well we tried that… it didn’t go well. We also lifted up Chris [Oflyng] with one finger each, which was super cool.
SHLD: Sounds interesting! I hope no one got hurt doing that.
ZZ: Well no, but my boy Troy [Chamberlain] did end up catching someone who wasn’t his partner. Barnesy [Wyatt Barnes] really wasn’t supportive of those trust exercises.
SHLD: Understood. Now, you yourself have a reputation for being… a little weird. Do you think that’s fair?
ZZ: Yeah, probably so. But honestly, once you get out here and spend a night with our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], who wouldn’t be?
SHLD: You raised a lot of eyebrows earlier this year when you ate a hot dog on the ice during the middle of a game. What was the story there?
ZZ: Well, I was hungry, I always wanted to try one of the hot dogs they sell in the stands. One thing led to another, and I paid a fan to slip me a hot dog as I came out of the tunnel. I stuck it in my water bottle for safekeeping, and I was good to go.
SHLD: Cleverly done! Coach Thompson probably wasn’t too happy about that, though.
ZZ: Not too much. I was suspended from making contact with fans for a month. The man didn’t even let me finish my hot dog!
SHLD: Not fair!
ZZ: I know, right? I mean, how am I supposed to focus on playing hockey when there’s an unfinished hot dog just sitting there waiting for me?
SHLD: It must have taken real inner strength.
ZZ: You have no idea.
SHLD: That’s not your only quirk. Your teammates say you prepare for games by locking yourself in a toilet stall and screaming the words to “I Feel Pretty.”
ZZ: Why, of course! Julie Andrews always knows how to hype me up.
SHLD: So, back to your team. Next week is the trading deadline. Are you hoping for a big trade, or do you hope the Shockers stand pat?
ZZ: I think we have an awesome team already, but I am always up for getting a fresh face to keep us on our toes.
SHLD: Any preference on what kind of player you get? (Not a goalie, presumably.)
ZZ: I would say it is never a bad thing to get more help with defense. Less work for me is something I am always up for.
SHLD: Makes sense. Well, that will do for this week. Thanks for your time, Zeke, and good luck the rest of the season!
ZZ: Thank you! And to our fans: thanks for sticking with us, and this is our year. V-A-N-D-Y!!!!
The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory. For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice. The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.
This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West. Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy. Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.
“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.
What has driven Saskatchewan’s success? Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson. When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined. That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.
So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations. “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM. “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions. That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”
The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck. Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances. This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth). “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain. “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal. It’s really paying off for us.”
The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season. They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60. Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.
“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes. “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”
The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system. “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.
With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade? The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them. Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division? Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?
“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews. “The next few days are going to be interesting.”
In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty. The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.
“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson. “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder. If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested. But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come. I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that. I’m not just thinking about this year.”
The SHL selected Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski as its Player of the Week. The Shockers had an undefeated week, moving the ma mere two points out of first place, and Zagurski’s brilliant performance was a key to Saskatchewan’s success. For the week, Zagurski went 3-0-0 with a 0.33 GAA and an astounding .991 save percentage.
Zagurski came up big in games against key division opponents. On Sunday, he stopped 40 shots to help the Shockers eke out a 2-1 win over the Igloos in Anchorage. On Tuesday, he stopped all 43 Anchorage attempts in a 3-0 Saskatchewan win. Then on Thursday, he came up with 32 saves for another shutout, 2-0 over Michigan this time.
“No one in the league wants to take us seriously, or Zeke seriously,” said Shockers coach Morris Thompson. “They think this is the same joke outfit of a couple years ago, and they just think of Zeke as the guy who ate a hot dog on the ice. But Zeke is an elite goalie, and we’re a contending team. No one will be laughing at us by the time the season’s over.”
At the midway point of the season, both the East and West divisions are more competitive than usual. Four clubs in each division have a real shot at the playoffs; on the flip side, no team is so dominant that their postseason trip is essentially certain. It’s anybody’s game, and that’s exciting for the fans, as almost every game has potential playoff ramifications.
On the other hand, it can be frustrating for the teams, especially when stretches of strong play don’t create any separation in the standings. And when a team suffers a particularly tough loss, it stings even more knowing that the line between making the playoffs and watching them on TV appears so thin.
Just ask the Saskatchewan Shockers. Under the guidance of new coach Morris Thompson, they’re playing smart, strong, disciplined hockey. They’ve posted their best first-half record ever. And yet, they’re mired in fourth place, remaining close but agonizingly far for a playoff spot. Sasktchewan’s precarious position made Thursday’s mystifying loss, in which they played well against the Hershey Bliss only to lose in a 5-0 blowout, a truly bitter pill to swallow.
“I know it’s weird to say this about a game we lost by 5, but I thought we were the better team in a lot of the game,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain. “This game was just really weird.”
It’s hard to say whether Chamberlain’s claim that Saskatchewan was “the better team” holds water, but they definitely dominated the first period. The Shockers came out firing, dictating the pace of play. Aided by a pair of power plays, they outshot the Bliss 19-11. “I thought we should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 after that,” said Chamberlain.
Instead, the game remained scoreless, thanks to Hershey goalie Brandon Colt. He isn’t usually considered among the league’s top goalies, but he played like one on Thursday. He made a dramatic kick-out save on a power-play blast by Chamberlain, bringing the crowd at Chocolate Center to its feet. He also made a brilliant stop in the closing minutes of the period, robbing C Elliott Rafferty on a breakaway. The Shockers also suffered some poor luck; on their two power plays in the period, they rang three shots off the posts.
Saskatchewan again got the better of the play to start the second, only to see Colt stymie them again and again. Just after the nine-minute mark of the period, the Shockers got their third power play of the night when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was whistled for cross-checking. Saskatchewan failed to convert yet again, managing only one shot, and the momentum seemed to shift toward the home team.
The game remained scoreless until late in the second. With 2:31 remaining, Hershey RW Noah Daniels deflected a blast from D Steve Cargill and bounced it past Shockers goalie Zeke Zagurski into the net. It was a fluke goal, but after seeing so many of their shots stopped, spirits sagged on the Saskatchewan bench.
“We couldn’t understand how we were losing when we’d played so much better,” said Rafferty.
In the third, the Shockers pushed hard in the early going, only to come up empty yet again. Bliss C Justin Valentine banged home a rebound just until 7 minutes in to make it 2-0. D Bruce Minnik went to the sin bin a couple minutes later, giving Saskatchewan its fourth power play of the game. By this time, the Shockers were stressing out, shanking shots left and right and missing out on quality chances.
Twenty second after the power play ended, Bliss LW Lance Sweet and RW Christopher Hart broke out on an odd-man rush, and Hart beat Zagurski to give Hershey a three-goal edge.
The dam seemed to burst after that; the Shockers all but gave up, and Hershey scored twice more before the game mercifully ended.
The frustration in the Shockers locker room was palpable after the game. Rafferty, who was denied at least three times by brilliant Colt saves, smashed his stick to pieces against his stool. Zagurski opted for a different approach; he went into the shower with his equipment still on, sitting in soaked silence.
To make matters worse, the three teams ahead of Saskatchewan in the West standings (Michigan, Seattle, and Anchorage) all lost, costing the Shockers a rare chance to gain ground.
“In any season, there’s always going to be a few games you wish you could have back,” said Thompson. “But this one was a knife to the gut. When you get a 6-0 edge in power plays, you really need to win it. This one really stings.”
The SHL selected Saskatchewan Shockers C Elliott Rafferty as its Player of the Week. The Shockers had a strong week, going 3-1-0, and Rafferty played a key role in the team’s success. He put up 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) on the week. For the season, Rafferty has recorded 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists), the highest total on the team.
On Sunday, the center scored a pair of goals as the Shockers downed Dakota 5-3. On Tuesday, Rafferty had a goal and an assist in the Shockers’ 5-4 overtime loss to Anchorage. Then on Saturday, Rafferty netted three assists in Saskatchewan’s 6-2 romp over the Galaxy in Washington.
“I know a lot of people want to write us off and say [the West] is a three-team race,” said Shockers coach Morris Thompson. “But my guys are in this just as much as anyone else. And if we do wind up making it to the postseason, it’s going to be because guys like Elliott stepped it up a notch and got us to the next level.”