After suffering a stunning upset loss in the SHL Finals, the Igloos were headed for an offseason of turnover, as salary-cap constraints forced them to make some difficult roster choices. GM Will Thorndike opted for youth over experience, re-signing LW Les Collins and D Tony Citrone while parting with popular veterans C Nile Bernard, D Dave Frederick, and RW Ben Summers. To replace the departed players, Thorndike acquired some solid but lower-profile journeymen – C Jens Bunyakin, LW Tadeusz Adamczyk, and D Vitaly Dyomin – while acquiring buy-low candidate C Tom Hoffman from New York. The moves were not popular with fans, but they arguably increased the Igloos’ window of contention. With all their big-name stars still in the fold, Anchorage will maintain its high-powered offense (featuring the fearsome top line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson) and its excellent goaltending (longtime star Ty Worthington backed up by Wendall Cantillon), and will surely be a title contender again. But the free-agent losses struck at the team’s depth, especially on the second line, and the team’s defense will likely take a hit as well. In an improving division, will that hit be enough to cost the Igloos a postseason spot? If the team gets off to its by-now-patented slow start, this might be the year it comes back to bite them.
Last year, the Seattle Sailors shocked many observers – including us – by surging to capture a playoff spot for the first time. This year, they have a new name and are playing in a new city, the first SHL team to relocate. Not content with the current roster, GM Taylor Teichman made a couple of bold moves, winning a fierce bidding war for ex-Galaxy and ex-Pistols C Eddie Costello and trading starting goalie Rocky Goldmire – who had a career year last season – to make room in the crease for free-agent signee Jesse Clarkson. Signing Costello gives Portland an elite passer on the top line, setting up wingers Vince Mango and Rod “Money” Argent. The Clarkson move was a bit of a surprise, as his numbers last year were comparable to Goldmire’s. But he has a more established track record, and the Pacific Northwest native was reportedly eager to play in Portland. The Bluebacks’ uptempo, multi-faceted offense (which produced the second-most goals in the SHL last season) should be even more dangerous than it was in Seattle, and their defense – long the team’s Achilles heel – has slowly improved. Ultimately, the team’s success or failure will once again hinge on its star, Mango. The high-scoring winger showed a new level of maturity last season, upgrading his passing game and even playing some defense on occasion. If Mango can continue to grow and develop as an all-around player, the Bluebacks could be a real title contender, especially if Clarkson provides a steady presence in net. If Mango reverts to his old one-dimensional shoot-first habits, though, his team will likely fall back to mediocrity.
The good news for the boys from the Canadian prairie: they finally made the leap into contention last season. Under the tutelage of new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers strengthened their defense (allowing only 29.5 shots per game, third-lowest in the league), while maintaining a solidly middle-of-the-pack scoring attack and getting strong goaltending from Zeke Zagurski (in spite of his early-season hot dog misadventure). The bad news is that they still missed the playoffs, finishing 6 points out of a spot. Their deadline trade for D Rusty Anderson wasn’t enough to get them over the hump and cost them prize prospect Tanner Brooks. The worse news is that Saskatchewan’s wild new alternates were by far their most interesting offseason addition. They were unable to re-sign Anderson and added no free agents of consequence. They’ve called up Fs Yuri Laronov and Chris Quake from their minor-league affiliate in Virginia, and they should see significant minutes on the third line. But where’s the addition – one more secondary scorer – that’s going to push the Shockers over the hump? (They have less than $400,000 in space under the salary cap, making big trades challenging.) Perhaps another year in Thompson’s system will give Saskatchewan the edge they need, or perhaps they’ll see another leap forward from players like LW Troy Chamberlain and C Elliott Rafferty. Or perhaps one or two of the other Western contenders will stumble or suffer key injuries. But as presently constituted, this looks like a team that’s going to contend again… but come up tantalizingly short.
Michigan Gray Wolves
In last season’s Western preview, we warned that 2019 might be the year that age caught up with the Wolves. In spite of that, we still picked the Wolves to win the Vandy. For much of the year, our prediction appeared on track. But Ron Wright’s squad faded badly down the stretch, and wound up finishing out of the top two in their division for the first time. For those inclined to pessimism, there are a number of warning lights flashing on Michigan’s dashboard. The Wolves have always been built around goaltending and defense, but their offense was worse than ever before; they averaged a paltry 2.1 goals per game, dead last in the league. They also finished with a negative plus-minus rating for the first time ever. And several players on the wrong side of 30 – LWs Todd Douglas and Vladimir Beruschko, RWs Gordon Lunsford and Oskar Denison, C Warren Marlow, D Frank Mudrick – saw their numbers dip, in some cases precipitously. So are the Wolves finished? Don’t bet on it. For one thing, a team with Wright behind the bench and Dirk Lundquist between the pipes can never be counted out. For another thing, the roster is slowly – arguably too slowly – becoming younger. RW Benoit Poulin and D Brooks Zabielski saw their stats tick up last season, and their ice time went up as well. C Phoenix Cage finally gets a full-time shot with the big club, and rookie D Shayne “Boo Boo” Margara joins the bottom pairing. The Wolves also signed free-agent LW Misha Petronov to provide some much-needed scoring. Granted, this is still an old roster, and one or two major injuries could prove catastrophic. But knowing Wright, it’s likely that the Wolves will use last year’s embarrassment as fuel – and that could make them very dangerous indeed.
Mention the Jackalopes to almost any SHL fan, and their immediate response will likely have something to do with the team’s financial problems. The team has steadily bled talent over the last several seasons, most recently Ds Matt Cherner and Rusty Anderson. They did apparently stem the bleeding this offseason by extending LW Ryan Airston, although there are persistent whispers that the team is still exploring trade possibilities for him. In fairness, the Jackalopes aren’t quite as dreadful as the rumors would make them seem. They have a couple of quality scorers in Airston and RW Arkady Golynin. C Riley McCrea, acquired from Saskatchewan before last season, had a breakout season. The team has a passel of promising if unpolished young blueliners. And top draft choice Lorne Mollenkamp gives the team some hope in net. But the team’s offensive depth is lacking, especially in the middle, their power play is weak, and their defense as a whole still looks mediocre. In addition, it’s hard to tell how the constant rumors of bankruptcy or relocation will affect a fairly young squad. Coach Flim Dahlgren has his work cut out for him keeping the Jackalopes’ attention turned to on-ice matters. And it feels like the league and owner Roger Scott need to decide whether this market is really capable of supporting an SHL team. Scott is clearly unable or unwilling to bankroll continuing losses, and the team’s endless fire sale drags down the league’s credibility. This is the season that Scott and GM Paul Mindegaard need to lay out a plan to return the Jackalopes to respectability… or a plan to relocate them to a city capable of supporting them.
Kansas City Smoke
In 2018, the expansion Smoke took the ice and finished last in the West, as expected. In their second season, they actually got worse, dropping from 37 points to 31. Their biggest issue, by far: goaltending. Kansas City had five different goalies start at least one game, an SHL record, and their collective .882 save percentage was last by a wide margin. While netminding wasn’t the Smoke’s only problem (their special teams were dismal and their -67 plus-minus rating was by far worst in the league), but the revolving door in net meant that no lead was safe and killed any hope of consistency. The good news: Kansas City has a couple of big new weapons in its arsenal. Their #1 draft pick, RW Bengt Fredriksson, gives the team a top-flight scorer it has never had before. During the preseason, Frederiksson’s wickedly hard slap shot stood out, and KC’s offense had an unaccustomed rhythm and flow when he was on the ice. As for goaltending, Goldmire – acquired from Portland – should at least give the Smoke a reliable #1 option. (He’ll be backed up by Dennis Wampler, who posted the best results of last year’s crop.) They also signed Igloos veteran Nile Bernard, who should center the second line credibly, and strengthened their defense by signing ex-New Yorker Tuomas Nurmi and trading for Washington stalwart Leonard Wright, who should help boost the power play. Will these additions cause a miraculous leap into contention for the Smoke? Not likely; there are still plenty of holes to fill. But the Smoke should now be more credible, and this will give them a chance to evaluate other areas of the team. Can Zachary Merula handle the shift from right wing to left? Is D Gary Hermine or sophomore Bastien Chouinard really worthy of top-pairing minutes? Is coach Randy Bergner the right man to lead the franchise forward? If nothing else, it should be a fun season watching this club figure itself out.
- Kansas City