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.”


Interview of the Week: Vince Mango

This week’s interview is with Seattle Sailors RW Vince Mango.

SHL Digest: We’re here today with one of the SHL’s top scorers, Vince Mango.  Vince, thanks for speaking with us.

Vince Mango

Vince Mango: Sure thing!

SHLD: A lot of the players we talk to have always dreamed of being hockey players ever since they were little kids.  Was that the case for you?

VM: No, to be honest.  I’m from Florida, and hockey wasn’t a big thing down there.  What I really loved was food.

SHLD: Cooking food, or eating it?

VM: Both!  I had one of those Fisher-Price kitchens when I was little, and I used to pretend I had my own Food Network show.

SHLD: Did you have a favorite Food Network star?

VM: I loved Emeril [Lagasse].  He was a magnetic personality, with all his catchphrases – “Bam!” and “Pork fat rules” and all that – and I loved the way he cooked in front of a lot of a live audience.  My pretend cooking shows were always in front of an audience.  I’d flip a pancake or pull a cake out of the oven, and imagine the crowd going wild.

SHLD: That was good practice for being a pro athlete, in a way.

VM: Yeah, I guess I’ve always been a ham.  I’m addicted to the spotlight.

SHLD: So how did a kid from Florida who loved cooking get into hockey?

VM: Well, my dad was an ad executive, and when I was 9, he got a job in Toronto.  All the kids in my new neighborhood played hockey, so I learned to play too.  And I was good enough that the local coaches started taking notice.  It went from there.

SHLD: All the way to the SHL!  Not bad at all.  You’ve been called one of the best pure goal scorers in the league.  If you hadn’t gotten hurt last season, you might have won the scoring title.

VM: I’m confident I would have.  I was on a roll, and with an extra 10 games, I could have gotten to 50 [goals].

SHLD: On the flip side, you’ve been criticized as a one-dimensional player, someone who is only interested in scoring and doesn’t focus on other aspects of the game.  How do you respond to those critics?

VM: I think I get a bit of a bad rap; a lot of great scorers get tagged as being one-way players.  But I do care more about my scoring; I’m not gonna lie about that.  But think about it: what really gets the fans excited, gets them on their feet?  A goal!  It’s not a big check or a nice play along the boards.  Goals are what makes hockey fun!  And I want to do my part.

SHLD: You also attracted some controversy last season, when you took a selfie on-ice to celebrate a hat trick.  Looking back on that incident, do you think you did the right thing?

VM: I got a flak about that.  It’s almost like it’s a crime in this sport to have a personality.  The old guard scowled and wagged their fingers at me because I was having too much fun.  Now look, I know some of the guys on Michigan thought I was showing them up, and I wasn’t trying to.  But when a young guy tries to bring some life and fun into the game, that’s no reason to stomp it out.

SHLD: Let’s talk about your Sailors.  You and some of the other players talked about being playoff contenders this season, but you’ve struggled to get traction. Do you think you’ll be able to turn things around?

VM: We’re definitely not where we want to be.  We need to do a better job keeping the puck out of our net.  But the good thing is, nobody’s taken charge of that second spot yet.  So if we can tighten that up, we’ll be right there.

SHLD: One final question: Do you still like to cook?

VM: Oh, yeah!  Japanese cuisine is my favorite, but I cook all different kind of things.  And I’m still holding onto my dream of getting on the Food Network!

SHLD: Well, thank you for an interesting interview, Vince.  Good luck the rest of the season!

VM: If anyone out there knows someone who can get me on the Food Network, call me!

Shockers Hold Night to Honor “Bananas Foster”

This offseason, C Foster Culp left the Saskatchewan Shockers in free agency and signed with the Seattle Sailors.  He was not widely missed by Shockers fans or management.  After showing considerable promise as a rookie, he stagnated over the next two seasons, never breaking the 20-goal mark or surpassing the 31 points he amassed in his first season.  He was far better known for his screwball off-ice antics and bizarre quotes than for anything he achieved on the ice.

Foster Culp

As a result, when Culp returned to Saskatchewan for the first team in the season’s second week, the Shockers didn’t do anything to mark the occasion.  After the game, the center admitted that he was miffed at the lack of recognition.  “I mean, I wasn’t expecting them to retire my number or anything, but why wasn’t there a Foster Culp Night?” he asked reporters.  “I gave these guys three years of my life, and I don’t get even a gold watch or anything?  Not cool, man.”

When informed of Culp’s displeasure, Saskatchewan coach Myron Beasley barely managed to stifle his laughter.  “He thinks we should have a night for him?  Typical Bananas Foster.”  Beasley explained that “Bananas Foster was our nickname for him in the clubhouse.  Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice guys and a decent player.  But his elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor, if you know what I mean.  We’ve got some loose screws on this team, but Foster was something else again.  We were just glad he didn’t wind up in prison.”

But in the wake of the exchange, some Shockers fans emailed and tweeted at the front office urging them to make “Bananas Foster Night” a reality.  And given their past difficulties with promotions, the team saw an opportunity for an easy win.  “If the fans want Bananas Foster Night, for whatever reason,” said GM Cooper Matthews, “then Bananas Foster Night they will have.”

When the Sailors arrived at Potash Arena on Tuesday, Shockers fans greeted Culp (who was a healthy scratch for the game) with cutouts of his face and stuffed bananas, giveaways from the team.  And between the first and second periods, the team played a “tribute” video of Culp, with clips of him fumbling passes and shooting wide of the net interspersed with reminders of some of his more outlandish incidents, including the time he caused the team to be detained at customs with a smart remark about smuggling drugs, the time he was arrested for joyriding a baggage cart at the airport, and the time he microwaved a burrito for too long and caused the team’s practice facility to catch fire.  In between, the video included clips of some of Culp’s post-game quotes, such as “If you can outscore your opponent, you’ll win most times” and “Practice is like masturbation: it’s okay if you have to do it, but it’s not as much fun as the real thing.”

After the video was complete, the crowd gave Culp a standing ovation and tossed their bananas onto the ice.  Culp stood, blew kisses to the crowd, and took several sweeping bows.  And after the game, a 2-1 Shockers win, he expressed appreciation for the tribute — sarcastic or not.

“When I first heard they were gonna do Bananas Foster Night, I was afraid they were going to set me on fire,” said Culp.  “But this was cool, feeling the love of my people.  A piece of me will always be here.  Literally. One time I took a puck to the mouth and lost a couple of teeth, and I think they’re still here somewhere.”

Beasley also paid a compliment to his former player.  “Strange as it seems, I do miss Foster a little sometimes,” the coach said.  “Then I remember all the dumb stunts he pulled, and I got over it.  But there’s no question that he’s one of a kind.  He’s the only guy who wouldn’t get to play on his own tribute night.”


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.”


SHL Quote of the Week (Week 2)

“I wonder if Vincent Van Gogh was ever a hockey referee.  If I had Ron Wright yelling at me all the time, I’d cut off my ear too.”

  • Seattle Sailors coach Harold Engellund, poking fun at his Michigan counterpart after Saturday’s 5-5 tie



SHL Player of the Week – Week 1

Elliott Pepper

The SHL selected Seattle Sailors RW Elliott Pepper as its Player of the Week.  Pepper was Seattle’s big offseason acquisition, picked up from rebuilding Dakota.  The big winger got off to a big start with his new club, notching 7 goals and 11 points in his first week.  Pepper currently leads the league in goals and is one behind C Calvin Frye of Hamilton for the league points lead.

He scored his first goal in a Sailors uniform on Sunday in a 5-1 win over Saskatchewan.  On Tuesday, he potted a pair to help Seattle sink his old club by a 5-4 margin.  Then on Friday, Pepper recorded a hat trick and added two wins in a wild 8-5 win over the Jackalopes.  Led by Pepper’s heroics, Seattle is off to a 4-1-0 start and a surprising second place in the West.

“As soon as I heard Elliott was available, I told our front office to go get him,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund, who was Pepper’s boss in Dakota last year.  “He’s just a tremendous force: great shot, heads-up two-way player, a leader in the clubhouse.  For a young club like that, he’s exactly the kind of player we need.”


2018 SHL Season Preview – West

Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos are certain to be in the championship mix again this season.  Their high-octane offense – led by C Jake Frost, the SHL’s top scorer – returns largely intact, as does their formidable defense and rock-solid netminder Ty Worthington.  All that top-shelf talent will be enough to make the Igloos dangerous, and their shocking upset loss in last year’s SHL Finals should add some fuel to their competitive fires.  A potential return trip to the Finals, however, hinges on a couple of key factors.  LW Jerry Koons had a breakout season in 2016 with a 44-goal, 90-point effort.  If he can duplicate that performance, it will prevent opposing defenses from overloading on Frost and make the Igloos’ attack nearly unstoppable; if he takes a step back, Frost will need to pick up the slack.  Anchorage lost a chunk of its young depth in the expansion draft, as both RW Tyler Cloude and C Derek Humplik were plucked away.  As a result, they could be vulnerable to injuries.  They’re thinner still in the crease; previous backup Riley Lattimore was a salary-cap casualty, so if Worthington goes down for an extended period, they’ll need to rely on rookie Wendall Cantillon.  Given good health and a strong performance from Koons, there’s no reason not to pick the Igloos to go back to the Finals and win this time.

Michigan Gray Wolves

Well, maybe there’s one reason to pick against the Igloos.  The Wolves have been Anchorage’s fiercest competitor since the SHL began, and with the expanded four-team playoff field, it’s likely they’ll meet in the postseason.  Michigan’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners defense remains its calling card, backstopped by all-world goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  There are likely to be a lot of low-scoring games again at Cadillac Place this season.  The Wolves have a weakness, though: age.  A lot of their key players – Cs Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow, D “Mad Max” Madison, LW Vladimir Beruschko, RW Gordon Lunsford, D Frank Mudrick, LW Todd Douglas, and RW Oskar Denison – are on the wrong side of 30.  Last year, Bailes and Marlow both missed significant time with injury, and Michigan’s offense went down the drain when they were out.  If they or any of the other players on the above list get hurt, the Wolves could find themselves in trouble.  Michigan has a couple of rising young stars, most notably D Fritz Kronstein and RW Benoit Poulin, but their core is aging rapidly and may not have too many more bites at the apple.  And the Wolves are always a Lundquist injury away from slipping back into the pack.  The sun hasn’t set on this bunch yet, though, and Michigan could easily have another Vandy run left in them — if they can stay healthy.

Saskatchewan Shockers

The Shockers continued on their path of slow, steady improvement in 2017; they got a strong performance from rookie C Elliott Rafferty (23 goals, 40 points) to complement LW Troy Chamberlain (27 goals, 59 points) and C Napoleon Beasley (29 goals, 57 points), and they finished in a surprising third-place tie, albeit with an unimpressive 23-35-2 record.  Their moves for 2018 promise more modest improvement; they drafted a quality young center in Riley McCrea, made a surprise free-agent signing in LW Vonnie McLearen, and promoted several promising minor-leaguers (RW Colton Jabril and Ds Robby Rohrman and Valeri Nistrumov).  Perhaps their most impressive move was jettisoning the yellow-and-seafoam color scheme that made them the joke of the league.  With all those steps forward, it’s not hard to imagine Saskatchewan reaching the .500 mark for the first time.  It’s a lot harder, though, to imagine the Shockers challenging either Anchorage or Michigan for a playoff spot.  (They were reportedly in hot pursuit of RW Elliott Pepper from the Jackalopes; if they had acquired him, this team might have been truly dangerous.)  It’s harder still to imagine them holding a promotion that owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz doesn’t screw up somehow.  And it’s still tough to figure out the Shockers’ end game.  Are they trying to become the next Dakota, a team that’s talented enough to post respectable records but not talented enough to go all the way?  Or does Doofenshmirtz think he has the nucleus of a true contender on his hands?  If so, is coach Myron Beasley the man to get them there, or is he merely a quippy nice guy who needs to be replaced with a taskmaster who can make this team elite?  This season should say a lot about the direction of this promising but incomplete young club.

Dakota Jackalopes

Last season, the Jackalopes shot for the moon, loading up on free agents to take a shot at a title.  Instead, they fizzled, finishing tied with Saskatchewan at 22-35-2 and firing coach Harold Engellund at season’s end.  Since then, things have only gotten worse, as Dakota has slashed payroll and shipped out several big names.  They lost C Mike Rivera in the expansion draft, and have traded away RW Elliott Pepper and Ds Doron Lidjya and Craig Werner, all for prospects.  Rumor has it that they’re fielding offers on D Rusty Anderson and Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore as well.  The roster churn leaves new coach Flim Dahlgren in a challenging position, trying to evaluate and develop the team’s young talent while trying to keep up morale among the veterans.  It’s likely to be a long season at Black Hills Arena, as the Jackalopes are unlikely to contend.  But there will be a lot of young players thrown into the fire; if some of them are able to seize the opportunity and show promise, then this rough season may wind up paying long-term dividends.

Seattle Sailors

Seattle is likely the most improved team in the West, as GM Jay McKay made several aggressive moves in hopes of building a contending team.  The Sailors drafted LW Alphonse Gaspard, signed C Foster Culp and G “Jersey Mike” Ross as free agents, and acquired RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya in the Dakota fire sale.  Seattle upgraded behind the bench as well, dumping the volatile Stewart Corrigan and hiring ex-Jackalopes boss Engellund.  Clearly, the Sailors will be better this season… but how much better?  Seattle should be able to surpass rebuilding Dakota, and they should be competitive with Saskatchewan.  The Sailors will be superior offensively, while the Shockers have the better defense and goaltending.  But the question that applies to Saskatchewan applies here: is this the nucleus of a true contender?  The Shockers seem like they might be a top-flight scorer away from challenging Anchorage and Michigan.  For the Sailors, the question is whether Vince Mango can be the superstar that the team needs him to be.  The winger is one of the SHL’s leading scorers, but he’s generally regarded as a one-dimensional player, being a mediocre passer and an indifferent defender.  Many around the league also question his maturity and leadership credentials, as he’s better known for his theatrical goal celebrations than for hard work or heads-up play.  If Seattle is going to become an elite club, they’ll need Mango to become proficient in other aspects of the game than shooting.  If Rocky Goldmire can step it up between the pipes, that would help too.

Kansas City Smoke

Like most expansion teams, the Smoke seem destined for a last-place finish.  The team lacks the offensive firepower to compete, and neither Oliver Richardson nor Brooks Copeland has much experience as a starting goalie.  There will likely be two interesting storylines in Kansas City this season.  The first is how coach Randy Bergner, a highly-regarded minor-league bench boss who won a division title in Omaha last season, will handle the trials and tribulations of an expansion squad.  Bergner has expressed a desire to build a cohesive, team-first organizational culture; if he can pull that off with a ragtag squad that’s likely to pile up the losses, he’ll definitely have earned his stripes.  The other thing to watch is what the Smoke does with their flippable assets.  Unlike their counterparts in Boston, who focused on picking as many young players as possible, Kansas City nabbed a number of veterans (Richardson, C Phil Miller, LWs Pascal Royal and Piotr Soforenko, and Ds Doug Wesson, Hans Mortensen, and Vitaly Dyomin) who could turn into attractive trade pieces.  They also signed free-agent D Tony Hunt and LW Louis LaPlante, who could potentially have value if they can bounce back from down seasons.  If KC finishes the season with the same roster that takes the ice on opening night, they’ll have screwed up royally.  All eyes will be on GM Garth Melvin, who will have to make some shrewd moves to turn those journeyman vets into prospects that might help the Smoke down the road.  If you’re going to Kansas City this season, though, expect to find good barbecue and bad hockey.

Projected Finish:

  1. Anchorage
  2. Michigan
  3. Saskatchewan
  4. Seattle
  5. Dakota
  6. Kansas City