SHL Player of the Week – Week 3

Roger Orion

The SHL selected Washington Galaxy G Roger Orion as its Player of the Week.  For the week, Orion went 3-1-0 with a 1.25 GAA and a .955 save percentage.  Orion’s steadfast performance between the pipers anchored a strong week for the Galaxy, allowing them to move into second place in the East.

Orion posted two shutouts on the week.  On Sunday, Orion stonewalled the Tigres in Quebec to secure a 1-0 win.  Then on Friday, he turned aside 31 shots in a 2-0 win over New York.

“I know guys like [Dirk] Lundquist and Riki Tiki [Tiktuunen] get all the attention when you talk about the best goalies in the league,” said Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle.  “But I’m an old goalie, and I’d take Roger up against anyone in the league.  He doesn’t waste any motion or get caught out of position.  And he doesn’t let bad games shake his confidence.  Just like me, he forgets about what happened yesterday.  In my case, it’s because I’m old and my mind’s going.  But for him, it’s because he’s a top-shelf competitor.”

Eastern Division Wide Open Early

Just like last season, the SHL’s Eastern division appears to be anyone’s for the taking, at least through the first two weeks.  The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points.  Each of the potential contenders has a surprising strength, but also a weakness that might undermine their hopes of victory.

“If anyone tells you they know who’s gonna win the East,” said Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine, “they’re either lying or drunk.”

Valentine and the Bliss are the current leaders in the East with a 6-3-1 record.  Thus far, they’ve thrived with impressive defense.  They’ve recorded the fewest shots allowed in the league, less even than famously stingy Michigan.  Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber praised his team’s eagerness to block shots and win the board battles.  “Our guys are willing to do the unglamorous work that wins games,” said Barber.  “You can’t make chocolate without grinding up a few beans, and our guys have been grinding.”

The Bliss have needed that lockdown defense, because their goaltending has been lackluster.  Free-agent signee Brandon Colt has posted a 3.09 GAA and an .897 save percentage.  “I know I’ve got to step it up,” said Colt.  “We’ve got a championship-caliber team here, and I need to get up to that level.”

The Bliss are also hamstrung by a pedestrian offense, as they continue to search for scoring beyond the “Love Line” of Valentine, LW Lance Sweet, and RW Christopher Hart.  Second-line LW Russ Nahorniak has six goals, but no one other than he and the Love Line has scored more than two.  The defense has been a particular black hole offensively; star Reese Milton has 12 points, but the other five have only combined for 8 points.  “We’ve been taking care of business in our own end,” said second-pairing blueliner Vitaly Dyomin, “but we need to be stronger both ways.”

The surprising second-place squad is the Hamilton Pistols, who have won their last four in a row to rise to 6-4-0.  The key to the Pistols’ surprising success has been their dominant top line; they are the runaway leaders in plus-minus rating, and four of them (LW Steven Alexander, C Calvin Frye, RW Claude Lafayette, and D Raymond Smyth) are among the league’s top 10 in points.  “All the smart folks thought we were still a couple seasons away,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But our first line is hotter than a firecracker, and it looks to me like we’re ready now.”

Aside from that top line, though, Hamilton is a young team that’s lacking in depth.  The team’s third line has been a particular black hole.  Shields has juggled players in and out to no apparent effect; they’ve combined for only two goals and a -6 rating.  “We’re just getting wiped out when we’re on the ice,” said C Jens Bunyakin, who has a lone assist to his credit two weeks in.  “That’s not good enough.”

If the Pistols are going to contend, they’ll also need to rely on rookie Lasse Koskinen in the crease.  The Finnish prospect comes highly touted, but he’s shown his inexperience in his SHL debut (compiling a 4-3-0 record and a 3.26 GAA).  He has come up strong in his last couple of starts, though, stopping 32 in a 3-2 win over Saskatchewan and 35 in a 5-1 beatdown of Washington.

Sitting a point behind Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  As expected from a Martin Delorme team, the Tigres are making their name with defense and goaltending.  Second-year netminder Riki Tiktuunen has been one of the league’s best so far, going 5-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a .949 save percentage.  He’s been backed by a trapping, slow-down-oriented defense that makes Quebec’s games an exercise in patience at times.  “I don’t care if people think us boring,” said Delorme.  “Boring hockey can be winning hockey, and I am all about winning.”

What may keep the Tigres from winning, however, is their completely anemic offense.  Quebec has scored only 22 goals this year, last in the league; more disturbingly, they’ve managed only 237 shots, 75 fewer than the next-worst team, Seattle.  The Tigres had expected to draft top-prospect winger Rod “Money” Argent to address their lack of firepower, but were knocked for a loop after Seattle drafted Argent instead.  Their already-struggling attack took a further hit when RW Flint “Steel” Robinson went down with an injury.

Quebec’s one-dimensional and unattractive style of play has made them less than popular with other teams.  “I think we’re all agreed that we don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Quebec,” said Valentine.  “The other teams are trying to win with talent.  They’re trying to win by beating and bloodying the other team and hobbling their talent.  It’s not cheating, but it’s close.”

Sitting in fourth, a point back of Quebec at 5-5-0, is the two-time defending champion Washington Galaxy.  The good news for the champs is that they’re getting a career season out of goalie Roger Orion, who’s posted a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage.  The Galaxy’s defense has also been strong, allowing only 336 shots, virtually tied with Quebec.

But Washington’s offense has kept the team mired in mediocrity.  Part of that has been attributable to bad luck; they’ve converted on only 7.5% of their shots, one of the worst marks in the league.  Anecdotally, Galaxy players say they’ve noticed an unusually high percentage of shanked shots and pucks pinging off of goalposts this season.  However, their usually-stout power play has disappointed them as well; they’ve scored on only 18.4% of their shots, good for only sixth in the league.

“I don’t need to do a deep dive on the numbers to see where our problem is,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “The numbers say we’ve been meh.  Our record says we’ve been meh.  Watching us play, I’ve seen a lot of meh.”

It was shortly after this point last season that the Galaxy caught fire and took control of the East, holding it the rest of the way and fending off a late challenge from Hershey to claim the crown.  Can Washington repeat the feat in 2017?  Or will Hershey wreak their revenge?  Or will Hamilton or Quebec play Cinderella and steal the title from the favorites?

“I’m not making any predictions two weeks in,” said Reagle.  “As Shakespeare once said, that’s why they play the games.  I think that was in Romeo and Juliet.”

VP Draws Protests, Boos at Galaxy Game

The worlds of politics and hockey had another awkward intersection this week, courtesy of Donald Trump.  In 2015, back when Trump was still considered a fringe candidate, the Washington Galaxy mocked him by having fans shoot pucks at a caricature of his face, a stunt for which the team later apologized.  Now that Trump has stunned the world by becoming president, the Galaxy invited him to drop the puck for their Opening Day game against the Hamilton Pistols.

Trump declined the invitation, but the Vice President agreed to do the honors in his place.  But a seemingly harmless ceremonial ritual turned into the latest example of the partisan divide in America, as his appearance was met with protests and boos.

Prior to the game, a group of approximately 50 anti-Trump protesters demonstrated outside of Constellation Center, leading chants and holding signs with slogans like “Dump Trump,” “Impeach Trump,” and “Hail to the Thief.”  Many fans walking into the arena flashed thumbs-up and expressed agreement with the protesters, although a couple of them stopped to argue.  The arguments grew heated at times, but did not turn physical.

When it was time for the puck drop, the VP emerged onto the ice wearing a Galaxy jersey and waving to the crowd.  As soon as his name was announced, the boos began to swell, drowning out the handful of cheers.  By the time he arrived at center ice along with Galaxy C J.C. Marais and Pistols D Russ Klemmer, the booing was so loud as to be nearly deafening.  Public address announcer Rob Crane urged the fans to show respect, which only made them boo louder.   The VP dropped the puck, then briefly waved again and hurried off the ice as quickly as he could.

He also visited both locker rooms before the game.  “We had a chance to talk a little bit,” said Galaxy D Bill Corbett.  “He’s a really nice guy and a real sports fan.”  Asked about the booing, Corbett said, “I mean, they’ve got the First Amendment rights, so they can do it.  But it’s a real shame, because he doesn’t deserve it.”

Rodney Reagle

Washington coach Rodney Reagle declined to discuss the incident, joking that “they’ve got 100,000 volts of electricity wired right through this chair, and if I say anything political, they’re gonna turn on the juice and I’m a goner.  So I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut.”

Sources close to the Galaxy say that star winger Jefferson McNeely was supposed to take the opening puck drop, but that he declined to do so either out of a personal antipathy to the administration or out of fear that he would be shot.  McNeely refused to confirm or deny the rumor, but said that “I’m glad to see our fans express themselves.”

For his part, the VP professed not to be upset about the booing.  “I love freedom, and this is what freedom is about,” he said.  “I don’t object to our citizens expressing their views.  I very much appreciated the fans who had the courage to show their support.”

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.

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.

Galaxy Absorb A Tough Loss, Look to Next Year

Washington SmallYou can’t blame the Washington Galaxy if they’re feeling a sense of déjà vu.  They end the SHL’s second season in a very similar position to the way they ended the first.  Just like last season, the Galaxy won the Eastern division.  Just like last season, they headed into the Finals as a heavy underdog against a powerful Western champion.  Just like last season, they played a strong series and made things much closer than anyone expected.  But just like last season, they came up on the short end of a close series.

“I used to like the movie Groundhog Day, before I started living it,” said C Eddie Costello.

This year, a last-minute goal in Game 6 propelled the Michigan Gray Wolves to the championship and sent Washington packing.  Galaxy coach Rodney Reagle praised his team for their valiant fight, especially given the rough beginning to the series.

“A lot of teams would have rolled over and given up after those games,” said Reagle, referring to Games 1 and 2, which Washington lost by a combined 6-0 score.  “It would be easy to say, ‘Well, it’s not our year, they’re way better than us.’  But our guys didn’t do that.  They gave it their all, and it was nothing but one-goal games after that.  That was the most inspirational thing I’ve seen since the end of the Muppet Movie.”

But after a second straight narrow loss, the Galaxy find themselves facing key questions headed into the offseason.  Do their two division titles and competitive showings in the Finals indicate a team that is good enough as is, and should return intact?  Or do those two straight Finals losses indicate a team that needs to get better if they’re going to have a shot at beating out the Western heavyweights?

“I wouldn’t go crazy talking about changes,” said Reagle.  “I mean, you flip a coin twice and it comes up tails both times, do you go get a new coin, or do you keep flipping?  This is a strong team, and I wouldn’t expect us to blow anything up.”

Star RW Jefferson McNeely said that the experience of losing in the Finals will only make Washington better.  “When you lose like this, it stings,” said McNeely.  “But it’s the kind of pain that inspires you to work harder, so you won’t have to feel it again next time.  And playing against teams like Michigan and Anchorage, it gives you a real measuring stick about where you are as a team.  I think that will help us next season.”

But it’s not just the Western powers that the Galaxy have to worry about.  They barely beat the Hershey Bliss to win the East this season, and the Bliss are likely to look aggressively at upgrades for next year.  The New York Night fired coach Preston Rivers and are eagerly planning to be more competitive next season.  Even youth-oriented Hamilton and Quebec are likely to come back stronger next season.

“We can’t take it for granted that we’re going back to the Finals next year,” said Costello.  “It’ll be a dogfight even within the division.  But that should help make us stronger.”

Overall, it sounds like the Galaxy are largely content to let it ride for next season.  But Reagle raised an important caveat.  “Now, it’s not like [GM] Ace [Adams] is going to be hibernating until next season,” said the coach.  “And if he sees a way to make us better, he’s not going to be dumb enough to say no.  So could there be a change, even a big one?  Like Paul Harvey says, you’ll have to come back next year to get the rest of the story.”

Galaxy, Wolves Confident Headed Into Finals

Washington SmallMichigan SmallGoing into the second Vandenberg Cup Finals, the situation seems similar to last season, as the Eastern champion Washington Galaxy head into the series as a significant underdog against a powerful Western foe.  There are a couple of key differences this time, however.  For one thing, instead of the Anchorage Igloos, the Galaxy are facing off against the Michigan Gray Wolves this time.  For another, the Galaxy feel much more confident heading into this series.

The Wolves come in on the heels of an impressive regular season.  They finished with a record of 43-14-3, slightly better than Anchorage’s mark last season.  Under new coach Ron Wright, Michigan displayed the same ferocious, swarming defense that helped them succeed last season, while adding a more potent offense that made them extremely tough to beat.

“This team is all about heart and hustle,” said Wright.  “There’s plenty of talent here, make no mistake, but it’s paired with a grinding, blue-collar work ethic.”

Perhaps the Wolves’ greatest weapon, though, is between the pipes.  G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist has been the best goalie in the SHL for two seasons running, posting a 39-10-2 record with a 1.57 GAA and a .941 save percentage.  “In the playoffs, every goal is critical,” said Wright.  “And nobody in this league can prevent goals better than The Bear.”

Given Michigan’s many strength, the Finals will present a tall order for Washington.  But according to Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely, his team isn’t scared.  “We feel like this series is a total toss-up,” said McNeely.  “If the Wolves want to write us off, they’ll regret it.”

McNeely pointed out that his team has been tested.  Last season, they pushed the heavily-favored Igloos to 7 games in the Finals.  This year, they fought off a fierce challenge from Hershey to claim the division title on the last day of the season.  They closed the season on a seven-game winning streak.  “We’ve been in the trenches,” said McNeely.  “We’re battle-tested, and we know how to win in key situations.  We’ve got this.”