2019 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the Eastern Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held on Wednesday at New York’s Neon Sky Center, was announced today by coach Martin Delorme.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton. This year’s Eastern Division voting was dominated by fans of the hosting Night and Alexander’s Pistols.  The teams are fierce rivals, and both fan bases reportedly engaged in ballot-stuffing efforts intended to get their heroes chosen to the starting lineup.  Hamilton’s fans won this one, voting their newly-married star to a starting slot in spite of what by Alexander’s lofty standards is a subpar first half.  He recorded only 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists), although his +10 rating speaks to the success the Pistols have had with him on the ice.  It’s Alexander’s third straight All-Star appearance and his second start.  “This is my chance to rise up,” said Alexander.

D: Dominic Sanchez, New York.  Sanchez has historically been among the SHL’s top offensive defenseman, which has earned him a starting spot each of the last two years.  Thanks to Night fans’ increase in voting, however, the 29-year-old became the top defensive vote-getter for the first time.  New York is having a strong season, and so is Sanchez: his 33 assists are fifth-best in the league, and his 41 points are good for fifth in the SHL.  He’s also sporting a +12 rating, one of the best among league blueliners.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  The Night-Pistols voting war was most intense at this position; Frye and New York’s Brock Manning were the two top vote-getters at any position.  Frye wound up winning the spot by less than 3,000 votes.  It’s his second straight start and third overall appearance.  As usual, he has the numbers to back it up: his 25 goals are second-most in the SHL, and his 43 points are the league’s third-highest total.  “The fans picked it right,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Calvin is the best center in this league, bar none.”

D: Reese Milton, Hershey. Milton is the only player not from the Pistols or Night to crack the starting lineup.  He has started every All-Star Game in SHL history, but this is the first time he has been outvoted by Sanchez.  Not only that, he only narrowly held off Hamilton’s Hercules Mulligan for second place.  Milton may have slipped a bit in the voting results, but he remains as strong as ever on the ice.  Only Sanchez has more points than Milton’s 40 among defensemen, and no blueliner in the SHL has more goals than Milton’s 15.

RW: Rick “The Stick” Nelson, New York. Hard as it may be to believe, this is Nelson’s first All-Star appearance.  Granted, his cocky personality has never made him a favorite among fans outside the Big Apple, and his reputation as a selfish one-way player has never endeared him to opposing coaches.  However, Night fans have always loved their star; to them, his arrogance reads as confidence, and his defensive disinterest reads as a laser focus on scoring.  And he’s the best pure scorer in the league so far this season; his 30 goals are tops in the SHL by a healthy margin, and his +10 rating shows that those goals aren’t just empty calories.  “At last, the fans have learned to appreciate my greatness,” said Nelson.

 

Second Line

LW: Chase Winchester, New York.  Winchester may have lost to Alexander in fan voting, but there was no way that the SHL’s leading point man wasn’t going to get a spot on the East roster.  It’s the first time Winchester has gotten an All-Star nod.  He has a reputation as one of the league’s slickest passers, and the stats back it up.  His 46 assists this season are ten ahead of his nearest competitor, and his 54 points are ten ahead of Night teammate Nelson atop the league leaderboard.

D: Jack “Hercules” Mulligan, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rugged young defensive star has earned notice around the league both for his vicious checks and his surprising facility with the puck.  Among those who’ve noticed is Delorme, who chose Mulligan for his second All-Star trip.  “He is one I wish I had on my team,” the Quebec coach said.  “He is a wrecking ball on skates.”  The Pistols are great at controlling the puck when Mulligan is on the ice, as his +9 rating attests.  His 21 assists attest to the fact that he’s not at all lost on the offensive end.  And his 41 penalty minutes attest to the fact that he’s not a player to mess with.

C: Alain Beauchesne, BostonBeauchesne was the top pick in this year’s draft, and he’s been every bit as good as the Badgers had hoped.  Delorme recognized his sterling performance by making him Boston’s lone All-Star.  Beauchesne follows in the footsteps of teammate Lix Darnholm, who made the Eastern squad as a rookie last season.  Boston may be struggling to perform on offense, but Beauchesne ranks among the league’s best.  The 21-year-old Montreal native is in the top 10 in the SHL with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists).

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  The 23-year-old Risch makes his All-Star debut sharing a defensive pairing with his Pistols teammate.  Like Mulligan, Risch is known around the league for his hard hits; also like Mulligan, he is better offensively than his reputation would suggest, notching 14 assists and a +6 rating so far on the season.  Risch and Mulligsn anchor a stout Hamilton defense that is allowing the second-fewest shots per game.  “He has the body of a lumberjack,” said Delorme.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  It’s somewhat surprising that Lafayette, Alexander’s close friend and linemate, hasn’t made the All-Star team before this year.  Hamilton’s enthusiastic fanbase couldn’t lift him to a starting spot ahead of Nelson, but Delorme deemed him worthy of a spot.  Like Winchester, he is an elite passer and facilitator; his 29 assists are good for fourth in the SHL.  The normally-reserved Lafayette was thrilled to receive the honor, and vowed a win for the East.  “I’m never gonna stop until I make ‘em drop and burn ‘em up and scatter the remains,”said Lafayette.

 

Third Line

LW: Walt Camernitz, QuebecDelorme picked only two of his own players to the Eastern roster; Camernitz was one of them.  The rugged 31-year-old winger is a favorite of Delorme’s, but it was his strong play that earned him his first All-Star trip.  Camernitz is in the top ten in the league in both points (38) and assists (24).  “Walt is the ideal player in my eyes,” said the Tigres coach.  “He is hard to knock down, and he always gets up again.”

D: Jean-Luc Aubin, Hershey.  Aubin is another first-time All-Star.  The veteran blueliner was something of a surprise selection, as his offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping (4 goals, 11 assists) and he is not known as a particularly rugged defender.  However, he does lead the Bliss in plus-minus rating, with a +13 so far on the season.

C: Eddie Costello, WashingtonCostello, who is the Galaxy’s lone representative in the game, makes his first-ever appearance as an All-Star.  In a disappointing year in the nation’s capital, Costello is certainly a worthy representative, leading the team in points (34) and assists (24).  However, the selection provoked controversy in New York, as Night fans were incensed that Manning didn’t make the team in spite of strong numbers (19 goals, 17 assists, +10 rating).  Delorme responded to the outrage in Gotham with exasperation.  “The rules are that every team must be represented,” said the coach.  “I did not make the rule; I only follow it.”

D: Laurie Workman, Quebec.  Workman joins Camernitz as the Tigres’ only representatives, both chosen by their coach.  It’s the second straight All-Star honor for the sophomore standout.  He’s tracking almost exactly with his performance from his rookie season, recording 18 points (5 goals, 12 assists) and a +7 rating in the first half of the 2019 season.  Delorme said that he might have chosen fellow top-pairing defender Richard McKinley as well, had the rising young star not missed 15 games with an injury.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart makes his third appearance in the midseason contest.  Unlike the last two years, Hart is the sole member of the Bliss’ “Love Line” to receive All-Star honors.  Hart’s 27 assists place him fifth in the league, and his 36 points are second-best on the Bliss, behind only fellow All-Star Milton.  “Being at the game without my brothers in arms is going to feel weird,” admitted Hart.  “But hey, it means I’ve got bragging rights over them.  Cool!”

 

Goalies

Jesse Clarkson, New York.  The fired-up voters in the host city managed to get one more of their own into the starting lineup, voting Clarkson into the starting slot ahead of Hamilton’s Lasse Koskinen and Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen.  It’s the first time that Clarkson has been an All-Star, and he doesn’t only owe his spot to the fervor of New York fans.  He’s also having a career year, going 12-9-2 with a 2.62 GAA.  His .930 save percentage is tied for the SHL’s second-highest mark.  Thanks to Clarkson’s heroics in net, the Night are currently in line for a playoff position despite allowing a league-worst 38.75 shots per game.

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a mild upset, Delorme passed over his own goalie, Tiktuunen, and instead gave Koskinen his second All-Star nod.  The two Finnish-born netminders have very similar statistics thus far in 2019.  By coincidence, Koskinen has the same 12-9-2 record that Clarkson does; however, he has a superior 2.21 GAA, third-lowest in the league.  His .925 save percentage ranks fourth in the SHL.  According to Delorme, Tiktuunen was not offended by the snub.  “He told me that he preferred the vacation,” the coach noted.

Outlook Hazy in Closely-Contested East

The 2019 SHL season is less than one-third of the way complete, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture take shape in the Western Division.  Barring a dramatic change of fortune, the Michigan Gray Wolves and Seattle Sailors are the favorites to make the postseason.  Similarly, the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke are nearly certain to be on the golf course come springtime.  That means the Anchorage Igloos and Saskatchewan Shockers will likely be chasing the Wolves and Sailors in the quest for a playoff berth.

In the East, however, nothing seems certain.  There is no obviously dominant team, and only one club appears to be out of contention.  Each of the contending teams has key strengths, but also potentially fatal weaknesses.  At this stage of the season, the East appears completely up for grabs.

“If you think you know who’s coming out of this division this year, I want to see your crystal ball,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Looks like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

The first-place Hershey Bliss won the Vandy in 2017, and the fluky shooting-percentage issues that helped doom them last season aren’t plaguing them this time around.  They’re fundamentally solid at both ends; they’re averaging 37.1 shots per game (second in the league) while allowing only 31.2 (good for fifth).  They’re also benefiting from strong special-teams play, with their power play (26% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.5%) both in the top three in the league.

However, these numbers mask a curious weakness in 5-on-5 play, which is exposed by their -7 rating.  “5-on-5 has been a problem for us,” acknowledged Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “It’s definitely been a bittersweet season so far.”

Hershey’s biggest problem, though, may be its longest-standing one.  The Bliss have perennially struggled to find security between the pipes.  They tried hard to land an upgrade during the offseason, only to strike out and settle for re-sign incumbent Brandon Colt.  Colt’s 11-4-0 record is impressive, but his underlying numbers (2.97 GAA, .905 save percentage) are hardly dominating.  If the Bliss are going to be serious contenders, they may need to improve in net.

The New York Night have surprised many observers with a strong start, and they currently sit in second, three points behind Hershey.  They’ve been the league’s most potent offense (with 75 goals on 39.5 shots per game), which was expected.  But they’ve traditionally been doomed by poor numbers at their own end.  This year, they’ve been better than usual, thanks in large part to a strong performance from goaltender Jesse Clarkson (9-5-1, 2.78, .923).

“To me, Jesse’s been our MVP so far,” said Night coach Nick Foster.  “He’s really saved our bacon.”

There’s more truth to Foster’s statement than he might intend.  New York’s defense remains lackluster; they’re allowing 37.1 shots per game, tied for worst in the league.  If Clarkson’s numbers slip back toward his career norms, or if he gets hurt, the Night might be doomed.

In addition, the team is benefitting from a 29.3% conversion rate on power plays.  Even for New York, which traditionally thrives in man-advantage situations, that seems unsustainable.

The Hamilton Pistols made the playoffs for the first time last year, and they returned all the key players from last season’s run.  They’re thriving 5-on-5, with their +17 rating the best in the SHL.  Their defense looks even stronger than last season; they’ve allowed a mere 29.2 shots per game so far, third best in the league.  They’ve gotten typically strong netminding from Lasse Koskinen (8-5-1, 2.22, .927).  And C Calvin Frye (16 goals, 12 assists) looks like a potential MVP candidate.

So why haven’t they broken out of the pack?  One key reason is their special-teams play.  Last season, those units were among the league’s best.  This season, their 13% power-play percentage and their 75.9% PK efficiency are both second-worst in the league.

Surprisingly, the Pistols’ biggest issue may be their biggest star.  LW Steven Alexander is off to an uncharacteristically slow start; his 6 goals are tied for third-highest total on the team.  It’s possible that the notoriously sensitive Alexander was rattled by his karaoke-bar birthday misadventures in New York.  Or maybe the slump is just a temporary blip.  But Hamilton typically rises and falls on Alexander’s stick, so they need him to turn things around soon.

The Quebec Tigres came within a game of winning the Vandy last season, and they have designs on making a return trip this season.  So far, though, they’ve been unable to keep their heads about the .500 waterline.  Offensively, they continue to click, with top scorers LW Walt Camernitz and RW Stephane Mirac continuing to produce at the rate that got them to the playoffs last year.

Ultimately, though, Quebec’s success is built around defense and goaltending, as always.  And while they’ve been solid in those areas this year, they haven’t been quite as good as they need to be.  They’re allowing 30 shots per game, fourth in the league.  Good, but not top-tier.  Goalie Riki Tiktuunen (6-6-3, 2.30, .923) has been good, but has not duplicated the form that won Goaltender of the Year last season.  The team needs Tiktuunen to perform at that elite level to succeed.

Tigres coach Martin Delorme argued that the injury to top blueliner Richard McKinley has hit his team hard.  “We are still trying to find our best pairings in his absence,” Delorme said.  “To lose a player of his caliber, it is a challenge.”  The coach did not rule out the possibility of Quebec upgrading their defensive corps via trade.

The Boston Badgers are surprisingly on the fringes of the race, despite the fact that they were an expansion team last season.  Top draft choice C Alain Beauchesne looks like the Rookie of the Year front-runner so far (11 goals, 16 assists), and G Roger Orion (5-8-2, 2.75, .916) looks like the free-agent game-changer that Boston’s front office was hoping for.

“Rog is a good enough goalie to keep you in any game,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince.

In the long run, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to contend this season.  They’re currently being outshot 32.4 to 21.2 on average, and that’s too big a gap for even a scrappy Badgers team to overcome.  “I’d never say never with this bunch,” Prince cautioned.  “They’ve got a lot of fight in them.”

Even the last-place Washington Galaxy, stuck in last and seemingly headed for a dismal year, have a possible case for optimism.  Their 7.95% shooting percentage is among the league’s worst, and seems due to revert to the mean.  Then again, people said that about the Bliss last season, and they never recovered from their horrendous start.  And Hershey’s defense was a lot better than Washington’s leaky unit (which is allowing 37.1 shots per game).

“When it rains, it pours,” said Galaxy C Eddie Costello.  “And it feels like we’ve been living through a hurricane.”

There’s plenty of time for the race to shake out and for some teams to separate themselves from the pack.  For now, though, it’s a wild and wide-open ride for the Eastern teams and their fans.