Badgers Hire Igloos Assistant Barrow as Coach

The Boston Badgers have never finished out of the Eastern Division cellar, but they have grand ambitions for the 2020 season.  After spending a lot of money on free agents – led by G Roger Orion and LW Pascal Royal – last season and planning to pursue the market’s top names again this year, the Badgers intend to contend for the playoffs.  With that goal in mind, Boston hired the most sought-after assistant, the Anchorage IgloosKyle Barrow, to be their new head coach.

“We looked hard to find the right guy,” said Badgers GM Jody Melchiorre.  “And the more we talked to Kyle, the more we knew he was the right guy.”

Kyle Barrow

The 42-year-old Barrow definitely has the championship experience that the Badgers want.  Working alongside Sam Castor on the Igloos bench, Barrow has been to four SHL Finals and won two.  Although Anchorage is best known for its high-powered and fast-paced offense, he traditionally focused on the team’s defense, which has traditionally been very good.  During his introductory press conference, the coach expressed his desire to make Boston strong on both ends of the ice, using the Igloos as an example.

“What’s made the Igloos such a strong team over the years is that we can play any style of hockey, so there’s no one way to beat us,” Barrow told reporters.  “This team has been built around defense and a grinding mentality, but there’s plenty of offensive talent here – Lix [Darnholm], Alain [Beauchesne], Pascal – and there’s no reason we can’t become a two-way threat.”

Barrow has long been talked about as a head-coaching candidate, but until this point, he had a reputation for turning down opportunities.  He had withdrawn himself from consideration in previous coaching searches in Dakota, Washington, and Saskatchewan.  This led to speculation that he was being groomed as Castor’s successor in Anchorage.

So why did he choose to pursue this job?  “There’s so much to learn from Sam; he’s one of the best in the business,” said Barrow.  “I wanted to soak up as much wisdom as I could.  But after this past season, we talked about my future, and he agreed that I was ready, and it was time for me to take the leap.”

Barrow replaces Cam Prince, the Badgers’ inaugural coach, who was fired after two seasons at the helm.  In addition to the Badgers’ poor results on the ice, Prince seemed overwhelmed as he oversaw a locker-room culture that deteriorated badly over the course of last season, culminating in a fight between two of the team’s defensemen.

Barrow believes that winning is the best cure for the team’s chemistry problems, but he also stressed the need to instill a culture of professionalism. “When you’re on my team, your first focus needs to be on winning and improving your game,” he said.  “We’re all adults here, but first and foremost, if you’re not here to play hard and win, you’re out.  It’s not about being a taskmaster or running day-long practices, it’s about making the basic commitment to win.  I’m confident that our guys will get on board.”

Can Barrow’s winning experience be the missing ingredient for a team that finished 33 games out of a playoff spot last season?  That remains to be seen, but Melchiorre remains confident.  “I think we’re going to shock a lot of people out there,” the GM said.  “mark my words: this team is getting ready to take off.”

Badgers Fire Coach Prince After 2 Seasons

In a move that was widely anticipated around the league, the Boston Badgers fired coach Cam Prince after two seasons on the job.  After the Badgers spent a significant amount of money adding big-name free agents this season, the front office was apparently disappointed by the extremely modest improvement in the team’s fortunes this season.  Perhaps worse, the locker room broke down into feuding cliques, and Prince showed few signs of effectiveness as either a uniter or a disciplinarian.

“Cam will always have an important role in the story of this organization, as the first coach we ever had,” said GM Jody Melchiorre.  “But we’ve been having some tough discussions here over the last couple of weeks, and we’ve made the difficult decision to go in another direction.”

Cam Prince

Prince’s sophomore season got off to an awkward start, as Prince (who used to be an assistant for the New York Night) was quoted mocking several of the Night’s star players, as well as the high expectations of the ownership and front office.  Prince’s quotes (which he later claimed were meant to be off the record) earned the Badgers a 7-3 drubbing the next time the teams faced off, and earned the coach himself a season’s worth of mockery from New York fans.

That controversy aside, the first month of Boston’s season went better than expected, as the team remained within shouting distance of the .500 mark.  After that, though, the Badgers collapsed, quickly falling out of contention and into the division basement, where they have remained ever since.  And as the team floundered, a gulf opened up between the team’s veterans and its younger players.  The veterans felt that the young players were lazy and more interested in partying than playing hard; the youngsters felt that the veterans were bitter and jealous, and lacked the speed to keep up in the modern sport.

LW Cary Estabrook, the first player ever signed by the Badgers, was symbolic of the divisions within the team.  The organization hoped the Rhode Island native could become a hometown hero; instead, his career dissolved in a haze of booze and parties.  After clashing repeatedly with Prince and team veterans, Estabrook was shipped away to Hamilton in midseason.

Prince’s inability to rein in Estabrook and some of the team’s other party animals soured his standing with the veterans.  “Prince always seemed overwhelmed by the job,” said one anonymous veteran player.  “He’d stand there on the bench, looking like a kid dressed in his dad’s suit, but when it came time to discipline guys or bring the team in line, he couldn’t do it.  And after a while, it seemed like he stopped trying.”

Last week’s locker-room brawl between defensemen Bjorn Tollefson and Graham Bellinger dramatized just how bad team morale and chemistry had gotten.  “Obviously, Bjorn shouldn’t have punched a teammate,” said the same anonymous player, “but he came from Michigan, where the locker room is a tight ship.  When he saw guys running wild and not focusing on the game, in his mind, he felt like he had to do something.  And he felt like Price wasn’t doing anything, so he had to take matters into his own hands.”

Prince was not present at the press conference announcing his firing, and reporters have been unable to reach him for comment.  Sources close to Prince say that he was stunned and devastated by the firing, and that he assumed he would have at least one more season to turn things around.

It’s not clear who Prince’s replacement will be.  Melchiorre said that assistant coach Mel Lonigan would be considered for the job, although team sources consider it unlikely that he would be hired.  Longtime Washington coach Rodney Reagle is available, and it’s expected that he will be interviewed.  Other possible candidates include Quebec assistant Sylvain Berard, Hamilton assistant Jack Thornberry and minor-league coach Butch Slazenger.

Badgers’ Tollefson, Bellinger Square Off in Locker Room Bout

For the Boston Badgers, it’s been a frustrating season.  The Badgers spent a considerable amount of money in free agency, acquiring a passel of veterans in an effort to jump-start their growth from last year’s expansion beginnings.  In the first quarter of the season, it appeared that their investments had paid off, as the team got off to a respectable start close to the .500 mark.  After that point, though, Boston’s inexperience and lack of offensive firepower caught up with it.  The team sank to the basement and stayed there; they’re on track to finish with a record only slightly better than last year.

As the Badgers’ record has sagged, so has locker-room morale.  Sources close to the team describe a tense situation riven with factions, particularly between the older and younger players on the team.  Coach Cam Prince has reportedly struggled to patch the divides on the team.  And this week, the tension boiled over into a locker-room fracas that reportedly included actual fisticuffs.

Graham Bellinger

The alleged donnybrook took place after Sunday’s 6-1 loss to the Hamilton Pistols.  While the loss couldn’t be pinned on any one person, D Graham Bellinger had a particularly rough game, committing a couple of costly defensive-zone turnovers that led almost directly to Hamilton goals.  In the quiet postgame locker-room, Bellinger was getting dressed and talking with a couple teammates about what nightclub to go later in the evening.

Bellinger’s breezy talk irritated D Bjorn Tollefson, once of the free-agent veteran that Boston signed in the offseason.  Tollefson is a veteran of Ron Wright’s Michigan teams, and is known for his stern and businesslike demeanor.  Tollefson walked over to Bellinger and barked, “Maybe instead of going to the club, you should go to the rink and practice the outlet pass.”

Bellinger’s head snapped up, and he replied, “What the [heck] are you talking about?”

Bjorn Tollefson

Tollefson said, “You should get your head out of your [butt].  You party all the time, you cannot play defense, and you are a killer to the team.”

Bellinger stood up and snapped back, “Maybe you should quit riding my [butt] and mind your own business for a change.  You’re a washed-up old [expletive].  All you do is complain, and I’m sick of your [crap].”

Tollefson shouted, “[Screw] you.  Must I make you listen with my fists?”

Bellinger replied, “Go on, skin that smokewagon and see what happens, you fat [expletive]!”

Tollefson then lunged at Bellinger, and the two grappled and traded punches.  After a minute or so, their teammates were able to separate them.  Prince came out of his office, saw what was going on, then went back in his office and shut the door.  The locker room remained closed to reporters for a half-hour after the scuffle, and neither Tollefson nor Bellinger was around by the time the press entered.

Both players, and Bellinger in particular, looked a bit banged up during the next day’s morning skate.  Bellinger played in the next game.  Tollefson sat out, in what was believed to be a team suspension.

The Badgers were tight-lipped about the incident.  “What happens in the locker room, I don’t talk about that,” said Tollefson.  “It is only inside the family.”

“It’s a long season, and stuff happens sometimes,” Bellinger said.  “It’s over.”

Cam Prince

“A lot of people think they know what happened in our room, but they don’t,” said Prince.  “There’s a lot of bogus stories I’m hearing about this so-called ‘brawl.’  It’s ridiculous, is what it is.  These are professional athletes.  Tempers run high sometimes, but that’s it.  Sorry, folks, nothing to see here.”

Boston’s season is almost over, so it seems likely that there will be few long-term ramifications from this incident.  If anyone does pay for this, however, it’s likely to be Prince.  If the Badgers front office decide that the coach is unable to improve the team’s problematic chemistry, they might decide a new bunch boss in order.

Unsurprisingly, Prince declined to discuss whether he expects to be fired.  “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” the coach said in response to a question about his job status.  “Shame on you for asking.”

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.