Jackalopes Slice Payroll Again, Deal Cherner, Anderson

One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability.  The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive.  Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal.  They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.

With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further.  They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.

Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble.  GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press.  “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard.  “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”

Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player.  “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated.  “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”

The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans.  The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen.  Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes.  When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.

“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said.  “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy.  This has become my home.  I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”

In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota.  The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists).  Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.

“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard.  “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first.  I’ll stand behind that.”

Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race.  “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret.  “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline.  I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”

To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks.  The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season.  He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.

“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard.  “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area.  We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”

This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul.  “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters.  “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that.  But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”

It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league.  Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team.  “

“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM.  “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”

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Shockers Get Used to New Role: Contender

The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory.  For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice.  The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West.  Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy.  Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.

“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.

Morris Thompson

What has driven Saskatchewan’s success?  Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson.  When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined.  That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.

So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations.  “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM.  “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions.  That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”

The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck.  Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances.  This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth).  “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal.  It’s really paying off for us.”

The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season.  They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60.  Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.

“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes.  “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”

The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system.  “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.

With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade?  The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them.  Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division?  Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?

“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews.  “The next few days are going to be interesting.”

In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty.  The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.

“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson.  “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder.  If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested.  But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come.  I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that.  I’m not just thinking about this year.”

Shockers Dismiss Interim Coach Ponder

In a move that was widely anticipated, the Saskatchewan Shockers announced that they would not be bringing back interim coach Caleb Ponder, opening up what could be a wide-ranging search for a new bench boss for a young and rising team.

Caleb Ponder

Ponder took over the Shockers at the All-Star Break when the team fired Myron Beasley, who was the only head coach the team had ever had.  Beasley guided Saskatchewan to a 12-17-1 record before his dismissal.  Ponder, who had been Beasley’s assistant, compiled a similar record to his predecessor, posting a 15-16-3 mark in the second half.

“We appreciate everything that Caleb has done for the Shockers organization in his four years with us, and especially during his half-season as interim head coach,” said Shockers GM Cooper Matthews.  “He’s a good coach and a fine human being.  But we felt like it was time for a fresh start.”

Sources close to the team said that there was no chance that Ponder was going to be considered for the long-term head job, even at the time of his hiring.  “Unless he somehow won the Vandy, Caleb wasn’t coming back,” said one source.  The perception in Saskatchewan’s front office was that Beasley’s cheerful, quippy approach wasn’t working with a young team that both owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz and GM Matthews expect to be a serious contender, and that Ponder wasn’t enough of a change from Beasley.

“Everybody liked Myron,” said one senior front office member, speaking under condition of anonymity.  “He’s a really nice guy, and his press conferences were fun to watch.  But the perception was that he wasn’t driving the team that hard, and we’re at a stage where we need someone with a firmer hand to get to the next level.”

Ponder took the news with grace.  “I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” the coach told reporters.  “I think we have a talented group of guys here, and the sky’s the limit.  I wish them nothing but the best.”

The Shockers are expected to cast a wide net when looking for their next coach.  The names being considered by the team include minor-league coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh, Michigan assistant Morris Thompson, Anchorage assistant Kyle Barrow, and longtime bench boss Harvey Williams.

Saskatchewan’s front office is reportedly looking for a coach who takes a firm hand with discipline and has a track record with building winning teams.  These caveats would seem to rule out Marsh, who is best known for his offbeat sense of humor and has only been a coach for two years.  But multiple sources confirmed that he will be considered, possibly due to his success in molding the Shockers’ minor-league prospects.

Shockers Fire Coach Beasley

When the Saskatchewan Shockers first took the ice, they were the joke of the SHL.  They finished with the league’s worst record by far in their first season, and were best known for a promotional stunt in which they started a sumo wrestler in goal.  Their record improved in subsequent seasons, but their reputation was still marred by player hijinks and promotions gone wrong.

This season, the organization has made significant strides to become more professional.  They revamped their color scheme, dumping seafoam in favor of electric blue on their uniforms.  They signed a big-name free agent, LW Vonnie McLearen.  And they declared their intention to compete for a playoff spot.  “It’s time for us to turn the corner and become a contender,” said GM Cooper Matthews before the season.  “No more excuses.”

Myron Beasley

This week, Matthews backed up his words with action.  With the Shockers mired in mediocrity at the midpoint of the season and on track for virtually the same record as last season, the Shockers announced on Wednesday that they’d parted ways with Myron Beasley, the only coach the team has ever had.

The Shockers got off to a solid start early, posting an above-.500 record and remaining in the playoff mix in a wide-open Western division.  But the team hit the skids shortly thereafter, going 4-10-1 over its next 15 games.  Reportedly, it was Saskatchewan’s winless week before the All-Star break, which included a scoreless tie against expansion Kansas City, that convinced the front office to dismiss Beasley.

“As an organization, we’ve been clear that we expect to take the next step forward,” said Matthews.  “That hasn’t happened, so it’s time to make a change.”

The Shockers have been hampered by a sputtering offense.  The team was averaging a mere 2.27 goals per game at the time of Beasley’s firing; only the expansion Boston Badgers had scored fewer.

Beasley leaves Saskatchewan with a record of 67-138-5 over three and a half seasons.  The coach’s supporters note that he was a key force of stability during the franchise’s chaotic early days, and that most bosses would not have had the patience and tolerance to deal with some of the team’s more outlandish antics over the years.  “A lot of coaches would have quit if they’d had to go through what Myron went through,” said one source close to the coach.  “But he felt like he’d made a commitment, and he wanted to see it through.”

Beasley’s critics, on the other hand, argued that he lacks the discipline and vigor to lead a contending club.  After the Shockers’ dismal 11-48-1 showing in 2015, they improved by 10 wins the following season.  Since then, though, the team’s progress has stalled.  With owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz eager to put a Vandy in his trophy case, Saskatchewan’s lack of improvement was no longer acceptable.

“This was a tough decision for all of us,” said Matthews.  “Coach Beasley is a wonderful person, and we’ve always considered him a member of the Shockers family.  But we felt like we needed a new voice and a new face in charge in order to help us reach our goals as an organization.”

Caleb Ponder

Matthews indicated that assistant coach Caleb Ponder would take over the head up on an interim basis.  Ponder has been Beasley’s assistant since the team’s beginning.  Team sources indicated that barring a surprise development, Ponder would remain in charge of the team for the rest of the season, and the team will perform a full search for a replacement during the offseason.

For his part, Beasley says that he has no hard feelings about the decision.  “I’ve enjoyed my time here, but in the end it’s all about results,” he told reporters.  “That’s how the business goes.  Whoever takes over next, they’re getting a team with a heck of a lot of talent.  And no matter what, we’ll always have Dr. Coconut.”

Adding a layer of awkwardness to the situation, Beasley’s son Napoleon remains the Shockers’ top line center.  The younger Beasley declined to comment on his father’s firing.  Matthews said that the team had no plans to get rid of Napoleon: “He remains a key piece of our roster going forward.”

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.”

Interview of the Week: Cooper Matthews

Saskatchewan SmallThis week’s interview is with Saskatchewan Shockers GM Cooper Matthews.

SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking with the GM of the Saskatchewan Shockers, Cooper Matthews.  Cooper, thanks for finding time to talk to us.

Cooper Matthews: Sure thing.  It’s nice to talk with you!

cooper-matthews
Cooper Matthews

SHLD: It must be a busy time for you, with the trading deadline  coming up next week.  Are you getting any sleep?

CM: (laughs) A little bit, yeah.  Honestly, being a GM is demanding any time of year, but especially so around the deadline.  I’m spending more time with the rest of the front office than I am with my family now.

SHLD: So, I assume the Shockers are sellers going into the deadline.

CM: Yeah, definitely.  I’m not delusional enough to think we’re going to catch Michigan or Anchorage.

SHLD: So what are your priorities when you’re considering trades?

CM: Honestly, I wouldn’t expect any blockbusters from us this season.  We’re not looking to deal our core young players.  Guys like Zeke Zagurski and Troy Chamberlain, we’re not listening on them.  But we have a number of other players that might be useful to a contender, and we’re certainly willing to listen if we see a chance to make us better in the long term.

SHLD: And what would you be looking for in return?

CM: Why, are you planning to make an offer? (laughs)  No, I think we’re looking for the same thing every developing team is: picks and prospects.

SHLD: Let’s switch gears from the deadline for a bit.  Even though you’re not competing this year, you’ve obviously made huge strides compared to last season.  By the halfway point of the year, you’d already won more games than you did all last season.  Would you consider this a successful season?

CM: I’d say that we’re definitely moving in the right direction.  Maybe even a bit ahead of schedule.  Troy has really been a tremendous jolt to our offense; he’s taken on the scoring load in a way that’s really impressive for a rookie.  We’ve got Wyatt Barnes, who’s done a lockdown job on the blue line and scoring a bit too.  And Zeke’s doing a great job in the crease, and keeping us in a lot of games even when the offense struggles.  We’re not contenders today, but we’re building a group that can be contenders down the line.

SHLD: Definitely sounds like you’re feeling good about the season!

CM: I mean, it hasn’t been all good.  Kazoo Night was kind of a low point.  But overall, yeah.  I feel good!

SHLD: You’re the youngest GM in the SHL, only 31 years old.  Do you think that makes your job any more difficult?

CM: No, not really.  I think at first, some of the other GMs thought that I was just some kid that they could take advantage of.  But once I started making some shrewd trades and picking up some guys in the draft, they started to respect me.

SHLD: You really had to earn it, huh?

CM: Well, that’s the way it is in this game.  Respect and winning, you don’t just get handed to them.  Whatever you get in this game, you have to earn it.

SHLD: Well, we should let you get back to your trade talks.  Good luck!

CM: Thanks!  Less than a week until I can get a full night’s sleep again.

Stick Gets Stuck in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan SmallDakota SmallThe Saskatchewan Shockers’ arena crew has gotten quite a workout this season.  A couple weeks ago, they had to scramble to deal with the fallout of the Kazoo Night fiasco, when fans delayed the game multiple times by throwing objects on the ice.  In Wednesday’s game against the Dakota Rapids, the crew was challenged again, this time by another unusual cause: a wayward stick that got wedged in the boards.

“That’s a new one by me, for sure,” said Rapids coach Harold Engellund.  “It’s just one surprise after another this season.”

Apparently, it was all Justin Bieber’s fault.  The pop star had played a concert at the Shockers’ home, Potash Arena, the previous night.  As a result, the crew had to rebuild the hockey rink on a compressed timeframe.  In doing so, they apparently neglected to fasten the bolts at the top of the boards in one end of the arena.

The problem wasn’t evident at first, but as the players banged into the boards over the course of the game, the gap between the boards began to widen.  Then in the third period, Rapids RW Elliott Pepper swatted at a puck that had popped in the air, and his stick got stuck in the gap.  After several furious tugs failed to dislodge it, Pepper skated away sans stick to rejoin the play.  The referees then tried to yank it out and had no more success than Pepper.

At the next stoppage in play, the Shockers crew came over to pull it loose and failed again.  Finally, Pepper was able to dislodge the stick with the help of teammate Lars Karlsson.

“I asked the refs if that meant we could stop the game immediately and declare us the winner,” joked Pepper.  “They said no, but according to the prophecy, I believe this makes Lars and me king of hockey.”

After Pepper finally retrieved his stick, the crew worked feverishly to get the bolts attached properly.  They managed to get things fixed with only a minimal stoppage in play, although they did need to ask some of the fans in the first couple rows to scatter so they could work.

“That was a prime-time performance by our crew,” said Shockers GM Cooper Matthews.  “They were real professionals out there.”

Unfortunately for the home team, the game didn’t turn out as hoped: Saskatchewan trailed 5-3 at the time of the incident, and they wound up losing 6-3.  “When they stopped play to fix the boards, I was kind of rooting for a postponement,” said Shockers C Napoleon Beasley.  “We were already doomed.”

With five weeks left in the season, what’s next for the Shockers?  “Is it frogs, or locusts?” said Matthews.  “I haven’t read through the Bible in a while, but I think it’s locusts.”