2020 SHL Season Preview – East

Hershey Bliss

The last several seasons have been a strange odyssey for the boys from Chocolate City.  The Bliss went from winning the Vandy in 2017 to a fifth-place nightmare season in 2018 to a division title in 2019.  So what will 2020 hold?  The Bliss are largely returning the same roster as last year, adding a couple of depth pieces in D Wayne Snelling and F Mason Kilborn.  This means that their above-average offensive and defensive numbers should remain intact.  The one major change they made is in net, where they got younger and (arguably) better, replacing thirty-somethings Brandon Colt and Ollie Richardson with Christien Adamsson and rookie Nash Gould.  Goaltending has long been a sore point in Hershey, and Adamsson’s presence should provide a definite upgrade.  (Whether rookie nerves will get the better of Gould remains to be seen, but minor-leaguer Hobie Sanford provides a solid alternative if Gould falters.)  Assuming Adamsson performs as expected, the Bliss‘s success will likely rest on their ability to improve their shot quality.  Hershey has always been a volume shooting team, but their shooting percentage frequently ranks among the league’s worst.  Last season, only Michigan’s was lower.  If the Bliss can learn to wait for the right shot instead of the first shot, they could be serious Vandy contenders.

Hamilton Pistols

After rocketing to the top of the standings in 2018, the Pistols showed they were no fluke in 2019, earning a return trip to the playoffs and marching all the way to their first SHL title.  Facing a cap squeeze, they were unable to bring back deadline rental Eddie Costello, but GM Marcel LaClaire made a couple of bold moves to bolster the second line, adding veteran C Marco Venezio and RW Ben Summers on surprisingly affordable deals.  They also called up D Elvis Bodett, a dynamic offensive defenseman, from their affiliate in Oshawa.  It all should add up to a high-octane attack; no one should be surprised if the Pistols lead the league in scoring this year.  None of their new additions are particularly strong in their own end, though; Hamilton’s defense should still be solid, but probably a step down from last year.  Goalie Lasse Koskinen, who posted the best season of his career in 2019 (26-11-2, 2.25 GAA, .925 save percentage), will need to be sharp again for the Pistols to defend their title.  One player to watch: star LW Steven Alexander.  Last season, after a lackluster first half, Alexander got married and wound up lighting the league on fire in the second half, willing his team to a title and garnering MVP honors.  How will he react to reaching the mountaintop?  Will a taste of success dull the edge of his competitive drive, or will it make him hungry for more?  The answer to that question will likely determine Hamilton’s fate this season.

Quebec Tigres

After the Tigres made a surprising run in 2018 that fell one win shy of the Vandy, we warned that their success was driven in part by luck: they had a surprisingly high shooting percentage and managed to stay out of the penalty box more than you’d expect from such a physical team.  Our warning proved prescient.  The Tigres didn’t collapse in any particular area of their game last season, but they declined just a little in every way… and that proved to be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home.  The roster looks pretty much identical to last season; their big deadline acquisition, D Matt Cherner, departed in free agency, but the Tigres acquired Kevin Buchanan from Washington to replace him.  GM Pete Gondret is clearly betting that a couple more puck will bounce Quebec’s way and get them back into the postseason.  He might be right about that.  The Tigres’ defense will once again be ferocious; in particular, top pairing Laurie Workman and Richard McKinley continue to improve with experience.  The team lacks top-notch scorers, but they do have decent offensive depth; seven players recorded double-digit goals in 2019.  And their goaltending remains a strength; Riki Tiktuunen (25-19-4, 2.19, .923) remains one of the league’s top non-Lundquist netminders, and Riley Lattimore is a more-than-adequate backup.  All of this should keep Quebec in the mix.  But while their competitors in Hamilton and Hershey made clear upgrades in the offseason, the Tigres didn’t.  Will standing pat be enough in this division?

New York Night

It feels like Nick Foster’s bunch might have missed their window.  In 2018, with traditional powers Hershey and Washington declining, the Night surged into third place and looked like they were ready to contend.  But they stagnated last season; with Hamilton and Quebec rising and Hershey rebounding, New York seemed a step behind.  New GM Jay McKay made some significant changes this season, but it’s not clear if they’ve made the team better.  The most obvious upgrades were on the blueline, as the Night added Rusty Anderson and Dave Frederick on sizable deals.  On offense, they picked up reliable veteran LW Charlie Brooks from DC, but lost Misha Petronov in free agency; at best, that’s a wash.  The move that will likely do the most to determine the Night’s fate came in the crease.  McKay decided that youngster Sherman Carter was ready to become the starter, and so he let incumbent starter Jesse Clarkson depart and signed fan favorite “Jersey Mike” Ross to be Carter’s backup.  Carter posted solid numbers in 2019, but he has yet to establish a record of consistent success in the SHL.  Clarkson rarely received the spotlight, but he has been a quietly effective goalie throughout his career.  And given that the Night play an up-tempo firewagon brand of hockey, their netminders tend to take a beating.  Their chances of contention (and possibly Foster’s chances of continued employment) rest on Carter’s ability to withstand that beating.

Washington Galaxy

If there’s any silver lining to Washington’s dismal performance in 2019, it left no doubt as to whether the team needed to rebuild.  After a reported reluctance to commit to a teardown, GM Ace Adams was shown the door.  New front-office boss Wilson Shuster has been more willing to start over, moving blueliners Buchanan and Leonard Wright and winger Brooks during the offseason.  There’s a decent chance that some of the other big names – LW Casey Thurman, C Harvey Bellmore, even RW Jefferson McNeely – might also be headed out the door.  Suffice it to say that the Galaxy won’t be contending this season.  But does this roster have long-term potential?  It’s a very young group; half the roster has less than a season’s worth of SHL experience.  Unsurprisingly, this means a team full of question marks.  LW Alan Youngman and C Tucker Barnhill showed great scoring promise in the minors; will that translate in the SHL?  Can Ambroz Melicar be the strong two-way defenseman in DC that he was in Baltimore?  Can Buzz Carson and Darrell Bondurant (whose combined 3.73 GAA and .894 save percentage were second-worst in the league) develop into a quality goaltending tandem?  Is coach Peter James the right fit to help this young squad grow and mature, or will the Galaxy regret letting Rodney Reagle go?  The results this season will tell a lot about the long-term direction of this franchise.

Boston Badgers

Last season, the Badgers made a big splash by signing several prominent free agents, led by G Roger Orion and LW Pascal Royal.  But after a mildly promising start, the Badgers quickly sank back into the basement, handcuffed by an abysmal offense.  This offseason, Boston landed another big-name free agent, signing Cherner away from Quebec.  He makes the team stronger on both ends; he’s one of the league’s best offensive defensemen, while also providing rugged and reliable defense.  With Cherner on board, as well as promising youngsters Brody “Bruiser” McCallan and Kermit Kaufman, the Badgers may have the league’s best defense.  Their top draft pick, RW Levi Rudyard, shows promise.  And another year of experience should help their top scorers, LW Lix Darnholm and C Alain Beauchesne, become even more dangerous.  But in the end, this team’s lack of scoring punch will be too great a hurdle to overcome.  Even with their excellent defense and Roger Orion in net, the Badgers won’t be able to win every game 1-0.  The Badgers are continuing to build in Quebec’s mold, and new coach Kyle Barrow should be able to impart the important lessons he learned as Sam Castor’s assistant in Anchorage.  The Badgers are on a path to contend, perhaps as soon as next season.  If they can add another secondary scorer – and if they can keep their pugnacity directed at their opponents – they could become a threat in a hurry.

 

Projected Finish:

  1. Hamilton
  2. Hershey
  3. Quebec
  4. New York
  5. Boston
  6. Washington

Division Finals:

Hamilton def. Hershey

Portland def. Anchorage

Finals:

Hamiton def. Portland

2020 SHL Season Preview – West

Anchorage Igloos

After suffering a stunning upset loss in the SHL Finals, the Igloos were headed for an offseason of turnover, as salary-cap constraints forced them to make some difficult roster choices.  GM Will Thorndike opted for youth over experience, re-signing LW Les Collins and D Tony Citrone while parting with popular veterans C Nile Bernard, D Dave Frederick, and RW Ben Summers.  To replace the departed players, Thorndike acquired some solid but lower-profile journeymen – C Jens Bunyakin, LW Tadeusz Adamczyk, and D Vitaly Dyomin – while acquiring buy-low candidate C Tom Hoffman from New York.  The moves were not popular with fans, but they arguably increased the Igloos’ window of contention.  With all their big-name stars still in the fold, Anchorage will maintain its high-powered offense (featuring the fearsome top line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson) and its excellent goaltending (longtime star Ty Worthington backed up by Wendall Cantillon), and will surely be a title contender again.  But the free-agent losses struck at the team’s depth, especially on the second line, and the team’s defense will likely take a hit as well.  In an improving division, will that hit be enough to cost the Igloos a postseason spot?  If the team gets off to its by-now-patented slow start, this might be the year it comes back to bite them.

Portland Bluebacks

Last year, the Seattle Sailors shocked many observers – including us – by surging to capture a playoff spot for the first time.  This year, they have a new name and are playing in a new city, the first SHL team to relocate.  Not content with the current roster, GM Taylor Teichman made a couple of bold moves, winning a fierce bidding war for ex-Galaxy and ex-Pistols C Eddie Costello and trading starting goalie Rocky Goldmire – who had a career year last season – to make room in the crease for free-agent signee Jesse Clarkson.  Signing Costello gives Portland an elite passer on the top line, setting up wingers Vince Mango and Rod “Money” Argent.  The Clarkson move was a bit of a surprise, as his numbers last year were comparable to Goldmire’s.  But he has a more established track record, and the Pacific Northwest native was reportedly eager to play in Portland.  The Bluebacks’ uptempo, multi-faceted offense (which produced the second-most goals in the SHL last season) should be even more dangerous than it was in Seattle, and their defense – long the team’s Achilles heel – has slowly improved.  Ultimately, the team’s success or failure will once again hinge on its star, Mango.  The high-scoring winger showed a new level of maturity last season, upgrading his passing game and even playing some defense on occasion.  If Mango can continue to grow and develop as an all-around player, the Bluebacks could be a real title contender, especially if Clarkson provides a steady presence in net.  If Mango reverts to his old one-dimensional shoot-first habits, though, his team will likely fall back to mediocrity.

Saskatchewan Shockers

The good news for the boys from the Canadian prairie: they finally made the leap into contention last season.  Under the tutelage of new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers strengthened their defense (allowing only 29.5 shots per game, third-lowest in the league), while maintaining a solidly middle-of-the-pack scoring attack and getting strong goaltending from Zeke Zagurski (in spite of his early-season hot dog misadventure).  The bad news is that they still missed the playoffs, finishing 6 points out of a spot.  Their deadline trade for D Rusty Anderson wasn’t enough to get them over the hump and cost them prize prospect Tanner Brooks.  The worse news is that Saskatchewan’s wild new alternates were by far their most interesting offseason addition.  They were unable to re-sign Anderson and added no free agents of consequence.  They’ve called up Fs Yuri Laronov and Chris Quake from their minor-league affiliate in Virginia, and they should see significant minutes on the third line.  But where’s the addition – one more secondary scorer – that’s going to push the Shockers over the hump?  (They have less than $400,000 in space under the salary cap, making big trades challenging.)  Perhaps another year in Thompson’s system will give Saskatchewan the edge they need, or perhaps they’ll see another leap forward from players like LW Troy Chamberlain and C Elliott Rafferty.  Or perhaps one or two of the other Western contenders will stumble or suffer key injuries.  But as presently constituted, this looks like a team that’s going to contend again… but come up tantalizingly short.

Michigan Gray Wolves

In last season’s Western preview, we warned that 2019 might be the year that age caught up with the Wolves.  In spite of that, we still picked the Wolves to win the Vandy.  For much of the year, our prediction appeared on track.  But Ron Wright’s squad faded badly down the stretch, and wound up finishing out of the top two in their division for the first time.  For those inclined to pessimism, there are a number of warning lights flashing on Michigan’s dashboard.  The Wolves have always been built around goaltending and defense, but their offense was worse than ever before; they averaged a paltry 2.1 goals per game, dead last in the league.  They also finished with a negative plus-minus rating for the first time ever.  And several players on the wrong side of 30 – LWs Todd Douglas and Vladimir Beruschko, RWs Gordon Lunsford and Oskar Denison, C Warren Marlow, D Frank Mudrick – saw their numbers dip, in some cases precipitously.  So are the Wolves finished?  Don’t bet on it.  For one thing, a team with Wright behind the bench and Dirk Lundquist between the pipes can never be counted out.  For another thing, the roster is slowly – arguably too slowly – becoming younger.  RW Benoit Poulin and D Brooks Zabielski saw their stats tick up last season, and their ice time went up as well.  C Phoenix Cage finally gets a full-time shot with the big club, and rookie D Shayne “Boo Boo” Margara joins the bottom pairing.  The Wolves also signed free-agent LW Misha Petronov to provide some much-needed scoring.  Granted, this is still an old roster, and one or two major injuries could prove catastrophic.  But knowing Wright, it’s likely that the Wolves will use last year’s embarrassment as fuel – and that could make them very dangerous indeed.

Dakota Jackalopes

Mention the Jackalopes to almost any SHL fan, and their immediate response will likely have something to do with the team’s financial problems.  The team has steadily bled talent over the last several seasons, most recently Ds Matt Cherner and Rusty Anderson.  They did apparently stem the bleeding this offseason by extending LW Ryan Airston, although there are persistent whispers that the team is still exploring trade possibilities for him.  In fairness, the Jackalopes aren’t quite as dreadful as the rumors would make them seem.  They have a couple of quality scorers in Airston and RW Arkady Golynin.  C Riley McCrea, acquired from Saskatchewan before last season, had a breakout season.  The team has a passel of promising if unpolished young blueliners.  And top draft choice Lorne Mollenkamp gives the team some hope in net.  But the team’s offensive depth is lacking, especially in the middle, their power play is weak, and their defense as a whole still looks mediocre.  In addition, it’s hard to tell how the constant rumors of bankruptcy or relocation will affect a fairly young squad.  Coach Flim Dahlgren has his work cut out for him keeping the Jackalopes’ attention turned to on-ice matters.  And it feels like the league and owner Roger Scott need to decide whether this market is really capable of supporting an SHL team.  Scott is clearly unable or unwilling to bankroll continuing losses, and the team’s endless fire sale drags down the league’s credibility.  This is the season that Scott and GM Paul Mindegaard need to lay out a plan to return the Jackalopes to respectability… or a plan to relocate them to a city capable of supporting them.

Kansas City Smoke

In 2018, the expansion Smoke took the ice and finished last in the West, as expected.  In their second season, they actually got worse, dropping from 37 points to 31.  Their biggest issue, by far: goaltending.  Kansas City had five different goalies start at least one game, an SHL record, and their collective .882 save percentage was last by a wide margin.  While netminding wasn’t the Smoke’s only problem (their special teams were dismal and their -67 plus-minus rating was by far worst in the league), but the revolving door in net meant that no lead was safe and killed any hope of consistency.  The good news: Kansas City has a couple of big new weapons in its arsenal.  Their #1 draft pick, RW Bengt Fredriksson, gives the team a top-flight scorer it has never had before.  During the preseason, Frederiksson’s wickedly hard slap shot stood out, and KC’s offense had an unaccustomed rhythm and flow when he was on the ice.  As for goaltending, Goldmire – acquired from Portland – should at least give the Smoke a reliable #1 option.  (He’ll be backed up by Dennis Wampler, who posted the best results of last year’s crop.)  They also signed Igloos veteran Nile Bernard, who should center the second line credibly, and strengthened their defense by signing ex-New Yorker Tuomas Nurmi and trading for Washington stalwart Leonard Wright, who should help boost the power play.  Will these additions cause a miraculous leap into contention for the Smoke?  Not likely; there are still plenty of holes to fill.  But the Smoke should now be more credible, and this will give them a chance to evaluate other areas of the team.  Can Zachary Merula handle the shift from right wing to left?  Is D Gary Hermine or sophomore Bastien Chouinard really worthy of top-pairing minutes?  Is coach Randy Bergner the right man to lead the franchise forward?  If nothing else, it should be a fun season watching this club figure itself out.

Projected Finish:

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

2019 SHL Season Preview – West

Michigan Gray Wolves

Last season was a typical one for the Wolves: they bulldozed their way through the regular season on the back of their unparalleled defense and goaltending, winning the division by a comfortable 14 points. This was the first year for the SHL’s expanded four-team playoff field, however, and that came back to bite Michigan; they suffered a stunning sweep at the hands of Anchorage in the Western Division finals. Ron Wright’s crew will no doubt enter this season with fierce determination and a thirst for revenge.  Pity the fool that tries to stand in their way.  But there are a few questions surrounding this team. For instance, is this the year that age finally catches up with the Wolves?  They’re largely returning the same roster as last year (with the exception of D Bjorn Tollefson), but that roster includes eight players over 30 – including everyone on their top line, two-thirds of their second line, and two of their top four blueliners.  In a league that’s getting younger and faster, the Wolves are at risk of being left behind.  Their team has remained impressively healthy; only D Max Madison and LW Scot Davenport has significant DL stints last season. Can their good injury luck continue?  And netminder Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist – who has been the biggest component of this team’s success – was merely excellent last year, not otherworldly as usual.  Was it a temporary blip, or is he starting to decline?  The smart money is still on Michigan to make the playoff and contend for the Vandy… but for how much longer?

Anchorage Igloos

After losing the Vandy in 2017 in a major upset, the Igloos seemed to spend much of 2018 stuck in a funk.  They hovered around the .500 mark for most of the season, only to get hot down the stretch, upset the Wolves in the division finals, then withstood a spirited challenge from Quebec to take home the title.  This offseason, salary cap constraints cost Anchorage a key contributor, as RW Remi Montrechere departed in free agency.  In spite of that, the Igloos should remain one of the SHL’s top offenses.  Combined with a solid defense and good goaltending from Ty Worthington, that should be enough to give this team a shot at becoming the league’s first back-to-back champions.  But in a division that’s getting stronger every year, the Igloos can’t afford a repeat of last year’s regular-season sleepwalk.  Coach Sam Castor needs to keep this team hungry and sharp, or rising powers like Saskatchewan and Seattle might wind up eating their lunch.  One key player for the Igloos: LW Les Collins, who has developed into a major scoring threat and has provided crucial depth beyond their star-laden top line.  With Montrechere gone and linemate Nile Bernard on the decline, Collins will need to anchor that second line.  Like their rivals in Michigan, the Igloos might be living on borrowed time… not so much because of age, but for financial reasons.  Several players, including Collins, are in line for major raises this offseason.  GM Will Thorndike will likely have some painful decisions to make next offseason.  For now, though, the fans at Arctic Circle Arena can focus on what should be a great year and save the worrying for later.

Seattle Sailors

It’s difficult to figure out what direction the Sailors are heading for 2019.  After the team fired GM Jay McKay and replaced him with Hamilton’s draft wizard Taylor Teichman, it seemed clear that the team was headed for a rebuild centered around young talent.  But Seattle had no picks in this year’s draft; McKay had traded them away in his disastrous shoot-for-the-moon deals at last year’s deadline, and Teichman didn’t acquire any.  That set the stage for a weirdly quiet offseason in which the Sailors didn’t move the needle with any signings or trades.  As a result, they’ve largely returned the same roster that produced a sub-.500 finish in 2018.  They didn’t re-sign top-line C Lars Karlsson, but they replaced him with a similar player in Napoleon Beasley.  RW Philippe Durien, who won the minor-league scoring title in 2018, earned a promotion to the big club, but he’s the only significant addition.  It all adds up to a weird state of stasis for a team that feels like it needs either a serious go-for-it upgrade or a total teardown.  Maybe Teichman is trying to evaluate what he has before making any major moves.  Or maybe he’s trying to figure out if star Vince Mango is a scorer he can build around, or an albatross who’s more interested in reality TV fame than in hockey.  Or maybe he’s waiting to see where the team lands after the NHL expands to Seattle and boots the Sailors out of town.  Whatever the reason, this feels like a squad that will look very different in 2020 than it does now.

Saskatchewan Shockers

Over the last few seasons, the Shockers have slowly risen from being the league punchline to a strong young squad and possible contender.  Is this the year that Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s club makes the leap and challenges Michigan and Anchorage for a playoff spot?  They certainly haven’t stood still.  Saskatchewan jettisoned nice-guy coach Myron Beasley last season, and hired Ron Wright protégé Morris Thompson to instill toughness and discipline.  They signed Karlsson to anchor their top line.  They promoted a pair of high-scoring blueliners, Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, from their title-winning CHL affiliate in Virginia.   They signed veteran winger Piotr Soforenko to add badly-needed depth. They drafted RW Samson Kucharov, a rugged two-way player, to supply some grit.  Will that be enough?  Maybe not; this team might still be missing a piece or two.  (If LW Troy Chamberlain can step up and become a truly elite scorer, or if Vonnie McLearen can start living up to the fat free-agent deal he signed with the Shockers last season, that would help.)  But the gulf separating them the Igloos and Wolves is getting narrower every year.  If Anchorage gets off to another slow start, or if Michigan’s injury luck runs out, the Shockers are positioned to capitalize, especially if they make a smart trade or two along the way.  Saskatchewan’s not a joke any more… it’s time to start taking this team seriously.

Dakota Jackalopes

In 2018, the Jackalopes kicked their salary purge into high gear, dumping top centers Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore for prospects and draft picks.  The team managed to finish below all but the two expansion teams, as expected.  However, Dakota finished only six points behind Saskatchewan, Seattle, and 2017 champ Hershey.  Coach Flim Dahlgren earned rave reviews for making the most out of a young and fairly cheap squad.  The Jackalopes have developed a promising core of young defensemen, and they might be in a position to return to contention sooner than expected.  But the question of finances hovers over every move GM Paul Mindegaard makes.  Dakota is the smallest market in the league by far, and it’s an open secret around the league that owner Roger Scott has been hemorrhaging money over the last several seasons.  Even though the Jackalopes’ payroll is the second-smallest in the SHL, it’s rumored that further cuts might be needed.  The team’s top blueline pairing, Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, are on expiring contracts and will command hefty raises.  Will Mindegaard be able to pony up and keep the pair?  Will he even try?  Can Dakota afford star winger and fan favorite “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston’s max contract?  Can they afford the backlash that would ensue if they dealt him?  Can the team continue to survive in a market this size, or will hard economic truths force them to relocate to a larger city like Milwaukee or Portland?  The Jackalopes have a roster of young guys with upside, a smart and patient coach, and a rabid (if small) fan base, not to mention the fabulous Corn Palace.  Is that enough, or not?  Dakota has no real hope of contending, but they’re playing for much larger stakes than that.

Kansas City Smoke

In 2018, the Smoke entered their debut season with low expectations and a roster of marginal veterans who could be flipped for young talent.  They lived up to expectations, finishing with the league’s second-worst record and dealing many of those veterans at the deadline.  They enter this season with a younger roster, including some of the fruit of those deadline trades, but the same low expectations.  It’s not that the Smoke have no talent; RW Zachary Merula and C Darien Picard had impressive rookie campaigns, and C Mike Rivera had a bounce-back season with increased ice time.  But KC is badly lacking in scoring; no one on this team seems likely to have a 30-goal season or a 60-point campaign.  If Merula or Picard (or worse yet, both) hits a sophomore slump, this team is in big trouble.  The situation in the crease is also fairly dire.  The Smoke traded veteran Ollie Richardson, who provided what little consistency the team had, and will now be depending on the tandem of Brooks Copeland (who went 5-18-1 with a 4.26 GAA and an abysmal .872 save percentage last season) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (who almost certainly would not be in the majors for any other team).  The Smoke are arguably moving in the right direction, but given the competitive division they play in, they could easily finish with a worse record than last year.  And for a team whose first-year attendance numbers weren’t overwhelming, that could be a long-term problem.

Projected Finish:

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

Division Finals:

Hamilton def. Hershey

Michigan def. Anchorage

Finals:

Michigan def. Hamilton

2019 SHL Season Preview – East

Quebec Tigres

The Tigres were the SHL’s feel-good story last season. Free agent signee LW Walt Camernitz rewarded the team for the five-year deal they gave him, leading the team with 31 goals and 74 points.  RW Stephane Mirac, freed from the burden of being Quebec’s only scorer, bounced back from his sophomore slump.  Riki Tiktuunen continued his ascent into the league’s netminding elite.  And coach Martin Delorme got to live out his childhood dream, guiding his home-province team to its first-ever Finals appearance and within one win of the title.  The Tigres may not have won the ultimate prizes, but they cleaned up in the postseason awards: Camernitz was named MVP, Delorme captured Coach of the Year honors, and Tiktuunen earned the nod as Goalie of the Year.  Unsurprisingly, Quebec returned much the same roster that did so well last year; rookie blueliners Kirby Hanlon and Hampus Olsson are the only real additions.  Quebec is likely to contend again in 2019. However, there are a couple statistical quirks from last season that may temper the optimism slightly.  The Tigres’ success is built on defense and goaltending, and they were second in the league in both shots allowed and GAA last year.  But another key to their success was their offense, which improved from atrocious to decent.  That improvement was built on a league-best 10.3% shooting percentage, which seems likely to slip back a bit.  Quebec’s 89% penalty-kill percentage topped the league, and that seems sustainable… but their league-low 586 penalty minutes definitely doesn’t.  The proudly physical Tigres are unlikely to stay out of the sin bin as much this season.  In short, Quebec was both lucky and good in 2018.  They’re likely to be good again in 2019, but what happens if they aren’t quite so lucky?

Hamilton Pistols

For most of the 2018 regular season, the Pistols enjoyed a wild ride, rocketing to the top of the division and staying there most of the way.  In the last few weeks, though, Hamilton stalled and Quebec caught up to them.  The Tigres then prevailed in five games in a hard-fought division playoff.  Coach Keith Shields said that the Pistols’ late-season adversity has made them stronger and bonded them tighter together.  He may be right.  Certainly, his squad is a talented one; they finished last year in the top three in both goals scored and GAA, and their power play topped the league (23.3% conversion rate).  But Hamilton seemed like they were a piece or two away from going all the way last year.  They tried mightily to secure that piece in free agency, but they wound up with a series of swings and misses.  They tried to sign Remi Montrechere to fill the hole on their second-line right wing… but wound up re-signing journeyman Kenny Patterson instead.  They tried to sign Harvey Bellmore to center their third line… but had to settle for fading veteran J.C. Marais.  They tried to bolster their blueline corps be re-uniting with Doug Wesson… but missed again and opted for depth option Moose Baker.  It doesn’t help that their first-choice options all ended up signing with the Pistols’ division rivals, either (Montrechere with Hershey, Bellmore with Washington, Wesson with Quebec).  On the bright side, Hamilton didn’t lose any key contributors to free agency; the young and frisky squad of last year should be strong again.  If the Pistols come up short again, GM Marcel LaClaire may look at the free-agent derby as a real missed opportunity.  But either way, it figures to be another fun season at Gunpowder Armory.

New York Night

The team that everyone outside the Big Apple loves to hate, New York surprised most observers by finishing above .500 for the first time ever.  Coach Nick Foster may not have a lot of friends around the league, due to his penchant for slinging insults and ruffling feathers, but his methods have proved effective.  After trying to overhaul the clubhouse and build a more balanced roster in his debut 2017 season, Foster took a different tack in 2018, abandoning his attempts to get his forwards to play defense and leaning into the Night’s fast-paced, shoot-first, bad-boy reputation.  It worked surprisingly well, as New York led the league in goals and stopped just enough shots to succeed.  And given that rookie bottom-pairing defender Bobby Hitchcock is the only new face on the roster, Foster appears set to try the same strategy again in 2019.  Firewagon hockey has its limits, though, given that there’s only one puck on the ice at a time.  The Night can’t count on winning every game 7-5.  (Also, New York’s rise was arguably fueled as much by the stunning collapses of Washington and Hershey as anything.)  Given that there’s little room for improvement on offense and little hope for improvement on defense, the team’s best hope for reaching the next level lies in net.  Jesse Clarkson turned in another quietly solid year in 2018, but backup Sherman Carter regressed a bit after a strong rookie season, going 11-12-1 with a 3.81 GAA and .899 save percentage.  In the long term, New York is counting on Carter to become elite in order to contend; in the short term, a step up might be the difference between real contention and falling back toward the basement in the hotly-contested East.

Washington Galaxy

In our preview of the Galaxy last season, we predicted that they would finish fourth in the East and forecasted that they’d “likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark.”  This was a surprising prediction at the time, but it proved to be right.  The underlying statistics suggest that their 31-32-1 record was no fluke; they improved somewhat on offense from 2017 (largely thanks to their shooting percentage reverting toward the mean), but slipped backward on both defense and goaltending.  Washington’s front office didn’t take this stumble lightly; they fired coach Rodney Reagle and vowed a new direction in 2019.  New coach Peter James will definitely provide a style contrast from Reagle’s goofy antics, but it’s not clear that the Galaxy really understands what its “new direction” might look like.  The Galaxy splurged on C Harvey Bellmore to bolster their third line, which suggests a go-for-it mentality.  But then they allowed netminder Roger Orion to depart in free agency and replaced him with prospect Buzz Carson.  Granted, Orion’s 2018 numbers (17-22-0, 3.10 GAA, .914 save percentage) weren’t quite up to his usual standards.  But he remains a top-five SHL goalie.  Carson (10-15-2, 3.48, .896 with Dakota last season) is a promising young player who might, with diligent effort, become as good as Orion three or four years from now.  Dropping Orion and signing Carson suggests that Washington is ready to rebuild.  But if that’s the plan, why sign Bellmore?  Why not try to flip veterans like LW Charlie Brooks, RW Nori Takoyaki, and D Leonard Wright while they still have value?  And if they plan to contend, why not keep Orion and upgrade their second-line wings (likely more effective than signing Bellmore)?  By not fully committing to either path, GM Ace Adams risks stranding his team on the treadmill of mediocrity.

Hershey Bliss

While our prediction on the Galaxy’s 2018 season was accurate, our prediction for the Bliss was way off the mark.  We picked the Bliss to repeat as division champs, only to see them collapse in shocking fashion: they got off to a horrendous 3-16-1 start and were unable to dig themselves out of that hole, ultimately finishing fifth.  Coach Chip Barber and players believe that the performance was a black swan, a worst-case scenario driven by poor puck luck.  There’s definitely a case to be made there: Hershey’s 8.3% shooting percentage was one of the league’s worst, they allowed a surprising number of goals despite their strong defensive numbers, their special teams had off years, and they inexplicably led the league in penalty minutes (rookie Cedric Meloche was a prime offender).  There’s a good chance that things will revert to the mean in most categories in 2019.  The Bliss also made some key upgrades: they landed prized free-agent winger Montrechere, and called up promising young blueliners Steve Cargill and Bruce Minnik.  (There’s a good chance we’ll see top draft pick Gabriel Swindonburg and prospect C Vance Ketterman later this season as well.)  Everything points to a strong rebound for the Bliss, except one: goaltending.  They tried desperately to pilfer Orion away from their DC rivals, but missed out.  Instead, they wound up re-signing incumbent Brandon Colt, who had a dismal season (23-25-1, 3.07, .893) and might be washed up at age 33.  Ageless backup Milo Stafford finally retired, and Hershey replaced him with… 34-year-old Ollie Richardson, whose numbers were only a bit better than Colt’s.  Prospect Hobie Sanford waits in the wings, but the organization clearly thinks he needs more seasoning.  It would be a shame if such a talented team was undone by a collapse in the crease.

Boston Badgers

It was a long season for the expansion Badgers, as expected.  A decent young defense was undermined by an abysmal offense, weak penalty kill, and unimpressive goaltending.  But in a surprising move, Boston is moving aggressively to improve in its sophomore season.  In fact, believe it or not, GM Jody Melchiorre had the most active free-agent period in the SHL.  They landed Orion to upgrade in the crease and provide a mentor for prospect Carson Wagner.  They gave their offense a boost by signing LW Pascal Royal and taking C Alain Beauchesne with the top draft pick.  In a buyer’s market for veteran blueliners, they signed a pair of hard-nosed bangers in Dmitri Kalashnikov and Bjorn Tollefson.  Will all that turn the Badgers into overnight contenders?  No; their offense is still not weak, and their defense isn’t quite good enough to compensate.  But this team is starting to resemble Quebec from a couple of seasons ago.  They’re not good enough to compete yet, but they’re on a promising path.  At the very least, they aren’t going to be a fun or easy opponent to play in 2019.  They’ll grind and scrap and and make life miserable for the contending clubs in the East.  This division is going to get very interesting in the years to come.

Projected Finish:

  1. Hamilton
  2. Hershey
  3. Quebec
  4. New York
  5. Washington
  6. Boston