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

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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

2018 SHL Season Preview – East

Hershey Bliss

Coming into last season, the Bliss had a reputation as a team with talent, but a persistent habit of coming up short in the clutch.  Then they outlasted Washington to win the East, then stunned heavily-favored Anchorage in 7 games to win the Vandy.  Now, the Bliss head into 2018 as favorites to repeat as division champs, and perhaps become the first SHL team to win back-to-back championships.  The “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart remains intact, as does their top defensive pairing of Reese Milton and Joel Baldwin.  The second line (LW Russell Nahorniak, C Spencer Kirkpatrick, and RW Noah Daniels), which took a key step forward last year, is still in place.  The only key contributor who isn’t back is veteran C Henry Constantine, a vocal clubhouse leader.  Meanwhile, the team added several quality rookies (D Cedric Meloche, C Yegor Nestorov, F Anton Lapointe) along with a couple of key free agents (D Jean-Luc Aubin and LW Trevor Green).  Put it all together, and it should be the same formula for victory that worked so well last season: a fast, high-scoring offense and a reliable defense.  If there are any question marks here, they’re in net.  Brandon Colt shocked the world in last season’s Finals and earned the MVP award.  If he can approach that level during 2018, Hershey has a fine shot to be back-to-back champs; if he reverts to the solid-but-unspectacular form he’s displayed in the rest of his career, the Bliss could be vulnerable.  Backup Milo Stafford defied the odds in 2017 with another great year, but he’s turning 36 and seems destined to decline eventually.  If that happens this year, the Bliss might not have such a sweet finish.

Washington Galaxy

As long as there’s been an SHL, the Galaxy have been contenders for the title.  They made back-to-back Finals trips in ’15 and ’16, then finished a close second to Hershey last season.  This year, though, they’ll likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark.  What went wrong?  Primarily, how they’ve bungled free agency.  Last season’s big signing was D Patrick Banks, who inked a three-year deal amid much fanfare.  He flopped in DC, scoring only 2 goals while struggling to mesh with Grant Warriner on the second pairing.  The Galaxy left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was selected by Boston.  Backup goalie Ron Mason, another big-money signing, put up a much better season (11-10-0, 2,78 GAA, .911 save percentage); unfortunately, Washington had only inked him to a one-year deal, and he bolted to rival Hamilton this offseason.  Instead, the Galaxy will rely on rookie Darrell Bondurant, who didn’t wow anyone in the minors last year.  Coming into this offseason, the Galaxy had two big names to re-sign: wingers Casey Thurman and Walt Camernitz.  Washington made a priority of Thurman, and they inked him to a five-year, $20 million contract.  However, they wound up alienating Camernitz; the gritty and underrated forward wound up in Quebec instead, blowing a huge hole in Washington’s second line.  (C J.C. Marais, coming off of a bad year at age 33, is another concern.)  Next, the Galaxy declined to tender an offer to rugged third-line RW Sindri Pentti, declaring that he was over the hill at age 35.  Pentti ended up joining Camernitz in Quebec, while Washington filled his slot with Roman Bandikoff, who is just as old, put up similar numbers, and has a worse defensive reputation.  The bottom line: the Galaxy will likely be worse on offense, defense, and in net.  Meanwhile, Hamilton, Quebec, and even New York all improved, often at Washington’s expense.  Making matters worse, Washington’s store of prospects is pretty thin.  It seems unlikely that the Galaxy could tumble from second to fifth, but that’s arguably more likely than the chances of them winning the division again.

Hamilton Pistols

If there’s a team that can topple the Bliss atop the East, it’s most likely to be the Pistols.  Hamilton has plenty of star-quality talent in its ranks; LW Steven Alexander may be the SHL’s best pure scorer, C Calvin Frye its finest young player, Raymond Smyth its finest blueliner.  What’s held them back in the past is a lack of balance and depth.  In particular, the Pistols’ third line was a disaster last season; they gave up tons of shot opportunities whenever they were on the ice.  To fix the balance problem, Hamilton acquired several solid veterans: C Henry Constantine (who got a ring with Hershey last year), G Ron Mason (who won the Vandy with Anchorage in ’15), and D Craig Werner.  Then they overhauled the third line and bottom defensive pairing, calling up a number of players who showed well with their affiliate in Oshawa last season.  The new bunch is green and may take some time to mesh, but they should hold their own against the bottom-end units on other clubs.  With the four-team playoff field this year, there’s a good shot that Hamilton makes the postseason for the first time.  But the picture feels unfinished; the Pistols seem a piece or two away from becoming a truly elite team.  Maybe they acquire the missing pieces at the trade deadline, or maybe they add them next season.  Either way, this seems like a team on the rise; it seems likely we’ll be seeing Keith Shields‘ crew in the postseason for some time to come.

Quebec Tigres

In their second season, the Tigres showed signs of growth and improvement; they finished out of the cellar, and the hard-nosed defensive ethic preached by coach Martin Delorme appeared to be taking root.  But their upside potential was limited by a stagnant, impotent offense; by and large, Quebec seemed content to jam up the neutral zone and try to win ugly, 1-0 games.  This approach worked all right when Riki Tiktuunen was between the pipes, but not at all when the fragile netminder was absent.  (The Tigres went 17-14-7 in Tiktuunen’s starts, and 3-19-0 with anyone else in the crease.)  GM Pete Gondret made aggressive moves to shore up the Tigres’ weak spots; they may be the most improved team this season, and that’s not even including their sharp new uniforms.  To bolster the attack, Gondret signed a pair of ex-Washington teammates, LW Walt Camernitz and RW Sindri Pentti.  Both are rugged two-way players that are well-suited to Quebec’s style of play, but they should also give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm.  To shore up the goaltending situation, Gondret signed Riley Lattimore to back up Tiktuunen.  Lattimore posted a respectable 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage in Anchorage last season; he should ensure that the Tigres can compete on nights when Tiktuunen isn’t in net.  So the Tigres will be better… but will they be a contender?  That likely depends on two things: whether Tiktuunen can stay healthy, and whether Camernitz is able to take the scoring burden off of Stephane Mirac and help the latter bounce back from his sophomore slump.  If those things pan out – and if Delorme can get his messy personal life under control – this is a team that could surprise.

New York Night

Last season, new coach Nick Foster came in determined to shake up a struggling club.  He was determined to fix the sour team chemistry and improve the team’s leaky defense while maintaining their usual offensive pop.  Foster certainly shook things up; he called out his team publicly, juggled lines freely, and didn’t hesitate to bench, demote, or trade players who didn’t get with the program.  After all the upheaval, though, things didn’t work out as Foster hoped; instead, the offense dropped back to the middle of the pack, while the defense remained as porous as ever.  The one bright spot was the goaltending, with Jesse Clarkson and rookie Sherman Carter both turning in solid seasons, but they were under constant siege.  And while there are some new faces, most of the changes were lateral moves.  And with many teams in the East making serious upgrades, it’s tough to picture New York moving up.  If the Night are going to contend, they’ll need to see improvement from their existing players.  Last year, almost everyone on the team had a down year.  RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Rocky Winkle were two of the only exceptions; the rest of the squad would do well to copy their energetic two-way play.  Perhaps the biggest key to New York’s success is RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson.  The enigmatic star had a dismal season, clashing repeatedly with Foster and scoring only 20 goals while showing the same disinterest in passing and defense that he always has.  The most notable “highlight” of his year was getting beaten up in a bar fight.  Foster reportedly pushed to get rid of Nelson in the offseason, but owner Marvin Kingman blocked the move.  If Nelson can swallow his pride and step up his game, he could be the difference maker that pushes the Night to a playoff spot.  If he can’t, it could be another long year in the Big Apple… and Foster might wind up paying with his job.

Boston Badgers

The big victory in Boston this season already happened, when the Badgers were chosen as one of the SHL’s new expansion teams.  GM Jody Melchiorre, who came up with the Igloos organization, has emphasized the desire to build a “blue-collar team.”  He’s done well at that, assembling a youthful collection of muckers and grinders through the expansion draft.  This is a scrappy team that should be good at wall work and winning puck battles in the corners; they won’t be a fun opponent, to say the least.  But it’s best not to expect too much from this bunch, because of the missing ingredient: offense.  LW Lix Darnholm, a Swedish prospect who was the first overall pick in the draft, is the only legitimate scoring threat Boston has.  Opposing defenses will stack up to stop him, as there’s no one else on the team who can make them pay.  They’re likely to try the Quebec route of slowing the pace and trying to win low-scoring games on fluke goals.  But the Tigres had a secret weapon to make that strategy work: Tiktuunen, one of the league’s best young netminders.  Neither of the Badgers’ goalies, Dennis Wampler or rookie Carson Wagner, is anywhere near Tiktuunen’s class.  This should be a hard-working and reasonably entertaining team that will endear itself to the fans in Beantown, but don’t expect a lot of victories.  Not yet, anyway.

Projected Finish:

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

2018 SHL Season Preview – West

Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos are certain to be in the championship mix again this season.  Their high-octane offense – led by C Jake Frost, the SHL’s top scorer – returns largely intact, as does their formidable defense and rock-solid netminder Ty Worthington.  All that top-shelf talent will be enough to make the Igloos dangerous, and their shocking upset loss in last year’s SHL Finals should add some fuel to their competitive fires.  A potential return trip to the Finals, however, hinges on a couple of key factors.  LW Jerry Koons had a breakout season in 2016 with a 44-goal, 90-point effort.  If he can duplicate that performance, it will prevent opposing defenses from overloading on Frost and make the Igloos’ attack nearly unstoppable; if he takes a step back, Frost will need to pick up the slack.  Anchorage lost a chunk of its young depth in the expansion draft, as both RW Tyler Cloude and C Derek Humplik were plucked away.  As a result, they could be vulnerable to injuries.  They’re thinner still in the crease; previous backup Riley Lattimore was a salary-cap casualty, so if Worthington goes down for an extended period, they’ll need to rely on rookie Wendall Cantillon.  Given good health and a strong performance from Koons, there’s no reason not to pick the Igloos to go back to the Finals and win this time.

Michigan Gray Wolves

Well, maybe there’s one reason to pick against the Igloos.  The Wolves have been Anchorage’s fiercest competitor since the SHL began, and with the expanded four-team playoff field, it’s likely they’ll meet in the postseason.  Michigan’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners defense remains its calling card, backstopped by all-world goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  There are likely to be a lot of low-scoring games again at Cadillac Place this season.  The Wolves have a weakness, though: age.  A lot of their key players – Cs Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow, D “Mad Max” Madison, LW Vladimir Beruschko, RW Gordon Lunsford, D Frank Mudrick, LW Todd Douglas, and RW Oskar Denison – are on the wrong side of 30.  Last year, Bailes and Marlow both missed significant time with injury, and Michigan’s offense went down the drain when they were out.  If they or any of the other players on the above list get hurt, the Wolves could find themselves in trouble.  Michigan has a couple of rising young stars, most notably D Fritz Kronstein and RW Benoit Poulin, but their core is aging rapidly and may not have too many more bites at the apple.  And the Wolves are always a Lundquist injury away from slipping back into the pack.  The sun hasn’t set on this bunch yet, though, and Michigan could easily have another Vandy run left in them — if they can stay healthy.

Saskatchewan Shockers

The Shockers continued on their path of slow, steady improvement in 2017; they got a strong performance from rookie C Elliott Rafferty (23 goals, 40 points) to complement LW Troy Chamberlain (27 goals, 59 points) and C Napoleon Beasley (29 goals, 57 points), and they finished in a surprising third-place tie, albeit with an unimpressive 23-35-2 record.  Their moves for 2018 promise more modest improvement; they drafted a quality young center in Riley McCrea, made a surprise free-agent signing in LW Vonnie McLearen, and promoted several promising minor-leaguers (RW Colton Jabril and Ds Robby Rohrman and Valeri Nistrumov).  Perhaps their most impressive move was jettisoning the yellow-and-seafoam color scheme that made them the joke of the league.  With all those steps forward, it’s not hard to imagine Saskatchewan reaching the .500 mark for the first time.  It’s a lot harder, though, to imagine the Shockers challenging either Anchorage or Michigan for a playoff spot.  (They were reportedly in hot pursuit of RW Elliott Pepper from the Jackalopes; if they had acquired him, this team might have been truly dangerous.)  It’s harder still to imagine them holding a promotion that owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz doesn’t screw up somehow.  And it’s still tough to figure out the Shockers’ end game.  Are they trying to become the next Dakota, a team that’s talented enough to post respectable records but not talented enough to go all the way?  Or does Doofenshmirtz think he has the nucleus of a true contender on his hands?  If so, is coach Myron Beasley the man to get them there, or is he merely a quippy nice guy who needs to be replaced with a taskmaster who can make this team elite?  This season should say a lot about the direction of this promising but incomplete young club.

Dakota Jackalopes

Last season, the Jackalopes shot for the moon, loading up on free agents to take a shot at a title.  Instead, they fizzled, finishing tied with Saskatchewan at 22-35-2 and firing coach Harold Engellund at season’s end.  Since then, things have only gotten worse, as Dakota has slashed payroll and shipped out several big names.  They lost C Mike Rivera in the expansion draft, and have traded away RW Elliott Pepper and Ds Doron Lidjya and Craig Werner, all for prospects.  Rumor has it that they’re fielding offers on D Rusty Anderson and Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore as well.  The roster churn leaves new coach Flim Dahlgren in a challenging position, trying to evaluate and develop the team’s young talent while trying to keep up morale among the veterans.  It’s likely to be a long season at Black Hills Arena, as the Jackalopes are unlikely to contend.  But there will be a lot of young players thrown into the fire; if some of them are able to seize the opportunity and show promise, then this rough season may wind up paying long-term dividends.

Seattle Sailors

Seattle is likely the most improved team in the West, as GM Jay McKay made several aggressive moves in hopes of building a contending team.  The Sailors drafted LW Alphonse Gaspard, signed C Foster Culp and G “Jersey Mike” Ross as free agents, and acquired RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya in the Dakota fire sale.  Seattle upgraded behind the bench as well, dumping the volatile Stewart Corrigan and hiring ex-Jackalopes boss Engellund.  Clearly, the Sailors will be better this season… but how much better?  Seattle should be able to surpass rebuilding Dakota, and they should be competitive with Saskatchewan.  The Sailors will be superior offensively, while the Shockers have the better defense and goaltending.  But the question that applies to Saskatchewan applies here: is this the nucleus of a true contender?  The Shockers seem like they might be a top-flight scorer away from challenging Anchorage and Michigan.  For the Sailors, the question is whether Vince Mango can be the superstar that the team needs him to be.  The winger is one of the SHL’s leading scorers, but he’s generally regarded as a one-dimensional player, being a mediocre passer and an indifferent defender.  Many around the league also question his maturity and leadership credentials, as he’s better known for his theatrical goal celebrations than for hard work or heads-up play.  If Seattle is going to become an elite club, they’ll need Mango to become proficient in other aspects of the game than shooting.  If Rocky Goldmire can step it up between the pipes, that would help too.

Kansas City Smoke

Like most expansion teams, the Smoke seem destined for a last-place finish.  The team lacks the offensive firepower to compete, and neither Oliver Richardson nor Brooks Copeland has much experience as a starting goalie.  There will likely be two interesting storylines in Kansas City this season.  The first is how coach Randy Bergner, a highly-regarded minor-league bench boss who won a division title in Omaha last season, will handle the trials and tribulations of an expansion squad.  Bergner has expressed a desire to build a cohesive, team-first organizational culture; if he can pull that off with a ragtag squad that’s likely to pile up the losses, he’ll definitely have earned his stripes.  The other thing to watch is what the Smoke does with their flippable assets.  Unlike their counterparts in Boston, who focused on picking as many young players as possible, Kansas City nabbed a number of veterans (Richardson, C Phil Miller, LWs Pascal Royal and Piotr Soforenko, and Ds Doug Wesson, Hans Mortensen, and Vitaly Dyomin) who could turn into attractive trade pieces.  They also signed free-agent D Tony Hunt and LW Louis LaPlante, who could potentially have value if they can bounce back from down seasons.  If KC finishes the season with the same roster that takes the ice on opening night, they’ll have screwed up royally.  All eyes will be on GM Garth Melvin, who will have to make some shrewd moves to turn those journeyman vets into prospects that might help the Smoke down the road.  If you’re going to Kansas City this season, though, expect to find good barbecue and bad hockey.

Projected Finish:

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

SHL 2017 Season Preview – West

Michigan Gray Wolves

The defending SHL champions return largely intact for the 2017 season.  They lost only one significant contributor in D Patrick Banks, who went to Washington in free agency (rookie Brooks Zabielski takes over Banks’ spot in the third pairing).  But the loss of Banks should be offset by the arrival of LW Todd Douglas, bumping struggling Travis Gauss to the bench.  While their offense – particularly LW Vladimir Beruschko – showed some signs of age last season, the Wolves’ dominant defense and the peerless goaltending of Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist remain as strong as ever.  And it seems unlikely that coach Ron Wright will let the team rest on its laurels.  So what could slow them down?  The West is a tough division; Anchorage and Dakota should put up strong challenges.  But the biggest risk this team faces is injury, particularly to Lundquist.  If their star netminder goes down for any extended period, is rookie Brooks Copeland up to the job?  The Wolves hope they won’t have to find out.

 

Anchorage Igloos

The Igloos have made no secret of their desire to get back to the form that won them the 2015 SHL title.  Have they made the progress they needed?  It’s possible.  The biggest new addition is LW Ben Summers, a 10-goal scorer with New York last season.  He replaced Misha Petronov, whom the Igloos let go after a disappointing season.  But Anchorage’s fortunes are likely to hinge on the performance of their youngsters and their stars.  The Igloos are moving LW Les Collins, who had a breakout 35-point season in 2016, up the second line; they’re depending on him continuing to blossom as a scorer.  Their third defensive pairing is also new, combining rookie Tony Citrone with Sebastian Pomfret, who looked solid in limited action last year.  If those three have strong seasons, Anchorage should do well.  But their title chances likely rest on the shoulder of sniper Jake Frost.  Last season, Frost put up 45 goals, which would be a fine year for most players but an off year by Frost’s standards.  Since he is the key to Anchorage’s offense, a return to his typical output would make the Igloos dangerous.  If he has another off season, they’re likely to come up short again.

 

Dakota Jackalopes

For 2017, the Jackalopes have a new name (they changed from the Rapids) and a number of new faces.  After a couple disappointing seasons falling well short of contention, Dakota’s hoping that combination will be enough to help them catch up with the Western powers.  They did more to improve themselves than any other contender, adding C Mike Rivera via trade and D Rusty Anderson in free agency.  They also acquired D Scott Hexton from Hershey to make their defense that much stouter.  While the Jackalopes will always be an offense-first club, they’re arguably stronger on both sides of the puck than they’ve ever been.  If they were in the weaker East, Dakota would be at least a co-favorite to win the division.  This is the West, though.  If there’s an area where the Jackalopes may come up short, it’s between the pipes.  They’re relying on a pair of young goalies, Buzz Carson and Christien Adamsson.  Carson, the likely starter, had an impressive rookie season in 2016, and clearly improved as the season went on.  But nobody considers Carson to be in the same class as Michigan’s Lundquist or Anchorage’s Ty Worthington.  If Dakota finishes out of the money yet again, they may wind up ruing the day the front office ran Jesse Clarkson out of town.  But if Carson can take another step forward, the Jackalopes’ high-octane offense would make them a dangerous team.

 

Saskatchewan Shockers

Last season was a tale of two halves for the Shockers.  In the first 30 games, the fine goaltending of Zeke Zagurski and the scoring punch of rookie winger Troy Chamberlain had Saskatchewan hovering around the .500 mark and attracting notice as a young team on the rise.  The second half saw a dramatic fall from grace, as the Shockers lost 11 of their final 13 games and 23 of their last 30, and the team suffered a string of embarrassing personnel incidents that suggested a franchise coming apart at the seams.  The team improved in the offseason, drafting C Elliott Rafferty and trading for veteran G Oliver Richardson to back up Zagurski.  But the Shockers clearly lag far behind the contenders, with a subpar offense and a mediocre defense.  As a result, there are far more questions than answers headed into 2017.  Is coach Myron Beasley’s job in jeopardy if the Shockers stumble out of the gate, or fade in the second half again?  Can the front office get its act together and run the team in a more professional manner?  Can the team’s slow but steady building plan ever lift Saskatchewan into contention?  Should they consider dealing Zagurski and other veterans and go for a hard rebuild?  Can the team last in Saskatoon, or will owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz be forced to relocate?  Will the team ever abandon its bizarre yellow-and-seafoam color scheme?  Can this team ever be a real contender, or will they forever be a poorly-run, mistake-prone joke?  It’s hard to know what the future holds for this truly strange team, but it’s safe to expect that there won’t be a ton of wins this season.

 

Seattle Sailors

The Sailors had a rough inaugural season, looking weak on both ends of the ice.  Their star rookie, RW Vince Mango, turning in a disappointing campaign, scoring only 33 goals and lacking the explosive shot that made him such a highly-regarded prospect.  The Sailors are likely to finish last again, so the 2017 season is all about showing signs of growth.  The team defied expectations to draft LW Rod “Money” Argent with the top pick in the draft; Seattle hopes that he’ll add some scoring punch to the top line and force opposing defenses to stop overloading on Mango.  The Sailors will be eager to see progress from Mango, Argent, and D Benny Lambert.  In a surprising signing, they added D Timothy “Cyclone” Winston to bolster their leaky blueline corps; the defense is still nowhere near Michigan’s level, but it should be better.  Last season, goalie Rocky Goldmire struggled and looked shell-shocked at times; a stronger defense should help him get more comfortable in the crease.  If Seattle’s going to become a contender down the road, they’ll need to see their young core come together and take a step forward.  They’ll also need to decide if volatile coach Stewart “Popeye” Corrigan has the temperament to be a leader of men.  Sailors fans should try not to fixate on the win-loss record this season; instead they should watch to see if they have a solid foundation for the future.

SHL 2017 Season Preview – East

Washington Galaxy

The Galaxy look like the favorites to capture the Eastern division title for a third straight season.  They navigated the offseason successfully, patching their few holes and not losing any key contributors.  Their biggest move was signing free-agent winger Piotr Soforenko to bolster the third line, which was a huge problem last season.  They upgraded their backup goalie, replacing Gus Parrish with veteran Ron Mason, who won the Vandy with Anchorage in 2015.  And while they unexpectedly lost D Rusty Anderson, they signed a replacement (Patrick Banks) who is an even stronger defender.  It’s hard to find any vulnerabilities with this squad.  But after two straight losses in the SHL Finals, Washington’s real goal this year is to capture the elusive Vandy.  Do they have the horses to take down whoever comes out of the West?  That’s far from clear, but they very likely do have more than enough to win the East again.

Hershey Bliss

After their heartbreaking loss in last season’s final game, in which the Bliss blew a two-goal third-period lead to drop the division, Hershey’s very eager to get over the hump and take the division this season.  But given their lofty goals, it’s surprising that Hershey had such a ho-hum offseason, failing to get significantly better and possibly taking a half-step back.  Last season’s big deadline deal for netminder Jesse Clarkson turned out to be a bust, and one that could prove very costly down the road.  Hershey didn’t win the division, and they gave away a couple major assets (their first-round pick and goalie prospect Buzz Carson) that could have helped them land a major upgrade for this season.  Compounding the pain, the Bliss lost Clarkson in free agency; ex-Hamilton Pistol Brandon Colt will tend the twine instead.  Hershey GM Scott Lawrence seems to be banking once again on the high-powered Love Line of Christopher Hart, Justin Valentine, and Lance Sweet to lead the team to victory.  And indeed, the trio is talented enough to have a shot at pulling it off.  But Washington has more depth and a better goalie.  Can the Bliss overcome all that to make their first Final?  They’ll go as far as their top line can take them.

New York Night

Last season was a grim one for the Night, as their season imploded in a storm of finger-pointing, bad press, and locker-room infighting.  In the wake of that fiasco, New York fired coach Preston Rivers and set about cleaning house in order to build a championship-caliber club.  New head man Nick Foster is a well-regarded hire, and he and GM Royce McCormick have made some bold moves this offseason.  They started by making a major push to improve the team’s netminding, signing Clarkson in free agency and drafting top prospect Sherman Carter.  The Night also looked to shake their well-earned reputation as an all-offense/no-defense team.  They shipped out C Mike Rivera and let winger Ben Summers depart in free agency; both were poor defensively.  They added C Phil Miller, LW Misha Petronov, and F Andrei Volodin, all of whom should improve the team’s balance.  Will that be enough?  Maybe not; the Night still lack any shut-down blueliners and will likely still need to prevail in high-scoring shootouts.  Also, apart from Rivers, all the players in last season’s clubhouse drama are still around.  The bad juju of 2016 might spill over to this season.  But Foster seems like the right man for the job, and the Night are definitely a team to watch going forward.

Hamilton Pistols

The Pistols’ careful rebuild continued this offseason, as they traded up in the draft to land star goalie prospect Lasse Koskinen and added hard-nosed D Jack “Hercules” Mulligan.  Koskinen should help Pistols fans forget the departed Colt, and Mulligan steps into the second-pairing slot vacated by Dmitri Kalashnikov, who was dealt so that the Pistols could move up in the draft.  If the two hot rookies play up to their potential and the veteran top line continues to produce, Hamilton could be a dark-horse contender in the East.  More than likely, though, it will be another season of slow but steady growth under coach Keith Shields.  The Pistols seem to be moving toward embracing a hard-nosed, defense-first identity, which is at odds with the fast-paced, high-scoring style exemplified by star LW Steven Alexander.  If Shields can balance the team’s competing styles, this could be a team to be reckoned with in a couple years.  If not, though, their rebuilding may reach a crossroads sooner than expected.  Is Shields up to the task?  Can the Pistols take the next step and become contenders?  Stay tuned.

Quebec Tigres

The Tigres’ offseason plans were thrown into disarray during the draft.  Holding the second selection, Quebec was set on picking LW Rod “Money” Argent, a Quebec native with 25-to-30-goal scoring potential, who could have paired with Stephane Mirac to give the team the scoring threat it so desperately needs.  But Seattle foiled those plans by taking Argent with the top pick, and the Tigres were seemingly left at a loss.  Rather than give themselves a potential league-leading goaltending tandem by picking Koskinen or strengthening their ferocious defense by taking Mulligan or addressing their void at center by grabbing Titus Jameson, Quebec instead moved down in a deal with Hamilton.  They wound up with quantity over quality, receiving Kalashnikov and a pair of lesser picks (which they used on winger Rupert MacDiamid and D Hal Pugliese).  It was a solid return, but not the home-run pick that Argent would have been.  As such, it’s hard to see Quebec making noise in a strengthening division.  Just like last year, they’ll hope that star netminder Riki Tiktuunen and their hustling, swarming defense can overcome their abysmal offensive attack.  Apart from Mirac, there are no serious scoring threats in this lineup.  Coach Martin Delorme will continue to preach his hard-working, hard-hitting, selfless style, but Quebec’s punchless offense will almost certainly doom them to the basement for another season.