This division may very well be the most competitive in all the ECHL this season. Familiar foes, combined with a couple of teams on the rise and a coaching who’s who, all point to there being no shortage of storylines coming from the Central division this season.
The Americans used a quickly-formed affiliation, good player recruiting and timely breaks on the ice to get them to a third straight championship. Will the Americans be able to repeat the success of last season?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 48-14-6-4 (106 pts) — Won Central Division, 1st in Western Conference
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Won franchise’s first Kelly Cup Championship, third straight title as franchise.
Key Additions: Head Coach Steve Martinson added some depth to the center position in Allen this season with the addition of Casey Pierro-Zabotel. Last season, the veteran centerman had 64 points (23G, 41A) in 59 games.
Key Loss: There are several ways to look at this. Certainly every championship-winning team will have some attrition, but the Americans lost four key pieces to their Kelly Cup Championship in the offseason, either through free agency or call-ups; Jamie Schaafsma, Spencer Asuchak, Vincent Arseneau and Chris Crane. While it’s possible Arseneau and Crane will be back in Allen at some point this season, the biggest loss of the four is Schaafsma. His championship pedigree (played for a title in seven straight seasons, winning three in-a-row,) is unheard of in minor pro hockey. In speaking with those in the Allen organization, Schaafsma was a captain in every sense of the word, teaching the young players how to be a pro, take care of themselves and leading on the ice. Co-captains Chad Costello and Gary Steffes certainly have some big shoes to fill.
What to Watch For: The Americans allowed 2.82 goals per game last season. Can the Americans improve on that number as a defensive unit?
After missing the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s history, Richard Matvichuk spent the offseason assembling quite a team in Independence. Will it pay off with a division championship and deep playoff run?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 28-35-5-4 (65 points) — 6th in Central Division, 11th in Western Conference
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Did Not Qualify
Key Additions: This roster is loaded with young talent; including Connor and Kellen Jones, reigning ECHL Rookie of the Year Tyler Barnes, and Sebastian Sylvestre. Combined with veteran players like Andrew Courtney and Rocco Carzo, this team should be one of the higher scoring teams in the ECHL this season.
Key Loss: The obvious choice here is Sebastian Thinel, who has every franchise offensive record. But, I will go off the grid and say the biggest loss for this Mavericks team is Lindsay Sparks, who was traded to Orlando for defenseman Bryce Aneloski in August. Sparks had a career year on a team that was a revolving door. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done with the likes of the Jones brothers and Barnes.
What to Watch For: Expect quite a goaltending duo in Missouri this season. Parker Milner finished second in the ECHL with a 2.28 goals against average and tied for the third best save percentage with a .920. Meanwhile, Josh Robinson had a 2.90 goals against average and .912 save percentage after joining the Mavs in mid-February. With a solid defense in front of them, both netminders are set up for great years.
The Oilers have a new head coach and affiliation heading into the season. How will all of them come together for the Oilers this season?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 37-29-3-3 (80 points) — 4th in Central Division, 8th in Western Conference
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Loss to Allen Americans 4-1 in Central Division Semifinals
Key Additions: The biggest addition of the Oilers off-season didn’t come through a player signing, it came on July 23 when Jason Christie was named as the 11th head coach in Oilers history. Christie is a proven winner, having led the Ontario Reign to three consecutive Pacific Division titles and four straight season with more than 40 wins. Christie will become the ECHL’s winningest head coach with just nine more wins.
Key Loss: The Oilers lost quite a bit of offense this offseason; including Drew Fisher, Jon Booras, TJ Caig and Jeff Jubinville. That accounts for 39.31 percent of the offense (263 of 669 points.)
What to Watch For: Goaltending and defense were the Achillies’ heel for the Oilers last season. How will this change under Christie’s new system? The Oilers will have goaltender Jussi Olkuniora in net to start the season, which will be an upgrade over Kevin Carr in net.
Its been three years since Wichita has witnessed playoff hockey. Will Kevin McClelland put the pieces together to get Wichita back to the playoffs this season?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 32-31-2-7 (73 points) — 5th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Did Not Qualify
Key Additions: There are three additions that could be keys to the Thunder offense this season; Anthony Deluca, Michael Neal and Joey Sides.
Deluca posted a career high 91 points (44G, 47A) in 68 games last season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Neal comes to Wichita having split time between the Cincinnati Cyclones and Kalamazoo Wings last season, where he put up 39 points (19G, 20A) in 60 games.
Joey Sides is coming off an upper-body injury that sidelined him most of last season. His best ECHL season came in 2012-13 with the Colorado Eagles, when he put up 40 points (21G, 19A) in 44 games. Prior to his injury last season in Rapid City, Sides had eight points in 12 games.
All of them are capable of putting up 40-50 points this season and could be added depth scoring to players like Kenton Miller, Ian Lowe and Danick Gauthier.
Key Loss: The key loss for Wichita comes on the back-end in the form of Mike Wilson, who is playing with the Belfast Giants in the Elite Ice Hockey League this season. Though not known for his defensive prowess (-24 in two full seasons in Wichita), Wilson chipped in 96 points (25G, 71A) in 137 games and was a solid puck distributor on the power play.
What to Watch For: The defense is completely revamped in Wichita this season, with the only hold overs from the end of last season being Dan Milan and Dalton Reum. Ryan Ruikka and Brandon Martell have the potential to be the standout defensemen of the bunch this season. Both play their position well and do a good job of anticipating the game. The Thunder defense allowed 3.18 goals per game last year. If they are to be a playoff team, that number will have to come down drastically.