The Sin Bin’s 12 days of previews continues as we take a look inside the ECHL’s Midwest Division for the 2015-16 season. The Midwest is one of the more unique divisions for this upcoming hockey season as four of its five members were apart of the Eastern Conference last season before making the move to the Western Conference this season.
The five teams battling for Midwest Division supremacy will be the Cincinnati Cyclones, Quad City Mallards, Fort Wayne Komets, Evansville IceMen, and Indy Fuel. Of those five, Quad City is the only team that are returning members of the Western Conference playing in the Central Division while Cincinnati, Evansville, Indy, and Fort Wayne all played in the Eastern Conference’s North Division.
Now that you’ve had your minor history lesson, we’ll take an in-depth look at each of the five teams and even offer some predictions that will most likely cause the world to end.
FORT WAYNE KOMETS
Fort Wayne enters their 4th season of ECHL play after an impressive showing last season, only to fall in the North Division Semi-Finals. Will they be able to carry some of that momentum to repeat that success this season?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 48-18-6 (102 points) — 2nd in North Division
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Lost to Toledo in 2nd Round, 4-3
Key Addition: Forward Jamie Schaafsma joins Fort Wayne after a Kelly Cup Championship last spring as the captain of the Allen Americans. Schaafsma spent the past three seasons with Allen, winning two President’s Cup Championships in the Central Hockey League. In total, he tallied for 197 points in an Americans uniform.
Key Loss: Defenseman James Martin was traded to Idaho for Forward Alex Belzile. Martin led Komets defensemen last season in goals and had the second most points by a Fort Wayne D-man. Belzile will add some firepower up front, but losing Martin is a big dent on the back-end.
What To Watch For: The notorious “money line” is back in Fort Wayne now that Mike Embach has re-joined the club after a short stint overseas. Embach and Shawn Szydlowski are nearly unstoppable together. Last season, the two combined for a total of 62 goals, 82 assists, and 144 points. Teams need to keep that line quiet to have success against the Komets.
After a disappointing end to the 2014-15 campaign and missing the playoffs for just the 2nd time in club history, the Cyclones will return with a brand new team with a bunch of new faces in hopes of returning to the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 31-30-11 (73 points) — 5th in North Division
2015 Kelly Cup Playoff Result: Did not qualify for postseason
Key Addition: Goaltender Neil Conway joins Cincinnati after a successful season with the Toledo Walleye in 2014-2015. He helped Toledo reach the Eastern Conference Finals posting 4-1-1 record in the playoffs. Also joining Cincinnati is d-man, Mike Ratchuk. The offensively minded, hard-nosed defenseman is a pain to play against, but man, do you love him when he’s on your side.
Key Loss: Rob Madore departs Southwest Ohio after two seasons as the Cyclones backstop. He led Cincinnati to the 2014 Kelly Cup Finals, and became the first person in ECHL history to win the MVP award… as a member of the losing team.
What To Watch For: Head Coach Matt Macdonald, in his second season at the helm has built up quite a powerhouse offense. With the likes of Zach Budish, Andrew Yogan, Jaynen Rissling, Eric Robinson and Jack Downing heading up the team’s front side, Cincinnati will certainly see a bit more offense than in the past season.
QUAD CITY MALLARDS
The Mallards are about to enter a whole new world. The former Central Hockey League squad moves on from their old chums and will compete in a division with ECHL regulars. How will they fare in their real first full season as an ECHL team?
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 37-28-7 (81 points) — 3rd in Central Division
2015 Kelly Cup Playoff Result: Lost to Rapid City in 1st round, 4-3
Key Addition: Young forward, Olivier Archambault joins the Mallards after a successful rookie season in Anchorage with the Alaska Aces last season. He tallied 20 goals, and 18 assists for 38 points in 38 games with the Aces. Archambault is a very dangerous man and without a doubt, will be one of the Mallards top offensive weapons this season.
Key Loss: However, the Mallards had to pay a price to get Archambault. That price came in the form of forward, Joe Perry. Perry’s rights were shipped north to Alaska for the rights to Archambault. In 54 games with the Mallards, Perry accumulated for 26 goals, and 17 assists for 43 points; which was the highest among Mallards rookies.
What To Watch For: There has been a ton of talk about the Quad City roster this season. A majority of that talk questions whether or not they’ll be ale to compete with the rest of division. If you compare their roster to teams like Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, and Indy, there’s a pretty significant difference. This will definitely be a team to pay attention to and see if they fall under those expectations, or if they’re an underdog that surprise some people.
The Indy Fuel had a strong inaugural season last year and look to build on it this year. The fans must be hoping to avoid any sort of sophomore slump, but with a mere six returning players under Fuel contract from last season, if Indy builds on last year’s winning season it will be on the back of many new faces.
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 31-30-4-7 (73 points) –- 6th in North Division
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Did not qualify
Key Additions: The Fuel has added a lot on both their offense and on their blue line for the upcoming season. Indy added a strong center in Alex Lavoie. The native of Anjou, Quebec had 57 points in 67 games for the Everblades last year. Dylan Clarke is another fresh face who is no stranger to the style of play in the ECHL. The Fuel are his 5th team in the league, having played for: Tulsa (CHL), South Carolina, Evansville and Rapid City. Cody Sharib is also debuting with Indy this year, making immediate impact scoring the Fuel’s first preseason goal. On defense the Fuel added veteran David Pszenyczny. Having spent most of the last decade in the CHL and ECHL, Pszenyczny has lots of experience and leadership he can bring to team.
Key Loss: The Fuel do not have many significant losses. Both of their top two point earners from last season are back. Garett Bembridge had 58 points for the team and Kyle Stroh had 47 points. Although most of last years offensive firepower is back, missing will be a pair of blue liners that helped push the puck for the Fuel. Defenseman Nick Bruneteau had 35 assists and is now playing overseas. Also needing replaced is defenseman Justin Holl who had 34 points last season.
What to Watch For: Goaltender Shane Owen had a nice run at the end of last season after coming over mid-season from Stockton. He was able to post a 2.57 G.A.A. in 17 games. Owen also only gave up one goal in the two full periods he played against Fort Wayne in the Fuel’s preseason opener. The Fuel have made a lot of changes on defense this offseason and their ability to limit high quality chances on Owen will be key. The Fuel didn’t score 200 goals last year and on paper don’t appear to be a 240 goal team. How well the new defensive core and Owen play will determine how many games the Fuel win this year.
What’s the difference between the Evansville IceMen and the New England Patriots? The Patriots can win 16 regular season games. This is the type of joke an organization must endure after an abysmal 15 win season last year. The question isn’t if Evansville will improve on their win total; rather how much will it improve on last seasons’ 39 points.
2014-15 Regular Season Record: 15-48-6-3 (39 points) — 7th Place North Division
2015 Kelly Cup Playoffs Result: Did not qualify
Key Additions: There are lots of new faces to Evansville this year. The IceMen added some players from the Swedish Professional League. Jonathan Carlsson is a defenseman who was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2008 and has AHL experience. Sebastian Strandberg is a 23-year-old forward who is playing in his first North American League. Strandberg is known for having a solid two-way game. I asked Coach Sims about adding European talent and he said “Swedes are very gritty, they play the body, they play the man and they get physical in games and also have great hands.” The defense of the IceMen improved with the addition of Andrew Himelson and Michael Trebish. Himelson is a 25-year-old who played the better part of the last two seasons with Greenville. He’s a smart defenseman and doesn’t take reckless penalties, which is something the IceMen did a lot last year. Michael Trebish is a 6’1’’ physical defenseman who adds experience and toughness for the team. According to Elite Prospects he had 173 penalty minutes last season in Wichita. Trebish has also played for the Denver Cutthroats, Arizona Sundogs and the Bloomington Blaze all in the CHL.
Key Loss: A hockey team that wins 15 games the previous season can’t view too many of the gone pieces as significant.
What to Watch For: When a team completely hits the reset button and starts over it’s difficult to determine a team identity. During the three minutes I spoke with Coach Sims he used terms like “gritty”, “tough” and “physical” repeatedly. When I asked directly about the style of play he wants to see he said “We want to play an uptempo style and put pressure on the other team. To do that you have to be skating and flying up and down the ice.” The IceMen played two preseason games over the weekend in Fort Wayne. They lost the first by a score of six to five and the second by a score of six to two. Both Justin MacDonald and Joe Zarbo scored a goal in each of those games. Zarbo is a defenseman and that is a sign Coach Sims truly wants to see his defensemen adding pressure in the offensive zone. The downside is that the IceMen gave up a combined 79 shots in those two games. How well the IceMen can balance pushing the puck and being aggressive with being smart and limiting their defensive exposure will go a long way in determining how much Evansville improves this season.
A massive thanks are in order to Sin Bin IceMen correspondent, Mike Finazzo for teaming up with me to get this article done!