LAFAYETTE, La. — Months hit double-digits today, which means the long offseason in the Southern Professional Hockey League is finally coming to an end. Dust off those jerseys and warm-up your vocal cords. Opening night is right around the corner!
We drop the puck on our fifth season of SPHL coverage here at The Sin Bin with an expanded group of writers and photographers. On the writing side Brad Harrison, Anna Headley, and Ronald Hagood, Jr. are back covering Macon, Quad City, and Birmingham. New additions Geoff Nichols and J.T. Russell will bring you all of the action from Pensacola and Knoxville. Kori LaVire, our site’s new photo editor, and Sarah Hobday will be roaming the rinks across the league. Bryan Meeks returns with his eye for action in Macon and newcomer Bill Kober will be shooting Ice Flyers action from the Hangar. I’m excited about our SPHL staff this season, and they’re going to do an incredible job.
It’s time for some early October thoughts.
Is it Finally Peoria’s Year?
When it comes to Rivermen vets Cody Dion, Alec Hagaman, and Ben Oskroba enter the 2019-20 season in “win now” mode. The league’s veteran cap will hit Peoria hard after this season, forcing coach Jean-Guy Trudel into some difficult decisions in the summer of 2020.
The core group of Dion, Hagaman, and Oskroba have played in all three of the Rivermen’s President’s Cup Final appearances. Dion, in his one-year sabbatical with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, knocked off the Rivermen in last season’s playoffs in a stunning Challenge Round upset.
I’m confident the William B. Coffey Cup, the award for the league’s top regular-season record, will remain in Peoria. There may not be a more deserving fanbase than Rivermen Nation for a championship celebration. However, I think we’ll see more of the same in April.
If the Rivs are to turn the corner, they’re going to have to face some real adversity in the regular season. There’s always a chance Peoria may struggle a bit in 2019-20, because…
There’s More Parity in the SPHL This Year
I have a question for you. Who is the fourth-best team in the SPHL?
Outside of the top three teams in the league – Huntsville, Birmingham, and Peoria – the middle tier of the SPHL is muddier than the Missouri River in May.
The Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs are a sexy pick if you’re looking at teams making the jump to elite status. Many people around the league I talk to not only have the Dawgs contending but making a legitimate title run. The offseason addition of Stephen Klein gives Roanoke one of the top goalie tandems in the league.
Pump your breaks, boys, because you can’t count out the Knoxville Ice Bears. Coach Jeff Carr’s crew have made back-to-back semifinal appearances. Knoxville may have been swept by the Havoc last season, but both games had to be decided in overtime. The Ice Bears come into this season mostly intact from last season, with the return of veteran defenseman Jason Price.
Last season, Price was a mid-season addition of the Pensacola and the Ice Flyers were red-hot over the second half. I like the forward depth of the Ice Flyers this season, but Rod Aldoff has a huge hole to fill in net with the retirement of goaltender Brian Billett.
Head Coach Jesse Kallechy is in his second year of the Fayetteville Marksmen rebuild. Kallechy’s first season resulted in pushing the Bulls to a third game in the Challenge Round. The Marksmen lose a cannon on the forward line with the retirement of team captain Jake Hauswirth, and head into training camp with a rookie-heavy roster. It’s all a part of the coach’s design, as we’re going to see the future core develop before our eyes in Fayetteville. It’s a strategy which is very similar to the Havoc rebuild from four seasons ago, and it worked out pretty well for them.
If you’re looking for a dark horse in the SPHL this season, there’s your herd.
“But Campos, aren’t you forgetting about the Macon Mayhem?”
This Season is Leo Thomas’ Big Test in Macon
Other than the Evansville Thunderbolts, no team in the SPHL has a more challenging rebuilding project than the Macon Mayhem.
The Mayhem lost four of their top scorers from last season. Jake Trask and John Siemer both retired after last season. Derek Sutliffe was dealt to Evansville, and Dakota Klecha was sent to the Quad City Storm in offseason trades. The four players combined for 76 goals and 92 assists in 2018-19. In short, Coach Thomas has to replace 47.5 percent of their goal-scoring production and one-third of their assists in a season where his team limped to a sixth-place finish.
Look for long-time Knoxville playmaker Danny Cesarz, rookie Josh Koepplinger, and the returning Stephen Pierog to fill the gaping scoring void in the Mayhem roster. Without adequate production from this trio, the Mayhem are going to struggle in 2019=20.
Speaking of rebuilds…
Jeff Bes Will Blow Up the Thunderbolts Roster
Frankly, I’m surprised the Evansville Thunderbolts made four returning player announcements over the summer. It is the modus operandi of coach Jeff Bes to keep signing commitments undisclosed until training camp opens.
The centerpiece of the Bolts reboot is goaltender Braeden Ostepchuk. Don’t be fooled by the 4-20-4 record, this kid is a gamer. Ostepchuk faced down more rubber than I-10 last season, stopping 90 percent of the 1098 shots he saw. His 988 saves were the third-most of all SPHL netminders last season. Imagine what he can do if he had a defense in front of him.
Ostepchuk, on a PTO with the ECHL Atlanta Gladiators, has played for Bes in the past. At the end of Bes’ run with the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the 2017-18 season, Ostepchuk made a fill-in appearance after he finished his college career at D3 Norwich.
Anyway, don’t be surprised if Evansville’s four signing announcements over the summer are the only returning players from last year’s 12-38-6 debacle.
The Battle of Parks Crease
Training camp opens in one week, and the biggest camp battle across the entire league will take place on the ice of the Pelham Civic Center.
The retirement of all-SPHL goaltender Mavric Parks sparked a four-way camp competition, with the winners getting the opportunity to backstop one of the league’s top teams.
Of the four, Carsen Chubak stands out as the veteran journeyman. Chubak was an AHL prospect with the Adirondack Phantoms before bouncing around the ECHL and England.
The remaining three are all rookies coming from NCAA Division 1 programs. Arthur Brey played four years at St. Lawrence, seeing plenty of ice time in his junior and senior seasons. Ryland Pashovitz played three seasons at Arizona State. Ian Milosz didn’t get a lot of game time during his college career. Not a surprise when he played behind Thatcher Demko and Joe Woll at Boston College.
I’ll handicap this race sight unseen. If Chubak can return to form after dealing with injuries, he has a combination of experience and potential. Boston College goalies have done well in the SPHL (Billett, Brad Barone), making Milosz a solid choice. If Brey and Pashovitz wind up being odd-men out, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they find employment elsewhere in the league.
The ECHL made a rule change to hand out suspensions to players getting in ten or more fights during the season. The league will give out automatic one-game suspensions after ten fighting majors, increasing to two-gamers after 14 scraps.
I asked SPHL boss Doug Price if the league would follow suit. I received a quick one-word answer – No.
October is finally here, y’all. Get to the rink.