FAYETTEVILLE, NC – So here we are with just a couple of weeks left in the 2016-17 SPHL regular season and boy what a season it has been for Fayetteville FireAntz fans. Truly a season of highs and lows, both on and off the ice. Let’s see if we can summarize the season leading up to this point with a few highlights and lowlights while also talking about recent events within the FireAntz organization. Also, we will take a look at the team heading into the playoffs. There is much to talk about and discuss. Here we go!
The FireAntz started the season with a vastly different looking roster, complete with unknowns on defense and offense. While a few familiar faces were on the opening night roster, the majority of the names were new to FireAntz fans. Guys like Brad Drobot, Taylor Thompson, Nick Rivait, and Graeme Strukoff provided coach Jeff Bes with a nice foundation. Not to mention goaltender Sean Bonar returned after limited action the previous two seasons in a FireAntz uniform after spending some time in the ECHL off and on. New names appeared on the FireAntz opening night roster, names like gritty forward Stephon Thorne and rookie forward Evan Dixon.
The opening road weekend sweep of defending SPHL champions Pensacola Ice Flyers gave Coach Bes and the FireAntz team some nice momentum starting the season. However, things would quickly turn south as the FireAntz struggled to find consistency and offense. After starting the season 3-0, the team would go on a stretch in November where they lost 7 of 8 games. Rumors were flying that Bes was about to be fired and the team looked inept on the ice. Changes were coming, but not the ones FireAntz fans were tossing around in the rumor mill.
Coach Bes was bound and determined to improve his struggling team and put on his “Let’s Make a Deal” hat and got to work. Coach Bes made an astounding 11 significant roster moves over a two-week period that would turn the FireAntz season around and skyrocket them from the bottom to the top of the SPHL standings. Guys like Jake Hauswirth, Kyle Shapiro, Brad Campagna, and Mark Corbett were acquired via trades. Veteran F Bobby Chaumont was signed to add some leadership and scoring prowess to the line-up. Fast forward to now and you will find a perfect example of the definition in sports of a tale of two seasons.
The FireAntz have a record of 31-8-2 since their win November 20th over Evansville, including two separate winning streaks of at least seven games. It goes without saying that Coach Jeff Bes made the right moves and pulled the right strings and the FireAntz are one of, if the not top team in the SPHL heading into the playoffs. If I were in the minds of the other coaches in the SPHL, I do not think there are any of them that want to see the FireAntz in the playoffs.
2016-17 FireAntz Standouts:
G Sean Bonar: Bonar has had a record breaking season and he isn’t done just yet. Bonar has won an SPHL record 30 games while compiling a 2.01 goals against average and .930 saves percentage. He also has a shot to break the record for minutes played in a season as he has already played 2655:21 so far for the Antz. It will be interesting to watch how much Bes plays Bonar down the stretch heading into the playoffs. Bonar typically thrives on playing and doesn’t need a lot of rest.
F Jake Hauswirth: Since being acquired from the Peoria Rivermen, Hauswirth has done nothing but score goals, lots of goals. Hauswirth currently leads the SPHL with 29 goals scored, 13 of those on the power play. His laser wrist shot and veteran presence has been a huge part of the FireAntz dominance down the stretch.
F Taylor Thompson: Playing in his secnd full season in Fayetteville, Thompson has matured into an all around dominant player. Whether it’s killing penalties, racking up the points, or dropping the gloves when necessary Thompson is one of the most complete players in the SPHL. He currently leads the league in points scored with 58 and also leads the league in plus/minus rating with a +25 rating. His 88 penalty minutes are proof that he doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff when needed.
F Bobby Chaumont: A veteran with tons of minor league hockey experience, Chaumont has provided the offensive scoring and leadership Bes signed him for. In just 40 games, Chaumont has scored 43 points. Bes has also given him the “C” to wear on his jersey and named him player/assistant coach.
D Nick Rivait: A big, strong defenseman that plays the game the way it should be played. Rivait throws his body around, clears the front of the net and protect his teammates when needed. One of the rocks on defense for Coach Bes and a crucial cog in the FireAntz defensive success this season.
Off Ice Shenanigans
As we enter the final stretch and teams are jockeying for playoff positioning, the FireAntz have had some off ice jockeying as well.
Poor attendance has plagued the FireAntz for all of the 2016-17 season. While the team has been winning on the ice, the organization has been losing at the box office. Many excuses have been made and ideas tossed around as to why but evidently, changes are in order and new ownership is in place to turn the struggles around. No official word on specifics but there are definitely changes happening in the FireAntz organization and all of them for the better.
Season tickets are on sale for the 2017-2018 season with more incentives and discounts than we have seen in years past. Also, mini ticket packages and flex plans have been made available, something that many other teams offer. The buzz and excitement surrounding the on ice play is starting to carry over to the off ice struggles and this should only mean good days ahead for one of the founding teams in the SPHL.
Playoff Roster Thoughts
No doubt the FireAntz have great momentum heading into the playoffs but Coach Bes is not done trying to find the perfect compliment of players to fill out his playoff roster. Here are some of the decisions Bes has to make when making final playoff roster decisions.
The FireAntz currently have D Alex Brooks and F Christian Horn still in the ECHL. Horn is playing for a team unlikely to make the playoffs so the Antz are more likely to see him make his way back to Fayetteville than Brooks. If Horn does come back, that would be a huge boost to the already potent FireAntz offense. Defenseman Sean Robertson was waived by his ECHL team and could be on his back to the FireAntz. He would be a big addition to the FireAntz defensive unit.
Meanwhile, Coach Bes has signed three rookie forwards in the past week. Forward Trevor Fleurent was signed last week and scored two goals in his first two games played in a FireAntz jersey. Now Bes has placed him on 14-day IR to give two new rookie forwards a chance to impress enough to make the playoff roster. Forward Alex Botten and forward Lawrence Cornellier were just signed and both have impressive collegiate careers coming with them. Both racked up 119 points over their college careers, Botten being more of an assist guy while Cornellier piled up the goals. It will be interesting to see how these new additions mesh with the team and if they will factor into the final playoff roster for Bes and the FireAntz. On defense, Bes signed D Eric Springer recently. Bes currently has D Brad Campagna on IR.
As you can see, Bes has some decisions to make come playoff roster time on both offense and defense. It could come down to how well the rookie forwards play in the small number of games they get to show Bes what they can bring. Also, Horn and Robertson coming back to the Antz would make the decisions even harder for Bes.
I am going to play SinBin Swami here and predict that only one of the rookie forwards makes the FireAntz playoff roster. Fleurent, Botten, and Cornellier are competing for one spot on the playoff roster. The FireAntz also have a stable of defenseman and Bes has some decisions to make there as well. Rivait, Strukoff, and Shapiro are locks. Robertson, if he makes his way back to Fayetteville, is also a lock. That only leaves two spots open for guys like Mark Corbett, Brad Campagna, Kristaps Nimanis, Brandon Lubin, and newly signed Eric Springer. I will predict that Robertson does come back to the Antz and Bes goes with Nimanis and Lubin to fill out the defensive unit for the playoffs, barring any other surprising defensemen that might be signed.
The outlook for the FireAntz in this year’s SPHL playoffs is as bright as it has been in a long time. There are no weaknesses up and down the FireAntz lineup. Bonar is a rock and his backup Tyler Green is one of the top backups in the league. The defensive unit is tops in the league allowing a league low 109 goals in 49 games. The offense is loaded. The SPHL championship is a real possibility for the FireAntz this year. As it does every year come playoff time, it comes down to momentum and goaltending. For FireAntz fans, that should leave many feeling pretty confident heading into the playoffs.