NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays are coming into the 2019-20 season amid a summer of change. Gone are all but five of the 23 skaters on last year’s opening night roster. Newly promoted head coach Steve Bergin has taken the helm after three years as an assistant for the Stingrays and has already started putting his stamp on the team. His focus is a return to the more hard-nosed style of play that has delivered three Kelly Cups, five Conference Championships and six Division Championships to the fans in Charleston.
Nuts and Bolts:
Record: 35-31-5-1 — 76 pts
Division/Conference Finish: 3rd in the South Division, 9th in the Eastern Conference
Record vs. Division: 27-28-4-1
Record vs. Conference: 30-29-5-1
Goals For Per Game: 3.07/19th in the ECHL
Goals Against Per Game: 3.10/12th in the ECHL
Power Play: 45 power-play goals in 289 chances, 15.6%, 21st in the ECHL
Penalty Kill: 38 goals allowed in 277 chances, 86.3%, 2nd in the ECHL
Home play has to improve: The Stingrays were the only playoff team not to win at least half of their games. It took a late-season run to propel the team into the playoffs but what really doomed the team was their play at the North Charleston Coliseum. The Stingrays were the only playoff team not to have a winning record at home, going 17-17-2-0 during the regular season and were bounced from the playoffs losing three-in-a-row at home in the first round. The fans in Charleston are used to winning and being in the hunt entering the playoffs. But last year’s team could never seem to figure out how to use home-ice to their advantage. Figuring out how to dominate on home ice has to be a priority for this team.
Roster turnover: Only five players from last year’s opening night roster are back for the 2019-20 season. Forwards Andrew Cherniwchan, Tim Harrison, Cameron Askew, and Jonathan Charbonneau are returning and once again Parker Milner is on loan from the Hershey Bears in goal. Forward Stephane Legault is also back after putting up six points (3G, 3A) in six games and another four assists in five playoff games. Not a single defender that started the season is back. Only Steve Johnson and Matt Nuttle who joined the blueline in the spring are returning.
Building from the net forward: Steve Bergin appreciates strong defensive corps and is no stranger to them, having helped orchestrate the record-breaking 2018-19 team’s defensive unit. Not wanting to rely on help from above, Bergin went out and signed players that could form the nucleus of a strong defensive corps that could hold its own without players being sent down from the Washington Capitals or Hershey Bears. Tom Parisi and Jaynen Rissling are top tier players at the ECHL level. Along with last year’s returnees on defense, Jordan Klimek was brought in via trade. The addition of three players on assignment from the Hershey Bears, former Stingray Tommy Hughes, Ed Wittchow, and Tariq Hammond has made competition for playing time on the blue line fierce. It is possible that all six starting defensemen on opening night will have AHL experience.
Offensive firepower: The Stingrays have primarily relied on defense and goaltending in the past. Historically, the team is rarely near the top of the league in terms of goals per game. In the past three years, they have finished 19th, 17th, and 17th in that category. Once again Bergin has gone out and found players that can lead the team in scoring without looking for help from above. Bringing back the 1st, 3rd and 5th highest scoring forwards in Cherniwchan, Charbonneau, and Askew was a start. Trading Tad Kozun and Kevin McKernan to Kansas City to bring in Mark Cooper also led to a deal with veteran forward Dan DeSalvo. DeSalvo, who was linemates with Cooper at Bowling Green State University for three years, is the most high-end skill player according to Bergin. Also joining the club is Max Novak, a heavily experienced forward in the AHL and who put up 21 goals in a 57-point season for the Orlando Solar Bears two years ago. With the addition of point-a-game player Cole Ully, on assignment from Hershey, and several promising rookies including the aforementioned Legault, the Stingrays look to increase their scoring and put away more games by scoring rather than sitting back defensively.
Talking to Steve Bergin prior to camp opening, he had several thoughts on the upcoming season.
“You’re always looking for competition (for ice time). You don’t want to rely completely on your affiliation to fill your roster. They could be sending us players, there could be injuries and they don’t send us players. We want to have our own guys to lean on. Those (Hershey) guys would be more of a bonus……. Even though we might not have a lot of returners, we have a lot of guys that have been pros for awhile in successful places. For me, it’s all about what your culture is like and if we have a winning culture. I don’t think it’s going to be a huge adjustment for these guys to come in and bond and mold right away. A lot of these guys have relationships with each other (from) before. The hockey world’s a small world….. We’ve put a huge emphasis on character for the guys we have recruited. We have a lot of former captains and natural leaders, I think we’ll have a pretty good team.”
He also had some thoughts as well on the six Stingrays rookie players that attended AHL camps.
“It’s huge for a couple of reasons, one, you see where you stand with the next level. Maybe you completely fit in and so you’re coming down here hungry and you know you are ready to go and that you just have to take care of business down here. Or maybe you are a step behind and it motivates you to come down here and work that much harder because you have to improve. I think anytime you can learn under a new coach, especially a coach like Carbs (Spencer Carbery) with his experience and his staff. When you have an opportunity to learn from people like that and you get exposure not only to the coaching side of it but the players. There’s guys like Matt Moulson in the locker room. He played in the NHL. So you can see their routine and how they approach the game. If you go into it with the right mindset, a learning mindset, I think it can be huge for your career.”
Tom Parisi: He played two years in the AHL for the Montreal Canadiens organization before walking away from the game last year. He’s decided to come out of retirement and play again. How long does it take for him to get back in form and once he is in form how long before the AHL comes calling? While he is in South Carolina look for him to be an elite-level player.
Dan DeSalvo: The 2015-16 ECHL All-Rookie Team selectee has played most of his career in the AHL. He is a consistent scorer and has logged 82 points in 92 ECHL games. His experience and playmaking ability should land him on the top line where he can potentially have a record year.
Cameron Askew: Scored 17 goals and 10 assists in only 47 games. Amid a group of high scoring forwards, Askew could be a diamond in the rough. Consistency issues kept him out of the lineup at times last year. He’s a big body that’s not afraid to go to the front of the net and get the dirty goals. If he can keep focused and in the lineup, he could have a breakout year and easily be a 20-goal scorer.
Gone but Not Forgotten:
Tad Kozun: Dealt to the Kansas City Mavericks in part of the deal that brought Cooper to South Carolina, Kozun had a breakout rookie year scoring 50 points and racking up 109 PIMs in 59 games.
Patrick Gaul: Retired after seven years with the Stingrays. The high energy player leaves the organization sitting fourth all-time in terms of games played. He suited up for 401 regular-season games and 55 playoff contests.
Joey Leach: After six professional seasons, four with the Stingrays, last year’s captain has retired. A dominating presence on the blueline, Leach will be remembered for his big hits and dominating defensive zone play.
Sin Bin Swami Sez:
This is a team that should spell trouble for opponents, even in a much improved South Division. The defense is stacked with talent and could be the biggest and heaviest hitting group that has been seen in North Charleston in several years. The goaltending appears to be as solid of a tandem as any year. Hershey has Logan Thompson over Milner on their depth chart and if he performs to expectations, this could be a duo to watch. The forwards are more experienced and have a high pedigree in terms of scoring. If they can commit to the defensive systems and play a 200-foot game, they should have more than ample opportunity to showcase their talents.
Overall, I see the Stingrays in a three-way race for the South Division title with the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears with the Atlanta Gladiators and Jacksonville Icemen nipping at their heels all year. Given the experience and depth of the team, I see them making it to the Eastern Conference finals.