NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Hockey is almost back in Charleston. The long wait since the shutdown last March is nearly over and fans will soon be back in the North Charleston Coliseum to see if the Stingrays can recreate the successes of last year. There are new faces and familiar faces in and around the team but the goal remains the same. The Kelly Cup. The Stingrays have missed the playoffs only once in their storied history. They expect the best out of themselves and look to test themselves against a talent-packed ECHL in the 2020-21 season.
Stingrays 2020-21 Schedule Through January 14:
(Stingrays home games in BOLD and all times local)
December 11 vs. Greenville – 7:05 p.m.
December 18 at Jacksonville – 7:00 p.m.
December 19 vs. Jacksonville – 6:05 p.m.
December 26 at Greenville – 7:05 p.m.
December 27 vs. Greenville – 3:05 p.m.
January 1 at Greenville – 2:05 p.m.
January 2 at Jacksonville – 7:00 p.m.
January 8 vs. Wheeling – 7:05 p.m.
January 9 vs. Wheeling – 6:05 p.m.
Head Coach: Ryan Blair (1st year head coach)
Captain: Andrew Cherniwchan, 2nd year as Captain, 9th overall with team
Last Season: 44-14-3-1, 1st in South Division, Eastern Conference and ECHL
2019-20 Season Summary – The year of what could have been. The Stingrays started hot and stayed hot all year long. Only when call ups started taking their toll in late February did the team appear even remotely vulnerable. The goaltending tandem of Parker Milner and Logan Thompson was arguably the best in the league. The team defense continued its stingy reputation only allowing a league-best 2.37 goals per game. They also owned the third-best penalty kill, killing 87.6% of penalties. The offense had a renewed swagger and was the eighth-most potent team scoring an average 3.48 goals a game even with the 17th best-rated power play that converted only 16.5% of the time. While those offensive numbers may seem pedestrian, they were a sharp uptick from the past several years where team defense led the way to success. The team knew they had something special going on. Almost every returning player mentioned ‘unfinished business’ in their interviews announcing their return.
Hot or Not?
The Stingrays have returned eight of the top-nine scoring forwards with the ninth being Matt Weis on contract with the Hershey Bears. But the Stingrays have added even more depth at forward with NHL experienced veteran Justin Florek as well as receiving veteran (and former Stingray) Caleb Herbert and AHL experienced Mason Morelli on assignment from Hershey.
The defense has holes to fill but is anchored by shut down specialist Tariq Hammond. The defense has to replace the scoring of Tom Parisi and Kris Bindulis but has a bumper crop of young professionals and promising rookies looking to prove their worth. The acquisition of Zach Malatesta gives the defense an edgier feel and added protection for the elite forward players.
There are big empty skates to fill in the crease with the departure of Logan Thompson and the retirement of Parker Milner. Hunter Shepard and Alex Dubeau will have the daunting task of replacing the top goaltending tandem in the ECHL.
- The entire forward corps. They all played up and down the line seamlessly last year. You can’t single out individuals from that group because they were all so good at supporting one another.
- Blueliner Tariq Hammond led the team with a +29 rating last year. Rarely out of position and quick with his first passes, he will play a key role in the success of the defensive corps.
- Not back from last year but back in the organization for the first time since 2016 is Caleb Herbert. On contract with Hershey, he has been assigned to the Stingrays to start the season. He is a point-per-game player in the ECHL and his playmaking ability contributed to the Stingrays going on a pair of long playoff runs in 2015 and 2016.
- Logan Thompson signed with the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights to get away at the log jam of goalies that would have likely prevented him from reaching the AHL on a full-time basis this year.
- Parker Milner retired after an incredible career. The former ECHL goalie of the year and two-time All-Star has left the game but not the Charleston area.
- Tom Parisi had a spectacular comeback year after taking a year off. He demonstrated the skills that led him to an NHL contract after college. He led the defense in scoring and was a key asset on the power play. He was issued a qualifying offer and remains unsigned.
- Hunter Shepard looks to further his outstanding college career in his rookie campaign. The two-time NCAA champion sported a 1.94 goals against average and .922 save percentage over the course of 119 college games.
- Zach Malatesta was a thorn in the side of the Stingrays for the past three years as a member of the Atlanta Gladiators. With Atlanta suspending operations for the year, he became a free agent and the Stingrays have brought him in for his mix of scoring and agitation.
- Justin Florek brings a wealth of AHL, NHL, and European league experience to the team. After three years in Europe, he will have to adjust back to the smaller ice sheet in the ECHL. His size and experience should make him an elite ECHL player.
What to Watch For?
The Stingrays are starting the season with an embarrassment of riches in the forward corps. Keeping those players happy and engaged will be a tough job for head coach Ryan Blair. Playing time, line combinations, and lineup decisions may challenge many players who are used to being automatic top line picks.
“We have to have the right culture in place. Players may have to be patient at times. Their time will come and we have to have a next man up mentality and be focused on the team. Guys will get their chances and they will have to be ready to make the most of them,” said Blair.
With a large turnover on defense and in goal, the new players will have to gel quickly to be effective. There is a lot of talent on defense. Hammond, Jordan Klimek, and Jesse Lees are the only returners. Malatesta, Max Gottlieb, and Macoy Erkamps bring experience to the group and will be supported by some very promising rookies.
How will rookie Shepard and second-year pro Dubeau play in net will comprise the biggest storyline in the early season? They have the unenviable job of replacing a top tier tandem. They may be hard-pressed to avoid comparisons and criticisms as the season unfolds.
The talent level in the league will likely be at the highest level in its history. Overall, the team is deeper with more talent than last year but how well the goalies play will likely determine how the season goes for the team.
Travis Rogers covers the South Carolina Stingrays for The Sin Bin. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @SinBinStingrays.