LAFAYETTE, La. — The 2019 offseason has been one of stability in the Southern Professional Hockey League. For the first time in seven seasons, the league will go into a year with the same teams from the previous season.
The offseason head coaching carousel began and ended in Evansville with the departure of Ian Moran and the return of Jeff Bes after a one-season break. In the assistant coaching department, we saw Peter Worrell leave the Fayetteville Marksmen, replaced with the ice-to-bench transition of former defenseman Cory Melkert. Finally, the Knoxville Ice Bears added former forward Spencer Metcalfe as an assistant to Jeff Carr.
The dog days of summer, indeed.
While we have lacked the sort of offseason drama on the hockey operations side that has been familiar to us in recent years, the league is still set for noticeable changes for its 16th season once the puck drops on October 18th.
During our latest Inside the SPHL Podcast with Commissioner Doug Price, the SPHL boss revealed a trio of changes for the 2019-20 season.
The End of the Challenge Round
During our conversation with Price, and also revealed by the Pensacola News Journal’s Bill Vilona, we discussed the decision by the league to end the Challenge Round after two seasons. The much-publicized and innovative Challenge Round, where the league’s top teams throughout the regular season would choose their first-round opponents rather than a traditional playoff seeding format, proved to be popular with fans around the league.
Price reflected on the uniqueness of the Challenge Round, saying, “First and foremost it was such a unique idea to experiment with those two years. I think it was more exciting for the top four teams in terms of the ability to select their opponent.”
The Challenge Round gave us the league’s latest triple-overtime game between the Knoxville Ice Bears and Pensacola Ice Flyers in 2018 and the stunning upset sweep by the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs over the top-seeded Peoria Rivermen last season.
Despite some exciting and surprising matchups and high fan interest, there were difficulties with the unique playoff format – something we became familiar with during our preparations for the Challenge Round Selection Show we hosted. From our experience, we had to have previews and analyses prepared for all 16 playoff combinations.
From the league’s perspective, scheduling for the Challenge Round proved to be the most daunting task. The SPHL had to plan the dates for every possible matchup while coordinating potential playoff dates with teams and venues.
The teams had their own set of challenges when making their postseason preparations. Most notably, coaches had to plan for four potential opponents with at least one fewer day of preparation time. In a traditional playoff seeding format, some playoff matchups are already known as seedings may be locked in before the end of the regular season. Additionally, teams had to finalize travel plans for four different destinations in a compressed timeframe.
“The logistics of playing a game on a Saturday, potentially opening up on a Tuesday and not knowing which direction you’re going to go, not being able to make hotel reservations… just made it difficult,” said Price.
As much as we loved the Challenge Round, logistics proved to be its undoing.
Suspensions to Have Less Impact
There has always been a double-edged sword when players in the league are hit with disciplinary actions. When a player is suspended, the affected team was not allowed to fill the roster spot for the first three games of any league-mandated suspension. Teams will now be able to fill the roster void left by a suspended player.
Price revealed, “We had been the only league that where if we had a player suspended they actually had to play shorthanded, could not replace the player in the lineup, so we changed that.”
In my opinion, it felt excessive to punitively punish a team for the actions of a player by making them go into a match with one less player available on their roster, especially when the expanded 19-man roster enables teams to keep one extra player to fill lineup holes when needed.
“This will be a benefit in terms of health-wise and quality of play, so teams don’t have to (play a man down) this year,” said Price.
Undoubtedly, this operational change is a welcome one for coaches and players, and it’s good to see the SPHL do right by them.
Additional Playoff Help is on the Way
The league made another coach-friendly change when it comes to roster planning with their third significant change for the upcoming season. Beginning with the 2020 President’s Cup Playoffs, teams will be able to expand their postseason rosters to 20 players.
The lone stipulation of the 20th roster spot for the playoffs is the player has to be someone on an amateur try-out contract at the end of the regular season. A player coming out of college can gain valuable experience when dipping their toes in the pro ranks.
Gameday lineups will remain unchanged at 16 skaters plus two goaltenders, but coaches will be happy with the option to rest or replace players in the lineups.
“Basically, have an ATO player for the playoffs to carry 20 which will help out with injuries, bumps, and bruises that might keep a guy out of a game, and we don’t want teams to play shorthanded,” said Price.
We don’t expect significant changes to gameplay when the league publishes their rule book for the 2019-2020 season. Also, the topic of video review – set for full implementation in the ECHL – was not a big topic of conversation for the league’s governors over the summer. Price plans to keep close tabs on how video review is received in the ECHL in the upcoming season.
Follow Mike Campos on Twitter at @SinBinSPHL.