ORLANDO, FL – The holiday season is a time for reflecting and dreaming. The generous souls at The Sin Bin want to help the sometimes battered and bruised squads get into the Christmas spirit, and we are doing so by putting together our annual special wish lists for Santa. If that North Pole miracle-worker can bring at least some of these treats in his sleigh, it will make the New Year bright. We started with the South, Central, and North Divisions, and this installment takes us finally to the Mountain. 

Battening Down the Special Teams

While the Colorado Eagles have taken a commanding lead of the Mountain Division, the second through fourth spots are quite tight. Not surprisingly, the Allen Americans are in the mix. Yes, the departure of Chad Costello to Europe left a vacuum, but head coach Steve Martinson has found ways to keep the Allen train on the track. If there is a weak spot in the Americans’ armor, it is the special teams. As Barry Janssen has noted, the team’s power play is five percentage points behind last year’s average, and the penalty kill is off by roughly four percent. Those might seem like small numbers, but a successful Kelly Cup run requires razor-sharp special team play. Given that the Americans are also tops regarding penalty minutes makes the penalty kill drop-off more painful. If Martinson can get his squad to up its game when playing a man down and a man up, he will join Santa in singing “Ho, ho ho!” all the way to the playoffs this year.

Don’t Wake Them from the Dream

The Colorado Eagles are moving to the AHL next year, so their fondest wish this year is to go out of the ECHL with a bang. A recent surge has the Eagles literally perched on top of the Mountain, so it looks like Santa has already been at work to grant this holiday wish. The worry for the team now is that some other team like the Allen Americans might play the part of the playground bullies to steal their holiday candy and take them out of the playoffs early. They are hoping that St. Nick will keep all those Scrooges away.

New Mountain Division Neighbors

The Idaho Steelheads are off to a strong start this year and are even doing a fair job of keeping stride with the soaring Colorado Eagles. The Steelheads are clearly hoping that Santa will be bringing a playoff ticket to the team, but looking long term, it is hoping that the miracle worker might find it in his generous heart to provide a new ECHL franchise or two somewhere in the Mountain Division neighborhood. Currently, the Utah Grizzlies are the closest team to the Steelheads, and they are nearly 350 miles away. When the Colorado Eagles leave to join the ranks of the AHL next year, Idaho’s next closest neighbor (after Utah) will be the Rapid City Rush, which is over 900 miles distant! The ECHL needs to give serious thought adding any new franchises to its western frontier.

Getting Back in the Confidence Game

The Rapid City Rush have been struggling to find answers this year. Injuries have prevented head coach Daniel Tetrault from finding a consistent healthy lineup, and painful call-ups have hurt, especially in the goal. The recent acquisition of veteran netminder Shane Owen was a good move to bring stability to that position, but it is clear that the Rush needs to have its morale and its confidence restored. If Santa would lend some of the spirits that keeps his reindeer working as a team, Rapid City could gain some footing and begin moving forward from its rocky and painful start.

 Health and Endurance

When Rob Murray, the head coach of the Tulsa Oilers, collapsed last month during a game against the Quad City Mallards, it caused minor league hockey to put things back into perspective. Health is far more precious than numbers on the scoreboard. Owners and executives around the league should take heed and make sure that players, coaches, and staff members are given the resources and the rest to survive the grueling hockey season. The Sin Bin and the hockey world are wishing Murray continued health and well being through 2018. It would be an added blessing to the Oilers if Santa would bestow some reindeer endurance on them so that they can power through the second half of the season and avoid the end-of-season implosion that tripped them up down the stretch last year.

Second the Idaho Steelheads Request

Since it’s a lot to ask for a new ECHL franchise or two in the Mountain region, the Utah Grizzlies are joining the chorus with the Idaho Steelheads. If Santa could send some of his reindeer to scout a new market in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico—or even Nebraska—it would make for a better travel situation for all the teams in the West.

Utah is also in need of some serious spark for its power play, which currently ranks 26th in the league at barely over ten percent. This troubling statistic is even more painful for a team in its bruising division. Four of the top five teams in the entire league are from the Mountain. The Grizzlies hope that Santa some bite to their growls and make their division opponents pay for their infractions.

Make the Turnaround Stick

After a disappointing 2016-17 season, the Wichita Thunder opened the year as a completely different team. Most notable has been the early chemistry of the squad. Unfortunately, the city of Wichita has been napping and missing out on the hot ticket that the Thunder have become. And the team is also showing signs of growing inconsistency in its play. The team could use some magical caffeine or smelling salts to keep the Thunder thundering through a full 60 minutes each game. They have shown that, when they stay focused, they are a genuine contender. Of course, the best jolt of all for the team would be enthusiastic bodies in the stands to cheer the squad to success.

I would like to thank the members of Team Sin Bin for their help and suggestions. In particular, Matthew Harding, Mike Crook and Barry Janssen provided useful insight that went into this article on the Mountain Division.