We are officially a quarter of the way through the regular season, the traditional time of the season when we have a good grasp on who the contenders and pretenders are in the Southern Professional Hockey League. We will also take a look at the league’s top performers and players who have underperformed so far this season. Finally, we will make the case why – despite occupying third place in the standings – the Mississippi RiverKings are the best team in the league right now.

If you have noticed players aren’t fighting as much as they used to over the past few years, your observation would be correct. There are fewer pure enforcers in all levels of professional hockey. In the SPHL, only Fayetteville’s Brad Drobot had had scraps in more than a third of his team’s games. Even a heavyweight like Mississippi’s Tyler Barr has only fought four times over 17 games this season.

Breaking down the numbers, we had 232 fights in 252 regular season games last season – a rate of .921 fights per game. A quarter of the way through the season fighting is down a remarkable 18.2 percent with 61 fights over 81 games played. Compare with fight per game rates in the past the downward trend becomes even more pronounced. Ten seasons ago the fight per game rate was 1.184 and over the next four years, the rate dropped almost 12 percent to 1.044 and an additional 11.7 percent through last season.

So why aren’t players dropping the mitts like they used to, other than the dearth of coaches willing to use up a roster spot on a player whose sole mission is to beat the snot out of another like-minded player? The game is getting too fast and too skill oriented, and roster spots are too precious. Another, somewhat less known reason is buried in the league’s policies. Let’s look at rule 46.10, a fight-related regulation in the SPHL rule book.

No player may unsnap his chin strap or remove his helmet prior to engaging in a fight. In addition, no player shall unsnap the chin strap or remove the helmet of his opponent prior to engaging in a fight. If either player should do so, he shall be assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a game misconduct. Helmets that come off in the course of and resulting from the altercation will not result in a penalty to either player.

This rule change means it’s now possible for a player to get suspended (mandatory after four game misconducts) simply by removing your helmet before a scrap. Given the inherent risk of concussions and traumatic brain injuries which naturally occur during a hockey game, this is a welcome rule change. The league has a responsibility to its players to reasonably and feasibly minimize the risk of permanent brain damage. These kids play too hard and for too little money for our entertainment and love of the sport – and it’s up to us to make sure they leave the game with as much of their faculties intact as possible.

Moving on… we are looking at a slight increase in scoring this season after a long downward trend over the past several seasons. The number of goals scored per game has increased to 5.78 from last season’s 5.62. We have two players (Huntsville’s Dylan Nowakowski and Lou Educate) who are on pace to score 40 goals this season, easily besting Pensacola’s Corey Banfield’s league leading 32 tallies last season. In the assist column, Knoxville’s Danny Cesarz’s league high 17 assists has him on pace for 63 helpers. No player has hit 60 assists since Kevin Swider scored 65 in the 2011-12 season. Pretty rarefied air considering the SPHL’s scoring title is named after Ice Bears legend.

At the other end of the ice, goaltenders are being tested a bit more this season. The number of shots per game has gone up from 62.4 last season to 62.94 thus far this season. The half a shot per game must be going in the net because the league’s save percentage has dropped to .910 from .913 in 2015-16. Ten goaltenders, representing eight of the league’s ten teams, currently have save percentages above the league norm. The Macon duo of Garrett Bartus (currently in the ECHL with Fort Wayne) and Jordan Ruby have a combined .935 – highest of any SPHL goaltending tandem. Among active goaltenders, the RiverKings Brad Barone and Peter Di Salvo are atop the league with a combined .919.

If any individual player is riding a hot streak, we’ll find him in an unlikely place – Evansville. The Thunderbolts, spending most of the season in the league’s basement, has been riding a four-game win streak on the pads of Tanner Milliron. The Evansville netminder’s insane stat line – 4-0-0, 1 shutout, 0.77 GAA, and .970 SV%.

Enough about our league’s overachievers… if we’re going to look at players who have fallen short of expectations, look no further than Pensacola forward Corey Banfield. Last season’s scoring champion is playing for a new coach and new linemates since the retirements of Adam Pawlick and Joe Caveney. He’s obviously struggling to rediscover his scoring touch after back-to-back 60-point seasons. Through 15 games, Banfield has only three goals and four assists. If the Ice Flyers are going to find their offensive persona, it needs to be through Banfield.

Looking at goaltenders, we’re simply not used to Fayetteville netminder Sean Bonar looking like a mere mortal. Bonar has allowed almost as many goals this season (27 in 11 games) as he has the past two years (31 in 17 games) combined. This season, Bonar (5-6-0, 1 shutout, 2.48 GAA, .909 SV%) has looked uncharacteristically average rather than his normal superhuman self.

If we look at the SPHL standings, we see the Macon Mayhem leading the pack at the quarter pole. Following closely behind we have the Huntsville Havoc and Mississippi RiverKings. Along with the Knoxville Ice Bears and Peoria Rivermen, these five teams are generally considered the top tier of teams in the league right now.

However… which of these teams are the best?

Let’s start out by eliminating the team which led our preseason power ranking, the Ice Bears. Out of the top five teams in the league, the Ice Bears’ team plus/minus is a -22. If you’re not outscoring opponents at even strength, lead the league in penalty minutes, getting swept at Evansville two weeks ago, and almost half of your wins coming at the expense of last-place Roanoke… let’s move on.

The two-time defending Coffey Trophy winning Peoria Rivermen, apparently settled with their early season roster chaos, have been relatively uninspiring. Keep in mind, however, the Rivs never got into their groove last season until mid-December. The jury’s still out on these guys.

I really like the Huntsville Havoc. Nine of their 15 games are against top-five teams, and they’re 5-3-1 in those contests. The Havoc lead the SPHL in scoring with 65 goals and have a league-high +72 plus/minus rating. Eight players have ten points or more. So why in the world can’t I get on this team’s bandwagon? I’ll give you two reasons: Injuries & callups and goaltending. Since December 1st, five players are either called up to the ECHL or on injured reserve and the team is allowing three goals a game. Offensively, Huntsville is the league’s best team. Across the red line, however, and they are average at best.

If I had written this on December 1st, I would have picked the Macon Mayhem without pause. The ECHL has not been kind to our friends in central Georgia, calling up Garret Bartus and John Siemer – the league’s top goaltender and scorer, respectively – and for a short stint, Collin MacDonald. Predictably, the Mayhem have struggled to put points on the board since. The Mayhem are 2-1-1 in December and had the chance to make a statement win at home against the RiverKings… and got rolled.

Funny thing… Both Mike Finazzo and I both picked the RiverKings to win this game. Care to know why?

Your Mississippi RiverKings… yes, the under-the-radar, nothing-particularly-special, occasionally-entertaining RiverKings… are the best team in the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Why am I so high on the RiverKings? Balance and discipline. Despite an overtime loss to the suddenly-hot Thunderbolts, the Kings were getting offensive production out of the line of Anthony Conti, Dillan Fox, and… Tyler Barr. When you’re so deep at the center position you have Fox on your third line – and still produce on the scoreboard – you have some great forward depth. Fox, the rookie from SUNY-Plattsburgh and Boston U alum Mike Moran have filled in spectacularly for veterans Todd Hosmer (out on IR since early in the season) and Devin Mantha (called up to Fort Wayne).

Defensively, Joe Sova – the veteran blueliner acquired from Peoria in exchange for Don Olivieri – has paid dividends not only from solid defensive zone play but also his three goals and three assists since arriving in Southaven. Sova, along with Mike Grace, Chris Leone, and Chris Luker (now on IR) give Mississippi a solid defensive unit which can also contribute offensively.

The disciplined Kings are the league’s second-least penalized team at 10.89 penalty minutes a game. Additionally, Head Coach Derek Landmesser has taken the oft-suspended Barr and rehabbed him into a peacekeeping (by superior firepower) third line power forward.

Mississippi went 4-1 in a five-game/eight night stretch of their schedule in November, including a pair of quality wins against Peoria and Knoxville. The Kings followed this up with a pair of signature victories – a 4-3 shootout win at home against the Havoc, then traveling to Macon the following night to thump the Mayhem by a convincing 5-2 margin.

Finally, the goaltending tandem of Peter Di Salvo and Brad Barone are (with the departure of Bartus to the ECHL) the best backstop duo in the league. Since the return of Di Salvo from IR, he and Barone have combined for nine of 12 quality starts. Coincidentally, the Kings are 9-2-1 since Di Salvo’s return.

The RiverKings aren’t flashy and at times they may bore you to tears. They are, until now, the best kept secret in the SPHL.

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