The Southern Professional Hockey League’s 2015-16 season is already a quarter of the way through it’s 252-game schedule. We have been treated to some great play this season, and the league has taken a big step toward respectability. Today, we’ll recap the highlights of the season thus far, and hand out report cards.
The Macon Mayhem Begin Play – This season marked the return of hockey to Macon, Georgia after a ten-year absence. The Mayhem began play in front of 3,039 fans in their debut against the defending champion Knoxville Ice Bears on opening night. Macon fell, 5-4 in a shootout, but fans in central Georgia are glad to have hockey back.
Hockey Returns to Roanoke – The Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs will become the SPHL’s 10th team beginning in the 2016-17 season. The franchise, owned by Bob McGinn, will be taking the franchise rights from the inactive Mississippi Surge. The league desperately needed another team after the addition of the Macon Mayhem to balance out the schedule. The Rail Yard Dawgs will be Roanoke’s first professional team since the ECHL Express ceased operations in 2004.
The SPHL Cracks Down on Penalties – The league has been making a serious commitment to enforcing unsafe play this season, and has been handing down suspensions at a record pace. The SPHL has had a reputation as a loosely officiated, rough-and-tumble league. However, the crackdown on questionable hits and the launch of a YouTube channel are making strides on driving the league in developing talent for higher leagues.
Huntsville and Fayetteville Rebound – The league’s bottom two teams from last season are off to hot starts. The Huntsville Havoc, with the third-worst season (11-38-7) in league history last season, are already two wins away from matching their win total from last season. Currently, the Fayetteville FireAntz have the league’s best win percentage and are four points out from the league leading Mississippi RiverKings.
Huntsville Havoc: Grade – A+
How can anyone not be at least a little happy for the Huntsville Havoc? Coach Glenn Detulleo, his job in jeopardy following a diastrous 2014-15 campaign, rebuilt his team with a tough defensive core. Detulleo then picked up some offensive weapons, and the Havoc are suddenly one of the best teams in the league.The Havoc drew 3,585 fans a game despite their nine-win season a year ago, and their loyalty is being rewarded. Great news for one of the best fan bases in all of hockey.
Fayetteville FireAntz: Grade – A+
The Fayetteville FireAntz are another feel-good story this season. The team picked up former Mississippi Surge coach Jeff Bes as their 7th head coach over six seasons, and Besser instantly righted the ship. The Antz lead the league in winning percentage, goals scored, goals allowed, power play, and penalty kill. Defenseman Zach Carriveau, recently named the SPHL Player of the Month, is leading blueliners in scoring; and Joe Manno, Berkley Scott, and Josh McQuade are one of the most potent scoring lines in the league. Goalie Sean Bonar got called up to ECHL Brampton, and Parker Van Buskirk has been sensational in Bonar’s absence.
Mississippi RiverKings: Grade – A
Coach Derek Landmesser’s team is starting the season exactly as they finished the last one – on a roll. The Mississippi RiverKings went on a five-game winning streak after dropping their home opener to the Louisiana IceGators, then won another four after that streak ended. Goaltender Pete Di Salvo has the league’s best GAA and SV%, forwards Devin Mantha and Mark Pustin are among the top five players in scoring, and the RiverKings are atop the league standings. The RiverKings lost out to the Knoxville Ice Bears in the President’s Cup Final, and are well on their way to returning.
Peoria Rivermen: Grade – B+
The defending regular-season champs seem to be taking a step backwards this season, and special teams seems to be the main culprit. The Peoria Rivermen’s power play sits at a lethargic 10.96%, and has allowed four shorthanded goals this season. Their penalty kill is a respectable 86.96%, but have played more shorthanded minutes than any other team in the league. Goalie Kyle Rank, the two-time SPHL goaltender of the year, is still playing at a high level with a 2.21 GAA. Coach Jean-Guy Trudel expects more from a team with this much talent, and so do we.
Pensacola Ice Flyers: Grade – B
Offensively, the Pensacola Ice Flyers remain a high-scoring team – especially the line featuring Corey Banfield, Adam Pawlick, and Joe Caveney. The three star forwards have already combined for 21 goals and 20 assists this season. Callups to the ECHL have depleted the Ice Flyers’ lineup lately, with RW Matt Larke (Fort Wayne), C Paul Rodrigues (South Carolina), LW Nick McParland (Brampton), RW Joe Holka (Greenville), and G Matt Zenzola (Evansville) all currently loaned out to the higher league. The depleted Ice Flyers have dropped three of their last four – all to Fayetteville – but still remain in strong contention for the postseason.
Macon Mayhem: Grade – C
The Mayhem are having a rough first season in the SPHL with a 3-8-3 record, with the fewest goals scored with only 2.21 per game. It’s not an easy task to build a hockey team from scratch under a first-year coach like Kevin Kerr. Only one of the team’s draft picks – defenseman Mark Corbett – signed with the Mayhem, and Corbett was waived early into the season. Making matters worse, Jason Popek was let go by the Mayhem – only to light it up with the Huntsville Havoc. These are the growing pains of an expansion team.
Louisiana IceGators: Grade – C-
The Louisiana IceGators are a hot mess right now. Their struggles on the power play have reached historic levels. Currently at 2-for-65 (3.08%) with a man advantage, the Gators have the lowest power play success rate in all of professional hockey. Furthermore, the team have three defensemen – Eric Tallent, Mitch Stretch, and Dan Cornell – all out due to injuries. Louisiana also traded sniper Chris Wilson to Peoria for Luke Sandler, with Sandler being immediately sent to ECHL Brampton. The news isn’t all bad from Cajun Country, however. Winger Benji Rubin returns from the Mississippi RiverKings in exchange for forward Luke Kasteel, who has struggled this season; and goalie Eric Levine seems to have found his groove since being waived by Pensacola. Good thing, since fellow netminder Adam Courchaine just got called up to ECHL Norfolk.
Columbus Cottonmouths: Grade – D+
The Snakes, just like last season, slithered out of the gate with a seven-game losing streak. The Columbus Cottonmouths have rebounded somewhat by winning five of their last eight. Goalies Brandon Jaeger and Shannon Szabados continue to split time in net for the Snakes, but it’s becoming apparent that Jaeger will eventually become the everyday starter. Furthermore, the loss of Louis Belisle, their top scoring forward, to ECHL South Carolina has their offense sputtering. The Cottonmouths were able to rebound last season to finish second in the league standings, but it’s going to be a rougher road to the top for this year’s team.
Knoxville Ice Bears: Grade – D
Speaking of goaltending problems, the Knoxville Ice Bears have them in droves. Goalies Bryan Hince and Braely Torris, a tandem which performed great last season, have allowed 66 goals in 18 games. The defending champs started the season 4-3-0, then proceeded to lose their next seven games. Since then, the Bears are 2-2-0. Trever Hertz, the former Fayetteville FireAntz forward, has been a bright spot for Knoxville with his team-leading 13 assists; and the team leads the league in goals scored with 50. Should the Ice Bears get their goaltending and defense settled, this team has a chance to move up quickly in the standings. Currently, however, the defending champs are off to a disappointing start.
The Sin Bin’s Three Stars
★ – Huntsville Havoc Fans. You guys suffered through a terrible season, yet stuck by your team. Enjoy your success – you’ve earned it!
★★ – Mark Faucette, SPHL Director of Officiating. It’s great to see the league crack down on questionable hits, whether penalized or not. Creating a YouTube channel posting these plays, along with detailed explanations, is a terrific move.
★★★ – The league’s ECHL call-ups. Kudos, boys. Play hard, and represent the league well.