Maryland Pro/Developmental Report: 02.20.18

A couple of big moves since our last Maryland Developmental Update. Whether it be first call-ups or first goals, it’s been an eventful almost three months for the Maryland hockey prospects. We’ll start off first with the call-up:

SPHL/ECHL

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Mike Chen, Knoxville Ice Bears/South Carolina Stingrays (Rockville): 6g, 19a, +6 (with Knoxville): A tremendous start to his career, Chen earned his first call-up to the ECHL on Monday. With 25 points in 40 games, Chen led all rookie defensemen in points, while also being third in points for Knoxville and second on the team in power play scoring with 11 points (3g, 8a) with the extra man.

AHL

Sam Anas, Iowa Wild (Potomac): 18g, 22a, 4 GWG: Talk about a boost in the last two months, Anas has been fantastic. After a ten-game points-streak and six-game goal-scoring streak in December, Anas has continued through to be one of the top contributors in Iowa’s line-up. With a playoff push coming up and a bigger role, expect Anas to really show up in a big way for Derek Lalonde’s bunch.

Nick Ellis, Bakersfield Condors (Millersville): 8-9-2, 3.23 GAA, .897 Sv%: Rookie woes have gotten to Ellis after a hot start. Though he got called up to Edmonton, he saw no playing time and was returned to Bakersfield, where Laurent Brossoit has gotten a hefty share of starts since. With Brossoit called up, Ellis could be seeing more playing time and hopefully get his first win since January 6th.

ECHL

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Jack Burton, Indy Fuel (Reisterstown): 2g, 6a, 47 PIMs: He may not light the lamp or burn up the scoresheet as often as he’d like, the responsibility of Burton in his own end may be a trademark going forward. At 6’3 and 210, Burton may need to be a little bulkier in order to be a lockdown defenseman, but that very well could come with time and seasoning.

Nick Sorkin, Wheeling Nailers (Rockville): 6g, 37a, +9: Sorkin has settled into the set-up role for Cody Wydo, Reid Gardiner, and Cam Brown. Not just on his team, but Sorkin’s 37 assists rank fifth in the ECHL. Sorkin also hit a personal milestone, getting his 100th professional point in his 107th game on February 12th.

Eric Sweetman, Idaho Steelheads (Woodbine): 4g, 14a, +13: Another defenseman who is finding his footing, Sweetman has gotten better as the season has gone along. Despite his 5’11 frame, Sweetman has come into his own with 12 of his 18 points (4g, 8a) coming in the 2018 calendar year.

OHL

Adam Varga, Mississauga Steelheads (Bel Air): 0g, 4a, -8: With some scratches to his name, Varga is really getting a taste of the OHL life at 16-years old. One bright spot is that Varga did get his first OHL goal on Monday, which was his second game back from over a month being out of the line-up. Here’s hoping the stretch run will help the Bel-Air prospect going into his draft year next year.

USNTDP

Patrick Giles, US National Development Program (Chevy Chase): 7g, 6a, +4: Though he was held without a point in the U17 Five Nations Cup, which the US did win, Giles did have a couple chances here and there during the tournament. A bit of a slide since starting off the new year with four points in four games (2g, 2a), the draft eligible Marylander still has plenty of time to up his stock before going off to Boston College.

NCAA

Jerad Rosburg, Michigan State (Clarksville): 0g, 8a, 54 PIMs

Matt McArdle, Lake Superior State (Odenton): 0g, 2a, 25 PIMs

Colin O’Neill, U-Mass Lowell (Odenton): 3g, 11a, 2 SHG

Jason O’Neill, Providence (Odenton): 0g, 8a, E

Bruce Racine, Colgate (Bethesda): 1-3-1, 3.57 GAA, .898 Sv%

Blame Development, Not NHL, for Team USA Shortcomings

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Photo via USA Hockey’s Website

The Olympics are going on and there’s hockey in those Olympics, but the NHL isn’t there, so people are split. There’s some who are going to watch the hockey because it’s hockey, there’s some who will watch out of spite to the NHL, there’s some who won’t watch at all because of the time difference.

However, with the 4-0 loss by the USA to the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR), some people seem to quickly blame the NHL for the shortcomings of what USA Hockey is doing. One of those people is Alex Kirshner of SB Nation who suggested that NHL should be at fault for pretty much screwing over the USA and Canadian Olympic teams. Kirshner said while the NHL was right to not attend the games because of the CBA, it’s a short-term decision to worry about the league rather than worldwide appeal…though it still hasn’t gotten that from the past couple games and the IOC is hellbent on keeping the property to themselves rather than let the NHL have highlights to show and promote the game, but that’s another story entirely.

Kirshner suggests that because USA Hockey has all their talent in the NHL, the team didn’t have a chance because other countries have players are playing high level overseas and the USA has someone like Chris Bourque (undersized), Brian Gionta (undersized and old), Matt Gilroy (good in college, meh elsewhere) and college players, who in the past wouldn’t have made the team if the NHL was around (Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway).

But how is any of this on the NHL?? USA Hockey seems to have an underlying mantra of “NHL or Bust” when their players are in their system. The USA Hockey side of things preach development through the youth leagues, into college or juniors, then into the NHL. Doesn’t seem like much is made about the professional leagues in Europe being just as good indicators of talent for players– but something that seems to be often overlooked by the players and the heads of USA Hockey. When you only focus on the NHL as the end goal rather than elsewhere, the players are going to take that to heart.

Other nations don’t seem to have that issues. As pointed out by Kirshner, Russia had nine players in the last Olympics from the KHL and other nations need to fill the roster with other leagues when they don’t have enough NHL talent. (If you want to have NHL talent in international competition, then you need to support the farce of a tournament that is the World Cup of Hockey.)

My point is that when you only focus on the NHL while not giving any acknowledgement about how much an experience the leagues overseas could be for some players, then you are selling your players and your organization short when it comes to something like this. There’s a reason why a lot of European teams were ranked highly to win Gold, because they have a focus outside of the NHL that not many countries have. Canada has a little bit of that in going to tournaments like the Spengler Cup, but Hockey Canada is just as much to blame if they falter for not showing off the European leagues as a destination and focusing mainly on the NHL for their talent as the pinnacle of sport.

Given they all came together a short time again (unlike years where they had traveling National teams for a year-plus before the games), they have played alright given the situation they’ve been thrown into. It’s almost a reason for nations to not want to have the NHL there anymore because then they can actually gauge how successful their amateur development has been. If you just heavily rely on the Golden Goose to produce for you, you get complacent and then panic when it’s not longer shooting out gold bars.

On the Topic Of European/North American Hockey Relations

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Photo from @OntarioReign

Did you know that there as an international friendly that happened on Tuesday in Ontario?? More likely not, as there wasn’t much pomp and circumstance on the grand scheme of things, but the Ontario Reign took on Eisbaren Berlin on Tuesday, with Ontario cruising to a 6-3 win in front of  over 8,700 fans– according to the Ontario Reign.

Looking at the highlights from their Twitter, the Berlin fans who were in attendance really made it for a European feel of chanting and constant energy throughout the game. However, it didn’t seem to get much of a ground swell outside of the Ontario and Berlin community. Hell, this is the first time since 2014 when Farjestad took on the AHL All-Stars and then the Toronto Marlies that international teams took on North American teams during the regular season– as far as I know, that is.

There’s something to be said about the idea of international teams coming to North America to play against AHL teams, something more to be said when it has to deal with the AHL squads beating those international teams. Sure, the teams coming over may not bring their best line-up, especially since those teams are also in season. However– wouldn’t it be something to see more of these international friendlies and actually have them promoted by outside media sources in order to garner a little more appeal?? Of course it would, we all love hockey and getting to know more teams outside of the North American bubble would be a nice change of pace for some people.

When it comes to something like this, there’s two ways to go about it. First, get more teams active in forming a sister cities approach to international teams. Have each AHL or ECHL team adopt a European team and keep track that way. While it would be much harder to get the ECHL team to agree to it since they often have players defect to Europe to play, the idea could be there for the AHL by the parent organizations to almost compare ideas of coaching and playing styles and all that fun crap. It may be a hard-sell, but something that could be done. Ontario and Berlin came together if only because The Anschutz Group owns both teams.

The second way to go about it is to find a way to have more international tournaments for the minor league teams to participate in. While the Spengler Cup is a tournament that once in a blue moon invites AHL teams to their party (mainly the Rochester Americans), there needs to be more ideas.

One could be the idea of putting the Calder Cup champions in the Champions Hockey League. Yes, it could create havoc on scheduling, but to have a North American representation would be a big boost for the North American game and get people more invested in the European side of things. But, like I said, the schedule in Europe allows a lot more leeway for the teams to play in their country league and the Champions’ league– so many North American leagues would be pretty hard pressed to have involvement, but at the same time– one can dream about it.

There’s untapped potential when it comes to having European teams come over to North America more frequently and vice versa. The hardest point is to actually find a way to make it happen logistically and not just force down people’s throat like an outdoor game we’ve seen time and time again. You need to have it frequent enough to make people want to see it, but infrequent enough that you don’t over-saturate the marketplace.

Sadly, hockey marketing teams everywhere have yet to figure out that balance. So it goes. The dream is alive, but sleep hard before it becomes a reality.

UND HOCKEY: Offense Finds Its Touch in Victory Over Colorado College

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Photo via @UNDmhockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– After last night’s game, North Dakota defenseman Colton Poolman said that Saturday night’s game was a must-win for the Fighting Hawks and they didn’t disappoint in front of a sell-out 11,860 at the Ralph picking up a 5-1 victory over the Colorado College Tigers. Two line-up changes from Friday’s tilt saw Peter Thome getting the start over senior Cam Johnson, while Collin Adams was scratched in lieu of defenseman-turned-winger Casey Johnson.

“Hockey doesn’t change in a month,” said Thome. “Playing last night and playing my game well helped me be confident for tonight. Just realizing I had to play my game and not do too much out there.”

Though there was the need to come out hopping, UND did have some added urgency, but aside from two chances by Shane Gersich– one going wide, one into the chest of Alex Leclerc– there wasn’t much to be said for the Fighting Hawks offense. Colorado College alos struggled with having many chances, as Peter Thome stood tall; including helping kill two power plays. The period ended with no goals and UND leading in shots 9-6.

While not much happened in the first part of the second, UND finally broke the ice. On the power play, while they were passing more than the late rounds of the MLB Draft, Christian Wolanin put a slap-pass to Shane Gersich, who put it off the side of the net and behind it. Luckily, Joel Janatuinen was on the other side of the net to pull from behind the net and into it to give UND the lead. Later in the period, the UND power play struck again, with Shane Gersich burying his 9th of the season after a Christian Wolanin shot struck Austin Poganski’s skate and kicked out to Gersich to put it in the yawning cage.
“Every time we’ve played together, we’ve had really good chemistry,” mentioned Gersich about being put between Gardner and Poganski. “It’s nice to be back with them and hopefully we can keep it rolling. I’ve had chemistry with Pogo in the past and Gard’s is a big guy who can win draws and battle. I don’t know, it just kind of clicks.”

One outburst was Rhett Gardner, who got his fourth minor of the weekend, then added on with another ten-minute misconduct for jawing at the referee after the call. Despite being down a man, UND killed the rest of Gardner’s minor off, in time for Austin Poganski to break up a pass at the blue line, get the puck kicked ahead by Johnny Simonson, and Poganski finishing the play by going high-blocker side of Leclerc to make it 3-0 UND.

While UND started to clog up the middle, Colorado College got past the trap, as Nick Halloran got a feed from Troy Conzo and put it high blocker side on Thome, making it 3-1. The Fighting Hawks regained the three-goal lead, as Grant Mismash cut across the front of net, drawing a penalty, then getting the puck out to Jordan Kawaguchi– who’s shot got tip over to Janatuinen, who potted his second of the game. After the penalty expired, Mismash danced through the Colorado College defense, across the slot, and put it high glove on Leclerc.

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Joel Janatuinen/ Photo by @NHLHistorygirl

“Feels pretty good,” said Janatuinen. “I haven’t scored that much this year. I’m just trying not to think about it too much. Just trying to help the team as much as you can and the goals will come from it.”

As stated from the start, there was a must-win feeling of this game, especially since UND hasn’t won a game since January 12th and going 0-3-3 in the six games since the last win in Bemidji.

“It was huge,” said head coach Brad Berry about the victory. I know everybody’s caught up in a must-win, must-win and you’re right it is a must-win, but I think our guys did a good job of handling the process and staying with the game.”

The Fighting Hawks are on the road the next two weeks– heading to Omaha next week and then Miami the week after before coming home in March to end out the regular season against St. Cloud State.

UND HOCKEY: Little Things Stifle Fighting Hawks in Loss to Colorado College

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Photo from @UNDmhockey

GRAND FORKS, ND– After a week off, the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks were a bit more rested and did get the services of Rhett Gardner back, though Nick Jones is still on the shelf and Ludvig Hoff is off at the Olympics in South Korea. However, coming back to The Ralph in front of 11,517 wasn’t as great as UND had hoped, as they dropped the opening game of the weekend series against the Colorado College Tigers 4-2.

While North Dakota controlled the play for the first half of the first, Colorado College struck first after Cam Johnson and his defensemen had a miscommunication, leading to Christiano Versich passing out to Trevor Gooch, who slid it over to Troy Conzo to bury it into a yawning cage. The goal was only the second shot of the period for Colorado College. Shots ended up 9-8 for UND, but the Tigers got rejuvenated after the goal to spark six more shots in the last part of the frame.

While the Tigers were attacking for the first part of the second, UND finally got their legs about thanks to some help. During a power play, Christian Wolanin wheeled down low and tried to sneak the puck past Alex Leclerc, but just created a mad scramble in front. During that scramble, a Colorado College player closed his hand on the puck in the crease, creating a penalty shot for UND. Wolanin was allowed to finish what he started and went blocker side on Leclerc to make tie the game.

The tie didn’t last long as Troy Conzo got his second of the game shorthanded, as he lasered a shot past Johnson to make it 2-1. Brad Berry gave a quick hook, putting Peter Thome in net after Johnson let in two goals on 12 shots.

“This is the time of year, you’re not worried about feelings. It’s a team-first mentality, said Berry post-game. “I think it’s a situation where not very many shots on the scoreclock and they already have a couple goals, some you like to have back. Whether you get a bump for the team or giving Peter a chance, it’s about the team first.”

UND got a little more jump in their game and with 6:23 left, UND got the equalizer, this time from the other scoring defenseman in Colton Poolman, who got a short pass from Rhett Gardner before going wide and cutting in front to put on behind Leclerc. Seconds later, Alex Pernitsky– who was a last second addition to the line-up with Max St. Pierre being scratched– scored from the top of the circle near-side on Thome to make it 3-2 Tigers. Not long after that, Versich drew a penalty shot after a slash, but was denied after trying to slowly throw off Thome’s timing, but getting nowhere. The crazy second ended with UND outshooting CC in the frame 13-11, but down 3-2 in the goals column.

“They were more mature than us,” mentioned Colton Poolman. “They were more of a team after we scored and after they scored, we just shook our heads. We’ve dug ourselves a whole, but we’re in full confidence in that locker room.”

The third started with UND on their heels, as Rhett Gardner got his third minor of the night and the Tigers put some pucks on Thome, but the freshman netminder was equal to the task. UND got a power play shortly after killing the Gardner minor, but the Tigers– as they had been all night– kept the Fighting Hawks to the perimeter, not allow a prime scoring chance on their extra-man advantage. A see-saw battle to the end, UND had more than enough chances, but Leclerc was solid and even when out of position, his defensemen were able to clamp down and keep the puck out. UND did have shots to take the slot area, but seemed to veer off to set something up from the perimeter. Colorado College got their final goal thanks to a Westin Michaud empty-net tally to make it 4-2 as the end result.

“Just gotta find a to do something to get out of this rut we’re in,” said Christian Wolanin. “We’re in a deep hole right now and we’re going to have to do some hard work to dig us out.”

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Photo by @NHLHistorygirl

“Every time we score, they came back and put one in right away,” said Berry. “Times in games when you have momentum, you can’t give momentum away. I think we played the right way, but we let the game get away from us for those things. The frustration showed a little. When the game isn’t going the right way, we let it get to us. When you keep their top line off the score sheet, you give yourself a chance to win. It’s just the other phases of the game that we weren’t good enough in.”

UND will try to find the little things to get back in the win column for the first time since January 12th (5-1 win at Bemidji) on Saturday night.

“We need this one to say the least,” said Poolman. “Every game from here on out is a must-win, but especially tomorrow night. We can’t afford to give that up.”

McKenna’s Departure Leaves Wide-Open Field for ECHL…and Maybe Me Taking Over

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On Wednesday, the ECHL announced that commissioner Brian McKenna was stepping down from his post following the 2017-18 season. McKenna has been in that spot for 16 years and has seen the growth of the ECHL from a league where it was very few prospects and many guys on their last legs to a legit developmental league where many NHL teams place their young guns when the AHL is too full or they feel the player would be better served in a league that helps adjust to the pro game.

McKenna has seen some ups and downs, sure, but it’s been a very net gain for what McKenna has grown. The league absorbed the WCHL and CHL in his tenure, while also seeing steady growth amongst stable membership and making head-way from the West Coast to the Northeast corridor in the last couple seasons after the AHL went to their West Coast footprint. His ability to help the league geographically has been a solid work, too. Kudos for what he has done.

There has been no replacement as of yet, but I’m going to suggest one person who I think would be great for this job.

Scotty Wazz.

That’s right, I’m officially throwing my hat in the ring for the ECHL Board of Governors to look at when it comes to hiring their new commissioner. I know that I may not have the qualifications a normal applicant would have, but my knowledge of hockey and the business of minor league hockey could be something that should be looked at. Add that to actually seeing the fan reaction and taking those into account when talking and posting about what the league could/should/would do in different situations.

Now, let’s be honest, I’m not even in the running. The idea of a blogger/podcaster to be in such a high position is more a publicity gimmick and for a league as legitimate as the ECHL wouldn’t stoop to something so silly. Yet…there’s always a chance until there isn’t one.

I dealt first with the ECHL when the Chesapeake Icebreakers were a thing in the late 1990s, being the stickboy and around the team for a while– I saw the passion these guys had for the league and saw a lot of people outside of the players doing as much as they can in order to get to that next level. Hell, Dana Heinze is a guy I remember unloading the Johnstown Chiefs’ bus and now he’s got a couple Stanley Cup rings in Tampa and Pittsburgh.

While the business on the ice is at its top point, there’s still room to figure out what’s going to happen off the ice is still there and how to make all the teams successful. Not just the team they ice, but what they actually have in terms of other entertainment to help the fans during the stoppages in play. When I spoke with Brampton Beast President and General Manager Cary Kaplan, he said that the team didn’t market hockey, they marketed entertainment. I’d suggest going to all the member teams rinks, holding a “town hall” of sort for the boosters, fans, season ticket members– whomever– and see what’s working and what’s not working off the ice. From the in-arena promotions to what’s happening (or not happening) outside of the arena and into the cities. Adjust and adapting marketing projects could be integral to a team surviving and folding.

The ECHL is grass-roots hockey with a little bit of corporate flare. While you need the corporate side of things to keep the lights on, you also need the community support. In fact, the community support could be the biggest thing needed because sure– a team could have top of the line facilities, but if they don’t have a solid base for a support staff around them…they aren’t going to make it anywhere.

Granted, there’s some other ideas I have, but I haven’t really planned it all out. It’s a work in progress as we push towards Scotty Wazz as commissioner for the ECHL after the 2017-18 season.

….and if not commissioner, some kind of fan relations liaison to present to the Board every now and again to see what is working and what isn’t.

Minor League Weekly: Puempel Powering Griffins, LaValle-Smotherman on Fire, SPHL MVP Contenders

AHL

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Photo by Icon Sportswire

-It’s taken the Grand Rapids Griffins a while to get going, but with points in eight of their last ten games– they’ve regained their championship form. A lot of that success is due in part to the play of Matt Puempel, who’s in the midst of a nine-game point-streak (6g 7a), while having 40 points in 35 games with the Griffins and putting Puempel fourth in the AHL in scoring. This season is looking to be Puempel’s best in the AHL. With 43 points (19g, 24a) already this season, Puempel is only five points away from tying his AHL high, which he set in his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Binghamton Senators.

-When it comes to Thatcher Demko, it’s a matter of when he’ll get the full-time call-up to the Vancouver Canucks. His play this season has been stellar (17-7-5, 2.27 GAA, .929 Sv%) and will give the Canucks an interesting move late in their season– whether to call him up to get some NHL playing time, as he’ll luckily move into that role next season– or will they allow him to stay with Utica for the rest of the season and get a taste of a playoff run??

ECHL

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-Since the turning of the calendar, Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman has turned on his game big time with 11g, 12a in 14 games in 2018. The Monarchs forward has been on quite the roll with multi-point games in six of his last season, which has quietly put him in second spot for league leaders in points (52) and second in the league in goals (26). Not bad for a guy getting back into the North American game full-time after traveling around Europe from 2011 until towards the end of the 2016-17 season.

-There might be a chip in Joe Cannata’s shoulder because his play right now is really telling the Colorado Avalanche he wants to be promoted. The minor-league vet is 16-2-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .934 Sv%, which puts him 2nd and 1st respectively in the league. After years of being in the AHL– whether it being the veteran back-up or the stop-gap veteran– he’s in the ECHL full-time for the first time since 2014-15. With a championship team in front of him, he could be marking his way for when the Eagles move up to the AHL next season.

SPHL

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-While Jake Hauswirth has had a great season– it’s going to be hard-pressed for him to go ahead and win the MVP on a non-playoff team. For me, Berkley Scott could be the front-runner, especially with the month he just had in January (9g, 7a)–which earned him Player of the Month honors. Tomas Shall should also get some kind of recognition for the year he’s had with Evansville thus far with a 14-2-2 record, while ranking top-five in GAA and save percentage.

Bring Back the NHL Showdown

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Plain and simple, the Skills Competition is the best part of All-Star Weekend. It allows players to show off their stuff and gives them a little bit of personality to the viewing public. It was started in 1990 for players to show of and settle some arguments that people could have…if they even cared.

However, the biggest issue that not all of the players with the hardest shot, top speed, or most accuracy are at the All-Star Weekend. That was definitely known when Mat Barzal didn’t have a chance to try and beat Connor McDavid for the fastest skater title. Plus, I’m sure that there’s someone in the league that has a harder shot than Alex Ovechkin. Some teams have annual skills competitions in-house for the fans, so why not take the top players from there for the skills competition.

Or just revitalize a show from the late 1970s and early 1980s on the CBC. It was something put together by the NHLPA and the CBC and played during the intermission of Hockey Night in Canada. As Joe Pelletier mentioned in his post about it, the NHL tried to block the players from doing it because of the risk of injury. I’m sure something like that would happen now, so it’s a far-fetched thing to think about.

Yet, think about it. You want to have new TV ideas for hockey– this would be perfect. It’d show off the game’s most skilled players, they’d be able to profile some players who may not get the national attention as others, and it would be a nice change of pace from what They have now. You could also include some younger players in the AHL or CHL to display their skill or what-have-you. Hell, get some retired players– why not??

Plus, you could make this into a tournament event with the final four or five going onto the big show at the All-Star Weekend. There’s plenty of incentive for it, as much as some owners or GMs may not like it; it’s something to showcase the players in light-hearted competition and show off the skill of their game. Everyone wins, when you look at it from a broader scale.