It's become an annual tradition around here that after taking in the four days of the NAHL Showcase, I make my predictions on how the final standings in the league will shake out. Here were last year's picks, which ended up looking pretty good.
There's always the caveat that rosters are bound to change a bit before the regular season really gets going. That's especially the case this year with the USHL changing their rules to allow teams to keep a silly amount of players deep into the fall. Many NAHL teams will be adding quality players in the upcoming weeks and these teams could look very different.
But, if nothing else, this an easy way to go over what I saw this past week at the Showcase, and talk a bit about where I see some of these teams as they head into the meat of their schedule.
1. Austin Bruins
2. Bismarck Bobcats
3. Aberdeen Wings
4. Brookings Blizzard
5. Minot Minotauros
This division is Austin and then everybody else. The Bruins ended the Showcase as one of two undefeated teams, and had the best goal differential. It's really incredible how after all the talent they lost off of last year's Robertson Cup runner-ups, they were able to reload.
The Bobcats were the beneficiaries of one of the early players to leaves the USHL when they picked up goalie Hunter Shepard. Shepard struggled in his NAHL debut with Bismarck, but in the long run, he should be a difference-maker for them.
Aberdeen won three games at the Showcase and have been gradually improving since joining the league. This might be the best team they've put together.
1. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
2. Minnesota Magicians
3. Minnesota Wilderness
4. Coulee Region Chill
5. Kenai River Brown Bears
Fairbanks is a fun team to watch because they play an up-tempo offensive style of hockey. They struggled keeping the puck out of the net at the Showcase, but in the long run, I think they'll tighten things up defensively and score enough goals to win the division again.
The Minnesota Magicians had a very good 3-1 record at the Showcase, but played three one-goal games and scored at the 20:00 mark of the third period in their last game for a two-goal win. They won't blow people out, but they've got a veteran team, and if they can keep Vaughan Ahrens for the year, he has the potential to be a difference-maker in goal. As a sidenote, it was announced during the Showcase that the Magicians signed a 15-year lease with their home rink in Richfield. It's a good sign that the NAHL will be staying in the Twin Cities metro area.
The Wilderness don't appear to have the same level of talent in goal after losing Kasimir Kaskisuo to Minnesota Duluth, but they only allowed six goals in their four games, which is pretty darn good. They're small, but extremely fast at forward which makes them a lot of fun to watch.
1. Soo Eagles
2. Janesville Jets
3. Keystone Ice Miners
4. Springfield Jr Blues
5. Johnstown Tomahawks
6. Michigan Warriors
At +12, Soo was just behind undefeated Austin and Topeka in goal differential. Their top line with three veterans was nearly unstoppable at times.
I don't think there's much of a difference between Janesville and Keystone for second and third in the league, and then a bit of a gap between them at Springfield/Johnstown.
Michigan had the worst Showcase in the league. It was a good example of the Butterfly Effect in the hockey world. Casey DeSmith's trouble in New Hampshire seemingly has little to do with the NAHL, but that set off a chain where New Hampshire was scrambling for a goalie and decided to bring in Cedar Rapids goalie Danny Tirone at midseason. Cedar Rapids needed another option to replace Tirone and they called up Michigan starting goalie Ryan Larkin just before the Showcase started and the Warriors struggled between the pipes all weekend. They didn't score much either, but there's some talent and some good veterans on that roster. If they can find a goalie somewhere, there's potential to turn things around quickly.
1. Topeka Road Runners
2. Amarillo Bulls
3. Wenatchee Wild
4. Corpus Christi Ice Rays
5. Wichita Falls Wildcats
6. Odessa Jackalopes
7. Lone Star Brahmas
8. Rio Grand Valley Killer Bees
It's tough to pick against Amarillo after the way they've completely dominated this division the past three years, but teams just aren't going to score goals on Topeka. I really liked returning goalie Drew Vogler last year and then they added an even better goalie in Slovakian import Matej Tomek, who should be a very high NHL Draft pick this summer. If they keep that tandem together, they could put up some absolutely crazy defensive numbers.
Amarillo had to replace head coach Dennis Williams, but they should be just as strong as ever. They didn't have a great Showcase, but they've done that in the past and still gone on to great seasons. This is still a very tough team to play against.
Wenatchee didn't put up a great record in the Showcase either, but they've got a lot of young, talented players and as they mature over the course of the season, I think they'll develop into a really good hockey team.