This past weekend, the North American Hockey League held their 15th annual season-opening Showcase event at the Schwan’s Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota. The event featured all 23 of the league’s teams playing four games in four days(except Austin and the Minnesota Magicians this year due to the uneven number of teams).
As is tradition here, I like to give a quick rundown and prediction of how I see the league shaking out after watching as many games as possible at the Showcase.
It’s not a perfect way to do things. Rosters are still very much in flux for these teams as they try to work through line combinations and experiment with players. Teams will release players after this event, and likely pick up some big help as USHL teams start to trim their rosters(I believe this year the rule is that USHL rosters have to be down to 50 players by Christmas). Plus, there is only one of me battling against a lot of hockey games, many of which happen simultaneously. There were NCAA teams that brought all three coaches to this event and still didn’t feel like they had enough people watching. But it’s a good starting point for what to expect in the league this year.
Overall, it’s a very competitive league with not much separating top from bottom. If there is a strongest division, it looks like it is the East this year. Leading the division is the early candidate for the league’s best story line. Last year’s inaugural season was a disaster for the Northeast Generals. It took them 30 games to earn their first victory and they finished the season with a 4-53-3-0 record. Their second season looks like it will be a different story. The Generals were a perfect 4-0-0-0 at the Showcase, moving their record on the season to 6-1-0-0. They’re in a tough division, but they looked very good this weekend, and should be competitive throughout the year. It’s great news for the NAHL’s first venture into Massachusetts.
Here are my predictions for how the league standings will look this year.
- Minot Minotauros
2. Bismarck Bobcats
3. Austin Bruins
4. Aberdeen Wings
5. Brookings Blizzard
6. Minnesota Wilderness
This is probably the most wide-open division because none of the teams stood out to me as clear favorites to win the division. I give Minot and Bismarck a slight edge, but there’s not a lot separating these teams. It should be a really interesting race.
- Philly Rebels
2. Northeast Generals
3. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
4. New Jersey Titans
5. Johnstown Tomahawks
The top three teams in this division were all really good. They weren’t flashy, but all three were tough, physical teams that grind out wins. Every Philly game seems to be close, and ends with some angry pushing and shoving, but they’re usually the ones coming out on top of it.
New Jersey and Johnstown both looked decent too, and I could see each contending for home ice in a different division, but there are some really solid teams ahead of them.
- Janesville Jets
2. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
3. Springfield Jr. Blues
4. Minnesota Magicians
5. Coulee Region Chill
6. Kenai River Brown Bears
I think Janesville and Fairbanks are ahead of the pack by a good margin in this division. I gave Janesville the edge because I think they’re better in goal.
The bottom four should be an interesting race for the final two playoff spots. In recent years, Kenai has been a weak link, and I’m not sure they have the depth to compete over a full season, but they took two close losses to good teams, and had a blow out victory over a weak team this weekend, which are very promising results.
- Shreveport Mudbugs
2. Lone Star Brahmas
3. Amarillo Bulls
4. Topeka Roadrunners
5. Odessa Jackalopes
6. Corpus Christi Ice Rays
Shreveport was a clear-cut number one for me, but after that, things are very, very tight and it was tough to order these teams. I’d expect a lot of close, low-scoring games in this division throughout the season.