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2018-2019 NAHL Predictions

The NAHL concluded their 16th annual Showcase event at the Schwan’s Super RInk in Blaine, Minnesota this past weekend. As is annual tradition here, I’ll try to take a stab at how I see the league playing out the rest of the year after watching as much as I could over the four days of the Showcase.

Making predictions this year feels like a tougher task than usual. There are the usual challenges. The league is always really tight in terms of competition, and everyone looked competitive here. Even newcomer Maryland has already picked up a couple of wins, even though new teams typically struggle in their first year.

There’s also the issue that we haven’t seen the full picture of each team because USHL teams inexplicably can’t figure out their rosters until after this event, so there were a number of players—and a couple of USHL teams really bent the rules and had a lot of players to cut as of last weekend—still in the USHL that will soon trickle down to the NAHL and should be high-impact players. Sidenote: It seems crazy to me that the USHL doesn’t adopt a pre-season Showcase format where they get every team together in one place in early-to-mid-September and play a couple games then make their final roster decisions after that. It works so well for the NAHL, and if the USHL got things settled earlier, it would make life easier for everyone else down the line as well.

The final challenge in trying to predict the NAHL, this year moreso than past years, is that one of the impressions I got from talking to people over the weekend was that there were a lot of surprises in terms of game results. A couple teams that people thought weren’t going to be very good put up some nice wins—Amarillo swept their four games, including a 9-0 drubbing of Jamestown—while some teams that are considered traditional powers in the league struggled. That has left the current standings looking a little strange. For example, Fairbanks and Janesville, traditionally two of the strongest teams in the league sit in the bottom of the Midwest Division while perennial bottom-feeder Kenai River leads the division. Will those early trends hold, or will things revert back to form once teams start playing within their own divisions? Either way, it should make for a compelling season of hockey.

With all that said, here is my best guess at how the league standings will look at the end of the year.

Central Division

  1. Minot Minotauros

2. Austin Bruins

3. Bismarck Bobcats

4. Aberdeen Wings

5. Brookings Blizzard

6. Minnesota Wilderness

By the eye test, I thought this was the toughest overall division in the league. I think any of the top four teams could compete for first place in this, or any other division in the league. I gave the slight edge to Minot because they’re returning so much veteran experience from last year’s division champs. I also really like their goaltending, though the rest of the division is pretty strong in net too.

East Division

  1. Johnstown Tomahawks

2. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights

3. Northeast Generals

4. New Jersey Rebels

5. Jamestown Rebels

6. Maryland Black Bears

I think Johnstown’s skill up front, especially on their first line, is really good. WBS is off to a very slow start, but they’re a team with a lot of young talent that should be very good once those young players adjust to junior hockey. I think Northeast is a little deeper as a team than New Jersey or Jamestown. Maryland was a pleasant surprise; they were a little ahead of what I expected from an expansion franchise, but I think they might have a tough time hanging in a decent division.

Midwest Division

  1. Janesville Jets

2. Fairbanks Ice Dogs

3. Minnesota Magicians

4. Springfield Jr. Blues

5. Chippewa Steel

6. Kenai River Brown Bears

I’m not buying into the early season results. Janesville and Fairbanks may have gotten off to a rough start, but they’re well-coached teams and the talent still looks like it is there. In terms of overall talent, I think there’s a bit of a gap separating 1-2 from 3-4 and a gap seperating 3-4 from 5-6 in this division.

South Division

  1. Topeka Pilots

2. Shreveport Mudbugs

3. Amarillo Bulls

4. Odessa Jackalopes

5. Corpus Christi Ice Rays

6. Lone Star Brahmas

Shreveport are the defending champs, but are a good example of why it’s so hard to be consistently good in this league. They lost nearly everyone off last year’s team, including head coach Karlis Zirnis, who moved on to the NCAA. I could see them eventually reaching a point where they win the league, but for now, Topeka looked like the toughest team in this division.

I’m not sure Amarillo is quite as good as their performance in the Showcase, but I do think they’ll be better than expected and compete for the top of the division. Odessa is another team that could surprise. They had some stretches where they looked really bad, and some stretches where they looked great.