The North American Hockey League held their annual season-opening Showcase event at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota this past week, bringing all 26 of the league’s teams, along with a number of youth teams, together to play in front of packed rinks with over 300 scouts in attendance.
This event has been running well over a decade, and I’ve been attending since the Super Rink only had four sheets of ice, so it can be easy to forget, but it truly is a marvel just how big of an event they manage to put together every year, and the way it runs like clockwork with literally hundreds of games being played over the weekend. There is no other event like it in the world of hockey.
As for the NAHL itself, the state of the league looks pretty strong overall. They’re up to 26 teams now, with the additions of franchises in Maine and New Mexico this year. That’s a big number; above the average and nearing the high-water mark of 28 teams set in 2011-2012. With that, there are always going to be some concerns about diluting the talent pool a little too much. But I didn’t really see that here. While I’m not sure there was a really great team in the league, and every team has a few holes, it also seemed like every team was competitive with a lot of really tight games. It’s always going to be a defense-first, low-scoring league where goalies can shine, and that especially seems to be the case this year. There are a lot of good players to be found in the league though. And once again, the ability to find the right D-1 hockey players out of this league will likely be what separates successful college programs from unsuccessful ones.
Even with 26 teams, I managed to watch every team at least once, and most multiple times over the course of the four days. Here’s my take on how I see the league standings shaping up, with the major caveat that rosters are still extremely fluid at this point, and some teams are likely to make some key additions in the coming weeks that will greatly effect things.
- Minot Minotauros
- Aberdeen Wings
- Austin Bruins
- Minnesota Wilderness
- Bismarck Bobcats
- St. Cloud Blizzard
This is always a tough division to pick, and this year might be harder than most. Five of the six teams came out of the Showcase with a winning record, and the only team that didn’t was an overtime loss away, and is also the defending Robertson Cup champs(though there is always a good amount of turnover year-to-year in this league).
Minot came out of the Showcase with a 3-0-1 record. But all four of their games were one-goal games, and they only averaged 2.5 goals per game, so the underlying numbers aren’t as pretty. If they win the division, it won’t be easy, but I like the overall depth of this team and their ability to grind out low-scoring games.
The next four are all pretty interchangeable to me. They’re all good, solid teams that put up decent results at the Showcase and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them made the playoffs, or even won their division. It’s basically picking names out of a hat at this point.
- New Jersey Titans
- Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
- Maine Nordiques
- Johnstown Tomahawks
- Maryland Black Bears
- Northeast Generals
- Jamestown Rebels
There are four really good teams in this division that could all end up competing to win the division. New Jersey is a tough, defense-first team that has one of the best NHL prospects in the league in 6’4” goalie Arseni Sergeev.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a lot of returning players with a lot of experience that make them incredibly tough to play against.
Maine is new to the league, but did not look like a typical expansion team. There was a lot of speed and a lot of skill on their top two lines. I think they got a little worn down playing four games in four days, but in the long run, I think teams are going to have a very tough handling their pace. It will be interesting to see how they hold up in a division known for it’s tough, defensive style of play.
Johnstown is an older team that brought in some nice players from Canadian junior leagues. I picked them fourth here, but could easily see them winning the division.
The bottom three were all decent teams that showed moments of strong play throughout the weekend, but with four really good teams, I think it’s going to be a tough task for them to make the playoffs.
- Fairbanks Ice Dogs
- Janesville Jets
- Chippewa Steel
- Minnesota Magicians
- Springfield Jr. Blues
- Kenai River Brown Bears
This is a case where I’m betting on past history over just this past weekend. Fairbanks got off to a very rough start, going 1-3-0 at the Showcase, and even more surprisingly, only scoring three goals total over four games. But the talent is there, and one scout this past weekend called coach Rob Proffitt one of the best ever at the junior level, which I tend to agree with. It’s hard to bet against them.
Pre-Showcase, Chippewa swept a home-and-home series against Janesville, though Janesville had better results at the Showcase. I liked Janesville a little better, but Chippewa had a talented young squad last year, and should be a little more mature and stronger this year, making for an interesting race.
Minnesota and Springfield will probably battle it out for the last playoff spot. Both teams were just barely on the wrong end of some one goal games, and looked pretty good.
Kenai River had a strong Showcase, winning and losing a pair of one goal games. They were very competitive here, but the season is always a tough slog for them between the extra games they play against Fairbanks and the crazy travel to the Lower 48 that it’s tough for them not to get worn down.
- Lone Star Brahmas
- Shreveport Mudbugs
- Topeka Pilots
- Amarillo Bulls
- Corpus Christi Ice Rays
- Odessa Jackalopes
- New Mexico Wolves
Lone Star was the only team with a perfect record at the Showcase. They’re maybe not the most exciting team from a prospects standpoint, but they’ve got a handful of older, really good junior hockey players that are going to go to play low-D-1 hockey that played really well this weekend. It’s going to be tough to beat them.
Same goes for Shreveport. I don’t think they’ll have any big scorers this year, but they play a really tough brand of hockey that isn’t fun to play against.
Third through sixth should be a really interesting race in this division. Topeka is off to a nice start, and Amarillo looked really good against the NTDP U17s.
New Mexico looks more like a typical expansion franchise looks like. They were competitive, and I’ve seen newcomers look worse, but they’re now 0-6-0 with a -20 goal differential. There will be a learning curve and they should be more competitive next season.