WICHITA, Kan. – At the unofficial halfway point of the 2019-20 ECHL season, the All-Star Weekend is a great opportunity to take stock and flesh out the major storylines throughout the league. The Sin Bin takes a look at the stories that have rose above the rest after three months of play.
ALLEN RETURNS TO FORM
For the first nine years of their existence in both the Central Hockey League and ECHL, the Allen Americans had always qualified for the postseason. But, as Allen Head Coach Steve Martinson missed the playoffs last season for just the second time in his 24-year coaching career, the Americans needed to make some offseason adjustments to get back on the winning track.
After finishing 22nd out of 27 teams in scoring the year before, Martinson reloaded with some solid signings in the summer of 2019. With the addition of AHL-caliber talent like Brett Pollock and Gabriel Gagne, plus extra scoring forwards like Jordan Topping, Jared VanWormer, and rookie Tyler Sheeny, Allen sits at 3.95 goals per game, good for second in the ECHL in scoring proficiency. In net, a resurgent Jake Paterson (14-3-3) and rookie Zach Sawchenko (8-2-3) have helped backstop the Americans to first place in the ECHL with a 29-8-7 overall record.
BERGIN PUTS “STING” BACK IN STINGRAYS
From the Western to the Eastern Conference, the South Carolina Stingrays have thrived under the leadership of new Head Coach Steve Bergin. The Stingrays dismissed their previous coach, Spiros Anastas, almost immediately after South Carolina was bounced from the first round of the 2019 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Promoting then-assistant Bergin to head coach proved to be a step up, as South Carolina has only lost six times in regulation after 40 games played this season (30-6-4). Similar to the Allen Americans, the Stingrays have benefited from a two-headed monster in net: Rookie of the Year candidate Logan Thompson (16-4-1, 1.86 GAA, .938 SV%) and Parker Milner (13-2-3, 1.95 GAA, .928 SV%). And, with five skaters netting 28 points or more, the “spread the wealth” scoring attack of skaters like Andrew Cherniwchan, Mark Cooper, and Max Novak has South Carolina in solid contention for the Brabham Cup come April.
2019 MOUNTAIN DIVISION CHAMP TULSA SLIPS UP
After boasting the second-best record in the Western Conference, winning their first Mountain Division title, having the runner-up in league scoring (Adam Pleskach), and being backstopped by GAA league-leader Devin Williams in 2018-19, the Tulsa Oilers have fallen off dramatically this year. The comparison in key categories from last year to 2019-20 points to a number of faults that have crept up on the Oilers this year (with league rankings in parentheses):
|GOALS FOR/GAME||3.28 (9th out of 27)||2.95 (18th out of 26)|
|GOALS AGAINST/GAME||2.75 (3rd)||3.16 (11th)|
|SHOTS FOR/GAME||36.04 (1st)||35.98 (2nd)|
|SHOTS AGAINST/GAME||26.08 (1st)||30.07 (9th)|
As Tulsa has stayed in the top ten regarding shots for and shots against per game, it seems that the dip in goals for and goals against are the culprits for the Oilers current sixth place standing in the Mountain Division. With key scoring losses like defensemen Dylan Bredo & Eric Drapluk and forwards Roman Ammirato & Scott Henegar, it’s no wonder Tulsa isn’t capitalizing as much as they were during last year’s fat season. And yet, even with a 18-21-4 record, the Oilers sit just seven points behind fourth place Rapid City.
As usual, a lot can happen in the Wild West that is the Mountain Division.
NORTH DIVISION STILL BELONGS TO NEWFOUNDLAND
Shifting out to the northeast U.S. and Canadian franchises, it should be no surprise to those paying attention to the North Division that the Newfoundland Growlers are once again leading the way (and just six points away from the peak of the Eastern Conference). Newfoundland Head Coach John Snowden has the Growlers on an 11-game winning streak heading into the All-Star Break, with a much needed nine-day respite corresponding with an intense winter blizzard that pounded the province with 30 inches of snow on Friday and Saturday.
Extreme weather aside, Newfoundland has only lost consecutive games twice this season, and never two in a row at home. The last two games the Growlers lost were to Utah on December 13 and 14 in West Valley City.
They haven’t seen defeat since.
Familiar names like Giorgio Estephan, Brady Ferguson, and Marcus Power (along with Brampton transplant Aaron Luchuk and rookie Justin Brazeau) take the top five on the Growlers’ scoring leaderboard. And, after being reassigned by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks from Allen to Newfoundland on November 4, netminder Angus Redmond is undefeated for the Growlers (10-0-0, 2.58 GAA, .911 SV%). Needless to say, the Toronto Maple Leafs pipeline remains strong in Newfoundland’s second year of play.
LONG TRAIN RUNNING BETTER FOR RAILERS AFTER COACHING CHANGE
Staying in the North Division, we go from the top to the bottom, as the Worcester Railers were pressed to make a change in their coaching staff just a month and a half into the regular season. Head Coach/GM Jamie Russell and Assistant Coach Derek Army were relieved of their duties on November 27 after a 4-10-1 (.300) start. Former Worcester Sharks assistant David Cunniff took the reins of the team alongside player/assistant coach Barry Almeida.
Since the rough start, Worcester has posted a respectable 12-13-1 (.481) while trying to dig themselves out of the basement. The Railers total record of 16-23-2 (34 points) places the team just eight points behind fourth-place Maine for the final divisional playoff spot. Much like Tulsa in the Mountain Division, it will take Worcester a few winning streaks and divisional wins to make a push into the postseason.
OUELLETTE TRADE GALVANIZES GRIZZLIES
In the overall game of hockey, sometimes all it takes is a hot goalie to shore things up on a standout team. Take this year’s Utah Grizzlies, for example. With a carousel of four different starting goaltenders over the first 21 games of the season, Utah went a mediocre 9-8-4. Then, from a trade announced December 12, the Grizzlies acquired experienced goaltender Martin Ouellette from the Atlanta Gladiators.
With the addition of Ouellette, Utah posted a 11-3-2 record from mid-December to mid-January, boosting into a battle with Idaho for second place in the Mountain Division. After earning ECHL Goaltender of the Month honors for December, Ouellette signed an AHL deal with Providence for the rest of the season on January 16. Since his departure, netminder Mason McDonald stepped up with three straight wins, a 1.00 GAA, and a .940 SV%. With league-leading scorer Tim McGauley already having a breakout year for the Grizzlies, Ouellette lifting Utah as he did was the shot in the arm this squad needed to contend for a playoff spot in the season’s second half.
SWAMP RABBITS, RUSH BENEFIT FROM AFFILIATIONS
Both Greenville and Rapid City spent 2018-19 without an NHL/AHL affiliate tree, and both teams felt the repercussions of lacking said pipeline. The Swamp Rabbits rounded out the bottom of the South Division, going 25-41-6 with 56 points; the Rush finished sixth of seventh in the Mountain Division; posting a 30-33-9 record with 69 points.
Things are looking much more optimistic for both clubs this season.
Greenville hitched their wagon to the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and AHL’s Charlotte Checkers on June 26; Rapid City made a similar attachment to the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes and AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners on July 24. Both teams found themselves in the playoff hunt during American Thanksgiving (an often-used barometer for end-of-season positioning), and are still in the top four in their respective divisions heading into the All-Star Classic (Greenville: third in South, 22-19-2, 46 points; Rapid City: fourth in Mountain, 22-16-3, 47 points).
ROOKIE-RICH WICHITA VYING FOR PLAYOFF SPOT
Last but definitely not least, the All-Star Classic’s hometown Wichita Thunder are just four points behind the Rapid City Rush for the fourth and final playoff position in the Mountain Division. What’s even more impressive is the Thunder have had a league-leading 14 rookies on their squad this year, with 13 playing in ten or more games and eight playing in 25 or more. The table below documents the first-year players that have gone through Wichita this season (red font = no longer on active roster).
|PLAYER||POSITION||GAMES PLAYED||GOALS||ASSISTS||TOTAL POINTS|
|Brendan De Jong||Defense||25||2||1||3|
Follow The Sin Bin all this week for in-depth 2020 ECHL All-Star Classic coverage!
Matthew Harding, Matt Thomas, Matthew Will, Ed Bailey, and Cat Gonzales will be reporting LIVE from Wichita while providing an introduction to the city, major storylines from the first half of the season, following the Stanley Cup for a day, a recap of the All-Star Game and individual events, photo galleries, a chat with ECHL Commission Ryan Crelin, and a look forward to intriguing stories for the second half of the season. Harding and Zach Courter will also be broadcasting the game and subsequent events LIVE on The Sin Bin App!
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