2019-20 Season Preview: Sawchuk East

In News, Special Features on October 9, 2019 at 9:35 am

Now that we’ve looked at both the Plante East and Plante West — home to eight straight league titles, by the way — it’s time to preview the Sawchuk Conference, beginning with the Sawchuk West.

Adirondack Aces

Last season: 32-38-12 (7th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Roope Hintz (8), Henri Jokiharju (27), Dennis Cholowski (47), Karson Kuhlman (67)

Additions: F Roope Hintz, D Henri Jokiharju, D Dennis Cholowski

Subtractions: F Henrik Sedin, F Patrick Eaves, D Stephen Johns, D Ian McCoshen, D Michael Del Zotto

Analysis: The Aces should have much more to show than what we’ve seen the last couple of years. A deep forward group, led by a couple of players with truly elite skill sets in Johnny Gaudreau and Patrice Bergeron, plus an increasingly solid blueline and good-if-not-elite goaltending should add up to more than a lottery pick. First rounder Roope Hintz is a future contributor, and will eventually help offset the loss of Henrik Sedin to retirement, but draftees Henri Jokiharju and Dennis Cholowski in particular will likely get good looks on a D corps that lacks offense after Drew Doughty and Zach Werenski. If one of Devan Dubnyk or Semyon Varlamov can turn in a good season, this team should have playoff aspirations.

Player to watch: To compete in this league, scoring from the bottom six is a must. The lines are tough to call, but assuming he’s on the third line, the Aces will be relying on a breakout year from Alex Tuch to provide that sneaky offense.

Outlook: Playoffs

Boston Banshees

Last season: 48-27-7 (2nd in conference; lost in 2nd round)

Draft picks: Dante Fabbro (23), Alex Nedeljkovic (42), Oliver Kylington (44), Connor Clifton (48)

Additions: F Mikhail Vorobyev, D Oliver Kylington, G Ben Bishop, G Casey DeSmith, G Cory Schneider

Subtractions: F Micheal Ferland, F Patric Hornqvist, F Jean-Gabriel Pageau, F J.T. Compher, F Nick Merkley, G Matt Murray, G Ryan Miller, G Curtis McElhinney

Analysis: As usual, the Banshees made a lot of adjustments over the offseason, including acquiring goalie Curtis McElhinney from Parry Sound, then trading him right back in a later deal. Boston shed a ton of players overall, with the biggest additions coming between the pipes in the form of brand-new tandem Ben Bishop and Casey DeSmith. Outside of Connor Clifton, none of Boston’s 2019 draftees are expected to make the club in any meaningful capacity, but that shouldn’t matter — the Banshees’ real strength is down the middle, where Sean Couturier, Mika Zibanejad, and Max Domi are all slated to play. That’s a top 3 that’s near the top of the league if all three put together good seasons, and it won’t hurt that they’ve got top-flight snipers like Brock Boeser and Joe Pavelski riding shotgun. On D, Mark Giordano still has it, too.

Player to watch: With few glaring weaknesses up and down the lineup, all eyes are on Ben Bishop. His play will dictate the Banshees’ fortunes. He’s eligible to play all playoff games, so if he’s hot come postseason time — look out!

Outlook: Contender

Farmington Fighting Saints

Last season: 40-33-9 (4th in conference; lost in 1st round)

Draft picks: Drake Batherson (14), Devon Toews (33), Conor Garland (54), Josh Mahura (74)

Additions: D Devon Toews, F Conor Garland

Subtractions: F Daniel O’Regan, D Christian Djoos, D Greg Pateryn, G Thomas Greiss

Analysis: Change has been slow to come for the Fighting Saints, and from afar it looks as though this past spring’s playoff appearance may be the last one for a little while. Its core isn’t getting any younger, and its younger prospects are a year or two out. For every Mikko Rantanen emerging as a star, there’s a Tyler Toffoli, slumping into middle-six production just as the team needs secondary scoring more than ever. The Saints have also struggled to keep their formidable centre group (Ryan Johansen, Mikko Koivu, Vincent Trocheck, Paul Stastny) all healthy at the same time. There’s hope — Devon Toews joins a nice D corps, along with 2018 draftee Vince Dunn behind John Carlson and Dustin Byfuglien — but it seems that Farmington’s at least a season away from reloading and getting back into the playoff mix.

Player to watch: If there’s one wild card this year for Farmington, it’s netminder Robin Lehner. If he can take the reins from injury-plagued Corey Crawford and put together a really solid season, it could keep the Saints in the middle of the pack. The team had the confidence to deal Thomas Greiss away, pointing to Lehner being given every chance to succeed.

Outlook: Bubble

San Jose Hosers

Last season: 29-49-4 (9th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Max Comtois (10), Taro Hirose (25), Radim Simek (65)

Additions: F Steven Stamkos, D Radim Simek, G Collin Delia

Subtractions: F Patrick Maroon, F Nic Petan, F Ty Rattie, D Derrick Pouliot, G Cam Talbot

Analysis: The Hosers’ ongoing struggles are a mystery wrapped in an engima. The team has come together nicely in its rebuilding years, yet remains stuck on the launch pad (or the launch pad’s sub-basement). The splashy acquisition of Steven Stamkos will make a huge difference — with him, John Tavares, and Jack Eichel, that’s a formidable trio of centres. Or maybe Stamkos plugs in on the wing, where he’ll join emerging star Mitch Marner as bonafide offensive weapons on the right side. The defense, too, looks good, if defensively a little suspect — at least the team should be able to count on John Klingberg, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Mikhail Sergachev for some points. Alas, things fall apart with a rough group in goal. Is Martin Jones the guy? Jimmy Howard? If either flounders — and the outlook isn’t so good — it will leave the Hosers once again in the trade market and struggling to get into the playoff picture. Still, even without big saves, San Jose should light the lamp more than often enough to be entertaining.

Player to watch: If Gabriel Landeskog can join Tavares and Stamkos as one of the team’s go-to triggermen, it would give San Jose one of the league’s most intriguing top sixes and cement the team’s bubble status.

Outlook: Bubble

West Virginia River Rats

Last season: 36-35-11 (6th in conference; missed playoffs)

Draft picks: Robert Thomas (11), Alexandre Texier (31)

Additions: F Robert Thomas, D Radko Gudas, D Jordan Oesterle

Subtractions: F Sam Gagner, D Jan Rutta, G Joonas Korpisalo

Analysis: With Sebastian Aho, Leon Draisatl, and Jake Guentzel, the River Rats have the makings of one of the league’s most dynamic young top lines. And they can chase that with Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and veteran T.J. Oshie. That’s a great foundation for any club. But questions still abound, namely: Can Brock Nelson centre the second line on a playoff team? If Matt Dumba is hurt, as is rumoured, does the team have enough depth on defense? We know Dougie Hamilton can be a powerplay performer, but can he anchor the top pairing and eat big minutes with Jaccob Slavin? (The team’s signings of Radko Gudas and Jordan Oesterle suggests management has similar concerns.) And finally, is Jacob Markstrom a capable GWMHL starter? It seems safe to suggest that the team can probably expect middle-of-the-pack goaltending and production from its blueline, at least. Combine that with its near-elite group of forwards and the playoffs seem like a good bet.

Player to watch: Much will depend on the top line, in particular Sebastian Aho. Used at wing in previous seasons, if he can adapt to playing centre, the rest should fall into place.

Outlook: Playoffs


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