By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
The Atlantic Division has been kind of the offensive monster of the East Coast divisions, always providing the Premier with some big-score fireworks. We are looking forward to seeing the same – though at this point, no one’s quite sure what they’ll see in the Atlantic.
Why? Partially because some of the top teams of last year – and really the last few years – are starting over from scratch. For some, it’s new ownership, for others it’s new coaches (or both), and for almost all teams here, it’s busloads upon busloads of new talent entering the USPHL.
Historically, the former New York Aviators (now the Brooklyn Aviators, under new ownership) were the division’s most successful team in the regular season. They earned 339 points in the last five seasons and qualified for four out of the five Nationals between 2019 and 2023, missing the mark only in 2022.
That, of course, was the year the Rockets Hockey Club became the first Atlantic Division team to win the Premier National Championship. At 330 points earned over the last five years, they’ve been there every step of the way with the Aviators in nearly every regular season that’s ever been. Like the Aviators, they have no returning players in 2023-24 and a new head coach. Both traditional powerhouses are entering largely unfamiliar waters.
Since 2021-22, the “new kid on the block” – the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights – have shaken up the regular season and Nationals waters, making two straight trips to the big dance and winning the overall regular season championship in 2022 with a winning percentage of .909, one of the best marks in league history. The Knights bring back Head Coach Dom Manochio, but have only a few veterans to lean on towards the goal of keeping their Nationals-qualifying batting average at 1,000%
From there, other teams clawing at a chance to be in the top three saw some big improvements. The Connecticut Jr. Rangers – who improved by 22 points from 2021-22 to 2022-23 – are looking to continue their new climb with a new coach (one that, hint-hint, has earned his wings in the league).
The newly-minted Elmira Impact improved nine points year over year and the Hershey Cubs saw a four-point jump. They each return the same staff and are among the teams with some serious veteran leadership this time around.
The P.A.L. Jr. Islanders and Jersey Hitmen both fell on tough times last season, but are in the category of having new coaches with aims to bring them back up the hill. That is, in the midst of this eight-team grueling game of King of the Hill.
Order is 2022-23 regular season finish
Season Opener: Oct. 7 vs. Utica Jr. Comets (at Hitmen Classic)
New name (half a name, at least), new logo, new ownership, new coach. So, about the only thing remaining from the past is the Aviator name and the home ice at Aviator Sports and Events Center. This new era also brings excitement at what could be around the curve.
“I think our roster has a good balance of everything you want in a hockey team. Speed, size, strength and skill,” said Head Coach Mike Cosentino. “We have a younger roster, but I am confident in our players on ice and leadership abilities.”
With still a couple weeks before Game 1 – the Aviators are the last team to start their USPHL regular season, on Oct. 7 – there was a lot of work to build the first Brooklyn Aviators team. There are zero returning players from the former New York Aviators, but that doesn’t mean there are not players with junior experience.
Jayden Fu joins with a full season of USPHL Premier experience, and Jeremy Gamache joined from the Greater Metropolitan Hockey League and Can-Am Junior Hockey League as well.
“Age-outs like Gamache and Fu will be big assets for us,” added Cosentino. “Our goaltending is looking very strong, as well.”
The Aviators go into this season expecting the same as the Aviators name has always been associated with, in one way or another.
“We will be the best team in the Atlantic Division this year,” Cosentino said.
Season Opener: Sept. 23 vs. Elmira Impact
The Knights, one of seven organizations that brought both their USPHL Premier and Elite teams to Nationals last year, hope to continue to enjoy success all across their junior teams, which also includes a second-year NCDC team. In two years of existence, the Premier team has been a Top 10 finisher, and they head into another season fully expecting the same type of excellence – and then some.
“With a good mix of returning players leading the way for our talented newcomers, we are very excited to continue to build the WBS Knights identity – Hard, Fast, Physical hockey,” said Head Coach Dominick Manochio. “The expectation for our Premier team is always high. Becoming a mainstay at the national tournament is not enough, this year we’re coming for a championship.”
He and Knights management have seen enough over the past two seasons to know what is needed to push them to the highest echelon of the Nationals.
“There is a certain level of commitment, hunger, and determination amongst our group in the early going. Last year’s team was loaded with talent, just like this year’s roster,” Manochio added, “but having fallen short in the National semifinal and quarterfinal in back to back years. We feel we are built with team speed and depth to get us over the hurdle this season.”
The Knights welcome back third-year USPHL veteran Geo Grano, who has seen point improvements in his first two seasons. Maxim Lyashenko played 38 combined regular season and playoff games with the Knights last year, and then also won a World Junior Championship Division IIB Gold medal with Australia, scoring 14 points in six games. C.J. Reid and Ryan Cunningham each played their first USPHL Premier campaign last year after moving up from the prior year’s USPHL Elite Knights team.
Also moving up from the 2022-23 Elite team that played in the National Championship game last year are Elite Atlantic All-Stars Jared Showen and Oliver Kiel Straarup, in addition to defenseman Owen Braatz.
Other newcomers to the Premier squad are A.J. Saadeh, an ‘04 defenseman, and Matiss Barss is an ‘04 goalie who posted a .917 save percentage with the North Jersey Avalanche last year.
“Being able to compete in the very strong Atlantic Division is a huge benefactor for our athletes. Year in and year out, the Atlantic Division always showcases our strength on the national level, whether it be at crossover events with other divisions or at the national tournament,” Manochio added. “This is a big reason why our division consistently is amongst the leaders in player advancement to Tier 2 and NCAA hockey. It is vital that you prepare for each Atlantic Division opponent with the same level of commitment to ensuring your team is ready to go.”
Rockets Hockey Club
Season Opener: Sept. 24 at P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
The Rockets check off a couple common boxes for Atlantic Division powers here in 2023-24. New coach? Check. No returning players? Check. The Rockets enjoyed capturing top spot in the division in 2021-22 and then powered through many higher-ranked teams at Nationals to capture the top prize. The following season, they played well enough to finish in the top four, but were unable to make a return to the biggest stage and get a chance to defend their title.
Matt Morrow, a former New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs Premier head coach, returns to the USPHL Premier after working as a Director of Analytics and as a Volunteer Assistant Coach for the NCAA’s Penn State University.
“We have a good mix of older and younger players so that we can continue our strong track record of college placements, while also utilizing the Premier level as part of our development model inside our organization. The players we’ve selected for this roster are all highly motivated and extremely hard-working,” said Morrow. “Creating and maintaining a strong locker room culture is key to our group’s success this season. Inevitably, we will face highs and lows together and how well we manage success and overcome adversity will determine how much we grow as a group. We are grateful for the challenges that allow us to develop and improve as a whole and individually.”
The team, as aforementioned, has no returning Premier players but will have three Elite players moving up “whom we will rely upon to be examples of what a Rockets Hockey Club player should be.”
Morrow is excited about the prospects the Rockets have in net with a trio of Ryan Melanson, Ryan Rhodes and Steven Reganato.
Melanson (‘04) joins from St. John’s High School of Shrewsbury, Mass., and Rhodes is similarly from a big Catholic School powerhouse in Massachusetts, Pope Francis. Reganato, a former P.A.L. Jr. Islanders USPHL 16U player, recently played in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League and has also played for the Bishop Kearney Selects.
Having three strong goaltenders should be a big help in a traditionally high-flying offensive division.
“We respect how competitive and talented our division of the USPHL Premier is,” said Morrow. “The teams’ W-L records and college placement data are convincing. With that said, we are focusing on what we can control and being as prepared as possible to give our group the best chance to win every night.”
Connecticut Jr. Rangers
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. South Shore Kings (at BJB Shootout)
The Jr. Rangers’ biggest pickup of the off-season may very well end up being the guy behind the bench. Mike Stanaway was the architect (and Head Coach) of the former New York Aviators’ dynasty that qualified four times out of five for the Nationals, including this past spring. His junior coaching resume stretches back 15 years, including eight of the last nine years with the Aviators.
He has every intention of bringing his new team, the Jr. Rangers, right to the top of the division where his former team resided so many years, and also on to Nationals.
“I am very happy with the roster that we have put together. We have a group of players that are excited to be wearing the CJR colors and ready to hit the ground running this season,” said Stanaway. “This will be a completely new team this year. It is going to take us some time to get to know each other, but we are excited about the opportunity in front of us.”
The Jr. Rangers may have a tinge of the former Red and Gold Aviators, as Stanaway brought some of his top on-ice lieutenants slightly north to Stamford, Conn., with him. This includes All-Star defenseman Hunter Scanlon – last year’s leading point-getter among Premier defensemen, with 72 points – as well as fellow defenseman Markus Andrews and forwards Nick Berrettini, Alex Bexelius and Blake Kashark. Also watch for fellow Premier veteran forward and returning All-Star Yakov Yakzhin. For a new Jr. Rangers team, this group will actually be one of the most veteran-laden teams in the division.
“We have a lot of veteran players that have had success in the Atlantic Division,” said Stanaway.
Always an accomplished global recruiter, Stanaway is very excited with the traditionally international group that he has signed for his first season in Connecticut.
“We are very excited about many of the new faces that we have brought into this team. They know that the expectations from this team are going to be very high, but I feel that they are more than up to the challenge,” added Stanaway. “It is difficult to name them all, but we are excited to see their contributions in the division and in this league.”
With the turnover on so many teams’ benches (and behind them), Stanaway sees this will obviously be a different Atlantic Division, but knows the tough games and high energy games will never go away.
“This division has witnessed significant change this off-season, but I know the competition level will be high,” he said. “This has always been a very difficult division and I don’t expect that to be any different this year.”
Season Opener: Sept. 30 at Elmira Impact
The Cubs stand out as one of the more veteran-led teams in the division, all around. Part of that is because they return all of three players from their 2022-23 season and their returning Head Coach is Brennan Thompson. The Cubs’ season will be a big test for stability in the Premier division with the most year-over-year turnover.
“Going into this season, we are in the best shape entering into the first games of the year, in comparison to our previous two seasons as an organization,” said Thompson. “We have a roster full of players who are competitive, driven, talented, and eager to develop and win hockey games. Looking at our roster to start the season, we have a lot of strong depth at the forward and defense positions, mixed with four very talented goaltenders. Game after game, we are going to be able to put a strong product on the ice and compete against all teams in the league.
“From top to bottom, we do not have much drop off in talent at any of our positions,” Thompson added. “This year’s roster is full of players who are able to play hockey at a fast pace and our overall hockey IQ and knowledge of the game is much higher than past years. Off the ice, our roster is full of players who will always do what’s best for the team and whatever they can to help the team win and get better. We have a group of hockey players who are coming together as a family for the greater good of the team.”
The Cubs will lean on veterans like ‘03’s forward Marco Taffo and Ben Maurer and goalie Marc-Antoine Nadeau to push the Cubs’ culture. Taffo is a four-year USPHL veteran who had a lot of success in the Elite before moving up to the Cubs last year.
“We are going to look to these three guys as leaders to show the newcomers what is expected when playing for the Hershey Cubs,” said Thompson. “These three returning players know what is expected and know what it takes to take this team to the next level, both on and off the ice.”
With so many newcomers, Thompson didn’t dive into details but his excitement is uniform for all the first-year Cubs.
“We have 27 talented newcomers joining the Cubs this year. Each player brings a unique skillset to the table and will all be able to contribute to the team in their own, unique ways throughout the season,” added Thompson. “The Cubs have players coming from all over the world including 10 players from Quebec, and one player from each of Poland and Israel. Each player will play a key role in our team’s successes this season and we are looking forward to seeing each of them grow and develop throughout the year.”
Thompson hopes that all the Atlantic Division turnover will give the Cubs a chance to rise up early and remain in a high spot. He knows it won’t be easy as high expectations are drivers for teams across the landscape.
“As always, the Atlantic division will be strong. We will have a lot of competitive teams battling for the top spots in the division when it comes down to it at the end of the year,” he said. “Wilkes-Barre always puts a strong team on the ice every game and I don’t think that will change this season. With Coach Stanaway going to Connecticut, I know that he will put an offensive powerhouse on the ice this season, much like previous years when he was in Brooklyn. Overall, I think the division will be home to very competitive teams and we will see who can come out on top come playoff time!”
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
In an Atlantic ocean of change, the Elmira organization’s brand change to the Impact (from the Jr. Enforcers) is on the lower end of the shakeups in the division. Glen Patterson is back behind the bench for Elmira, and they have one of the largest returning veteran groups in the Atlantic. A Nationals team in their inaugural season of 2020-21, the Impact are hoping to make their gallant return to the league’s biggest stage next spring. Could a high level of veteran leadership get them there?
“Entering our third week of camp now, it’s been evident from Day 1 the maturity and experience of our group,” said Patterson. “The goal over the off-season was clear: to bring in age and experience. This is the most veteran team we have put together in four years in Elmira. It’s one of our clear strengths – experienced players at the junior hockey level at every position. We are looking forward to watching this group gel.”
Not only is the team older, but deeper all around. More impact-ful players will go over the boards than ever before in the Southern Tier.
“We really believe in our strength in numbers. We feel we have multiple players who can step up every day,” Patterson added.
While the Impact lost All-Star and 50-goal scorer Nathan Garau to the pro level in his home country of Italy, there are still several veteran players in the Neon Green and Black to lean upon, starting with the Captain, Reid Murray. An alternate captain last year, he posted 22 points in 36 games for Elmira as a second-year junior veteran.
“Reid brings a lot to his game for our program, both on and off ice,” said Patterson. “He is a physical two-way defender who pushes our team in the right direction daily. “
The team’s assistant captains are returning forwards Tyler DeTreux and Filip Tomiczek, a late signing out of his native Czechia who put up five points in five games after arrival.
“Tyler is a competitor – a complete 200-foot player and a great example of doing it the right way. As a staff we feel he is due for a breakout season,” Patterson added. “Filip brings gamebreaking skill to our team. He thinks and plays the game at a high speed. We feel he can be an impactful player in this division.”
Alex Belcher will play his third season in Elmira, and goaltender Jeff Reda is back for his second year.
“Alex returns to us and is due to break out in this league. We know he brings great size and speed to our team. Similar to Tyler, he is a 200-foot player with the tools to be a threat,” added Patterson. “Jeff comes back to Elmira entering his last season of juniors. He is the heartbeat of our team and as a staff we are excited to see him compete for our club.
“In terms of new players,” he said, “we feel we have brought in great leadership and experience from all over the globe. We are excited to see how everyone fits into their roles and how the group comes together.”
Patterson can’t be happier than being in the Atlantic Division, a high-pace circuit that keeps every team on their toes.
“This Division is always a great test. Each team year after year continues to improve and I expect the same this season,” Patterson said. “We know going into any divisional game the importance of getting those points. It will be fun to compete shortly. As mentioned, we are excited to see what our group is capable of.”
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
Season Opener: Sept. 23 vs. Jersey Hitmen
The Jr. Islanders move into a new phase of their Premier life, as they bring in NCDC Assistant Coach Frank DiChiara to work as Premier Head Coach. This is towards the aim of truly making the Premier Islanders a feeder team and proving ground for potential NCDC skaters in future seasons. DiChiara has played in the past for the P.A.L. organization (2009-10) before playing for Yale University and putting together a five-year pro career.
“I’m very excited with the roster that we’ve put together so far,” said DiChiara. “Being that this is my first season as the head coach of the team (while still being the assistant for the NCDC team), I wanted to implement the same systems that we play up top so that when the time comes for our premier players to make the jump to the NCDC they will be ready to go. We are going to be a team that plays fast, and plays within our structure.”
While the Jr. Islanders don’t put up barriers to their recruiting, DiChiara did note that the Premier team has a strong local bent.
“We are a team made up of predominantly Long Island players. We at P.A.L. want to create a culture and a ladder of development where we can show that there’s no need to leave Long Island and that we can develop the kids and get them to where they want to get to,” he added.
The Jr. Islanders are another team in the Atlantic that has seen change at multiple fronts, from the new coach in DiChiara to having no returning players from the team that struggled often in 2022-23. That helps give the P.A.L. every chance to make a giant leap towards the top this time around.
“The Atlantic division is a very competitive division within the USPHL Premier,” DiChiara said. “We as a team expect a battle every night with every game being a close game. I expect every team to be better than last year, as the league continues to grow.”
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
A New Jersey native and alum of Garden State junior hockey, Chris Barling steps into the role of Head Coach for the Hitmen Premier team. He will also coach the Hitmen’s Tier 1 Hockey Federation 14U team, so he’ll have a lot to say about the future of the overall program. He’s excited to get going this weekend with the Premier squad, one which he hopes will be a major player in the upper echelons of the Atlantic after a down season for the Hitmen in 2022-23.
“I am very excited with the roster we have put together for the 2023-24 season. We not only have talented players but they have strong hockey IQ and a highly competitive spirit,” added Barling. “The attitude and effort to this point have been excellent.”
“Our depth and overall attitude this season are far stronger this season than last year. We put a heavy emphasis on finding players that are not only talented but fit our culture as well,” he said.
Similar to so many other squads in the Atlantic Division, the Hitmen have a largely new lineup from top to bottom. Only one full-time Premier player is back in Gio Russo, who enters his third USPHL season with Jersey after moving up from the Elite to Premier last year.
“He brings a tremendous attitude and leadership to the locker room,” said Barling.
Likewise, Mikhail Anikin is a third-year USPHL veteran, one who saw 18 games with the Hitmen’s NCDC team last year. “He brings a heavy shot and physical presence to the blue line,” added Barling.
Three players that helped lead the Elite Hitmen to the 2023 Nationals are making the jump to Premier this year in Matt DiCarlo, Eric Kois and Tommy Styles. Their experience of seeing the very best of the Elite in Utica, N.Y., last year will certainly help their quick transition to the Premier game.
Among newcomers to watch are forwards Jacob Kettwig (Kimball Union Academy), Trent Barker (who has USPHL Elite and NA3HL experience) and ‘05 Anthony Romanin (NPU Rebels, of Quebec).
“Jacob brings skill and relentless effort to the forward group. He is joined by Travis Barker and Anthony Romanin to help drive the offense,” Barling said.
Ian Dracoulis is a three-year veteran of the USPHL Elite and won a championship at that level in 2022, while fellow defenseman ‘05 Matt Burns (Bourget College, of Quebec) is another blueliner to watch closely.
The Hitmen also have a “solid trio” of goaltenders in Premier veteran Jared Treat (.932 save percentage in 2022-23), Theo Clement (Winchendon School) and Romanin’s former NPU Rebels teammate Cyrille Vaillancourt.
“The Atlantic division is always extremely competitive and I would expect that to continue. It will be interesting to see how the season shakes out with so many teams in the division changing coaches,” Barling said. “I do however, expect our group to take a big step forward from last year.”