Last year, there was no Mid-Atlantic Division, as the former Mid-Atlantic was split into the Atlantic East and Atlantic West. This year, though, the old division is reunified – and home to the defending champion, the Rockets Hockey Club. The Atlantic East champions finished ninth overall, but were the last Premier team on the ice, enjoying laps with the division championship cup. What will their defense campaign look like?
Order is 2021-22 Points
In preparation for their organizations’ elevation to the NCDC, the first-year Knights made quite the statement in 2021-22, winning the regular season championship. They had some of the best overall performers in the USPHL Premier and were all over opponents on a regular basis. What will we see for Year 2 in Pennsylvania?
“We should be fast and competitive, and I expect us to be near the top of the heap,” said first-year Head Coach Jim Anna.
The WBS Premier roster will, in many ways, be shaped after the Knights’ first-year NCDC roster has been finalized, which may be next week ahead of their NCDC debut and home opener on Sept. 23 against the defending Dineen Cup champion Jersey Hitmen. The Premier also kicks off their season the same day.
As of this week, Coach Anna could point to a pair of returning veterans the Premier team will lean heavily on defensemen Aidan Moreau and Gibson Duhe. Both had 12 points last year, though they play very different games.
“Aidan is really good on the penalty kill and physical. He brings an element of toughness to our team,” said Anna. “Gibson ran the top of the power play early on, so he was more of an offensive defenseman.”
Anna sees the WBS Knights as being a veteran-led bunch with junior veterans coming from some other programs, drawn in by the quick first-year success of the program. They also had some in-house promotions of players who were on the Elite team, which was also one of the best in that league last year.
They welcome aboard Jacob Penetrante, J.T. Campbell and Maverick Rudolph from the Elite Knights.
“Penetrante’s a goal-scorer, we hope Maverick can be a goal-scorer as well this year, and J.T. brings an element of size and grit in the offensive zone,” added Anna.
Rockets Hockey Club
Celebrations, parties, rings. The whole championship kit and kaboodle. It was a spring and summer to remember for Rockets players, but it’s a new season. RHC goes from No. 1 and only to one of 70 back to square one competing for the one single Premier championship trophy. Jason Kilcoyne went right back to work after the confetti settled to put together a team that can certainly head right back to the top of the hill in his eyes.
“I feel really good about the players coming in and the guys we have coming back,” said Kilcoyne. “We will play our style that we play every year. We are still adding a couple pieces as Tier II starts to cut down. We are very deep at forward, defense and goalie.”
The Rockets are thrilled to bring back the Quigley “brothers” (i.e., not actually related) Joe Quigley and Jack Quigley. Joe, out of Babylon, N.Y., had a strong season in his first Premier campaign. Jack is a Chicagoland native who had a nose for the net with 13 goals and six assists for 19 points. Adrian Szmyd was a strong playmaker for the Rockets, with 16 of his 21 points being helpers.
“Jack, Joe and Adrian are looking to build off the great playoffs that they had at the end of last year,” said Kilcoyne. “Liam Gross is back in net for us after that dominant playoff performance he had last season.”
Gross, a late-season acquisition, went 9-0 in net in the playoffs with a .933 save percentage to help capture the title last year.
“I think it is great to have the division back together. We technically had two teams in the semifinals last year with us and Wilkes-Barre. They finished with the most points in the regular season and we won the national championship,” said Kilcoyne. “The Aviators are always one of the top teams in the league, every year they have some of the best players in the league. Utica is tough to play against. So I think this is going to be an extremely tough division.”
New York Aviators
The Aviators regularly enjoy playing a run-and-gun style, and they’ve been home to some of the top performing forwards of the last few years in the league, and Head Coach Mike Stanaway certainly enjoys this trademark for the only team located in the Five Boroughs of New York City – Brooklyn to be exact.
“As always, we will be a highly offensive team,” said Stanaway. “We have a significant amount of experience and leadership with this group.”
A look at a short list of returning players certainly makes one shake their head in amazement, or pain if you’re a regular opponent.
Mathias Rakell returns, after originally being the 2020-21 Aviators’ leading scorer. He returned to Sweden for 2021-22, but is back with possibilities of building on a 56-point season two years back.
Oliver Munck, another Swedish import, stepped in and picked up where Rakell had left off, posting 64 points for the Aviators last season en route to Atlantic East All-Star honors. While we’re on the subject of All-Stars, welcome back Staten Island’s own Michael Marino, who put up a .918 save percentage and 12-5-0-0 record en route to an end-of-season honor of his own.
Additionally, watch for veteran forwards Blake Kashark and Nick Berrettini, while blueliners Christian Chatwin and Thomas Smith are back for another season.
Stanaway is excited to get the chance to again face teams like Utica and Elmira on a regular basis after being in separate divisions last year.
“We are happy to have all the teams back in one division,” said Stanaway. “It will be a very competitive schedule this year.”
The Aviators open up the season on Oct. 12 against Connecticut.
Utica Jr. Comets
The Jr. Comets were one of the feelgood bounceback stories of the year. They put together a 26-15-2-1 record a year after going 14-26-0-2. They can feel good again, as the Jr. Comets bring in 10 veterans from last year. That will certainly help first-year Head Coach Nick Pagliacci navigate an always-tough group of teams that this year also includes the defending National Champion Rockets.
“We have a lot of familiarity in the locker room. We have guys who know what it takes to win at this level and leaders who will help guide our rookies and newcomers,” said Pagliacci. “We’re going to be a structured team that plays a disciplined but aggressive game. We have a lot of speed throughout our lineup and guys who will compete. I’m excited to see it all come together during camp.”
Three top 10 forwards are back, as Jude Cole, George Haigley and Travis Knicley combined last year for 86 points in the regular season. On defense, Cam Strykowski and John Syrotynski will be the anchors, coming off full seasons last year with Utica. Cameron Manley was part of a fantastic goaltending duo with Logan Palmer that put together an average .920 save percentage. Manley posted a .918 on his own with a 10-2-1-0 record, so Pagliacci is excited to have him back in net.
Todd Smith joins the Jr. Comets from the former Lake Erie Bighorns and will count 2022-23 as his fifth junior hockey season. The team also welcomes in Greg Veihmeyer, who also has USPHL experience, along with Chris Wandelt (out of Northwood Prep) and Yoan Torello (from Stanstead Prep).
“The new Mid-Atlantic Division is something that I’m really looking forward to. It makes the division as a whole more competitive,” said Pagliacci. “There’s going to be a lot of movement within the standings, which is going to make earning every point crucial.”
Utica plays a three-game set Sept. 23-25 against the Connecticut Jr. Rangers to start the season.
The Hitmen are undergoing some deep-dive foundation work – and what better coach to get down into the trenches and bring the Hitmen to a higher plane than their Elite architect Jim Raymond?
Three straight Nationals trips included one run to the semifinals, so it is no surprise they’d look to him to make the Premier Hitmen a Nationals-caliber squad as well. With an entirely new lineup this year, Raymond knows it’s a challenge and one he accepts. It all starts this Saturday, Sept. 17, against the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.
“We have a combination of veteran Premier players and some newer player, but they all have plenty of skill and leadership qualities,” said Raymond. “Although we’re starting from scratch, I feel we’ll be a competitive team, but the goal is always to move these guys to whatever the right level is for each player.”
He did lean on familiarity in building his first Premier roster, promoting four former Elite players to the upper Tier III level. Frank Smith was a Mid-Atlantic Elite All-Star last year, so it’s a great building block as a cornerstone.
“The heart of a champion – and a good puckstopper,” said Raymond, of the ‘04 from Little Ferry, N.J., who was third in the USPHL Elite with a .936 save percentage.
Quinn Visokey and Francis Zaklukiewicz are both two-position skaters who can easily play either defense or forward, depending on team needs. Additionally, Giovanni Russo comes in after being a top-line forward last year.
“He’s taking a post-grad year to see where hockey might take him down the road,” Raymond added.
Defenseman Hunter Keech joins for his third USPHL Premier season, while forward Gabe Tanton (an ‘04 from Alberta) has signed on to continue his Premier experience after last year also in the league.
Nikolai Yelagubin, an ‘04 from nearby Hackensack, shapes up to be a sizeable (6-4, 200-pound) contributor with good playmaking ability.
“[The reunified Mid-Atlantic] will make it that much more competitive to try to wind your way into a playoff spot,” he said. “We really have to make sure those games that slipped away last year don’t slip away this year.”
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
The Jr. Islanders are a ship looking for the right harbor. With Head Coach Jack Greig, they believe they have the right helmsman to lead them into much kinder waters. The P.A.L. hit rough spots with regards to team success last year, but they had some success stories. Forward Anthony Vernillo and goaltender Liam McCarthy both earned Atlantic East All-Star honors.
“We have a young team with a good blend of size and skill,” said Greig. “We moved two players up to our NCDC team and several off to college hockey so it’s been a busy off-season rebuilding the roster with talented players.”
The team’s top two veterans will be forwards Michael Cascone, an ‘02 from North Babylon, N.Y., who was third on last year’s team in scoring. Jack Dodd is an ‘04 blueliner who has a good history with the prestigious Long Island Gulls program.
For newcomers, the Jr. Islanders look to blueliners Joe Mariotti and Jace Castillo-Wilson, as well as forward Jared Showen and goaltender Quillon Bowman. Showen and Mariotti come in after a strong USPHL Elite season, Bowman has two prior junior seasons under his belt – including in the Premier Conference – and Castillo-Wilson is out of Dallas, Texas.
“After winning nine out of the last 10 games to end the 2021-22 season, the Jr. Islanders would like to start where we finished and be a playoff contender in the Mid-Atlantic Division,” Greig said. His team kicks off on Saturday against the Jersey Hitmen.
The Cubs had some definite bright spots in their inaugural season of 2021-22, including seeing All-Star goalie Hogan Nelson advancing to NCAA Division III Salve Regina University.
“I am very excited to get this season kicked off,” said Head Coach Brennan Thompson. “This year, we will have an almost entirely new team with players from around the world – a good mix of skill and grit and will be a tough team to play against. Opponents will face a disciplined, hard-working Cubs team that can put the puck in the net and play defensively sound.”
The Cubs will be seeing the familiar opponents in places like Elmira and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but also will have more games against the defending National Champion Rockets Hockey Club and the high-octane New York Aviators.
“I’m glad that we have the Mid-Atlantic division reunified,” said Thompson. “This will increase competition across the division and will allow us to play more new teams this season. It is going to be a very tough, skilled division that will be very close at the end of the year. I am confident that the Hershey Cubs will be a sleeper pick in this division this upcoming season.”
The Cubs actually start the season against Southeast and Florida Division competition at the USPHL Southeast Showcase, from Sept. 24-26.
The Cubs are happy to return a batch of veteran ‘02’s to lead the team including forward Owen Dell, defenseman Trenton Wagner and goaltender Joey Gambino. Additionally, Jack Nolan is back as an ‘05 with a year of junior experience already.
The Cubs welcome in ‘03 forward Ayden Frolik from the NA3HL, while Denis Seriy (‘03) is a blueliner from the Maritime Junior Hockey League. Two other exciting incoming ‘03’s include goalie Marc-Antoine Nadeau, a 6-foot-9-inch goalie out of Quebec and Dylan Shea is out of the New Jersey Devils Youth 18U squad.
“This year’s team is already meshing and getting along incredibly well,” said Thompson. “The players are willing to work hard on and off the ice to do what it takes to be a successful team. We have a great group of guys who are going to help win hockey games. This year’s team will be skilled and quick. I’m looking forward to seeing them on the ice.”
Connecticut Jr. Rangers
With a later start (on Sept. 23), there was still much to be determined about what the Jr. Rangers Premier team would look like. The Rangers Premier players benefit from having the same coach as the NCDC squad, Jim Henkel – an alum of NCAA Division I RPI as well as a lengthy AHL and ECHL playing resume.
Although success in the standings was sometimes hard to come by for the 2021-22 Premier Rangers, they got the success where it mattered most in a few notable cases. Zack Zeidel advanced to NCAA Division III Finlandia University, and Payton Miller was an early call-up to the NCDC team and looks to stick with the top squad this year as well, and Cody Melanson also appears to have moved into the Tier II level.
The Jr. Rangers will likely be an almost new team when they take to the ice, but the determination of Henkel to get their best work ethic and on-ice effort towards putting themselves into a position of advancement will be the same.
Connecticut starts on Sept. 23 with a three-game weekend against the Utica Jr. Comets, featuring three NCDC-Premier double-headers featuring the two organizations.
The Stampede went a different direction for 2022-23, bringing in former Columbus Mavericks assistant coach Brian Thompson as the new Head Coach in the Stampede’s second year under that moniker.
Thompson likes what he has put together in his first off-season. He puts them to the test against his former team this Friday and Saturday evenings as Buffalo faces Columbus to kick off the season.
“Early on, I really like our roster. We’ve gotten older, bigger, and we have a group that’s willing to play hard for each other,” said Thompson. “Taking over a new team with lots of new faces means we get to spend a lot of time working together on how we need to play and learning each other’s personalities. After talking with a few of the guys I think the biggest differences will be in our level of preparation and how we work hard for and with each other.”
The Stampede will lean heavily on returning Stampede defenseman Brendan Bastian, an ‘02 from nearby Tonawanda, N.Y., who wore an “A” on his jersey last year.
“I’m counting on Brendan. He’s a veteran defenseman that will be the anchor of our blueline and our locker room,” said Thompson.
The forward ranks will see a lot from ‘04 Caden Cavalieri and ‘03 Lex Roldan, both coming off strong New York high school hockey seasons.
“They have early chemistry and should be an exciting duo,” said Thompson. “On the back end, Connor Payne and Oliver Cabala will log big minutes and should be very dynamic.”
Payne, an ‘04, played briefly for the former Buffalo Thunder (before they became the Stampede) and Cabala is an ‘05 who split last season between his native Slovakia and the USPHL Premier Conference.
“I’m excited to see what this division has to offer. I spent the last three years in the Great Lakes division, so I’ve had a chance to get to know that division really well,” said Thompson. “The Mid-Atlantic is a new beast for me in which I think our whole group is really excited to be a real competitive group.”
Elmira Jr. Enforcers
The Jr. Enforcers were one of the marquee stories of the 2020-21, reaching the National Championships in their first season. Year 2 was a bit more of a struggle, but they are fully equipped and motivated to get right back towards the top of not just their division, but the USPHL as a whole.
Glen Patterson returns to the bench to continue moving the Jr. Enforcers in a new and improved direction.
“I really like our group,” he said. “We are built strong from the net out. We will be a team that plays a very structured system with a high pace. This years team brings a lot of players coming into their second year of juniors. We are a team with a lot to prove and I’m excited to see the growth of our men along the way. We look to play a much more fast-paced and exciting brand of hockey.”
As the team largely consists of newcomers, Patterson said it’s too early to tell which of them will help dictate the team’s season.
“Our top newcomer will be decided early into the season,” he added. “We have several players who look to play a big piece in who we are this year.”
He can, however, say that the Jr. Enforcers will count heavily on returning defenseman Wyatt Swonger, an ‘04 from Pekin, Ill., who had 18 points from the blue line for Elmira last year.
“He’s a defender who has every tool to be dominant at each end of the ice,” said Patterson.
“This new division will be a very strong one. There are no nights off in the Mid-Atlantic,” he added. “We are excited to get going and prove something to our opponents.”
Elmira kicks off the season Sept. 24 against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.