Here it is, folks!
The NAHL playoff primer that none of you asked for, but are getting anyway.
If you’re not familiar with the NAHL — and it’s okay if you’re not, most people aren’t — here’s the rundown: The North American Hockey League is the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior A league in North America. (In terms of talent, it’s fair to say that the top NAHL players would be perfectly capable of competing in the USHL.) The ceiling for the majority of NAHL players is a good NCAA career, although it isn’t uncommon for NAHL alumni to go on and play professionally.
With over 1000 NCAA commitments in the past five years, the NAHL is genuinely a terrific route to take if you want to play college hockey.
Recently, the NAHL has garnered some interest for being a goalie development hotbed — shoutout to Connor Hellebuyck and Anthony Stolarz, who have both played in the NHL this year, and to Latvian goaltender prospect Mareks Mitens (we’ll get to him soon).
Now that I’m finished sounding like an advertising reel for the NAHL, we can get to business. Because available statistics are limited and the integrity of said statistics vary from team to team depending on the off-ice officiating crew, take everything with a grain of salt.
As Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney once said, the NAHL be a little bit “off the beaten path,” but there’s good hockey to be had, and the playoffs are as good a time as any to check in on a league you haven’t watched before.
HOW DO PLAYOFFS WORK IN THIS HERE LEAGUE?
Look. The Robertson Cup Playoff format is not like most other formats. It starts normally enough, with four teams out of each division (there are four divisions, so 16 teams) making it to the postseason.
The first seed and fourth seed in each division and the second and third seed in each division play each other in a best-of-five division semifinal round. The winner of each series then goes on to play in the division final, also a best-of-five. One team will will emerge from each division to move on to next round.
This is where we get a little convoluted.
The last two rounds take place in a neutral site. (This year, the Final Four will be in Duluth, Minnesota.)
Seeding is determined by the teams’ positioning in the regular season standings, and the first seed will play the fourth seed in a best-of-three series. The second and third seed do the same.
The winners of those series face each other in the one-game Robertson Cup Final. That’s right — it’s all or nothing in a sixty minute leave-everything-on-the-table finish for the league championship.
Makes for good drama.
(Also, makes for convenient travel for teams, scouts, and the like.)
SO WHO’S GOING TO WIN?
Look, if we knew that, what would be the point of the playoffs? But since this is a playoff primer, after all, we’ll do a quick rundown of the teams by division!
The East holds the distinction of having been the first division with all four playoff teams locked into place. This is due largely to two things: First, the East is the smallest division, with just five teams. Second, one of those five teams happens to be the hapless Northeast Generals, an expansion franchise with just four wins this year. Yes. Four. In 60 games. They also picked up three loser points, finishing with 11 points on the year.
The other four teams in the division fared much, much better.
Aston Rebels (46-11-3, 95 points, First in NAHL East)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: A well-rounded team with ten skaters with at least 30 points, Aston’s biggest strength is the one standing in front of their net night in and night out. Latvian goaltender Mareks Mitens — you may remember seeing him at World Juniors — has been dominating the league all year. Mitens no doubt benefits from playing behind a very strong team, but he’s been terrific in his own right.
With as much as they have going for them, it would be a shock if Aston didn’t make it out of their division.
Johnstown Tomahawks (40-16-4, 84 points, 2nd in NAHL East)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: One of just four teams in the NAHL to break the 40-win mark, Johnstown has had themselves a very good season. An excellent penalty kill, solid goaltending, and a high-octane top six have been the keys to success for the Tomahawks.
The match-up with New Jersey should be a tough one, but if the top-heavy Johnstown offense gets hot and stays hot, their overall defensive game should be able to hold off the Titans to move to the East Division Final.
New Jersey Titans (34-22-4, 72 points, 3rd in NAHL East)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: New Jersey just edged the Janesville Jets in goals scored this year, leading the league in that category. With 12 skaters on the roster that have scored at least 30 points, the Titans certainly aren’t short of offensive weapons. Maxim Andreev in particular may be a name to keep an eye on, as the 2017 Draft-eligible forward could potentially be a late round pick this year.
The Titans have a fair chance to win their series against the Tomahawks, but they’ll be hard-pressed to top Aston to advance out of the round.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights (30-25-5, 65 points, 4th in NAHL East)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: A full third of the Knights’ wins came against the hapless Northeast Generals, so it’s perhaps wise to take the Knights’ playoff run with a grain of salt, a healthy dose of optimism, and the knowledge that anything can happen in junior hockey.
While the Central lacks a true powerhouse this year, it’s also probably the division with the most parity, with all six teams finishing within a relatively narrow 23 point spread. This year, there are some new faces making it out of the regular season, as perennial contenders Bismarck Bobcats and Austin Bruins have missed out on making the playoff cut in 2016-17.
Minot Minotauros (38-18-4, 80 points, 1st in NAHL Central)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: Minot is definitely the strongest overall team in their division, and they have a very, very good penalty kill, which at an 85.3% success rate finished second in the NAHL. Oddly enough, their power play has been dismal, and their conversion rate was dead last in the regular season.
However, their good goaltending and a solid offense should be enough for the Minotauros to make it out of the division semifinal with relative ease.
Minnesota Wilderness (32-22-6, 70 points, 2nd in NAHL Central)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: The Wilderness, who won the Robertson Cup two seasons ago, are a good all-around team with good goaltending, a well-rounded offense, and a tendency to allow more shots on goal than is probably preferable. Their special teams are just about middle of the pack, with their power play finishing 14th and their penalty kill finishing 8th in the regular season.
It should be a good series between the Wilderness and the Blizzard, as Minnesota barely edged Brookings in the season series with a 4-3-1 record.
Brookings Blizzard (30-25-5, 65 points, 3rd in NAHL Central)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: One of three playoff teams to finish with a negative goal differential, Brookings nevertheless has a solid chance to advance to at least the division final. They posted a 4-3-1 record in the season series against their first round opponent, the Wilderness. Brookings’ offense does tend to be top-heavy, with just six players with at least 30 points, so their top two lines will need to be producing to their full potential for Brookings to make a deep run.
Aberdeen Wings (29-24-7, 65 points, 4th in NAHL Central)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: Like Brookings, Aberdeen finished with a negative goal differential. Also like Brookings, their offense tends to be top-heavy. Aberdeen’s team defense is generally more effective at suppressing shots, though, and their head coach Scott Langer has plenty of playoff experience.
It wouldn’t be inconceivable for Aberdeen to advance past the first round, but Minot does hold the edge in the season series.
With a team in Fairbanks that has won three championships in the last decade and the recent rise of the Janesville Jets in the Tier II rankings, the Midwest has been one of the most heavily scouted divisions in terms of NCAA and NHL prospects. Whichever team makes it out of the division should be a heavy contender for the title.
Janesville Jets (42-13-5, 89 points, 1st in NAHL Midwest)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: Janesville was, without a doubt, one of the league’s powerhouses this year. Their well-balanced offense gets off a lot of shots, they have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Jacob Barczewski, and they own the NAHL’s top power play.
There isn’t a lot not to like about the Jets this year, and they’re a good bet to make it out of the Midwest.
Fairbanks Ice Dogs (33-24-3, 69 points, 2nd in NAHL Midwest)
The reigning NAHL champions had an underwhelming start to the season, but they’ve been very good in the second half. Much of that is due to the acquisition of goaltender Erik Gordon, who came over to Fairbanks in a trade with the Lone Star Brahmas. Since joining the IceDogs in mid-February, Gordon has gone 13-1, posting a .944 SV% and a 1.56 GAA along the way.
The Ice Dogs are the hottest team going into the playoffs, with a 9-1-0 record in their last ten games, and it should come down to the Ice Dogs and Janesville Jets for the Midwest title.
Minnesota Magicians (31-22-7, 69 points, 3rd in NAHL Midwest)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: The Magicians may have the best logos in the league — their alternate is especially good. The Magicians are a good team, not quite in the class of the Jets, and they haven’t fared particularly well against the Ice Dogs this year, going 1-3-0 in the season series. However, 2017 Draft-eligible goaltender Ivan Prosvetov is perfectly capable of stealing games, and he may need to for the Magicians to advance beyond the first round.
Coulee Region Chill (31-27-2, 64 points, 4th in NAHL Midwest)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: The best way to describe Coulee Region’s style of play is probably “high-event.” They score often, but give up goals at the same rate. And you’ll notice that they averaged over 38 shots against per game in the regular season, which isn’t your typical recipe for success.
Led by forward Caleb Schroer, who finished 4th in the league in points, the Chill will need to score enough to compensate for their defensive shortcomings to advance beyond the first round — a tall order indeed against Janesville’s Jacob Barczewski.
Often referred to as the “Dirty South” by those who play in the division, the NAHL South has a reputation for hard-nosed, physical play. Five of the division’s six teams ended up in the top ten of total penalty minutes incurred. Don’t be fooled, though — there’s plenty of skill to be had.
Lone Star Brahmas (44-14-2, 90 points, 1st in NAHL South)
The Brahmas ran away with the division after a NAHL season-best 14-game winning streak that spanned from mid-December to early February, which put them well out of the reach of the other teams in the division. Since then, they’ve coasted to their first place finish, setting a franchise record in wins along the way.
A high shot volume team, the Brahmas also excel on the other side of things, and only the Rebels have allowed fewer shots by opponents over the course of the season. This is due in part to the coaching staff’s well-structured system, and part to the Brahmas’ very good defensive corps.
While they may lack the offensive firepower of, say, some of Shreveport’s forwards, the Brahmas are a well-balanced team that, when at their best, can roll four lines with ease.
Shreveport Mudbugs (35-19-6, 76 points, 2nd in NAHL South)
If the Northeast Generals are a prime example of what you don’t want your expansion team to be, the Mudbugs are the polar opposite. Good recruiting and coaching can get you far, and Head Coach Karlis Zirnis has done an excellent job in the franchise’s return to the city and the league.
The Mudbugs boast the league’s top-scoring defenseman in the towering Croix Evingson and the league’s top goal-scorer in Frankie Melton. And while he missed almost half the season, UMass-Lowell commit Eriks Zohovs could have easily led the league in points. As it is, he finished second in the league in points per game.
Corpus Christi IceRays (32-19-9, 73 points, 3rd in NAHL South)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: After a mediocre first half, Corpus Christi went on a tear out of Christmas break, surged into playoff position, and didn’t relinquish it the rest of the way. While they’re a good all-around team that plays a heavy, physical game, the key to their success probably lies in net. Goaltender Tomáś Vomáčka finished the year as the 14th ranked goaltender in North America on the NHL’s Central Scouting List, and his stellar play in the second half of the season was a major factor in the IceRays’ success.
The series against Shreveport should be an interesting one — the IceRays dominated the season series 9-2-1, but Shreveport was missing one of their biggest offensive threats in Eriks Zohovs for half the year, so this semifinal will be one to watch.
Wichita Falls Wildcats (29-24-7, 65 points, 4th in NAHL South)
WHAT’S THE DEAL: After reaching the Robertson Cup Final last season (they ended up losing 2-0 to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs), Wichita Falls snagged the last playoff spot in the South by four points. One of the three teams in the postseason with a negative goal differential, Wichita Falls’ -16 differential was by far the largest. However, the Wildcats do have a very balanced offense, with ten players recording at least 30 points in the regular season.
The season series against the Brahmas hasn’t gone particularly well for the Wildcats, as they’ve won just one game in their last nine meetings. Rookie coach Josh Nelson will have to lead his team to find another gear if they hope to knock off the division-leading Brahmas to advance to the second round.