After a strange off-season that saw the Federal Hockey League and its teams take a number of weird twists and turns, the league’s eighth season is set to start tonight when the defending champion Danville Dashers play host to the league’s newest team, the Carolina Thunderbirds.
But before we get into the things that happened over the spring and summer, let’s dive into what the FHL is. It is a six-team minor hockey league based in the northeast, parts of Ontario, Canada, and a bit in the midwest and southeast. The six teams who will take the ice this year at the Danville (IL) Dashers, Carolina (NC) Thunderbirds, Port Huron (MI) Prowlers, Watertown (NY) Wolves, North Shore (Ontario) Knights, and Cornwall (Ontario) Nationals. The teams play a 56-game schedule, with the Top-4 teams advancing to the playoffs, and they use a 3-2-1 points system, meaning 3 for a win, 2 for an overtime/shootout win, and 1 for an overtime/shootout loss.
The league was hoping to play with up to eight teams this season after adding Carolina, but when the season ended the runner-up Berlin River Drivers folded, dropping the league to seven. Later on in the off-season, one of the league’s most successful teams in terms of attendance and play, the Danbury Titans, also folded to bring the league down to six teams.
From there it was a whirlwind time as the St. Clair Shores Fighting Saints moved from Michigan to Ontario and became the North Shore Knights.
And then they had to figure out what to do with all the players from Danbury and Berlin, so they held a dispersal draft among the remaining six teams. From that draft, the expansion Carolina Thunderbirds seemed to come out way ahead, getting two strong forwards, including one of the league’s top scorers in Dalton Jay, and a starting caliber goalie, who is somehow not on the team’s initial roster for tonight’s opener.
After that, the biggest news of the off-season was that the Cornwall Nationals had acquired the league’s all-time leading scorer in Ahmed Mafouz, trading cash and players to be named later to get him. The move gives the Nationals a legit star, and hopefully back on the path to the playoffs.
And now, the off-season has ended and games start for real this weekend with the Dashers and Thunderbirds set to play two in Illinois, while the Cornwall Nationals and Watertown Wolves will play two exhibition games this weekend in preparation for the start of the rest of the games next week.
But who will take home the Commissioner’s Cup this year? Let’s go ahead and rank the teams according to where we think they’ll finish. It should be a crazy season after the teams who finished second and third a season ago both folded.
1. Danville Dashers
Last Season: 129 points, 39-9-4-4, won Commissioner’s Cup.
The defending champions open where they finished. With many of the player’s from last season’s team back in Danville, it will be hard to topple the Dasher from their perch atop the Federal Hockey League.
2. Cornwall Nationals
Last Season: 59 points, 16-34-4-3, 6th place, missed playoffs.
What this boils down to is the addition of Mafouz. He immediately become the best player in franchise history and makes everyone around him better, while pushing players down a line, giving the team more depth. I think the Nationals make a big jump this year solely because of him. The question remains in net, where they gave up a whopping 260 goals last season, second most in the league. They have dominated Watertown in two exhibition games so far, and have two more this weekend.
3. Watertown Wolves
Last Season: 89 points, 27-23-2-4, 4th place
The Wolves have made a number of changes to the roster so far, but do bring back many of the guys from last season’s team that gave up the third-fewest goals in the league. They’ll need more offense this season if they want to be in consideration for the Commissioner’s Cup, but return a strong team that should be battling to have a home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
4. Carolina Thunderbirds
They added Dalton Jay and a number of other very good pieces that should make the competitive out of the gate. It won’t be easy starting with a pair of road games against Danville, but it will be a good for them to see how they stack up against the league’s elite right away.
5. Port Huron Prowlers
Last Season: 84 points, 23-21-3-9, missed playoffs
The Prowlers finished in the top half of the league in scoring last season, but still missed the playoffs due to shaky goaltending. Take away Mafouz and a team that missed the playoffs last season only becomes weaker. There is good depth at forward to try and make up for his loss,, but it will all come down to if they can keep the puck out of their own net.
6. North Shore Knights
Last Season: 40 points, 11-40-3-1, 7th place, missed playoffs
Honest to goodness, I have no idea what to expect from this team. There has been minimal news from them on the FHL site, and only a handful of signings that were announced. They moved to a new town and will play a handful of games at neutral sites. They were bad last year, and the lack of news around them all throughout the off-season doesn’t make me think it will get any better this year.
This Weekend’s Schedule
Carolina Thunderbirds at Danville Dashers, 7 p.m. CDT
Carolina Thunderbirds at Danville Dashers, 7 p.m. CDT
Enjoy the games and the season everyone!