A review of the ECHL’s Western Conference

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif – It’s halfway through this year’s ECHL season and at the start of the new 2014 year, so a look back at the first half of the season might be best served starting at where the teams are now in early January.

There are nine teams in the Western Conference, four teams in the Mountain Division and five teams in the Pacific Division. The San Francisco Bulls is the newest team in the West, having completed its first season last spring.

The Mountain Division is a battle between three of the four teams. In first place, is Colorado with Alaska and Idaho right behind. Utah has a ways to go to catch up with the others.

In the Pacific Division, the teams are a bit more spread out. Ontario has carried the lead through the entire season so far. Just this week they grabbed first place in the league away from previous league leaders South Carolina. Stockton is behind Ontario by more than 10 points and in third in the Pacific is San Francisco with nine points fewer than the Stockton Thunder. Coming in fourth just behind the Bulls is Bakersfield and finishing in last is Las Vegas.

Ontario LogoThe Ontario Reign just recently lost their star goalie Mathias Niederberger on December 26th, who was recalled by Manchester. Head Coach Jason Christie earned his 400th win in the ECHL November 6th, He is only the fourth coach in ECHL history to do so. His abilities shine through as Ontario has dominated the season and may continue to do so. Time will tell if the loss of Niederberger is only a bump in the road for the SoCal team. The Reign have six players 6’3” or taller and along with being large, Ontario has the skills of team members such as Captain Derek Couture who has 24 points in 30 games, forward Matt White has 22 points in 32 games and forward Mario Lamoureux who has 25 points in 27 games.

Colorado Eagles logoUnaffiliated Colorado is second in the Western Conference. Maybe something has to be said for being without an NHL affiliation. When an ECHL team has a hot player like forward Trent Daavettila, who was named CCM/ECHL December Player of the Month, it isn’t long before either the NHL or AHL affiliate team will come calling and snatch up the hot player. In 31 games played, Daavettila has 31 points with 12 goals and is +18. But even without affiliation, I would expect an NHL team to take a closer look at this hot player.

Alaska Aces logoThe Alaska Aces have a new affiliation with the Calgary Flames this season. In third place in the west, Alaska is never far from the top of the Mountain Division or the conference. The Aces are an institution in our 49th state. They are always a powerhouse and known for having top scorers and defense. This season is no different. In fact, they signed RW sniper Peter Sivak, who was with the San Francisco Bulls last season to a one-year contract this past September. Sivak has 26 points in 30 games with +13. Only forward Evan Trupp is close with 25 points in 29 games with +4.

The Stockton Thunder is tied in 4th and 5th respectively with the Idaho Steelheads in the conference. Stockton. though not a particularly large team, make up for it by playing a physically hard game. Team Captain RW Garet Hunt isn’t afraid to mix things up a bit and the rest of the team follow suit. Just this past week, Stockton had a first in the ECHL and according to their website, the first time in hockey history they invited kids from the area to paint the Thunder surface before they covered it with ice. The colorful ice made national and international news. One game was played on the ice Friday, January 3rd versus the San Francisco Bulls, who in spite of not having had the chance to practice on the ice as Stockton had, won the game 4-2.

Idaho Steelheads logoAlways a threat the Idaho Steelheads are a solid, talented team. Two players stand out above the rest. Anthony Nigro has 36 points in 30 games and Mitch Wahl holds 35 points in 29 games. Both Steelheads goaltenders Josh Robinson and Pat Nagle have 92% saves. Goalie Robinson has already spent time in AHL affiliate Texas Stars in late December. It’s always a risk that a talented team like Idaho will lose their best players to their AHL affiliate, but along with this downside is the plus of getting the affiliate’s prospects.

San Francisco Bulls logoThis is the sophomore year for the San Francisco Bulls. The new team is now dealing with injuries. As they warmed up for an afternoon game against the Ontario Reign, the team reported they only had seven offensive players available. In spite of the injuries, the team pushes forward. San Francisco has acquired a great new defenseman Latvian Eriks Sevcenko. In his first game against Stockton on January 3rd, Sevcenko scored a goal and chalked up three points. There have been untrue rumors about the team folding mid-season. Although the team is keeping quiet about what is happening to the public, it is not stopping play.

Bakersfield Condors logoUsed to being the brunt of the Western Conference jokes for years, the Bakersfield Condors are no longer in the basement of the standings. This season is different for the Southern California team. They have affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers so that has helped them acquire better players. Goaltender Tyler Bunz is a prime example of this. He was assigned by Edmonton from the Oklahoma City Barons. But also, perhaps even more important is the addition of new head coach Troy Mann. He has had a positive effect on the team that is proof positive in the team’s wins this season. On January 2nd, Rookie goaltender Laurent Brossoit was named CCM Goaltender of the Week. He had previously won the award for the week of October 28 – November 3, 2013, being the first goalie to be named twice in a season. At the end of 2013, the Condors had won 8 of their previous 11 games.

Utah Grizzlies logoBehind Bakersfield in the standings are the Utah Grizzlies. They also have a new coach (Tim Branham) this year, but rather than help build them up, the team seems to have faltered in the first half of the season. Although the last half of December gives Utah a very positive outlook as the team scored two wins over division rivals Colorado Eagles and then beating the Las Vegas Wranglers on New Year’s Eve. They switched affiliations this season, teaming with the Anaheim ducks in the NHL and Norfolk Admirals in the AHL. Forward Jamie MacQueen, with 14 points in 13 games, made a brief trip to Norfolk in late December as well. David Vallorani f leads the team with 22 in 28 games. Time will tell if Utah can turn their season around, they’re not out of it yet.

LVW Media CrestThe Las Vegas Wranglers sit at the bottom of the standings. The 2013-2014 season has not been kind to the Wranglers. Their new coach Mike Madill has lost more than double number of games the team has won and the stats of each player show the negative percentages of a losing team. Add to that the shocking news that the Orlando Casino where the team has made their home announced last week that the team would have to move out and find a new home after this season. No time or consideration will be made to find another arena. This has left the entire team and fans in despair. Fans from every team in the west have shown their sympathies towards the beleaguered team.

With three months left in the regular season, so much can happen, it is too soon to call any team out of it. I would however, be extremely surprised to see the Wranglers pull themselves up anywhere close to the top. Aside from Las Vegas, any other team is capable of increasing their winning percentages, or losing ones, for that matter.

I look forward to enjoying this season from my seat along the glass. Cheers!

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