By Jim DenHollander / USPHL.com , 09/04/19, 3:00PM EDT
The USPHL’s Premier Florida Division has gone through some changes this past off-season, and the results were a major success.
Always among the league’s most competitive divisions, the five-member group has expanded its boundaries into Georgia and South Carolina this season. The battle for playoff spots could be even more intense this time around.
Last season, the Florida Eels from Fort Myers and the Florida Jr. Blades from nearby Estero had their tickets punched to Nationals, and both made their presence felt on the National stage. The Tampa Bay Juniors finished with a win from Nationals provided a tough challenge in the Southeast Division post season.
All three are contenders this season, while the Atlanta Madhatters take the spot of the former Atlanta Jr. Kings with hopes of making a big first-season splash. The newest squad, the Charleston Colonials may be an expansion outfit, but its USPHL-experienced staff is looking to establish itself with the iron of the division - and the league - in Year 1.
Following is a look at the five Florida Division teams, listed in order of performance from last season.
2018-19 - 28-13-3-0.
Playoffs: National Championships Pool Play.
“The Florida Eels are in full swing already, in training camp for two weeks (as of Aug. 27). The Premier and Elite squad boasts 32 new players this season,” said Scarpaci. “We advanced over 17 players to college and another six are projected to advance to the NCDC level.”
The bar is always set high for this squad and Scarpaci expects this season could be one of the best yet.
“This is probably one of the most talented teams. We have a very deep pool and that says a lot as the Eels have had some very good teams,” Scarpaci added.
TAMPA BAY JUNIORS
2018-19 – 15-24-3-2
Playoffs: Division First Round
Tampa Bay will be another team seeing a big turnover this season. Head Coach Garrett Strot will welcome back just six returners from a team that is looking to string together more wins this season.
Take away a couple tough stretches from 2018-19, and the Juniors turned in an effort close to .500 through the rest of the matches. The team never won three in a row and picked up back-to-back wins just three times.
Forwards Paul Flidr and Zach Puterbaugh will be back to lead the Juniors’ charge with fourth-year team member Dan Duncan and John Heller providing the anchor on defense.
Watch for newcomers Milton Rosen from Sweden and Minnesota’s Cade Kujawski to carry the load in goal while defenders Garrett Sandberg and Carter Hansen should make their presence felt on the blue line. Hampus Mangusson and Keegan Johnson are newcomers that could become key sparks up front.
“I feel we have a great group with talent and character,” added Strot.
FLORIDA JR. BLADES
2018-19 – 10-31-1-2
Playoffs: National Championship Pool Play.
The Florida Jr. Blades may have struggled in a tough division through the regular season, but they came up huge in the postseason.
After winning their Division playoffs matchup in three games, the Blades proved that was no fluke, going undefeated at the National Championship tournament, including a 2-2 draw with Championship finalist Metro Jets. The Blades just missed a berth in the National Championship semis by a few goals.
Carrying momentum from that finish will be a group of returners that includes forwards Blake Tosto, Tristan Roost and Holden Hertog, along with blue liner Iacopo Granza.
Cody Colegrove and Jeff Gross could make a quick impression as new forwards, while Jake Weston and Michael Haddad should fit in nicely on the blue line.
“Of course, our main goals are to win playoffs and make a run at Nationals,” said Pococke. “We had a great showing at Nationals, but this year, we want to make a statement there.”
2018-19 – 19-21-3-0 (Southeast Division)
Playing in the Southeast Division, the former Atlanta Jr. Kings faced tough competition almost every weekend, including winners of the past five Premier National Championships (Hampton Roads and Charlotte).
This year, Atlanta’s USPHL representative will play in the deep and likely somewhat even Florida Division, where their 41 points would have qualified them for playoffs.
Head Coach Brad Prefontaine enters the season with a few returners, including big-bodied defender Gleb Radivonik and forward Trent Bailey, who is moving up from the Kings’ Elite squad after a standout 2018-19 campaign.
Joining them will be goaltender Leo LaPata, new to the Madhatters but with a junior resume, and returning goalie Dom Vollendweider. These players give the team strength and confidence at the key defensive position.
Trent Bailey’s younger brother, Ryan will be making his full junior debut. Ryan is a highly skilled player who finishing sixth in Elite team scoring despite playing in just 11 Kings matches.
The Colonials will be making its league debut over the first full weekend of September, and will get plenty of time for their young team to get to know each other, playing their first 10 games on the road.
Head Coach Hunter Bishop may have a young team, but there is some junior experience there and he thinks the team will be competitive out of the gate.
“[It is a] new team with all new personnel,” said Bishop. “We are very excited about the talent and character of our locker rooms.”
Devin Stroia, for instance, played in the USPHL Premier last season. Coach Bishop is counting on the offensively-gifted player to take a leading role. The anchor on defense could be Mac Diver, a 6-2 defender who last season played Tier 2 in Northern Ontario.
Chance Desana, a 6-2 forward who played high school hockey in Michigan, is a junior newcomer who could generate offense while also protecting the puck.