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USPHL Elite 2022-2023 Preview Series: Florida Division

The Florida Division always puts together strong teams as they put heavy concentration on building towards ever-stronger Premier squads with high numbers of college commitments. They work on detailed development plans with all their players and help move them through the process from the Elite to the Premier and on to the college game.

 

Florida Eels

The Eels reclaimed the division crown from the Tampa Bay Juniors, who joined them for the second year in a row, at the Nationals. Both teams keep pushing for the ultimate prize and recruit top young talent for their Elite squad, with an eye toward their Premier futures.

“Our 2022-23 Florida Eels Elite team looks to have a ton of depth. We have the skill to play fast and structured and have a ton of youth hungry to compete at the junior level,” said second-year Head Coach Mitch Hill. “Our biggest strength is our depth. We can roll our four lines and compete with anyone in the country. With our roster having a ton of newcomers to juniors, there may be growing pains early on but the kids are excited for the upcoming season.”

Neil Campbell is leading a small group of returning Eels. Campbell is a consistent shutdown defenseman and that is expected to continue.

The Eels have added goaltender Evan Spinella, who comes in with USPHL Elite experience, along with Bailey Kaiser.

“The most significant difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is the veterans on the roster. We don’t have many kids on our team that have junior hockey experience. I believe it is less than 10 on the Elite team,” added Hill. “So there are plenty of opportunities for newcomers to make their mark on the roster and start their junior hockey careers on the right foot.”

There aren’t many better testing grounds for players’ development and opportunities to advance than the Florida Division.

“The Florida Division this year could be the most competitive it has ever been. The addition of Columbia will only add to the competitiveness in the division,” Hill said. “Every divisional game will be a tough matchup and that will only make the programs, players, and league better as a whole.”

 

Tampa Bay Juniors 

Similar to their rivals down the Gulf Coast in Fort Myers, the Wesley Chapel, Fla.-based Juniors are almost entirely new from top to bottom.

“It will be a whole new team, with only three returners from last season,” said Head Coach Garrett Strot. “We feel very strongly about the group coming up, and feel this could be one of the deepest Elite teams we’ve had despite being so young. Last year’s team had mostly returners so this will be a different experience for the players and will take a little time to adjust but I feel they won’t take too long.”

The Juniors are excited to let the new and young players make names for themselves in a buzzsaw of a Florida Division.

“The Florida Division this year will be as strong as ever,” he said. “Both the Eels and Blades should be as strong as ever and I see Atlanta improving a lot, and Palm Beach improving after having a year under their belts.”

 

Florida Jr. Blades

The theme continues, where the Florida organizations bring many of their experienced players up to the Premier Division, and the Elite Division becomes the proving grounds. The Jr. Blades bring back four of their 2021-22 Elite players, which is actually on the higher side.

“We were young last year and we’re even younger this year,” said second-year Head Coach Rod Simmons. “We chose to put this team together as basically an 18U team, with at most two 20-year-olds. We like the developmental element of the Elite, where you give guys the junior experience and see where we can move them on from there.”

Four forwards come back as veterans, including ‘04 Max Stek – a top 10 scorer for the Jr. Blades – along with Oliver Appleyard (‘02), Levi Todd (‘04) and Sam Gusty (‘05).

Goaltender Riley Robeson (‘03) comes in with junior experience from outside the USPHL, while ‘06 forward Nathaniel Mongeau is an early player to watch.

“These are key people I think will help with the development of the program,” added Simmons. “Robeson has good size and good vision, and thinks the game very well. Mongeau has good speed and very strong hockey IQ.

“We educate all our players that it’s a tough 44-game schedule, so it will be a hard road for them, which should help with their development,” Simmons said.

 

Atlanta MadHatters

First-year MadHatters Elite coach Sean Bernhardt, a native of Webster, N.Y., has a long hockey history with the state of Georgia. A former Kennesaw State University player, he was later their Head Coach for that ACHA squad. Now, he’s coaching a new set of college hockey hopefuls with the MadHatters in his beloved Peach State.

“We’re very excited about the returning core that we have this season in addition to the newcomers. We’ve got a lot of guys that are ready to make a push for Premier spots,” said Bernhardt. “There is much stronger character and leadership on the team this year.”

Atlanta brings back 2021-22 All-Star Jayden Price, an ‘04 local product from Woodstock, Ga., who had previously played for the MadHatters’ 14U and 16U teams. He had 39 points in 43 games last year. Additionally, the team welcomes back Dallas, Ga.-born blueliner Noah Crabb (‘04), fellow ‘04 blueliner Hayden Spencer, ‘04 forward Gavin Krutz, also from Woodstock, Ga., and ‘03 goaltender Taveon Dees.

Bernhardt is excited about 2005-borns Cooper Lundberg and Alan Qiao (both of whom have played for the Nashville Jr. Predators AAA program), MadHatters’ 16U alum Gage Kraus, and ‘04 Canadians forward/defenseman Colby Sims and forward Dayson McCreedy, ‘05 goaltender Remi Hay, from L’Ange-Gardien, Que., and ‘03 Calgary-born netminder Dimitrius Virostek.

 

Palm Beach Typhoon 

The Typhoon continue to build their organization and brand, and it helps to have some players who’ve been through Year 1 with the Elite squad coming back to help an even younger new group coming in.

“Other than four players returning, we have a good new crop of kids, including players from Florida and from out of state,” said Head Coach Joe Flanagan. “The skill set is better and a little quicker this year, so we’re looking forward to getting to the ice.”

Estonian forward Marcus Loorits comes back to the forward ranks, along with fellow ‘04 Cameron Smalley (Salem, N.H.), Lake Worth, Fla.’s Dominic Barilla ‘03 and ‘05 defenseman Christopher Maybury, out of Jacksonville, Fla.

The Typhoon continue to foster local area talent with their newcomers. Attila Szathmari, an ‘05 forward, put up 94 points in 18 high school games last year with Fort Lauderdale’s Calvary Christian Academy. Sean Boltin is another local player that Flanagan is looking forward to in terms of regular contributions.

Defenseman Levi Sandholzer is an ‘05 “tough, gritty Florida kid who competes hard and will work well with Christopher Maybury on the point.”

Three new goalies will man the crease with the Typhoon, including ‘05 New Brunswick native Kaylan Levesque (brother to the Premier Typhoon’s Josh Levesque), ‘04 Quebec-born goaltender Olivier Dulac (who comes in with prior Elite experience) and ‘03 Jackson Bernier.

 

Columbia Infantry

The Infantry are new to the USPHL Elite, but their leadership is familiar to the league. Head Coach Jacob Smulevitch led the former Charleston Colonials, a second-year team in 2020-21, to the Elite National Championship game.

So, he’s all ready to help build another new franchise and take it to the upper echelons.

“As a new organization, we are very excited to take the ice this season. We want to play a physical, wear-you-down, hard style of hockey that forces every opponent to compete at the highest level if they want success against us,” added Smulevitch. “At the Elite level, we are very young, but I think talented. We have a lot of players who I believe will develop quickly at the junior level.”

The Infantry are excited about Ryan Freeman, who helped the Richmond Generals win the 2022 Elite National Championship this past spring. Additionally, he signed another strong USPHL-experienced player Devin DeCarlo.

“We have signed some very strong veterans to help lead our group in our first season,” said Smulevitch.

The Infantry are not afraid to go young, including bringing in 2006-born players, the youngest junior-eligible players this year.

“In terms of rookies, we have some younger players we are very excited about. Matthew Hunter is an ‘06 who has size and speed that players many years older than him do not currently have,” said Smulevitch. “Elijah White is another player who we are very excited about. He skates at a very high level and is very mature as well with the way he manages the puck.”

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