By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
In just their second year of existence, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights made it to the USPHL Elite National Championship game, and did so after setting some history with a 25-game regulation unbeaten streak to end the season (24-0-1-0). The Knights have only ever been at the top of the division since the start of their existence in 2021-22, so don’t expect them to show any holes in their armor anytime soon.
In a similar vein, the Jersey Hitmen have been able to capture second place the last three seasons, and were first in the Atlantic (formerly the Mid-Atlantic) for the first three seasons, since the current USPHL Elite Conference was founded in 2017. They reached the semifinals along with WBS, making the Atlantic the only division with two semifinalists (WBS defeated Jersey in a close 3-2 decision).
The Rockets Hockey Club have made big showings including the 2022 division championship and a Nationals berth. Jim Raymond with the Hitmen and Todd Wagenbach with the Rockets are two veteran coaches who always bring the best out of their teams in the Garden State.
The P.A.L. Jr. Islanders had a fine start in the Elite, putting up 39 points and finishing just seven points outside of playoff territory for their first go-round. The Elmira Impact (formerly Jr. Enforcers) also hope to build on their inaugural Elite season of 2022-23.
The changing face of the division over the last couple years continues as the above five teams welcome the Connecticut Jr. Rangers, fielding their first Elite team.
Order is 2022-23 Regular Season Finish
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Rockets Hockey Club
The Knights are happy with their first couple of years in the USPHL Elite, but by no means are they comfortable – and they certainly feel they should have left Utica, N.Y., with the national championship trophy last year. Only a double-overtime goal by the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes was the difference in an epic match-up that was the USPHL’s longest championship game in history.
“We are very excited about our group,” said General Manager Nick Perri. “We came so close to a championship last season, and if training camp was any indication of what to expect from this year’s team, we will be just as competitive.”
The Knights’ rosters are still being formed with just over a week remaining to opening night, so decisions are still being made, but Perri did say the roster “is highlighted by returners Malik Abdullah and Jeremy Simonson, and newcomers like James Gudino.”
Simonson will be a third-year Knight and comes from their youth organization, so they can certainly take pride in a homegrown product there. He improved his point production year-over-year last year (four to six points), so expect another jump this year. Abdullah continues to be a leading voice for the Knights both in the locker room and on the ice as now a third-year veteran forward.
Gudino is also a USPHL Elite veteran and posted eight points in 39 games last year and is looking forward to his first season with the Knights.
Season Opener: Sept. 17 at P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
As mentioned above, the Hitmen are a staple of the top two spots in the Atlantic Division and Head Coach James Raymond sees nothing in his 2023-24 team that would indicate any change in their standing this year, except for maybe a push to evict WBS from first which would give the Hitmen their first division title since 2020.
“We have a good, young, solid group of players that are highly motivated, interested in player development and they have embraced the Hitmen 212° philosophy,” added Raymond. “The team is well-skilled, fast, highly competitive and ready to make a run.”
The Hitmen will have a bold new look for the most part this year, but there are some veterans to help the large amount of newcomers get used to the Elite very quickly, including forwards Jack Levin, Chris Kobayashi, Austin Hlavac and Logan Przestrzelski, who saw time at both defense and forward last year. All are ‘05 except for the ‘06 Hlavac, so they can all continue to develop and progress within the Hitmen program for at least two more seasons after this. For instance, Francis Zaklukiewicz was one of the top players for the 2021-22 Elite Hitmen, put together a successful season last year for the Premier team, and is currently on the Hitmen NCDC preseason roster.
Raymond is excited to see what could be coming from Georgia native Isaac Walker, and defenseman Aedan Proof, coming out of the Anaheim Jr. Ducks midget program.
It’s anyone’s division anywhere when you’re talking about Game 1 still up ahead, but whichever two teams come out of it all and are Nationals-bound will be truly battle-tested according to the veteran coach Raymond.
“I anticipate a very competitive division. The loss of the Aviators hurt, but the addition of Connecticut will help,” added Raymond. “The Rockets and WBS Knights are perennial favorites. Those that go to Nationals will truly contend for the national title.”
Rockets Hockey Club
Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Elmira Impact
You can’t get much better of a building block to a season than returning the leading scorer of the entire league. The Rockets are thrilled to be able to bring back John Crowdell, at the head of a healthy-sized group of returning Rockets for the 2023-24 season. Crowdell posted 29 goals, 54 assists and 83 points in 44 games last year and is hoping to build on that as an ‘03.
We have a good mix of veterans and rookies and so far I like the chemistry and overall work ethic of this year’s team,” added Head Coach Todd Wagenbach. “Our strength will be our goaltending as we have three goalies that will compete and drive each other all year long.”
Michael Grima is one such goaltender, a returning All-Star like Crowdell, after he put up a .919 save percentage in 28 games played last year. Fellow ‘03 Tony Macaluso, out of Brick Hockey Club, and ‘05 Joseph Auletti, who brings in years of AAA midget experience, round out the goaltending trio.
Looking at other returning Rockets beyond Crowdell and Grima, you’ll find Jace Lombardo (34 points in 28 games), blueliner Justin Modzelewski (14 points in 33 games), and forwards Aiden Ball and Gavin Jacobi.
The Rockets are excited not only about Auletti and Macaluso, but also look for big things from third-year Elite veteran Sam Wise and ‘05 forward Brody Coddington, out of the Princeton Tigers midget program.
In a long view, Wagenbach saw his 2023-24 team as very similar in many ways to his previous team, and knows that they need to get the big wins against the top teams to really make a statement this year.
“Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will be the favorite,” he added. “I’m interested to see how Connecticut looks, but I expect them to be good under [former New York Aviators coach] Mike Stanaway!”
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
Season Opener: Sept. 17 vs. Jersey Hitmen
The Jr. Islanders brought a lot of strong young talent to the ice last year in their first go-round at the Elite level under longtime Head Coach Aleksey Nikiforov, whose career includes developing NHL talent such as Darius Kasparaitis, Dainius Zubrus, Bryan McCabe and Alexei Yashin.
“We are very positive. We are very strong, fast, and big at forward, defense and goal,” said Nikiforov. “This is a very skilled team. [Compared to last year], we are bigger and faster with a lot of depth.”
The Jr. Islanders do have experience back at each position, including forwards Chris O’Hea (18 points in 35 games) and Sean Antonucci, Peter Allen back at defense and C.J. Lucente back in the goal. “We are excited” about all of the veterans, added Nikiforov.
It’ll be fun to watch which of the many newcomers surface as some of the top talents on the team and, perhaps, in the league.
“We are happy with all new players, they come from several AAA teams,” added Nikiforov. “Too much talent to single out any one player. A lot of depth in skill and speed.
“I feel our team will compete really well this season and our expectations are high,” he said.
Season Opener: Sept. 16 vs. Rockets Hockey Club
Matt Maniglia returns as Head Coach for the Elmira squad, which underwent a name change between seasons to the Elmira Impact.
Now entering their second season, the Impact experienced not unexpected growing pains as a first-year team in a very competitive division and league.
The project for the off-season was to build up the depth of the overall Impact program and Maniglia sees that as having had nothing but a positive effect on the Elmira roster for this season.
“We are extremely excited to see this 2023-24 roster take the ice this season,” added Maniglia. “We feel like this team is filled with depth that will help us with contributions top to bottom during the season.”
The Impact hope to make just that for the first time in the Atlantic Division, and Maniglia is confident in the new-look team (in terms of jersey, name and roster) to do just that.
“Our division is going to be very competitive this season and there are no easy games on the schedule,” Maniglia said. “All these teams are top of the pack and will lead to a lot of hard-fought games throughout the season. We are excited to go out there and compete in such a competitive division.”
Connecticut Jr. Rangers
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Hampton Roads Whalers (Marlborough, Mass.)
The Jr. Rangers don’t want to just slowly wade into the Elite pool, they’re going to do a swan dive from 20 meters up and go right up against one of the conference’s earliest powerhouses, the Hampton Roads Whalers, as part of the Boston Junior Bruins Shootout Sept. 29-Oct. 2.
“We are all very excited about the team that we have put together this season,” said GM Mike Stanaway. “We have all worked hard to put together a squad that will be very competitive within the Atlantic Division. Coaches Bobby Pauls and Maciej Michalik are going to provide a tremendous opportunity for development for our players.”
Stanaway is looking forward to seeing how the group takes shape with so many first-year players from different backgrounds, but it is all positive anticipation.
“We have a terrific mix of local players and talent that we brought in from all over the country,” added Stanaway.
The GM has been a coach of the Elite New York Aviators in the past, so he is very familiar with the Atlantic Division, including making a Nationals appearance in the Elite in 2019 and also qualifying for the canceled 2020 tournament.
“This is always such a competitive division at the Elite level,” said Stanaway, who coached the former Elite New York Aviators in the past. “There are some great coaches that do a tremendous job year in and year out. It is certainly going to be a division where we will have to show up every night.”