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USPHL Elite 2023-24 Division Preview Series: Florida

By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com 

 

The Florida Elite Division gets down to its first business this coming weekend. The league’s southernmost division features one of the new teams for this season, as the Bold City Battalion kick off their inaugural season Sept. 22 with a three-game run against the Florida Jr. Blades. 

Last year, the Florida Eels and Tampa Bay Juniors were the division’s representatives at the USPHL Nationals in Utica, making it two straight trips for the Elite Eels, and three straight trips for Tampa Bay. Those two organizations clearly represent the iron of the division, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible by any means. In 2020, the Atlanta MadHatters pulled off a big upset against the Tampa Bay Juniors, and the Eels fell that season to the former Charleston Colonials – unfortunately neither team was able to build off these wins as the Nationals were canceled due to COVID-19. 

The MadHatters and second-year Palm Beach Typhoon both brought some big guns to the offensive table last year, so they’re always fun to watch, while the Jr. Blades are hoping for a big bounceback season. 

 

Florida Eels

Season Opener: Sept. 16 vs. Atlanta MadHatters

Based on recent history, you’ll see the Eels hovering at or near not just the top of the Elite Florida and the Elite overall standings. They always have such a prime amount of talent on their Premier team that their Elite team could sometimes almost be a second Premier squad. You have to squint (or just have a veteran coach’s eye) to see the small differences between their two teams. 

“Our Elite team has a good mix of youth and experience. With about a third of our group being returners from last year, it helps continue the culture of winning and development we’ve had in recent years,” said Head Coach Mitch Hill. “Our team has pace and looks to play fast and a smart style of hockey.”

The Eels will be one of the older Elite teams in the league featuring nine 2003-born players. 

“The biggest difference between last year and this year is the experience and maturity we have on the roster. With nine ’03’s, that helps the younger players have older veterans to lean on throughout the year,” added Hill. 

On the back line, we wish good luck to any teams trying to get past All-Star blueliner Sean Burke and fellow ‘03 J.J. Diaz. Forwards Marc Ghafari and Jackson Carnes (28 combined points) will “aim to take bigger roles with this year’s group,” added Hill. 

In terms of newcomers, Jake Miller stretches that term as this will actually be his sixth USPHL season. He was in the Islanders Hockey Club Midget program from the USPHL 15U to 18U levels between 2018-22, and played briefly in the Elite last season with the former Nashville Spartans Elite team (they are Premier only this year) before gaining additional Tier III experience elsewhere. 

“Jake looks to bring his junior hockey experience and bolster the defensive back end of our group,” said Hill. Up front, the Eels are excited for Alex Cochran (‘05) and Fynn O’Neill (‘03). 

“Alex, out of Frisco, Texas, has had a tremendous training camp and will look to continue progressing through the year as a solid forward for our group,” added Hill. “Fynn looks to add to the offensive success as well.” 

Hill can’t wait to get started this weekend just to see how much better all the Florida Elite teams have become. 

“I think this year will be a very competitive season in the Florida Division. Every team had positives to take from last season and with the newly added Battalion, the intensity and competitiveness will be brought up,” added Hill. “There definitely will be no games you can ‘take off’ in the Elite Florida Division this season.”

 

Tampa Bay Juniors 

Season Opener: Sept. 15 vs. Palm Beach Typhoon  

The Juniors saw a lot of overhaul between their two teams, thanks to a heavy advancement of players to the college ranks. That reason is Head Coach Garrett Strot’s favorite, as he is always happy to reload after an advancement mission accomplished. 

“Just like our Premier team, our Elite team is totally new with a handful of returners,” said Strot, who coaches the Elite alongside former NHL player and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Filip Kuba. “We will once again have a young team but we’re excited about the skill and talent of the group.”

When Strot looks at last year’s Elite team and compares it with this year’s team, he sees even more size on what was already a pretty good-sized, yet mobile, blue line corps. 

“We have some pretty good sized defensemen for the Elite level. I thought last season our defensemen were the strongest group we ever had here on Elite but feel this year’s group could be better,” he added. 

If you have to bring back a couple players, why not bring back some All-Star talent? The Juniors did just that with the return of defenseman Carter Trussler and goaltender Dylan Bruce. Bruce posted a .921 save percentage last year in 24 games, while Trussler – a local product coming from Mitchell High School of New Port Richey – put up 25 points from the blue line in playing all 44 regular season games. 

In addition to the obviously solid leadership core provided by Bruce and Trussler, the Juniors are excited about some new talent including forwards Kevin Rosello and Jacob Munkwitz and defenseman Lucas Gonzalez, all of whom Strot said “have stood out and we feel each will make an impact.” 

Rosello is a former Mitchell High teammate of Trussler’s and has represented Team Puerto Rico, the island of his birth. Jacob Munkwitz joins the Juniors with two years of USPHL junior experience already under his blades, and Gonzalez is entering his second year of USPHL junior hockey. 

The Juniors are certainly confident in their ability to make it back to the upper echelons of the Florida Division. 

“We feel, as the season progresses, that we will be right there with the top teams in the division,” said Strot. “The Eels will once again be the team to beat.” 

 

Palm Beach Typhoon

Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Tampa Bay Juniors

The Typhoon, like their first opponents the Tampa Bay Juniors, will be an almost entirely new team when they take Elite ice on Friday. Many players have moved up to the Premier, so the team will be one to watch from the beginning. Owner, General Manager and Head Coach Joe Flanagan foresees a deeper team than the 2022-23 squad. 

“We are not relying on three or four guys to produce like last year, so we’re more balanced this year at Elite just like at the Premier level,” said Flanagan. “We have good players who compete hard and have some decent size. We didn’t look at the team and say ‘we lost this guy, so who’s replacing him?’ I feel pretty decent overall with the players we have.” 

In terms of returning players for the Elite Typhoon, Flanagan could only look at two players right off the bat in forward Aaron Lentz and defense Frank Delvecchio. Lentz was strong up front with 28 points in 38 games last year, and Delvecchio was tops in blocked shots last year with 67 over his 42 games.

“Lentz and Delvecchio are exactly type of guys we like to have. They compete every shift, they’re hard-nosed, tough kids, and they’re really coachable,” said Flanagan. “Lentz had a great year last year, and he was on one of our top two lines all year long. He’s a good leader, too. I’d classify Frank as a defensive defenseman. He leaves it all out on the ice every game. 

“With just two guys returning, it’ll take time for our newcomers to adjust to how junior hockey is, but it’s a pretty good group so far,” added Flanagan. 

The coach does expect Xavier Solomon, who comes to the Typhoon from the Pittsburgh Vengeance Midget AAA program. 

“He has been impressive in camp so far, with good skill and he’s strong,” Flanagan said. “He’ll have an immediate impact on the league.” 

It is never easy to push through the historic forerunners of the division, but the Typhoon picked up good wins over the Nationals teams last year and they hope to add even more and perhaps stand with that group when all is said and done.

“I expect the same from the division as I’ve seen the last two years. We’ll fight for a playoff spot like last year, and it’ll be a battle to the end,” said Flanagan. “You might have the first couple seeds locked in early, but you’ll have two or three teams fighting for those last two spots. It’s all a grind. We were in fourth a lot of the year last year and ended up in third. It’s a battle for positioning.” 

 

Atlanta MadHatters

Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Florida Eels

The MadHatters had quite the race towards the end of the season with the Typhoon as both pushed for No. 3, with Palm Beach taking that spot in the end by just four points. Atlanta’s coaching staff feels like they may have the young talent and the determination to win those types of races down the stretch, while continuing to develop and promote players to higher levels of junior hockey and also to college hockey. 

We are excited about the roster we have put together this year. We have brought in a very good young crop of local players, combined with talented guys from all over the world,” said Head Coach Tyler Casillo. “With only two players who have played at the Elite level before, it will be interesting to see how we deal with tough challenges a season brings and the maturation of our players.”

Casillo is brand new to Atlanta this year, coming over from the San Diego Sabers, so he is excited to put his stamp on the program going forward. 

“With it being my first season in Atlanta, I wanted to build on the success the program has had over the last few seasons. We wanted to bring in a young core of players that we can develop and move up the ladder,” added Casillo. “I think the major difference in this year’s team compared to last year is the lack of experience at the Elite level. We are extremely young, which is exciting for us as a staff. We really like our group and starting off with the Eels will give us a great test to start the year. 

“The Florida Division is one of the most competitive in the entire country. I think this season will be no different with the clubs getting stronger every year. We are looking forward to the challenges our division brings,” he added. 

This strong competition will be taken on by a group of players who may be young on the surface, but Casillo is very excited about these athletes. 

Watch for ‘06 forward Grayson Betts out of Langley, B.C., who should make an immediate impact, along with ‘05 forward Kolton Miller, who has played with the AAA teams of the Lincoln Stars and Des Moines Buccaneers. Georgia natives Riley DeWitt (both ‘06’s) join from the MadHatters 16U and the Florida Alliance 16U programs, respectively. 

“Our goaltending will be crucial for us this season. We have an unbelievable goalie room this year,” added Casillo. 

Jackson Bernier joins with a season of experience at the USPHL Elite level, and is “someone we expect to be a great leader for us.” Christian Amato comes from St. Augustine Prep and the Philadelphia Little Flyers AAA program and “can make a major impact for us.” 

“Devin Diller is a local talent who has had great success in our MadHatters youth program for years and we are excited to see him make the jump to Elite this year,” added Casillo. “I think these three will give us the ability to win every night.”

 

Florida Jr. Blades

Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Bold City Battalion 

The Blades, who experienced a bit of a tough season last year, know that they have once before moved back up the standings after a down season. Between 2020-21 and 2021-22, they doubled their points to rise from fifth the first season to third place in the standings the next year. It’s time for another push northward. 

“We are returning quite a few players from last season,” said Doug Rose, the Jr. Blades’ Associate Head Coach. “Our record did not reflect the development we saw in each of our players. I think we have a ton of skill that we have learned to play as a team leading into this season.  

“We brought in young talent again this year,a strong group from our 16U affiliates that we are excited about,” Rose added. “However we have a heavy ‘veteran presence’ this year.” 

Watch for Sam Gusty, Levi Todd, Payne Vanderhied and Max Stek to be veteran voices up front. All registered in double digits for points last season. All are ‘04’s and ‘05’s so they are going to be pushing for promotions to the Premier team and other higher levels of hockey. Back on the defense are ‘06’s Brinson White and Zach Barta along with ‘07 Liam Corwen. 

Among the newcomers, Maks Matys, an ‘07 from the Florida Jr. Everblades 16U team, “shows a ton of skill at the blue line.” 

Watch for Greyson Betzold and Maksim Paulikis, a teammate of Matys’ on the Jr. Everblades 16U’s, among the forwards after they’ve been “showing a lot of promise at training camp.” 

Rose expects a much-improved overall performance for the Jr. Blades Elite squad this year, even in a tough-as-nails Florida Division. 

“Our division proves strong every season. I believe we have shown a lot of growth over the span of the summer and like what we are bringing in,” added Rose. “I’m excited to get things going and see how each team has changed!”

 

Bold City Battalion

Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Florida Jr. Everblades 

Welcome to the Battalion era! Bold City kicks off its season at home in Jacksonville, Fla., beginning next Friday, Sept. 22. 

Taking the helm of the team is former Tampa Bay Juniors coach Rett Vossler, and with so many new and exciting teams, the Battalion are built for the future around youth. 

“We are excited with what we have here in Jacksonville this year,” he said. “We assembled a really young team that has a lot of upside. The ceiling for this team is being pushed higher every day with their work ethic.”

Two Elite Battalion players to watch for early on are ‘07 Kaden Powell and ‘05 Ray Johnson. Powell is from Forest Hills High in Pennsylvania, and Johnson comes in with Tier III experience from the EHL Premier. 

“Kaden is an ‘07 forward from Pennsylvania that has really impressed us throughout camp, he’s tenacious and has natural scoring instincts,” added Vossler. “Ray Johnson is a guy that is all out, all the time. He’s as tough and intense as they come. He’s the player every team wants in their lineup.”

Vossler, who has been around the USPHL Elite in its current form since its 2017 inception, is excited to test his team in the Florida Division on a week-to-week basis. 

“The Florida Division has made a name for itself in the USPHL, we know that every game is a dogfight and you have to fight for every inch. We are excited to be able to play in such a tough division,” he said. “To become the best version of yourself, individually and as a group, you have to be challenged every day. That’s what we get in the Florida Division.”

 

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