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USPHL Premier 2022-2023 Preview Series: Southeast Division

The Southeast Division is a regular contributor to the highest echelons of the USPHL National Championships, including three straight titles between 2018 and 2021 won by the Hampton Roads Whalers and Charlotte Rush. Watch for all six division members pushing to bring the Premier trophy back to what they certainly feel is its home.

 

Order is 2021-22 Regular Season Finish

Charlotte Rush

The Rush are back and fully focused on being No. 1 again when all the dust settles, coming in with a chip on their shoulder after being unable to repeat as champions this past spring.

Troy Schwab, Head Coach, is extremely excited with the group that has been assembled going into their very first game on Friday, Sept. 9 against the first-year Columbia Infantry.

“Our staff has done a tremendous job building this year’s roster. With the amount of turnover we have this season from last season, the work that Ryan, Matt, Trevor, Ray, and Trevor have put in needs to be mentioned. They have done an outstanding job to get us to this point,” said Schwab. “We will continue to play a fast, up-tempo style. We need to be harder to play against and our special teams need to be better this season. We have made some changes to hopefully improve those areas.”

The Rush welcome back veterans ‘03 goaltender Nick Anderson, ‘02 forward Aidan Flynn, ‘02 defensemen Zach Gmerek and D.J. Ray.

“They were all guys who were key contributors to our roster last season, and guys we expect to lead the way and take another step forward,” added Schwab.

The Rush have added USPHL-experienced players such as ‘02 forwards Rhett Evjen, Hunter Berry, Shane Adler, and Peter Keese.

“We were lucky enough to add a few players that know our division well and know the league very well,” Schwab added. “These are all guys who have junior hockey experience and should be a huge part of our team.”

 

Richmond Generals

While their Elite team captured the 2021-22 National title, the Premier team made a strong bid for No. 1 in the Southeast. They finished just five points back of their rivals the Rush.

“I really like the core group that has moved up from Elite to Premier. They bring with them the understanding of what it takes to win a championship, and the small returning core of Premier guys is a really good nucleus to build around,” Head Coach R.C. Lyke siad. “The group overall will be a high-intensity, fast skating, high-end skilled group.”

Premier returners for the team include Cade Pawluk, named Captain on Friday, Sept. 9, as well as fellow blueliner Kameron Williams (‘02), Alex Dupuis and Alex Haunstoft.

“Cade is an excellent, solid physical two-way defenseman who provides a ton of leadership on and off the ice, and has NCAA Division III interest already,” Lyke added. “Kam is another sought-after defenseman by Division III coaches. Alex plays a hard and heavy two-way game. Alex is an extremely high end player who can put up points and influences the scoresheet.”

In terms of newcomers, Lyke is excited about Jakub Hall (‘02), who brings plenty of USPHL Premier experience, as do new Generals Matt Hamacher and Jack McCandless.

Liam O’Donoghue is an ‘04 who came over from Northwood Prep and brings a big frame, a physical game in conjunction with graceful skating abilities. Lucas DeCaluwe will, like O’Donoghue, attract plenty of Tier II attention, coming over from the OJHL. Marcus Hicks, who played in the GOJHL, is a hard-hitting blueliner while Lenny Perno is new to the Generals but coming into his fifth year of USPHL hockey.

“He’ll be arguably the top goalie this year at our level,” said Lyke.

The Generals are welcoming some key pieces from the 2022 National Champion Elite team, including Austin Sawyer, Joe Petite and Andrew Farley.

“Austin was our second-leading scorer on the Elite team and he had a really good off-season,” said Lyke. “Petite is extremely skilled, and smart and heady with a great hockey IQ. Andrew was basically our leader on the Elite team last year. He’s come up from youth through juniors with the Generals. He plays a physical and fast game against other teams’ top lines.”

“All the Southeast teams are always strong,” added Lyke. “Everyone always brings in high quality players. With the work Josh Gratton has done in transforming and improving Potomac, you now have five teams where anyone can win in any division. You add Nashville into the mix and every game will be a war.”

 

Hampton Roads Whalers

The Whalers came in third by an inch, just one point behind Richmond and six behind Charlotte. The top three jousted beautifully throughout the 2021-22 season, providing all kinds of excitement. Colten Teubert, a pro hockey alum with 24 NHL games (with Edmonton in 2011-12) to his credit, has moved into the Premier Head Coaching spot for the Whalers after running the Elite team last year. He also assisted with the Premier last year, so he’s well familiar with this level.

“We will be a team that plays for each other. This season, with new talent and quality leaders returning as well as growth from our Elite program, we have constantly continued our internal development from Elite Players to Premier Athletes,” said Teubert, “and Premier players to Tier II or NCAA Division III or ACHA.

“A team that is All in, All Heart.”

Teubert, who returns Spencer Johnston, Brendan Kelley and John Rangel from last year’s team, sees a great energy among his 2022-23 Whalers.

“[We are] younger and hungrier with a better all-in mindset. We have guys committed to on-ice and off-ice training and being a great ambassador to the sport locally with our youth development in Hampton Roads,” Teubert added.

Rangel, an ‘03 defenseman, is the top returning scorer. He posted 24 points in 39 games last season. Johnston (‘02) and Kelley (‘03) return to the forward ranks.

A couple newcomers to keep an eye on are Benji Peiffer, an ‘03 with three years of experience coming in from the EHL and EHLP, and Ethan Ruggeri, also an ‘03 who has three USPHL seasons under his belt at the 16U, 18U and Premier levels already.

Though new to the head coaching gig at the Premier level, Teubert’s time in the league already has shown him what his team needs to do.

“The Southeast is a talented division, with good recruiters,” said Teubert. “I expect it to come down to the final two weekends of the season for the last playoff spot.”

 

Carolina Jr. Hurricanes

The Jr. Canes reached the Nationals in 2021, reaching all the way to the National Semifinal round. They know they have the wherewithal to put together a team like that, so watch what the Jr. Canes bring to the ice. They have proven they can defeat everyone, and a goal here or there  could’ve made all the difference in the regular season and the playoffs. That’s history, though, and Head Coach Kevin St. Jacques is just focused on the now.

“We have an exciting young group coming in eager to win, and committed to doing what it takes to win,” said St. Jacques. “We have good goaltending and are a hard-working hockey club.”

“I think that goaltending will again be very good and potentially better than last season,” added General Manager Lincoln Flagg. “I feel we have more scoring depth than we did last season.”

The Jr. Canes will be rich in returning experience, with St. Jacques adding “several returning players will help contribute to success this season.”

Flagg is excited about the return of leading scorer Ethyn Hopp, defensemen C.J. Stucky and Chase Lemmers, while forwards Zach Nicholls, Matthew Perry and Wesley Crofoot all “had a tremendous playoffs last season.”

Avery Pittman has already been a high scorer in Tier III hockey in the NA3HL, while P.E.I. native Nigel Morris is in his fourth season in the USPHL Premier and Levente Chmelik is an intriguing goalie out of Hungary in his first season in North America.

As with all the coaches, they couldn’t ask for a better buzzsaw than the Southeast Premier Division.

“The division has always been the most competitive from top to bottom,” St. Jacques said. “So with that being said, I could see everybody being good in our division and coming down to the last game of the year for some teams to make playoffs.”

 

Potomac Patriots 

The Patriots increased their wins total by five times what they had in the prior season, but the aforementioned Southeast buzzsaw still cut them short of reaching the postseason last year. Newcomer Josh Gratton – another longtime pro player like Teubert who also saw NHL ice time in 86 career games there – is overseeing this rise to prominence for the Patriots.

Potomac defeated every Southeast team at least once in 2021-22. Gratton plans to do more damage this year, and has gone global in his quest to bring in the best players for on-ice results and, most importantly, greater opportunities for advancement to higher levels.

“At the Premier level, we have a lot of new Europeans – more than a dozen,” said Gratton. “We’re a little older and more skilled team than last year, with a few big boys over 6-5 who can skate and shoot the puck.”

Among the team’s returning group is 2021-22 leading scorer and Southeast Division All-Star Valerii Kneib (40 points in 39 games) and back on defense are veterans Joshua Kingsbury and Tarcisius Tibishkogihig.

“Tarci is one of the best stay-at-home defensemen in the league and Kingsbury is a solid offensive defenseman coming back,” Gratton added.

In terms of newcomers, watch for Swedish forwards Jakob Johannesson and Max Nystrom, who have already formed good chemistry with Ukrainian import Ilya Biesiedin.

“They’ve really impressed me and are developing into good leadership roles,” said Gratton.

Additionally, 6-5 Gustav Sundstrom brings offensive gifts and fast skating for such a sizeable player.

“Every year, you’re playing playoff-style hockey, and in the end of the night you have a good hate on for the other team, that’s the Southeast,” said Gratton. “We’re planning to be a playoff team, and we have the roster this year to do so.”

 

Nashville Spartans

The Spartans are newcomers to the division, the first new team to join the Southeast Division in the current format of the USPHL Premier (since 2017-18). They know that they are entering an extremely tough and competitive situation as an expansion squad, but Head Coach Ray Tremblay is confident that the players Nashville has signed will be able to learn the ropes quickly.

“As an organization, we are extremely excited for our inaugural year in the USPHL, and especially to be playing in the Southeast Division. It’s proven to be one of the strongest divisions in the league year after year,” he said. “As for our playing style, we are the new kids on the block so we will definitely be carrying that with us this year, which will result in us being an aggressive, fast-paced, hard-working team.”

The Spartans didn’t go necessarily older or younger, but rather have a good mix of birth years throughout the roster.

“We have a nice mix of ages, ‘02’s through ‘06’s, which we believe is a nice balance of experience and also enthusiasm. The challenge for us will be creating our culture and team cohesiveness,” said Tremblay. “Being a new team, that comes with the territory. But saying that, the guys have had great attitudes throughout camp and are coming together quickly.”

The Spartans have plenty of USPHL experience at both the Tier II and Tier III levels, so that helps. Ronan Keenan enters his fourth year in the league and is a former USPHL Elite All-Star. Watch also for A.J. Benit, Jakob Holley, Alec Pool, Brayden Concalves, Thomas Durrett, GArrett Parker, Brandon Wolfenbarger and Daniel Duzek all “showing well so far” in the preseason.

Tremblay hopes and expects that folks will be talking about the Spartans as a big surprise as the first year draws to a close.

“We have put the work in to build a good hockey club, and we expect to be right there in the mix this year,” he said.

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