ECHL North Division Preview: Newfoundland Growlers To Face Toughest Test

ECHL North Division Preview: Newfoundland Growlers To Face Toughest Test

The Newfoundland Growlers have been the top team in the North seemingly every year, but they'll face an improved division with veteran standouts all over.

Oct 17, 2023 by Justin Cohn

The North Division proved last season that a coach need not have a ton of head-coaching experience to be successful.

The Reading Royals, Maine Mariners and Adirondack Thunder each qualified for the postseason with first-time head coaches, James Henry, Terrence Wallin and Pete MacArthur, respectively. The Worcester Railers, under Jordan Lavalee-Smotherman, barely missed the postseason. 

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Even the cellar-dwelling Norfolk Admirals showed progress after Jeff Carr, who took over in November, got his roster in shape.

With more experience behind most of the benches, the North Division looks as if it’ll be more competitive than it’s been in years. Especially as teams try to solve the Newfoundland Growlers, who have won the regular-season division championships three times since joining the league in 2018 and have won a Kelly Cup. 

The Growlers, who lost last season to the eventual-champion Florida Everblades in the conference finals, have a first-time head coach themselves this season with Matt Cooke, whose hire was announced Oct. 7 after an eerily quiet offseason of news for Growler fans.

Here’s a team-by-team look at the North Division’s teams as training camps open.

Adirondack Thunder

Last season: 32-29-11, 4th in division, lost in division semifinals

Coach: Pete MacArthur, 2nd season

NHL affiliation: New Jersey Devils

AHL affiliate: Utica Comets

Of note: The Thunder was one of the ECHL’s feelgood stories last season, squeaking into the playoffs in the final weekend of the regular season before falling in the first round of the playoffs to the Newfoundland Growlers … Re-signing forward Patrick Grasso was a great way to build off the momentum; he had 37 goals and 59 points in 64 games last season … Forward Shawn Weller is returning for what will be his last season in professional hockey. He was an alternate captain last season and a big presence in front of the net. He’s got over 700 games of pro experience and has won the Thunder’s community service award. He scored 14 goals last season on 53 shots for an ECHL-best shooting percentage of 26.4% … Ryan Wheeler was a nice under-the-radar signing for the Thunder; the defenseman had 12 points and 51 penalty minutes in 66 games with the Iowa Heartlanders and Cincinnati Cyclones … Andy Willis, a forward, is a compelling story: A year and a half ago, he was playing club hockey at Lindenwood University, then made the roster as Lindenwood went to NCAA Division I. After totaling eight goals and 23 points in 26 games, he signed with the Fort Wayne Komets and had one goal and six points in 10 games. He could add some offensive punch to the Thunder lineup.

Maine Mariners

Last season: 42-27-3, 3rd in division, lost in division semifinals

Coach: Terrence Wallin, 2nd season

NHL affiliation: Boston Bruins

AHL affiliate: Providence Bruins

Of note: Forward Reid Stefanson is back after a breakout rookie season that saw him score 22 goals and 48 points in 69 games. He was plus-22 … Speaking of rookies, forward Brooklyn Kalmikov signed with the Mariners after a season with the Wheeling Nailers that saw him total 23 goals and 52 points in 66 games … Chase Zieky, a forward, played with Greenville, Wheeling and Maine last season. With the Mariners, he had seven goals and 14 points in 23 games … Forward Cole Dubinsky, a 20-year-old rookie, was a productive player in the Western Hockey League for Prince George; he had 16 goals and 25 points in just 29 games last season, after he joined them from Regina, where he teamed with this year’s NHL rookie sensation Connor Bedard … Goalie Cole Ceci played last season for York University and was 6-8-1 with a 3.35 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and one shutout. His older brother, Cody, is a defenseman with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.  

Newfoundland Growlers

Last season: 48-22-2, 1st in division, lost in conference finals

Coach: Matt Cooke, 1st season

NHL affiliation: Toronto Maple Leafs

AHL affiliate: Toronto Marlies

Of note: The Growlers have had great success since joining the league in 2018: They won the Kelly Cup that season; led the division when the 2019-20 season was cancelled; didn’t participate in 2020-21; then lost in the conference finals to the eventual-champion Florida Everblades the last two seasons … Last season’s coach, Eric Wellwood, left early in the summer to become an assistant coach with the Marlies. It was then a frustratingly quiet offseason for the Growlers’ fans, as almost no signings or hockey operations changes were announced before October … Cooke, 45, who was announced as the new coach Oct. 7, played more than 1,000 NHL games with Vancouver, Washington, Pittsburgh and Minnesota, winning a Stanley Cup with the Penguins … Adam Pardy, who played 342 NHL games, was named development coach … Marcus Power, who played three seasons with the Growlers, was hired as hockey operations coordinator. The Growlers said Power “will support the team in various areas, including player evaluations, scouting, logistics, and the overall player development process.” … Todd Skirving is back after a season of 31 goals and 58 points in 70 games. … Newfoundland is typically beefed up with players from the Maple Leafs and Marlies, and this season should be no exception.

Norfolk Admirals

Last season: 21-46-5, 7th in division, missed playoffs

Coach: Jeff Carr, 1st full season

NHL affiliation: Winnipeg Jets

AHL affiliate: Manitoba Moose

Of note: Carr was the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Coach of the Year in 2021-22. He was an assistant with the Admirals until Rod Taylor left the position in November, 2022. And things are looking up under Carr, whose team finished last season on a 14-17-2 run. Not surprisingly, the Admirals brought back several key players who led the improved play, such as forwards Ryan Foss, who had 16 goals and 45 points in 64 games; Danny Katic, who had 18 goals and 40 points in 67 games; and Stepan Timofeyev, who had 17 goals and 37 points in 43 games … Forward Keaton Jameson, who stood out for the Utah Grizzlies in last season’s playoffs, was a key acquisition. … The defense should be much improved … The Admirals are poised to get more prospects sent their way with the new affiliation with the Jets. The Admirals also have a less-formal working agreement with their former NHL affiliate, the Carolina Hurricanes, who no longer have an AHL affiliate because the Chicago Wolves went independent. A number of players currently under contract with Carolina have already been sent to Norfolk. 

Reading Royals

Last season: 41-25-6, 2nd in division, lost in division finals

Coach: James Henry, 2nd season

NHL affiliation: Philadelphia Flyers

AHL affiliate: Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Of note: Mason McCarty was a key offseason signing. A prolific junior scorer, who had 38 goals and 74 points in 69 games for the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels in 2017-18, he’s since played for Acadia University and two ECHL teams. He skated 43 games with the Kalamazoo Wings last season and totaled 13 goals and 25 points … Forward Tyson Fawcett, who has played for eight ECHL teams, is back with the Royals after four seasons overseas with the Manchester Storm. He accrued 41 goals and 88 points in 168 games with the Storm … Goaltender Nolan Maier is back; he was 12-8-3 with a 2.89 goals-against average and a .892 save percentage. He also played nine games in the AHL with Lehigh Valley … Goaltender Pat Nagle retired … Forward Kyle Olson joins the Royals after three seasons with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He had one goal, six points and 55 penalty minutes in 55 games last season with the Penguins … Defenseman Adam Brubacher, who was with Fort Wayne last season on an AHL contract, signed with Reading last week … Not including 2020 when there were no playoffs, and 2021 when the Royals didn’t participate, Reading has missed the postseason only once since 2009 and that was in 2019. In that span, the Royals won the Kelly Cup in 2013 and have captured four regular-season division titles. 

Trois-Rivières Lions

Last season: 29-40-3, 6th in division, missed playoffs

Coach: Ron Choules, 1st season

NHL affiliation: Montreal Canadiens

AHL affiliate: Laval Rocket

Of note: Pascal Rhéaume, who had been named head coach and general manager of the Lions in June, left the team later in the summer to become an assistant coach with the AHL’s Bridgeport Islanders. Now, Choules takes over as coach and GM in Trois-Rivières. He formerly coached in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Acadie-Bathurst, Cape Breton and Shawinigan … Mathieu Brodeur, a former Lions player, who also helped the Fort Wayne Komets to the 2021 Kelly Cup, has retired and taken on an assistant-coaching position with the Lions … Matthew Boucher, a new Lions forward, can be an elite ECHL scorer, as he proved in 2020-21 with the Utah Grizzlies, totaling 25 goals and 52 points in 59 games … Brycen Martin was a big pickup for the blue line; he’s skated for seven other ECHL teams and had two goals and 13 points in 53 games last season with the Grizzlies … Forward Justin Ducharme had 14 goals and 33 points in 43 games last season with the Idaho Steelheads.

Worcester Railers

Last season: 34-34-4, 5th in division, missed playoffs

Coach: Jordan Lavallee-Smotherman, 2nd season

NHL affiliation: New York Islanders

AHL affiliate: Bridgeport Islanders

Of note: Blade Jenkins had eight goals and 23 points in just 21 games last season with the Railers, while also skating 26 AHL games with Bridgeport … Blue-collar forward Keegan Howdeshell was a big pickup after totaling 12 goals and 28 points in 55 games last season with the Kansas City Mavericks … Anthony Repaci had 27 goals and 54 points in 58 games last season with the Railers, and he’s back in the fold … A big acquisition was forward Zach White, who was the Iowa Heartlanders’ leading scorer last season with 40 points, including 20 goals, in 71 games … Forward Andrei Bakanov is back with the Railers after splitting time last season between them and the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds. He had four goals and 11 points in 35 games with Worcester. He played in the Kontinental Hockey League from 2020 to 2022 … Forward Blake Christensen has 26 goals and 51 points in 71 Worcester games over the past two seasons.