The ever changing Asia League of Ice Hockey had another paradigm shift this past off season. They’re easier to sum up in point form, so here we go:
- Seibu Prince Rabbits are no more. The club has folded after finding no takers for its 5-oku yen (~$5m) annual team budget. With this, the league and Japanese hockey has lost their most powerful backer in the Seibu Group. The fallout from this catastrophic event saw former Seibu players becoming Seibu group employees, picked up by other Asia League teams, or moving to teams abroad.
- Tohoku Free Blades are born! In the place of Seibu, a new team based in the Tohoku region (north east part of the main Honshu island) has joined the league. This is something to be celebrated as times are tough for the entire corporate sports scene in Japan with various company teams folding, disbanding, and suspending operations and hockey being no exception. The Blades are backed by major sports equipment retailer Xebio.
- China Sharks are now the China Dragon. The Chinese entry in the Asia league has severed its ties with the NHL San Jose Sharks after only one season. The Sharks had provided coaching and players who were crucial to the Chinese team avoiding the league basement for the first time in the league’s short history. But the team is heading in a new direction with its Belarusian coach and fewer imports in order to train their domestic players (the Dragon are essentially the Chinese national team). It is unclear what the financial arrangements were when the San Jose Sharks were affiliated with the China Sharks and what brought about this change in direction.
- The league is shortening the playoffs to a best of 5 format instead of a best of 7 format that produced so much drama last season (bad move). Top 4 teams will make the playoffs instead of the top 5 (I liked the best of 3 play-in round between 4th and 5th place teams). It is also adopting IIHF rule changes that does not permit line changes for teams that committed icing, and also initial faceoffs on powerplays will take place in the offensive zone.
Now, let’s take a team by team look at the upcoming season in more detail:
Nippon Paper Cranes (21-4-11, Playoff Champions)
The defending champions from the 2008-09 season returns with a team largely unchanged. The Cranes have reduced the number of imports from two (Brad Tiley, Kelly Fairchild) to one (Pierre-Olivier Beaulieu) in order to save costs (Beaulieu has only ECHL and German 2nd division experience, thus should be considerably cheaper than the more experienced Tiley and Fairchild, but whether he’ll be able to contribute as much remains a question to be answered), and have also picked up national team member Daisuku Obara from Seibu. The amazing playoff run last season that capped off with the championship trophy was largely due to the outstanding goaltending of Hisashi Ishikawa who absolutely stood on his head in many postseason games. More of the same will be needed for the team to repeat as champions as the top of the league could be a logjam.
Anyang Halla (23-4-9, lost in semifinals)
In 2008-09 Halla became the first non-Japanese team to claim the regular season title. However, the team was unable to overcome the eventual champions Cranes despite having the home ice advantage in a tough 7 game series that went the distance (4 of the 7 games were 1 goal games). The core of the team is intact as Halla has done the previously unthinkable in the AL by inking their successful imports to multiyear deals (3 years for leading scorer Brock Radunske, 2 years each for Jon Awe and Brad Fast). With sniper Song Dong-Hwan back having a successful season (35GP 45P) after missing 2 seasons to military service, the team looks poised to avenge their playoff disappointment from the previous season.
Oji Eagles (22-4-10, lost in semifinals)
The Eagles have decided to really save on expenses by doing away entirely with imports for the upcoming season. Instead the team has added national team forwards and former Seibu players Sho Sato and Yosuke Kon (the AL and Team Japan pest, in the Esa Tikkanen mould, it’s a compliment). The production from veteran imports Ricard Persson and Shane Endicott will be missed, but with the parent company Oji Paper’s finances on shakier grounds with the economic downturn, the team will ice an all-Japanese squad this season (though the team still has a “ringer” in Japanese passport holding Japanese-Canadian Aaron Keller who is also a national team defenceman). It’s still a good team, especially with the addition of Sato and Kon, but it’s tough to see this team taking either the regular season title or the playoff trophy home with them.
High1 (13-4-19, lost in first round)
The High1 club had a disappointing 2008-09 season being unceremoniously swept out of the play-in first round of the playoffs against the eventual champs Cranes after a 5th place finish in the regular season where they were not in contention with the top 4 teams. The team looks to rebound to 2007-08 form when they finished 2nd in the regular season. The team has brought back Tim Smith who had a successful run from 2006-08 (63GP 106P) and has also brought in new imports D Jeremy Van Hoof and F Trevor Gallant. Along with their Korean rookies, the team has also added Japanese rookie Hiroki Ueno who scored 30 points in 24 games for Waseda University in the Kanto University League (top university league in Japan).
China Dragon (6-4-26, did not make the playoffs)
The ever changing Chinese entry in the Asia League will play as the China Dragon this season. The former China Sharks became the first team to send a non-Chinese team to the bottom of the standings last season largely in part to the excellent goaltending by NHL and AHL veterans Wade Flaherty (who won AL goalie of the year last season) and big, tough defenceman Steve McKenna, and the team showed the most discipline of any Chinese team in AL history by staying close in many games where they were blown out in the past (well, it may have been mostly due to Flaherty who played every game making 40+ saves per game with a 91.7% save percentage). The Dragon are allowed to have 7 imports on their roster, but intend on entering the season with only 3 or 4 imports in order to be less reliant on imports to better develop domestic players. The team is under the stewardship of experienced Belarusian Andrei Kovalev, and its imports haven’t been announced as of yet. Unless the team can sign a Flaherty-class goalie, look for China to sink back to the bottom of the league standings in the coming season. Oh yeah, and the new Dragon logo is totally underwhelming and uninspiring piece of bureaucratic art(?), don’t they have snazzy designers in Shanghai these days?
Nikko Ice Bucks (6-2-28, did not make the playoffs)
The Bucks had their worst season since AL begun by becoming the first non-Chinese team to finish the season at the bottom of the table. The interesting choice of using unproven import forwards Eric Lafreniere (34GP 10P) and Mickey Gilchrist (36GP 19P) did not quite work out, but this is the team that has experienced the most changes during the offseason. Firstly, the Bucks have brought in 6 former Seibu players including national team captain Takahito Suzuki and NT goalie Naoya Kikuchi, the addition of 3 quality defencemen is sure to bolster their game in the defensive zone, and the addition of Bud Smith gives the team flexibility with its top 6 forwards. With such a significant upgrade to their team, the Bucks are the wildcard in the 2009-10 season. If the team gels well, it could finish high in the standings and fight their way through the playoffs. Though a 2 year plan is probably more realistic.
Tohoku Free Blades (expansion team)
The unproven Blades take the place of powerhouse Seibu in the league. The team was created last year based on 14 players who made the cut in team tryouts. Then once the team was officially approved to join the league, the Blades went out and reinforced their lineup with Asia Leaguers and imports. It was a coup obtaining Bin Ishioka (36GP 18P) from Seibu and D Steve Munn and LW Bruce Mulherin have a good trackrecord in the English league the past couple of seasons and have proved to be solid additions to the team so far in the preseason. The goaltending duties will fall on homegrown Michio Hashimoto who got bumped from the Bucks when they acquired Kikuchi, but Hashimoto is capable of stealing some games and will keep the team in games where they have no business being in. The Blades will play most of their games in Hachinohe, Aomori, but will also play a series in Koriyama, Fukushima, another city in the Tohoku region.
Seibu Prince Rabbits aftermath: 6 players including Suzuki and Kikuchi have signed with the Bucks, Kon and Sho Sato have signed with Oji, the Cranes acquired Obara, Kashino and Ishioka went to Tohoku, Yuya Yamada to High1, and G Inoue who was to become the first Seibu player from the Seibu junior team has joined China. Players going overseas are Go Tanaka to German 2nd division team ESV Kaufbeuren, Ryuichi Kawai (along with his younger brother Takuma who is the first Japanese player to appear in the Memorial Cup) are training in Alberta in now-retired Ryan Fujita’s hometown of Taber, Alberta (also Devin Setoguchi’s hometown) and will be trying out for minor league teams, long time ALer Joel Prpic has signed with Medveščak, the Croatian entry in the EBEL (Austrian based international league), and is waiting for his Croatian passport (his parents are Croatian) to be processed and should start playing with them in October.
To say the least, this should be a very interesting Asia League season with so many changes to the league. I expect Halla to be the team to beat in the 2009-10 season, but the top of the standings could get very congested with the Cranes, Eagles, High1, and the Bucks all having a crack at it. Unless China can bring in a quality goalie, I expect the Dragon to be doormats once again, and the expansion Blades should finish ahead of them with Hashimoto in nets. And since the teams have only been playing preseason games in their respective regions (Hokkaido, Honshu, Korea, and China) probably to cut costs, so we are even more in the dark than usual regarding team strength and chemistry.
The season opens on 19 September with the Hokkaido teams hosting the Honshu teams and the Korean derby in Anyang. Let’s drop the puck!
PS This is exactly the 600th post on this blog, yay!