BOSTON, MA -- The long, scorching summer is finally coming to a close, which means hockey season is fast approaching. Starting on September 14th, the Eastern Hockey League and its Premier Division will begin the 2023-24 campaign, marking the league’s 11th season of operation.
With 39 teams in the mix, there are plenty of storylines to watch out for with the new season. Here’s a quick look at some things to watch for with the new EHL season.
The 2023 Frozen Finals ended with the Boston Jr. Rangers earning its second EHL championship in three seasons, and they now join the New Hampshire Avalanche as one of two active EHL franchises with multiple championships.
Several forwards who played big roles in last year’s championship run will return this season, including Tay Melis, James Berg, and Bret Beale. Most of their defenders and goaltenders, however, have aged out, including goaltender, and Frozen Finals MVP, David Filak. With a new-look team, the Jr. Rangers will look to reassert itself in the six-team East Division.
Similar to last season, the league will welcome in five new teams. Of the five teams coming in, four of them are joining the EHL; the Boston Jr. Terriers, the Bridgewater Bandits, Providence Hockey Club and the Pennsylvania Huntsmen. The Bandits will have teams at both levels, and the Huntsmen are adding an EHL team after a successful first season in the EHLP.
Last year’s batch of expansion teams proved to be competitive right from the get-go, and hopefully this year will be no different. The Bandits and Jr. Terriers will join the cluster of teams in Massachusetts and the grinder that is the East Division. Meanwhile, Providence Hockey Club will play in the Central and a chance to form an intrastate rival with second-year program H.C. Rhode Island. And based off the Huntsmen’s aforementioned success in the EHLP, their promotion to the EHL will mean another formidable component of the gauntlet known as the South Division.
The road to Providence will look a little different this season. The Central, East, and South Divisions all have six teams while the North has five. At the end of the regular season, the last place team in each division will be eliminated from playoff contention. That means the North Division will proceed with their top four teams, while the Central, East, and South will have a play-in game between the number four and five seeds, in order to get down to their own four remaining teams.
Looking at the EHLP, the New Jersey 87’s come into the 2023-24 campaign as defending champs, following a dramatic double-overtime victory against the Railers Jr. Hockey Club for its second title in three seasons.
It’s a safe bet to call them favorites for the Mid-Atlantic Division, but the Huntsmen could easily build off their strong first season while the Philadelphia Little Flyers will look to bounce back from their 2022-23 season. The Union Jr. Thunder will bring back several returning players including Hayden McGuigan, Ryan and Jeremy Siksnius, as well as Ryan Byington, as Union hopes to compete in a more crowded division this year.
Speaking of second-year teams, the Adirondack Jr. Thunder made a monstrous splash in the EHLP by going 30-6-6 in its inaugural season. They entered last year’s postseason as a favorite to win the Frozen Finals before they were swept in the first round by the New Hampshire Avalanche, including a heartbreaking loss in Game #2 where the series-clinching goal was scored with five seconds left in regulation.
While they lost key pieces such as Jack Merkosky, Andrew Blanchard, and Jack Randall, the Jr. Thunder will bring back returning players like forward Mack Ryan, defenseman Frank Klaus, and goaltender Andy Buser. Under the leadership of head coach Glen Merkosky, this is a team that can vault itself back on top of the New England Division and take the next big step in the postseason.
The EHLP Boston Division is back, and they now have six teams. The Bridgewater Bandits, who played in the Premier Division from 2015 to 2017, will return along with an EHL program. They will join the Boston Jr. Rangers, the Railers Jr. Hockey Club, the Seahawks Hockey Club, the Express Hockey Club, and the Valley Jr. Warriors.
Last season, the division was a battle between two heavyweights in the Jr. Rangers and Railers. The Seahawks, Jr. Warriors, and Express showed flashes of brilliance last year, including the Express’ near upset over the Jr. Rangers in the postseason. If any of those three teams can take a step forward, or if the Bandits hit the ground running this year, it can make for another fun division to keep an eye on.
All EHL and EHLP games will be streamed on Flohockey.tv this season. It all begins on Thursday morning as the defending EHL champion Jr. Rangers will take on the Seacoast Spartans at 11:00 a.m.
Anthony Di Paolo covers the EHL for HNIB and can be followed on Twitter @DiPaolo_016
Anthony Di Paolo has spent the last four seasons with the New Jersey 87's organization. Anthony's familiarity with the junior hockey landscape at the Tier II and Tier III levels provide him with a wealth of knowledge in covering our league showcases and events. In addition to writing features and player spotlights throughout the season, Anthony is a fixture on the weekly #EShow podcast.