2023 Fall Season Preview

The NAIHL is gaining steam and seeing more parity as it enters its third season

FALL 2023 - SEASON PREVIEW

Aaron Froats

8/23/20239 min read

The Nolensville Adult Ice Hockey League saw their D League division double in size as it expanded from four teams to eight entering the 2023 Summer season. The league solidified its stance on aggressive play and violent interactions, faced obstacles with failing ice conditions, and ultimately composed an official set of league rules adopted by the captains. In addition, Commissioner Jason Pepperack met his own challenges head on: Running the league remotely from Finland for a handful of weeks, addressing over-skilled rosters mid-season, and navigating moving the league to its own legal entity to preserve its ongoing welfare. The end result was an impressive product completing its second full season and gaining momentum heading into the fall.

As the league continues to add amenities during its growth, such as a league website, consistent scorekeeping and officiating, and aims to introduce live video feeds and on demand review as well as a league mobile app, the NAIHL is gaining steam in the middle Tennessee adult ice hockey market. As far as what to expect heading into this opening week of the Fall season, let’s take a look at each of the teams as they begin the new campaign:

Puck Buddies

The Puck Buddies stormed on to the NAIHL D League scene in Summer 2023 with a 7-2 win against fellow expansion team Your Mother in Law, but really made an impression when they put up a pair of touchdowns against the Woollies in the second week. By week 4, they had three wins of 5 or more goals and firmly had a target on their back.

After strict review by the Commissioner, the roster was modified but the Puck Buddies continued to move forward with a squad that proved to be a fierce opponent each time they touched the ice. Carrying only two losses into the playoffs, the Puck Buddies went on to win the Summer crown amidst swirling reports of an impending locker room shift.

The shift is now in place, with Dylan Brady moving on and both Stephen Von Heyking and Steven Martinez both placed on the reserve roster. Reports in from the Commissioner’s office is that the team is under a team-specific guideline where the pair may not appear in the same game for the Puck Buddies in the fall. While this would appear to spell a significant blow to the reigning champs, they also made a change in net. Brody Greif, possibly the most consistent goaltender in the league and 2023 Spring champion, will be policing the pipes going forward. Look for the Puck Buddies to be a strong contender for a repeat on the back of goal differential as it is expected the goals scored will go down, but the addition of Greif will also keep the goals against in check in return.

Norse

The Norse were one game away from taking the title in both of the first two seasons of the NAIHL D League, falling just short to the Puck Buddies in an uncharacteristic lopsided final. The team held the top regular season record, finishing without a regulation defeat. The Norse have stayed mostly intact moving into the Fall campaign, which means their sound fundamental play that has stifled opponents for close to six months now will be ever present. The question mark will be the play of new netminder Kevin Clayton, who will take the place of Brody Greif in the crease.

The Summer runner-ups will get an expected tune-up game to ease Clayton into the action as they open the season against the Woollies, but will immediately run head-on into the Puck Buddies and their former goalie in the second week. That game will surely be a measuring stick on how quickly Clayton will be able to step up for the big game. Nevertheless, the Norse can’t be counted out for reacquiring the title when the calendar turns over to November.

Renegades of Puck

The Renegades of Puck opened up the 2023 Summer season in a similar vein to the Puck Buddies, as they drew the new and inexperienced Woollies in the opening week, leading to a 10-1 victory. Their rostered goalie left after the first game and the Renegades made do with a collection of substitute goaltenders in the next three games, all of which needed extra time to complete. After playing two of those games against the Classics, captain Charlie Saunier sought assistance from netminder Aaron Froats to get them through the remainder of the season. The Renegades would go 3-3 to close out the regular season schedule but showed continued growth in team chemistry heading into the playoffs. Unfortunately, double-duty between the Classics and Renegades appeared to take its toll on Froats and they were bounced after a disappointing showing against the Puck Buddies in round two.

However, the team has now secured the goaltending services of Froats full-time heading into the Fall schedule and has promoted substitute utility man Al Zarembski and sniping blue-liner Brandon Adams to regular roster spots. They will also be taking complete advantage of Jon Bellucci’s increased availability at the first-line center position. Question marks for the Renegades will be the adjustments made on defense as they will see two of their stalwart blue-liners, Brad Bartlett and Ben Brinton, moving to a part-time capacity. That will leave Saunier, along with Dustin Poole and Tom Buysee, to fill in the gaps while likely utilizing Adams as the fourth point man and Zarembski as needed. If the Renegades can get consistent play across the roster, including seeing Froats return to league-leading form, they could be a dark horse to thieve the 2023 Fall trophy.

Classics

The Classics began the season with four straight one-goal losses, all against the eventual top three postseason seeds, with only one completed in regulation. Afterwards, their perseverance began to bear fruit and the squad appeared to hit their stride mid-season, climbing up to the fourth seed culminating with an eight-round shootout win against Your Mother in Law. Their postseason run carried their momentum with a win in round one utilizing only eight skaters, but it looked like the Classics fell victim to the same unfortunate circumstance of goaltender Aaron Froats simply running out of steam and causing their quest for the crown cut short after the second round.

Moving forward, the team will look to continue to build on their budding chemistry while introducing some new components. Forward Kendall Oziminski broke out towards the end of the season, pocketing two goals in the postseason. Along with Jordan Kiss and Rob Kotulak, the Classics may end up having one of the most oppressive first lines in the league. What to watch for will be the adjustments needed in the back end of the roster. The Classics will be overhauling almost their entire sub list, which they utilized on a regular basis in the Summer, as well as welcoming a new goaltender in Woollies netminder Omar Soliman, who will be pulling double-duty. New captain Brent Morris will have the challenging task of making sure his goalie doesn’t fall victim to the same fatigue issue come November that struck his goalie in the Summer. If Soliman is able to remain fresh enough come late Fall, look for the Classics to secure a playoff spot once again and make life miserable for the other teams with their lockdown neutral zone play, which could lead to a surprise spot in the finals.

Your Mother in Law

The third sister in the hockey organizational triplets, Your Mother in Law had a name preceding their first ice time in the league. The third of four expansion teams, YML was expected, by sheer virtue of team chemistry, to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. It took them a couple games to get their footing, but once they did, the transition game of Your Mother in Law proved to be problematic for several teams in the thick of the regular season. Unfortunately, an untimely draw against Norse in Week 9, followed by a surging Classics team in Week 10 dropped them to the five-seed heading into August. As luck would have it, they drew the Classics for the second straight week and met an early exit after round one in a 5-3 loss.

Your Mother in Law are adding veteran Annie Roach to their ranks and relying on a consistent name on the back of the goalie’s sweater with Jessie Lapid guarding the crease full-time in the Fall. Lapid, who steadily improved in his new position in his appearance last season, may be feared as the most difficult goalie to crack as the pressure mounts. If he continues to shore up his fundamental positioning, specifically in his lateral game, one can expect to see Your Mother in Law in the mix come November. The team will need to capitalize on games where they are expected to win as they may have the most balanced schedule in terms of whom they face in back-to-back games, severely hampering the ability to go on a lengthy winning streak.

Tenacious D

Tenacious D may be the biggest enigma in the league. The team holds the talent to run away with a game if they get rolling, but conversely tend to struggle when they fall behind. There game results mirrored this as a 3-1 finish to the regular season helped right the ship after a four-game skid where they were outscored 25-6, but ultimately fell to the sixth seed with the Classics and Your Mother in Law in the driver’s seat in terms of controlling the seeding heading into Week 10. An unfortunate injury to utility blue-liner Curtis Word could have very well been the catalyst for the mid-season slump.

With Word healthy heading into the Fall, captain Caleb McKenney will be looking to leverage his fast offensive core led by himself, Word, Pavel Tolstov, and Ronan Morrison. Tenacious D will be cementing their goaltending role with Joel McGlothen and hoping to utilize their speed to keep the north-south game to a minimum. While the offensive front has been quick, where they fell short was facing speedy transitions and stretch passes. Provided the team is able to control the pace of the game, and allow McGlothen to set up and see incoming shots, they will likely hold their own playoff destiny in their hands this upcoming season.

Bobcats

The Bobcats seemed to struggle with their identity during the 2023 Summer Season. After a strong finish in the Spring session, it became difficult to pinpoint where the Bobcats were strong and where they needed improvement. At times, the play of Elijah Jarovich and Zach Turner would create a flash of dominant speed and puck control where it looked like the Bobcats could simply take over a game at will. However, in the blink of an eye, a broken play or a bad bounce would often see multiple goals hit the board against them. When push comes to shove, one could probably fall back on consistency, or lack thereof, as the culprit.

Consistency will need to be the primary objective of new captain Adam Leeds heading into the new campaign. Matt Rizzo has decided to take a step back and let Leeds take the reins, which may allow him to relax and become a third head to a Bobcat monster that could steal more games than many expect. Unfortunately, a late-hour departure by goaltender Brett Town has left uncertainty in the one position that needs to be as reliable as possible to make a bid for the postseason. The Bobcats are hoping to find a similar solution to the Renegades in the Summer season, but that may be difficult with Soliman already manning two nets and Froats publicly noting he is focusing on one team this season. Shoring up this hole is key to the success for the Bobcats this season.

Woollies

The Woollies were literally put together the week the Summer season began, dealing captain Jody Packer a pair of deuces or high card at best. To add insult to injury, the team faced the Renegades in week one, who had been practicing together for over 10 weeks, and then the eventual champs, Puck Buddies, in week two prior to their roster restructuring. Despite the 24-1 to drumming in the first two tilts, the Woollies kept pushing and developing team chemistry at an attempt to find their identity. By mid-season, the team had a respectable showing against the Norse in a 3-1 contest and even handed the Puck Buddies a shutout in Week 7.

The keys to success for the Woollies are built around the net front play of their defense in front of goalie Omar Soliman. The times where the team was most cohesive is when they defense was able to clear the front of the net and man the back door, providing Soliman with support to keep the team in the hunt. The Woollies are strong at transitioning out of their zone, so the timely net front presence typically results in scoring opportunities on the other end. With Scott Stormer and Packer leading the rush out into the neutral zone, and team with a full season under their belt, the Woollies can look to light the lamp much more this Fall season. As long as Packer and company can get consistent back end play and minimize turnovers in the neutral zone, they will ensure the league will see more parity this session.

The league opens up tonight with Tenacious D visiting the Renegades of Puck, a rematch of the round one faceoff a few weeks ago where the Renegades took the contest 5-3 on the back of a hat trick by Jon Bellucci. The key tonight will be the special teams play as Tenacious D was unable to capitalize on three different man advantages in their meeting. Elsewhere, Your Mother in Law will take the draw against the Classics for their third meeting in five weeks with the debut of new Classics netminder Omar Soliman tomorrow night. The Norse and Woollies will go toe-to-toe in a replay of week one from the Summer season, pitting Soliman in his second game of the night against new Norse goaltender Kevin Clayton. The night will conclude with the Puck Buddies and their retooled roster visiting the Bobcats where new captain Adam Leeds will look to kick off the season with a win.