The Mid-Atlantic Division of the USPHL Elite Conference was, in 2021-22, a fantastic spectacle thanks in large part to the first-year Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights completely upsetting the apple cart from the beginning. Not only did they finish at the top of the division in their inaugural season, they were also just one point off of winning the league (a feat their first-year USPHL Premier counterparts achieved).
Even still, they had tough draws every time they faced teams like the Rockets Hockey Club and Jersey Hitmen, while the New York Aviators always field a plucky, youth-driven squad they are preparing for full-time Premier duty. This year, the Elmira Jr. Enforcers and P.A.L. Jr. Islanders jump into the pool to make this a six-team division for the first time since the inaugural season of its current state, 2017-18.
Order is 2021-22 Points
The Knights Elite team had some fantastic promotions from their team last year, maybe none more notable than seeing their first-year head coach Ryan Secor hired as an assistant coach by the Madison Capitols of the USHL.
Dominick Manochio steps up to the bench after previously coaching with the Jersey Hitmen Premier squad. He is excited for leading the Knights in Year 2 and putting in the work to defend their division title and subsequent Nationals berth.
“We are very excited to build off the success that last season’s team earned. Understanding that nothing will be given to us has been a big strength for our motivated group,” said Manochio. “We plan on playing with pace, skill and intensity. [We have] a lot of new faces in the locker room, yet the team-first culture has picked up right where it left off.”
The Knights will lean heavily on returning players such as ‘02 forward J.T. Campbell, a fourth-year junior and second-year Knight who scored 35 points last year, and also saw a five-game call-up to the Premier Knights. Additionally, junior veterans Geo Grano and Shimizu, Japan’s own Ryo Yamamoto, joining from the NA3HL, will provide leadership through experience.
Manochio said the team is excited for newcomers Aidan Darlington (an ‘04 from a strong Mount St. Charles Academy AAA team), Jonathan Meijer (an ‘03 Swedish import from the Maine Nordiques NAPHL squad) and Max Kontir (an ‘03 forward from the New Jersey Jr. Titans’ NAPHL squad).
“We are excited for the competition our division provides, as it is crucial for postseason preparation,” said Manochio. “Having two Mid-Atlantic teams make the national semifinals along with a few others that were right there, it’s a battle night in and night out for us this season.”
The Hitmen return with hopes of returning to the Nationals, to which they made a trip in 2021. Head Coach Jim Raymond is passionate about working with the Hitmen’s (typically) youngest junior players and molding them into future Premier and potentially NCDC or college hockey players. He is bringing that dedication to both the Elite and Premier teams, leading the charge for both the Hitmen’s Tier III teams.
“We’ll be young but aggressive and strong,” Raymond said of his Elite team. “We have a large group of returners. Those guys know what to expect and what’s coming down the pike. They will also be given chances to play on the Premier side as well.”
Up front, the Hitmen will be boosted by the return of ‘05 forwards Nicholas Cioce and Eddie Asante, and ‘04 J.T. Verdino, who bring back a total of 58 points, with Cioce’s 35 points last year leading the way on the offensive side.
“Nicholas was our top scoring forward, we’re expecting a great year from Eddie Asante and and it should also be a breakout year for J.T. Verdino,” said Raymond.
Also returning are goalie Matthew Carter and defenseman Matt DiCarlo. Carter had the fourth-best save percentage in the league last year at .933 and DiCarlo was impressive at both ends, posting 12 points on the season.
Devin England, an ‘04 from the New York Saints AAA program, is a promising newcomer at the forward position. Aidan Marom, a late ‘05, was “probably the youngest guy at the USPHL Spring Pre-Draft, and he just made things happen for us all weekend.”
On defense, Michael Wilson will line up with DeCarlo. Wilson, an ‘05 promotion from last year’s 16U Hitmen team, is “a big, strong tall defenseman with a great nose for the net and he’s happy to block shots and get in the corners.”
Along with Carter, the strong net trio also includes ‘04 Lucas Holland and ‘05 Matt Barnard.
“Lucas was an excellent goaltender on the Jersey Whalers last year, so he’s a veteran of the division,” said Raymond. “With a full squad in front of him, he should have a good year. Barnard is tall, lanky and he had the best goals against average of any goalie in our NCDC Main Camp.”
Rockets Hockey Club
The Rockets were able to get past the Hitmen in the playoffs after a three-game set – and on an OT goal at that – and on to the Nationals for the second straight year. Head Coach Todd Wagenbach is delighted to have back so many of the players who made last year such a success back again – including both players who assisted on the series-winning goal against the Hitmen – Louis David and Mid-Atlantic All-Star E.J. Gleie.
Gleie, an ‘04 from Chester, N.J., had a goal and two assists in the series-deciding game last year and 36 points overall. He leads a talented offensive crew along with David (an ‘04 from Mountainside, N.J.) – both are in their third year as Rockets. Additionally, the Rockets welcome back ‘04’s Joseph Polacek, Connor Gleason, ‘03 Jackson Lehman, and ‘02’s Jack Moskowitz and Anthony Triano.
“Our defensive corps is fairly new, but I have a number of guys who have been with me three years now,” said Wagenbach. “We’ll be similar to how we were last year, but maybe a little older. We have a fully local, New Jersey team, with no billets.”
Two of the top newcomers include John Crowdell and Michael Grima, both ‘03’s who came up from the Rockets’ 18UAA squad. Also coming up from within the program is former 16U Rocket Gavin Jacobi, who helped his team win the USPHL 16U American Division Championship last winter in his second season with that team.
Wagenbach is happy with the team he has coming to battle, and is excited with the new six-team Mid-Atlantic Division.
“WBS, they do things right, even with advancing Secor to Madison in the USHL. I expect P.A.L. to be good this year. The Hitmen will be structured and young, the Aviators are always young and feisty and very good,” said Wagenbach. “Six is good – it mixes the schedule up a bit, and I’m excited that we have a couple series with the [defending National Champion] Richmond Generals. We go to Richmond in November and they come to New Jersey in January.”
New York Aviators
The Aviators always seem to be a tough draw for teams, especially when looking at the fact they beat the Hitmen and Rockets multiple times last year and also dragged the WBS Knights into overtime once and also a shootout once. They even went to overtime and took a loss in the extra session against National finalists the Northern Cyclones.
Although they were not able to get over the .500 mark last year, the Aviators Elite team has become well known for putting out young and feisty teams, averaging about 18-½ years old the last couple years.
Another characteristic of Aviators teams are their later starts while they mold their teams into readiness while other teams have already jumped into games. This campaign marks the second time in three years they will not play a September game. In fact, the Aviators will make their season debut on Oct. 14, so as of this writing, there were still a lot of roster decisions to be made. Thus, the crystal ball is very hazy for 2022-23 where the Aviators Elite team is concerned.
Elmira Jr. Enforcers
The Elmira Jr. Enforcers, members of the USPHL Premier since 2020, have expanded their organization into the USPHL Elite as a means of developing players for their Premier squad and also for higher levels of hockey such as Tier II juniors and college. They make their Elite debut on Saturday, Sept. 24, with the first of two games against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.
“The Elite level is full of a bunch of great programs with young and hardworking talent,” said Head Coach Matthew Maniglia. “We are super-excited to add to that a team of young players who are looking to get their start at the junior level. Coming into the division with a younger group of players, we do expect there to be some growing pains at first as players get used to the level, but we have also brought in a strong leadership core and veteran group that will help in the younger players’ transition to juniors.
“I think our team has a good balance of size, skill, and physicality, being accompanied by really strong goaltending,” added Maniglia.
The Jr. Enforcers will lean heavily upon Elite veteran and ‘04 defenseman Caden Roe, who comes in with a season of experience in the league. Max Green and Ryan Graney, both ‘03’s, “have been established junior goalies.”
The Jr. Enforcers have brought in “great young talent, from local guys to players from all over North America” to build the new squad. Watch for ‘05’s Korbin Ruby and Owen Munley and ‘04 Nick Burge to help guide the squad with their skill sets.
“There are key players who I think will help in the development of our program and hockey in
the community of Elmira,” Maniglia said.
He is excited to start in the Mid-Atlantic Division with such established organizations as the Knights, Hitmen, Rockets and Aviators.
“The junior hockey season is always a grind and in the Mid-Atlantic Division I don’t expect anything less,” added Maniglia. “This division is strong top to bottom with teams built with speed and skill. Every night is going to be a hard, competitive game and we are looking forward to competing against these teams every game.”
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
An organization that had previously fielded an Elite squad has returned to the fold to aid in the development of players coming mostly out of their AAA program to transition into full-season junior hockey.
“I think we have a good group that has been in the P.A.L. for a while, as well as kids from AAA in various organizations,” said Asst. General Manager Rob Antonucci, who will be working closely with Head Coach Aleksey Nikiforov in building up the first-year squad. “We feel that the Elite can be a bench from which to build out our Premier and also our NCDC teams. We can internally give players a path to junior hockey.”
The Jr. Islanders will field a team mostly made up of ‘05’s and three 06’s who “are big, super players and also very fast.”
The P.A.L. brought in Jacob Huang, a Beijing-born forward who played for the P.A.L.’s 18U AAA squad last year, and averaged nearly a point per game at that level. Additionally, keep an eye on ‘06 Peter Allen, a defenseman who has come up through the P.A.L. youth program, playing last year with the Jr. Isles’ 15U team, along with the other ‘06 forward Sean Antonucci. Peter Petito and Angelo Coschignano move up from the USPHL 16U Jr. Isles squad, as well as James Clifford who clicked at better than two points per game for that team.
C.J. Lucente is a talented ‘05 goalie joining the organization, and twins Dylan and Jacob Quinn are also ‘05’s who bear watching.
“At this age group of ‘06’s and ‘05’s, we’ve always battled well with the Rockets and Hitmen. We’ve clipped them and they’ve clipped us,” said Antonucci. “Some of the players who played youth hockey against each other are now playing juniors against each other.”