The 2022-23 FPHL season has come to an end with the Danbury Hat Tricks being crowned Commissioners Cup champions, after they came back from being down two games to none to defeat the Carolina Thunderbirds in overtime in Game Five. Now all eyes turn to the offseason and in the minor leagues, there is rarely a dull moment. Just because the season is over doesn't mean there still won't be plenty of news, moves and rumors around the FPHL.
The first order of business will be finalizing what teams will take part in the 2023-24 season, and currently that is in a state of flux. The Delaware Thunder are out, at least in Harrington, where Delaware State Fairgrounds officials have essentially told the team, "we don't want you here", much to the chagrin of their diehard fanbase. More detailed information about the Delaware decision can be found here. There is also trouble in Elmira, where the Mammoth are now involved in a dispute with the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, who is in the process of terminating their lease with the franchise to play at First Arena. You can read all about that situation here. If neither of those teams are returning, that drops the number of teams to eight, but what about expansion?
So far, we know Baton Rouge is in, the franchise has officially been announced and is listed as one of next season's teams on the FPHL website. Wytheville, Virginia is also apparently in. They are listed as a future market on the FPHL site, and in a league press release today, the franchise was named as joining the league for this coming season. There are also rumors buzzing that Danville, Illinois could be returning to the Fed after the complete debacle that was the SPHL's Vermilion County Bobcats. Conditions could be right for a return of the Danville Dashers who were in the league from 2011 to the end of the 2019-20 season. But this is still in the rumor stage, nothing has officially been said one way or the other. If Delaware and Elmira are out, the league is back to ten teams next season with the addition of Baton Rouge and Wytheville. Time will tell how this shakes out.
So all this uncertainty leaves the exact date of the upcoming Expansion Draft up in the air, you certainly won't find any information about it searching online. But, we do know there will be one, and we do know that each team is allowed to protect fifteen players, so turning things back to the subject of this blog, how does this affect the Motor City Rockers? That came to light today when the league announced which players each team, including Elmira but excluding Delaware, are protecting for the 2023-24 season. So let's take a look at the Rockers fifteen protected players.
Ross Bartlett - It's easy to forget about Bartlett as he only played in seventeen games for the Rockers before getting the call up to Huntsville of the SPHL right after the New Year. Unfortunately, he only played in five games with the Havoc before suffering a season-ending injury, but when you look at what he did in his seventeen games in Motor City, it's easy to see why he was protected. Bartlett scored seven goals to go along with twelve assists, a point a game forward. His 58 penalty minutes also shows he plays with grit, he'd be a welcome addition back to the Rockers lineup next season.
Trevor Babin - As much of a no-brainer as it gets, the team's number one goalie and one of the best in the Fed. The only question with Babin is does he get a shot at a higher league? If he does, it's much deserved, but either way you have to protect his rights if you're Motor City.
Tommy Cardinal - Cardinal finished second on the team in penalty minutes, but also was one of four twenty-goal scorers on the Rockers. You can never have enough forwards who can put the puck in the net, but also aren't afraid to get their nose dirty.
Scott Coash - Like Babin, another player that certainly is deserving of a shot at a higher league. Coash led the Rockers in goals with forty and points with 72. As natural a goal scorer as you'll find in the FPHL, if he's returning to the league, thankfully it will be here.
Josh Colten - The big defenseman is one of the anchors on the blueline for Motor City and finished tied for fifth in points on the team.
Declan Conway - Centering the top line with Coash and usually Connor Inger, this was another easy choice. Conway finished second on the team in goals with 27 and points with 52.
Roman Gaudet - The Flat Rock native, and biggest forward on the team, finished seventh in points with 33, and also wasn't afraid to mix it up and use his size.
Connor Inger - Another local player from Macomb, Inger joined the team in mid-January, only playing in 29 games, yet finishing tied for eighth in points with 31. It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers he can put up in a full season, especially if he remains on the first line with Conway and Coash.
Nicholas Magill-Diaz - Clawson's own came home to join the Rockers in mid-December after starting the season in the SPHL with Vermilion County and Quad City. He was a welcome addition to the defense corps, just a steady defenseman who also will throw his body around.
Derek Makimaa - The Swartz Creek native impressed in his first season of professional hockey, finishing third on the team in goals with 22 and tied for fifth in points with 41. Another big forward who isn't afraid to get physical, one of the anchors of the second line.
Tim Perks - Hailing from Oxford, Perks is a fan favorite, I hear people shouting his name at games all the time. The hard working forward is also one of the quicker players on the team and he chipped in seven goals and seventeen points in 33 games.
Brad Reitter - At 5'7", 170, Reitter is on the smaller side, but do not let his size fool you. Like Perks, another speed demon who also wound up third on the team in points with 47. The Grand Rapids native made it easy to protect his rights.
Dante Suffredini - Along with Colten, another rock on the blueline who had to be kept. Suffredini also led the team in assists with 36 and finished fourth in points with 44. And he's another local guy.
Elias Thompson - Every team in the Fed needs toughness and at this level of hockey, every team needs that one designated tough guy. Elias fills that role perfectly. He's also quickly becoming kind of a folk hero to the fanbase with his heavyweight bouts and post-fight celebrations. His 138 penalty minutes led the team, but the fact he chipped in three goals and six points in such a limited role tells me "Big Sexy" has a lot more to give on the ice with increased playing time.
Danny Vanderwiel - The former Plymouth Whaler joined the Rockers in late November and by the time 2023 rolled around, was named team captain and a player/assistant coach. His sixteen points in 28 games were a big contribution as well.
With those fifteen players protected, that means the rest of the roster is not and is available to the expansion teams at the time of the draft. Let's take a quick look at the players who were not protected.
Ricardo Gonzalez - The rookie goaltender joined the Rockers at the end of March and saw 42 minutes of action. Given his status, I'm honestly not even sure if his rights needed to be protected. I'll try to get this clarified.
Dylan Johnson - Another player you might have forgotten about, Johnson joined Motor City at the beginning of December, popped in six goals and added five assists in just seven games, then was recalled to Birmingham of the SPHL, where he spent the rest of the season picking up thirty points in 38 games. More than likely, he wasn't coming back to the Motor City next season.
Cade Lambdin - This was the biggest surprise for me as Lambdin is another fan favorite. The undersized forward busts his tail every shift, blocking shots with reckless abandon and is not afraid to mix it up or get under the skin of any player on the opposing team. However, it's hard to argue with any of the fifteen protected. Unfortunately Lambdin may be playing elsewhere next season, but I'm certainly hoping a deal is worked out for him to return.
Jameson Milam - After former Red Wing Ian White signed in the ECHL, Milam was a welcome veteran presence on the blueline. He joined Motor City in late January and was a +22 while also contributing four goals with that booming slapshot of his and six assists. Milam has played at higher levels most of his career, but at 39 he might be ready to hang up the skates. And even if he is not, the Lake Orion native is not likely looking to play far away from home at this stage.
Cody Oakes - Oakes joined the Rockers in mid-December after starting the year in Carolina, appearing in eighteen games and contributing eight points. But he is one of those players on the bubble when you look at who was protected, he just wasn't going to supplant any of those fifteen.
Nick Papandrea - Much like Oakes, Papandrea is another player who just didn't play enough to warrant being protected over the fifteen who were. Papandrea bounced around quite a bit in the 2022-23 season, seeing some time with Quad City of the SPHL and playing for Carolina, Elmira, Watertown and Motor City in the Fed. He joined the Rockers in March but only saw action in five late season games.
Travis Ridgen - The You-Tuber/podcaster/self-promoting Ridgen never really got much of a shot here, but credit to Trav, he has championed Trevor Babin as the best goaltender in the FPHL consistently on his podcast and social media. He knows it would be foolish to complain about not playing over Babin. Ridgen played in just 44 minutes before a season-ending knee injury took him out of the picture, but he did win one game for the Rockers, a wild 7-6 victory over Watertown in October, after he had to take over for Babin who was tossed from the game for fighting.
Ryan Rotondi - The Port Huron native signed with the Rockers on three separate occasions during the season and I was always impressed with his solid play on the blueline. In thirty games, Rotondi scored three goals and added five assists and also spent 41 minutes in the penalty box, always willing to take part in the physical side of the game.
Blake Scott - Scott won the backup goalie battle and, at times, stepped in admirably when Babin was out, either due to suspension or illness. Scott went 11-5-2 in net, with a 3.69 GAA and .898 save percentage. He stood on his head in a shutout over Port Huron as well. But with Babin firmly the number one here, it's tough to use two spots on goaltenders and Scott did struggle at times letting in untimely goals, especially during a rough road trip to Mississippi in February after Babin was suspended. Scott was a solid backup, but my assumption is the team is looking for an upgrade.
Mike Winn - Another bit of a surprise, although Winn did miss a good portion of the season due to injury. Once he returned in March though, he was on the blueline every night logging a lot of ice time. On the depth chart, he fell behind Colten, Suffredini and Magill-Diaz who were protected. It will be interesting to see where Ann Arbor's Winn lands.
Before the protected list was announced, I had made my own best guess at the fifteen players Motor City would retain, and I was spot on with one exception. I had Cade Lambdin instead of Ross Bartlett, not knowing Bartlett's status. You really cannot argue with who was protected, and one important note for fans who may be upset about a certain player who was not. A lot can happen between now and the start of the regular season. Deals are made, players are left unprotected because teams know they won't sign elsewhere, or have no intention to even play next season in some veteran's cases. Just because a player is unprotected above, does not necessarily mean they won't be wearing a Motor City Rockers jersey come next season. On the other side of that coin, just because they were protected doesn't mean these fifteen are a lock to be there when the season starts. As I mentioned, players will be looking for opportunities in higher leagues, or maybe even overseas. A lot happens in the offseason with player movement in minor league hockey and I'll be here to chronicle all of it involving the Rockers from now until opening faceoff in October.