Spartans 2023-2024

A wild year full of surprises is one for the ages, despite its early end.
by Sean Gallagher | May 30, 2024, 2:16 AM ET

The Regular Season

Heading into the new season, the Spartans roster looked, well, suspect. Some solid talent in some areas, some weak spots in others. Nothing indicated that success was on the near horizon. Most media and fans expected a team in transition type of year as management tried to make trades and offload some of the many, many (many) soon-to-be unrestricted free agents and pivot towards a younger, cheaper roster.

"Fair assessment," confirmed GM Gallagher, "At the start of the season I would have agreed that our lineup was going to look much different by the trade deadline."

But early changes were minimal, namely Evgeny Svechnikov and Brian Elliott acquired at the Waiver Draft. The Spartans are usually not quick to the trade block once new seasons start and this year's 16-8-1 start wasn't bad enough to panic sell nor good enough to bolster buy. That stretch was followed by a startling 0-4 run which likely had the general manager warming up his dialing fingers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the (trade) forum. Following a close loss to the Hamilton Steelhawks on January 24, 2024, St. Louis did not lose a game in regulation again until March 2nd. That close loss, at home to the Fredericton Express, bookended a stretch of 36 days and a record of 21-0-3, good for a season total of 37-8-4 and first place in a tough American Division. The team never relinquished the division lead after they took control of it during the streak.

"Personnel-wise, it created a dilemma for us," said Gallagher, "The team is playing well, morale is high, we're near the top of the standings. Is it fair to walk into that room and tell them we were trading some guys away? To tell them that the business side is truly more important than team success? To say, 'Sorry, fellas, but we had to move a top-performing veteran because he's unresrticted'? to them was just not a realistic choice to me.

"I felt they deserved the opportunity to see what happens with the group we had."

Down the stretch the team did trade for Ian Cole, yet another unrestricted free agent, though it was for picks only, preserving the roster chemistry. Sparta also added Teddy Blueger (an unrestricted free agent) as well as minor league goalie Devin Cooley off waivers.

The committment to the team and their home-grown success leaves the team with a long list of players who will leave via free agency this summer: T.J. Oshie, Blueger, Nikita Zaitsev, Robert Bortuzzo, Torey Krug, Cole, Matt Irwin and even long-time Spartan Kevin Shattenkirk. The team will also lose five UFAs from their farm team.

Phil Kessel and Brian Elliott have not made it official, but both will likely retire from the SICHL.

The Playoffs

When the regular season ended the Spartans were in second place in the World Conference and had won the American Division, despite a late season push from both the Seattle Grunge and the Philadelphia Fire Ants. Their finish pit them against the seventh seed London Monarchs in round one of the playoffs.

"The competition in the World was intense. Everyone in the playoff group could really believe that they had a path to the Continental Cup Finals," said Gallagher, "Finishing second didn't set us up with an easy matchup no matter who we faced. But maybe London was about as bad as we could have gotten."

The regular season series with the Monarchs was a split with two of the four games going to overtime. Most media hit on the fact that both teams were built similarly - offense first. Both teams had flaws on defense and in net but most mistakes were made up for by just scoring more.

Round One proved to be more of the same. With both teams dealing with injuries to key players, every game was decided by 1 or 2 goals with one empty-netter and two games ending in overtime. The deciding Game Six went to a second overtime and totaled over 130 shots by the two teams as London prevailed 8-7, an instant SICHL Classic.

"Losing is always heartbreaking," said Gallagher, "But when you lose, you want it to be close, competitive and decided by effort and skill, not 'luck'. In that way, I am happy with the way this series went. We tip our cap to the Monarchs and wish them luck going forward. They're a good team and a fun team to watch and to compete against."

Despite the six game ouster, St. Louis did have some positives to take away, one being their special teams in the series - 30% effectiveness on the powerplay and over 92% success on the penalty kill. 

"Ultimately," said Gallagher, "If you'd showed me before the season that we would finish the season at 53-23-6, won the division and had the number 2 seed in the conference I would have said that looks like a successful season to me. Regardless of how we feel about losing in the playoffs, this year saw us play some really amazing games, have an historic run from late January to early March and so many of our players hit personal milestones. We played in one of the most exciting playoff games I can remember. Those are the reasons I'll always think of this season fondly."

The Milestones

Speaking of milestones, many bear listing here.

Coaching

The coaching staff of R.J. Umberger, Mike Richards, Matt Walker, Nathan Horton and Evgeni Nabokov completed their fifth year as a staff, increasing their career record to 245-135-30, an average of 104 points per year. Their matching eight-year contracts all run through the 2027 season.

All-Time Leaders

Anze Kopitar moved past legendary players like Daniel Alfredsson, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Marleau to claim fifth all-time in SICHL history in points with 1,365. He also moved into second all-time in assists (though well back of Joe Thornton's 959 and barely ahead of still-active players in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby). He also became just the 10th player in league history to tally 500 goals.

Marc-Andre Fleury solidified his hold on second all-time (and closed the gap on first place's Roberto Luongo) in Games Played (1,140), Wins (572) and Shutouts (61). 

SICHL Games Played

1,300: Anze Kopitar

1,200: Phil Kessel

1,100: T.J. Oshie, Marc-Andre Fleury

900: Kevin Shattenkirk 

Franchise Record Holders

Anze Kopitar moved into first in franchise points scored (571), second in goals (230; behind only Phil Kessel), second in assists (341; behind only Kevin Shattenkirk), and second in Game Winners (35; behind Kessel). He also scored 11 points in the playoffs, moving into second in Points, Assists and Powerplay Goals all time.

Clayton Keller scored 75 points in the regular season, despite playing only 66 games. He moved up in/into the top 10 in all-time franchise leaders in Goals, Assists, Points, Plus/Minus, Powerplay Goals, Shorthanded Goals, Game-Winning Goals and Games Played. He added nine points in the playoffs, moving up in/into the top 10 all-time in franchise playoff Goals, Assists, Points and Games Played.

Kevin Shattenkirk had a career-high 60 points and solidified his stranglehold on many Spartans all-time records for defensemen. Heading to free agency after 10-plus seasons in St. Louis, if he never pulls on a St. Louis jersey again, he will remain the top record holder in these categories for many years to come. He owns the top spot in all-time defensive Games Played, Goals, Assists, Points, Powerplay Goals and Game Winning Goals. Of the single season records he holds multiple entries on most offensive categories including seven of the top 10 Powerplay Goal seasons in team history.

Phil Kessel (probably) heads to retirement after his second stint with St. Louis (drafted by St. Louis second overall in 2006) as the all-time franchise record holder in Goals and Game Winning Goals as well as playoff Goals, Points, Powerplay Goals and Games Played. His name is littered around the the all-time records and single season records. He is a true Spartan.

The Future

And so, what does all of this leave management to deal with in the offseason? First up is the entry draft, where the team holds their own first round selection as well as eight more selections in rounds four through seven. It seems reasonable to assume they'll look to make moves to fill the gaps in the second and third rounds.

As far as free agency goes, their hands will be tied as their current cash balance is a negative, limiting which players they can even extend offers. History has shown that St. Louis won't trade other assets for cash, so unless the trend changes, Sparta is largely on the sidelines for new free agent adds.

The trade options are still hard to predict, but the Spartans' management will have to be active to fill some new glaring holes. Even so, unless blockbuster-type players are made available, the team might have difficulty trading their way back to real competetiveness next year. 

Expect a "Who's Available?" assessment later this summer. Until then, fans and media will have to simply work the rumor mill and the chatty scouts and the internet insiders to know what to expect next from Sparta. As for the GM? Well, maybe he is waiting for some inspiration, too...

"I wouldn't trade what we had this year for what I thought we could have become if I'd made more trades. I thought I knew what we had on this roster. And then the boys in the room showed me that I was wrong. I rewarded them the only way I could, by respecting their effort and overperformance. Their chemistry trumped all and their character outperformed their talent. That maybe put us a year behind the retool we should have started and it probably meant the retool dip may go deeper than we'd wanted. Even so, I'd still say it was a fair trade. We kept our future assets and didn't sell off our emerging players and we still had a great ride.

"Starting now some hard calls have to be made, so we will make them. Our franchise player contract is no secret as we are bringing back Kopi, but everything beyond him and Kells, Logan Cooley and Sebastian Cossa is open for discussion. I really think we'll end up with basically the same roster you see today. We will have to take more chances on youngsters, especially on the back end. But I'm willing to do that to make sure that culture remains our top priority here.

"It's the only way I know now."

 

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