The best 19 Peoria Rivermen players of the SPHL era
PEORIA — Pick the best players from a Peoria Rivermen franchise that has five first-place finishes in seven years in the Southern Professional Hockey League?
That would be nearly impossible.
Great. So let’s do it.
The Rivermen closed out their first decade in the SPHL with a 2019-20 season that never ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As they sit idle in the 2020-21 season among five of the 10 teams in the SPHL who have opted out of the season because of operating issues caused by COVID restrictions we’ll take a look back at Peoria’s seven-year run in the league and declare the best Rivermen players of the SPHL era.
The Rivermen joined the SPHL in 2013-14, and in their seven seasons have finished first in the league five times and never lower than third. They have a composite record of 248-88-46. They went 99-22-18 in the last 139 regular-season games they played.
So we’re picking from a strong, deep group of players.
Coach Jean-Guy Trudel piled up SPHL Coach of the Year honors three times. He did a great job picking players to win at the highest rate in pro hockey during that run.
How good would he do helping us choose from the best of his best to put together a list of the top Rivermen?
Why not go all the way back to 2010-11? Because the first three years of the decade, the Rivermen were the Blues top farm team in the Triple-A American Hockey League. The last seven years have seen Peoria in the Single-A SPHL. It's not realistic to compare those two sets of players.
But in the SPHL era, the Rivermen have dominated like no other period in their 39-year history.
Consider, during the seven seasons that was the Peoria SPHL 2010s decade, the Rivermen had players finish in the league's Top 10 in scoring seven times, and 10 times grabbed a Top 12 spot.
They won a league scoring title with Ben Blasko.
They had goaltenders finish No. 1 in the league five times, and in the top two seven times.
The Rivermen had the league's Goaltender of the Year three times, Defenseman of the Year three times, Rookie of the Year once, and produced five players on the All-Rookie Team and 13 berths on the All-Star Team.
"Our talent level has been championship caliber every year," Trudel said. "We've been blessed with the intangibles, too, great leadership, pride in the community and the history of the franchise, guys who have cared about each other and really want to play here, win here.
“Most people call those intangibles, but we consider them skills, and we look for it.
"Picking an All-Decade team from a group of players like we've had is nearly impossible."
There are easily 40-50 players that could fill this team. For this exercise, I decided to create a 19-man roster, which mimics what Trudel would work from on game nights: 11 forwards, five defensemen, two goalies and one reserve player sitting in the grandstand.
There are some tremendous guys who won't make this list. I favored longevity, for instance, over players who might have been better but were here only briefly.
Leadership roles mattered. Availability mattered, for instance, some guys left on ECHL call-ups and just weren't able to build a long enough body of work here.
Here's the top Peoria Rivermen in the SPHL era:
Reserve: Garrett Vermeersch.
Pszenyczny was SPHL Defenseman of the Year in 2017-18, Greenside in 2015-16 and Neville in 2019-20.
Rank was Goaltender of the Year in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and Levine in 2019-20.
Rank was perhaps the best goaltender in SPHL history. Bremner and Pszenyczny were elite leadership guys who went on to be head coaches in the league.
Oskroba and Hagaman (a captain and three-time All-Star) both played more than 300 games here. Morra and Gorman were high-motor guys.
Everyone on the list delivered at the top of the league in goals, assists, game-winners, plus-minus rating. And they were fierce competitors.
The Rivermen have led the SPHL in player call-ups to the ECHL or to top European circuits during most seasons. Who would fit on an All Call-up Team?
How about: Darren McCormick, a left wing who merely scored 14 goals in 16 games with Peoria last season before leaving for Europe. Others: Terrence Wallin, rw; Tyler Fernandez, rw; Parker Stanfield, rw; Jordan Sims, c; Mike Slowikowski, d; Conor Riley, d; Will Smith, c; Joe Kalisz, lw; Ryan Siiro, rw; Ted Hart, rw; Jakob Reichert, rw.
Players like Jordan Ernst, Matt Summers, Jake Trask, Connor Toomey, Dakota Klecha, Storm Phaneuf, Tyler Parks, Jeremy Brodeur, Jake Hauswirth and Zach Nieminen fit easily on a best-of-the-rest list.
On to '21-22, when the Rivermen will start adding to the best-of list. Until then.
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.