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Mannheim Eagles gear up to defend DEL championship

by Bill Meltzer

Colin Forbes, the leading scorer for the Mannheim Eagles, was a seventh round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1994, playing in over 300 NHL games with five different teams from 1997-06.
The only thing that’s harder than winning a championship is successfully defending it the next season. That’s true in any hockey league in the world.

In the 50 seasons that the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) and its processor elite leagues -- the West German Bundesliga and the all-Germany Budesliga -- have awarded championships, there have only been six repeat winners. During one dramatic stretch, there was a 16-season gap between repeat champions.

EV Füssen won three consecutive West German championships in the early-to-mid 1960s and then won back-to-back titles in 1967-68 and 1968-69. In the mid-1980s, Kölner EC (now known as Kölner Haie, or Cologne Sharks) won three-straight championships before being supplanted by archrival Düsseldorfer EG (now better known as the DEG Metro Stars), which went on to win four-straight championships.

Since the formation of the DEL in 1994-95, there have been only two teams to successfully defend their championship the following season. Adler Mannheim (the Mannheim Eagles) won three-straight championships and four in the five seasons between 1996-97 and 2000-01. More recently, Eisbären Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears) won back-to-back crowns in 2004-05 and 2005-06.


Last season, Mannheim unseated Berlin with stunning ease. Under the direction of its American head coach Greg Poss, the Eagles cruised to first place in the regular season -- 104 points, nine points ahead of the second-place DEG Metro Stars -- and then put on an awesome display in the playoffs. The Eagles won 10 of the 11 postseason games they played, including a sweep against the Sinupret Ice Tigers of Nürnberg (Nuremberg).

Adler deservedly drew accolades from the hockey fans of Mannheim, selling out all but one of its home playoff games (a first-round match against the Frankfurt Lions) in the 13,600 seat SAP Arena. The Eagles sent the crowd home happy every time, winning every playoff game played at SAP, including the championship-clinching 5-2 third game of the finals.

As with most DEL clubs, Adler relied heavily on a core of imported players, many of whom played for -- or were at least drafted by -- NHL teams.

Last season, the Eagles boasted 10 former NHL players on the club, representing 2,209 combined games worth of NHL experience. Among the names familiar to North American fans were the likes of Rene Corbet, Colin Forbes (the Eagles’ leading playoff scorer), Rico Fata, Jeff Shantz, Blake Sloan, defenseman Pascal Trepanier, former Phoenix Coyotes center Jason Jaspers, native German defenseman Sven Butenschön and goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier.

Adler also featured five former NHL draftees who didn’t reach the top level, but have had notable minor league or European careers: leading regular season scorer and former Buffalo Sabres prospect Francois Methot, Russian-born German citizen Eduard Lewandowski (a Phoenix Coyotes third-round pick from the 2003 Entry Draft), defenseman Francois Bouchard, one-time Vancouver Canucks farmhand Rick Girard, and German goaltender Robert Müller, a 2000 Washington Capitals draft pick.

Over the course of the off-season this summer, Adler lost goaltender Pelletier to the Hamburg Freezers as well former NHL player Nathan Robinson to Eisbären Berlin. The club also lost promising young defenseman Denis Reul -- a fifth-round selection by the Boston Bruins in the 2007 Entry Draft -- to the QMJHL’s Lewiston MAINEiacs via the CHL import draft.

With the exceptions of Robinson (the team’s second-leading regular season goal scorer) and Pelletier -- who was stellar in the playoffs last season after splitting regular-season playing time -- most Adler’s championship nucleus remains intact for 2006-07.

Adler has recruited former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Adam Hauser away from the Cologne Sharks to fill the void left by Pelletier’s departure. Over the summer, the club also lured former Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) left winger Michael Hackert away from the Frankfurt Lions and brought back 20-year-old defenseman Stefan Langwieder, an Adler junior system product who played last season in the WHL for the Portland Winter Hawks.

The stability of Mannheim’s nucleus from last season to this one -- something that is often not the case with European club-team champions -- should help give the team a better-than-average shot at repeating as DEL champions. But the competition may be a bit tougher than last season.

Among last season’s top contenders, The DEG Metro Stars have added the likes of former Adler Mannheim and NHL player Peter Ratchuk (who was a dominant DEL offensive defenseman during his first three-season stint in the league) and former Ottawa Senators farmhand Andy Hedlund to the lineup. The Ice Tigers, who had a relatively quiet off-season, signed longtime NHL defenseman Sean Brown away from the Metro Stars, while losing its starting goaltender Jean-Francois Labbe.

Sven Butenschoen and Colin Forbes of Adler Mannheim celebrate Forbes' goal against Sinupret Ice Tigers Nuremberg during their play off first final game at the SAP Arena in Mannheim, Germany.
Fourth-place ERC Ingolstadt retained high-scoring defenseman Jakub Ficenec (formerly with the AHL’s Portland Pirates), ageless former NHLer Rob Valicevic and top-scoring forward Doug Ast, but also lost nucleus several significant players, including Jeff Tory (a one-time Philadelphia Phantoms and Houston Aeros defenseman), former Calgary Flames center Daniel Tkaczuk and former NHLer Cameron Mann. While Mann had an injury-plagued season last year, he was a key player for Ingolstadt in the past. On the flip side, 20-year-old center Felix Schütz, a fourth-round Buffalo Sabres pick in 2006, will join ERC this season after spending two seasons in the QMJHL with Saint John and Val d’Or.

The Cologne Sharks, who finished fifth last season, signed former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Travis Scott, who is coming off a pair of exceptional seasons in the Russian Super League with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Scott led the club to the Russian championship last season. His arrival should more than fill the void left by Hauser’s departure to Mannheim.

Meanwhile, the sixth-place Frankfurt Lions have added former Carolina Hurricanes and St. Louis Blues right winger Jeff Heerema, who is coming off a 36-goal season for the AHL’s Binghamton Senators last season.

Looking to rebound from disappointing 2006-07 campaigns are the Hamburg Freezers and the dethroned champion Eisbären Berlin, who finished seventh and eighth respectively last season.

Hamburg turned over much of its roster and loaded up this off-season with several big names, including former NHL offensive defenseman Andy Delmore, former Columbus Blue Jackets and Vancouver Canucks center Brad Moran (coming off a very strong AHL season) and goaltender Pelletier. In addition to Pelletier, the Freezers also signed veteran defenseman Stephan Retzer away from Mannheim.

Berlin needs to rebound from a disastrous 2006-07 season that saw the team fail to qualify for the playoffs, and saw several key players openly question the tactics of former NHL head coach Pierre Page, who had led the Polar Bears to consecutive DEL crows. Page stepped down at the end of the season, and was replaced by Don Jackson. Meanwhile, among other roster moves, the team signed Nathan Robinson away from Adler and grabbed promising young goaltender Timo Pielmeyer (a San Jose Sharks third-round pick in 2007) away from the Cologne Sharks.

Adler Mannheim’s quest to become the seventh repeat champion in German hockey history will start Friday night in Düsseldorf, when the Eagles play the Metro Stars. On Sunday, Adler will open its home season with a game against the Eisbären.

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