The best team in the ECHL is loaded with North Dakotans
The Idaho Steelheads are rolling through the season with Casey Johnson, Jordan Kawaguchi, Adam Scheel, Wade Murphy, Jade Miller and Cody Haiskanen on the roster.
BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Steelheads are the best team in the ECHL.
The Steelheads, a Dallas Stars affiliate, started the season by winning 26 of their first 30 games (26-3-1). They reeled off a 12-game winning streak that lasted more than a month. And they enter this weekend sitting firmly atop the points race in the 28-team league.
"Every season you go in expecting to try to take the division," Idaho coach Everett Sheen said. "But to say I thought we'd have this good of a group? No, I'd probably be lying."
The Steelheads have done it with a roster full of North Dakota connections.
There's forward Jordan Kawaguchi, who served as UND's captain, helped the Fighting Hawks to a pair of Penrose Cups and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. Kawaguchi continues to produce offense. He leads the Steelheads with 18 goals.
There's defenseman Casey Johnson, who starred at Grand Forks Central before playing four years at UND. Johnson has become a regular on the blue line for Idaho since returning from ACL surgery in November.
There's goalie Adam Scheel, who played three years at UND before signing with the Dallas Stars. Scheel has a .918 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average. Both marks are among the top seven in the league.
There's forward Wade Murphy, who spent two seasons at UND. Murphy has 24 points in 25 games.
And there are two North Dakotans who played college hockey out-of-state — Fargo Davies defenseman Cody Haiskanen (Cornell) and Grafton-Park River forward Jade Miller (Minnesota Duluth). Haiskanen has 13 points from the blue line and Miller has 17 up front.
"They all bring a different flair, a different personality to the puzzle," Sheen said. "It's kind of funny. Jordan and Jade became instant friends. I asked Jade, 'Did you meet Guch up at North Dakota?' He's like, 'No, we never talked. We hated each other.' It's like, 'So, how did you become good friends?'"
The players all live in the same apartment complex in Boise.
Johnson and Kawaguchi are even roommates.
"It feels like we're in the dorms again," Scheel said. "I didn't realize how much I missed living in the dorms until this year. Everyone lives within 500 feet, so it's easy for us to get together. There's a hot tub, a pool table. . . it's easy to connect.
"The town is just great. It's got the best people. We have a booster club, which is unreal. We're treated so well. Around town, people love the Steelheads. We're Boise's team."
The Steelheads are frequently packing their 5,000-plus seat venue.
That's especially been the case with the start to this season
"We sell out most nights," Kawaguchi said. "The fans and games are loud. Everyone loves watching the Steelheads. It's a special atmosphere to be in."
The last time Jordan Kawaguchi, Adam Scheel and Casey Johnson were teammates, it was March 2020.
They were putting together one of the best seasons in UND hockey history — they were 26-5-4 and had already won the Penrose Cup as National Collegiate Hockey Conference champions — when the coronavirus pandemic promptly shut down the season.
They never got to make a run at the NCAA title that year.
Johnson graduated and moved on to pro hockey. Kawaguchi and Scheel spent one more year together before they both signed with Dallas' organization in the spring of 2021.
None of them played with Murphy, who was at UND from 2013-15.
"I didn't know Murph, but we knew each other's names, so we had that connection," Johnson said. "I saw Scheeler a couple times last year. I'm roommates with Guch. Then you've got Cody and Jade. . . I've known Jade longer than any of them. It's pretty crazy to have to have that many guys from that state — or to have that connection — all playing on the same team, especially pro."
The scouting reports
Sheen said all of them contribute in their own ways.
On Kawaguchi: "He's been absolutely tremendous. Other than his goal-scoring and playmaking ability — he's already well-known for that — the leadership he's showed has been a nice surprise. He's been a captain at different levels and all that, but a guy coming down from the American League doesn't always want to step up and take it. He's been a huge leader in that locker room — vocally, the way he plays and the way he gets along with everyone. He has an absolute work ethic, allowing him to have success."
On Johnson: "We brought him in a little before he was ready to play (post-ACL surgery), just to get him around the team. We threw him right back into the fire where he was last year. He's formed a good pairing with Dawson (Barteaux). We like to call him Roman Josi, because when he's feeling it, he's pretty confident."
On Scheel: "He competes hard and he handles the puck pretty well. When he's in, the guys have full faith in him. He makes the saves he needs to make and he makes saves at big times as well. We have a good mix of personalities in the dressing room and he fits right in. He gets a lot of laughs and he's always in the mix."
On Murphy: "His skill, his shot, his finishing ability and his speed. . . they're all kind of what we expected we were going to get. He finishes his checks. He battles."
On Miller: "He's very North Dakotan in his work ethic. You know what you're going to get from him every single day. The kid absolutely loves hockey. I don't think I've seen anyone study film more than he has. He takes great pride in his craft. He always wants to get better."
On Haiskanen: "He has been a pleasant surprise. We knew he could defend coming out of Cornell — a big body, calming presence. But the way he generates offense with how mobile he is — and the vision he has to make some of the plays — has been a tremendous surprise. We didn't know we were getting that side of Cody when we added him. We thought we were getting a big, heavy shutdown defenseman. But he can run a power play on any team in this league. I can't say enough good things about Cody Haiskanen."
Making a run
The group is now set on making a run to the division title and to chase the Kelly Cup as ECHL playoff champions.
The Steelheads have previously won the Kelly Cup twice — in 2004 and 2007.
"I think we're a pretty well-rounded group," Kawaguchi said. "Obviously, we're in first in the league and in our division. We go into games knowing that if we play our best, we know how good we are. There's no disrespect to our opponents, but we have to understand how good we really can be and carry that into the playoffs and go from there.
"We have to have that confidence and just know we are one of the best teams in the league, and we can be at the end of the year. We have to keep that in mind and keep chugging along."