Even when the Kenai River Brown Bears were on break for the holidays, signs of success keep happening.
Since a 5-4 shootout loss at the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Dec. 21, the Bears have lost defenseman Bryan Huggins to the Muskegon (Michigan) Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League and saw forward Theo Thrun earn a Division I commitment to Western Michigan University.
Huggins is the second defenseman to leave the Bears for the USHL this season, following Robert McCollum. The Bears play in the North American Hockey League, the only Tier II junior league in the United States. The only junior league better is the Tier I USHL.
“Coming into the year, that’s what we were hoping,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said. “We were hoping guys would earn themselves the opportunity to go up. We’re certainly not going to hold them back.”
Another thing on the wish list is Division I commitments, and Thrun’s signaling of Western Michigan means there are now five Bears listed on the NAHL website with Division I deals.
Huggins is committed to Lake Superior State, but is leaving Kenai River. Skylar Gutierrez, Zach Krajnik and Porter Schachle, all Alaska players, have all committed to play their college hockey for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Murdock said he could not be happier that Thrun’s star has risen so quickly. His 37 points rank him tied for sixth in NAHL scoring and his 17 goals have him tied for third in the league.
“I’m really excited for Theo to earn that opportunity,” Murdock said. “I think realistically, he’s earned a lot of it.
“When we started talking last spring, I don’t know if anyone thought he’d be committed to Western Michigan at Christmas. It shows his work ethic, focus and the way he shows up ready to go each day.”
Thrun is one of many Brown Bears whose rise has allowed the team to have tremendous success this season.
Entering Friday and Saturday games at the Amarillo (Texas) Bulls, Kenai River is 22-8-1-3 and in first place in the Midwest Division. The Bears are in fourth place in the league, while Amarillo (23-6-1-2) is tied for second.
Kenai River is just one win from matching last season’s win total and the franchise record of 31 wins in the 2011-12 season is definitely within reach.
A big part of the turnaround has come on offense. Last season, Kenai River scored just 139 goals and was second last in the league. This season, the Bears are second in the league in scoring and must score just four more times to match last season’s total.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have some good pieces that came back from last year,” Murdock said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to make some moves for guys with junior experience. And then we’ve gotten guys like Theo.
“We’ve also been fortunate enough to build some chemistry with lines.”
Krajnik leads the team with 39 points and is back after totaling 50 points for the Bears last season. Thrun is second on the team in points, while the third member of the line, Logan Ritchie, is third with 31. Ritchie had just 12 points last season for Kenai River.
Schachle has 30 points this season after just 10 points last season for the Bears, while next on the list is Peter Morgan with 29 points. Morgan had prior NAHL experience and was acquired at the beginning of the year. Finally, Anchorage’s Max Helgeson is sixth on the list with 28 points and was acquired this year as a free agent.
In net, Landon Pavlisin leads the league with 19 wins and has received the bulk of the work for Kenai River. Danny Fraga has appeared in just seven games.
Murdock said Pavlisin has earned all the time he’s spent in the net with impressive play.
“In our minds, we’re still fighting for a playoff spot and we’re still trying to win as many games as possible,” Murdock said, when asked if Pavlisin will continue to get the bulk of the time in net. “At the same time, Danny has played well lately and earned himself some more opportunities. He works his butt off every day in practice.”
Murdock also has been pleased with the way the defensemen have come together, especially in light of losing McCollum and getting just nine games out of veteran defenseman JJ Boucher due to injury. With the loss of Huggins, the Bears have traded for Adam Szubert from the Austin (Minnesota) Bruins. Szubert has one year of junior eligibility left after this season.
“I think our D corps has been really good for us so far this year,” Murdock said. “With the injuries we’ve had, with JJ and Huggins out, with Robbie getting called up, I think we’ve been able to give a couple of guys different opportunities, and they’ve made the most of those opportunities.”
Kenai River starts the second half of the season with 12 of 16 on the road before playing seven at home and closing with three on the road. The Bears have nine games left with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who are one point behind Kenai River in the Midwest Division.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, so we just can’t be good at home, we have to win games on the road, too,” Murdock said. “Part of the learning curve is to stay focused after an eight-hour bus trip to Springfield.”
Murdock said mental consistency is a huge part of junior hockey. Part of the reason Murdock and associate head coach Dan Bogdan are so optimistic is the Bears still have areas where they can improve, and mental consistency is one of them.
While savoring the chance of playing on the road, Murdock said a big positive of the first half was the large crowds that came to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“We’ve had some pretty impressive crowds, like Saturday night against Fairbanks or dollar ticket night against Janesville,” Murdock said. “When Helgeson scored in the shootout against Fairbanks, I couldn’t hear myself think it was so loud.
“I know the guys are loving it and we’d like to keep it going.”