The Kenai River Brown Bears open their 2021-22 season Friday and Saturday with 4 p.m. AKDT games at the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel.
The offseason has been short. Kenai River played its last playoff game June 13.
“I’m excited and looking forward to getting started,” new Kenai River head coach Josh Dubinsky said. “Even though it’s been a short summer, there’s been a chance for a break and to get away from the game. I’m excited for Friday night.”
The Bears, who began in the North American Hockey League in the 2007-08 season, are looking to follow up the most successful postseason in franchise history.
As interim head coach, Dubinsky led an upset of the top-seeded Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in the first round of the playoffs. Kenai River had never won a playoff series before that.
The Bears then lost to the Minnesota Magicians in five games, leaving them just one game short of the Robertson Cup Finals.
Just seven of the 25 players that will be on the roster Friday return from last season. Dubinsky said the Bears have picked up a few NAHL veterans, meaning about half of Friday’s lineup will be playing in the NAHL for the first time.
The roster got a little taste of the league in a 5-1 exhibition loss to the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Norsemen on Saturday. Dubinsky said much can’t be read into the Saturday loss, or the Tuesday scrimmage that purposely built in various special-teams scenarios for both teams.
The one thing that is certain is the Bears lost their top 10 scorers from a year ago.
Dubinsky said returning forwards Gramm McCormack, Cole Dubicki, David Vieten and Jake Veri will be counted on to step up.
“The guys we have on our team coming back were playing lower in the lineup than they normally would have been,” Dubinsky said. “It’ll be good to see how some of the guys will produce in a more prominent role.”
Last season, with a group of junior hockey teams sitting out the pandemic, and NCAA programs not accepting as many new players, NAHL rosters had more talent than normal.
On defense, the Bears return Brendan Hill and Carter Green. Drew Jeffers is still out with a knee injury, while Cam Blanton recently decided to step away from hockey.
The toughest player to replace will be goalie Luke Pavicich, who now plays for defending NCAA champion University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“Pavs will be incredibly difficult to replace,” Dubinsky said. “He was one of, if not the best, goalies this league has seen in a long time.”
Dubinsky said the three goalies on the team have looked good so far. They now must prove they can handle league play.
The Kenai River coach said the plan is to play the same style as last year.
“We’re going to try and be a high-octane, high-offense type of team,” he said. “We’ll try and replicate the key pieces that played into the style and how successful we were.”