Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula Brown Bears' players congradulate each other after a goal, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula Brown Bears' players congradulate each other after a goal, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska.

Brown Bears season review: Team looks at what went wrong

After snapping a six-year run of playoff appearances by accumulating the least points in the league, it would be no surprise if change was the order of the day in the Kenai River Brown Bears organization.

Instead, head coach Geoff Beauparlant sees stability and continuity as key ingredients that will get the team back to the playoffs and claim that elusive playoff series victory for the franchise, which just completed its eighth season.

Beauparlant said he is under contract for two more years and has no indications that he will not return next season. The coach also said general manager Nate Kiel should continue with his current role.

Assistant coach Rory Dynan has a year left on his contract, while Beauparlant expects assistants Scott Johnson and Joel Christiansen to continue with the team.

“I really enjoy being part of the area,” Beauparlant said. “It’s great the way the community has welcomed us, and I hope to be here a lot longer than two years.

“I like the level of hockey in the North American Hockey League and I think the league is doing a lot of things that will be good for Kenai River.”

Much has to go wrong for a team to roll up a 16-42-2 record, but one area Beauparlant is focused on is player turnover.

The Bears started the season with just five returners from last year. But as players didn’t find a fit in other leagues, they came back to the Bears and the roster changed.

By the end of the season, the number of Bears traded or cut this season totaled 19. Also at the end of the season, just 10 of the 24 players that broke camp and played in the Brown-Gold Game still held down roster spots.

“We really laid out for the guys that if they are not in training camp come the end of August, there may not be a spot,” Beauparlant said. “The guys that are going to be in training camp are the guys we are going to stick with. This year I went against my philosophy of being loyal to players. I brought guys back, not that they weren’t loyal, but that this wasn’t their primary spot.”

Beauparlant said he is not discouraging players from moving up to a higher level of play, like the United States Hockey League. He is saying that when players make the calculation of whether they will make a USHL team, it shouldn’t be with the thought the Bears will automatically be there to pick them up.

“We want players that want to be here from the get-go,” Beauparlant said. “It can’t be, ‘Oh well, if I don’t make it I guess I’ll go back to Kenai.’”

The coach said adding too many players back during the season presents two challenges. It can change the chemistry the team has built during training camp, and the player must adjust to a role on the Bears that is often very different from the role they were playing at a higher level.

“There are very different styles of hockey in the USHL and here,” Beauparlant said. “Guys have to really look where they fit the best, what gives them the best opportunity to get to college hockey.

“We want them to understand that sometimes it’s best to stay in one place for three years and keep developing.”

Beauparlant said the goal is for players to have the confidence that staying with the Bears for three years gives them a solid chance of getting a Division I commitment. He gave the Fairbanks Ice Dogs as an example. Jacob Hetz and Chandler Madry stayed in Fairbanks for three years, and both ended up with Division I commitments. Hetz is going to Ferris State while Madry is headed to Minnesota State University, Mankato, which had one of the top teams in the country this season.

Beyond continuity, another common turning point in the season that came up in postseason meetings with players was a 4-3 overtime loss in Wenatchee on Nov. 29.

The Bears got a point for that effort, improving to 11-13-1 and moving into fourth place in the Midwest Division and a potential playoff spot.

But Beauparlant said the way his squad coughed up a 3-1 lead in the third period portended bad things to come. The loss would be the first of a 14-game skid.

“We had it in a spot where we should have won the hockey game and it’s almost like we never recovered mentally,” the coach said.

The remaining season in large part became an exercise in dealing with adversity.

“The big thing is our players are going to be better people and our staff is going to be better because of the adversity we went through this year,” Beauparlant said. “Every experience is a learning experience, whether you are winning or losing.

“We met the adversity head on, and never gave up.”

Evidence of that came with a 3-2 win over Fairbanks in the home finale in front of a solid crowd.

“We have a great fan base and great core group of people who continue to support the program,” Beauparlant said. “There’s a difference between fans and supporters.

“To me, a fan goes up and down with the team. We have hard-core supporters who always support the program, and that group continues to grow.

“A lot of that comes from the work we do in the community.”

The Bears age out just six players. In postseason meetings, Beauparlant said those players that can return are anxious to have a better season.

“We like all the guys that have the eligibility to come back,” Beauparlant said. “The reality is we only won 16 games this year.

“Our message to the returning players is we like you and think you’re good hockey players, but you have to show you have what it takes to get us back in the playoffs.”

The coach said 16 or 17 players could return, but the number will probably be between 10 and 14. The team will fill those holes with tenders and the draft on June 9. Then, training camp in mid-August does not loom that far away.

“They were chomping at the bit to get back here,” Beauparlant said. “Every single guy loved his time here despite the record.

“Ultimately, that’s only a piece of what the experience is about, from billeting to fans to the kids they’ve worked with and lives they’ve impacted that maybe they didn’t realize they impacted.”

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