Head coach Taylor Shaw (center) talks to the Kenai River Brown Bears during a timeout at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Saturday, March 23, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears take 8 in NAHL Draft; league schedule released

The start of the North American Hockey League season seems closer with the completion of the NAHL Draft on Wednesday and the release of the league schedule Thursday.

“If we could get going yesterday, I’d be going,” said Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw, who will be back for his third season as head coach and also had most of a season as interim coach.

With 14 veterans on the roster and 13 players signed to tenders, the Bears got eight picks in the draft.

Kenai River selected seven forwards and a defenseman.

“We added a variety, that’s for sure,” Shaw said of the forwards.

Shaw said forward was the biggest position of need entering the draft.

At defense, the Brown Bears have six returners, plus tender William Esterbrooks, who joined the team at the end of last season.

Also at defense, the team has two other tenders signed. Then Austin Petersen, a 5-foot-11, 175 defenseman with two years of junior eligibility left, was drafted. Shaw said Petersen was at training camp a year ago and the team is excited to have him.

At goalie, Shaw said AJ Reyelts will be in the United States Hockey League for at least the start of the season.

Reyelts, who is committed to Division I Lindenwood University, was drafted in the fourth round of the USHL Draft by the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) RoughRiders.

In mid-April, Reyelts also was on the list of North American goalies for the NHL Central Scouting Bureau rankings for the 2024 NHL Draft, which is June 28 and 29.

Shaw also said the Bears have three goalies tendered, so there was not a huge need there.

At forward, leading scorer Dylan Contreras aged out. Roope Tuomioksa and Kotaro Tsutsumi tied for second on the team in scoring. Tsutsumi aged out, while the Bears moved Tuomioksa.

Brady Engelkes and Samuel Sisik tied for fifth on the scoring list.

Shaw said Engelkes made training camp for the defending USHL champion Fargo (North Dakota) Force. Shaw said he’s happy three Bears players have now made the USHL in the past two years.

Sisik was injured in the offseason, but Shaw said Sisik should be ready for the fall.

Finally, Gavin Duckworth, eighth on the scoring list, also was moved. Owen Hanson was ninth, but also aged out.

“We lost Brady to the USHL, we moved on from a couple of guys, and we lose a few age-outs,” Shaw said. “We had a great finish to last season with the group, but that’s irrelevant.

“Now we’ve got to continue to move forward, add some depth, and challenge guys in the roles they finished with. That’s part of adding a big forward class.”

Here are the forwards selected:

• James Lyver, 6-0 and 185 pounds with two years left, was taken in the first round. Shaw said Lyver played in the British Columbia Hockey League last season and is already committed to Division I Holy Cross.

• Ben Winkelmann, 5-9 and 147 pounds, has one year left and was taken in the second round. Shaw said Winkelmann played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season and gives the Bears more junior experience.

• Jack Clarke, at 5-10 and 160 pounds, has a year left and was taken in the third round. Shaw said Clarke was in the top 10 in scoring in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season and adds more experience.

• Michael Fiedorczuk, at 6-2 and 181 pounds, has three years left and was taken in the third round. Shaw said the Bears have tendered Fiedorczuk’s linemate. Shaw said Fiedorczuk is a big player who can put the puck in the net.

• Dario Lass, at 5-11 and 192 pounds, has three years left and was taken in the fourth round. Lass played for the Slovakian World Junior team.

• Cameron McEwan, at 6-0 and 175 pounds, has two years left and was taken in the fifth round. Shaw said McEwan is another big power forward. He has a game of NAHL experience.

• Tanner Ross, 5-9 and 170 pounds, has three years left and was taken in the sixth round with the Bears’ NA3HL pick. Shaw said the Bears are familiar with Ross because he was a high school teammate of Reyelts.

Shaw said one thing that excites him about the players added via draft and tenders is a lot of size.

“I don’t think we got away from the speed,” Shaw said. “I think we just went with a little bit of a different style of player.

“We went bigger, but they all can still skate.”

The veterans, tenders, draft picks and select free agents will now report to Main Camp on July 11 to 14 in Blaine, Minnesota.

The players that make the team will report to training camp at the end of August in Breezy Point, Minnesota.

Shaw said the lone assistant coach for the team this season will be Dean Weasler, who has been with Shaw for his entire tenure in Kenai River.

The schedule released by the NAHL on Thursday should look familiar to Bears fans.

The teams in the Midwest Division with the Bears remain the same — Anchorage Wolverines, Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, Minnesota Wilderness, Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues and Wisconsin Windigo.

The Bears open on the road against the Jets on Sept. 13 and 14. The Bears actually get two move division games before the NAHL Showcase from Sept. 25 to 28.

“They bumped the Showcase back two weeks to the end of September,” Shaw said. “So that will allow us to get a bit of a better pulse on our roster before the Showcase.

“I think that will be great.”

The Bears open at home Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. against the Jets. Kenai River then stays in Alaska through Nov. 30.

The first trip Outside for Kenai River is Dec. 6 through Jan. 4. The Bears are back in Alaska from Jan. 10 through Feb. 8.

Kenai River’s second trip Outside is Feb. 14 to 22, then the Bears are back in Alaska for March 6 through their last game of the regular season on April 12.

Shaw said the extended time in Alaska is great for the work the Bears do in the community.

“You look at it last year, and the rink was still packed to the very end, which is awesome,” Shaw said. “A big part of that is the guys are in the schools every week.

“That’s on top of the other various events we’re doing throughout the community.”

Shaw said the bond players have developed for the community shows by some of the veterans having trips planned to the area in the summer to visit billet families and partake in things like fishing.

Finally, a couple aged out players have made their college commitments this summer.

Blake Norris will play at Division III University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“He went on a visit there and he loved it,” Shaw said. “So I think it’ll be a really good fit for him.”

Hanson will play for Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Grand Canyon plays in Division I in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

“He had DIII options to choose from, but he chose to go that route,” Shaw said. “He just liked the fit a little better, liked the location and knows the coach.”

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