When Kevin Murdock was hired as the head coach of the Kenai River Brown Bears before the 2019-20 season, his biggest task was to rebuild the forward position after the area’s North American Hockey League team scored the second fewest goals in the league in 2018-19.
As the Bears get set to embark on the 2020-21 campaign, the depth and experience at forward shows Murdock has turned a weakness into a strength over the course of a year.
When the season was canceled due to the new coronavirus pandemic with eight games to play and the Bears sitting at 27-19-3-3, the team was on the cusp of making the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
Kenai River’s revamped forwards were a big part of that success. The Bears scored 197 goals, tied for second best in the league.
“We return six forwards, and seven forwards who played in the league last year,” said Murdock, whose team opens the season today at the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at 4:10 p.m. AKST. “It’s really nice to have all guys who had a positive impact, not guys who were in and out of the lineup.”
The rebuilding project this year will be at defense. Kenai River aged out five blueliners after last season, returning just three with experience.
“The emphasis for us this summer and offseason was to reload on the back end,” Murdock said. “We wanted younger guys that would be able to compete right away, and also be guys we’d have a year or two down the road so we won’t be in a similar situation.”
No. 1 goalie Landon Pavlisin also aged out after the season. Pavlisin was 23-12-1-3 in the net. This season’s goalies are Danny Fraga, the team’s backup last season, and Luke Pavicich.
“Both guys have done pretty well,” Murdock said. “Actually, all four goalies we had did really well in the preseason.”
Murdock had to put together the club without scouting showcases and tournaments, which were all canceled due to the pandemic. He said he feels good about the result, but also appreciates the amount of uncertainty surrounding this season.
“If this was a normal year, I’d feel pretty good heading into the season,” he said. “The tough part is knowing about everybody else. We won’t know that until we play them. Our division looks to be very strong this year.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Murdock said two teams went dark for this season in the Tier I United States Hockey League this season, while four went dark in the Tier II NAHL.
The coach said that means 170 high level players are finding their way to other teams.
Murdock said there’s also no way to tell how the new coronavirus might effect the team. He said the NAHL has safety protocols in place. The Bears have added additional protocols.
“The tough part is to some degree it’s almost inevitable because the disease is everywhere,” Murdock said. “We’re doing our best to manage it, but there’s no way we can be sure to keep everyone 100% safe.
“The league doesn’t have the money to lock itself in a bubble like the NHL.”
The virus also has cast uncertainty over Kenai River’s schedule. The Bears have just five home games before the holiday break. They will be played at the Breezy Point Hockey Center in Minnesota.
Kenai River is not scheduled to play at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex until Jan. 15, but that is not certain due to the pandemic.
“All the guys that have been there can’t wait to get back,” Murdock said. “All the guys that haven’t been there have heard stories how great it is. They’re excited to get back up there eventually.”
Murdock said fans can watch the team’s games on HockeyTV. The coach also said the organization has plans to beef up its social media content.
Even with all the uncertainty hanging over the season, Murdock said the excitement is palpable.
“The nice part is they’re back on the ice playing hockey again,” Murdock said. “It took everyone, coaches included, some time to get back into the swing of things after 7 1/2 or eight months off.”
At forward, the Bears return the No. 3, 4, 5 and 6 scorers from last season.
Peter Morgan was third with 45 points, while Anchorage’s Max Helgeson was right behind with 44 points. Murdock said Morgan has been great in exhibitions, while Helgeson’s success after making the team last year as a free agent has made the cuts tougher this year.
“We were able to hold onto him and give him an opportunity at the (NAHL) Showcase and he took off from there,” Murdock said of Helgeson. “This year, any kid I’m wavering on, I think of keeping him longer because he could be the next Max Helgeson.”
Theo Thrun was fifth with 38 points in 40 games, while Porter Schachle of Wasilla was sixth with 37 points in 46 games.
Murdock said the return of both is a welcome surprise. Schachle was slated to play for Division I UAA this season, but decided to come back to the Brown Bears after it was announced the Seawolves would fold after this season. There is an effort to save the team.
Thrun had a hot start for the Bears last season and committed to Division I Western Michigan University before getting called up to the Omaha (Nebraska) Lancers of the USHL. Murdock learned this week Thrun would be coming back to the Bears.
Even more experience up front comes from Brandon Lajoie, Daymin Dodge and Laudon Poellinger.
Lajoie, of Eagle River, will be in his third year with the team and had 22 points in 50 games last season. Poellinger had 23 points in 52 games, while Dodge had a strong finishing stretch with 10 points in 23 games.
Murdock also likes the experience obtained in a trade for Brandon McNamara, who already has two NAHL seasons under his belt.
Lucas Wahlin was impressive in short stints for the Bears last year and joins this year as a tender, while Murdock said forwards Shayne Tomlinson and Jeffrey Lee have looked good in the preseason.
The three returners on defense are Anchorage’s Ryan Reid, Dylan Hadfield and Adam Szubert. Reid is in his third season with the Bears, while Szubert got in 43 games for the team last season and Hadfield got in 44.
Andrew Ramsey of Anchorage, Drew Jeffers, Carter Green, Cam Blanton and Tyler Pfister are the new defensemen.
“I’m excited about their potential to keep getting better and better,” Murdock said.