The Kenai River Brown Bears will embark on their 13th season today in search of breaking a five-year playoff drought.
The Bears face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights today at 12:30 p.m. ADT in the first of four games at the North American Hockey League Showcase in Minnesota.
Charged with getting the Bears to the playoffs is first-year head coach Kevin Murdock. After head coach Josh Petrich resigned for personal reasons in early February, Dan Bogdan was elevated from assistant coach to interim head coach and led the Bears to an 8-8-1-1 record down the stretch.
The Bears finished at 23-31-3-3 and 12 points out of the playoffs, but with their most wins since the 2013-14 season. While there are still more cutdowns that will take place, the Bears currently have 12 returners.
“I think with how last year ended up, especially our returning guys are feeling good about the momentum we’re carrying into the season,” Murdock said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to develop and get better, and see where we’re at in January and February for a playoff push.”
Kenai River received some big news this week when Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik decided to leave the Omaha (Nebraska) Lancers of the Tier I United States Hockey League and return to the Tier II NAHL.
Krajnik led the Bears last season with 50 points, coming on 17 goals and 33 assists. The next two players on the scoring list — Markuss Komuls and Michael Spethmann with 37 and 36, respectively — both aged out. Next on the scoring list were Andy Walker and JJ Boucher, each with 31. Walker aged out, while Boucher also returns.
The Bears biggest problem last season was scoring. They potted the second fewest goals in the league, but were 12th of 24 teams (this year there are 26) in goals allowed.
“He’s looking forward to spending his final year playing in Kenai, being with the guys and getting this thing headed in the right direction,” Murdock said of Krajnik.
The head coach said another key returner is Bogdan, who has been elevated to associate head coach. Murdock spent the last three years as associate head coach of the North Iowa Bulls of the Tier III NA3HL, so Bogdan’s experience in the NAHL and Alaska will be valuable.
“He brings a really good hockey skills background to help us continue to develop these guys to not only make our team succeed, but give the players the skills they need to move to college,” Murdock said of Bogdan.
Other forwards slated to return are Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie (29 games, two goals and four assists), Logan Ritchie (43, 5-7), Justin Daly (53, 5-9), Laudon Poellinger (35, 3-6), Wasilla’s Porter Schachle (23, 3-7), Trey LaBarge (32, 6-6) and Cody Moline (52, 4-7). Schachle committed to Division I University of Alaska Anchorage last week, becoming the first player on the roster with a Division I commit.
Forwards Thomas Walker and Sutton McDonald could have returned, but Walker decided to go to college and McDonald was traded to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Murdock said first-round pick Pavel Karasek, second-round pick Theo Thrun and Trevor Van Vliet, who was tendered, also have shown promise in helping with the Bears scoring problem.
Other forwards fighting for a final spot on the roster are Kyle Valiquette, Stewart Pond, Nash Hatcher, Anchorage’s Max Helgeson and Chase Robideau.
On defense, Soldotna’s Preston Weeks returns for a fifth and final season with the team. Weeks needs to play 49 games to set the NAHL all-time record for games played. Murdock said he has not named captains yet, but added that Weeks will be a captain.
“It’s a huge deal,” Murdock said of the 183 NAHL games Weeks has played. “It’s really hard to step into the league at a young age, and it’s even harder to stay there and improve from year to year, but if you look at his numbers, that’s what he’s done.”
Kenai River also gets blue line experience from returners Boucher, Eagle River’s Connor Canterbury and Anchorage’s Ryan Reid. Connor Scahill was eligible to return but he’s been traded to the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes of the NAHL.
“I definitely think it helps that we have so many returning guys back there,” Murdock said. “Guys like Preston Weeks lead the team and mentor the younger guys stepping into different roles.”
Murdock said Michael Spinner, drafted in the third round, also has looked good, as has Robert McCollum, who last played in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Also on the roster are Nick Latvala, Eagle River’s Logan Dudinsky and Nate Thelen.
The biggest loss for the Bears came at goalie, where Gavin Enright played 47 games last season. After committing to Division I Bemidji State during the season, Enright’s rise continued during the offseason when he made the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Gamblers of the NAHL.
Murdock said that has led to a wide-open competition at goalie, and Landon Pavlisin, Danny Fraga and CJ Hapward have taken advantage, especially in weekend exhibition games against the Minnesota Wilderness.
“All three did really well, and at this point, it’s still a competition,” Murdock said.
The Bears have four games at the Showcase before weekend series on the road against the Minnesota Magicians and Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel. The home opener is Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets.
The team has not yet been to Alaska, so with eight players from Alaska, plus all the returners, Murdock said the squad is looking forward to getting back and connecting with the community again. Murdock himself has only been here for a week in August.
“We plan on being really involved with the community, especially youth hockey,” Murdock said. “We also want to get the guys into the schools as much as possible.”