With 16 games already played in a 60-game season, Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant is looking for the time invested in rookies early in the season to begin paying off soon.
The Brown Bears host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for three games this weekend at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, while game time is at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The only two Alaska teams in the North American Hockey League have been at opposite ends of the spectrum through the first quarter of the season.
Fairbanks, with its 13-2-1 record, has the most points in the league. The Bears, at 1-15-0, have the least points in the league.
But Beauparlant is not ready to press the panic button.
“You can’t say it’s easy,” he said. “It’s a work in progress day to day. We’re always looking for different ways to keep them positive and understand it’s a season-long process.
“We’ve got a lot of younger guys gaining experience earlier in the year. That’s going to prove valuable. It’s taking longer than the staff envisioned, but at the same time we’re improving.”
The coach said the squad’s top four defensemen, all averaging 20 to 23 minutes a night, are first-year players. That quartet is Dylan McArthur, Thomas Keane, Charles Spetz and Croix Evingson.
Another pair of first-year players, Gunnar Goodmanson and Justin Bofshever, are getting major minutes on a line with captain Jack Gessert.
“We’re just over a quarter of the way through the season and that’s when it eventually clicks for the guys,” Beauparlant said. “We saw it last year with some of our younger guys like Joey Sardina and Evan Butcher.”
Beauparlant said consistency in defensive pairings and lines should also begin to pay off. In addition to the Gessert line, the coach said Butcher, Sardina and Bayley Marshall are coming together. He also said Tanner Dufault returned from injury last weekend to pair nicely with alternate captains Sam Carlson and Adam Kresl.
But Fairbanks will be a formidable obstacle if the Bears are to stop a franchise-high pointless streak at 13 games. The Bears are behind 4-0 in the Ravn Alaska Cup, the season-long battle for supremacy between the two Alaska teams.
“It’s always our biggest rival and we look forward to it,” Beauparlant said. “We need to raise our game to a different level when we play them.”
The Bears also get forward Blake Carrick back in the lineup, allowing the team to dress the preferred 12 forwards and six defensemen for the first time in a little under a month. Cam Cook remains out with a shoulder injury.
With three games in three days, Beauparlant said things like shift length and puck management become more important, but that players can’t afford to hold back.
“These are young guys in the prime of their athletic career,” Beauparlant said. “They just have to do the right things away from the rink in terms of meals, rest and hydration.”
Bears notes: Russian defenseman Oleg Khalemin has left the team to try out for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“His agent called today and described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Beauparlant said. “We wish him the best. It’s a great opportunity to potentially play in arguably the second-best pro league in the world.”
Beauparlant said the tryout does not involve appearing in a game, so Khalemin maintains his NAHL eligibility if he doesn’t make the league. …
Defensemen Fredrick Blomgren has been let go by the team and will return to Sweden. …
Friday will be Microcom night, while Saturday will be Marine Toys for Tots, where fans can bring toys to donate or purchase toys at the game to donate.
Sunday will be Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation Kids Day, with activities for kids at the game and a meet and greet with the Bears after the game at the Soldotna Dairy Queen. All kids 12 and under get into Sunday’s game for free.