Series preview: Brown Bears vs. Tomahawks

Kenai River Brown Bears fans have seen both sides of going young.

In the 2012-13 season, head coach Oliver David put his trust in developing young players like current University of Alaska Anchorage forward Alex Jackstadt, and it paid off as the Bears were one of the best teams in the league after mid-January, finishing on a 15-6-2 kick for a 29-25-6 record.

But last season, head coach Geoff Beauparlant stuck with young talent and it never paid off when he was fired before mid-January as the Bears finished a league-worst 4-51-5.

Current head coach Jeff Worlton and his staff have made the decision to go with a full youth movement by releasing Jordan Hank, Tanner Dufault and Ryan Gazich this week heading into a series with the Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks.

The series starts tonight at 7 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, then continues Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the home of the Brown Bears.

Both Dufault and Gazich were in their last years of junior eligibility, meaning only six players on the Kenai River roster remain in their last years of junior eligibility.

Hank and Dufault also played with the team last year, meaning just three players remain from last season.

“We made a decision as a group, as an organization, to bring back a core group of guys we thought would be good for us at the time,” Worlton said. “It was a good idea and those guys did a good job, but we also got to the point where we want to commit to the young guys and let the young guys play and make mistakes.

“We’ll deal with the growing pains.”

The Bears have filled up their roster with forward Anthony Tzveyn, who has two more years of junior eligibility left, and defenseman Matthew Thielmann, who has three more years left.

The Bears have started off the season 0-5-1. Despite the youth, Worlton said that is not acceptable.

“We’re not going to make excuses,” Worlton said. “We have to start winning games.

“We feel good that the young kids we’ve got are just going to get better.”

In getting swept in two games by the New Jersey Titans in a home-opening series last weekend, the Bears just scored one goal.

In practice leading up to the series, Worlton had Kenai River doing a number of drills that emphasized shooting the puck on net quickly.

Friday, the Bears did just that until going down a goal in the first period.

“When you haven’t won and you get behind, guys, young guys especially, can panic a little bit and try to do a little bit more than their skill set allows,” Worlton said. “They get away from the game plan a little bit because they’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re not.”

Worlton said that desire also was apparent on scoring chances, with players gripping their sticks too tight on opportunities they normally bury in practice.

On defense, the Bears are extremely young, with no players in their last seasons of junior eligibility. A big mistake that stuck out was a turnover that led to the Titans’ second goal Friday, but overall Worlton said the defense played well.

But the highlight of the series was goalies Bailey Seagraves and Connor Poczos.

“Goalies are absolutely not the reason why we are not winning games,” Worlton said. “We’ve got to score goals, and we can’t give up 40 shots a game.”

The Tomahawks are also a young team, with just six players on the roster in their last years of junior eligibility, but have started off 6-1-0-1. Last weekend, the Tomahawks won Friday in Fairbanks, then lost Saturday in a shootout.

“They only have a handful of ’96s, but they have quite a few kids that have played in the league,” Worlton said. “They’re a good team and they work hard.

“They’re going to come at us and try and win all three games. It should be exciting.”

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