Two things have characterized the Kenai River Brown Bears through 12 games of a 60-game season — constant roster turnover and up-and-down play on the ice.
Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant is ready for both of those things to level out as his squad enters 7:30 p.m. games tonight and Saturday against the Minnesota Wilderness at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Bears have already released or traded 14 players this season, a high rate for the eighth-year franchise of the North American Hockey League.
So far, there have been just three other full seasons when the Bears’ roster saw more change — 22 players in 2012-13, 21 players in 2009-10 and 18 players in 2007-08.
Beauparlant said he and general manager Nate Kiel don’t enjoy making that many moves.
“The community loves the players we bring in and they become attached,” Beauparlant said. “It’s important everybody knows this isn’t an easy process.
“We’re trying to put a better hockey club on the ice. When we have an opportunity to be better, we feel we owe it to the fans, the board of directors and everybody who supports us to put a better product on the ice.”
Beauparlant said the changes happened for two reasons. First of all, the Bears have gotten off to a 5-7 start as opposed to last season’s 12-3 burst from the gate. Second, the team had the opportunity to bring back a number of veterans after opportunities didn’t work out elsewhere.
This has the Bears with 11 veterans and 12 rookies on the current roster, with eight players who have significant previous-season experience as Bears.
At the Brown-Gold game in early September, the Bears had seven veterans and 17 rookies, with just five players with significant Bears experience.
Since the Bears last took the ice Oct. 11, a number of moves have been made to continue shaping the roster.
Kenai River has acquired Alex Jackstadt from the Powell River Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League.
After graduating from East High in Anchorage, Jackstadt experienced a rapid ascent as a member of the 2012-13 Bears.
The forward had 20 goals and 19 assists in 59 games, including 18 points in his last 19 games.
Jackstadt then had one of the biggest goals in franchise history in the playoffs, scoring with 10:32 left in the third period for a 2-1 victory in Game 2 against the Ice Dogs in Fairbanks. It was the first playoff victory in franchise history.
In 2013-14, Jackstadt moved up to the Fargo Force of the Tier I United States Hockey League, notching four goals and 10 assists in 58 games, while signing with the University of Alaska Anchorage for the 2015-16 season.
This season, he had a goal and an assist in six games for the River Kings.
Beauparlant, who actually was on the Fairbanks bench as an assistant when Jackstadt scored his historic goal, is happy to welcome him back.
“I think we’re getting a positive, energetic young man who knows what it takes to be successful,” the coach said. “His impact was felt right away, especially in the locker room.”
Beauparlant said Jackstadt has been on energy lines in the USHL and BCHL, but the coach said the 5-foot-7, 145-pounder can still be a top-line producer.
“With him, it’s all about confidence, and he’s looked good so far in practice,” Beauparlant said. “We’ll see what he brings to the table.”
The coach said that success with the Brown Bears can propel Jackstadt into a solid career with the Seawolves, as Soldotna product Brad Duwe has already shown.
“All you have to do is look back to Brad Duwe to see what playing for our organization and playing for our league can do,” Beauparlant said. “Our goal is to help get Alex ready to go play at that level.”
Also joining the Bears is Colton Fletcher, a 5-10, 154-pound right-handed forward.
Fletcher was drafted by the Bears in the second round this year, but he was a late cut from the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars of the USHL. Fletcher stuck around in Omaha, Nebraska, playing AAA hockey with the hope of rejoining the Stars, but it didn’t pan out.
Fletcher, 17, grew up playing hockey in Wasilla with current Brown Bears forward Tanner Schachle, another second-round pick of the Bears.
“He wins draws, protects the puck well and has good vision,” Beauparlant said. “He has a very special chemistry with Tanner. I’m excited to see them play together again.
“They did some pretty special things at open camp in Anchorage in May. I’m hoping they can rekindle that chemistry quickly.”
Forward Adam Kresl, at 6-1, 205, also rejoined the Bears over the break. Kresl played in four regular-season games and two playoff games for the Bears, making an impression with his physical play and nose for the net.
But those six games weren’t enough for the Bears to automatically retain his rights for this year.
Beauparlant said the team wanted him back, but the team used its three second-round picks on Schachle, Fletcher and a trade for current forward Maurin Bouvet.
Kresl was drafted in the second round by the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings, and when he became available from the Wings and the Bears needed a center, Beauparlant and Kresl quickly decided that the northern Wisconsin native should escape to the milder winters of the Kenai Peninsula.
“I think he was always a Brown Bear at heart and knew he would be back in a Brown Bears uniform,” Beauparlant said. “When I called him to see if he was interested, he was duck hunting, if that gives you any idea.
“He’s looked solid in practice. We know what we’re getting in an experienced, older body.”
The final big personnel move of the break came with the trade of goalie Zach Quinn to the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild for forward Joseph Kaszupski.
Quinn made the Brown Bears last season as a free agent and went 17-18-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
However, this season Quinn started 1-4 with a 4.62 goals-against average and .842 save percentage.
“We thought it was the right move to give him a fresh start,” Beauparlant said. “He struggled out of the gate and was feeling a bit of pressure.
“With Wenatchee not in the division anymore, it made sense to move him there.”
Kaszupski is a right-handed, 5-11, 182-pound forward. The 19-year-old appeared in 46 games for the Wild last season, with six goals and four assists.
In order to make room for the new players, Matt Wickman, Collin Charyszyn, Danny O’Donnell and Jack Murphy were traded, while Christopher Usov and Jacob Gerson were released.
“We thought that the kids we moved were kids that contributed well to the organization while they were here,” Beauparlant said. “But when we had the opportunity to acquire better players and better the organization and roster, we had to make those moves.”
This roster has a heavy Alaska influence, with Evan Butcher, Tyler Andrews and Jackstadt of Anchorage, Fletcher and Schachle of Wasilla and Sam Carlson of Kenny Lake.
“We always want to have an Alaska presence on our hockey club,” Beauparlant said. “It’s a pride thing for them to be able to play in their home state.”
Beauparlant said he thinks the roster is settled, and hopes that leads to more consistency on the ice.
Here is the score and result of the Bears’ last eight games: won 4-3, lost 7-1, lost 6-4, won 5-1, won 2-1, lost 6-1, lost 4-1 and won 5-2.
“I’d like us to start stringing some things together, but that takes a bit of time,” Beauparlant said. “At the same time, now that we have more of a solid veteran presence in the locker room, it should help that process.”
The Wilderness are led by former Alaska Avalanche coach Corey Millen and are off to a 7-3-0 start. They are second to the Ice Dogs in the Midwest Division, but have played five less games than the Dogs. The Bears are last in the Midwest.
“His teams are always well-coached and he does a great job prepping the guys,” Beauparlant said of Millen. “They’re right at the top of the league and we know we’re going to have our hands full.
“People haven’t seen all the pieces with our group, so it will be interesting to see how ready we are coming off a break with all the changes.”
With Quinn gone, the Bears are left with rookies Josh Creelman and Alec Derks in net. Creelman is 3-1 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, while Derks has seen spot duty thus far.
Beauparlant said neither is the No. 1 goalie.
“I think right now it’s a good battle,” he said. “They both compete hard and they both want the net.”
Bears notes: Tonight will be Toys for Tots night. Those bringing a toy or buying one at the game have the chance to win prizes. Saturday will be Alyeska Tire night, with a set of Nokian winter tires being given away. … On their weekend off, the Bears held Oktoberfest at the sports complex. Beauparlant said the night was a success, with sponsors donating great prizes and about 300 fans showing up.