By Matt Mackinder -
With the NAHL season getting underway at the NAHL Showcase in Minnesota, here’s a look at this year’s crop of Michigan-based teams.
Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings
An expansion team in 2011-12, Kalamazoo put on quite a show, finishing second in the North Division and losing in the North Division finals to Port Huron.
“We set the bar pretty high for ourselves last season coming so close to both a regular season and playoff championships in the division, so I think this year it is something we definitely have our sights set on,” said Jr. K-Wings’ head coach Marc Fakler. “We are going to have 13 returning players and another four with NAHL experience. We know the North will be very tough and a challenge to make the playoffs, but we are excited about the competitiveness and variety of the games.
“We have almost all our returning scorers from last season and I feel real good about our defense and goaltending because there is a veteran presence there, too. I think having guys with experience is always a plus.”
Up front, the Jr. K-Wings return forwards Robbie Payne, Kyle Gattelaro, Brandon Flood, Jacob McDowell and Taylor Burden. On defense, Brett Beauvais, who is being looked at as a potential NHL draft prospect for the 2013 draft, and Mark Essaki, who was acquired from Jamestown, will be the blueliners looked upon to stabilize the game.
In goal, Alex Okicki, who split time last season with Ken MacLean, should start the year as the No. 1 goalie, but will be pushed by Nick Stuart.
NAHL Showcase results – 4-0 record, with wins over Coulee Region, Fairbanks, Minot and Aberdeen
After getting all the way to the title game of the 2011 Robertson Cup, the Flint-based Warriors experienced a “sophomore slump” last year.
A rebound season is just what head coach Moe Mantha is hoping for this go-round.
“We were looking for more speed and goal-scoring up front for this season,” said Mantha. “We also want to improve at the goaltending position and be more consistent. After losing some of the key players we did, including the league’s MVP (Robert Tadazak), we knew we were going to be young and have some immaturities last season. I think any time you have a really young team like that it is hard to be consistent for 60 games, but towards the end of the season, I saw the improvement in our players and we put together a decent run and were able to make the playoffs.”
Captain Martin Gruse is back in the Vehicle City and is joined up front by fellow returnee Brad Pizzey. On the back end, Jared Fiegl and Derek O’Flynn are back for another season.
The only issues may be in goal where Trevor Gorsuch, Michael Pesendorfer and Jordan Uhelski will all battle for the No. 1 spot, though Gorsuch did see time during the second half and in the playoffs last season.
Rookie forward and California native Luke Rendino should crack the lineup on a regular basis, as should top draft pick Jake Hopfner.
NAHL Showcase results – 1-3 record, with a win over Topeka
Port Huron Fighting Falcons
The “worst to first” Cinderella story from last season, which included a North Division title and a berth in the Robertson Cup tournament, the Fighting Falcons are out to prove this year that 2011-12 was no fluke.
That said, NAHL coach of the year Bill Warren stepped down over the summer and Steve Shannon has taken over. Changes may be happening, but winning is still expected in Port Huron.
“I think that the guys who were here last year will come into the season with a certain hunger for more success,” said Shannon. “They had a remarkable season last year and I know that after getting so close to a championship, they will have the desire to give it another run.”
Gone is goaltender Peter Megariotis, who accepted a scholarship to Ohio State, but Max Milosek, who shared time last year with Megariotis, is more than capable of winning games on his own.
Forwards Kody Polin (24 goals), Ian Miller (26 goals) and Rick DeRosa are all back and will all be expected to increase their offensive output.
Swedish forward Daniel Rehnstrom is new in town and rookie defenseman Mark Evan Auk has already had some NCAA Division I interest. Veteran defenseman Alex Archibald will be counted on for leadership and dominant play.
NAHL Showcase results – 3-1, with wins over Bismarck, Amarillo and Wichita Falls (also had two season-opening wins over Johnstown)
New to the league, but certainly not new to junior hockey, the Eagles take over the Traverse City North Stars’ franchise and make the move from the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League to the NAHL.
The Soo Indians also played in the NAHL from 1995-2005 and at one time, boasted a young goalie named Ryan Miller.
Eagles’ head coach Bruno Bragagnolo is fired up for the season to start.
“I never want to leave a game thinking we have been out-worked,” said Bragagnolo. “I want the players with skill to be able to free-wheel a little bit and make things happen in the offensive zone.
“Having a good core of players with NAHL experience that played in Traverse City definitely impacted the way I recruited for this upcoming season. We didn’t alter anything we normally do. We wanted to find some really good and talented players who could also be a nice compliment to those players that were coming over from Traverse City.”
Traverse City holdovers Jared Van Wormer, Alex Taulien, Chris Waterstreet, Eric Rivard, Jake Peacock and Kyle Loridon lead the way up front, while former Traverse City defensemen Nathan Harris and Kyle Froese are expected to be impact players along with junior hockey veterans Michael Lant and Cody Von Rueden.
Veteran goalies Tyler Marble and Zach Naglevoort, who both played in Traverse City, should be a solid 1-2 punch between the pipes.
NAHL Showcase results – 0-4 record, losses to Corpus Christi, Aberdeen, Brookings and Fresno
Coaches’ quotes courtesy NAHL.com