Close friends since second grade, Matt Thompson and Sean Muller stood next to each other in a quiet locker room Thursday.
The Kenai River Brown Bears duo was flanked by three teammates - Keil Zornow, Christopher Nuth and Jack Pollock.
"This is one of the best parts of the season. You get to know everybody, you kind of feel everybody out - see who likes what and where everybody comes from," said Thompson, a second-year forward. "You get a lot of people coming from a lot of places."
When the Bears open the 2011-12 North American Hockey League season against the defending champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs at 7:30 p.m. today at the Soldotna Sports Center, fans will see a mix of new and familiar faces.
Eight of the 24 players listed on the opening day roster belonged to last year's club, which broke a franchise record with 27 wins and qualified for the playoffs thanks to a fourth-place finish in the NAHL West Division under coach Oliver David.
David returns for a second full season after inheriting a mess early in the 2009-10 campaign, when the Bears finished a division-worst 12-40-6.
After a first-round exit from the playoffs against the Ice Dogs a year ago, expectations are higher than ever. But David is the first to admit there are no guarantees, no free passes.
In a division featuring the league champions as well as a pair of second-year squads - the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters and Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage - that figure to be better than they were in 2010-11, nothing will come easy.
The chance of Kenai River finishing in last place, David said, is just as likely as a return trip to the postseason.
"There is no way of predicting anything from here on out," David said. "I don't know who we are playing against. I couldn't tell you who the strongest team is going
to be. There are many, many unknowns.
"But us creeping by and getting in fourth place last year with two first-year teams that are now not first-year teams - that are moving forward - our division should be one of the strongest. Where do we stand? I don't know."
The following is a closer look at the 2011-12 squad:
OFFENSE: A fan favorite, a Fin and a Frere
Third-year player and captain Brett Lubanski leads Kenai River's first offensive line, which includes newcomer Miikael Arkimo of Finland and second-year player Alex Frere.
Last season, Lubanski was ninth in the league in points with 63 and tied for second in assists with 48 alongside first-line wingers Doug Beck and Soldotna product Brad Duwe. Beck is now playing in college and Duwe is not listed on the roster, though he is expected to join the team.
Lubanski and Frere both hail from Michigan and have known each other for years, making them a natural pair. Frere, who is creative with the puck and active around the net, was fifth on the squad with 14 goals last season.
Then there's Arkimo, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder who David said has the tools to become one of the league's best players.
The 20-year old left-winger joins Kenai River from HIFK Helsinki. He took the ice for the first time Tuesday.
"Arkimo is a natural shoot-first guy. He is of great size, his presence is undeniable," David said. "He has been on the ice only one day and everyone's head turned. He's a great pickup."
Lubanski considers himself a pass-first player, but with the team losing a combined 55 goals in the absence of Beck and Duwe, he wants to be more aggressive this season.
"I'm always going to be a natural playmaker," said Lubanski, 20. ‘But definitely this year I plan on being relied upon in the goal-scoring department."
There's little drop-off with the second line, featuring a trio of 20-year-old returners who have known each other since grade school.
Muller and Thompson join Bobby Murphy to form an experienced second unit. They combined to score 45 goals in 2010-11 and figure only to get stronger, placing an added emphasis on team defense.
"It's not very often that you have a whole line come back for the next season," Thompson said. "It's some more weight on our shoulders in that sense, being expected to perform even more than we did last year. We are excited. We are really excited."
The third line features three rookies - Zachary Lazzaro of Aston, Penn., Kellen Wasell of Seattle and Nuth, a California native. Fellow rookie Jake Pollock, 18, the squad's second-youngest player, said Thursday he hopes to join the third unit.
Fresh out of high school, Pollock is adjusting to the speed of NAHL hockey while he fights for time on the ice.
"You pretty much have to be coachable and listen to what coach has to say," Pollock said. "It makes a difference if you are coachable and letting people know that you are on the ice for a reason and wanting to get better."
Returning player Dominic Granato, who won the league's academic award in 2010-11, anchors the fourth line alongside Skyler McKnight and Nick O'Donnell.
David calls the fourth unit the "energy line," saying Granato's presence as a defensive-minded forward gives Kenai River a lift.
"It's nice to have an anchor and a kid like Dominic Granato back there," the coach said. "We're excited to have a forward who thinks like he does. He's a team player."
DEFENSE: Raymond and the rest
Of the Bears' nine defensemen, only Raymond Stenehjem returns.
Jesse Ramsey is a returning player, but he was a forward last season. Ramsey, who played defense in high school, moves to the back for 2011-12. The rest of the crew is new.
Keil Zornow, who arrived to the central Kenai Peninsula on Wednesday, is listed alongside Stenehjem on the first line.
The Bears acquired Zornow, 19, from the Wichita Falls (Texas) Wildcats after the Wildcats hired a new coach. Zornow is one of five 6-foot-plus athletes on Kenai River's back line, which is bulkier than it was a year ago.
"I'm really excited for this year," Zornow said. "I really want to finish near the top of our division and get out of the first round of playoffs."
It will be impossible to ignore fellow newcomer Austin Sture, who is 6-foot-7, 235 pounds.
The Brown Bears biggest player, Sture was born in Alaska but played in Canada last season. He joins Austin Rehwinkel, Jake Davidson, Kellen Patrick, Vincent Stefan and Theo Tydingco, who is generally listed at 5-6, 160 pounds.
David will mix and match early in the year.
"The defensive pairings aren't as put together," he said. "They are always rotating, so the defensive pairings are sort of up in the air."
Kenai River was fourth in the NAHL West in goals allowed with 191 in 2010-11. Chief among the losses were Chris Rial and Joe Blake - both of whom are playing in college - and Alec Thieda, a former United States Hockey League player.
GOALIE: ‘Super Man' and Severson
With Mathias Dahlstrom now in the USHL and Josh Benton getting cut this week, the starting job is open.
The battle is between a pair of NAHL rookies in Seattle native Auston Severson, 19, and Paul Bourbeau Jr., 18, of Quebec City.
Severson and Bourbeau Jr. are built differently, with Severson going 5-9, 160 pounds, and Bourbeau Jr. going 6-1, 167 pounds, and each brings different skills.
David called Severson the more polished player, but said Bourbeau Jr. has the potential to be an elite player.
"Severson is maybe more ready to go right away, from what we can tell," David said. "But Bourbeau is a Division I goalie for sure. It's a matter of if he gets to that point. They both are, but Bourbeau, as the fans will see, is just an exceptional athlete."
Bourbeau Jr. played for the DC Capitals last season and is quick with hands and feet.
He caught David's attention during a training camp this summer and beat out a large pool of athletes for a roster spot.
"Super athlete, as in Super Man - an elite, elite athlete," David described the rookie. "Very, very lean - no body fat, extremely, extremely agile. You're probably not going to see another goalie in this rink as athletic as him.
"Just huge amounts of potential. His upside is limitless. He is an exceptional athlete."
Don't be surprised if David alternates between the Severson and Bourbeau Jr., at least early in the schedule.
Dahlstrom and Benton split time for the better part of 2010-11, with Dahlstrom earning more playing time late in the year.
"It's kind of the same this year. It depends on the development of each one of them - how poised they are, which we won't know until they play," David said. "I've never seen either one of our goalies play in a game, definitely not at a level of this caliber. There will be some speed bumps and things like that, but they are both very good."
Goalie is arguably the most important position on the ice.
Former Ice Dogs goalie Joe Phillipi was the league's leading stopper a year ago, and his squad won the title.
So David is understandably apprehensive about trotting out a pair of rookies.
"It's a little anxiety-ridden for me and stressful doing that, but in fairness they are competing," David said. "Status is not always what you judge everything against. They are the top two that we have."
OUTLOOK: Third place or bust?
Handicapping the division is difficult, David said, but the Ice Dogs have to be favored until they are knocked off.
What the coach made clear was the team hopes to win 30 games - which would be a three-game jump from 2010-11 - and place third or higher in the division. The Bears placed fourth last year, drawing No. 1 seed Fairbanks in the opening round of the playoffs.
The league added two games to the schedule, boosting it from 58 to 60, but 30 wins likely means playing .500 hockey or better because of overtime losses.
The Alaska Avalanche of Palmer and Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild join the Ice Dogs, Monsters, Rage and Bears in the division.
David expects the West to be better top to bottom.
"It doesn't seem like we raised the bar that high, but the reality is we are playing better competition," David said. "Even if we are a better team than last year, if we have more talent, if we have more players that understand what's expected of them and all those types of things - even with a better team across the board, it still might not show because we are playing against better teams than last year."
For Lubanski, in his final season, expectations are up.
"The way we're looking at it is, last year was last year. We want to move on from that. We want to do even better than last year," he said. "We're not going to be happy with just making the playoffs. We want to do better than fourth place and try to win the division."