The North American Hockey League draft, in which the Kenai River Brown Bears participated Tuesday, is all about controlling an immense amount of variables.
Is the player good enough for the NAHL? Is the player too good for the NAHL, and as good as gone to a higher league? Does the player fit the Olympic-sized ice at the Soldotna Sports Center? Will the player take one look at playing at some remote outpost in Alaska called Soldotna in the middle of a cold, dark winter and say, “Forget it”?
After drafting 16 players Tuesday, Bears coach Oliver David said the organization is controlling those variables better than ever. He said the credit goes to Matt Barth, the director of scouting, and fellow scout Steve Murphy.
“Barth and Murphy went through a calculated effort to draft players that could come in and be Brown Bears, and get after it right away,” David said Tuesday from Colorado, where he got together with Barth and Murphy for the draft. “It takes a lot of weeding out.”
David also said volunteers like Joyce Duwe, Lisa Zulkanycz and Isabella Zulkanycz deserve a lot of credit for taking the load off of David so he can concentrate purely on hockey.
The coach said the difference is night and day from the draft preparation process four years ago, when he was often running around “like a chicken with his head cut off” at predraft camps.
“The draft was so easy,” David said. “We weren’t flustered. We prepared well. Now we’ll see what kind of players we get to show up and what kind of product we put on the ice.
“The things we can control were seamless. At this point, we’re a top-notch organization from top to bottom. I feel fortunate to be a part of it.”
David said that out of the first 16 players the Bears most desired, the team was able to draft eight of those players.
There is not much point in getting worked up about any particular player at this point. Last year, five drafted players made the team for the start of the season, and three were with the team by the end of the season.
A case in point is Tuesday’s first-round pick Thomas Lindstrom, a 1995 birthdate and forward from Breck School in Minnesota. Lindstrom also has been drafted by the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League.
“He’s very excited to be drafted by us,” David said. “His full intention is to play in Tri-City. To be honest, I hope it happens for him, it means we have an eye for talent.”
David said drafting kids on the USHL bubble is common practice for all teams because the USHL is such a top-level league that future Division I players are often cut from teams.
The Bears drafted two Alaska kids — defenseman Tyler Andrews in the third round and defenseman Mason Anderson in the sixth round. Anderson was drafted last season but couldn’t report due to a back injury.
“I’ve always said we are an Alaskan team and we want to be Alaska’s team,” David said. “Since I’ve become the head coach of this team, I’ve always made every effort to exhaust all opportunities with Alaskan kids.”
The Bears’ identity as a western team also showed in the draft, with two coming from Colorado, two coming from California, one coming from Washington, one coming from Idaho and one coming from Arizona.
Also, six came from the turf of Barth and Murphy in the Midwest, while one came from Buffalo, N.Y.
David also said the Bears drafted a mix of age ranges.
At the young extreme is August Von Ungren-Sternberg of the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, who is just 15 years old. David said Von Ungren-Sternberg is a USHL futures pick, but not expected to play in the USHL this year.
“He is quite the exciting talent, and I don’t say that too often,” David said.
The coach again credited the structure of the organization for allowing the Bears to draft young players. He said as young players have positive experiences here, it means more will follow.
He also said the team is now stocked with veterans that will serve as good role models for the young players.
“We do not guarantee winning,” David said. “We guarantee the opportunity for these players to play junior hockey at a very high level. They can learn in a structured environment what it might take to walk around on a college campus and do schoolwork on top of hockey practice, and maybe turn into an elite-level hockey player in three to four years.”
Gustaf Johannson, who played goalie for the Bears last season before leaving the team midseason due to a knee injury, was drafted by the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the 15th round.
David said Johannson was left unprotected because this is his last year of junior eligibility, and because, as far as David knows, Johannson has yet to skate due to the injury.
“I know coach (Bliss) Littler liked him,” David said. “In my opinion, they just took a chance.”
Round, overall, Player, Pos., Prev. Team
1, 13, Thomas Lindstrom, F, Breck School.
2, 30, Ryan McMurphy, F, Tri-City Storm (USHL).
2, 35, Nathan Colwell, F, CO Thunderbirds U-16.
2, 38, Brenden Smith, D, CO Thunderbirds U-16.
3, 57, Nick Klishko, F, LA Jr Kings U-16.
3, 63, Tyler Andrews, D, AK Jr. Aces U-18.
4, 87, Ben Blake, D, Wenatchee Wild U-16.
5, 106, Jack Gessert, F, Compuware U-18.
5, 110, Matt Rudin, F, Cleveland Barons U-18.
5, 111, J.R. Wojciechowski, D, Oakland Grizzlies U-18.
6, 130, Mason Anderson, D, AK Jr. Aces U-18.
7, 147, Jayce Davis, D, Phoenix Jr. Coyotes U-18.
8, 161, Frankie Spellman, F, Shattuck St. Mary's.
9, 174, August Von Ungren-Sternberg, F, Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
10, 183, Josh Gabriel, F, Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
11, 191, Tyger Howat, G, Victory Honda U-18.