Last season, the Kenai River Brown Bears went into the holiday break with a 12-12-4 record.
All season, then-head coach Oliver David had preached patience, saying the young team would mature in the second half.
The 2012-13 Bears rewarded that patience, closing on a 14-6-2 kick and winning the first two playoff games in franchise history before succumbing to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a tight, five-game series.
This season, new head coach Geoff Beauparlant is taking a similar tact as the Bears get ready to come off their holiday break with a 14-13-3 record. The Bears play at the Minnesota Wilderness at 4:05 p.m. AST today.
Fifteen of the 23 players on the Kenai River roster were not with the team last year, and 14 of those new players are North American Hockey League rookies.
“Guys are starting to figure it out,” Beauparlant said. “They’re understanding what it takes to be successful, and that’s being prepared every day, coming to the rink and working hard, taking care of the small details, being organized and playing with pride.”
For a while, it looked like the Bears would not miss a beat coming off their strong finish to the 2012-13 season despite losing their head coach and so many players.
Kenai River started the season 12-3, with an eighth-straight win on Oct. 27 putting the Bears at the top of the NAHL standings.
Since then the team has gone 2-10-3 and currently sits in fifth in the tough Midwest Division, the only division in the league in which all the teams are .500 or better. The top four out of the division make the playoffs.
“I think in a roundabout way, we’re kind of where we expected to be, with 14 or 15 new players added to the lineup,” Beauparlant said. “We knew we were going to have ups and downs. We just didn’t think it would be all up, then all down.”
The constant has been close games. Seventeen of the Bears’ 30 games have been decided by one goal, and the Bears are 9-5-3 in those contests.
Beauparlant said the team and coaching staff may have been too focused on the results, which are decided by a bounce here and there, and not on the little things it takes to improve as a hockey club.
“With having as much success early as we had, as a team and staff we tend to overlook the little things that weren’t going well,” the coach said. “When we don’t have success, we tend to overanalyze and everything becomes magnified.”
Beauparlant said, in his opinion, the poorest performance has come from the coaching staff.
If he had to give grades, he would give the staff a B-minus to C-plus, the forwards a B, the goaltenders a B-plus to A-minus, and the defensemen a B.
Beauparlant is in his first year as an NAHL head coach, and Scott Johnson and Steve Murphy have never been in their current roles as assistants.
“We were kind of up and down as a team a little bit in our preparation, including the coaching staff, and I take responsibility for that,” Beauparlant said. “I think I tried to reinvent the wheel. I heard some different ideas and I wanted to try some.
“We’re going to come back to what worked for us in the first half, not just when we were winning, but when we were losing.”
When the Bears played the Wilderness on Nov. 23, a line brawl occurred at the end of the game.
Frankie Spellman, Conor Deal and Vince Stefan were all suspended six games by the league. This will be their first game back. Beauparlant got five, and Zack Zulkanycz got three.
Beauparlant said the silver lining from the suspensions is it forced the team into new combinations, and he got a chance to sit back and see how it worked out from high above the ice.
One result is the team will be going back to the high-powered line of veterans Alec Butcher and Albin Karlsson, and rookie Sebastian Fuchs. The line features two Division I commits in Karlsson and Fuchs, and the top scorer in the league in Butcher.
Beauparlant broke up the line in early November because it was producing over 40 percent of the team’s points, meaning all teams had to do to shut down the Bears was shut down that line.
With the recent emergence of rookie forwards Matt Rudin, Nathan Colwell and Jack Gessert, Beauparlant said that top line will no longer have to shoulder as big of a burden.
“I’m a firm believer that when we get back to full strength, we’re going to have four lines that can produce at any time we put them on the ice,” the coach said.
The coach said veteran forwards Zulkanycz and Deal bring a lot of energy, while rookie Steven Butts has been winning 75 percent of his faceoffs since moving to center.
According to Beauparlant, veteran forward Eric Purcell is getting adjusted to the team after coming in a trade in early November.
Rookie forward Spellman is learning how to put his strength to use, while rookie forwards Tommy Dierl and Sam Bratten have learned their roles, Dierl on the forecheck and Bratten as a physical player.
On defense, Beauparlant said veteran Jake Bushey is getting back to top form after coming back from the United States Hockey League. The coach also is looking forward to getting the veteran Stefan, who was just rounding into form after rehabbing a broken ankle in the offseason, back into the lineup.
With Bushey gone for part of the season and Stefan suspended, Beauparlant said veteran Jake Davidson has stepped up his game and as a team leader.
“He took it upon himself to play a more ticked-off style, and that’s what we wanted to see from him,” Beauparlant said.
The coach said veteran Judd Loewenstein has made big strides in the last month, playing physical, simple hockey.
Beauparlant also is excited about the emergence of rookies Tyler Andrews, Gustav Berglund and Austin Chavez on defense.
“They are all intense on the back end,” he said. “If you have your head down, one of those guys is ready and waiting to light you up.”
Beauparlant also said rookie defenseman Christian Luiten has fallen into his role nicely.
The coach gave his highest grade to the two rookie goaltenders. Both Zach Quinn and Kris Oldham have save percentages over .900.
“That’s probably been the biggest surprise of the season, how well each has played,” Beauparlant said.
The coach said Quinn did a good job battling through the second quarter, when he played well a lot of nights and still lost.
Oldham, 16, is the youngest player on the team. Beauparlant said he gave up eight goals in his first four periods, but since then his save percentage is about .925.
“That’s impressive for a young guy,” the coach said.
The Bears start the second half with six games in nine days on the road before an 11-game homestand. After that homestand, there are only two home dates remaining.
Beauparlant said attendance is slightly up even though two recent home series took place during intense winter storms.
“Our fan support is up 35 to 50 people a game,” Beauparlant said. “The fans have been great. The players have commented on just how loud it has been.”
The coach also said the chase for college commitments is about to heat up, particularly with the six games the Bears play in the Midwest, where lots of schools can come and watch. Colleges tend to sign up players from leagues like the Tier I USHL early, then head to the Tier II NAHL later.
“Colleges will say this league is a second-half league,” Beauparlant said. “You are going to get some commitments early, like Sebastian, but the majority happen between January and April.
“Playing in the Lower 48 is a great opportunity because the colleges will be in attendance down there.”