The 2013 offseason for the Kenai River Brown Bears was marked by change. The upcoming offseason is shaping up to be much more stable.
After the 2012-13 campaign, the Bears would lose their head coach of four seasons, their division in the North American Hockey League and all but eight players off their roster.
In a season wrapup interview Thursday, head coach Geoff Beauparlant said he will be returning next season, as will assistants Steve Murphy and Scott Johnson.
The coach said 16 players are eligible to return, but put the likely number of returners in the range of 12 to 13.
And unlike last season, when troubles for the franchises in Wenatchee, Wash., and Fresno, Calif., made it clear the West Division was doomed, there are no similar storm clouds on the horizon this year.
“Everything looks like it’s going to be the same as it’s been,” Beauparlant said.
Despite all the transition heading into this season, the Bears were able to put together a season that was very similar to last season.
The 2012-13 Bears went 29-25-6 in the regular season, good for 64 points, before falling to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
This year’s squad was 28-24-8, for 64 points, before also falling to the Ice Dogs in five games of the first round of the playoffs.
The Bears had the least amount of regulation losses in franchise history and had the league’s scoring champ — Alec Butcher — for the first time.
All this despite playing a brutal schedule. Thirty-four of Kenai River’s 60 regular-season games were against teams that have reached the final eight of the Robertson Cup playoffs.
“It allowed us to get better each week,” Beauparlant said. “Each week was a new challenge and I thought for the most part we met that challenge.
“Each and every week we had to get ready to play a really good opponent. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
And, most likely, he won’t get it any other way. If things remain as they are now, Kenai River will play Fairbanks and Wenatchee — two of the NAHL’s top franchises — a total of 28 times next season.
“To get where we want to go, we’re going to have to beat Fairbanks and Wenatchee,” Beauparlant said.
This season, the tough slate nearly kept the Bears out of the playoffs, as the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill had to lose on the last day of the regular season for Kenai River to qualify.
Beauparlant said getting the playoff experience was great, but even without a playoff berth the Bears would have achieved their goals of being a positive part of the community, moving players on to college and competing every weekend.
“Either way, we would have considered the season a success,” Beauparlant said.
As for that playoff series, Beauparlant, an Ice Dogs assistant for three seasons, admitted it was different coaching against players he knew so well.
“Relationships are what this is all about,” Beauparlant said of junior hockey. “Like I always tell the guys, you won’t remember a loss 20 or even 10 years from now, but you will remember the friendships you have developed for the past eight or nine months.”
Of the seven players the Bears are losing, three — Jake Davidson, Conor Deal and Vince Stefan — played three years for the organization. All are expected to announce college commitments in the upcoming weeks.
“They are three great people who left everything out there for this organization,” Beauparlant said.
Jacob Wolter is the other player aging out. He played half of this season for the Bears and also is expected to announce a college commitment.
“Sometimes you don’t know if Tier III guys are going to fit in,” Beauparlant said. “He fit in, competed and held guys accountable.”
Both Butcher and Albin Karlsson have a year of junior eligibility left, but both will play Division I hockey next year — Butcher at Sacred Heart and Karlsson at Niagara. Butcher led the team with 66 points and a plus-20, while Karlsson was second with 43 points and third with a plus-11.
“Alec Butcher winning the scoring title is a huge accomplishment for him and the guys that helped him get there,” Beauparlant said. “I’m extremely proud of how he competed all year.”
When he was coaching in Fairbanks, Beauparlant said Karlsson was known as a perimeter player. This year he was second on the team in penalty minutes.
“Albin has evolved into a college hockey player,” Beauparlant said. “He’s very mature in the way he plays and analyzes the game.
“He learned how to get his nose dirty.”
Sebastian Fuchs is just 17, but the University of Denver commit has signed to play next season with the expansion Madison (Wis.) Capitols of the Tier I United States Hockey League. The NAHL is Tier II.
Fuchs, third on the team with 38 points, will play with head coach Steve Miller, the former Denver assistant who helped recruit Fuchs.
“The path is now clear for him to go to Madison, Denver and then hopefully the pro ranks,” Beauparlant said.
That means the top three scorers for the Bears are gone, but Jack Gessert (31 points), Matt Rudin (30), Zack Zulkanycz (23) and Nathan Colwell (21) are all eligible to return. Zulkanycz, the Kenai Central product, was second on the team at plus-12.
Frankie Spellman (15), Tommy Dierl (11) and late-season acquisitions RJ Salvato and Adam Kresl also can return.
“I think we’ll have more depth with our scoring,” Beauparlant said. “This season was different. We got a lot of scoring from what might have been the best line in the league.”
On defense, Gustav Berglund and Judd Loewenstein are eligible to return, but are considering going to college.
If those two stay, six most likely return on defense.
“We should be able to bring back a good core on defense,” Beauparlant said.
Also eligible to come back are Tyler Andrews, Ben Campbell and Christian Luiten. Campbell is the shortest of the bunch at 6-foot-1.
Austin Chavez, who is 5-10 but just 17, also can return. Beauparlant said Chavez and Karlsson were the most talented skaters on the team.
“It’s fun to watch him flying around out there,” the coach said of Chavez.
Goalies Zach Quinn and Kris Oldham both can return.
Quinn, who finished 17-18-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, has one year of junior eligibility left. He served as the No. 1 goalie.
Oldham is still just 16 years old but is 6-4. He was 11-6-4 with 3.17 goals against and a .901 save percentage.
Oldham’s rights are owned by the Omaha (Neb.) Lancers of the USHL.
“He’ll give his best effort there in order to earn the right to move on,” Beauparlant said.
In addition to all the returners on the ice, Beauparlant said stability in the coaching staff should pay dividends.
In an interview at the halfway point of the season, Beauparlant, in his first year as a head coach in the NAHL, said the staff spent part of the first half of the season experimenting with various things.
“As a staff, we really grew and we found what has really been our identity in the last eight weeks,” Beauparlant said. “After Christmas, we were holding guys more accountable and raising expectations on and off the ice.”
The coach also sees a maturing organization in terms of staff, volunteers and fan base. The opening of the Bears’ Den shop was a step forward. The coach also said getting over 800 fans to the Tuesday and Wednesday home playoff games was important. Midweek games can be tough draws.
“It could have gone the other way,” Beauparlant said. “That those fans showed up and were loud means a lot to the guys.”
With so much in place, Beauparlant said the time has come for the organization to take another step forward. The Brown Bears have seven season in the books, and are 0-6 in playoff series.
“The next step is to win a first-round playoff series, go deep in the playoffs and have a chance at the Robertson Cup,” he said.
The next thing on the Bears’ radar is the USHL draft on May 5 and 6, then three tryout camps in May, followed by the NAHL draft in early June.
Bears notes: Former Bears Brad Duwe and Bobby Murphy picked up awards at the hockey team banquet for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Duwe, from Soldotna, earned the Most Improved Award. He dressed in just seven games for the first half of the season, then played 20 times in the second half. He scored seven goals, including a pair of game-winners against the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the playoffs.
Murphy won the Humanitarian Award, an new award this season. Murphy, of Anchorage, dressed in seven games but contributed off the ice, volunteering and helping UAA with charity work.