Under new coach Jeff Worlton, the Kenai River Brown Bears are planning ahead while being mindful of the present.
“We want to win lots of games the rest of the way, but we’re also looking into the future,” Worlton said as the Bears get set to face the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues in Tier II North American Hockey League action Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Worlton replaced Geoff Beauparlant 34 games into a 60-game season. The Bears lost the first two games of Worlton’s tenure to the Minnesota Wilderness last weekend to fall to 2-33-1, so the playoffs are not a possibility.
With a head coach and both assistants changing, players are also going to change.
It started with goalie Brian Baker leaving the team before the Wilderness series and Magnus Lindhe replacing him.
This week, Justin Bofshever, second on the team with 16 points, left for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the Tier I United States Hockey League. Seyia Hayata, in his last year of junior eligibility, went to Tier III hockey to get more consistent playing time.
Bayley Marshall also was moved to Tier III hockey.
Worlton said four new players are expected next week. The one new player that will be here for the weekend is Kenai Central product Jake Eubank.
Eubank, who has one more year of junior eligibility after this season, did not make the Bears coming out of main camp this season. Since then he has played well for the Tier III Pike Peak (Colorado) Miners, leading the team with 54 points on 29 goals and 25 assists in 22 games.
“We’re in a position, and you never want to be in this position, of having an opportunity to look at new players for the rest of this year,” Worlton said. “He’s a local kid, and one of my missions here, as well as the staff, is to rebuild bridges to try and get local kids here.
“I look forward to getting him on the ice.”
Worlton had just two practices with the team before the Minnesota series. A full week of practice has left him optimistic about the weekend.
“This was a good week of practice,” he said. “We got better. We worked on details like neutral zone, forecheck and defensive zone.
“Is it perfect? No. But I do think we got better this week and we feel good about this weekend.”
The Jr. Blues are 19-13-4, a solid accomplishment in a Midwest Division that features league blue bloods Fairbanks, Janesville (Wisconsin) and the Wilderness.
Springfield has five players committed to Division I schools, while the Bears have one.
Goalie Tommy Nappier, just 17, is committed to Ohio State. Just this week, he was ranked No. 26 among North American goalies on NHL Central Scouting’s 2016 Mid-Term Rankings.
“I think they’re a very talented team,” Worlton said. “They have some kids that can really skate, and their goalie is pretty high end.
“It’s definitely an exciting challenge, and it should be a good hockey game.”