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Kenai River eyes future: After winning season, coach anxious to improve on success

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011

Minutes after the Kenai River Brown Bears saw their season end in the first round of the 2011 North American Hockey League playoffs, coach Oliver David was looking ahead to next year.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Kenai River's Matt Thompson celebrates his first-period goal with Bobby Murphy as Fairbanks Ice Dogs goalie Joe Phillippi regroups.

"Two weeks off," David said following Kenai River's 7-2 loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday, "then it's back to the drawing board."

Kenai River's roster will look different next season.

Five players -- defensemen Chris Rial, Alec Thieda, Erick Ware and Joe Blake, and forward Doug Beck -- will be over the league's age limit of 20 and won't return.

That leaves 18 athletes who could return for another season -- second-highest in the division behind the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage, David said -- but it's unlikely the Bears will retain all of them.

One of the biggest question marks is the future of captain Brett Lubanski, who at 19 years old is eligible to play next season.

In addition to filling his duties as captain, Lubanski led the team with 48 assists and was its second-highest point scorer behind Beck.

Although both he and David have said it would be a welcome return -- Lubanski also played for the Bears in 2009-10 -- the forward could receive offers during the offseason from the United States Hockey League or with a college or university.

"I'm not totally sure. It's really hard to say at this point," Lubanski said. "It's definitely possible that I could not come back ... but coming back here would be a great option for me."

The goaltending situation may also be addressed.

The Bears used Josh Benton and Mathias Dahlstrom interchangeably throughout the season, but neither emerged as the type of rock-solid backstopper teams need to win championships.

That was evident in the playoffs, when the Ice Dogs averaged six goals a game in sweeping the Bears.

Benton and Dahlstrom -- who are both eligible to return next year -- split time in net.

Meanwhile, Fairbanks goalie Joe Phillippi yielded just four goals in the series and made 44 saves on 46 shots in Friday's clinching win.

"Quite frankly, you have to have a goalie who is on his game," David said of winning in the playoffs. "We went back and forth and couldn't get anything going in the net."

Soldotna products Brad Duwe and Branden Fisher also could return. Duwe skated on the Bears' first line with Beck and Lubanski, scoring 50 points, and Fisher was acquired from the USHL midway through the season to bolster the squad's defense.

Other key players whose future has yet to be determined are forwards Matt Thompson, Jesse Ramsey, Bobby Murphy, Alex Frere, Dominic Granato, Shane Topf, Sean Muller, Zack Capozza and Kyle Keenan, and defensemen Ray Stenehjem, Erik Persson and Ryan Walker.

"It's not simply a matter of, we lose Joe Blake so we need to find a Joe Blake. We lose Doug Beck so we need to find a 30-goal scorer," David said. "You hope you do, but it's more, what kind of characters can we get together? Who's going to work hard? Are we going to have a good locker room?"

The Bears won a franchise-best 27 games during the regular season and finished fourth in the NAHL West, but failed to earn a first-ever playoff win, dropping to 0-9 in three appearances.

David said it's no guarantee the Bears will return to the playoffs next year -- let alone snap the postseason losing streak -- because of the strength of the division.

Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild are established contenders, having combined to win the past three division titles; the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer finished ahead of the Bears this season; the first-year Rage won twice as many games as the Bears did in their inaugural season; and the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters have one of the deepest budgets in the division, David said.

"Next year is going to be even more difficult. To make it two seasons in a row would be unreal," David said. "For our club, compared to the clubs that have what they have at their disposal that we don't, it's a little bit of a Bad News Bears story, it is an underdog story. We will always be the underdog by default. I'm very proud that we clawed our way into the playoffs. It's been quite a ride."

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Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild are established contenders, having combined to win the past three division titles; the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer finished ahead of the Bears this season; the first-year Rage won twice as many games as the Bears did in their inaugural season; and the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters have one of the deepest budgets in the division, David said.

"That ball is already rolling -- where they fit in, who comes to our camps, who are we able to recruit?" David said. "Next year is going to be even more difficult. To make the playoffs two seasons in a row, it would be unreal."



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