Brown Bears to battle for 1st in West

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008

Immense talent, plus youth and inexperience, equals an early season roller-coaster ride.

That's the theory that Kenai River head coach Brent Agrusa is operating under as the Brown Bears prepare to battle for first place with the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla in the North American Hockey League West Division.

The Avalanche (3-1-0) and the Brown Bears (3-3-0) both sit atop the division with six points apiece. The teams face off at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Which Brown Bears team will take the ice?

Will it be the one that handed two-time defending league champion St. Louis its only loss in regulation thus far this year? Or will it be the one that lost 12-1 to Owatonna in the final game of the NAHL Showcase, then followed that up with a 9-1 loss to Fairbanks in the home opener?

Agrusa said the Brown Bears team that beat St. Louis and topped Fairbanks in a shootout on Saturday should start showing up more and more.

"When it comes to talent and skill and those types of things, I think we're as talented and skilled as anybody in the country," Agrusa said.

That being said, Agrusa said the Bears will be inconsistent early in the season because the team is young and is still adjusting to Agrusa's offensive system.

In the NAHL, Agrusa said the most experienced teams have 12 or more players with 1988 birthdates. The Brown Bears have just four players with 1988 birthdates. Only one of those players -- forward Nick Simson -- had played in the NAHL before this season.

Agrusa said the Brown Bears are particularly young at goalie and defense, explaining the blowout losses to Owatonna and Fairbanks.

Goalies Jimmy Hamby and Nick Dries both have 1990 birthdates. Four of the eight defensemen have 1990 birthdates, and another -- Rodney LaLonde -- has a 1992 birthdate.

"Early on, we've had some inconsistencies just because guys aren't used to playing at a high tempo all of the time," Agrusa said.

The flip side is that young players have the potential to improve more than experienced players during a season.

"I've always believed that older teams come out of the gate fast and hit their peak," Agrusa said. "For younger teams, the sky's the limit."

Another factor that has Agrusa optimistic is his uniquely offensive system. When Agrusa coached a junior team in Helena, Mont., he said several of his teams started 2-5 only to go on to be top-end teams.

"I use a really offensive, fast, high-tempo system," Agrusa said. "That's not what a lot of them have played before."

There are only three teams in the league that have scored less than the Brown Bears' 17 goals thus far this season. Agrusa said the players are starting to adjust to the system, and pointed to players like Kyle Clay and Kevin Wentland increasingly finding their way into the scoring column.

"Even through all of that, we're still 3-3 with a chance to come in here this weekend and take control of the division," Agrusa said.

For that, he credited solid leaders on the team like Simson, Jed McGlasson and Jake Musselman.

The games with the Avalanche will allow Agrusa to face Alaska head coach Dave Boitz. Agrusa and Boitz coached against each other frequently when Agrusa was in Helena and Boitz was with the Blizzard in Alexandria, Minn.

"We used to have some good battles," Agrusa said. "Dave is very offensive, as I am. There used to be some high scoring games when we played each other."

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