The peninsula's high school hockey teams have had an opportunity to get a few games under their belts, and the experience has answered some questions and raised some others.
The Soldotna Stars, with their clean sweep of the Peninsula Ice Challenge, proved they are the team to beat on the peninsula, with plenty of depth on their forward lines and experience at the goaltender position.
The Kenai Kardinals went 1-2 at the ice challenge, showing that their top line can play with the best in the state.
The Skyview Panthers are off to a bumpy start after dropping three games at the Delta Tournament last weekend.
The Nikiski Bulldogs showed second-year coach Irv Smith they are ahead of last year's learning curve and ready to build on last season's experience.
Among the questions left to answer:
Kenai lost eight seniors from last year's team to graduation and is replacing them with seven freshmen. While coach Brian Gabriel Sr. is excited about the potential, whether or not his young skaters can improve enough during the season to be able to hang with the North Star Conference's top teams remains to be seen.
Stars coach Pat Nolden has been impressed with his squad's improvement in the defensive end over the first few games of the season. Under the tutelage of assistant coaches John Carlin and Anthony Zurfluh, will the Stars blueliners be able to handle the top teams from Anchorage and the Valley come February's region and state tournaments?
Nikiski also is working on play in its own zone after losing defensemen to graduation. Smith said that this year's team is making progress at the blue line, and the competition for the starting goaltender spot between Nigel Penhale and Jonathan Parnell has been excellent for his club.
Skyview entered the season with 15 freshmen signed up to play hockey -- the most young talent the program has ever stockpiled. How quickly will the young team be able to match up with the rest of the North Star Conference?
Adding to the mix is the addition of Homer to the North Star Conference as a full varsity team after playing a junior varsity schedule last season.
"We hope to compete at the state level," Nolden said of the Stars, off to a 6-0 start. "We've got the region and the Anchorage schools on the schedule -- we play all of them this year. The guys are striving to play at that level. Right now, there's a lot of work to do."
So far, the Stars have shown plenty of depth on the forward lines, going three and four lines deep.
"Our first few lines can match up with anybody," Nolden said. "We've got quality defensemen."
Gabriel Sr. is excited about the potential of the Kardinals, off to a 3-3 start.
"Right now, we're skating 24 kids in practice and dressing 20 for games and scratching four guys," Gabriel Sr. said. "Last year, we weren't that deep. This year, if you look at who's getting scratched, it's guys that would have been taking a regular shift last season. That's a good feeling."
Veterans Owen Brewer and Adrian Borchgrevink are back on Kenai's top line, and have been playing there with Zach Hicks. Phillip Ischi also has made some big contributions in the early season.
Brian Gabriel Jr. will make an impact with Kenai's defense once he recovers from last week's appendectomy, while Kevin Oberg, Jimmy Gabriel and Cory Janson have been holding down the fort.
Ryan Dukowitz takes over as Kenai's top goaltender and has proven he can keep his team in games with some big saves in last weekend's tournament.
Gabriel Sr. said all of the freshmen skating on varsity have demonstrated some hockey savvy, and he's been using Ryan Hicks, John McGlasson, Micah Lillard and Dustin Moore on regular shifts.
"Right now, obviously SoHi is one of the teams to beat," Gabriel Sr. said. "Colony's a big question mark. I think we'll be right in the thick of it this year. Homer's young, but they're fundamentally sound and they've got good coaching. It sounds like Palmer and Wasilla will be right in there.
"Any night, it's going to be a deal where anybody can beat anybody else."
At Skyview, David Waltemyer will step in at head coach for Indy Walton. Walton is taking a year away from the job. Waltemyer was the head coach during the 1995-96 season, then served as an assistant in the Skyview program until this year. Pete Iverson will be an assistant, while Wayne Maxwell will coach junior varsity.
"I think it's going to be an exciting year," Waltemyer said. "It may not be a winning year, but from the standpoint of the potential we have, it's going to be awesome."
The Panthers, who are 1-3, have been getting solid production from their top line of junior Lukas Fellman, junior Jason Nelson and freshman Dan Christianson. Waltemyer also likes what he has seen on defense from junior James McEwen.
Waltemyer had four netminders try out for the team this year. He said he will go with whichever one of them is playing the best.
"I have quite a few starters as freshmen this year, which normally we wouldn't have," Waltemyer said. "My motto is athletes first, winning second. That basically the same philosophy Indy has.
"We basically play everyone if we're winning or losing."
Homer coach Brett Haus knows the Mariners have a tough season ahead.
"We're optimistic that we're going to learn a lot," Haus said. "We're not expecting to win a lot of games, but we're expecting to learn a lot and to get a feel for the level we'll have to play at."
Garrett Myers has done yeoman's work in net for the Mariners, and Giuseppe Ricciardi has been a scoring threat on the Mariners' forward line.
With several returning players, Smith has found that he's been able to build on things he started with last season's Nikiski squad.
"I think we're a little farther along than we were last year as far as offensive and defensive skills and team play," Smith said. "Having a lot of kids coming back that know the system, we've been able to expand on some things."
Smith said that linemates Todd Brigham and Brett Altman have been playing well, and mentioned Lex Litzen and Zack Womack as up-and-coming players.
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