The Milwaukee Jr. Admirals (U18) and the Pikes Peak Miners (U16) hold the lead in their respective divisions after the second North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) tournament of the season held last week in St. Louis.
The Admirals, who skated to a perfect 5-0 record in St. Louis after forging a 4-0-1 mark at the league’s first tournament held in Minneapolis in September, now hold a 9-0-1 record, good for 19 points - one more than the second-place SoCal Titans.
“We’ve played OK for the first two showcases, but there’s always room for improvement,” said Jr. Admirals president Bob Delgadillo. “There are some very good teams that we’ve faced and have yet to face, so we feel both proud and fortunate to be in the position we’re in.”
Through the first two tournaments, the Ulvis Katlaps-coached Jr. Admirals have been led offensively by Noah Nelson. With seven goals and two assists in St. Louis, he’s now tied for fifth in league scoring with nine goals for 13 points on the season.
Between the pipes, goaltender Michael Baldwin has picked up six of the team’s nine wins, including four last week. He holds a league-best 1.21 goals-against average to compliment a .947 save percentage.
“Noah is a great kid who would give thanks to his teammates first before he gave any credit to himself,” said Delgadillo. “I know the same holds true of Michael.
“We certainly have individuals who’ll be on the leaderboard, but we do everything as a team. We’ve told these kids since they were Squirt Majors not to worry about the wins and losses, but to always push themselves to do their best.
“When they all do that as a team, then the wins and losses will take care of themselves. Noah, Michael and others on our team have done just that, both in practices and games.”
With three tournaments remaining, including the next one slated for Dec. 3-6 at the ESL Sports Centre in Rochester, N.Y., Delgadillo realizes the competition isn’t going to get any easier the rest of the way.
“Again, we know we have some very good teams that we’ll face, so we have to be prepared and focused,” he said. “When you’re in first (place), others have that extra motivation to be their best against you, and with the talent in this league we know that it’s a difficult road ahead to remain where we’re at.”
In the U16 division, the Miners also hold a 9-0-1 mark thanks to a 4-0-1 effort in St. Louis after finishing the Minnesota event a perfect 5-0. Pikes Peak’s 19 points is one more than the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes through the season’s first two events.
“I thought we had a solid team heading into the season, but you never expect to start the season with a 9-0-1 record,” Luc Trombetta. “Our team has played well in eight of the first 10 games. We've got good team speed, especially at forward. We move the puck well and are starting to make better hockey decisions, especially in the offensive zone.
“Our penalty kill has been excellent. Our work ethic can be more consistent overall and, in the two games we played poorly, it was more of a work ethic and preparation issue than anything else.”
Second-year forward Kyle Bauman has been the Miners’ top gun upfront, ringing up three goals and four assists in St. Louis to give him eight goals for 14 points overall (tied for third in the NAPHL scoring race).
“Kyle’s been excellent for us this season,” said Trombetta. “He can pretty much play the game however it needs to be played. He plays center, he plays wing. He's a power-play guy and one of the best penalty-killers I've coached.
“He plays at top speed all the time, he’s consistently one of the hardest workers on the ice and is without question our best overall player. Kyle's got great hands, excellent vision and he plays very disciplined hockey, but it’s his work ethic that has him near the top of the league in scoring right now.”
At the other end of the ice, Brady Johnson has stood tall. The goaltender won three games in St. Louis to improve his record to 7-0 on the season with his 1.37 goals-against average ranking second in the league.
“Brady plays with a ton of confidence and he seems to make everyone on our team play a little more relaxed,” Trombetta. “He's got a quiet confidence and a swagger about him that all the better goaltenders seem to have.
“He's quick, he's athletic, he can see plays develop and he anticipates very well. His rebound control has been pretty good so far and his on-ice awareness has been excellent. He's also highly coachable and a very good teammate.”
Happy with his team’s start, Trombetta is looking for continued improvement as the NAPHL season shifts to Upstate New York in December.
“We need to find a way to play more consistent hockey,” said the coach. “We’ve not played an entire game to our potential yet all season long. We need to raise our compete level as the season goes on and we need to stay at or near the top of the league standings all the way through the championships in San Jose.”
After an outstanding inaugural season-opening event in Minnesota last month, expectations were high heading into last weekend’s event. And, by all accounts, both the city of St. Peters, located in suburban St. Louis, and the host facility, the Rec-Plex, delivered.
“It was a terrific event, both in terms of competition and organization,” said NAPHL director Denny Scanlon. “The Rec-Plex and its staff did an incredible job all week long, and there was plenty of great hockey being played in both divisions.”
Both Delgadillo and Trombetta agreed that the Rec-Plex, and the weekend overall, was another success for the young NAPHL.
“It’s a great place to hold such an event,” said Delgadillo. It’s a great facility with a great staff.”
“It was excellent,” Trombetta added. “The facility was excellent, and the refereeing was consistent all weekend.”
Trombetta was also impressed with the competitiveness at the St. Louis event, which he believes was a step up from the first tournament in Minnesota.
“It’s nice to see all the teams getting better as the season progresses,” said the coach. “The first weekend in Blaine (Minnesota), all the teams we played worked hard, finished checks and the weekend had a nice intensity to it, but I think the quality of hockey was better in St. Louis.
“You saw teams passing better, individuals were handling the puck with more confidence, we ran into a couple of really good power plays and teams were just tougher to play against. I think that’s to be expected, as every team, including ours, is going to continue to develop and improve as the season progresses.”
All told, it’s another feather in the cap for the 34-team NAPHL, which continues to build positive momentum as it looks ahead to its third event of the season.
“The NAPHL is a strong league with a bright future,” said Delgadillo. “It’s brought together a very competitive group of teams in a good showcase format.”
“The competition has been very good,” said Trombetta. “I've been most impressed with the fact that each team we’ve played so far has had good team speed and some real top-end guys.
“We haven't played everyone yet, but so far, none of our games have been easy and I’m certain the competition is going to get tougher heading into Rochester.”