Wild working towards championship form
Read the full NAHL Weekly Release.
The Wenatchee Wild has taken the NAHL by storm through the first two months of the season, and even with a league-best 19-4 record and a two-game sweep over the Wichita Falls Wildcats last weekend, its best might be yet to come.
“We believe we have the potential to be an immensely better team than what we’ve shown over the last few weeks,” said Wild head coach Paul Baxter.
Wenatchee opened its weekend against Wichita Falls with a 6-5 victory on Friday. Jeff Jubinville and Air Force Academy recruit Adam McKenzie, a defenseman, each recorded a goal and two assists in the victory, and goaltender Mac Carruth, a University of Minnesota Duluth recruit, steered aside 22 shots.
Defenseman Kyle Brodie connected for two goals and an assist the next night as the Wild doubled up the Wildcats, 4-2. Air Force-bound Mitch Torrel chipped in two assists for Wenatchee, and netminder Brandon Jaeger stopped 33 shots.
The victories meant four more points for the West Division leaders, who will host this year’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament, but, in the coaching staff’s eyes, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“We have to be a lot better in our commitment to the defensive aspects of the game,” said Baxter. “Our experienced players have to be much better role models in terms of working and competing in those areas.”
“I think our players realize that we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to be a championship-caliber team,” said Wild associate head coach Ryan McKelvie. “We weren’t very good defensively (against Wichita Falls), but we were able to capitalize on offensive opportunities and got quality goaltending.”
McKelvie believes that playing 15 games in 23 days over four times zones recently has factored into the Wild’s sometimes-undisciplined play.
“We have a better schedule now which allows us to practice between games, and I think we have character players who will be willing to do the work necessary to improve and develop quality habits,” said McKelvie.
One player who has made marked strides from last year is Brodie. Thanks to a dedicated offseason, the 19-year-old from Northglenn, Colo., is the league’s scoring leader among defensemen and tied for seventh overall with 20 points on six goals.
“Kyle had a great summer, worked his butt off, and really improved his strength and skating,” said McKelvie. “He had a tough year with us last year, but has done everything right since then and has set a great example for any young player as far as what it takes to take your game to the next level.
“I have confidence he’ll be an excellent player at the Division I level.”
The Wild is also getting results from a number of first-year players, among them Jubinville, a 20-year-old from Edmonton who leads the team in scoring with 23 points (fifth in the league), and Shawn Pauly, a 17-year-old from Bellingham, Wash., who was recognized recently on NHL Central Scouting’s “Watch List” for 2010 draft-eligibles.
“Those two both have high-end skill and know how hard you need to compete to be a champion,” said McKelvie. “Both players are the full package of skill, hockey sense and compete.”
McKelvie praises forward Nathan Sliwinski for his competitiveness, which has translated into a few gritty - but timely - goals for the Wild, as well as Andrew Christ, “an absolute warrior,” according to the McKelvie, who has tremendous leadership skills.
“He’s played high-level junior hockey before and is a great example to our young players of the intensity level needed to play every night,” McKelvie said of Christ.
Baxter also likes what’s in store for his batch of newcomers.
“We know we have a special group of first-year guys that are inexperienced, but very talented and very motivated,” said the coach. “It’ll be interesting to see how they develop.”
The Wild is also holding some pretty good cards between the pipes, where both Carruth - another player NHL scouts have their eyes on - and Jaeger, a 19-year-old from Champlin, Minn., who holds an 8-0 record to compliment a league-best 1.71 goals-against average, have been outstanding.
“The emergence of Brandon has made for a very interesting and competitive battle for ice time,” said Baxter. “We feel like we have two No. 1 goalies.”
“Those two make up a championship-caliber goaltending tandem when they’re playing on top of their game,” McKelvie added.
In addition to Pauly and Carruth, two other Wild players - forwards Christian Hilbrich and Tyler Parker - grace the NHL’s scouting list. The quartet is the most of any team in the NAHL, which boasts the most listed of any Tier II Junior A league in the U.S. or Canada.
“It just shows the quality of players that our league produces,” said McKelvie. “We have a very good league and this is more proof that our players are getting the right type of exposure to move onto higher levels.”
And with all the NHL recognition, it’s no surprise colleges are taking notice of Wenatchee’s success. With five players committed to Division I programs already - Carruth, McKenzie, Torrel, Armand De Swardt (Cornell University) and Alex McLean (Air Force) - plenty more should be making decisions in the coming months.
“After following college hockey closely my entire life, I’m confident that we have a high number of high-quality Division I prospects,” said McKelvie, who played four years at Minnesota State-Mankato.
“A lot of our uncommitted players are getting significant interest, and rightfully so. We get calls everyday from Division I schools asking about our players, and we expect they’ll make and impact at the college level.”
Off the ice, the Wild continues to press all the right buttons. With a league-best average attendance of over 3,000 a game, Town Toyota Center, widely considered one of the top junior facilities in North America, continues to be the place to be.
“We play in a beautiful rink that’s full almost every night with screaming fans,” said McKelvie. “The town has absolutely gotten behind our team and they make it a great place for our players to enjoy their junior hockey careers. Our front office staff has done a phenomenal job of marketing our team and getting the whole town behind the team.”
And having the Robertson Cup experience on the horizon doesn’t hurt the enthusiasm, either. The event, which will showcase the champions of the NAHL’s four divisions, along with the host Wild, will run from May 3-8, 2010.
“There’s a major buzz about the Robertson Cup around town and I think it’s going to be extremely exciting to be a part of such a great tournament,” said McKelvie.
Baxter, for one, expects his team to be ready when it gets to town.
“Our goal is to be champions and we know that it’ll take highly unusual behavior, character and some good fortune,” said the coach. “However, we 100 percent believe that it’s an attainable and realistic goal.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Logan Rounds (Anchorage) collected three assists as the Avalanche picked up three points in its two-game series against Fairbanks.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Goaltender Ben Waalkens (Albert Lea, Minn.) turned aside 29 shots in regulation and overtime and three of four in the shootout as the Thunder bested Bismarck on Saturday, 2-1.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: The Blizzard defeated the U.S. Women’s National Team in an exhibition game on Wednesday, 6-0. Forward Jordan Gidaro (Brampton, Ontario) netted two goals in the win.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Forward John Fritsche (Parma, Ohio) connected for two goals in regulation and one in a shootout as the IceDiggers split a two-game series with Motor City.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Goaltender Ryan Faragher (Fort Frances, Ontario) helped lift the Bobcats to three points in a two-game set against Albert Lea, including a 25-save shutout performance on Friday (5-0). “Ryan is such a tremendous athlete with raw talent and a tremendous work ethic,” said head coach Byron Pool. “It’s scary to think how good this guy could be.”
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Defenseman Zach Tolkinen (Lino Lakes, Minn.) tallied a goal and two assists as the Ice Dogs split a pair of games with Alaska. He was also a plus-3 on the weekend.
JANESVILLE JETS: Forward Larkin Jacobson (Sioux City, Iowa) tallied two goals and an assist as the Jets skated to a two-game sweep over Marquette.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: With last weekend off, the Brown Bears’ next NAHL games are scheduled for Nov. 13-14 against Alaska.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Forward Tanner Kero (Hancock, Mich.), a Michigan Tech University (CCHA) recruit, notched a goal and an assist as the Rangers dropped two games to Janesville.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Goaltender Randy Willis (Fond du Lac, Wis.) backstopped the Machine to three points in a two-game series against Alpena, including a 27-save performance in a 3-1 victory on Saturday.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: Defenseman Ben Danford (Stillwater, Minn.) struck for two goals and an assist as the Outlaws picked up three points in a two-game set against Owatonna.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Forward Ben Persian (Orono, Minn.), an Air Force Academy recruit (Atlantic Hockey), connected for two goals and an assist as the Express split a two-game series with North Iowa.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Goaltender Andrew Martin (Stoughton, Wis.) turned back all 45 shots as the Jr. Blues blanked Texas on Friday, 3-0.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Forward Ryan Belonger (Green Bay, Wis.) rang up a goal and two assists, including one on Craig Kitto’s game-winning marker, in the Bandits’ 5-2 triumph over Topeka on Sunday. He was also a plus-3.
TEXAS TORNADO: Defenseman Erick Ware (Huntsville, Ala.) scored the game-winning goal and assisted on Shay Cizmar’s game-tying marker in the Tornado’s 3-2 victory over Springfield on Thursday.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Goaltender Eric Rohrkemper (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) made all 22 saves in the RoadRunners’ 2-0 victory over St. Louis on Saturday. He’s now 3-0 on the season in five appearances. “Eric played very well and made some key saves on our penalty kill that gave us the chance to win a tough road game,” said assistant coach R.J. Enga.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Forward Andy Huff (Howell, Mich.), whose 12 goals are tied for third-most in the NAHL, has committed to Ferris State University (CCHA).
WENATCHEE WILD: Goaltender Brandon Jaeger (Champlin, Minn.) improved his record to 8-0 after turning aside 33 shots the Wild’s 4-2 victory over Wichita Falls on Saturday.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Forward Tyler Lundey (Middleton, Wis.) picked up two goals and four assists as the Wildcats dropped two games in Wenatchee.