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24 in 24 Series: Soo Eagles

September 7, 2014
The 24 Teams in 24 Days series features a look at all 24 teams in the NAHL for the 2014-15 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Friday, September 12th as six NAHL teams take to the ice on Opening Night.  24 in 24 will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interviews with all 24 head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the 2014-15 season, including taking a look at their roster and their strengths as a team.  It will also take a look back on the 2013-14 season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.  Best of all, 24 in 24 is done to provide the fans of the NAHL with an inside look at their favorite team and what to expect.
Soo Eagles
Bruno Bragagnolo (3rd year)
2013-14 record: 25-27-8, 58 pts. (6th in the North Division)
2013-14 leading scorer: Michael Sabatini (58 GP, 19 G, 22 A, 41 pts, -13)
2014 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2014-15 Division: North
First regular season game: Friday, September 12th vs. Janesville Jets, 7:30pm
Home opener: Friday, September 12th vs. Janesville Jets, 7:30pm
To start last season, the Soo Eagles were a younger, more inexperienced bunch than the season before. Compound that with a host of injuries last year and it was commendable that the Eagles kept themselves around the .500 and in the North Division playoff race until the last weekend of the regular season. After winning just one game at the NAHL Showcase, it wasn’t until early December when the Eagles showed signs of life. 
But, injuries to both goalies rallied the troops and in December and January the Eagles played their best hockey of the season. The Eagles only won six of their final 17 regular season games and finished just three points out of a playoff spot, which is a testament to the way the team battled the entire season despite the adversity of a young line-up and some key injuries during the season.
The Eagles had six NCAA commitments including leading scorer Michael Sabatini who will play Division I hockey at Canisius. Although there will be some turnover from last year to this year, the Eagles will get back some key pieces to the line-up, which should make them be able to contend. Back during the 2012-13 season, the Eagles won the North Division regular season title and also had one of the league’s best offenses, which included the league MVP.
Head coach Bruno Bragagnolo said that although the team failed to make the playoffs last season, he was glad they never gave up and gained some experience. “Losing both goalies early in the season was tough, but I think the guys that were a part of it learned a lot from the season and will be better this year because of it. With who we lost from the season prior to that, we knew last season was going to be a learning experience, so the fact that we were competitive was positive.”
The strength of the team may be along the blueline, which includes several returning players. Back are Darren Brady, Michael Caruso, Kristofers Bindulis, Jimmy Slivka and Evan Mills. While all those defensemen put in some valuable time on the ice for the Eagles last season, Bragagnolo will have to find a way to get them more involved in the offense. Of the top 13 scorers last season, only one was a defenseman and that was Ryan Urso, who has aged out. 
Although the Eagles don’t have a lot of returning players up front, the ones they do have returning were very effective last season. Sandis Zolmanis and Nick Belger return and they were 3rd and 4th in scoring respectively last year. Zolmanis, 20, had 33 points in 46 games played last season and Belger had 28 points in 46 games. Also back up front is Bruno Birzitis (26 points), Brad Pung (25 points), Denver Pierce (22 points) and Chase Matson (20 points). The bottom line is there aren’t many NAHL teams who say they have six returning forwards who also scored at least 20 points from the season prior.
Like Tyler Marble held the torch high in goal two years ago for the Eagles, Bragagnolo is excited about his new netminders this season in Sean Keating, Jack Berry and Dylan Schoen. Keating is a 20-year-old with plenty of junior experience, including stints in the NAHL, NA3HL and CCHL. Berry is younger and just 18, but had a successful midget hockey career with both Victory Honda at the 16U level and Compuware at the 18U level. Schoen is just 17-year-old and played 18U hockey in the USPHL last season.
Of the new players on the roster besides the goaltenders, two 18-year-old hometown natives come to mind in Chase Gamelin and Will Gauthier. Both players recently committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for Lake Superior State University. Other new players that Bragagnolo mentioned were forward Keegan Miller and defensemen Dan Weaver and Tommy Luzynski.
“Our goal is to finish first in the North Division. We think we are a deep and talented group with enough veterans to make a difference in a 60-game season. I want to be sure our guys have the right compete level and are working hard. I think combined with the skill they have, it will give us the potential to be a good team,” said Bragagnolo.
If this weekend was any indication, the Eagles are well on their way to being a top contender in the North. The Eagles, who host Janesville next weekend in the first regular season games of the year in the NAHL, easily handled their cross-town rival the Soo Thunderbirds in two exhibition games, outscoring their opponent from the NOJHL by a combined 10-2.  With all NAHL teams having success during the exhibition season against other junior leagues, Bragagnolo said it is because of the competition level in the NAHL.
“I think there is great parity in the league and every team is well coached and every game is a dogfight. It really strengthens our product to make us one of the top junior leagues in North America. We constantly hear that players in the NAHL work as hard as anyone and it is satisfying for us coaches because we see development and improvement in the players on a daily basis,” said Bragagnolo.
Next up in the NAHL 24 in 24 series: Springfield Jr. Blues, September 8th 
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