24 in 24 Series: Topeka RoadRunners
September 9, 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.
Scott Langer (11th year)
2013-14 record: 39-15-6, 84 pts. (2nd in the South Division)
2013-14 leading scorer: Tyler Poulsen (56 GP, 29 G, 32 A, 61 pts, +18)
2014 Playoffs: Won the South Division Championship against the Amarillo Bulls, 3 games to 2. Lost in the NAHL Robertson Cup Semi-Finals to the Austin Bruins, 2 games to 1.
2014-15 Division: South
First regular season game: Friday, September 12th vs. Corpus Christi IceRays, 7:05pm
Home opener: Friday, September 12th vs. Corpus Christi IceRays, 7:05pm
Last season was an emotional of a year that the RoadRunners and head coach Scott Langer can remember. Armed with a largely veteran team, the RoadRunners jumped out to a 5-1 record. The team really turned on the heat in November and by the time the meat of the season came, the RoadRunners found themselves in a dog fight for 1st place with their rivals, the Amarillo Bulls. In the end, the RoadRunners finished with 39 wins and were two points behind the Bulls for 1st place.
The RoadRunners also had success in the playoffs. After dispatching Rio Grande Valley in three straight games in the South Semi-Finals, they would face their familiar rivals in Amarillo in the South Finals. After taking the first two games in Amarillo, the RoadRunners dropped the next two games in Topeka. However, they would regroup and win Game 5 on the road in Amarillo, sending them onto the Robertson Cup Semi-Finals. The RoadRunners hosted the Austin Bruins and after a Game 1 win, things were looking good for Topeka, but two straight losses including one in overtime in the third and deciding game ended their hopes for their first Robertson Cup title.
There were many positives last season, which included two players on the All-NAHL Team in forward Tyler Poulsen and goaltender PJ Bridges. Poulsen, who committed to Alabama-Huntsville, was second in the NAHL in goals with 29 and fourth in points with 61. Bridges, who committed to Western Michigan, had one of the best seasons for a goaltender in NAHL history. He tied the all-time single-season NAHL shutout mark with 10 shutouts last season and finished second in both goals against average and save percentage. Poulsen and Bridges were just two of the nine players during the season to make NCAA commitments.
The season, however, meant much more to the RoadRunners than wins or losses or even college commitments. On January 5th, forward Peter Halash passed away in an automobile accident. The tragic incident brought the team closer as they banded together despite the unimaginable grief that they were all going through. “I am proud in each and every one of our guys and the way the handled last season and they way they responded as brothers given such a difficult set of circumstances,” said head coach Scott Langer. “Our leadership throughout the entire season was tremendous. The season could have turned the other way after Peter’s death, but our guys didn’t allow it. Instead, they played their best hockey of the season and came within a goal of being in the Robertson Cup Finals and having the NCAA commitments we did, makes me very proud of that group of players and the season we had,” said Langer.
Langer said that moving forward to this season was tough, not just because of the talent lost, but because of the character and personality lost. “I sometimes forget how good I had it with last year’s group, but it is one of the things that make it exciting for this season because I get to try and do it all over again and find those new pieces.” Topeka will try and replicate what has worked so well in the past, which is depth, discipline and talent. “We want to be able to put anyone on the ice in any situation. We may be a little younger than we were in year’s past, but the philosophy remains the same. We lost some high-end players at all positions, so we had to find a little bit of everything for this season.”
With Bridges off to the NCAA, the RoadRunners will look to Merrimack recruit Drew Vogler to fill the void in goal. Vogler spent some time last season on the NHL Central Scouting list and will have the opportunity to be the full-time goaltender. The other goalie is Slovakian-born Matej Tomek, who just turned 17. Tomek is a highly touted prospect that will be playing in North America for the first time. “Both guys have the ability to be elite goaltenders, but the bar has been set extremely high here in Topeka with the string of former goaltenders,” said Langer. “One of the things we look for is our goalies to be strong leaders and be able to handle the mental part of the game, so we will see how they respond, but both have tremendous upside, are very talented and still young.”
On defense, the RoadRunners will return Shawn Brennan and Ryan Polin, but that is it as far as veteran defenseman go. Polin lead all RoadRunner defensemen in scoring last season with 25 points and Brennan is a Merrimack commit. Langer is excited about the play of newly acquired defenseman Dan Brickley, who played junior hockey in Canada last season. “Dan can really move the puck and makes really good decisions. With so few returners on defense we need a guy that is going to display some patience and have the ability to play a lot of minutes. He is 6’4, so he will be noticed out there and will get a lot of NCAA attention,” stated Langer.
Offensively, the RoadRunners lost their top two scorers, but Jasen Fernsler returns having registered 35 points a season ago. Along with the aforementioned Polin, the two were the top two players in the plus/minus category last season. Sly Sutter (22 points) also returns up front, as does Mike Gornall (21 points), Yu Hikosaka (13 points), Sam Rennaker (12 points) and Willie Brown (6 points). Langer said that he is hopeful that his young group will adapt quickly. “Our goal is to be the most improved team by Christmas. I think there is enough veteran leadership and talent back that it will really be influential to our new guys,” said Langer.
Next up in the NAHL 24 in 24 series: Wenatchee Wild, September 10th