26 in 26: Topeka Pilots
September 12, 2019
The 26 in 26 series features a look at all 26 teams in the NAHL for the 2019-20 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. 26 in 26 looks into each NAHL team and will include video interviews with 26 coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Head Coach: Simon Watson (2nd Year)
2018-19 record: 23-29-8, 54 pts. (5th in the South Division)
2018-19 leading scorer: Quinn Green (39 pts.)
2019 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2019-20 Division: South
First regular season game: Friday, September 13th vs. Corpus Christi IceRays
Home opener: Friday, September 13th vs. Corpus Christi IceRays
The 2018-19 season was a fresh start for Topeka as they rebranded and became the Pilots. Simon Watson took over as head coach for the club and got them off to a very hot start as the Pilots won six of their first seven games. That run included a 4-0 stretch at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota. However, the Pilots could not keep up that torrid pace and eventually fell in the South Division standings. Despite their second half struggles the Pilots had a chance of making the playoffs entering the final weekend of the regular season. A 1-0 defeat to the Corpus Christi IceRays grounded the Pilots from a berth in the 2019 Robertson Cup playoffs.
Although the Pilots failed in their ultimately goal of making the playoffs and competing for a Robertson Cup, the season was a huge success in many ways. The overall attendance increased as the Pilots averaged about 1,200 fans per game. They also saw an uptick in their merchandise sales and corporate sponsorships.
“We had a great first year setting the tone as far as the culture is concerned. We are definitely looking forward to build off of that and the momentum off the end of last year,” said Topeka Pilots head coach and general manager Simon Watson. “We’re excited, our guys are pumped and we’re looking forward to the city of Topeka being behind us for another year."
Returning for another season, is last year’s leading scorer Quinn Green. He led the Pilots with 24 goals and 39 points. The 1999 birth year from Chicago will look to become the latest NAHL player to earn a NCAA commitment. Forward Michael Muschitiello also returns for his final season of junior hockey. From St. James, New York, Muschitiello scored 16 times during the 2018-19 season and finished third on the Pilots with 36 points.
Watson is preparing for his second year as the Pilots bench boss and says he learned a lot in just a short time.
“You get to know the league pretty well and pretty quickly and how competitive it is. Great coaches in our division, our division is tough every night. For us as a coaching staff, we made a lot of adjustments throughout the season. I think this season we’re going to focus on keeping it a little simpler,” said Watson. “ It’s always nice having a good core coming back that know what we’re expecting as a staff.”
Although the Pilots missed out the playoffs last season, the experience of being in the hunt should help them this time around.
“We were close last year, just fell short. But that experience that our core guys had last year, getting to that point at the end of the year, being so close, it’s really going to build their character this year,” Simon added.
The Pilots are looking to end their three year playoff drought. Not only was that the last time they made the playoffs but it was the last time they reached the 70 point plateau. With the addition of New Mexico, the already tight South Division just got even tougher, but Watson and his staff are confident this is the year the Pilots have an extended flight.
Next up: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights