By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
A year after posting their best record in franchise history in 2009-10, the Alaska Avalanche backed it up with another memorable campaign last season. The Avs had 32 wins, equaling a franchise record and advanced to the Robertson Cup playoffs.
The Avalanche were also welcomed with open arms to their new home in Palmer, Alaska. After spending the last five seasons in Wasilla, Alaska (which since has been made famous as the hometown of Sarah Palin), the Avalanche packed their bags and moved 13 miles to the East to Palmer. The change gave the Avalanche more of the ‘home-town’ feel they were seeking and they were embraced by the community.
One the ice, the Avalanche really came alive in December and January. During one stretch, the Avs won 16 of 21 games and were challenging eventual Robertson Cup Champion and rival Fairbanks IceDogs for 1st place . Alaska benefitted from having one of the top defenseman in the league in American International College recruit Jake Williams, who not only tied for team in points as a defenseman, but who also was 3rd in league scoring for all defensemen.
Although the Avalanche would fall in the 1st round of the West Division playoffs, optimism was high for the following season as the Avalanche had really started a trend upward.
In the ever-changing landscape that is junior hockey, the Avalanche were not immune to change themselves as the summer began. Gone was head coach Brian Huebel after just one season and in stepped Corey Millen. Millen, who has previous head coaching experience in the NAHL with the Wasilla Spirit/Avalanche organization, was most recently serving as vice president of the Alaska All-Stars youth hockey association. Andrew Good was announced as the new General Manager and the Avalanche were off and running towards this season.
“I think having the change happen in late May, put us behind the 8-ball a little bit, but we were able to draft who we wanted and get started right away,” said Millen. “It was a scenario that we really tried to make the best of and put together a good camp.”
With the team’s recent success and upward climb the past two seasons, Millen has plenty of reasons to believe that it can’t continue this season with the core group coming to training camp in August. “I have had a chance to watch the organization the past couple of years and really believe they are headed in the right direction,” said Millen. “We want to know that they really want to be a player and become the best they can be. We have to be able to reach these guys and have the ability to make an impact.”
As for who Millen will look to lead the Avalanche this season, he was quick to point out his second-year goaltender Nick Kulmanovsy. Kulmanovsky, just 17 years old, came to the Avalanche at the trading deadline from Wenatchee and played well the remainder of the regular season. As the go-to guy this year, Kulmanovsky will be relied heavily upon. “It’s always key to have a returner in net, so with Nick back in goal, I think it gives us a good chance and some confidence,” said Millen. “We are going to lean on him and with his youth, he is going to just get better in his second season.”
Millen also identified defensemen Joe Schmitz and Casey Nelson as players who will have an increased role on the team this season. “Any time you can lean on veteran guys who can solidify your defense, you have addressed a big portion of what makes a team successful. I think we will have to address our scoring, but with solid goaltending and guys like Schmitz and Nelson on the blueline, I think we will be tough to score against,” said Millen.
If the trend continues, the Avalanche will contend again in 2011-12 and with a familiar face like Millen on the bench emphasizing defense first, it would not be a surprise if the Avalanche once again made the playoffs and had a good shot to win their first-ever division title.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Alexandria Blizzard.