By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Like many of the teams in the NAHL, the Wichita Falls Wildcats begin this season with a fresh, but familiar face behind the bench. Former Wenatchee Wild head coach Paul Baxter has made the trip South to Wichita Falls where back on April 21st he was named as the new head coach. The move came after the completion of the Wildcats 2010-11 season, a season in which the team qualified for the playoffs for the sixth time in their eight-year history in the NAHL, but one in which saw them bow out in the opening round for the sixth straight time.
The beginning of the regular season has traditionally been a time when the Wildcats play their best hockey, and last year was no exception. The team was one of only two to go undefeated in the NAHL Showcase and thanks to a better goal differential, was crowned the 2010 NAHL Showcase Champions. The Wildcats continued their hot play, going 12-3-2 in their first 17 games. However, as the season went along the Wildcats cooled off, including one 15-game stretch in the middle of the season when they won just three games. The team finished one game under .500 and qualified for the final playoff spot.
The Wildcats pushed the #1-ranked Topeka RoadRunners to the limit in the playoffs, falling in the fifth and decisive game by a goal, but could not manage to get over the first-round hump yet again. It was something that prompted ownership to move to a coach like Baxter who they feel has the knowledge and wherewithal to make the Wildcats and Robertson Cup Championship contender.
Baxter is a 13-year veteran of professional hockey as a player, having appeared in 762 games in the NHL and World Hockey Association with five teams, including the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calgary Flames. During his coaching career, Baxter has held the reins as head coach of the International Hockey League's Salt Lake Golden Eagles, American Hockey League's Saint John Flames and HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish SM-liiga in addition to his time in Wenatchee. While with the Wild, he guided the team to two Robertson Cup Championship Tournaments and an appearance in the championship game in Wenatchee's first season. Baxter also has been an assistant coach in the NHL with four organizations.
“It’s been good so far,” said Baxter. “My expectations are high and we are optimistic about the team we have built so far. We are going to be young, have a lot of energy and skill at the top end. We will see as we go along how the depth pans out and how we respond. I can’t teach character, I can’t teach energy and I can’t teach heart, but I can help build a culture of success by helping these players develop.”
Baxter clearly made his mark right away when building the Wildcats for the 2011-12 season by keeping just five veterans from last year’s team. “I was looking for not only players with a lot of skill, but also players with a lot of brain speed. Meaning, can they think on their feet and do they have good hockey sense?” said Baxter. “We wanted to make sure that the players we had on the roster this season all had the potential to move onto the next level after playing just a year or two, because that is one of the big goals we are trying to accomplish here.”
Baxter made it clear that the other goal for this season is not just being satisfied with making it to the first round of the playoffs. “I made it clear from the first day I met with ownership that our goal is to be a Championship team, on and off the ice,” said Baxter.
So, who will help the Wildcats become this Championship team on the ice? It starts with the veterans that Baxter did keep; Players that he expects to be good citizens and role models not only in the community, but to their teammates as well. Tyler Green returns between the pipes having appeared in 39 regular season and all five playoff games for the Wildcats last season. His save percentage hovered at or above the 91% mark the entire season, meaning he can stop plenty of pucks, but as he enters the 2011-12 season has to find the help to keep his goals against average down.
Just one defenseman returns in the form of Brian White, who played in just half the games last season, notching five points. Up front, the Wildcats return a trio of forwards in Tanner Fahlstedt, Patrick Yudez and Richard Young. Fahlstedt, 20, is the leading returning scorer from last season, as he posted 37 points including 28 assists. He was also the only Wildcat player to play in all 58 regular season games. Yudez, a Colorado native, played in 56 games last year, but was limited in scoring, something he will look to improve this season. Young, 20, is about as tough as they come in the NAHL. He played very well in the playoff series against Topeka, scoring two goals in the five games, including the game-winner in overtime in Game 2.
As far as new players go, Baxter is rolling the dice with the youngest player in the league in Nash Worden, who just turned 16. Worden is another player that is a product of the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL), where he led his Pikes Peak Miners 16U team to the PHL Championship last season. The other goalie is also a new face named Ryan Kellenberger, who came to the Wildcats from the LA Jr. Kings 18U team last season.
It is clear the culture has changed in Wichita Falls under Baxter who is working with perhaps the youngest team in the NAHL. In the rough and tumble, seven-team South Division they may experience some growing pains, but expect the Wildcats to be skilled and mentally tough, two things that may just get them over the hump in the playoffs and on their way to bigger and better things.
This concludes the 28 teams in 28 days series. The 36th NAHL regular season begins Friday, September 9th!