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NA Now: El Paso Rhinos

August 16, 2023

The NA Now series features a look at all 32 teams in the NAHL for the 2023-24 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. NA Now looks into each NAHL team including interviews with all the head 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.

El Paso Rhinos

Head Coach: Joe Coombs (10th Season)

2022-23 record: 60 GP, 18-38-4, 40 pts. (7th in the South Division)

2022-23 leading scorer: Frank Tafelski (18 points)

2023 Playoffs: Did not qualify

2023-24 Division: South

First regular season game: Friday, September 8th @ Colorado Grit

Home opener: Friday, October 6th vs. Odessa Jackalopes

While the El Paso Rhinos record and season in 2022-23 was an improvement from the year before under head coach Joe Coombs, it still fell short of expectations for the team. After a promising 5-1 start, the Rhinos won just three of their next 15 games. One of the biggest challenges for the team last season was finding the back of the net as the Rhinos ranked second to last in the NAHL with just 1.85 goals per game.

Joe Coombs was in his first season as head coach for the Rhinos and while he wasn’t pleased with the overall results from the season, he said that the work put in is something that will hopefully lead to more success in 2023-24. “You learn a lot from not being successful and while it is a part of a bigger process, I know that everyone needed to be better last season, including myself. I’ve always had good hockey teams in the NAHL, but last year was one of those years where we never really gained any momentum. I was encouraged at the fact that we did play our best hockey during the last 10-12 games of the year, but winning takes time and it’s all part of a bigger plan that we hope to improve on this year,” said Coombs.

By the end of the first half of the season, it was clear that the Rhinos were behind the 8-ball and a longshot to make the playoff, so the building for the 2023-24 season was underway early. The Rhinos made an effort to get younger players in and players who they knew would be a part of their future, along with acquiring assets for tenders and NAHL Draft picks. “As the season went on, we realized that the older players weren’t working out, so we decided to get younger and build for this season. It was a long year, we learned a lot, and it’s all part of an extended gameplan,” said Coombs. “We are really excited about the season coming up. We are already down to 26 guys, so when they show up for training camp in late August, we know exactly what we are dealing with and start building team chemistry.”

Watch: NA Now video interview with Joe Coombs

Despite the large amount of turnover during the season in 2022-23, the Rhinos do return a good number of key and younger players for the 2023-24 season, which was all a part of the long-term gameplan. Frank Tafelski returns as the leading scorer from a season ago, as the 20-year-will be entering his third season in the NAHL. In 93 career NAHL games, he has recorded 36 points. “Frank is a good kid and awesome player. He had a great off-season, and we expect big things out of him,” said Coombs.

Other returning players to the 2023-24 roster include forwards Camden Bajzer (17 points), AJ Reed (16 points), Tory Lund (20 points between El Paso and Minot last season), and Ryan Gingher (12 points). Among the returners along the blueline are Paavo Hiltunen (14 points) and Jakub Jerman (9 points). Some of the newcomers that Coombs mentioned include two players selected in the 2023 NAHL Draft in forwards Tristan Bear from Canada and Victor Gade from Denmark. Each put up over 20 points in their respective leagues last year and both bring some size and should help with the offensive production that the Rhinos were lacking last year. “I like our team. I like our depth and I like the way we are set up defensively. If we aren’t a playoff team this season, I’d be shocked. I’m not much for predictions, but the expectation is to be better,” said Coombs.

“Playing in the South is a grind. Being able to handle the travel and the overnights is part of the preparation of being successful in the division. The positive part is that it teaches you to get up and go to work every day. You may be tired, you may not feel well, you may not have your ‘A’ game, but our players need to learn to deal with adversity. Working through the adversity requires discipline and it’s something that our players will face not only in hockey, but in life, so it’s an important life lesson,” said Coombs.

“What the NAHL and its owners do best is provide opportunity for young men. I think the NAHL Showcase is a reflection of that. It is a huge opportunity for our players, and I think the chance to face the NTDP team is a unique one and we certainly understand all the eyes that will be watching during that time. I think it’s going to be fun,” said Coombs.

Next Up: Fairbanks Ice Dogs

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