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NA Now: Johnstown Tomahawks

August 19, 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.

Johnstown Tomahawks

Head Coach: Mike Letizia (9th Season)

2022-23 record: 60 GP, 29-26-5, 63 pts. (5th in the East Division)

2022-23 leading scorer: Anthony Galante (48 points)

2023 Playoffs: Did not qualify

2023-24 Division: East

First regular season game: Friday, September 8th @ Maryland Black Bears

Home opener: Friday, September 30th vs. New Hampshire Mountain Kings

A run of five straight years with a playoff appearance came to a halt during the 2022-23 season for the Johnstown Tomahawks, who finished in 5th place in the East Division, just one win and two points out of the final playoff spot. Despite inconsistency all year long, the Tomahawks entered April with a good chance to keep their playoff streak alive, but four losses in their last five games sealed their fate. Ultimately, it was the inability to keep pucks out of their own net that may have cost the Tomahawks as they ranked towards the bottom in the NAHL in goals allowed, averaging over 3.5 goals allowed per game.

“We had some inconsistency early in the season and had a little trouble scoring a little trouble keeping the puck out of our net, so when you have a combination of those two it doesn't really lead to too much success. We had a lot of younger guys, so we knew there would be a learning curve and I think we really turned things around later in the season. I was happy with the way the team responded but unfortunately in the end we weren’t consistent enough and just fell short of a playoff spot,” said Letizia. “It left a bad taste in our mouth, so we have got to start getting it back right away with a great training camp and start to drive home our identity again. Johnstown is a special place to play, and we need to get back to what made is great.”

The off-season was a busy one for the organization as on May 10th, the Tomahawks announced a new ownership group, headed by the team’s new majority owner and CEO, John Koufis. “If the kids are successful, the team is successful; if the team is successful, then the winning comes. That means people coming to the games, more attendance, the more interest there is in the team, and the more resources we will have to help these kids reach their dreams,” said Koufis. “This is very high-level hockey. The kids who come through here and the opposing teams who come through here are some of the best young hockey players in the country.”

Letizia said he is encouraged about this year’s group of players as it will be a mix of both veteran and new faces, the majority of whom have junior hockey experience. “Based upon numbers, we had to get players to make up the core of our backend and defense. I think we did that in the Draft by selecting a goalie with our first pick in Round 1 and a defenseman with our second pick in Round 2. We had plenty of offense but were towards the bottom of the league in goals allowed, so if we can defend, then we should be better,” said Letizia.

Watch: NA Now video interview with Mike Letizia

The first pick that Letizia alluded to was 20-year-old goalie Jacob Osborne. The 6’2/190 lbs. Canadian has a year of Canadian Jr. A hockey behind him and put up some big numbers. The same is true with Johnstown’s second round pick, defenseman Justin Gibson. The 6’1/190 lbs. native of Pittsburgh, PA, has played two years of Junior A in Canada and now has a chance to return close to home for his final season of junior hockey. The Tomahawks have a solid group of returning players starting up front with forwards Will Lawrence (26 points), Will Moore (25 points), Zach Aben (24 points), Ryan Panico (18 points), and Ryan Johnson (18 points). On defense, Dylan Shane (18 points), Isaac Holt (8 points), and Zach Hixon (6 points) also return.

“It’s a big thing for us to let everybody try and contribute to the team. That’s the only way these guys will get better and learn. We have a lot of guys that are in the position and can step up and be those team leaders, but they are going to have to do it. It just doesn’t happen automatically. They must want to do and work hard to make it happen. We want to get back to high-skill, meat and potatoes, tough hockey. I think we have enough guys from last year’s team who are retuning who don’t want to fall short again and want to get back to the Robertson Cup,” said Letizia. “We are really excited about adding two more new opponents in the East in locations where so many NCAA schools are so close to.”

“We have to start strong and it’s not going to be easy. We start out on the road against Maryland and then head to the Showcase and we have four very good opponents. Every game there is so magnified and so intense and it’s a special opportunity for our players. It’s one the best things about the league so we need to be ready to play well. The NAHL does the best job of marketing the league and marketing our players and it’s great to see more and more people want to be a part of it. The growth is fantastic and speak volumes of what the league has been able to do to grow the game and provide more and more opportunity.”

Next Up: Kenai River Brown Bears

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