WCHA Recruiting Preview: Alaska Anchorage and Alabama-Huntsville
As summer and the NHL draft approach, OTB is back to recruiting previews for the next few months as college programs prepare for their incoming freshmen to start their careers. For this feature, I spoke with Alaska Anchorage assistant coach Josh Ciocco, as well as Alabama-Huntsville head coach Mike Corbett, about their incoming freshmen classes. I also touched briefly on the start both programs have made on recruiting for 2015 and further.
A year after Seawolves head coach Matt Thomas (RIT ’98) took the reins in Anchorage, he and assistants Josh Ciocco (New Hampshire ‘07) and TJ Jindra (Notre Dame ‘07) have quickly stockpiled a recruiting class they can feel proud about bringing to campus this upcoming season. I caught up with coach Ciocco, to talk about their incoming group of NLI-signed freshmen.
One of the early pick-ups of this ’13-14 recruiting season was Penticton Vees newcomer Olivier Mantha, a veteran goaltender out of Quebec that shared the lowest combined GAA in the BCHL with Minnesota-Duluth bound stopper Hunter Miska. Down the stretch, Mantha emerged to post three shutouts in seven post-season showings for the Vees, and Ciocco is excited about what Mantha can bring for the Seawolves, who graduated two goaltenders this season. On Mantha, Ciocco noted “I think [he] is extremely talented – very polished, very mature kid, very skilled goalie.
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I definitely think he can step in and play a lot of minutes, and losing two senior goalies it was very important to get a guy who can do that right away. It was also very good for us that Olivier is 21 – he’s got it together, and is pretty much exactly what we’re looking for.”
The Seawolves also bring in one of the AJHL’s star stoppers in Jared D’Amico, a 20-year-old veteran of the Alberta circuit who, at 5’9, compensates for a lack of size with quickness and smarts in the blue paint. The two help UAA to have a stable battery of experienced stoppers even in a year where they graduate two.
Moving up from the crease, defenseman Tanner Johnson is someone coach Ciocco thinks is “going to be a big time steal.” The Seawolves did their homework on Johnson, watching him emerge as a more premier talent in the BC circuit as the year went on. Ciocco noted, “We watched him a lot in the second half and for Langley, one of the most talented teams in North America, down the stretch he was one of their best defenseman. He’s grown about 2 inches, put on about 10 pounds and plays a physical game, defending well and making plays.” On the back-end Johnson is joined by defenseman Jarrett Brown of Cowichan Valley, an Alberta native who made the jump from midget to the BCHL two years ago.
Up front, Saskatchewan native Tad Kozun has been lighting it up for three seasons, posting 79 goals in 143 games, netting 38 tallies (to go with 27 assists) in his final season for Kozun’s hometown Nipawin Hawks. On Kozun, Ciocco noted, “Tad was a kid, he just kept scoring. He was really lighting it up at the start (22 goals in 23 games) and I thought, I gotta go watch the kid – if you’re scoring that much, you’ve gotta be doing something right. He’s going to come in and there will be an adjustment period, but since bantam hockey, he’s always got his points. So he definitely has the skill level, but what really attracted him to me is his compete, he’s got a little Andrew Shaw (Blackhawks) in him, certainly not afraid to work and fight for the puck.” More importantly, Kozun represents the type of older, experienced junior star out of Western Canada that can help UAA be successful, with Ciocco commenting “These are the kids we need, we need to have the right guys and I felt like Tad was one of those kids.”
Matt Anholt (West Kelowna) and Austin Azurdia (Langley) also join the 2014 forward group as freshmen, both second-year forwards in the BCHL who posted a combined 90 pts in 108 games. Anholt, another Saskatchewan native, captained West Kelowna’s squad and came fifth in team scoring. Azurdia is a Washington state native, a one-time Connecticut recruit who was fourth on the Rivermen in scoring.
The Seawolves also have Anthony Conti slated for 2015, a 1995-born forward that at 6’3, 200 lbs is “absolutely fearless”, commented Ciocco, continuing, “he’s younger than we would typically bring in but he has a lot of upside. I think [Conti] is somebody that is just going to get better everyday.”
Twenty-year-old forwards Jake Larson and Mason Mitchell are parts of that 2015 class as well. Larson, a former Minnesota high school star (STMA), is a skilled forward who put up prolific numbers for most of his career, coming off somewhat of an off-year in the AJHL. He could take a step and end up as one of the Seawolves top playmakers as an upperclassmen if all pans out. Mitchell is a 6’3 skater described as a physical “ball of energy” from Alberta. He spent the last two seasons in the BCHL with Nanaimo, and brings high-end skating ability and an intimidation factor with his frame and ability to impact the physical side of the game.
With a strong group pulled together in just one season from, primarily, Western Canada, Ciocco notes their staff will always do the diligence on other regions and junior circuits, but knows they can find the talent they need very close all the same. For example, lined up next season, the Seawolves have a potential star defensemen in Wyatt Ege, who skated for an in-state NAHL franchise, Fairbanks, but they’ve also lined up a nice mobile talent who calls Anchorage his hometown in Aaron McPheters, one of a number of Selects Academy (CT) defensemen to pick up Division 1 attention this year. Forward Alex Jackstadt is another recruit that only started playing hockey out of state this season, moving from Kenai River (NAHL), just three hours away from Anchorage, to below the border with the USHL’s Fargo Force. He’s set to arrive in 2015 alongside Penticton’s Cam Amantea.
For a team that struggled offensively last season, the Chargers actually return a lot to look forward towards on roster. Returning sophomore Jack Prince (13 points) and up-tempo freshmen Regan Soquila (7 points), Matt Salhany (12 points) helped to lead the team in points, but as a whole the ice time situation last year saw a ton of underclassmen playing big roles. Coach Corbett sees the freedom in being able to provide serious ice time to whoever earns it as a boon, noting “we have those minutes available across the board. Whether it’s an underclassman or a freshman coming in, we need to improve our program and the best 20 guys are going to get those minutes. For next year and the following years: if you want them, grab ‘em.”
That means skaters who were offensive sparkplugs in junior hockey, like Soquila, see enough ice to measure out and improve themselves in all situations. Similarly, fleet-footed freshmen like Salhany, UAH’s rookie of the year, can have a baptism-by-fire introduction to college hockey, skating in key situations – often – and likely coming out all the more ready for the next three years and any professional seasons to follow. That available time on ice is another truth to keep in the back pocket as a recruiter at UAH right now, as any prospect that might be marginalized on a more high-profile program’s roster knows that the UAH staff isn’t kidding when they say serious ice time is available for those who can earn it.
With a schedule that included Notre Dame, St. Cloud and Wisconsin, the Chargers went with a battery of two freshmen goaltenders, Matt Larose (19 games) and Carmine Guerriero (18 games), and the roster got a good taste against all the top teams in the country to build on moving forward. Corbett sees that experience for returners as crucial, “[they] gained a ton of experience. The success of our program is going to be based upon our freshmen becoming sophomores, our sophomores becoming juniors, our juniors becoming seniors. That’s what it is for us, the kids we’ve got coming in, they’re gonna help us, they will, but it’s about what those guys gained last year. We gave those freshmen and sophomores a ton of ice time against a tough schedule.”
That experience is important, but it can only take the Chargers so far. With this new class, they wanted to remedy an issue that had nagged all season, game-to-game: team speed.
“What this class gives to us”, says Corbett, “as a whole, is we wanted to upgrade our speed. Whether it’s on the forward lines or even on the back line being able to upgrade our mobility. We’ve got a very good mix and our mobility will be that much better. All of our kids win races to pucks and add speed. Say what you want about the WCHA, Minnesota’s gone, North Dakota’s gone: these are hard working teams, they get the details. Night in and night out [this season], the WCHA was fast. Every night, everybody was competing in an entertaining, up-and-down the ice type of game. For us, when the game got a little faster, that’s where we struggled.”
The freshman class as a group is diverse, with some size, some speed, and some junior hockey experience all in varying amounts. From the Dubuque Fighting Saints, alternate captain Max McHugh will be looked to as one of those aforementioned freshmen that can make some real strides early on, potentially in the top six.
From the NAHL, Filip Starzynski (Bismarck), Cody Champagne (NAHL), Richard Buri (Minnesota Wilderness), Brandon Parker (Brookings) and Tyler Poulsen (Topeka) will all hope to prove themselves as one of those key freshmen as well. Starzynski hails from Poland, by way of Western Canada’s Okanagan Hockey Academy and four seasons in the NAHL. Buri, Champagne and Parker are all blue liners with different M.O.s: Buri, a Slovakian, stands at 6’5 and has been playing internationally for Slovakia since age 15, crossing the pond for his club hockey in 2012. Champagne is a prep school product (South Kent/Avon) from Connecticut who has produced on the back-end in the past as well as this season for Topeka, and Parker is a MN native who played for the high school team in Faribault, tallying 42 points in 25 games for the Falcons before moving on to AAA hockey with Russell Stover and ultimately landing in the NAHL for parts of three seasons. Poulsen, a 5’7 forward, rounds out the NAHL’s contribution to this class. A NORPAC product by way of Arvada, Colorado, Poulsen has skated in the NAHL for the past five seasons, posting 156 points in 219 games. All will start the season with UAH at 20 years of age or older.
Out of the Greater Ontario circuit comes local Huntsville boy Josh Kestner, who tallied 40 goals in 47 games to lead the Sarnia Legionnaires. The great thing about Kestner, says Corbett, is “you don’t just bring in kids because he’s local. He deserves to be here, he’s a kid we recruited and we liked. He has a knack for scoring goals – he’s a 40-goal scorer coming out of Sarnia. For a team that scored roughly one goal a game last season…” At 6’1, even coming out of a less than elite level of completion, Kestner could end up a hidden gem for the Chargers if he can seize some minutes in key situations early and prove his offensive prowess at the Division I level.
From the USHL, 5’7 forward Brandon Salerno (Waterloo) and goaltender Jordan Uhelski (Muskegon) join the program. Salerno had 25 pts in 46 games as a 16-year-old in the OJHL, though he posted just six through 35 showings this season at age 18. Uhelski backed up uncommitted prospect Eric Schierhorn in Muskegon and should add depth to the already-experienced tandem already installed in Huntsville.
Alberta league product Brennan Saulnier, by way of Nova Scotia and the Maritime Jr. A circuit, is the last member of the incoming class, a 6’ forward who played for oil boomtown franchise Fort MacMurray, one of the top Jr. A programs in Canada last season. His 8 points in 17 playoff games were good for fourth on the team, and Saulnier finished the regular season again fourth with 49 points, 33 of which were helpers. The Chargers will hope Saulnier can keep up his offensive magic in the NCAA.
Down the line, the Chargers have started to lay the foundation of their 2015, 2016, and 2017 classes. With the TPH Thunder program emerging as a premier club option for AAA hockey in the south, and UAH hockey alum Nathan Bowen (’00) at the helm of the program, it’s no surprise that coach Corbett and staff have tapped the Thunder pipeline. Forwards Austin Beaulieu and Connor Wood are the most recent recruits from TPH, but defenseman Teddy Rotenberger is on board for a few years out as well. Rotenberger is an efficient, strong skater with puck competence: he should make for a good, poised option with the puck on the blue in a few years. Beaulieu is one of those up-tempo additions that can be really dangerous with some speed behind the puck. He posted 70 points in 49 games this season, including 23 goals, second only on the team to Maine recruit Mitch Fossier. Wood, for his part, is a smaller forward at 5’7, but absolutely tenacious – a compact, energy forward who plays on the man advantage and isn’t afraid to make himself a presence at the net. On whether the Thunder program is a priority for them as a way to become the destination school for elite southern hockey talent, coach Corbett agreed, “We’d love to have that niche,” continuing to note that regions all over the south are producing talent, from Atlanta to Nashville, to Florida and Dallas. Florida recently produced an OHL first overall pick in Jakob Chychrun, while Dallas has had Seth Jones (4th overall, Nashville) and is witnessing the rise of young stars like Hank Crone (Boston University) and Max Gildon.
For the Chargers, TPH U18 teammates Logan Orem (1997), Nathan Krusko (1996) and Tyler Tate (1996) could all be intriguing looks, though there is plenty of talent coming up from the U16 and bantam ranks for TPH, such as 1999-born U14 captain Kyle Kawamura. That bodes well for Corbett if his program can keep some of that more-highly regarded talent committed to furthering their careers in the south.
Another scrappy, hard-working forward committed for a few years out is Joey Marooney, out of Minnesota high school program Holy Family Catholic. Marooney brings a game like fellow recruit Wood, and his 46 points in 25 games are pretty on-par with Wood’s production as well, despite being in pretty different leagues. Both seem tailor-made for the type of roster the Chargers are working towards, as never-say-die skaters who can play versatile roles within the framework of the top nine. With a brother on roster (Cody), and a talented younger brother (James, 1999) on Holy Family’s Varsity as well, Joey could someday end up the second of three Marooney brothers to play at UAH.
From New England, the Chargers have a pair of prospects in Lawrence Academy’s Cam Knight and Selects Academy’s Roberts Smits, both committed for a year or two out. Smits is a 6’1 center from Latvia with a nice power game and hockey sense that allows him to be dominant at times. Last but not least, the Chargers also have 17-year-old Ivan Bondarenko committed, a Russian forward who broke the 100-point ceiling in the Norpac this year, tallying 50 goals in 37 games in the process. The 5’9 forward from Moscow isn’t due to arrive on campus for a while, though how he’s able to perform at a higher level of junior hockey should give Chargers fans an idea of what level they can temper their expectations of Bondarenko to.
All in all, recruiting efforts are on the up-and-up for these two WCHA programs and if they can keep it up, it spells good things for parity in college hockey. Alaska Anchorage’s group addresses needs all over the roster, while the Chargers seem well positioned to become a team that could start to push the pace on opponents over the next few years with a combination of mobility, skill and work ethic.
Thanks for reading.