ECHL: Pacific Division preview

By Frank Seravalli





Pacific Division

The Pacific Division of the ECHL includes the six teams of
the former WCHL, plus an expansion team, the Las Vegas Wranglers. 

 

Alaska Aces

Alaska
has once again opened its doors to the professional hockey world with the start
of the 2003-2004 season. One of the most interesting questions this season is
how the team will hold up with its grueling travel and schedule. Teams do come
to Alaska for two or three games, but when they are on the road it is always a
long haul.

 

Davis Payne will be joining the Alaska Aces behind the
bench this season, after spending the last three seasons in Pee Dee (now
Florence) with the Pride. In his last two seasons, Payne guided the Pride to a
combined 81 wins in a possible 144 games. As a result of his coaching, Payne
lead the 2002 ECHL Southern Conference at the All Star Game. The 32-year-old
Payne has never lost a first round series in three postseason appearances.
Payne seems to be just the guy Alaska was looking for.

           

Leading the Aces this season will be Mark Smith, a
small but gritty and speedy center. Smith finished just a point off the team
lead last year with the Lexington Men O’ War of the ECHL, who closed their
doors after last season. Smith posted 54 points in 65 games last season. Dan
Murphy
will be in goal for the Aces this season. Murphy, who boasts 69
games of AHL experience, posted a 2.65 GAA and .907 save percentage with
Lexington of the ECHL last season. Look out for youngster Charles Linglet.
Linglet, a rookie out of the QMJHL, posted 123 points in 2001-2002 with
Baie-Comeau.

 

Bakersfield
Condors

The Condors, who have made the
playoffs in each of their five years in existence, will not have to make too
many adjustments this season..

           

Head coach Paul Kelly returns
behind the bench. He was named 2002-2003 WCHL Coach of the Year, setting more
than 30 individual and team records. Kelly guided the Condors to a franchise
best 41-22-9 record, good for 91 points and a third place finish in the WCHL
standings.

           

Many new Condors will be playing
under Coach Kelly. Some of these new faces include youngsters
Todd Alexander, Devin Francon, Darren Shakotko, Peter
Hirsch, and Joe Watkins
. Key returnees include Jimmy Drolet, Jason Jackman, and Jonas Lennartsson.

           

The Condors are not a relatively
young team, so leadership and experience will be their strengths. Look for a
very competitive season out of the Condors; they should compete for the
division and the Kelly Cup.

 

Fresno Falcons

The Fresno Falcons will have a fresh start in 2003-2004 with
the ECHL. With a new arena, new league, new logo and uniforms, and new players,
there is a sense of optimism regarding the upcoming season.

           

Behind the bench will be Blaine Moore, who is entering his
fifth season as Head Coach/General Manager of the Falcons. After a
disappointing regular season last year in the WCHL, the Falcons made a
spectacular Taylor Cup run, falling short of their second consecutive Taylor
Cup Championship in the seventh game. The Taylor Trophy is awarded to the
ECHL’s Western Conference Champion, named after Bruce Taylor, founder and
former owner of the Falcons.

           

The Falcons have one of the youngest foundations in the
league, boasting 13 out of 20 players under the age of 24. Only one player on
the defensive unit is not born in the 1980’s. Be sure to watch Mark Jackson,
Bryce Thoma, and Riku Rahikainen, Nolan Schaefer, Tapio Sammalkangas, and John
Wroblewski
. Wroblewski, a rookie out of Notre Dame (NCAA), posted 33 points
in his senior campaign. He was voted team MVP and named a finalist for college
hockey’s Humanitarian Award.

 

Idaho Steelheads

The Steelheads are fresh off of a
first place regular season finish in the WCHL. This was the team’s second
straight Founders Cup Trophy (awarded to the team with the best record in the
regular season). Although the Steelheads failed to capitalize in the Taylor Cup
playoffs, they will look to do so this season in a new league.

           

Behind the bench this season for
the Steelheads will be John Olver. Olver has won his second straight Founders
Cup Trophy, and has lead his team to six out of the eight finals in WCHL
history.

           

The “Steelies” have many appealing
players on their roster this season. Of them,
Wade Davis, Zenon Kenopka, and Dan Ellis immediately rise to the top of the list. Davis, a rookie out of the WHL,
posted 52 points last season as a defenseman. He was a fifth round selection of
the Calgary Flames. Konopka, a 6’0” second year center, netted 70 points last
season in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers. Ellis will take charge of the
goaltending duties this season for Idaho. Ellis, who was a second round
selection of the Dallas Stars, needs to improve quite a bit if he wants to get
out of the ECHL, but his play should be sufficient for a winning season.

           

Idaho will no doubt have many
successful seasons in this league, and look for them in the Kelly Cup playoffs
this season.

 

Las Vegas Wranglers

The Las Vegas Wranglers hit the
ice in 2003-2004, looking to “rope in” success. This marks the first season
that hockey has been in Las Vegas since 1999, and the Wranglers call the new
Orleans Arena home. The Orleans Arena is located just one mile from the Las
Vegas Strip, and the owners of the Orleans Hotel own the arena. This is a major
benefit to both fans and the visiting team, providing them with affordable
accommodations in conjunction with the game.

           

Entering his first season as Head
Coach and General Manager is Glen Gulutzan. Gulutzan, 31, has just completed a
nine-year professional hockey career. The latter years of Gulutzan’s career
were spent with the ECHL’s Fresno Falcons, where he was a player-assistant
coach. Gulutzan is the Falcons all-time leading scorer, and was twice named a
WCHL All-Star. He was also instrumental in growing the youth hockey program in
Fresno, something that he will try to do during his tenure in Las Vegas.

 

The Wranglers are not a young
team, but they do have some quality players. A very intriguing player is
defenseman
Mike
McBain
. McBain, a second round selection
of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has seemed to have found a home in Las Vegas.
Ryan Christie is also
notable. Christie, a fifth round selection of the Dallas Stars has seen seven
games of NHL action in his career, and he is playing well so far this season.

           

Even though this is Las Vegas’
inaugural season, they should not be taken lightly, because they are a very
good team.

 

Long Beach Ice
Dogs

Even
though the Ice Dogs are coming to the ECHL after a disappointing season in the
WCHL, there is still a sense of optimism in the Long Beach area.

           

The Ice Dogs joined the WCHL in 2000-2001 and finished the
season with 93 points. Since then, things have been all downhill. In 2001-2002,
the Ice Dogs made the playoffs but finished the season with 86 points. In
2002-2003, last season, the Ice Dogs finished the regular season with a measly
48 points, and were forced to watch the playoffs from the stands. Kevin
Kaminski, who came to the Ice Dogs after being an assistant coach with
Cincinnati of the AHL, has returned for his second season as Head Coach in Long
Beach.

           

The Ice Dogs are probably the youngest team in the league,
with 14 players under 24 years of age. Eric LaPlante is immediately one
of the names that jumped off the page at me when looking at the roster.
LaPlante, 24 years of age, has been a full time AHLer for the past three
seasons with Cleveland and Kentucky. LaPlante seems to be making a fine
adjustment to life in the ECHL and So. California. He has posted 2 goals and 3
assists in 5 games so far. John McNabb is another exciting player on the
Long Beach roster. McNabb netted 35 goals and 35 assists last season (70
points) with the Jackson Bandits of the ECHL last season. Look for LaPlante and
McNabb to lead the Dogs in scoring this season, but likely not to the promised
land.

 

San Diego Gulls

The San Diego Gulls may be new to the ECHL, but they are
definitely not new to success in the professional hockey ranks. The
organization with the most wins and championships in WCHL history is looking
forward to a comfortable transition into the ECHL.

           

Steve Martinson, Gulls General Manager/Head Coach, has made
it clear that he will not change a winning formula. The Gulls have won five
WCHL Championships in eight seasons, including the final one, last season.

           

Martinson will be entering his eighth season with the Gulls
franchise. He is the only Head Coach/General Manager in franchise’s WCHL
history. Without a doubt, Martinson has set the benchmark for success in
professional hockey.

           

Martinson says this is the best team in his nine
years at the helm. “We’re good. I just hope we’re good enough for this new
league,” Martinson said.
The Gulls roster is indeed promising. The Gulls
boast a veteran-heavy nucleus. Of the younger players, Sandro Sbrocca, a
huge left winger, seems to have the most potential. Sbrocca, who attended the
Anaheim Mighty Ducks training camp, brings forth a very physical game; almost
unmatched in the ECHL. He posted 17 points last season, in 58 WCHL games. Look
for Sbrocca to possibly see some time in the AHL this upcoming season.

           

The Gulls should be the favorite in the Pacific division.
They have a great deal of talent with a veteran nucleus. Many teams like to
stay young, but in many instances leadership wins games.

 

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