Utah Grizzlies season preview

By Ryan Garner





AHL: Grizzlies Season Preview

The 2003-04 season was a disappointing one for the Utah Grizzlies. The
club struggled offensively all season and only managed to score 162 goals,
second-worst in the entire league. Utah finished with only 65 points and found
themselves the sole occupants of last place in the American Hockey League’s
West Division for the second consecutive year.

 

Disappointment has been replaced by optimism as the Grizzlies enter the
2004-05 season, their fourth in the American Hockey League. Breaking ties with
previous affiliate Dallas Stars, the team signed a new affiliation agreement
with the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes during the offseason,
ushering in a new era of professional hockey in Salt Lake City. Laurence Gilman
was introduced as Utah’s general manager in June and two former NHL players
were added to the coaching staff. Pat Conacher was named the Grizzlies head
coach while Gord Dineen was hired on as assistant coach and director of hockey
operations.

 

Goaltending

 

The future of Phoenix Coyotes goaltending begins and ends with one man, David LeNeveu. After posting
spectacular numbers in two seasons at Cornell University, the 21-year-old
netminder made a seamless transition to professional hockey with the AHL
Springfield Falcons last season. LeNeveu, the Coyotes second round pick (46th
overall) in 2002, registered a solid 2.76 goals against average and .917 save
percentage in 38 games for the Falcons. The Fernie, British Columbia native is
expected to handle the starting duties for the Grizzlies this season with
veteran Jean-Marc Pelletier backing him up. The 26-year-old Pelletier returns
for his sixth season of AHL play and should provide solid goaltending when
called upon.

 

Defense

 

After a stellar collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, Keith Ballard will make his
professional debut with the Grizzlies this year. Originally drafted by the
Buffalo Sabres in the first round (11th overall) of the 2002 NHL
Entry Draft, Ballard was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche at the 2004 trade
deadline. Despite his small stature (5’11, 200 pounds) the 23-year-old has put
up big offensive numbers wherever he’s played and it won’t be long before he
makes the jump to NHL action.

 

Matthew
Spiller
joins Ballard as one of the Grizzlies top defensive prospects. The Daysland,
Alberta native gained valuable NHL experience last season, appearing in 51
games for the Phoenix Coyotes. The towering 6’5, 233-pound Spiller will be an
intimidating presence along the Utah blue line. Joe Callahan, the Coyotes third round pick (70th
overall) in 2002, has increased his point totals each of the past three seasons
at Yale. Last season, the 21-year-old posted 20 points in 31 games for the
Bulldogs and decided to forego his final year of college eligibility to further
his development at the professional level.

 

Dustin Wood will be
looking to build on a solid rookie season with the Springfield Falcons. The
23-year-old should be involved in competition for playing time all season.
Offensive defenseman Jonathan Zion is
hoping to find a permanent home on the Grizzlies roster. The Nepean, Ontario
native has bounced around the last two seasons, suiting up for seven clubs in
both the AHL and ECHL during that time.

 

The duo of Nikos Tselios and Rick Berry will provide veteran leadership
and a steadying influence. Berry benefited from 65 games with the Washington
Capitals last season. Tselios has seen his stock slowly decline since being
drafted 22nd overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.

 

Forwards

 

Swedish winger Fredrik Sjostrom, the
Coyotes first round pick (11th overall) in 2001, made some huge
strides towards establishing himself as an NHL regular last season. The 6’1,
214-pound speedster appeared in 57 games for Phoenix and showed good poise
adjusting to the quickness and physical nature of NHL play. Sjostrom will be a
major component of the Grizzlies offense this season and should benefit from
increased ice time in a variety of situations. Jason Jaspers joins the Grizzlies after spending his last three
seasons with the Springfield Falcons. The 23-year-old center tied for second in
team scoring last year, posting 38 points in 58 games.

 

Every team wants big, physical centers and Utah should benefit from the
presence of four huge prospects down the middle. The mammoth Kiel McLeod (6’5, 240 pounds) enjoyed a
solid rookie season last year for the Springfield Falcons. The Sherwood Park,
Alberta native loves physical play and creating traffic in front of opposing
goaltenders. Martin Podlesak is also
looking to improve on a fine rookie campaign with Springfield. The 6’6,
208-pound Czech needs to add weight and muscle to increase his effectiveness in
the middle. Jakub Joreis, a first
round pick (18th overall) of the Coyotes in 2002, may be the most
talented and exciting player of the four. The 6’3, 213-pound Czech made his
North American debut with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League last
season, posting a respectable 38 points in 48 games played. Koreis has dazzled
coaches at the Grizzlies training camp and may have earned himself an expanded
role with the Grizzlies. Rounding out the big four is 6’3, 212-pound Randall Gelech. Only 20 years old,
Gelech has spent the past four seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL. The
Wynard, Saskatchewan native may find himself the odd man out because of the
Grizzlies depth at the center position. These four should battle for playing
time all season long.

 

Looking to improve offensive production, the Grizzlies acquired veteran
wingers Martin Sonnenberg, Jonathan Sim and Sheldon Keefe during the offseason.
Sonnenberg posted 42 points in 48 games for the Lowell Lock Monsters last year.
Sim returns to the Grizzlies after splitting time between the Los Angeles Kings
and Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Keefe, drafted 47th overall by
the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, has an abundance of talent but he’s been
unable to secure a spot in the NHL. Grizzlies fans are hoping he can put up
huge numbers this season without the added pressure of playing his way onto an
NHL club. Each of these veterans should contribute offensively while helping to
take defensive pressure off of the Grizzlies prospects.

 

Erik Westrum is coming off a stellar performance at the 2004 IIHF World
Championships in Prague and should be one of Utah’s main offensive weapons.
Jeff Taffe finds himself back in the AHL thanks to the NHL lockout. Currently,
the 23-year-old center is the only Grizzlies player guaranteed to return to the
Phoenix Coyotes whenever NHL play resumes. Mike Stutzel will line up on the
left wing for Utah this season. The Victoria, British Columbia native will
provide energy and chip in offensively. Winger Doug Doull will inject some
much-needed muscle into the Grizzlies lineup. The 30-year-old Doull doesn’t
back down from anyone, racking up 132 PIMs in 35 games for the Boston Bruins
last season.

 

Outlook

 

The Grizzlies will feature a healthy mix of productive veterans and
promising youngsters this season. The goaltending and defense are stocked with
solid performers and the center position will be the deepest in the 11-year
history of the franchise. After two seasons of mediocre play the Grizzlies
appear poised to contend for the top spot in the AHL’s West Division.

 

Last season, the Phoenix Coyotes’ lack of depth and abundance of
injuries led to prospects Matthew Spiller and Fredrik Sjostrom being advanced
to the NHL level prematurely. These prospects will have the chance to gain
confidence with the Grizzlies this season.

 

The Grizzlies open their season at home on October 13th
against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.

 

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