Almost by definition, the North American Hockey League is a transitional league, developing players and sending them on to new opportunities.
But even by NAHL standards, the Anchorage Wolverines have plenty of new faces in their third season as a franchise.
And that includes at the top. First-year head coach Nick Walters was hired in March to replace Evan Trupp, who coached the team in its second season.
The Wolverines make their home debut Friday at Ben Boeke Arena when they host the Kenai River Brown Bears at 7 p.m. The venue shifts south on Saturday as Kenai hosts Anchorage.
Walters, who is from Eagle River and graduated from Chugiak High, knows both the area and the team. He was an assistant under Trupp last season. While there are more than a handful of holdovers from last year, most of the impact players have moved on.
“We’re a developmental league, and so we move guys on and obviously there’s an age-out year,” Walters said. “We were pretty old last year, and so we graduated a lot of players on. What you’ll see this year, it’s a lot of new faces.”
Those new faces include a roster packed with both Alaskans and some international players. The team has eight Alaskans on the roster.
International players include goalie Jozef Zilinec from Ruzomberok, Slovakia, forward Taisetsu Ushio from Hokkaido, Japan, and the team’s leading scorer, Fyodor Nikolayenya of Minsk, Belarus.
“It’s a good group,” Walters said. “It’s a younger-than-expected group, but I think it’s a talented and very fast-paced group.”
While the team is still coalescing under Walters’ coaching style, one point of emphasis has been predictability. Not predictability in style of play, Walters says, but in a comfort level between teammates.
“Guys know what the other guy is gonna do,” he said. “We want to be a possession team. We want to hold on to the puck. We want to make plays. We want to encourage these guys to make plays and we’re getting there.”
The team was on the road for nearly three weeks early in the season, playing in the league showcase and an away series against the Janesville Jets. A short training camp meant an abbreviated introduction to Walters’ system.
“You’re cramming a lot of information in a short amount of time, so you really have to layer it in,” Walters said. “I kind of pick the most important things and then we work off of there. Now we’re finally getting into a lot more structure.”
With 208 goals, the team was among the highest scoring in the NAHL last year — tied for fifth. And while Walters wants the Wolverines to focus on puck possession in the early-going, he said the team should still be potentially explosive.
“I think (the team’s speed) is going to be what sticks out to the fans,” he said. “We’re going to have a little bit of an element of physicality too, a team that sticks up for each other, sticks together.”
The early-season matchup with Kenai is big because it involves two teams that play in the Midwest Division. It’s also key for the Club 49 Cup, the points battle between in-state teams that Anchorage won last season.
“I’m excited to be home,” Walters said. “I know these guys are excited to be home, and they’re really excited for the home opener.”