By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
September 15, 2017
A reshaped and mostly untested Great Falls Americans hockey roster will take the ice Saturday night in a season-opening contest against the Bozeman IceDogs.
Only eight skaters – all forwards – are back from the team that compiled a 38-4-2-3 record during the 2016-17 campaign.
The Americans, which had won the Frontier Division championship two years in a row before falling to Yellowstone in the final series last season, don’t return a single defensemen or goaltender.
“There are some new faces,” said head coach Jeff Heimel, who is entering his sixth season leading the Americans. “But that’s exciting. Every year you have a different group.”
The puck will drop at 7:30 Saturday night at the Great Falls IcePlex atop Gore Hill.
The Frontier Division was an eight-team league last season but has now dropped to just six after squads from Butte (previously the Glacier Nationals) and Billings, short on numbers, decided not to compete in the North American Hockey League this year. They remain a part of the NA3HL, a 45-team league spread across eight divisions, and are expected to return in 2018-19.
Among the notable returners back for the Americans are forwards Payton McSharry (28 goals, 30 assists in 47 games), Matt Janke (16G, 32A) and Adam Vandenbos (8G, 15A in 25 games).
McSharry had four game-winning goals last season.
“He looks great in practice,” Heimel said. “He had a heck of a postseason last year for us, and he’s obviously extremely talented. I like what he’s brought so far in practice.”
McSharry, Janke and Vandenbos all finished top 10 in points on the team last season but the other seven skaters, including standout Tanner Congdon (82 points), have moved on.
Sixteen players on the 24-man roster are in their go-round with the Americans.
Kody Thomas (7G, 13A in 44 games) and Michael Fury (8G, 3A in 27 games) are also players expected to make another jump this season.
Nine of the team’s 15 forwards are from Anchorage, continuing the yearly pipeline from Alaska to Great Falls that has resulted in so much success.
“We have a strong forward group this year,” Heimel said. ‘I’m actually really excited about our forward group. I think we are going to score a lot of goals this year.”
All six skaters along the blue line are brand new to the program.
One of them is Trent Cowden, who scored in the team’s 5-1 preseason victory over Helena last weekend.
“It’s his first year, but he’s very promising,” Heimel said. “I’m excited about what he brings to the table. Really, the rest of the (defensemen) are all kind of in that boat.”
There are two names from Great Falls on the squad, including defenseman Braxton Lorenz and net minder Cam McIntosh. Both played on the Great Falls Americans high school team last season, though Lorenz did suit up in several games for Heimel.
Will they see much playing time?
“At this point, there are a lot of situations that are competitive and up for grabs,” Heimel said. “But it’s great having local kids on the team, and they are both great kids and hard workers. Obviously, they play two entirely different positions but I think our goal is just to develop players.
“It’s a long season and certainly that stuff is earned every day in practice. I certainly love their work ethic and I think they have as good an opportunity as anyone to make their mark on things this year.”
McIntosh, only 16 years old, the youngest player on the team by more than a year, will play behind Mack Willey (the starter on Saturday night) and Bryan Sharp.
Still, Heimel is intrigued by McIntosh’s potential.
“He’s got some learning to do, but we typically don’t take players as young as him,” he said. “We are excited about an opportunity to develop him. If he wasn’t ready to play at this level, we would have obviously encouraged him to develop another year before that. We are excited to have him. I’ve seen him play a lot, and I know the family. It’s an excellent family.”
Story Courtesy: Great Falls Tribune: Americans to open hockey season Saturday (September 15, 2017)