By Steve Schreck, Tribune Sports Writer
September 18, 2015
Ever since Minnesotan Jeff Heimel took over the organization, the Great Falls Americans have steadily improved.
Entering his fourth season behind the bench, which starts Friday night at 7:30 p.m. against the Glacier Nationals at the Great Falls IcePlex, Heimel has brought the Americans back from a one-win season in 2011-12 and last season directed Great Falls to a Frontier Division championship.
To make another step in year four, that would be a lot to ask.
“It is going to be hard to do,” Heimel said. “I agree 100 percent.”
That 2014-15 team, led by southpaw Lucas Lomax, captain Dylan Garton, Cody Page and Zach Mese, reeled off 12 consecutive victories to open the season and capped the year off by topping its rival, the Helena Bighorns, in the finals of the Frontier playoffs.
“We had six, seven guys that were here last year that aren’t here this year that did a lot of special things in the locker room and on the ice, ” Heimel said. “But we rebuilt. This is good team we have here.”
It’s certainly a different one. Lomax, the team’s point leader from a year ago, used up his eligibility and is no longer on the team. So, too, are names like Garton, Mese, Page and Lucas Stover.
But Heimel is happy with what he’s built in his more than three years as head coach, and new players are expected to come in and carry on the tradition that has been left before them.
“That’s how I know we have something cool going on here,” Heimel said.
The Americans, which return six of their seven defensemen from last season, skated in two preseason games last weekend, including a 7-1 win over Helena.
“I think it is going to be our (defensive) core this year,” Josh Larson, a returning forward, said of the team’s strength. “We have almost all of them back expect for Stover and we added a new defensemen back there (Jesse Johnson) that will do pretty good. I’m excited for our D core. I think that’ll definitely be our strong suit.”
Larson is a lefty out of Anchorage, Alaska. His younger brother, Matthew, another forward, is on this year’s team after moving to Great Falls a month ago. Josh, meanwhile, registered a plus-7 last year after joining the team late in the season and will be counted on in many areas.
“He’s just an all-around forward that can do pretty much anything we ask him to do, which is what I like about him,” Heimel said.
Other returning forwards include Malachi Bushey, Brendan Jester, Adam Apangalook and Austin Krantz. Krantz, a veteran, tallied 17 points in 43 games last season.
“I think with all the returners we have, that definitely helps,” Krantz said. “It always helps when you have that many guys of different calibers coming back. And then on top of that, all of the new guys, the rookies and younger kids, are all eager to play.”
Some newcomers that have impressed in camp and preseason are forwards Tanner Congdon, Colton Fletcher and Ricards Bernhards. It’s a forward group that is deeper than the past two years, Heimel said.
“Tanner Congdon, he’s a great kid,” Krantz said. “Just a hard worker. He’s a young kid. You can tell he loves the game. He loves to be here. He can fly with the puck and his hands are great. He’ll be a really good guy for us, too.”
Bernhards, a 6-foot-4 forward from Latvia, will be on the same line as Josh Larson.
“He’s just big,” Heimel said. “We didn’t have a lot of size last year. That’s exciting. Goes to the net hard. We use him on the power play in front of the net.”
There are four goaltenders on the roster. Lauren Massie, who played significant minutes last season, went 15-8 with a 2.14 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.
“He is stepping up to the plate,” Heimel said. “He looked really good in preseason.”
Josh Larson is excited to step on that ice Friday night.
“I think we will be pretty good this year,” he said. “We have a good group of returners coming back and we also have some good new faces that are coming in this year that I think will do pretty good in our Division.”