By Brendan Price / USPHL.com
The Mountain Division enters its third season and has been at times a very nip-and-tuck division in both the first two years. While the Utah Outliers captured both of the division’s first two Nationals berths, that certainly doesn’t take away from any other team in the division. After all, USPHL leadership saw fit to admit all six teams to the Tier II National Collegiate Development Conference in 2023-24, including the first-year Idaho Falls Spud Kings.
Order Is 2022-23 Finish
The Outliers raced out to a 12-1-1 start, took the division lead, and won the regular season title with near wire-to-wire control for the crown. They set a franchise record with a 15-game winning streak in December and January over seven different opponents, and set the tone for their stretch run.
They promptly swept Pueblo and Northern Colorado in the division playoffs by a +13 total margin in four games, won their first two games at Nationals before narrowly falling to the Northern Cyclones on day three, bringing their franchise-best season to a close. Utah had nine different double-digit goal scorers and allowed a miniscule 2.29 goals per game with four different goalies.
“Winning the division the past two years has been fun but that is now in the past,” said Head Coach Paul Taylor. “This team will have to create its own identity and push hard all season for any chance of a ‘three-peat.’ But in saying that, I believe they are up for the challenge. Every season begins with a clean slate and it’s up to this year’s group to find a path to their own success.”
The team was able to move Jakub Suran to NCAA Division III University of Southern Maine among other advancements. NCAA commitments, Tier II advancement, and overseas contracts have been waiting for Utah players following their time under Taylor’s tutelage, something he credits to the style of play.
“We work hard to play a fast, skilled game where players can make the jump to [Tier 2] and have an easier transition. We also talk a lot about what it takes to play at the next level and how to get their minds thinking about the type of commitment it takes to achieve that opportunity.”
The scoring tandem of Miles McCue (‘02) and Will Cohen (‘03) is back again. Cohen’s explosive right handed shot notched 25 goals in just 40 games and McCue led the team with 50 points as a rookie. The back end projects to be a strength for Utah again with the return of Matthew Koepke anchoring the unit. Koepke (‘02) was an All-Star in 2021-22 and exploded for 37 points in 47 games, including 16 goals.
Marco Felicetti (‘03) returns after a 17-3-2 record, 2.35 GAA, and wondrous .922 save percentage from his rookie season.
With the specter of the NCDC looming large over the next season, Taylor and the Outliers ready for one last run at the division title. Before the NCDC however, Taylor understands that the parity in the Mountain makes for a long road.
“We play in the toughest division in the USPHL so we need to be ready to play each and every night. Anyone can beat anyone in the Mountain division,” Taylor explained.
Ogden jumped out to an 8-1-0 start to the regular season and didn’t break stride, finishing 2nd in the Mountain Division. The playoffs left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Mustangs. Despite being tied or leading for 231 of 239 minutes of game action, the Eagles captured Games 1 and 3 in overtime to advance past Ogden.
Head Coach/General Manager Kenny Orlando believes the Mustangs have loaded up again and are ready to compete for a division crown.
“We have a lot of fresh faces to our team this year, but we will not miss a beat,” Orlando stated. “We brought in players with high-level junior experience or youth experience that we expect to push to the pace we usually have.”
Ogden will have 17 new skaters on their 2022-23 roster with previous experience ranging from U18AAA to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Defenseman Benji Rutkai and JAckson Ferry, both ‘02’s lead the wave of new talent.
Rutkai spent last season with Weyburn (SJHL) and Minot (NAHL) and could be the player that fills the gap on the ‘Stangs top defensive unit alongside Luke Faas; Ferry also comes by way of Weyburn (SJHL) and will look to be a driving force in a potent Ogden attack.
“We demand a lot out of our rookie players. They will buy in and be committed to the team goal. I expect each one of them to be a contributing member to the teams’ success,” said Orlando.
With so many newcomers, the onus will be on the returning Mustangs to help ease the burden on players getting adjusted to the physicality of the Mountain Division and the semi-unique home ice advantage in Ogden: an Olympic-size ice sheet.
The wider ice can be a huge boost for speed and playmaking; two things that returning forwards Jake Meure and Dimitri Voyatzis, and defenseman Luke Faas have in spades.
“Meure, Voyatzis, and Faas bring such great numbers and leadership ability,” said Orlando.
Meure (‘02) may be the most talented forward returning to the division. The All-Star had 59 points in 49 games and could close out his ‘Stang career by finishing in the top-5 in games played, assists, and points.
Voyatzis (‘03) posted 43 points in 47 games and Faas registered 37 points as a defenseman and was a jolt of energy for the Ogden blue line. Faas is ready to step into a larger role for Ogden this year, especially with a D-core that lost four key members to graduation.
Similar to their division counterparts, the Mustangs built their 2022-23 roster with an eye on the future of the NCDC.
“We are growing sponsorship support, local community interaction and reaching out to new groups that we haven’t worked with in the past,” he said. “Growing our scouting staff to cover more of North America and Europe, we will have eyes on most levels of hockey this season around the globe.”
Their hockey eyes are set on their season opener on Friday, Sept. 30, when they welcome the Northern Colorado Eagles to the Ice Sheet.
Northern Colorado Eagles
Twenty-seven. That’s the number of regular season games decided by two goals or fewer for “NoCo” last year. They saved their most heart-stopping finishes for the playoffs. The Eagles advanced past Ogden in the Mountain Division semis thanks to two overtime wins before falling at the hands of the Outliers in the Mountain Division Finals.
Head Coach/General Manager Steve Haddon utilizes his “season within a season” approach to great success.
“There are so many steps in a season: making the playoffs, learning and growing as a team, finishing as high as you can in the standings, getting to Nationals, and winning a championship,” he said.
The team have to replace 47 percent of their goals just from the NCAA Division III advancement by Ethan Pitzman and the Tier II promotion of Brayden Fryfogle.
Looking to expand their toolbox and become the players they could be are Alexandre Bedard and Javen Heidergott. Both 02’s, Bedard flashed scoring chops with 27 points in 47 games, while the Telluride, Colo., native Heidergrott finished with 25 points in 36 games.
They are set in goal, as well. All-Star goaltender Charles-Anthony Barbeau (‘02) returns. He finished second in the USPHL in wins (21) and was fourth in minutes played (1,768). He is joined by 2020-21 Mountain Division All-Star Ulrik Roussel (‘02) and up-and-comer local product Evan Stringer (‘05), who will have great mentors with those to help him through his first season.
This year’s squad will be a distinct look for the Eagles, who have one eye on the future in the NCDC.
“The thing I have stressed as a staff is we will all be doing two jobs this season. We are focused on this year’s group, doing whatever this team needs each day along with helping the older players with schools and finding NCAA programs that fit for them,” Haddon started. “Once that’s checked off for the day, we need to flip the switch in preparation for the NCDC.”
Part of that preparation will be developing the youngest roster that NoCo has skated out in their time in the USPHL, including four ‘05’s and two ‘04’s.
“Hockey is the ultimate team sport and I don’t believe I can say this guy or that guy is a player to look for,” said Haddon. “It takes everyone and as the season moves along those guys will prove it game in and game out. That’s why you play the games, it’s not what you look like on paper but what you prove everyday on the ice.”
The “first” season for the Eagles begins this Friday, Sept. 16, when they welcome the expansion Idaho Fall Spuds Kings to the Greeley Ice Haus.
The Bulls had an up-and-down season in 2021-22, featuring some speed bumps along the way
in their second USPHL season. The Bulls caught some momentum down the stretch to enter the Mountain Division Playoffs. Pueblo defeated Provo in a two-game sweep, before bowing out to eventual division champions Utah in the semis.
Bulls General Manager Tyler Tuneberg mentioned a different feel to the roster in some areas for the upcoming year.
“We have a ton of new faces to Pueblo and the USPHL. We have a larger international presence than we have in the past, and an extremely talented group of goaltenders that have always been the backbone of the Bulls,” Tuneberg said. “We pride ourselves on our ability to recruit and serve our players.”
They wave goodbye to 77 percent of their goal scoring, both starting goaltenders, and a franchise icon. The Bulls will look to familiar faces and newcomers to step into larger roles and help Pueblo hit the ground running.
“Returners like Rylan Marcum, Owen Ames, Thomas Soucy, and Isaac Hood are all guys who know the division. They all had good rookie seasons in a very tough division and are now tasked with taking this thing to the next level during the ‘22-23 season,” said Tuneberg.
Soucy, an ‘03 with 29 points in 45 games (including 16 points in his last 16) and Hood, with 23 points in 48 games, both showed a scoring touch in the second half that could carry over.
A large crop of newcomers is highlighted by a trio of new players from all walks of the hockey world that could break out for the Bulls. If their preseason exhibition was an indication, forward Rivers Ball will be a handful for Mountain Division foes. Ball put up 47 points last year with the Wenatchee Wild U18AAA program.
Paer Sandin (‘02) has seen some limited action in the Swedish second division over the past two seasons. A former point-per-game player as a 17-and 18-year-old, and with three blocked shots in a preseason game, he could be a pivotal point. The crowd at Pueblo Ice Arena was an “X” factor in the team’s preseason comeback.
“The crowd we have in Pueblo is incredible. It is the most passionate and loyal fan bases there is in the league. Our building is different from most with a low roof and when the fans get into it, it is a completely different element than any other facility in the country,” said Tuneberg.
Pueblo will look to take advantage of a raucous home crowd when they welcome Idaho Falls for the season opener on Friday, Sept. 30.
The Provo Riverblades had a tough season in 2021-22. They were the youngest team in the division by a full year and despite scoring highlights from Yuri Ushakov and high-volume goaltending from Axel Rosenlund and Patrick Colburn, the results just didn’t translate and Provo finished the year out of the playoffs. Fast forward three months, there is a new sheriff in town.
Fresh off being named head coach, Nick Dreyer had to get to work building a new team under a new banner. The newly-christened Provo Predators march into 2022-23 with a new coach, a strong crop of newcomers, and a ton of excitement about the next chapter of junior hockey in Provo – the NCDC in 2023-24.
“I’m really excited to see the group I have grow and develop,” Dreyer started. “We have a lot of really talented hockey players in our group, but most importantly we have great people and guys who have bought into our culture and team identity.”
Ushakov and Christofer Castricone return as the only two veterans from last year’s squad.
As an assistant coach last season for Ogden, Dreyer saw firsthand the scoring chops that Yuri Ushakov can provide. He earned himself an invite to the OHL Peterborough Petes’ main camp this past off-season.
“Yuri is a strong-skating power forward that has a very dynamic skill set,” Dreyer said. “He has put in a ton of work in the offseason and it has shown here in camp.
“I knew that Chris was a skilled player, but you never know what kind of character someone has until you see them and get to interact with them,” Dreyer added. “Since the moment he stepped foot in Provo, he has been a leader and teammate.”
Forward Michael Gakhutishvili (‘04) is one of those newcomers that could be an important part of the Predators attack, after scoring nine goals last year in the NA3HL. Trent Van Gels (‘03) has also made the move from the NA3HL to the Predators.
Apart from scoring up front, the Predators will look at experience to man their blue line for the upcoming year. Anchorage, Alaska, product Conner Brown (‘02) has junior experience in spades, dressing in nearly 70 NA3HL games in two seasons.
“I knew I had some really good pieces coming into camp and the hard part was going to be fitting them in the puzzle,” Dryer said.
The Predators will #jointhehunt when they open their season on Friday, Sept. 30, versus the Utah Outliers.
Idaho Falls Spud Kings
The expansion Idaho Falls Spud Kings have a full roster that’s ready to play and Head Coach Josh Hoff will guide the Spud Kings through their inaugural campaign with high expectations.
“Our goal is to compete for a division championship,” Hoff began. “There is a ton of excitement around the team in the Idaho Falls community. We are going to match that energy on the ice by playing fast north/south hockey.
“The buzz around town of our team coming is huge. The city is looking forward to the home games and giving our town a great event to go and watch during the winter times here in Idaho Falls. We are looking forward to getting into the Mountain America Center and getting our season started there,” added Hoff
The Mountain America Center, a brand-new 6,000 seat arena, will be ready in late November, meaning the Spud Kings play their first 24 games on the road or at neutral sites.
“Being on the road is going to be tough for our players, but each player has great character and work ethic to be able to compete right off the start of the season,” Hoff said.
Four ‘04’s and two ‘06 birth players are listed on their roster to begin the season. That being said, Hoff believes that some key veteran contributors will guide their roster.
“I believe we are deepest at the goaltending position that will help this young team early on in the season,” he began.
Goaltender Ben DiFiore joins the Spud Kings after a strong season with Bay State (NA3HL) in his rookie campaign. DiFiore (‘02) had a .918 save percentage across 25 starts.
“Ben brings great character to our locker room and leads by example with our club. He is a big, mobile goalie who looks to battle each day to earn his NCAA commitment with us in our inaugural year,” said Hoff.
Up front, junior veteran Ben Cesario comes off a great year in the Northern Ontario Junior League.
“We will look to Ben to be a leader on and off the ice. He brings a great skill set and junior hockey experience to our club,” said Hoff.
Defensively, Matt Ryan could be the anchor to a young defensive unit. Ryan (‘03) spent the 2021-22 with Sioux Falls Power 18UAAA team and led the squad’s defensive unit. He also previously played in the USPHL Premier for the former Lansing Wolves.
“Matt will be bringing a great skill set to our blue line, along with skating. Matt carries himself on and off the ice we are looking for in our program,” Hoff explained.
Put it all together and the Spud Kings believe they will be just as competitive as anyone in the division.
“We look to compete with every team in Mountain Division right of the bat,” said Hoff.
The competition begins on Friday, Sept.16, when the Spud Kings travel to Greeley to take on the Northern Colorado Eagles.