The Pacific Division featured some of the most exciting, high-offense games of the 2021-22 season and hitting the gas pedal hard will continue to be the standard operating procedure for this new and upcoming season. Games begin Thursday in the Pacific with the debut of the Bakersfield Roughnecks as they visit the Long Beach Shredders.
Order Is 2021-22 Regular Season Finish
The only Pacific Division to have played in the National Championships have made the trip twice, first to Chesapeake, Va., and then this past March to Hudson, N.H. Wherever the compass points, they’ll be happy to go there in 2023.
As successful as the first two seasons have been, nothing is ever given, everything is always earned. Monsters General Manager Jeff Blair knows this all too well, but he is confident in his 2022-23 roster to get the job done once again.
“We have a wonderful combination of returning veterans and a diverse group of young players that are looking to not only win the Pacific Division for a third year in a row, but to go very far in the Nationals this year,” he said. “While were both fast and quick last year (and there is a difference between the two), we may actually be faster and quicker this year. Speed kills and we may be deadly.”
With two seasons under his belt already, Jacob Gagnon returns just eight points off the century mark (92 points in 78 games, the latter a USPHL team record). Christopher Miraldo was nearly a goal-per-game performer last year, with 20 in his 21 games with the team. Blueliner Drew Brett is fifth in the Monsters’ USPHL history in games played with 58.
“With veterans such as Christopher, Jacob and Drew, our veteran presence on and off the ice will be easy to recognize by anyone watching our games,” Blair added.
The Monsters are excited at the acquisitions of Kelly Coldwater, Brayden Wilson and Emil Loov, “just a few of the new players we expect to make an immediate impact on our team.”
Blair sees the Pacific Division to be heating up to be one of the toughest in the league.
“With the additional teams added, it will be even tougher. We expect a challenge from all the teams and we respect them all,” he added. “The Long Beach Shredders may be looking to make a very competitive jump this year.”
Las Vegas Thunderbirds
The Monsters had the T-Birds on their tails the entire season last year, and Las Vegas finished just four points behind the Fresno squad. Las Vegas presented some of the most dynamic players in the league all season, with Heath Mensch holding down the scoring lead for a time and finished third with 102 points, one of only three players league-wide to hit the century mark.
“I think we have a good division. We all go about things differently, but we all want the same thing,” said Bonaldi. “We’re far deeper at the forward level, our defense looks strong and we have a goaltender returning after putting up really good numbers before an injury last year.”
Loic Morin, a Quebec-born ‘04 goalie, played in just six games last year, but put up a 4-1-0-0 record with a .917 save percentage.
Additional returning Thunderbirds include past All-Star defenseman Nick Bonaldi, along with fellow blueliner Tristan Nelson (a Las Vegas native), and forwards Kevin Hanly (also a local product), Antoine Tourigny, Guillaume Dufour and Michael Wells.
In terms of newcomers, Bonaldi points to the strong bonds created with past players, who have served as some of his best recruiters.
“We’ve done really well in building relationships, so we get a lot of referrals from players from last year or the year before,” said Bonaldi. “We had one of the better camps that we’ve ever seen.”
The GM is excited about bringing in USPHL Premier veterans such as Narek Aleksanyan and Cole St-Laurent, while Quebec continues to be a productive recruiting ground for the T-Birds. He is looking forward to Sam Dumont, Ludovic Martel and ‘05 Vincent St-Aubin, a QMJHL Draft Pick of the Quebec Remparts. Also watch for big things from Gavin Frack, who has played high-level Midget hockey from Boston to St. Paul to Omaha.
Bonaldi is excited to see teams such as San Diego and Ontario continuing to improve, while he expects a tough draw against Long Beach this season.
“If all of that holds true, we’re going to have a deep, competitive division this year,” he added.
Lake Tahoe Lakers
Just one year in, and the Lakers are already under new ownership from their 2021-22 origins. First-year head coach Jason Smith is looking forward to both picking up where the inaugural Lakers started – with an impressive 22-21-0-1 record for a first-year squad.
“We will be a hard-working and physical team,” said Smith, of the second-year Lakers. “All I can say is we will work hard and be disciplined.”
Two of the biggest returners include Ari Rossi and Chase Sechrist. Rossi, an ‘02 forward from Santa Rosa, Calif., returns after scoring 67 points last year. Also from Santa Rosa, Sechrist is an ‘02 defenseman who put up 35 points last season. This will be their third straight season together, as they were signed in 2021 out of Tahoe Prep Academy.
Smith is excited to see what the many newcomers will add to the mix, adding “all our newcomers are going to play a big role”
Ontario Jr. Reign
The Jr. Reign joined the Lakers in being newcomers to the Pacific Division in 2021-22, and like their first-year colleagues they made great impressions on the league. They beat every member of the Pacific, and also beat non-divisional opponents the Boston Junior Bruins and Decatur Blaze at the USPHL Winter Showcase.
“The players that have signed here have a clear understanding of what this program is all about,” said Blumes. “We expect big things from this group both on and off the ice. There are three rules to playing on this team: the team comes first; we get better every day; and we have fun.
“First and foremost we are a humble hard-working group. We play with pace and purpose. We compete all over the ice,” he added. “As an expansion team last season there were a lot of unknowns. I believe our strong finish during the second half of the season helped establish what the Reign are all about.”
They were also about advancement, as they saw Damon Agyeman move on to Tier II junior hockey and several players advance to college hockey.
Zach Stangness and Andrew Cervantes are returning to the Jr. Reign. Stangness was a strong two-way defenseman scoring 28 points in 35 games. Cervantes, entering his fourth USPHL Premier season, is unmissable at 6-feet-5-inches and 225 pounds on the defense.
New to the Jr. Reign are a few names to keep an eye on. Blumes is excited about Max Kathol, a “gritty, two-way forward” with three years of Tier II experience in Canada. Eamon Julian is a Burbank, Calif., product who has been in the Jr. Reign system with their 18U AAA squad the last two years.
Watch for ‘05 Mason Welsh, another Orange County product who is coming in from a season with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings.
“He competes real hard and I think the edge he plays with will serve him well at this next level,” Blumes added. “[Our] success has certainly helped our recruiting efforts. During this off-season, we believe we’ve identified players that have the requisite ability and character to compete and play at a high level in our league. You don’t win games on paper, but I believe we are clearly ahead of where we were last season at this time.”
Watch for the Pacific Division to be “a wide-open race” here in 2022-23, Blumes said.
“Teams can improve dramatically at this level from one season to the next and we really won’t know where everybody is at until we drop the puck and the regular season begins,” he added.
San Diego Sabers
The Sabers missed the playoffs by just two points after putting together a 17-23-4-0 record, but it was a far cry in the right direction from their first rough-and-tumble season in the league in 2020-21. The Sabers, as seen above, are viewed by other coaches as a rising force and that was what they were last season. Like the first-year Lakers, the Sabers beat every team in the Pacific Division and performed fairly well beyond the division with a 2-2 record at the USPHL Winter Showcase.
“The Sabers have a good feeling going into this season. We like what we have done throughout the off-season and recruiting. Compared to last year’s team, I would say that we are a bit bigger overall but still have good speed,” said GM Domenick DiCicco. The former head coach has handed the bench to Tyler Casillo, but will still have his signature on the product. “We have a good mix of players coming from all over the world. One aspect that [Tyler and I] really like is that we seem to have strong character throughout the entire team, which is always a focus for us. We are excited to get this season started and looking forward to our first game.”
The team brings three veterans back from last year, and one additional player from the inaugural season. Devin Wood was on that first team and already has a year of college hockey under his belt.
“He looks like someone who will not be outworked,” said DiCicco, who is also excited about the 2021-22 returners. “We expect Jordan McArthur, an assistant captain last year for the team during his rookie season, to step it up on and off the ice and he has looked determined since arriving in town. Joey Chappelle and Reed Loree are both returning from last year’s team and coming off their first season of junior hockey. We expect them to build off their accomplishments from last season and to really be strong guys for us.”
In terms of top newcomers to watch, DiCicco is excited for Czechia import Michal Novak, along with Nevio D’Alessandro and Ethan Blackburn, who has USPHL Premier experience.
“Novak is a smooth skater with a lot of skill at forward, and Nevio is a smooth-skating defenseman whom we expect to be very strong day in and day out,” said DiCicco. “Blackburn enters his age-out year and we expect him to be a leader and a shutdown goalie for us.”
DiCicco said to watch out for the T-Birds (“they’re coming off a strong season with a lot of young guys”) and that the surprise could be Lake Tahoe.
“We feel they are a bit of an unknown at the moment,” he added.
Long Beach Shredders
Owned and coached by Long Beach native and NHL alum Emerson Etem, the Shredders are coming off an inaugural season of getting the gist of the USPHL Premier and finding some bright moments of success along the way. Year 1 is in the rearview mirror and Etem is looking for a much better sophomore season for the organization.
“I feel we upgraded in areas but still some other areas that need to be improved on before game 1. As we learned last year, depth at every position is so important and is something in each position we didn’t have enough of,” said Etem, in late August. “I need our players to compete and win more puck battles whether they’re filling skill or energy roles. I can honestly say we do have more of that at this point in the recruiting season.
“Obviously you don’t want to end up in last place in your division and that’s where we were. Returning players remember that feeling and newly signed players are more motivated than ever to start a new chapter,” he added. “More depth and higher compete level should translate into more wins.”
Santa Clarita, Calif., native Gabe Gifford comes back for his third junior season and second with the Shredders.
“He was just over half a point per game last year, and I look for him to be a point-per-game at least,” added Etem.
Several newcomers have the GM/coach excited for the 2022-23 campaign.
“Forwards Cole Colbert and Nathan Compton are locals who will likely play on a line together and be a consistent threat,” Etem said. “Yuri Stalev and Gage Senio on the beck end provide a solid presence in different ways. I don’t want to single out any of our goalies, as all can and will have a big impact on this hockey club.”
After the puck drops on Thursday, it’s anyone’s Pacific Division in his eyes.
“From what I’ve seen other teams do this off-season, it’s going to be a completely different look in the standings,” said Etem. “I can see one team drop off big time and one team, other than us, jump up into the top half of the division. There’s a few top teams from last season with some big turnarounds, so it will be interesting to see if it bodes well for them or not.”
The new squad in the Pacific has been working as hard as their namesake oil industry employees, putting in the long hours to build up power in their field. Christian and Sara Gregory founded the Roughnecks, and Christian will also be the Head Coach for the new squad. The blueprint, he added, is to build from a foundation of youth.
“We have a young team this year with only a few guys having junior experience. We do have a lot of talent coming to us from the AAA levels and will lean on our older guys for some guidance through the early stages of the season,” said Christian. “We don’t have much to judge off of but early indications lead us to believe that we will be a fast young team ready to learn on the fly. We will have some speed bumps along the road but are ready to face them head on. We believe our strengths this year will be goaltending and our team-first attitude from all 25 guys.”
Everyone’s new to the USPHL on the Roughnecks, and the management is excited to grow with them.
“Emile Rodrigue will be leading our defensive corps. Drafted in the QMJHL two years ago, he brings so much to our club on both ends of the ice. His hockey IQ is through the roof, and he will be a fan favorite,” said Christian.
Landon McCoy, a Bakersfield native, had a strong 16U AAA season last year and “will see himself on the scoresheet regularly.”
Robin Benoit, of St-Felicien, Que., “will also be a force up front with offensive awareness and ability to create opportunities for his teammates.”
“The Pacific is usually known for a run and gun style of play with lots of scoring. I don’t see our team playing that style much and will rely on our next guy up mentality in order to get the job done this season,” Christian added. “With all the expansion in our division the past two years, it’ll be a dogfight for the last two playoff positions. It would be tough to pick against Fresno or Vegas in the Pacific, but you never know. Everyone has another year under their belt, so we could see a few surprises this year.”