USPHL Premier 2023-24 Division Preview Series: Pacific Division
The USPHL Pacific Division has settled in very well to the Premier Conference, and will now enter its fourth campaign. For the first time last year, the Las Vegas Thunderbirds powered their way into the USPHL Nationals following two prior trips by division representatives the Fresno Monsters.
There’s every indication that it could be even a different team that makes it out of the division in 2024. The Monsters captured the regular season title with 77 points, and Las Vegas was just a bit back at 71. The Ontario Jr. Reign clocked in with 69 points and the San Diego Sabers experienced a 30-point improvement on their 2021-22 season by finishing fourth with 68 points. It was a real California traffic jam between second and third.
The Bakersfield Roughnecks (entering their second year), and the Lake Tahoe Lakers and Long Beach Shredders (both entering their third season) all have new head coaches behind the bench, so any of these three could also push to make life tougher for the top three.
Order is 2022-23 Regular Season Finish
Season Opener: Oct. 5 vs. Las Vegas Thunderbirds
The Monsters have the latest start of a Pacific Division team, so they will continue to work on developing their 2023-24 roster ahead of what should be a rollicking three-game opening weekend against the rival Las Vegas T-Birds. Early on, Fresno appears to be a favorite to repeat at the head of the division if for no other reason than returning so many of their prime movers of last season, including three Pacific Division All-Stars.
“I believe our roster is solid top to bottom,” said President Jeff Blair. “With returners Noak Persson and Emil Loov on the front, Blengino, Coldwater and Lennex on the back and Ethan Jourden in net, plus the additions we have had on the team, our roster is pretty deep.
“We have a full bench this year compared with last year. They seem to be pretty dialed in and ready to play,” said Blair, when asked about differences and similarities to last year’s team. “It’s hard to make a solid comparison just yet though.”
With 93 points in 27 games last year, Persson set the USPHL Premier record for best points per game average for any player competing in at least half his team’s games (3.44 per game). It’s a little scary – as it should be with Monsters – to see what he could come up with for this season.
Loov, another Swedish import like Persson, got past the 2.00 per game mark with his 87 points in 41 games. The third All-Star back for the Monsters, joining Loov and Persson, is defenseman Steven Blengino. His 57 points in 41 games placed him in the top 10 among all Premier defensemen in scoring last year.
Kelly Coldwater and Cobi Lennex are also returning on the blue line. Lennex is 11 games away from setting the team record for most USPHL regular season games played. His 105 games are just short of former Monster Jacob Gagnon’s 115. With a full season, Coldwater would move into the top five of the same category. Forward Daniel Cuellar was one of three Mexican nationals on the roster last year, and put together 26 points in 40 games – and he has made multiple appearances in international tournaments in Mexico.
Jourden was very impressive in winning 20 regular season games last year, so his experience in net will be extremely valuable.
Blair is excited about many newcomers, including Felix Kariander, a Swede playing in his first North American season.
“Felix has a wicked hard shot and is one of the most solid defensemen to come through our program in a while,” added Blair.
Also watch for Norway’s Carl Tasken, Arizona’s Connor Perdue, and Oliver Sjostrom, another former Clemensnas HC player from Sweden who was a teammate of Kariander, Loov and Persson in their native country.
It’s a lot of weapons at a lot of positions, but Blair feels they need to always be at their best in the ever-improving westernmost circuit of the league.
“I suspect all of the teams in our division will be more competitive this season. It’s going to be interesting for sure. It’s going to be more interesting at the [USPHL Las Vegas] showcase when our division plays teams out of division,” said Blair. “None of the teams in our division are playing any other team in our division at the December showcase. Adam Bonaldi is doing a great job putting this thing together to make it better than last season.”
Las Vegas Thunderbirds
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. San Diego Sabers
It’s time to spin the wheel again and see where the ball falls as the Thunderbirds get ready for a new season, albeit under new ownership this time around. Co-owners Marco Benvenuti, Allan Creel and Joe Micatrotto are ready to take the T-Birds into a new era, and this includes Benvenuti taking the General Manager position as well. The T-Birds new ownership group already made league news in the off-season with Benvenuti being the first openly gay USPHL owner/GM; and goaltender Naomi Baechler (a Yale women’s hockey recruit) becoming the first female USPHL Premier player once she plays her first contest this season.
The T-Birds also made news last year when they unseated the Monsters as the division’s USPHL Nationals representative, and then even made the Round of 16 while they were out there in Utica, N.Y.
“I am very happy with the roster we have put together. We have a group of great people that seem to want to battle to get better everyday,” said Benvenuti. “Very simply, we are older and bigger by design.”
Returning defenseman and two-time Pacific Division All-Star Nicholas Bonaldi is back for his fourth season with the T-Birds, being part of the team since their inaugural USPHL season in 2020-21, his first of two All-Star campaigns (the second being 2022-23). Gavin Frack also returns after a season of 61 points in 43 games last year.
“Nick is always an offensive force on the back end,” said Benvenuti. “Gavin just came back to us and he is an exciting player to watch.”
Baechler, getting ready for the NCAA Division I women’s game, is one newcomer to obviously keep an eye on, along with Joe Gronholz, an Alexandria, Minn., native who joins with Tier III experience from multiple NA3HL seasons.
“Joe looks great for us,” added Benvenuti. “Yet there are a few that have stepped up and caught the coaching staff’s eye.”
The team goes into the season with a singular approach. No matter the game their opponents bring, Benvenuti said it all falls on the T-Birds to play their best game every time. It’s tough to prognosticate on how the division might look as so much of it depends on how well his team plays every night.
“We don’t focus on anyone but the Las Vegas Thunderbirds. We are just excited to get the season started,” he added. “Winning is not our first focus but we believe that by doing all the right things on and off the ice, winning will come as a by-product.”
Ontario Jr. Reign
Season Opener: Sept. 20 vs. Lake Tahoe Lakers
The Jr. Reign are excited to show the opposition just how hard they’re going to push every shift, every game, every weekend. It’s a point of pride for GM/Head Coach Jeremy Blumenthal to always pull together a team that will push themselves – and their opponents – to the limit of their energy reserves.
“Training camp has been very positive,” said Blumes. “We possess a hard-working group that is looking to improve and enjoy the process each day. There’s plenty of competition in practice and in the gym. There’s good depth at all positions that will see the staff having to make tough decisions on game days.”
Another big point of pride for the Jr. Reign, just as it would be for any junior team, is their advancement record, which led to a very new Jr. Reign team hitting the ice this year.
“Close to a third of our roster from last season has advanced to higher levels of hockey – Tier 2, college and professional,” Blumes added. “My early impression is that we have a very focused group that has clear objectives. I believe that we will see even more of our players advance in our third year in the USPHL.”
Among returning players, watch for Eamon Julian, Mason Welsh, C.J. Kemp, Devin Blair, Julian Arenal and Jon Anderson.
“Eamon is a strong two-way center and penalty killer. All returnees are playing with a great deal more assertiveness and confidence after a season in our league,” said Blumes. “[Newcomers] Tristan Lam, Jace Bodnar, Tristen Friedman, Diego Flota and Brayden Powell all have experience in the USPHL and will be difference-makers on a nightly basis.”
Among new USPHL players are Rhys Doyle, Kaedin Larocque-Wolfe, Cooper Kantola and Chris Lai.
“Rhys is an electric, two-way center; Kaedin has the innate ability to find the back of the net, Cooper is an agile 6-foot-3-inch, two-way defenseman that can play in all situations,” added Blumes. “Chris plays with tremendous pace.”
Blumes knows now to expect a tight race, and also that it could end up being his team heading east to Utica, just as it could be about any other team.
“Every season is different from the previous, that’s why we play the game,” said Blumes. “We are focused on our own preparation and look forward to another competitive season in the Pacific Division.”
San Diego Sabers
Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Las Vegas Thunderbirds
The Sabers had a great 30-point improvement from year to year (and 61 points since 2020-21), so they have proven themselves as tough competitors in the Pacific Division. With a new head coach in Nick Perez at the fore, and group of newcomers chomping at the bit to get started, the Sabers are determined to climb even higher on their rapid skyward trajectory since first joining the league.
“Our roster coming into the 2023-2024 season is young and hungry. We only have three returning players from last season, so the others are all young and new to the league. Having a few other players from different teams in the USPHL last year really helps to bring some leadership.
“Overall, I’m happy with our roster!” he added. “The early impressions have been great. We are nowhere near perfect, and the team knows that, so we have been working hard. Everyday we have been getting better and better.”
Perez coached against the Sabers last year, so he got a good idea of what he’s seeing.
“I think, from playing against them, was that we have a younger team who will bring a lot of ‘in your face’ and being physical,” added Perez.
Among the returning players is Felix Gouin, Gonzalo Alamanza and Jacob Therrian.
“Felix is a fast, skilled forward who is a great leader,” said Perez. “Gonzalo is a fast skater, and physical, who will bring more offense to his game than last season. Jacob is a great defenseman who focuses on the defensive zone first and can bring offense to his game when needed.”
Among the newcomers is Ryder Heskett, who has USPHL Premier and Elite experience dating back to 2020-21.
“He has years of experience in the league and is stepping up as a leader on the back end,” said Perez. “He is physical and has the ability to surprise you with a goal with his offense upside.”
Another player with USPHL experience is Jackson Litzinger.
“With only a few games last season, he is a team leader who brings speed and steps up every practice,” Perez said.
Justin Ouellet is a brand new ‘07 for the Sabers who played well in the Quebec Midget AAA league last year.
Perez looked around the division and said that there could certainly be some shake-ups coming.
“Going into the season, I think Bakersfield will have a solid season. Last season, they had a good first season,” he siad. “They have a great coaching staff who knows the game so they seem to have a great roster with that mix. They will have a great season.”
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Rogue Valley Royals
The Roughnecks saw the USPHL Premier’s first direct-to-NCAA Division I commitment since 2019 when Pacific Division All-Star Robin Benoit committed to University of Nebraska-Omaha – incidentally the same college that former Pittsburgh Vengeance goalie Jacob Zab committed to four years ago.
Although Benoit will be playing Midget AAA this year, the Roughnecks still have a great group of young talent that will bring speed to the rink every time they show up.
“Bakersfield will be a fast hockey team this year,” said Co-owner Christian Gregory. “We have added a number of skilled hockey players at every position. We will definitely have a different look to our program this season. Our depth sticks out as a huge strength so far early on in the season. Last year, we were reliant on our top six for the bulk of our offense. We will have a lot more balanced scoring this year with all four lines contributing.”
There are 14 returning players returning to Bakersfield all with at least one full year of junior hockey.
“No surprises for these guys, they know what to expect this year and all have been training real hard this season to prepare for it,” added Gregory.
Back in net is Connor Dumesnil, who had some fantastic outings last year, along with his triplet brothers David, a forward (31 points), and Drake, a defenseman (21 games). Additionally, defenseman Emile Rodrigue is back after putting up 16 goals and 29 points last year along with defenseman Nick Modlin (22 points) and forward Carson Lindstrom (21 points).
“We are extremely excited to get these guys in the lineup this year, they were a huge part of our success last season and look to them to have fantastic years this season,” added Gregory.
He spoke about four newcomers that the team is especially excited for – including two with prior junior experience in Francois-Xavier Marois and Dalton Thomas, along with former CSJV Dragons Theo Faucher and Louceric Cloutier.
“‘FX’ Marois is an ‘03 who comes to us from the Vermont Lumberjacks. He is an extremely skilled forward that is going to have a fantastic year. His size, strength and experience will have a huge impact for our program this year,” added Gregory. “Dalton is a local product that played in Sheridan [NA3HL] last year. He is a ball of energy that never stops. He is another player with fantastic speed and plays with grit, will cause problems for teams this year.
“Theo’s speed and playmaking ability will be a huge asset to us this season. His name will be on the scoresheet a lot this year,” Gregory said. “Louderic brings a big physical presence to our back end. Louderic’s ability to move the puck along with his skating ability is also a great addition to our program.”
Gregory was extremely happy with the skill level and competitiveness of the Pacific Division in Bakersfield’s first year.
“The Pacific Division has gotten better over the past few years and I believe it will continue again this year,” said Gregory. “The top four last year were really good with not a lot of drop off from between any four of the teams. Our goal in Bakersfield this year is to close that gap and I believe we have a team that can do that.”
Long Beach Shredders
Season Opener: Sept. 21 vs. Lake Tahoe Lakers
The Shredders are taking a bit of a different tack this year, with Emerson Etem (a Long Beach native and NHL alum) remaining as General Manager and Co-owner, while adding Jared Heins as the team’s new Head Coach on the bench. In terms of building the team, however, it’s still very much Etem’s ball game and he’s happy with the results he’s seen so far inside of a week before Game 1.
“We have more skill up front for sure. We have more skill on the back end now, too. Our goaltending has been very solid but they’ve needed more help. Our returners have learned from the past year or two and now have that perspective to show the new talent do’s and don’ts,” Etem said. “We’ve been chasing the puck too much during these last two seasons. That solely lies in losing too many puck battles and not starting with the puck enough. We have guys that move their feet, hound the puck and like to go into the fire. We have more skill now to turn our puck possession time, which will be a lot more, into quality chances shift after shift.”
Etem feels like a lot of the background noise of starting up a new business and franchise are behind him and the organization, and the Shredders are able to be more focused than ever on just hockey.
“Being a newer organization, anything a new business has to channel during the first two years are now out of the way. We’ve spent way more time focusing on recruiting and less on asset management, etc.,” added Etem. “We’re much deeper talent-wise because of this transition and you’re able to see it right away on-ice and off, since the players have arrived a little more than two weeks ago.”
Getting Drew Mazza back is a big win for the organization, as he comes back after posting 31 points in 43 games last year. Connor Nieto was a later addition last year who posted seven points in 13 games.
He likes the looks of several newcomers, including at least a couple with junior experience. Sean Coughlin is a USPHL Premier veteran who posted 22 points in 42 games last year in the league. Roman Cherniak played in 14 Tier II games last year with the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. That experience is expected to pay dividends.
Maddex Hewitt scored more than 100 points at the U18 AAA level last season, and Ben Strutt comes in after putting up 28 points in 21 games for Horizon High School in Arizona.
Etem will hope that his team can get some more points this year from last year’s top four, many of whom lost several veterans to higher levels of hockey.
“I think it’s going to be wild. I think teams who did well last season have faced major shake-ups within their organizations and that’s going to play a huge part in the difference between this upcoming season and last,” said Etem. “There will be a couple teams that fall big, and a couple teams that rise big – us being one that rises big.”
Lake Tahoe Lakers
Season Opener: Sept. 20 at Ontario Jr. Reign
The Lakers enjoyed a pretty successful first season in 2021-22, including making the divisional playoffs. They hit some hard times last year, but they’re looking for a big rebound year and feel like they’ve made the necessary changes.
For one, the team hired former Seattle Totems coach Chad Olson, who helped that Northwest Division team get off to a strong start in their USPHL existence last year. The Lakers hope he can lift up their team in a similar fashion.
“We have a big, fast team and we are fortunate enough to have a group that is committed to changing our culture,” said Olson. “The Lakers reported with 12 players to start the 2022-23 season, but we have a full team to start this season.”
It is a full team and with that, an almost entirely new full team that will sport the Lakers gear this season.
“We only brought back one returner, 6-foot-3-inch defenseman Rocco Dispirito,” added Olson.
Up front, the Lakers are excited about Austin Tessier and Aaro Laurila. The ‘03 Tessier is now entering his third year in the Premier, and put up 38 points in 42 games last year. Laurila was a point-per-game player with 37 points in 37 games in the Finnish U20 league last year.
On defense, Nolan Huss, and in goal, Cebald Debiak, are going to shore up the back end. Huss is another third-year Premier player, while Debiak is in his first North American season coming over from France.
“I think that the Pacific Division will be a tight race to the top,” added Olson. “There are a lot of good programs and coaches in our division. Bakersfield and Lake Tahoe are both going to rise.”
— Joshua Boyd/USPHLPremier.com
(September 16, 2023)