Player advancement as strong as ever, but Knights still set sights higher
Tim Mullhaupt, ESPN Williamsport Broadcaster
Staring up at their home scoreboard as their season came to a close, it’s a safe bet the Knights were not in a reflective mood. Their year had been a long one, not without its challenges, but not devoid of more than a few rewards. A bow out in the first round of the Robertson Cup Playoffs won’t satisfy coaches, players or fans, but setting the standard in player advancement will.
In total, the Knights have seen 10 of their players commit to college and had over a dozen current and former players from all levels of the organization selected in this year’s phase two USHL entry draft. Among those to make the Tier-I draft jump were NAHL regulars Braden Brown (forward), Jake Hamacher (forward), Paul Maust (forward), Paul DeNaples (defenseman) and Joseph Campolieto (defenseman).
Head Coach Tom Kowal made no bones about where his organization’s priorities lie, “This organization has always been proud of its ability to develop players and move them on to higher levels. That is something we are most proud of. We obviously want to win but first and foremost is our will to move players on to college or Tier 1 Jr. hockey.”
Though one objective may have been checked off the list, winning is something the Knights are craving more of moving forward. In their inaugural season in tier-II the team received a blunt welcome. In its infancy, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster carried just one player with prior NAHL experience; its captain, forward Matt Beranek. With nearly the entirety of the roster still getting acclimated to the next level of junior hockey, the team started the year on an eight-game losing streak.
General Manager Kerry Huffman kept perspective on the learning curve, “Losing our first 9 or 10 games is something we will not soon forget but we learned from it, made some corrections and are stronger now as an organization because of it.”
In the opening weeks of October, corrections came in the form of new skates. Through a flurry of moves the Knights secured their eventual top-line wingers Blake Busch (from Brookings) and Jake Hamacher (from the Minnesota Wilderness) to play alongside number one draft pick, Braden Brown. Once settled together, the trio would pace an offensive revival, combining to score 48-67-115 while wearing a Knight’s sweater.
Also crucial in sparking the turnaround were pickups of two-way forward and special teams ace Carson Knop (from Janesville), grinder forward and eventual assistant captain Zed Dietrich (from Brookings) and a stout defenseman in Austin Redders (from the Minnesota Wilderness). Knop scored the shootout game-winner in the Knight’s first-ever NAHL win against Johnstown on October 10th. Once paired alongside line mates Paul Maust and Zach Remers, the team found itself in possession of a potent top-six that regularly allowed them to compete with a highly physical and offensively-potent Eastern division.
Said Kowal on his team’s progress relative to their rivals “This season we learned a great deal about just how good and strong the NAHL is. Our division is very strong and by the last half of the season any team could beat any team on a given night.”
Perhaps most elemental in setting the tone for the lineup on a given night was the line composed of three 95ers, Matt Beranek, Tanner Bennett and Stephen Kelly. Though consistently listed as the third line, it was not uncommon for Kowal to roll the trio out as starters throughout the season. Bennett and Kelly, born a day apart and lifelong friends from Columbus, Indiana had palpable chemistry to go along with Beranek’s unrelenting grit and toughness. Never was that chemistry more evident than when the “Columbus Connection” took the ice on the penalty kill. The pair combined to score four of the team’s 10 shorthanded goals, including the winner in a thrilling overtime win at home against Fairbanks on December 12th. Kelly picked the pocket of an oncoming forward and feathered a perfect lead pass to the streaking Bennet on the breakaway goal.
Jimmy Elser, Aiden Beck, Zed Dietrich and Isaac Cirinna tooks turns rotating between lines throughout the year but also played valuable fill-in roles when members of the top-six were injured. All four brought the level of compete and physicality expected of checking liners throughout the season.
Leading the way defensively was Dmitriy Zaitsev. The Russian native not only possessed puck-moving ability, but a nose for the net, as made clear by his 7-15-22 line in 53 games played. Nothing spoke higher to his potential then his promotion to the Russian U18 roster for the IIHF U18 World Championships in mid-April. There he tallied one assist in five games played. There is speculation growing that he may even hear his name called at the NHL draft in late June.
Not to be left out, defensemen Paul DeNaples and Dorian Dawson both excelled offensively down the stretch of the regular season combining to compile 6-23-29 on the year. Dawson spent most of his time paired with fellow Ontario native Nick Criminisi with both players weighing in at over 200 lbs (Dawson is listed at 6-2 and Criminisi at 6-4) the pair formed one of the more physically intimidating blue lines in the NAHL. Tim Gellatt and Joseph Campolieto earned more playing time later in the season. Gellatt was rostered all year at the NAHL level and scored two goals and four assists in his final 11 games played. Off the ice, the Middletown, NJ native was honored with the Eastern Division Community Service award. Campolieto spent time bouncing back and forth from the 18U team to the NAHL roster, but impressed enough to be selected in the phase two of the USHL entry draft.
Between the goal posts Grant Valentine got the majority of the starts, rewarding the Knights with a number of solid outings, highlighted by his shutouts recorded against Aston and Johnstown on October 17th and February 20th, respectively. Andrey Svistunov provided more than solid depth, and at times showed dominance, recording two wins of 45 saves or more and a shutout win against Kenai River in his best performances. He recorded a save percentage of .920% in 29 games played on the season.
The results went beyond just the individual box score. The Knights would split the regular season series at eight games apiece with the eventual Eastern division champion Aston Rebels. Even more impressive was a 2-1-1 record in four games with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, a team crown Robertson Cup Champions this past Sunday.
Still, the Knights look for more. A simple yet sound argument can be made that more wins equates to more opportunities to display skillsets for Tier-I and college scouts. Nothing sells the idea of talent more than success, and even though it’s only May, if you ask the head coach and general manager, next year is already brimming with potential.
“I think what excites me the most about next year is just that we learned so much this past season. We have some excellent returning players who will be more mature and should have very big seasons for us,” said Kowal.
Huffman was similarly optimistic. “Last season we acquired the franchise very late and did not have an opportunity to scout properly and prepare for the draft and player acquisition like every other team did. This year we have spent a great deal of time preparing and scouting. Our staff has watched a lot of hockey and attended many showcases and games to be ready to go. 2016-17 is going to be a very good year for the Knights.”