WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee Wild go into the 2013-14 season with a blank slate, some promise and plenty of uncertainty.
The coaching staff expects a season of ups and downs, and there’s very little junior hockey experience to draw from.
The good news? It’s a long season, and the Wild may have enough young talent to anchor the franchise toward another postseason run.
On one hand, the Wild have little carry over from last year’s squad, which competed in the Roberston Cup championship. A couple of franchise relocations resulted in the original Wild franchise’s departure and its players along with it.
But Wenatchee was able to retain its entire coaching staff, headed by bench boss Bliss Littler, the winningest coach in USA hockey history. Obviously, that’s a big step in the right direction.
Still, Littler and assistants Tom Rudrud and Chris Clark had a hectic offseason working to rebuild and replace all the departed talent (and there was plenty).
It’s true the Wild don’t have the stable of veterans that carried them last year — only seven players on the team are 1993 birth years (the cutoff year for tier-II juniors).
Instead, Rudrud and Clark scouted a cast of young talents, some of whom are just now making the jump from midget to junior hockey. Six players are 17 going into the fall and four are 18.
“We just don’t have a lot of veteran kids to tell the first-year guys how things are done,” Littler said last week. “They just have to go out and experience it. But it’s still hockey. These kids have played hockey all their life.”
Preseason is about more than just knocking the rust off. The young cast is learning a new system, and many players are training for their first stint in junior hockey, a tall order in itself.
“When you go through it all, you learn what you really have to do,” veteran defenseman Christian Salvato, who played for the Fresno Monsters last year, said of adjusting to tier-II hockey. “And it’s all about health and being a family.”
Although turnover is part of junior hockey, the restructuring will occur on a more grandiose scale.
“We’re really young and we have to work on a lot of structure stuff and the progression from midget to junior hockey,” said center Nick Balboa, 18. “But we make a lot of plays. We have a lot of skill, so it should be a good group once we get rolling with the system.”
Littler said the incoming class of Wild players is actually faster than last season, and that raw speed plays right into Littler’s philosophy, which features an up-and-down-the-ice style.
“We move well,” he said. “I think we’ll be a team that’s good off the rush. We’re going to have to be a transition team, that’s for sure. We have to want our compete level to get higher. We have a lot of first-year guys that are not sure how hard they have to compete, but that will come.”
It’s worth noting, too, that chemistry was an understated but hugely significant factor in last season’s success. The bonds players formed in the locker room and away from the ice gave the Wild and intangible edge. Littler’s working to forge similar bonds in 2013.
After the team’s season-opening showcase, which starts Wednesday, Wenatchee plays a pair of road games in Bismarck, N.D. Afterward, Littler’s taking the team on a sort of mini-retreat at a remote lakehouse north of Bismarck — a bonding exercise that seemed to pay off last season.
Wenatchee might not click immediately, but there’s no sense of panic among players.
“It’s going to take awhile, of course,” Salvado said. “It’s a new team. But I think everything’s going to be fine.”
Patience will be a virtue this season as the Wild work through their growing pains. Littler marked Jan. 1 on his calendar as a tentative grading date for the team. At that point, he should have a solid grasp on what he’s working with.
“That’s the time we can look and see where do we fit in the scheme of things,” He said. “Are we a contender for a playoff spot? Are we a contender for home ice? Are we a contender for the Roberston Cup? And I don’t think we’re going to know any of that stuff until we let these kids mature and grow a few whiskers. … I think the big thing is just to give them a sense of urgency, but at the same time remain patient.”
With more than 600 career wins under his belt, Littler’s a good candidate to put a competitive product on the ice — even if it takes a little while.
Goalies to split time
The Wild have three netminders on their roster. One of them — North American Hockey League veteran Gustaf Johansson — won’t be available for at least a few months and is recovering from knee surgery. Chase Perry and Mackenzie Sawyer will split starts at the upcoming showcase.
Sawyer, who started 21 games last season for the Topeka RoadRunners and recorded a .912 save percentage in that span, will get the start Wednesday against Topeka.
Chase Perry is one of the youngest players on the team and will make his NAHL debut Thursday against the Minnesota Wilderness, a new divisional foe.
Littler hasn’t named a starter yet and wants to see how things play out before he allots minutes.