WEST VALLEY CITY In their first two injury-plagued ECHL seasons, the Utah Grizzlies at least qualified for the playoffs but lost ground to 24th in a 25-team league last season.
With some major retooling for their third campaign that begins tonight at 8 MDT at the Phoenix Roadrunners, there is great hope for a big-time rebound with the addition of 10 young players from Utah's new affiliation with the NHL New York Islanders.
That affiliation is probably the biggest reason for optimism as it invigorates even players not under contract to the Islanders because they know the parent team will keep close tabs on its players and will see the non-contracted guys playing alongside them.
"I like the enthusiasm. The biggest thing that jumps out at me is guys are hungry," said Grizzlies coach Jason Christie, who retained a core of players from last season who, despite the low standing late in the season, were still performing high on what he called his "give-a-flip meter." Those who weren't giving their all aren't back.
"I think this year there's a lot to be hopeful for," said veteran defenseman Ian Forbes. "Coming in from Day 1, you could tell there was a good atmosphere around here, a lot of good attitudes, a lot of younger guys that have a lot of enthusiasm, which is maybe different from the past.
"They have the incentive, maybe more so than people in the past, of working extra hard. It's nice to see."
Forbes, the 6-foot-6 27-year-old, will not be at his best as he rehabilitates a wrist injured in March. It required major reconstructive surgery, in which tendons and ligaments from his ankle were placed in the wrist, and the whole thing was in a cast all summer. "I couldn't be on the ice as much as everybody during the summer, so now I'm just trying to get this big body going."
That's easier because of what he's seen in training camp. "Great attitude. It's enjoyable to come to the rink," Forbes said, noting a number of impressive-looking youngsters including two Islander prospects playing on a line with two-time team-leading scorer Ryan Kinasewich.
Center Tyler Haskins, a rookie, and Jason Pitton, a 6-2 winger who spent last season with Islander AHL affiliate Bridgeport, "are flying," Forbes said. "I'm sure they'll get a lot of time on the power play and getting to work with Snatch (Kinaswich). Those two guys jump out at me. They fly, they move, they're good skaters. These guys catch your eye, for sure."
Christie has rarely had consistent lines, but he has four set for now including Keith Johnson, Michael Haley and Justin Bourne, all from the Islanders; veterans Travis Rycroft, Scott Burt and Islander rookie Christian Gaudet; and Grizzly veteran D.J. Jelitto with rookies Kazuma Takahashi and Rob Sirianni.
Christie said second-year defender Andy Sertich, an all-star as a rookie, had an impressive tryout with Bridgeport, though he is Grizzly property and should continue strong.
For at least tonight, Utah is missing Islander goalie Mike Mole, called up to Bridgeport. So Brett Jaeger (three years of ECHL experience with Fresno, Augusta and Long Beach) may end up playing the whole three-game opening-weekend series at Phoenix. On Wednesday, Utah released tryout goalie Jordan Neamonitis, leaving Jaeger the only goalie on the roster, though Christie was looking.
Utah plays at Phoenix tonight, Saturday and Sunday nights and opens its home schedule next Friday with the defending Kelly Cup-champion Idaho Steelheads.
Phoenix is suddenly an independent team after the Phoenix Coyotes pulled their affiliation in August, but Christie said they have last year's top goalie and a strong core."We're excited to be getting on the road. Dress rehearsal is over," Christie said. "It's time to be getting to work and come out and have a good weekend."