KEARNEY — The 2015-16 season is all about fresh faces for the Tri-City Storm.
In June, the team announced Bill Muckalt was taking over as head coach and general manager, replacing Jim Hulton. Muckalt played parts of five NHL seasons from 1998-2003 for the Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Minnesota Wild.
More recently, Muckalt was on the bench as an assistant coach for Michigan Tech from 2011 until last year. Michigan Tech went 29-10-2 last season and had the best goal differential in college, scoring 144 goals, while giving up 74. The Huskies, who were unranked to start last season, climbed to the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1976 after starting the season 10-0.
“I bring experience just from being there as a player and as a coach. I know how to get the kids better every day,” Muckalt said.
Muckalt and his staff — assistant coaches Taylor Nelson and Ben Gordon — have their work cut out for them if they want to repeat last year’s successful season that saw the Storm finish second in the Western Division with 80 points and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Chris Wilkie led the team with 55 points last year, but he’s moved on to the college ranks and is playing for North Dakota.
Garrett Gamez, Nick Master, Bobby Nardella and Mason Appleton all had at least 40 points and have moved on as well.
Returning is Jake Wahlin. The White Bear Lake, Minn., native had 41 points last season and will be asked to provide stability for the Storm offense.
Tory Dello, Jack McNeely, Mattias Goransson and Jason Krych return as defensemen. It’s that side of the blue line that has Muckalt excited.
The Storm went 3-1 in their last four exhibition games and gave up just seven combined goals.
“(I) really like our defensive core,” Muckalt said. “You could see in the exhibition we were giving up two goals or less and that always puts yourself in position to win a hockey game.”
The team announced Wednesday that Dello was named the team captain. Wahlin, Goransson and forward Dan Lobosky were named assistant captains.
“I like our leadership. Those guys have helped out the younger guys and are guys the others look up to,” Muckalt said.
As for the rest of the team, only time will tell how quickly they adapt.
“Some of the young guys have already made big strides. They are learning everyday,” Muckalt said.
However, Muckalt did acknowledge there is a transition period. To make that as seamless as possible, Muckalt said sometimes you just have to simplify things.
“I tell them the game is still 60 minutes and there are still three periods. The net is still the same size, the rink is still the same size. ... As a coach, that’s what gets you excited, though,” he said. “Getting to coach the younger guys and getting them better is what you enjoy doing.”
The Storm start the season at home Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Viaero Event Center against the Omaha Lancers, who finished right behind the Storm in third place in the regular season last year.
“We’re excited. Omaha is a big rival and a veteran club that is historically always solid. We want to see what kind of guys we have, It’s a good problem to have to face a tough team for your first game,” Muckalt said.