Season review: Brown Bears hope to build on solid finish

It’s not easy to finish a season in last place in a division, yet have plenty of reasons for optimism for the next season

It’s not common to have an 18-game losing streak in a season, yet be 20-18-2-2 in the rest of the season, including 8-4-0-2 after the skid ended.

It’s also not easy to finish a season in last place in a division, yet have plenty of reasons for optimism for the next season.

The Brown Bears managed to accomplish both in their 17th season in the North American Hockey League.

Dec. 2, the Brown Bears finished a two-game sweep of the Anchorage Wolverines, who just need to earn a point in two games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs this weekend to clinch the Midwest Division title.

The Bears moved into fifth place with the sweep and were 12-14-2-0, just 11 points behind the division lead.

Then came the 18-game skid, with six of the losses coming by a goal.

“We were just having a hard time, whether it was scoring or keeping pucks out,” Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said. “Obviously, it starts with everybody.

“Me from the start, then trickles down to the group to try and sort that out a little bit faster and get off of it.”

Shaw said the team’s size was an issue, but he said the biggest issue was swagger.

“In our battles to get off of it, we just didn’t walk into the rink feeling like we were going to win,” Shaw said. “The staff did. But sometimes as a group we didn’t, and it’s a learning process for them all.

“But at the end of the day, it can’t happen, right?”

Then came the 8-4-0-2 finish. That allowed Kenai River to finish 20-34-4-2, making the Midwest Division the only division to have every team win at least 20 games.

“We were able to make some moves, in January and the beginning of February, that really helped bring some new life into the locker room and obviously a great, strong finish,” Shaw said. “I think if you eliminate out that streak, which nobody wanted, there’s a lot of positive things to move forward on for sure.”

Shaw took over the Brown Bears in the 2021-22 season when the squad was 3-16-0-0. He led the team to a 11-25-3-2 record the rest of the way as an interim head coach and was promoted to head coach in the offseason.

The coach said the 2021-22 season laid the groundwork for 2022-23, when Kenai River went 32-24-3-1, setting the franchise record for wins and points.

The Bears also finished third in the Midwest Division to earn the eighth playoff berth in franchise history, losing 3-0 to the Minnesota Wilderness in the first round.

Shaw said the strong finish to this season has once again laid groundwork for the future. He said the difference this time around is the program, overall, is in a much better position than when he first took over.

“There’s a lot of guys that can come back that we’re really excited about,” Shaw said. “They’re excited to get to work this summer and really continue to build come fall.

“That’s what we talked about, to have a strong finish so we’re not having to restart and rebuild come fall.”

Off the ice, Shaw likes where the program is at. He said players get in the schools once a week when the Bears are in town. Shaw said he thinks that’s why attendance has been so good, even when the team is struggling.

“It’s the peninsula’s team,” Shaw said. “We’re very proud to be able to step on the ice and wear the logo that ties back to them.”

He said great crowds and the team’s strength, conditioning and nutrition program make the central peninsula a great place to play.

“A lot of them just don’t know about Alaska, and that’s the initial hesitation,” Shaw said. “And then once they come to us, they’re like, this is the real place to play.

“We have tons of fans at games, and all those support staff and things we do on a daily basis that go into it.”

While the returning players had every incentive to set the table for next season, Shaw said the players on the roster who are aging out deserve a ton of credit for getting the team back on track.

Forward Dylan Contreras led the team in all scoring categories by notching 19 goals and 36 assists, becoming one of just two Bears to play in all 60 games. He is headed to the University of Alaska Anchorage next season.

“He’s the one that put in the work,” Shaw said. “He got rewarded with a great season pointswise, and ultimately getting a Division I deal locked up, which is the ultimate goal.

“I know the fans are super excited to continue to watch him right up the road.”

Forward Kotaro Tsutsumi, from Tokyo, was tied for second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 23 assists. Shaw said Tsutsumi had a great finish to his career by scoring the game-winning goal in the team’s final game. Tsutsumi plans to play college hockey in the United States.

“When he came to us two years ago in training camp, he didn’t speak any English,” Shaw said. “Now, he talks in English.

“What a remarkable transformation, and a lot of adversity just with that. Completely moving away from home and taking a chance on us to come over. Dealing with the language barriers and the food and culture every single day.”

Forward Owen Hanson ages out after nine goals and seven assists in 56 games. This was Hanson’s second year with the team.

Shaw said Hanson played some of his best hockey coming down the stretch. He had two points in the season-ending win. He also plans to play college hockey.

“He’s a great role player,” Shaw said. “He can (penalty) kill and he’s out there for crucial faceoffs in our defensive zone.

“He’s a great staple in the locker room. It was important for him and his family to make sure he felt like he was leaving this place better than when he got here.”

Defenseman Blake Norris played 59 games for the team this season after spending some time with the Bears in the 2021-22 season. In the interim between playing for the Bears, Norris played junior hockey in Canada. Shaw said that perspective made him great in the locker room.

Shaw said Norris wants to play college hockey.

“He did everything we asked of him and I know he was super thankful to get his redemption tour,” Shaw said.

Goalies Conor Sullivan and Marks Slavinskis-Repe also age out.

Sullivan recently committed to continue his career at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Sullivan was the top pick of the Bears in the 2023 NAHL draft after going 3-20-0 for a Merritt Centennials team in the British Columbia Hockey League that finished 12-37-3-2.

He went 8-16-3-0 for the Bears this season with a .882 save percentage and a 4.17 goals-against average.

Shaw said Sullivan, like many on the team, had problems with consistency at times, but his college commitment serves as a happy ending.

“It’s a very high academic institution, then he gets to play hockey as well,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be a great fit for him.

“We couldn’t be more excited.”

Slavinskis-Repe, who is from Riga, Latvia, joined the team early in the season after a trade. He went 5-10-0-2 with 3.152 goals allowed and a .906 save percentage.

“He loved Alaska and he loves Minnesota,” Shaw said. “He’s going to stay down here in the states for a while before he goes back to Latvia.

“He’s going to go on some school visits. He has some options to play college hockey. It’s whatever fit is right for him.”

Forward Brock MacDonald also ages out. MacDonald did not finish the season due to injury, but Shaw said his plan is to play college hockey.

As for players eligible to return, Shaw said he is excited about a lot of them. Defenseman Jacob Margarit, forward Roope Tuomioksa and forward Landon MacDonald can return but also already have Division I commitments locked up.

Forward Andy Larson played 60 games for the team and was fourth in scoring with 15 goals and 17 assists. He originally joined the Bears for the very end of the 2022-23 season.

“He took a big step this summer in terms of putting on weight,” Shaw said. “You can see it in his play now.

“We’re excited and are expecting big things of him come fall.”

Defenseman Luke Hause completed his second season with the team and was seventh on the team in scoring, leading all defensemen. He had five goals and 16 assists in 53 games.

“I thought his play, especially in the back half of the year, really took off,” Shaw said. “He’s running the power play, playing all situations, playing big-time minutes.

“Division I schools are taking notice. If you can pair that with another good summer, we expect big things.”

Shaw said the offseason can always be unpredictable, but right now it looks like the Bears will be adding a few tenders, draft picks and free agents to a group that already has a lot of talent.

“Our exits went really well,” Shaw said. “Obviously, we have a couple more months to camp, but it’s all positive signs.

“The group as a whole is super excited to really dig in and continue to build on the foundation that’s been created over the last three years.”