CEDAR RAPIDS - Next season began Thursday for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
Head coach/general manager Mark Carlson gave a lengthy speech at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena to the players eligible to return for the 2012-13 season. A lengthy speech to a lengthy list of guys.
It's a whopping 16 players who theoretically could be back for the Riders, who were swept out of the 2011-12 USHL playoffs by the Youngstown Phantoms. Youngstown all but wrapped the best-of-3 series with a 4-3 overtime win Monday night in Game 1, following Tuesday with a 6-2 victory.
"The series takes a drastic change for whoever wins Game 1," said Riders defenseman John Gilmour. "Losing in overtime, we were pretty devastated. You find yourself in a really desperate position."
That won't be the case next season when it comes to the experienced player department, other than the goaltending position. Both Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State) and Matt McNeely (Minnesota-Duluth) move on to college, as do defensemen Nathan Widman (Brown) and Greg Amlong (Massachusetts-Lowell) and forwards Stu Wilson (Yale), Ryan McGrath (Massachusetts-Lowell) and Nick Saracino (Providence).
The RoughRiders already have taken steps to alleviate the goalie issue by signing a pair to tenders: Paul O'Connor of St. Louis and Chris Birdsall of New Jersey. Birdsall had a recent tryout with the United States National Team Development Program.
Other than that, the club appears to be going into the offseason in pretty good shape.
Keep in mind, lots of things can and will change over the summer. Cedar Rapids will not be able to protect all 16 of its eligible returnees via USHL rule, for instance.
The league's Futures Draft is May 1, with the 2012 Entry Draft on May 22. The team's annual tryout camp begins June 7 at the Ice Arena.
"We're definitely going to have a lot of returners," said forward Andrew Oglevie. "We're going to do our best to win a championship next year. That's what our goal is. We're going to do the work this summer ... try to get it done here."
"I think it's exciting, but at the same time, there is a lot of work to do," Carlson said. "I really like the group. We had a lot of guys improve this year, and they'll continue with that in the summer time."
The Riders lose two of their top three point getters in Saracino and McGrath but will return top goal scorers Gerald Mayhew (20), Austin Ortega (19) and Riley Bourbonnais (17). Davey Middleton had 15 goals in 38 games after being acquired in a trade from Tri-City and also will be back. The defense corps should be led by third-year player Ian Brady.
Now, the key will be to keep everyone healthy. They're due some major good luck in that department considering this season's non-stop barrage of injuries.
Cedar Rapids finished the regular season 27-21-12 for 66 points, qualifying for the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. Of the possible returning players, 13 already have made college commitments.
"I think that we learned that it takes a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work to win games in this league," Oglevie said. "You're not going to get anything easy. All the hard work pays off when you do it all summer and during the season. You can't work hard enough."
That is right out of Carlson's quote book.
"I have had lots of teams, and I think this team accomplished a ton," the coach said. "That's just looking at reality and everything they went through. I don't think we had a full lineup from Game 4 on. That's when we lost McGrath. We played with 10 forwards in the playoffs, the last couple games of the year, a lot of games this year. We played with five defensemen.
"I think our guys grew as people. They learned a lot about accountability and team work and team building. Battling adversity. A number of times, they could have gotten down and not given it their all, but they gave 100 percent all the time. They were always energized and positive. They were great in the community here. This team has a special place in my heart. I'm extremely, extremely proud of what they accomplished."
Possible returning players for 2012-13, with college commitment in parentheses:
Defense - Blake Butzow, John Gilmour (Providence), Preston Hodge, Ian Brady (Nebraska-Omaha), Chris Dienes (Western Michigan).
Forwards - Austin Ortega (Nebraska-Omaha), Tanner Pond, Davey Middleton, Tom Forgione (Vermont), Landon Smith (Denver), Dennis Kravchenko (Vermont), Jack Rowe (North Dakota), Gerry Mayhew (Ferris State), Andrew Oglevie (Notre Dame), Riley Bourbonnais (RPI), Dylan Gareau (Maine).