The 22 Teams in 22 Days series features a look at all 22 teams in the NAHL for the 2015-16 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Friday, September 11th. 22 in 22 will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interviews with all 22 head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the 2015-16 season, including taking a look at their roster and their strengths as a team. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished. Best of all, 22 in 22 is done to provide the fans of the NAHL with an inside look at their favorite team and what to expect.
Head Coach: Matt Nicholson (1st year)
2014-15 record: 25-31-4, 54 pts. (7th in the South Division)
2014-15 leading scorer: Cody Gylling (50 pts.)
2015 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2015-16 Division: South
First regular season game: Saturday, September 12th vs. Odessa Jackalopes
Home opener: Saturday, September 12th vs. Odessa Jackalopes
Although the 2014-15 season was a transition year for the Amarillo Bulls with a new head coach, the team still had high expectations heading into the season. However, the Bulls could not shake off a slow start, quickly falling below .500 and were unable to recover as the finished six points out of the sixth and final playoff spot in the South Division last season.
Another change was in store for the Bulls as in July they named their second head coach in as many seasons in the form of Matt Nicholson, who came to Amarillo via the NCAA Division I coaching route with Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh. During the team’s press conference in late July, CSH International President and Bulls Governor Gary Gelinas didn’t mince words saying the Bulls program last year did not meet the criteria CSH requires from its teams. Gelinas said he sets out four criteria for each of the CHS’s hockey teams: (1) a winning percentage at home; (2) make the second round of the playoffs every year; (3) home ice advantage for the playoffs so fans can watch their team play; (4) lead the NAHL every year in securing college scholarships for players.
“The things that happened last year we did not accomplish one of those things,” said Gelinas of the Bulls. “We evaluate all our teams at the end of each year and what was apparent here (in Amarillo) was we were far away from what we believe in and how we run the Amarillo Bulls program. We decided to go in a different direction in our head coaching position. Those are never good conversations and always very difficult but one we thought was absolutely needed here.”
With that said, Gelinas said Nicholson is the person to change things around and his decision was influenced by four former Bulls players who Nicholson coached at Robert Morris. “What those players told me, in particular a former captain and one of the best players to represent this fine program in John Rey, is that Matt knows what the Amarillo Bulls mean to this community,” Gelinas said. “What I have learned about Matt is his passion for the game is infectious and he is smart and knows the game of hockey. We didn’t open up the job. We found Matt.”
And so, the Matt Nicholson era in Amarillo begins in 2015-16. “The objectives for this organization are very clear and I am eager to get this team back to the type of success the Bulls experienced leading up to their Robertson Cup Championship,” said Nicholson. “I think there is a fine line between a successful on-ice product and advancing players to the next levels of hockey, and the two often go hand in hand, so it is my job to find that right balance.”
One of the benefits that Nicholson brings to the table is his NCAA Division I coaching experience. For the past six seasons, Nicholson was an assistant coach at Robert Morris. It is that NCAA experience and perspective that should lend itself well to the development of Bulls players for the next level. “I have switched roles where I have gone from recruiting NAHL players to now developing NAHL players. I think that my experience at the NCAA levels has taught me that there is a big priority on recruiting players that have good character and have placed a priority on their academics, as well as, their on ice performance. Hockey may be more of a priority in the players mind, but that player’s education in college is something that they will use longer term, so it is important there is a correlation,” stated Nicholson.
Nicholson said there hasn’t been a lot of talk yet of on-ice goals for the team, mainly because they just arrived in Amarillo for training camp and there still is an assessment period to take place. “I think it is our intention to get the players in here and begin the hard work right away. I am a big believer in having a process for everything that takes place and that includes finding out what each player’s strengths and weaknesses are, so that’s something we hope to find out in the next couple of weeks. However, we are going to be very specific and take things day by day. Our focus has to be how we can get better and learn on a daily basis, rather than looking at the big picture.”
Because Nicholson is a new head coach in the league, the play and leadership of the veteran Bulls players will go a long way in determining what kind of start the team gets off to. Some of those veteran players that Nicholson has identified are forwards Joey DiBenedetto (who had 24 points last season), Brady Crabtree (19 points) and Trent Dillinger (who had 11 points in 30 games last season after starting the season in the NA3HL). “All three of those guys are capable of being those leaders and being guys who could develop into NCAA Division I hockey players, but they are going to have to work hard and buy into the system,” said Nicholson. Beyond that, the Bulls have a handful of players who were on the team last year, but played sparingly throughout the season. One of the new faces that Nicholson is excited about is Nicholas Santoro, who was recruited by Nicholson while at Robert Morris and is committed to go there in a year. “Nic is a 20-year-old that brings some valuable junior experience to the table and has a good combination of size, scoring ability, toughness and hockey sense, so he should be someone that we look to early.”
Next up in the 22 in 22 series: Aston Rebels