The 24 in 24 series features a look at all 24 teams in the NAHL for the 2018-19 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. 24 in 24 looks into each NAHL team and will include video interviews with 24 coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Head Coach: Rocky Russo (2nd Year)
2017-18 record: 23-26-11, 57 pts. (5th in the South Division)
2017-18 leading scorer: Brendan Michaelian (34 pts.)
2018 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2018-19 Division: South
First regular season game: Saturday, September 15th vs. Lone Star Brahmas
Home opener: Saturday, September 15th vs. Lone Star Brahmas
Admittedly, the 2017-18 season did not go the way the Amarillo Bulls and head coach Rocky Russo wanted. Despite the fact they did improve from the season before, which included more wins and more points, the Bulls missed out on the Robertson Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight season.
It was evident from the start of last season that Russo was serious about rebuilding a long-term culture of success and development that mirrored those teams that enjoyed instant success early in the Bulls tenure in the NAHL, which included a Robertson Cup National Championship in 2013. Russo, an assistant with those successful Bulls teams, knows the blueprint and started to develop a pathway to success last season that he hopes translates into success and a return to the playoffs in 2018-19.
“Success for a team extends way beyond the ice. When we bring players in we want to develop players that are accountable and are helping to build character and maturity. We want players that are going to make a positive impact on our team and in the community,” said Russo. “While we felt like we didn’t meet some of our goals, that doesn’t mean we didn’t take some steps forward. We are excited about who we have coming back and we are hoping that Championship structure is starting to form itself again.”
“We needed to take a deeper look at the player pool and really focus hard on recruiting. I think we put a lot of focus of taking the entire season to get in the rinks and put in the hours it takes to build a championship-caliber team. Then, once we identified those players that may be a potential fit, we had to dig deeper into their personality and character to see if they were the right type of player that is going to make us successful. I am very excited about our group this season and the hard work that was put in by our staff,” said Russo.
The 2017-18 season wasn’t without its bright spots, which included 11 players ending the season with either a NCAA Division I or III commitment. It also included two players, forward Jason Brancheau and defenseman Nick Anderson, being named to the South Division All-Rookie Team. The Bulls also continued their tradition of having their players recognized for on and off-ice contributions, as mid-season acquisition Austin O’Rourke was named the winner of the 2017-18 NAHL Leadership Award.
Some key returners to the team this season include the aforementioned Brancheau, along with forwards Alex Peterson, Brett Abdelnour, Nick Stuckless, defenseman Brenden Datema, and goaltender Jason Grande.
Peterson and Brancheau each had 29 points during their respective rookie campaigns and Abdelnour and Stuckless were also key contributors with 20 and 19 points respectively. The improvement of the Bulls offense will be a top priority when the team takes to the ice for the 2018-19 season. However, despite the need for increased offense, the key to the success may be Grande in goal. Twice last season, Grande was named the South Division Star of the Week. As an 18-year-old rookie he led all NAHL goaltenders in games and minutes played and was second in shutouts (6), shots against, and saves.
“Once we decided on a path last year, we really focused on giving our younger and less experienced guys some more playing time and the ability to develop and make plays. We think that pays off this year with a more high-powered and potent offense. They know what it takes to score in the NAHL now, so there shouldn’t be any secret to it. It is a matter of going out and getting it done. All of those returning players really learned in their first year of junior hockey and who come in with some pretty high expectations this season,” said Russo. “We play in a very tough division and a division that featured the last two Robertson Cup Champions. There are no nights off or easy games. In order to compete, we have to be able to generate off of rushes and turnovers and make sure that our power play is consistent all season long. We want to get back to the playoffs and getting back to standards that were established and set early on.”