It’s been a long offseason for the Coulee Region Chill after missing out on the postseason for the second straight year, but second-year coach AJ Degenhardt has the pieces in place to build off last year’s success and make an even stronger push for the postseason.
Last year was Degenhardt’s first full season at the helm but after a forgettable 2012-13 campaign where he stepped in as an interim head coach midway through the season, the La Crosse native led the Chill to a 31-28-1 mark last season, one point shy of a playoff berth.
“I think the kids are pumped up to get into some game action,” Degenhardt said. “For the last two weeks its been non-stop practicing with coaches yelling and beating up on your buddies all the time, so they’re pretty excited to get things going.”
The season kicks off today at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., with the Chill opening up against Odessa. The Chill will also meet up with Rio Grand Valley (Thursday), Lone Star (Friday) and Aberdeen (Saturday). Rio Grand Valley and Aberdeen each made the playoffs last year, so the Chill will get a good look at where they stack up with some of the better teams in the league.
2013-14 OVERVIEW: The Chill bounced back from a 16-39-5 season to finish just one point shy of advancing to the postseason. After spending his first season as the Chill’s assistant coach and interim coach in 2012-13, Degenhardt was hired as the head coach prior to last season. The Chill quickly saw improvement and began the season 25-15 before struggling down the stretch, including seven straight losses to close out the season.
“We definitely made some strides last season and more so than anything got the culture and set the tone for what we want to build,” Degenhardt said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s a process, but we’ve got a good group of veterans coming back who have been with us for a year and they know what we want.”
THE OFFSEASON: The Chill addressed defense in the NAHL draft after surrendering the sixth-most goals in the league last season (181). They traded up to select defenseman Sean Lang with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Lang was the top scoring defenseman with the Chill in 2012-13 before spending time in the USHL last year with the Muskegon Lumberjacks and the Tri City Storm. The Chill also brought in Jackson Charlesworth (Antigo High School), who they selected in the second round. They also brought in goalie Jimmy Thomas (Ohio Blue Jackets U18) to fill the void left by Blake Cates, who split time with Adam Carlson, who returns to the Chill this season. Owners Michelle and Kevin Bryant also added some excitement to the organization by bringing a NA3HL team from Flint, Mich. to help bolster the Chill’s farm system. The Chill have also found a new home at Green Island Ice Arena in La Crosse, ending a four-year partnership with the OmniCenter in Onalaska.
“I like the D that we’ve got,” Degenhardt said. “Sean Lang is back from two seasons ago … and we’ve got some good young guys coming in. We have some good high school defensemen this season — it may take a month or so for them to adjust but I think the fans are going to be excited with the group of guys we have.”
2014-2015 OUTLOOK: The Chill return looking to take the next step and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They return four of the top six scorers from last season in Richard Zehnal (15 G, 25 A), Adam Lovick (15 G, 24 A), Eddie Matsushima (11 G, 21 A) and Blake Kelley (12 G, 19 A). They also return Carlson, who had a 13-12 record last season with a 2.67 GAA and a .919 save percentage. The Chill finished with the sixth-best offense in the league a year ago. Special teams was also a highlight for most of the year. The Chill finished with the fourth-best penalty kill and the seventh-best power-play unit.
“The awesome thing about this league is that every team is going to give us a good test,” Degenhardt said. “I told the guys that the two points that are on the line (today) mean just as much as the two points on the line in the last game of the season. … Our focus is on the two points (today).”