It’s also reflected in a 23-man opening day roster with a mere eight official holdovers, which doesn’t include rookie goalie Zach Stejskal who played in two Bloomington Thunder games late last season.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys around, but we have a good veteran group with strong leadership qualities,” said defenseman Mike Callahan, a touted Providence College recruit who headlines the sizeable group of newcomers. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have tons of experience elsewhere. That combo should be good for us going forward.”
The Aces open the organization’s fourth USHL season with a two-game weekend series at Youngstown, beginning with a 6:05 p.m. (CDT) game Saturday. The club is looking to reverse course from a 25-27-8 finish after coming within a game of advancing to the Clark Cup Finals in 2016.
“We’re a new team trying to make a name for ourselves and come out strong,” said rookie forward Tyler Madden. “This year with the new rebranding of the team, I think we can put ourselves on the map. Expectations are high. We’ve got to make the playoffs.”
Callahan, Madden (Northeastern) and Stejskal (Minnesota-Duluth), all NHL Draft prospects, are among 15 players with NCAA Division I commitments. The team has 19 players with junior hockey experience.
“Speed, transition, pace — that’s the identity we want to have as a group,” said first-year coach Mike Watt. “We’re not just limited to one line or two lines, we’ve got four lines that can get up and go and (defensemen) that can join the rush, skate and move pucks. It’s exciting.”
The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Stejskal, who backstopped his high school team to a Minnesota state title before joining the Thunder, will share time with Kris Carlson in the crease at the outset. Carlson was on the Providence roster last year and has 10 games of USHL experience with Waterloo in 2014-15.
“Zach, he’s going to play pro hockey (with) his stature and how he moves,” said Watt. “But we have to be cognizant of not putting him into situations where he’s overplayed.
“I think we’ve got a good meld; Carlie can both mentor and push and Stej is right there to learn and he’s eager. It gives us a bit of a comfort blanket in knowing that we don’t have to push Zach into a position where he gets too much thrown at him.”
Madden is the son of John Madden, who won one Stanley Cup with Chicago and two with New Jersey. He joins a group of new forwards that includes Lucas McGregor, Jamie Armstrong, Jeremy Davidson and Zach Risteau, who was acquired in a trade with Sioux Falls earlier this week. McGregor led the team with five points (three goals, two assists) in four preseason games.
“As a team, as a whole we’re really meshing together right now and I think we’re all excited to get going,” said Madden. “I think we’re very talented. We’re definitely one of the faster, more skilled teams in the league but we also have size.”
Notre Dame-bound Cameron Burke, the top returning scorer who totaled 19 points in his rookie season, is among five returning forwards, with Marko Reifenberger, Calen Kiefiuk, Will Garin and Griffin Lunn.
Callahan is joined on the blue line by returnees Simon Butala, Charlie Raith and Bloomington native Brady Smith, along with fellow newcomers Cory Babichuk and Davis Bunz. Holdover Jason Smallidge starts the season on injured reserve.
“We’re starting to get jelled as a group. We had a good weekend at the Fall Classic,” said Callahan, referring to the team’s 2-1 showing at last weekend’s preseason showcase in suburban Pittsburgh. “We’re looking good going into our first weekend against Youngstown and we’re hoping to get four points out of the weekend.”
The Aces could be running into a bit of a mirror image against the Phantoms, who won all three of their preseason games.
“They’ve got an extremely talented group of forwards, very, very, very deep up front. They’re pretty similar to us in that they can get up and go,” said Watt.
“We have to make sure that we manage pucks and make sure that we don’t turn any pucks over. If we manage the puck correctly, then we can get opportunities and I think we can take the game away from them.”