Gary Shuchuk and Corey Leivermann feel a little less stressed this time around.
At this point last year, Shuchuk had been the Janesville Jets head coach for about one month. And he and his assistant, Leivermann, were sort of forced to build their program as the season unfolded.
The Jets made it all work just fine, going 38-13-6-3 in the regular season and finishing one win away from advancing to the Robertson Cup finale.
The Jets are set to open their 2018-19 season with a Friday-Saturday home series against Kenai River, with both games starting at 7 p.m. at the Janesville Ice Arena.
“Overall, the skill level is high,” Shuchuk said. “That’s what makes me excited. The hard part is they’re all coming from high school (hockey) or Triple-A, so they all have some bad habits, and you have to break those.
“But just the skill level, guys making passes and executing in practice, it’s been a lot better this year than last year at this time.”
Shuchuk is pleased that he’s got several returning players at the back end of the ice.
That includes second-year goalie Garrett Nieto. Nieto ranked fifth in the league with a 2.00 goals against average in 31 regular-season games last year. He had a save percentage of .929.
“You win from your goalie out, so having him and some veteran defensemen back makes it easier,” Shuchuk said.
Those returning blue-liners include Philip Bjorkman, John Pesek, Matthew Doyle and Sean Driscoll. Bjorkman was plus-13 in plus-minus last year over 50 games and contributed 13 assists.
Offensively, Shuchuk expects the points to be a little more evenly distributed, as opposed to having 60- or 70-point scorers like Jakov Novak and Kip Hoffmann.
“There are skill kids out there that I think can step up,” Shuchuk said. “But scoring-wise, it might be more by committee.”
Brendan MacLaren was the team’s fifth-leading scorer and returns for another season. He had 15 goals and 15 assists in 43 games.
Erik Palmqvist ranked sixth on last year’s team with 18 assists. Other returnees up front are Matt Hanewall (23 points, 58 games), Jack Vincent (12, 27) and Logan Ommen (3, 9).
Among the many newcomers are goalie Cole Brady, who has committed to play for Arizona State and forward T.J. Sagissor, brother of former Jets player Simon Sagissor.
The Jets played a home-and-home exhibition series with Austin (Minnesota) this past weekend, with the Jets dominating at home but losing on the road Saturday.
“They didn’t dress any of their older guys here Friday, so it was easier for us to win,” Leivermann said. “We played our younger guys Saturday, and they found out pretty quick what it’s about.”
The roster was trimmed to 27 players Monday and will be further cut down after next week’s NAHL Showcase event in Minnesota. The Jets could also get a few more returnees from past teams if players currently skating with USHL teams do not make final roster cuts.
But having the opportunity to go through a full offseason and turnover has left Shuchuk and Leivermann feeling comfortable with where the team sits entering the season.
“A lot of stress last year compared to this year,” Leivermann said. “It was a lot of growing for us last year in the beginning. Now I feel like we’re on the same page.”
“Last year, we didn’t really have an idea what we were looking at,” Shuchuk said. “We had training camp and main camp, and these are the guys we picked, so they’re our guys. If they screw up, it’s our fault.
“I like the guys we have. I think they can play.”