The ”Bears of Zagreb” are rumoured to possibly be playing their last KHL season in 2015/16 due to financial implications, and it promises to be their most difficult yet.
Their inaugural KHL season was something of a fairytale as an inspired Jonathon Cheechoo and his team-mates led Medveščak to the playoffs at the first time of asking. A quarterfinal loss was hard to take but probably brought about false expectations with many of the top players leaving.
Last year was a struggle as their stingy defence allowed many more goals, led to an early coaching change and a finish second from bottom of the Western Conference.
The overhaul heading into 2015/16 is even greater and so is the challenge facing inexperienced head coach Gordie Dwyer.
I’ve no idea of how many candidates there were for the head coaching job but I’m sure many were asking the question “who?” when the announcement of Dwyer was made, myself included.
Drafted twice, Dwyer dressed just 108 times in the NHL and only achieved notoriety in the league as a Tampa Bay players after receiving a 23 game suspension for leaving the penalty box to engage in a fight and then going on to verbally and physically abuse officials after a bench-clearing brawl in a pre-season game against the Washington Capitals.
He would go on to finish his playing career in Europe at a minor level before taking up a coaching job in 2009 for Summerside Western Capitals of the Manitoba Junior League.
Two seasons there was followed by four with QMJHL side Charlottetown Islanders (were P.E.I. Rocket) where after a bad first year, they would qualify for the playoffs each season after before Dwyer was relieved of duties on June 29.
Dwyer only other coaching experience was as an assistant coach with Team Canada, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 IIHF Under-18 World Hockey Championship.
When you consider his coaching profile compared to the likes of Mark French, Chuck Weber and Doug Sheddon then you recognise the size of the task he’s faced with and the leap of faith taken by Medveščak’s management.
The new head coach will have to rebuild a team and roster shown of it’s best players from last season.
Gone is leading scorer Pascal Pelletier to Admiral Vladivostok and second in points Bill Thomas, to Modo.
Brandon Segal and James Wright have also left and it’s looking likely that Martin St. Pierre will not return.
Add into the mix scoring defensemen Mark Flood and Mathieu Carle, then Medveščak will be without seven of their top eight leading points scorers in 2015/16.
Goaltending will be another source of concern as former regulars Barry Brust and Mark Dekanich are gone for good and Mark Owuya, who impressed in his short stint, is also gone.
There have been 19 signings and another eight on tryouts as pre-season is upon us.
No real superstar names amongst those and what jumps out at you is how inexperienced or young some of these guys are.
Blake Parlett has been a reliable defenseman in the AHL, strong is his own zone and puts up points but has no experience outside North America.
Marek Kvapil is a solid right winger with plenty of experience and he will produce to a degree.
Patrick Bjorkstrand returns for another stint with the bears and goaltender Danny Taylor signs after playing his first season in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk.
Expectations then should be relatively low and Dwyer certainly hasn’t built them up during a recent interview. When asked what his goals were for the season the first part of this response was illuminating.
”To grow from game to game and to be competitive. This season the team will be focused on young players who we will develop into competitive KHL players, but at the same time we would like to be successful, especially on home ice in front of our fans.”
Any success will have to be had at Dom Sportova as the bears of Zagreb have generally struggled on the road during their time in the KHL and the incredible home support is often worth a goal or two.
Special teams have always been a problem for Medveščak and that amongst everything else will be a challenge for Gordie Dwyer.
He will have the assistance of the legend that is Alan Letang, who I’m sure he’ll be very reliant on, especially to begin with.
Pre-season games start August 7 with the season beginning for real with a home game on the 26th of the month.
In fact the schedule has been kind to begin with as nine of the first twelve games are at Dom Sportova and a chance to get off to a good start.