A winning season.
That’s something Medveščak fans can only dream of after watching their team lose 58 of their last 120 regular season games over the last two campaigns.
The fairy tale inaugural season is now a distant, if glorious memory of what was and it’s now time to look forward.
The playoffs are certainly not actually out of the question for the Bears of Zagreb and last season showed some reasons for optimism despite another disappointing year.
Pre-season has been positive, albeit the majority played against lesser opposition but there were signs of optimisms amongst a squad beginning to gel and some exciting new talent in the fold.
There’s little doubt that Gordie Dwyer will have learnt a ton during his first professional season in the head coach, especially in a league that would have been totally foreign to him.
A new coaching team around him including staff he’s worked with before, should be seen as a plus.
Much of Dwyer’s quest for success may well lie between the pipes and a lot will rest on the shoulders of Danny Taylor. The British born goaltender was one of the Bears best players during his debt KHL season in 2015/16 and he’ll be expected to carry the majority of the workload.
As is the way with Medveščak and their financial restraints, it was another summer of change with ten new additions added to the 14 players retained from the season before.
Forwards Francis Paré and Alexandre Giroux have looked the part during pre-season and both will need to hit the ground running. The most interesting acquisition might well be on the backend with Derek Smith acquired from the AHL. Smith is an offensively talented defenseman who has suffered with various injuries that have curtailed his playing time and opportunities while in North America.
He’ll be expected to quarterback the power play and provide some much needed points from the blue line.
Of those retained, the defensive core has remained stable and progress will hopefully be forthcoming through familiarity.
Keeping a hold of Tomas Mertl, Colby Genoway and Gilbert Brulé could be key however.
Mertl showed real promise with eleven goals and 32 points in his debut KHL season, while there should be more to come from Colby Genoway, who expressed to me personally that he wants more from himself during 2016/16.
The “je ne sais quoi” could well be Monsieur Brulé.
If the 29 year old forward can harness the obvious talent he showed during his early career, then Medveščak may just have a diamond amongst their ranks. The Edmonton native showed some encouraging signs last season for the Bears and all involved with the Croatian team will be hoping it’s just the start of something special.
Speaking of special, it’s special teams that will also be on the minds of coaches and players alike.
Medveščak were the second worst offenders in times short-handed last season and though that comes down partly to their playing style, it’s something that’ll need to be improved despite the penalty kill performing admirable.
On the flip side, Zagreb were also one of the best in the league at drawing penalties and will need to keep that trend continuing if looking to put right a minus five goal differential on special teams last year.
Medveščak’s fate during 2016/17 may be known early if they are unable to reverse struggles on the road.
Just 31 points were attained in 30 road games, while 47 were accrued on home ice as the Bears missed out on the playoffs by eleven points.
After splitting four games evenly through August, September see’s Zagreb on the road through eight of ten games and October – midway November isn’t much kinder with 9 of 15 away from Croatia.
If able to stay in the playoff race through that tough opening to the season, the end of November onwards has a much brighter outlook, with 14 of 16 games on home ice and trips to Latvia and Finland certainly more enticing and easier on the body than Eastern Russia.
At the turn of the year, Medveščak entertain the newest team in the league, Red Star Kunlun of China, with the return visit at the end of January.
Other notables dates including a pair of games again current champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Visiting the Gagarin Cup winners on September 23rd before hosting them on December 21st.
Medveščak Zagreb’s season begins tomorrow (Tuesday, August 23) with a visit to Lada and then travelling on to play AK Bars on Friday.
Two home games follow, entertaining HC Sochi and Torpedo, next Monday and Wednesday respectively.