The start of the 2016-17 season looked promising for the Tri-City Americans.
They had scoring, a solid defense and a veteran goalie in Evan Sarthou.
But before the season even started, Sarthou was on the injured list, as was last year’s top returning scorer Jordan Topping. Rugged forward Max James also spent considerable time in a suit and tie.
“We weathered the storm with Topping and James out,” said Tri-City general manager Bob Tory. “We established ourselves as a good hockey team in the Western Conference and in the U.S. Division. We won 40 games (41-28-3-0) and got back to the playoffs.”
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Tri-City also took care of their goaltending issue, trading Nick Sanders to Prince Albert in exchange for overage netminder Rylan Parenteau, who added leadership and poise to a position that had been in the hands of Sanders and rookie Beck Warm the first couple of weeks of the season.
“The plan was to start the year with Evan and one of the young goalies,” Tory said. “We were able to get Parenteau. Having three goalies is not ideal, but we didn’t have a lot of options at that point.”
Parenteau got the lion’s share of the work with Sarthou on the DL, and finished the season with 25 of the Americans 41 wins.
Sarthou didn’t return until the beginning of November, and promptly won three games in a row. He finished the season 11-8-2-0.
As the season rolled along, the Americans swept the East Division on the road, had a seven game win streak, and at one point were just a couple of points out of first place in the U.S. Division.
Tri-City won seven games in a row after leading scorer Michael Rasmussen was shelved for the season with a wrist injury. Rasmussen missed the final 18 regular-season games and the playoffs.
But after the seven-game win streak came a five-game slide with losses to Seattle, Kelowna, Prince George, Everett and Portland. The Americans rebounded to win their final three games, but the damage had been done.
Tri-City would be swept by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the first round of the playoffs.
“We didn’t have a very strong March,” Tory said. “At the end of the season, our power play and penalty kill went south. It’s disappointing the way it ended.”
While their power play fizzled toward end the end of the regular season, and took an early vacation in the playoffs, it ranked fourth at the end of the regular season at 24.8 percent with 75 power play goals.
Topping, Morgan Geekie and Kyle Olson picked up the slack when Rasmussen went out, and got help from Tyler Sandhu and defensemen Parker Wotherspoon and Juuso Välimäki.
“We scored a lot of goals (272, third in the Western Conference), but our goals against (252) was higher than what we wanted to see,” Tory said. “We lose two really good defensemen in Wotherspoon and (Dalton) Yorke. Defense is an area we need to improve.”
The future looks bright for Tri-City.
Rasmussen (32 goals, 55 points) and Välimäki (19 goals, 61 points) are projected first-round NHL draft picks in June and will be back next season.
Also among the key returning players are Topping (28 goals, 53 points), Geekie (35 goals, 90 points), Olson (20 goals, 57 points), Vladislav Lukin (26 goals, 58 points), Parker AuCoin (21 goals, 43 points) and defenseman Dylan Coghlan (15 goals, 53 points).
“We have a strong core coming back,” Tory said. “We have 11 of 14 forwards returning, and even though Lukin is a Euro (Russian) and a 20, he’s a pure scorer and is valuable on the power play.”
THE OVERAGE SITUATION: The Americans finished the season with seven 19-year-old players on the roster, three of whom they can keep for next season.
Wotherspoon, who is signed by the New York Islanders and currently is playing with their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, is not expected back for his overage year.
Forward Austyn Playfair, who played just 36 games this season after a plethora of injuries kept him off the ice, has opted not to return. He is going to use his WHL scholarship and go to college.
That leaves Sarthou, Lukin, Topping, James and Brendan O’Reilly left to battle it out for the three overage spots.
“There are some big decisions to make,” Tory said. “We should have a good team next year.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The WHL bantam draft is May 4. The Americans will pick 12th in the first and subsequent rounds, barring any trades.
Tory, assistant GM and head scout Barclay Parneta, and their scouting staff are hitting the road to find the next diamond in the rough.
Tory was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this week, then will check out provincial camps in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta. He also will give a strong look to players in the United States.