As the Tri-City Americans embark on their 30th season in the Western Hockey League, there is no doubt the talent on the ice will be high caliber with the likes of Michael Rasmussen, Morgan Geekie, Kyle Olson, Jordan Topping and Juuso Välimäki.
But emerging from the shadows is the second tier of players like Nolan Yaremko.
In his third year with the Americans, Yaremko has watched, learned and put in the work to earn every second of ice time coach Mike Williamson will give him. He has not disappointed.
“We should have a good team, a deep team, and he is going to be a big part of it,” Williamson said. “He has gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger and he’s going to be relied upon more this year offensively than what we’ve asked of him in the past.”
The Americans open the season Saturday night at Seattle, then play Sunday in Everett. Their home opener is Sept. 30 against Everett.
If the preseason is a baseline for things to come, the Americans can expect to get a net full of goals from Yaremko.
The native of Spirit River, Alberta, led the WHL in goals (10), power-play goals (5) and points (12) during six preseason games, surprising even himself.
“I played with a lot of good players and we were sharing the puck,” Yaremko said. “Everyone was scoring. We have a lot of talent in this program. With guys being away at NHL camps, roles open up. I was just playing as best I could. It was a good preseason. My hard work is paying off.”
Williamson was impressed with Yaremko’s preseason numbers, but knew he had it in him to be productive.
“It’s preseason, but it’s still a big accomplishment,” Williamson said. “I’m not totally surprised. Nolan has put himself in a position over the past two years to get scoring chances and get those opportunities. He’s been snake bit a few times and frustrated when he’s had chances and not been able to capitalize. He’s always in those spots because he’s willing to get to tough areas. He’s ready to capitalize and make the most of his chances.”
Working his way up the ladder
Yaremko came into the WHL at 17. He scored a lot of goals and put up piles of points at the bantam and midget levels, but the move to the WHL was a big adjustment
He had just eight goals and six assists in 69 games his rookie year.
“It is a pretty big jump,” he said. “This is a prestigious league. The more experience you get, the more comfortable you get, and that helps a lot. I think it took me the better part of half my first season to reach that comfort level. When Mackenze Stewart came in, he showed me the way and that put confidence in my game.
“On a team like this, you have to find your role, and when that happens, everything clicks. We benefit from that. That is when we are playing our best hockey.”
Last season’s numbers improved a bit with eight goals and 14 assists, but his responsibilities also were expanded, including being a go-to guy on the penalty kill.
“We’ve watched him get better, but not really change his style of play,” Williamson said. “He’s responsible defensively, he’s tough in the circle, and he continues to get better on faceoffs as he gets experience. He’s a guy we’ve asked to play against other teams’ top lines and take care of his own end. We are still going to see those attributes. He is getting more opportunities, and he has worked hard for those opportunities.”
A born leader
Along with greater on-ice responsibilities, Yaremko brings a veteran presence to the game this season, and it’s a role he embraces.
“I had good leaders when I was younger,” he said. “We have a great group of leaders in that room. The leadership role will be big on our team.”
Williamson is counting on Yaremko to help mentor younger players and be a positive role model.
“He’s one of the best leaders we have,” Williamson said. “I think it’s easier when you have a couple of years under your belt to pass things along. You can tell them all you want as a coach, but they get so much knowledge from watching their peers — guys who have success and people who are in places they want to get to one day. Remmer is a guy who comes to the rink every day ready to practice, ready to work. We really want our younger players to watch guys like Remmer, take positive things and add them to their tool box.”
Best flow in the game
It’s not hard to find Yaremko on the ice. He has a mop of long curls hanging out of the back of his helmet.
He hasn’t cut his flowing locks in 14 months, nor is he about to do it any time soon. He does trim his beard, but don’t get pushy.
“I’m just growing it out,” he said. “I’m not sure why. If I’m going to grow a beard, I might as well grow my hair.”
With his productive preseason, has his hair given him Samson-like powers?
“I don’t really want to find out,” Yaremko said.
The hair kind of goes with Yaremko’s wild side. He had five of the Americans’ 33 fights last season, behind Dalton Yorke (8) and Max James (6). And through it all, he’s been able to keep all of his teeth intact.
“I’d be pretty ugly if I didn’t have any teeth with my long hair and beard,” he said with a smile.
Last season: 41-28-3-0, third in U.S. Division; sixth in Western Conference; eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Head coach: Mike Williamson (4th season).
Assistant coaches: Brian Pellerin (4th season). Goaltending coach: Eli Wilson (1st season).
Key losses: D Parker Wotherspoon to the New York Islanders organization; graduates F Tyler Sandhu, D Dalton Yorke, G Rylan Parenteau. G Evan Sarthou (retired).
The 20-year-olds: F Jordan Topping; G Patrick Dea; F Max James; D Brendan O’Reilly.
The imports: D Juuso Välimäki, a first-round pick of the Calgary Flames (19 goals, 42 assists last season); D Sergei Sapego (2017 import draft); Roman Kalinichenko (2017 import draft).
Key returnees: F Michael Rasmussen, a first-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings. Was on pace for a great season (32 goals, 23 assists in 50 games) until knee and wrist injuries derailed his final 20 games of the season. F Morgan Geekie, last year’s returning scorer (35 goals, 55 assist). Was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Hurricanes. D Välimäki, a solid presence on the blue line the past two seasons. F Kyle Olson, a fourth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks. Team’s sixth-leading scorer (20G, 37A) last season. F Jordan Topping, who was limited to 43 games last year after an injury suffered at an NHL camp. Still was productive with 28 goals and 25 assists. D Dylan Coghlan (15G, 38A), who recently signed withe the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
New faces: F Sasha Mutala, who is third in scoring in the WHL preseason with 10 points (6A, 4A). A dynamic player who make an impact from Day 1 with his size (6-0, 190) and skill. G Patrick Dea, who is fighting for a 20 spot and time in goal with Beck Warm.
Watch out for: Now that he is healthy, Rasmussen to continue where he left off last season. F Nolan Yaremko. Third-year player who started to make his mark last season. Led the WHL preseason in scoring (10G, 2A). F Parker AuCoin had 21 goals last year. Uses his size and strength to make things happen.
Just notes: There should be goals aplenty for this group. Välimäki has a wealth of experience with the Finnish national team, and is working his tail off to make the Flames roster.
Did you know: The Tri-City Americans had two players (Rasmussen and Välimäki) selected in the first round of the NHL Draft for the first time since 1996.
Prognosis: Americans should finish near or at the top of the U.S. Division and Western Conference. They have the firepower, they just need solid goaltending. They will miss Wotherspoon on the back end, but Välimäki, Coghlan, Dakota Krebs and a few new faces should be able to hold the fort.