West Valley City • New year. New affiliation. Same mentality.
The Utah Grizzlies kick off the ECHL season on Friday night, and their message is similar to previous years: find a way to make the playoffs. Last season, the Grizzlies missed the postseason for the first time in 10 years.
“There’s always an expectation to make the playoffs,” goaltender Kevin Carr said. “That’s the end goal.”
The Grizzlies inked a new affiliation with the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League in late June. Grizzlies coach and general manager Tim Branham said with the new connection, expectations are elevated for the team this upcoming season.
“Switching to Colorado, with the support that they give, I think those expectations are even higher,” said Branham. “That pressure is put in upon ourselves, and obviously I put it on our staff and hold them accountable and then right down to the players.”
The team unveiled its new roster Wednesday at the Maverik Center. The majority of this year’s roster is in its first stint with the team, mainly because they are players the Avalanche signed and designated to the lower league, Branham said.
But the Grizzlies have some heavy-hitters returning to the roster. One of them is forward Ryan Walters, who led the team last season with 29 goals and 34 assists. The organization re-signed him in mid-July.
Walters said he feels heightened pressure for the team to do well this season with the new affiliation because the Colorado Eagles — who are a tier below the Avalanche — won consecutive Kelly Cup Championships in the last two seasons. He also pointed to the Avalanche making the playoffs last season.
“This organization is a winning organization,” Walters said. “We do have to respect what they want to bring to the table, and that’s to be in the playoffs and make a push for a championship. We have a lot of work to do.”
The roster features a lot of players who will be spending their first season with the Grizzlies. But most of the team has experience in the professional hockey ranks. Defenseman Caleb Herbert, a five-year veteran who is in his first season with Utah, said he wants to use his experience to help his younger teammates.
RAPID CITY RUSH AT UTAH GRIZZLIES
When • Friday, Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where • Maverik Center, West Valley City
Radio • 700 AM
Throughout training camp and preseason, Herbert said he can already see the Grizzlies have considerable depth.
“We’re going to play three full lines of talented players that any given night can produce for our team,” Herbert said.
Walters said what has impressed him so far is the collective professionalism of the roster, which he did not necessarily feel last year.
“We wanted to go to the playoffs [last year], but we didn’t do the right things to make sure that happens,” Walters said. “This year I can just tell that we’re actually doing what we’re saying and we’re not just talking it out. That’s the biggest difference to me. The guys care a lot more than I think we did last year.”
The Grizzlies went 1-1 during the preseason and will start the regular season on Friday against the Rapid City Rush. Carr said the team is itching to get started.
“It’s been a long summer for me to look forward to this game,” Carr said. “I know all the guys, especially here in Utah who didn’t make the playoffs unfortunately, were finished early. So we’re all excited.”