Last season's Golden Eagle rookie class was exceptional - Theoren Fleury, Paul Ranheim, Peter Lappin, Jim Johannson, Rick Lessard, Wayne Cowley, Mark Holmes and Doug Pickell.
Fleury and Ranheim are already playing for the Stanley Cup-champion Calgary Flames, and Lappin wasn't cut until Wednesday by the Minnesota North Stars, who sent him to Kalamazoo. Johannson will play in Indianapolis after joining the Chicago Blackhawks' organization. Lessard had a strong first season with the Eagles, and Cowley had an 18-8-1 record in goal.Lessard, Cowley, Holmes and Pickell are with Salt Lake again this season.
Will this season's freshman class be able to measure up?
"They're different players, so it's unfair to ask them to get the same kind of numbers," says Coach Bob Francis, looking at the 188 goals totaled by Fleury (37 in half a season), Ranheim (68), Lappin (48) and Johannson (35) as rookies.
"But it isn't unfair," adds Francis, "to ask them to reach their potential."
The first test was Friday, when the Eagles opened their season at Peoria.
With three impressive rookie forwards - Bryan Deasley, Stephane Matteau and Tim Sweeney - Francis says, "We've more than made up" for the loss of Ranheim, Lappin and Johannson, though it's making up in a decidedly different way because it's unlikely any of the three will break the franchise goal-scoring record like Ranheim did.
Francis also sees roles for his three beginning defensemen - Kevin Grant, Darryl Olsen and Jerry Tarrant.
Olsen may be the key ingredient to the Eagles. He's the only playmaking defenseman. "He should be an integral part of the power play," says Francis. "We needed a quarterback.
"He'd better be able to do it," Francis laughs. "That's why he's here."
Olsen handles the puck well and sees the play in front of him well, and he has a low, heavy shot that's easy for forwards to redirect on the power play.
"I'd like to think I feel patient with the puck, sucking a guy toward me and feeding it to the open man without panicking," Olsen offers. He likes playing defense because it gives him a sense of controlling the game.
Francis says Olsen, out of Northern Michigan, needs to learn pro-style standup defense instead of backing in, a habit collegians acquire because there's no red line.
Sweeney's another marked man. "We were aware he'd be a good offensive player, but what's impressed us is his overall defensive play," says Francis. "He should play a major part on our team." Francis says Sweeney has good hands and hockey sense and likens his versatility to that of veteran Randy Bucyk. "He does it all," Francis says.
Sweeney says, "I try to concentrate on the overall game. A one-dimensional player isn't going to contribute to the team." He wants to start shooting more.
Matteau, Grant and Deasley played for the Eagles last spring, and Deasley had the game-winning goal in the second game of the Turner Cup semifinal series with Milwaukee.
Deasley played for Team Canada most of last year, and the big, international-style ice surface "improved his skating two steps," Francis observes. Deasley must, however, learn to work "in more direct lines" in the pro game, rather than going horizontally, which the wider international rinks afford. "He has so much skill in different areas," adds Francis, "he has to identify what's going to make him successful." Francis says that's an "up and down, grinding game along the boards."
Matteau drew raves from former Eagle Coach Paul Baxter during the playoffs last season, and Francis concurs. "This kid is an NHL prospect if I've ever seen one," he says. "He's big and strong (6-foot-3, 195), a great skater, and his defense is as disciplined as I've ever seen at age 20."
Like Deasley, Matteau needs to realize how much potential he possesses and then reach it, Francis says. "He's a guy to watch," says the coach. Matteau can play both left and right wings.
"I have to keep my plus-minus low and play tough in the corners," Matteau says. "Play my style." That's more defense than offense, he says, but, "Last year I scored 44 goals in junior; I don't know why I can't score here, too."
Grant progressed in training camp, but Francis says the 6-3, 210-pounder "hasn't tapped his resources for us yet." He scored 50 points in 60 games for his junior team at Sudbury, Ontario, last season.
Tarrant is another hulking defensive-style defender. "He has a great work habit, the ultimate approach to the game," says Francis. "It appears he made himself a good player by hard work." Francis calls him "a safe defenseman; he makes the quick, safe play and doesn't take himself out of position."