WEST VALLEY CITY — Utah Grizzlies head coach Tim Branham was downright jovial for much of the franchise’s annual Face-off Luncheon, held Tuesday afternoon at the Maverik Center in advance of the 2019-20 season opener on Friday, Oct. 11.
His message to the team, coaches, franchise personnel and booster club members in attendance was simple.
Now is the time to be excited.
“I’ll keep this short and sweet,” Branham said. “Extremely excited to start this season. The product on the ice is top notch.”
Branham remained affable once interviews began with local media and joked that he could get out on the ice himself Friday, when the Grizzlies take on the Idaho Steelheads.
“Me and (assistant coach) Ryan (Kinasewich) have been doing workouts with the boys,” Branham said. “Try to get in there with them and show them what’s up. I can still get them in the drills. I can hold my own. I could probably play a few shifts a period even, maybe.”
His joviality vanished, in its place solemnity, when the question was asked — what is the Grizzlies’ goal this season?
“Win,” Branham said matter-of-factly. “Win the Kelly Cup. 100%.”
So, too, answered returning forward Tim McGauley.
“100%, Kelly Cup for sure,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Our main goal is the Kelly Cup.”
Longtime defenseman Taylor Richart was in agreement.
“Win it all, I would say,” Richart noted. “We have a similar team to last year with skill, but we now have the little things that teams do to win championships. Last year, we were missing a few pieces to the puzzle, but this year we have a great chance to win the Kelly Cup.”
Needless to say, the Grizzlies have high expectations for the upcoming season, one year after falling short in the first round of the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Playoffs.
And just to be clear, the devastating back-to-back-to-back-to-back overtime losses to the Steelheads — losses that knocked the Grizzlies out of the postseason a year ago — are behind them.
“That was just tough, a tough thing, but we don’t think about it anymore,” said defenseman Teigan Zahn, a player-coach. “We have an exciting team. We will be very fast. Our forwards are very fast. Defense are quick. Good goalies. We will have quick strike team. Hopefully we can win the Kelly Cup.”
Much of the confidence for the new season stems from the Grizzlies’ affiliation with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
The team is entering its second season connected with the Avalanche and the impact of the partnership has been felt in a big way.
“I’d say, on ice, it’s the level of talent,” Richart said. “When we were with Anaheim, guys wouldn’t go up and down. Guys weren’t getting called up, and that is what you were fighting for. That was discouraging. With Colorado, guys go up and down all the time. Colorado is really good at developing their players, getting them ready for the next level. There is more of an investment, and you can feel that. Everything has changed for the better.”
There is a lot of change this season for the Grizzlies, as the team welcomes 16 new players, with just seven returners.
The newcomers are exactly what was needed, though.
“We have guys that know their role, skill guys, guys that will sacrifice for the team and guys that want to be here, want to win,” Richart said. “I think that goes from top to bottom. Everyone here wants that. If we all show up and do what we are supposed to, we are going to win. We have a lot of confident guys and we are confident in each other.”
No group carries more responsibility than the returners, however, who are expected to provide the stability every minor league team needs, in the midst of promotions and relegations.
“You need that core group of guys that doesn’t go anywhere,” Branham said. “Those guys that set the culture and hold everyone else accountable. You need a core group that is constant to have continuity.”
The Grizzlies have that, with Richart, Zahn and McGauley, not to mention defenseman Kevin Davis and forwards Mike Economos, Travis Barron and Mitch Maxwell.
And with the influx of additional talent, the team appears primed to make some noise this season, a season they hope ends with the Patrick J. Kelly Cup brought home to Utah.
“Our goal every year is to win the Kelly Cup,” Branham said. “I push myself in the summer to build a team that is capable of doing that. I don’t want to build a team that is good in the regular season; I want to build a team that is capable of winning the Kelly Cup. We did that this year.”