NORTH AMERICAN HOCKEY LEAGUE: Jackalopes looking to reload heading into 2023-24 season

The junior hockey level will always have a revolving door of players for each team, making every season completely different from that of the previous year.

It’s especially true with the Odessa Jackalopes this season as they look to replace 15 players from last year’s team.

The team will be starting its 2023-24 campaign at the North American Hockey League Showcase in Blaine, Minn. from Sept. 13-15.

The Jackalopes will continue the season on Sept. 22 at New Mexico in Albuquerque.

“The players are really excited, which is what you’d expect, coming into training camp,” Jackalopes head coach Scott Deur said. “As coaches, we’re just ready to get this whole thing going. Last year, we lost 14-15 guys so we have to replace those and that’s the challenging part with finding who’s going to take which job. That’s the excitement as a coach since you get to make those decisions. At the end of the day, you hope they’re the right decisions.”

Deur enters his third year as the Jackalopes head coach as the team is searching for its first playoff appearance since 2018.

The Jackalopes are coming off a 30-27-1-2 record from last year, finishing sixth in the NAHL South Division standings-just two places out of a playoff spot.

During the summer, the team added reinforcements, selecting six players in the NAHL Entry Draft including forward Zachary Benayon, defenseman Riley Rosenthal, forwards Jacob Strizzi, Holden Doell, Johnny Conlin and Hayden DeMars.

Deur said the new draft picks are starting to mesh with the team.

“We’ve had them for about a week here during training camp,” Deur said. “We’re really starting to get to know them. We just finished a scrimmage. We’re trying to figure out who they are and what they are. What’s the best spot for them in the lineup. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made, especially with as many guys as we lost last year. I don’t want to call this year a rebuilding year but it might be considered a rebuild and we’ll see what happens.”

Deur believes the team’s goaltending will be a strength for this season.

“I think our strength is that we’ve always done a good job of getting good goalies,” Deur said. “We have two or three that are fighting it out for the starting job and they’ve been playing really well. The other strength should be our décor. We have five guys, four of which are coming back from last year and one that dropped from the USHL so he has a lot of experience in his hands. That’s got to be the real strength of our team. Now it just comes down to where the scoring comes from.”

As the Jackalopes try to end their playoff drought, they must navigate through an always difficult division in which three of the teams have won the Robertson Cup at least once in the last six years including the defending champion Oklahoma Warriors.

The Shreveport Mudbugs have also won the Robertson Cup, lifting the trophy in 2021 and 2018 while Lone Star took the title in 2017.

“I think the South Division is the toughest division, night in and night out,” Deur said. “They have fantastic coaches. It’s going to be a battle every day. We’ll see what other teams have here in the next couple of weeks at the showcase. I’m sure with Oklahoma being defending champions and el pas is starting to find its stride, it’s going to be a tough division and we’ll see what happens.”

The South Division will also include a new team this year with the Colorado Grit playing its inaugural season in the NAHL, located in Greeley, Colo.

“They’re going to be our farthest travel,” Deur said of Colorado. “It’s about 11 hours to get up there which is slightly different from what we’re used to but I’m excited to get to see them in the South Division and give the players get a different experience. We’re going from the mountains of Colorado to the beaches of Corpus Christi. It’s going to be a neat experience.”

Odessa must also deal with the lengthy away schedule to begin the season.

Because of the Permian Basin International Oil Show taking place at the Ector County Coliseum, the Jackalopes’ first home series will not be until Oct. 27-28 against El Paso.

“We play the first 14 games on the road so that’s tough but we have the Oil Show in town and it’s just something we have to deal with on the hockey side,” Deur said. “The Oil Show is a big part of the community and we’re glad it’s at the Ector County Coliseum but it’s just something we have to deal with every other year.”

Next week’s Showcase gives the Jackalopes a chance to play against teams from outside their division.

Odessa will begin with a 2:15 game against Maryland Sept. 13 before facing Bismarck at 7:30 p.m. the following day.

The Jackalopes will then go up against Kenai River at 4:45 p.m. Sept. 15 before finishing up the preseason against New Hampshire at 9:45 a.m. Sept. 16.

“The showcase is a great way to start the season. It’s the start of hockey season for everyone from college to the pros. There’ll be over 200 scouts there from the NHL to college hockey and in between. It’s a great time catching up with those guys and seeing how their summers were. On the plus side, you get to play teams that you don’t normally get to play from other divisions and that’s exciting because you don’t have to see the same coaches and the same players all the time. It’s a great time and always crazy because of how many people are there. It’s something we as coaches look forward to every year.”