North Charleston, SC- The South Carolina Stingrays open their 30th season with the goal of erasing the bitter results of the previous season. It was a disappointing campaign which saw the team miss the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. After Brenden Kotyk came to the helm late last season, there was a renewed push from the team, fueled by rookie signings and the desire to end the season on a positive note. After Coach Kotyk shed the interim label, he got to work assembling his squad for his first full season in charge.
The team that Coach Kotyk has assembled is a heavily talented group with proven experience on the back end and a mix of young hunger and experienced professionals up front. When assembling the roster for training camp, Coach Kotyk wanted a camp that was going to be high in competition and challenging for players to crack the lineup.
“We did a lot of character checks on our guys. That was one of the big things is character and how hard they compete,” Kotyk said. “We’ve been really happy with the guys we’ve got and a lot of them have been leaders on every team that they’ve played. So we just want to build that culture of hard work.”
The defensive corps is bigger and grittier than the past few years. The return of Chase Stewart and addition of Evan Wardley are signings that aim to improve defensive zone play and accountability on the ice. With returners Connor Moore, Carter Allen, Matt Anderson and Chaz Reddekopp, and Hershey signees Benton Maas (2017 draft pick by Washington Capitals) and Michael Kim also fighting for game time, the blue line looks to be sitting players that would be starting anywhere else in the league.
The forward corps is a solid mix of seasoned veterans, experienced journeyman and hungry rookies. Andrew Cherniwchan and Justin Florek will be returning and wearing the “C” and “A” from last year again. The top two scorers on last year’s team will be bolstered by the returning rookie trio from University of Connecticut, Jonny Evans, Kevin O’Neil and Carter Turnbull. They will be looking to replicate their successes from last year’s taste of pro action. Returner Lawton Courtnall is joined by fellow journeymen Jarid Lukosevicius and Josh Wilkins, who both have over 100 games of AHL and international experience. Gavin Gould is starting on injured reserve but should make an impact when he is healthy. The 2022 ECHL All Star will be looking to recreate his on-ice successes before being sidelined with a season-ending injury last year. Hershey has assigned Ryan Scarfo, who has close to 200 AHL and ECHL games under his belt, and Alexandre Fortin who boasts 225 AHL and NHL games on his resume. Also joining from Hershey is rookie Bear Hughes, a 2020 draft pick of the Washington Capitals. Rookies Tarek Baker, Anthony Del Gaizo and Sean Gulka will also be fighting for ice time to start the season.
For the past several years the Capitals and Bears have ensured that the goalie situation has been clear and solid for the Stingrays. However, this year finds the projected starting tandem of Garin Bjorklund and Clay Stevenson on injured reserve. Third year pro Tyler Wall was signed but is pending an immigration issue before he can play. Riley Morris, who entered camp on a PTO, will be joined by recent waiver wire claim Jeremy Brodeur to mind the net to open the season. Morris performed well during the lone exhibition game for the Stingrays, earning the overtime win. Brodeur is a sixth-year pro who has bounced between the SPHL and AHL. Charleston will be his fifth ECHL club.
Expect Wardley to quickly become a fan favorite. His impact on the team has been evident since training camp. He was equally at ease with the veteran returners as well as the young rookies. Wardley’s work ethic and physical play was evident in practices as well as the team’s win in their preseason match. He was just named as part of the leadership group and will be wearing an “A” for the Stingrays this year.
“He comes in and he’s got that presence on and off the ice. He’s been a leader and guys gravitate towards him. He’s been one of hardest workers in camp and in the preseason game. He just adds that ‘it’ factor. He does a lot of things really well, he skates hard and makes good plays. Of course,” explained Kotyk, “he has that physical aspect. We’ve got some smaller forwards who aren’t afraid to get into it but at the same time he’s just like that safety valve, he’s a big piece for us.”
The goal every year in Charleston is to win the Kelly Cup. This year will be no different. This year’s Stingrays team has been built to win and succeed. Getting out of the gate with a strong start will be vital for this year’s team to establish their identity and shed the shadow of last year’s shortcomings.
“We have the same expectations,” concluded Kotyk. “We want a Kelly Cup in this locker room. We want to be the fourth team in league history. We want to be alone up there, as opposed to tied (with Alaska Aces and Hampton Roads Admirals) with just three. I think we have the pieces to do it.”
The pieces are there for the Stingrays to do something special this year. The goaltending situation might be the biggest question on this squad. They have solid depth on defense and offense and are likely to get reinforcements as the Capitals and Bears get healthy. If the goalies can get healthy, the rest of the team can avoid injuries, and callups are at a minimum, expect this team to make a deep push into the spring.
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