Scott Burt’s goal last year in his first season as Rapid City Rush head coach was to simply make the playoffs, something the organization hadn’t done in seven years, and he accomplished it while setting a single-season franchise record for ECHL points.
Now entering Year 2, reaching the postseason isn’t the goal for Burt, it’s the expectation. The standard. And the rest of Rush nation, from the team to the front office to the fans, should have the same mindset.
“It’s been set in stone right from the get-go that what they did last year was achieved something that hadn’t been done in a while,” Burt said. “Now they know they can do that, so now we know as a staff, the fans know as an expectation and the players know it’s non-negotiable, so they all understand what’s at stake.”
The Rush enter the 2022-23 ECHL season with more excitement than a typical team ready to start fresh with all possibilities ahead of them. Rather, they open their campaign as a renewed organization thrilled to build off last season’s playoff berth, armed with a plethora of returning players who helped them get there and newfound aid from their affiliate to push them closer toward the Kelly Cup.
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“It’s one game at a time for us,” forward Logan Nelson said. “Obviously we want to be in the playoffs again and once we get to the playoffs our goal is to be the last team standing, so it’s just day-by-day, win our weekends and go from there.”
The Rush ended their affiliation with the Arizona Coyotes this summer and signed a new agreement with the Calgary Flames and their AHL team the Calgary Wranglers, who moved from Stockton.
The Coyotes’ AHL team, the Tucson Roadrunners, didn’t provide much help in sending players to Rapid City, mostly opting to call up Rush players and not return the favor. A new relationship with a new affiliate we needed, and Burt is excited for the relationship that has already been with Calgary and the talent of players on AHL and NHL contracts who have and will be sent down in the coming months.
“Younger players who maybe need to learn the pro game, and that’s our job at this level, to develop them, get their feet wet at the pro level so that they can get up to the American Hockey League,” Burt said. “Calgary has invested a lot of money in a lot of these players, so we have to continue their growth as players.”
Among the players within Calgary’s system, NHL drafted goalie Daniil Chechelev and defensemen Rhett Rhinehart and Simon Lavigne have been assigned to the Rush for the opening weekend and likely beyond, while 20-year-old Rory Kerins, who racked up over 110 points in 67 games in the Ontario Hockey League last year, is expected to join the team in the coming days.
Burt said the influx of AHL call-downs will force everyone on his squad to play their best.
“Even if you’re on an ECHL contract, every single player has to come to work every day,” he said. “Not that they didn’t last year, but now it’s, if you want to play, you want to be a top player, you want to stay in the lineup, you’ve got to come every single day.”
The Rush re-signed a whopping 16 players off their 20-man season-ending roster this offseason. A rarity in the ECHL.
Among them, they brought back their top offensive players from last year in Logan Nelson and Brett Gravelle, who tallied 60 and 57 points, respectively. Max Coatta and Calder Brooks, two offensive contributors from 2021-22, are also back, as well as defensemen Ryan Zuhlsdorf and team captain Kenton Helegesen, who will be joined by his brother Tyson for the second season as well.
After contemplating retirement due to a knee injury that sidelined him for the entirety of last season, goalie Adam Carlson is back between the pipes at 100% healthy, and fellow netminder Brad Arvantis, who signed in March and went 3-1-1 with a 2.80 goals against average, is back as well, giving Burt three solid goalies to work with.
“Everyone knows each other and likes each other, so it makes it a lot more than fun to play for each other,” Kenton Helgesen said. “Doing that makes it a little bit easier, kind of gives us an edge on other teams.”
With so many returning skaters and high-level prospects from the AHL, the Rush will look to continue rolling with an offense that finished in the top 10 in the league last year in both goals and power-play percentage. Rapid City ranked eighth in goals with 241 (3.34 per game).
“We’ve just got to stay hungry,” said Nelson, who was the team’s lone all-star last season. “We’re getting a lot of good help from Calgary this year and spots aren’t as easy as they were last year, so you’ve got to come with an attitude and work every day and earn your ice time.”
Burt said he hasn’t had much time to work on his power-play unit during training camp, as new players have been called down or other released, so their man-advantage will take some time to develop.
“We had a good start last year, but we had some time to work on it right off the hop. We haven’t had that much time because we’re filtering guys in and out, but some of the players we’re getting are high-end players.”
Where the Rush offense did experience shortcomings was after overtime periods when games were still tied. While it went a formidable 5-6 in overtime, Rapid City was a dreadful 0-5 in shootouts last season, never registering a single goal.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Nelson said. “One-on-one with the goalie and more times than not you should get at least one goal, and finishing three points out of first (place), that’s something you can look back on and think about all summer, so it’s something where we just have to bear down and be confident.”
The Rush, who have the highest travel budget in the ECHL, will have division-heavy opponents on their regular-season slate, playing 62 of their 72 games against Mountain Division foes.
Their only non-division opponents are the Toledo Walleye, which will be a three-game series Feb. 15, 17-18 at The Monument Ice Arena, and the Fort Wayne Komets, which will be a three-game set March 24-26 on the road.
Rapid City alternates home and away series for its first 22 games, hosting the Kansas City Mavericks the day before and the day after Thanksgiving, until embarking on a two-week road trip, facing the Idaho Steelheads Dec. 14, 16-17 and the Wichita Thunder Dec. 21-23. It then returns home for six straight to close out the calendar year and begin 2023 against the Tulsa Oilers and the Utah Grizzlies. The Rush will host the Oilers on New Year’s Eve.
The Rush will also have a five-game road trip in January, a five-game home stand in February, another five-game road trip in March and a six-game home stand later in March.
Most of their games will be played on Fridays and Saturdays, with 23 and 24 respectively, while eight games will take place on Wednesdays and seven will commence on Thursdays and and Sunday. They will also play one Monday and one Tuesday game, taking place Jan. 16 and April 4 as one-off games at the Kansas City Mavericks.
Eight of the Rush’s series will be three-in-threes — three games played in three days — the games that typically cause the most drama.
“The players that are coming down, sure we’re going to meet with them and get them to understand what our expectations are of them and to build them, to grind them, we’re hard coaches, but at the end of the day everybody wants that same goal,” Burt said. “They want to be the best hockey player they can be and we’ll do the best we can.”
The Rush open the season Friday against the Utah Grizzlies in West Valley City, Utah. The series comes as a rematch of last year's Mount Division Finals series where the Grizzlies knocked the Rush out of the Kelly Cup Playoffs in six games.
Contact Matt Case at firstname.lastname@example.org