Friday, April 23, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
After a season that saw the Wranglers make it to the first round of the playoffs, the question now is what will next year’s team look like?
“I anticipate there being a bunch of players back, but right now, I just don’t know,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Nobody, at this time, has confirmed to return next season.”
On April 13, the Wranglers 2009-10 ECHL campaign ended in a series-deciding Game 5 loss to the Utah Grizzlies.
During the year, the team underwent constant changes as the result of player movement and operating under the league’s salary cap. But it recovered from a slow start and finished in fifth place in the National Conference.
“We got a lot of production out of players that I didn’t think, and maybe they didn’t even think, was there,” Mougenel said.
He named players whose consistent play helped stabilize a lineup that shuffled players back-and-forth to the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League and lost players to overseas teams.
“I definitely got every ounce of some of the players I had,” he said.
And while some players he brought to Las Vegas spent a vast majority of the season in San Antonio, others joined the team on the fly and helped the Wranglers advance to the playoffs.
Jimmy Spratt was called up late in the season from the Southern Professional Hockey League and was the team’s starting goaltender in the playoffs.
Mougenel tabbed former first-round pick Alex Bourret from overseas near midseason, and the forward became an integral part of the Wranglers’ offensive play.
“One of the biggest things I think the players understood this year is that, in this league, trading players, bringing them in and then shipping them out is not the answer,” Mougenel said. “But when that happens and you all play hard for each other, you can have success.”
What will next year’s roster look like?
“The one thing that I got away with a little bit was keeping the right type of person,” Mougenel said. “Despite how talented or what kind of offensive numbers they put up, our guys will be my type of people.”
That means similar personalities to this year’s players like Adam Miller, Craig Switzer, Chris Neiszner, Kyle Hagel and Ned Lukacevic, whose work ethic Mougenel praised.
“We have a mix of older guys and younger guys,” he said. “There will be guys coming back and there are guys with strong ties to our community that want to be here. They loved playing here, enjoyed playing in front of these fans and want to come back.”
Some players, however, will be looking to pursue opportunities in higher professional leagues, or possibly overseas.
Mougenel has the ability to retain players rights by either qualifying them or re-signing them, something he will determine at a later time because of the upcoming 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Two players in limbo are Lukacevic and goaltender Michael Ouzas, who missed the playoffs because of an ankle injury but expects to return to the ice somewhere next season.
“I’ll explore all of my options over the summer and then decide,” Ouzas said. “I have no idea where I’m going to end up or if it’s back in Vegas.
“I’d love to play there but, if not, I really enjoyed the team. We just have to see what happens.”
A more interesting case would be that of Lukacevic, who scored 28 goals with the Wranglers this season and played eight games with AHL Providence.
“I’m setting goals for myself that I’m going to move on,” he said. “But while I’m trying to think positive, I won’t get too far ahead of myself.”
The left-winger said he’d like to play in the AHL, but if that’s not in the cards, he would be open to returning to Las Vegas.
“It’s a great community here,” Lukacevic said. “The loyal Wranglers fans should be proud of themselves. They have proven that hockey in Las Vegas belongs.”
Whether that specific of pair of Wranglers returns is just a small piece of the puzzle that Mougenel, heading into his second year as coach, hopes to complete.
“I was really impressed with some of the young guys that were brought in here,” he said. “But we need to identify where we can get better and go from there.”