by Bruce Tippets
Vernal made a quick impression last season, winning the Northwest Division in the United States Premier Hockey League.
The Oilers, who were founded in 2021, aim to provide elite amateur hockey players an avenue to further their playing careers at the college or professional levels.
“I think the only expectations are to build on the success we had last season,” Vernal general manager David Imonti said.
The Northwest Division was brand new for the 2022-23 season.
“All the opponents in our division have gotten stronger and we will have to raise our game to compete,” Imonti said. “I think we have a ton of depth compared to last season. We have four lines that can play in any position at any time. That will be a huge advantage for us late in the season.”
The other teams in the Northwest Division are the Bellingham Blazers, Casper Roughnecks, Rogue Valley Royals and Seattle Totems.
“I wouldn’t discount anyone out this season,” said Imonti. “There will be more parity this season for sure.”
Mike Gennello is the head coach this year again for the Oilers.
“I expect him to continue his growth in that position after the experience he gained last year,” Imonti said.
Vernal added Ryan Howse as the associate coach and assistant general manager.
Howse was a third-round NHL draft pick of the Calgary Flames. He played professionally in the AHL and for the Utah Grizzlies.
He was Coach of the Year for Hintonnin in the CAJHL.
“I think the pair will be great and will really help the boys out,” Imonti said.
The Oilers opened the season with a 6-2 win at Bellingham Sept. 29.
Seattle claimed a 4-3 home victory over the Oilers Sept. 30. The Oilers blasted Bellingham 8-1 in another road contest Oct. 1.
“I think we have something like 14 games in a row on the road prior to having anything at home,” Imonti said. “We look at it somewhat as a positive because it will help bring our boys closer together.”
Local players on the Vernal roster are Tanner Flitton and Kenny Huber.
“We expect Tanner to assume a larger role this season,” Imonti said. “Kenny is a top local talent we look forward to developing.”
Presley Toth, who is the captain, is one of the key returners.
Imonti said Ethan Christian plays a hard-nosed physical role that he can contribute offensively.
“He has a knack for throwing his body around and intimidating opponents,” he added.
Jakub Bulik became physically stronger over the summer and is expecting to be a force for the Oilers.
“We are really pleased with his progress over the year,” Imonti said.
Imonti explained Evan Stringer is a goalie the Oilers just acquired.
“He should be a physical force for us,” Imonti said.
Filip Lezzani was a top defender for the Oilers last season and is back again this year.
“We’re lucky to have him,” said Imonti.
Levente Hegedus is another goalie Imonti thinks will step in and contribute immediately.
Hegedus was the starting goalie for the Hungarian national team.
Imonti said he was among the best in the USPHL Mountain Division last season.
“He is also young,” Imonti said. “I think he has a lot of upside.”
The Vernal general manager called Mario Paganini a dynamic player the Oilers received from San Diego.
Elmar Bekir is a Norwegian forward who has experience at the next level.
“We are happy to have him,” said Imonti.
Niko Charles and Lukas Janicnia will be in the mix for the goaltender position.
“Both are young goalies who are better than we anticipated when we signed them,” Imonti said.
Imonti is expecting Preston Laupitz, who came to Vernal from the Hinton Timberwolves, to be a leader on defense.
Laupitz was the Can-Am League Defenseman of the Year last season.
“He has a lot of versatility that will help us,” Imonti said.