A tough assignment
Rebels GM tasked with finding entirely new roster
Sitting in a conference room adjacent to the Jamestown Rebels locker room in the basement of Northwest Arena last week, Joe Coombs stared at a list of hundreds, if not thousands, of junior hockey-eligible teenagers on a monitor.
As the general manager of the Rebels, Coombs has been tasked with the nearly impossible this summer.
When COVID-19 forced Jamestown to be one of four teams to go dormant for last year’s North American Hockey League season, players who the Rebels held the rights to were dispersed throughout the rest of the league.
Now, more than 15 months after playing its final game of the 2019-20 season, Jamestown is ready to return to competition.
One big problem.
When the Rebels announced they were back, the league said their former players would stay with the teams they played with during the 2020-21 season.
“We don’t get our players back, which I disagree with,” Coombs said Thursday afternoon. “But, at the end of the day, we move on.”
While there are two actual expansion teams in the league — the El Paso Rhinos and Anchorage Wolverines — the Rebels, Amarillo Wranglers, Springfield Jr. Blues and Corpus Christi IceRays are essentially in that same boat with no returning players for the 2021-22 season.
“The way that USA Hockey is structured from a growth standpoint, I’ve never looked at anything as expansion,” Coombs said. “I’ve always looked at it as reloading, not rebuilding. … But now, due to a pandemic, it literally feels like expansion and I don’t know the reason for it.”
Jamestown began the process of filling its roster starting March 1 when they signed 15 players to tenders.
“Tenders are ones who get the choice of where they get to play,” Coombs said, “but it certainly gets the juices flowing a little bit.”
Then, in early June, the Rebels made three picks in the Supplemental Draft.
With the fourth pick of the first round, Jamestown selected Ethan Leyer, a forward from Alberta who is committed to St. Cloud State University.
They followed that selection with Aidan McCarthy, a goaltender from Michigan who played for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL the past two years.
With his final pick of the Supplemental Draft, Coombs took Joe Harney, a 19-year-old defenseman from Massachusetts.
Those early June selections then led to Wednesday’s Entry Draft. Even though players are selected by NAHL teams in the Entry Draft, they still have the opportunity play elsewhere in a higher-level or alternative league.
With the fourth pick of the first round, the Rebels selected John Prokop, a defenseman from Wisconsin, and they followed that up with Luke Tchor, a left winger from Toronto, in the second round.
“I feel pretty good about our first pick,” Coombs said. “Our second pick will get a chance in Fargo.”
In the third round, Jamestown picked Cade Helmer, a center from Pennsylvania and in the fourth round the pick was Jack Wieneke, a goaltender from Massachusetts.
The Rebels’ fifth pick was Jack Pascucci, a defenseman from Massachusetts, and their sixth pick was Joe Fleming, a defenseman from Massachusetts.
“I would say out of our first five picks, we feel better than 65% or 70% about them,” Coomb said. “We took a couple of really high-level fliers late.”
Jimmy Akouri, a center/right winger from Michigan was Jamestown’s seventh pick and Jonah Mortenson, a right winger from Minnesota, was its eighth pick.
“If we get half of our draft picks, that’s a normal year. You are trying to find the best players available. Some you just know they are going to make USHL teams and there are other kids who are 50-50,” Coombs said. “We didn’t take any more risk this year than any other year. If we bat .750 with our tenders and .500 or greater in the draft, your team should be pretty good.”
Coombs then dipped back into the lakes of Minnesota with his ninth pick when he took Lyncoln Bielenberg-Howarth, a forward from Rochester. Dane Dowiak, a center/left winger from Pennsylvania was Coombs’ 10th-round pick.
In the 11th round, the Rebels added Ryan Murphy, a left winger from Michigan, and in the 12th round they selected Matthew Cole, a right winger from Michigan.
Jamestown wrapped up its draft with Garrison Schilling, a goaltender from Massachusetts.
“We offer our congratulations to the players selected in (Wednesday’s) NAHL Draft,” said Mark Frankenfeld, NAHL comissioner and president. “This is the start of an incredible journey to play in the NCAA and we wish the best of luck to all the players, veterans, tendered, drafted or not, in your quest to play USA Hockey in the NAHL.”
Each team in the NAHL is also required to sign three tenders from lower-level “umbrella leagues” giving the Rebels the rights to 34 players heading into tryout camp in late August.
“Starting Aug. 25 we’ll bring in a number around 40 or just a little higher for two or three days,” Coombs said. “Hopefully we’ll get down to 30 and on Monday (Aug. 30) be off and running.”