Johnstown Tomahawks – Mike Letizia

Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia (top right) listens to a message from equipment manager David Dunkleberger during a game at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. 

Many of the biggest names from the most successful team in Johnstown Tomahawks history won’t be present as the North American Hockey League team begins its main camp on Thursday.

Don’t expect Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia to label this season a rebuilding project as 120 players take the ice at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.

“There really is only one thing we could have done last year to top it off,” Letizia said of a season that concluded with a series loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the Robertson Cup semifinal round in Blaine, Minnesota. “We fell a game short of that.

“A lot of great things happened last season. Now we want to put the ribbon on it. It’s a lot to live up to. It’s a challenge to the players who are returning and the new players on the roster.”

The Tomahawks tied for the league highs in wins (47) and points (98). Johnstown produced multiple individual award winners in the division and the league, including Letizia’s earning both the NAHL and East Division coach of the year honors.

The Tomahawks had a 17-game winning streak during the regular season and won an incredible 25 consecutive games at the War Memorial.

Johnstown prevailed in playoff series against the Northeast Generals (3-2) and New Jersey Titans (3-2) to advance out of the divisional round before losing to Fairbanks (2-1) in a best-of-three semifinal.

“Now we saw what we are capable of,” Letizia said. “We have a bar that we’ve set. Now we’ve got to raise it up another level.”

Top scorers Carson Briere (89 points), Samuel Solensky (86), Cameron Hebert (78) and Oliver Benwell (70) all have moved on. Briere is headed to Arizona State, and Hebert to Robert Morris University. Solensky and Benwell aged out.

Neither of last year’s goaltenders – Carter McPhail (29-3-2) and Cooper Lukenda (15-4-2) – will return.

With main camp being held at the War Memorial for the first time, Letizia will have an opportunity to assess this season’s nucleus.

“We’ll give them our expectations for camp and our expectations for the season,” Letizia said. “We’ll pretty much get right into it with games – one on Thursday night; two on Friday; two on Saturday; Sunday all-star games. A lot of hockey in four days. A lot of opportunities for guys at camp.”

Among the key returnees is veteran defenseman and captain Chris Trouba, who had career bests with five goals and 18 points in his third season with the Tomahawks.

Bennett Stockdale, Colin Price, Christian Gorscak and Pavel Kharin are experienced contributors who are back.

“We lost some big time scoring,” Letizia said. “But Stockdale, Price and Gorscak are primed to step up. Pavel (Kharin) is an unsung hero type of guy. Now some young guys going into their second year might be getting a bigger role. I’m excited to see how they take that opportunity and run with it.”

Letizia also expects Alex Wilkins, Ethan Webb, Andrew Murphy and Matthew Doyle to make major strides.

The Tomahawks drafted forward Connor Sleeth in the first round of the NAHL Draft on June 4, followed by center Noah Basarab, forward Nathan Berke, forward Alex Dalton and goaltender Colin Purcell in the second through fifth rounds, respectively. Overall, the team had 12 draft picks.

“Purcell is a NHL Draft prospect, no question,” Letizia said of the goalie from the Cleveland Barons Under-16 program.

“It’s a wide-open situation,” the coach said of his goaltenders. “We have a lot of free agents who are going to come into camp, all very capable of earning a spot on the roster. We’ll see how the week plays out.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.