By MIKE MASTOVICH
The Johnstown Chiefs opening night roster includes a few familiar faces, a group of Tampa Bay Lightning prospects and a couple somewhat unexpected omissions.
Chiefs General Manager Toby O’Brien and coach Frank Anzalone will carry 20 players, including returnees Joe Tallari, Dmitri Tarabrin and Jean Desrochers at forward, Brett Peterson and Ian Manzano on defense and David Currie in goal.
“This year there were a lot of difficult decisions,” O’Brien said. “We had a very competitive camp. Frank Anzalone did a super job of getting the most out of players and allowing them the forum to show what they had in an intense atmosphere.”
Tarabrin will return for his seventh season in Johnstown after entering camp as a longshot to make a roster that had eight players under contract to either Tampa or the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. Manzano and Currie each are third-year Chiefs.
New Chiefs forwards are Paul Caponigri, Steve Cygan, Zybnek Hrdel, Randy Rowe, John Toffey, Brandon Elliott and Pittsburgh native J.B. Bittner. New defensemen include Ben Wallace, Jeremy Downs, Tyler Kindle, Jay Rosehill and Doug Andress.
Lightning prospect Jon Boutin is a goaltender making his Chiefs debut.
Tough forward Jason Spence returns to the Chiefs for the first time since the 2002-03 season. Spence played for Las Vegas last season.
“Difficult decisions came into play,” O’Brien said. “There is a new collective bargaining agreement, a new ownership structure with a great organization like Tampa Bay involved, and the fact that we had signed some quality players on our own led to difficult decisions. Frank and I did a lot of talking. Together we were able to get players he felt comfortable about coaching and I felt comfortable about having in the locker room and in the city of Johnstown.”
The biggest surprise was the release of veteran forward Dave Stewart, one of the Chiefs’ most highly-touted free agent signings on June 3. Stewart was labeled as a replacement for tough leader Jeff Sullivan, who retired. A former Reading Royals captain, Stewart has 1,858 career penalty minutes in six professional seasons.
“Dave Stewart came in here and did everything he was supposed to and was a true professional,” O’Brien said. “I did sign him early to add some veteran leadership. Then I was able to sign someone like Jason Spence. Though fans don’t know him yet, you have another guy who plays a hard, tough, physical game in Brandon Elliott with a huge upside.
“We felt we had several players that played a role similar to what Dave played. That was very difficult, but no more difficult than sitting in a hotel lobby with Chad Cavanagh and talking to him, or Steve Slonina, who I tried trading for last year and got him this year.”
Slonina signed on the same day as Stewart. He was part of a trade that sent Mike James to Toledo late last season. He had 56 points with Toledo and Gwinnett over the past two ECHL seasons.
Cavanagh was entering his third season with the Chiefs, but preferred to move on rather than play a reduced role as a third-line forward or an extra forward.
“It was hard,” Cavanagh said on Saturday, when the decision initially was made. “Toby and I had a heart-to-heart. You leave a lot of great guys and the fans who were awesome. The hockey part was great, but the friends you make on the side are the best. The fans are the best I’ve been around. Toby and Frank Anzalone, the guys in general, were awesome. That’s the biggest part I’ll miss.”
The Springfield Falcons recalled forward Dennis Packard and injured forward Justin Kelly soon after the official roster was submitted to the league.
“Right after we did our rosters and sent them in, we pride ourselves on leading the league in call ups and promoting, we got the call from Springfield before the season even started,” O’Brien said. “All the reports that we’ve sent back to them have been positive on Dennis Packard. He’s getting the opportunity to go back and show what he can do this weekend.”
Tampa Bay contract players are Packard, Rosehill, Elliott, Hrdel, Toffey and Boutin. Springfield signees are Rowe and Kelly.
The Chiefs will have 19 active players for Friday’s season opener at Columbia, S.C. Tarabrin will begin the year on injured reserve.
The home opener against Reading will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.