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'He's a Swiss Army knife': Veteran Salani leads Bruins with brawn, brains

Post-Bulletin - 9/14/2022

Sep. 14—AUSTIN — If it was physically possible, Steve Howard might leave

Austin Salani

on the ice for all 60 minutes of all 60 games this season.

"We want him to do a little bit of everything for us," said Howard, who begins his sixth season as the head coach of the North American Hockey League'sAustin Bruins at 11:30 a.m. today when the Bruins face the Northeast Generals in Blaine on Day 1 of the four-day NAHL Showcase. "We just want him to take a step forward from last year, in all aspects. I think he ... Austin is a kid who certainly can score and he popped in some big, quality goals last year.

"He played everywhere in our lineup."

If the preseason was any indication, Salani won't be on the ice for 60 minutes a night, but there may not be a forward on the Bruins roster who is out there more often.

Salani's versatility is his trademark. He can skate and score and create with top-line guys. He can be a physical, lock-down defensive forward on the team's fourth line. He can frustrate opponents with his net-front presence on the power play. And he can be a leader on the penalty kill.

Often, he'll play all those roles within one game.

"That's been his role since he got here last year," Howard said. "That's what we like so much about him. He's kind of a Swiss Army knife for us. He can fill in anywhere up front and do a lot of good things for us.

"And his best quality is that he's such a good character guy in our room."

Salani, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound native of Hancock, Mich., had nine goals and 19 points in 60 games a year ago for the Bruins. His consistency is evident with a quick look at the stat sheet; he had a two-goal game against Central Division champion St. Cloud last January, but otherwise had no games with more than one point.

"He jumped right in and did well early on last year," Howard said. "He was scoring fairly regularly from the start of the season to the end. It's not like he had a big clump of goals toward the end.

"He did a good job of jumping in and playing a solid role. He got moved around the lineup a lot; that's not easy for a lot of guys.

"His biggest adjustment was just understanding you don't have as much time and space in junior hockey. Things happen quicker. But he was one of the guys who I thought took that (advice) right away and ran with it."

Consistency was Salani's hallmark in high school, too, when he recorded 180 points in his four-season career at Hancock Central High School, including career-bests of 24 goals and 53 points as a junior in 2019-20. He was named a First Team All-State player that year.

"Jumping up to the NA from high school, it's a big step," Salani told the Post Bulletin earlier this summer. "You learn quickly what your role is. That's what I'm trying to help teach the young guys — you might have been a skill guy playing at 16U or 18U or wherever you were before, but you jump up here and you're facing 21-year-olds who are bigger, stronger and faster.

"You have to know your role and what you can and can't do, and what you have to do, because if you're not going to do those gritty things and get to the hard areas, a lot of times you won't be around for long. Just play hard, do the things the coaches are looking for — keep your head up and move pucks quickly."

Salani said the Bruins' veterans come into the 2022-23 season with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Austin went 8-2-1 in its final 11 regular-season games last season to earn home-ice advantage for the first round of the Central Division playoffs against Aberdeen, a team the Bruins had gone 8-3-1 against in the regular season. The Wings promptly beat Austin twice at Riverside Arena, then completed a three-game sweep of a first-round series with a Game 3 win at Aberdeen.

That outcome still doesn't sit well with Salani and other veterans, who elevated their play in the final month of the regular season to earn home-ice.

"Everyone has a little chip on their shoulder from last season," Salani said. "We ran the table on Aberdeen for most of the year, then they came in and swept us in our own building in the playoffs. Everyone has that chip — all the returners have it — and we've made it pretty clear to the other guys.

"We'll try to use it as motivation going into this season. We know what we have to do to compete at that level. We're just trying to get back to the place we were last year and then play another month of hockey."


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