By Annie Fowler

Bob Tory had high hopes going into the 2014-15 season.

The Tri-City Americans general manager knew his team’s goaltending and defense would be solid. Scoring had been an issue for a couple of seasons, but Tory was confident that Parker Bowles, Brian Williams, Lucas Nickles and Beau McCue would come through.

For the first six weeks of the season, things went well. The Americans were 13-10-0-0. They went 4-2 on their Eastern road swing, handed previously unbeaten Kelowna its first loss, came out on top of a goaltending duel with Edmonton and posted back-to-back wins over Kamloops and Red Deer.

Then the injuries came. Not just one player, but many. Some players went on the disabled list more than once. When goalies Eric Comrie and Evan Sarthou both were out of commission, the Americans lost four in a row. They ended the season last in the U.S. Division at 31-38-0-3, and they lost more than 200 man-games to injuries.

“Obviously, we expected to have a better regular season,” Tory said. “Our expectations were high. We got off to a good start, but then came the injuries. I have never seen the number of injuries, and serious injuries, that we had. We never had a full team. They battled as best they could. We went from battling for home ice to barely making the playoffs.”

The Americans made the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season, but Kelowna ousted them in the first round for the second year in a row.

“We had a lot of young guys in the lineup,” Tory said. “The way the guys battled that last game, a lot of teams would have thrown in the towel, and they didn’t. I’m proud of them for that.”

The Americans finished the regular season with just 190 goals — second-to-last among the 22 teams in the Western Hockey League. Bowles had 13 goals and 44 points in 47 games, but he missed the last 18 games of the regular season because of a shoulder injury.

Williams, who had 36 goals last season, managed 17 this season, but he missed several games because of a lower-body injury. McCue led Tri-City with 26 goals and 51 points in playing all 72 games, while Richard Nejezchleb, who joined the team in early November, finished with 20 goals and 51 points in 49 games.

“We need to improve our offense,” Tory said. “Scoring has been a problem the last couple of years. We had some young guys step up when our veterans went down, but this is still a league where the elite players dominate. You saw that with Kelowna.”

Comrie was limited to 40 games, and Sarthou played 28, including a string of 20 in a row when Comrie went to the World Junior Championship and came back with an injury. Sarthou got hurt in late January and missed a month before making his return.

“We expected Eric to be gone for World Juniors, then he got hurt,” Tory said. “Then Evan got hurt. It was after the trade deadline, and we couldn’t make any moves. We had to use (Richland native) Casey Kaiser, then we brought in Nick Sanders and Beck Warm. They were 15 and 16, and had to step up for us at a crucial time of the year when everyone is making a push for the playoffs.”

With the injuries piling up, the Americans turned to their younger players to fill out the game-day rosters. Jordan Topping came on strong, finishing the season with 10 goals and eight assists, and rookie defenseman Dylan Coghlan carried a hefty load of minutes every game.

“You can’t expect the young guys to be your leaders,” Tory said, “but the older guys weren’t doing what we need them to do. The young ones did a good job. We need them to keep growing as individuals, as a team and stay healthy.”

The Americans will return 20 players next season, including five overage players — McCue, Williams, Bowles, Justin Gutierrez and Tyler Morrison.

“The plan is for all five of them to come back,” Tory said. “We really haven’t seen the best of Parker Bowles, and Brian Williams can be a dynamic scorer in this league. We need him to rebound. He is a skilled, quick, fast player, and we need Parker to be healthy for a full season. It’s nice when you don’t have to trade for a 20. You want to develop your own. You don’t want to have to give up an asset to trade for one.”

The Americans lose Justin Hamonic off the back end, but everyone else will return, including rugged Riley Hillis and two of the best young defensemen in the league, Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon.

Sarthou will return to man the net, with a slew of younger goalies vying to back him up.

“The torch has been passed, and Evan is ready to take it,” Tory said. “He had seven shutouts this year. He’s shown he’s ready.”

That goes for a lot of the younger players, who at 16 and 17 got considerable playing time but still have plenty to learn.

“There will be a lot of growth between April and September,” Tory said. “We have a lot of players coming back, and they need to take that jump and get back to where we were. We want to be a team that consistently wins 40 games a season.”