Augusta RiverHawks head coach Brad Ralph pledged changes to his team after ending 2011 with four losses in five games.
The remodeling began on Monday.
Defensemen Sean Stagles and Nick Wheeler were released, and Ralph brought in center Brendan Taylor and a much-needed enforcer in defenseman Tyler Howe.
Ralph said the moves were only the beginning of a roster-altering week in an attempt to regain the team’s first-place status.
“It’s been a process of about three weeks looking for guys and finding out who’s available,” Ralph said. “There will be more changes coming.”
Taylor and Howe will be in the lineup when the RiverHawks return to action at James Brown Arena on Thursday.
“At this point we need some offense and help on the power play, and I think Taylor can do that,” Ralph said. “And I’ve been looking for some toughness here for a while. (Howe) is going to bring that element.”
ENFORCER FOUND: The RiverHawks have needed an enforcer-type skater since a series of moves earlier this season took away much of the team’s physical threat. Defenseman Tyson Gimblett and forward Lucas LaBelle left for the ECHL, while forward Aaron McGill, second in the league in penalty minutes, broke his finger.
Howe, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound rookie, tallied 255 penalty minutes in 101 games at the junior hockey level over the past two seasons.
ROOKIE’S ROLE: Ralph said Taylor was brought in to help bolster an offense trying to find its identity. Top scorers Dustin Cloutier, Chris Doyle and Travis Dunstall all left by mid-December, and the team’s scoring average has dropped by almost a full goal per game since.
Taylor tallied 11 goals and 43 assists in 36 junior hockey games two years ago and shared a line with Cloutier in preseason training camps.
RETURNING: Augusta’s Drew Baker did not play Saturday in an overtime loss to Columbus.
The second-year defenseman left the team because of a death in the family, Ralph said, but has returned and will be back with the team this weekend.
MCGILL’S SKILL: Friday’s four-goal third period against Fayetteville saw an offensive burst that has become rare for the RiverHawks. Three of the goals came in a 3-minute, 14-second span that turned a 2-1 edge into a 5-1 blowout.
McGill scored two of the late goals and his eight goals top his scoring production from last season.
NO REST: The RiverHawks played four games in five days last week and will play three in four this week. Huntsville and Fayetteville will play in Augusta on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The RiverHawks will follow the FireAntz back to Fayetteville for a road game on Sunday.
STILL THE ONE: Augusta started 2012 holding onto a share of first place. The Knoxville Ice Bears briefly pulled ahead last week, but the RiverHawks’ overtime loss Saturday moved them back into a tie for first.
Knoxville does have two games in hand over Augusta. The two won’t meet again until Feb. 11.