Snowbound Hounds

13 Feb

Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.

At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.

The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.

The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.

Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.

We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.

7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.

Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?

Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.

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The Game No Cold Could Cancel

29 Jan

It is cold in northern Minnesota right now. Really, really cold.

I once tried to swear off making much talk about the weather, but this is a place where the weather is as ubiquitous as the traffic in LA, or the cesspool of lobbyists in DC: it’s unavoidable. We children of the North take pride in our ability to endure it, relate our more ridiculous encounters with it, and tell our children that it builds character. Then we go home and cry under the blankets for a little while. Or at least we would if our tears didn’t freeze in our eyelashes.

The windows in my turn-of-the-century office tower are coated in ice, my harbor view long since gone. My car gave a desperate whine when I started it up today (at least it started!), and it had to sit there for a good ten minutes before the brake fluid warmed up enough that I felt comfortable pulling out of the driveway. I have a novel I’m halfway through that could divert me, but its title is Snow. So much for literary escapism. Perhaps I should waste away most of tomorrow staring at pictures of Guam, as a grad school friend and I once did on a particularly godforsaken Minnesota day.

At these temperatures, my two wintertime diversions would seem to be useless. It’s far too cold to ski; my eyelashes really were freezing when I was out in a comparatively balmy three below on Sunday. Nor can I retreat to a rink for some warmth: with children’s safety at risk, school closures have canceled all the hockey games tonight.

Except for one, that is.

According to the Roseau Rams’ Twitter feed, it was -29 degrees in Roseau tonight. The “feels like” temperature is somewhere south of 50 below, as if anyone has any feeling left when the mercury dips to those levels. Nothing, however, could stop Roseau from hosting archrival Warroad at venerable Memorial Arena.

For the uninitiated, Roseau-Warroad is often lauded as the greatest rivalry in Minnesota hockey. (Here’s the New York Times on it; here, in SB Nation, is John Rosengren, who is to Minnesota hockey what Buzz Bissinger is to Texas football.) These two towns sit in the far northwest corner of the state, nearly six hours by car from the Twin Cities, and nearly five from my home base in Duluth. Their combined population is less than 5,000, yet they have combined to produce some of the finest hockey talent in Minnesota history. Roseau has seven state championships to its name, including three in my lifetime; Warroad has won the small-school crown four times, and no U.S. Olympic team has won gold without a Warrior on the roster.

It’s become a bit fashionable to question the rivalry’s preeminence. While still respectable, the two teams are not the consistent contenders for state titles they were even a decade ago. Roseau’s decision to opt up to AA hockey while Warroad remains in A strips the rivalry of any playoff implications. We Duluthians wonder if these two little towns can really match the unbridled hatred and record-setting crowds at games between Duluth East and Cloquet or Grand Rapids over the past two decades; down south, White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray go to war for State Tournament berths on a yearly basis, and the titans of the Lake Conference fight for top billing in the state. On our Youth Hockey Hub podcast this past week, Roseau star Aaron Huglen fired some shots when he claimed Roseau’s recent success over Warroad had devalued the rivalry.

With all due respect to Aaron, who scored a late goal to salvage a 2-2 tie for the favored Rams, this night’s game puts all of that to bed. On this record-setting night of cold in Minnesota, two teams that sit at its northern extreme went head-to-head when no one else would. It’s not hockey, it’s life, the Roseau-Warroad cliché goes. If anyone doubted it, this game provided the answer. Even as hell freezes over and then some, Roseau and Warroad will continue to play hockey.

So let’s fight off the frostbite and take a few stumbling steps over to the Legion in Roseau to toast once again the greatest rivalry in high school sports. Well done, boys: you’ve shown us the true meaning of culture and tradition, and years from now, you’ll be able to tell a tale of how, when the rest of Minnesota shut down, you kept on playing hockey. It’s the stuff that legend is made of, and I’ll make my pilgrimage soon to see it with my own two eyes.

One More Piece

13 Jan

As the Duluth East boys’ hockey team concludes an adventurous homestand, now seems an appropriate time for a midseason assessment. The team sits at 10-3-2 through 15 games, a showing that has them firmly in the top ten but hovering outside the very top tier of teams. Two of those losses are to the top two teams in the state, with a narrow loss to Andover in overtime and a much less narrow defeat at the hands of Minnetonka in early January. (The less said about the other loss, the better.) 1-1 ties with Eden Prairie and Blaine, on the other hand, seem to peg the Hounds accurately at this point in the season: right on par with a couple of teams that have the talent to go deep into March, but still in search of that missing ingredient to tip them over the top.

The rap on this squad so far has been its inconsistent offensive output. While they have occasional outbursts—seven goals against Stillwater, six against Grand Rapids, five against Lakeville North—they have a lot of plodding, low-scoring games. Midway through this past week’s Grand Rapids, when the Hounds were sitting at three goals in their past 80 minutes against weaker competition, speculation began to mount if their shot conversion rate could be historically bad. East has outshot every opponent this season save Minnetonka, but rarely do they put them away, and at times have to fight back from unexpected early deficits. This isn’t a wild surprise to anyone who’s watched Duluth East hockey over the years; excepting seasons when they have overwhelming offensive talent such as last season, the Randolph-Olson-Toninato teams at the start of the decade, and the dynastic mid-90s Dave Spehar teams, Greyhound hockey under Mike Randolph plays defense first. The team works its systems all season long, all with an eye to late February.

By mid-January, however, things should start to settle into form, and after half a season of endless tinkering, Randolph appears to have settled on several, if not all, of his lines. Ricky Lyle and Jonathan Jones are a heavy combination on the second line, which comes out against other teams’ top units, and with Logan Anderson centering things, they’ve got some offensive flair, too. Jacob Jeanette is becoming a force on the third line, and they’ve got some cards up their sleeve thanks to their depth, with Exhibit A being Zarley Ziemski, who came up to varsity to log a hat trick against Stillwater. The power play, while fairly pedestrian statistically so far, has started generating much better looks since Ryder Donovan moved to the circle, leaving Frederick Hunter Paine alone atop the umbrella.

On one front, the Hounds have improved: they are finally nearly healthy. There was a moment of collective fear in the Heritage Center when Paine went down clutching his side early in the Minnetonka game. After a two-game absence Paine returned to the lineup against Eden Prairie, and while he wasn’t quite throwing his weight around to the fullest extent, his presence was obvious. With all due respect to Ryder Donovan, Paine is unique on this team: he’s the only true offensive defenseman, and his physical play can change a game’s dynamics. He would have been very difficult to replace.

With Paine returning to health and Jayson Hagen also entering the lineup for the first time after a lengthy injury, East’s defense is finally rounding into form. Senior EJ Hietala has stepped up into a steady role, and sophomore Garrett Johnson has emerged as a reliable contributor with some offensive ability. Depth on defense was my biggest concern heading into the season, but if the Eden Prairie game is any indication, this team can feel fairly confident in its top six. None of them are going to light up the scoreboard the way Luke LaMaster did a season ago, but no one is asking them to do that; they just need to make smart decisions within the system and choose their moments to jump into the play.

Goaltending was another question mark heading into the season, and Randolph stuck with a three-man rotation through much of the season. Now, however, an injury to Lukan Hanson and raw statistics appear to have temporarily settled the matter: Brody Rabold has come out of nowhere to claim the starting job, and continues to put together strong performances. Randolph’s notoriously short leash come back out if Rabold ever hits a road bump, but for the time being, they appear to have a reliable goalie.

If the situation in back is indeed solidifying, this team’s fortunes down the stretch will rest on its offensive production. The elephant in the room here is Donovan, whose 22 points lead the team but still don’t seem quite commensurate with his many talents. His line, which lately has also featured Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker, needs to start carrying more of the scoring load for this team to make a deep run. The kid has a lot of pressure on him, but the skillset and effort are there; now, it’s just a matter of finding some chemistry and making smart choices as the stakes get ever higher. As good as Andover has been, and as dangerous as Cloquet can be, I think 7AA is East’s to lose if they can find this final piece of the puzzle.

And so the Hounds head into the home stretch. With the long homestand at an end, East meanders west this upcoming week into 8AA territory to face Brainerd and Moorhead. The rest of the season features a bunch of good-but-not-great metro squads that will be good tests of their ability to put away mid-level teams, plus two road rivalry contests against section opponents who are also in that tier in Cloquet and Elk River. The regular season will end with a bang, as they face another front-end opponent in Maple Grove. The tinkering period is coming to an end, and now this East team will have to rise or fall on the strength of the players it has.

Twenty-Something

2 Jan

The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.

–Nathan Heller, The New Yorker,Semi-Charmed Life” (January 14, 2013)

I turn twenty-nine this week, so I have just 365 more days to enjoy life as a twenty-something. The sensation Heller describes here is one I’ve known intimately over the past nine years; it’s that sort of vague feeling that is especially alluring to us writers and aesthetes with good memories, and drives us to wax nostalgic at every possible turn. The experience of life is so rich and vivid that reaching ages when such spontaneity seems harder and harder feels like a genuine loss, even as we tell ourselves we’ll be able to bring it back on command. (If my New Year’s rotation of friend groups from every stage of life through my apartment is any guide, it’s something I can indeed do.)

I won’t pretend otherwise: I idolize youth. It may seem an odd fixation for someone with a risk-averse, intellectual bent and a mild Luddite streak. But it’s undeniable, and courses through my fondness for a high school sport, through my fiction, through the commitments that keep me at my work each day, believing in better options for the kids in the communities I work in. I don’t think the inevitable march of age is any reason not to revel in youth for as long as possible, and perhaps because I picture youth as a state of progression through stages of awareness and not some static state of innocence or naïveté, I’m not one who thinks it must be cast aside with time.

Those who know me well wouldn’t find it hard to concoct some sort of Freudian theory as to why I might think all of this, but I also just like kids. I’m drawn to the energy of people who haven’t been beaten down by routines, who still can see the potential of the future; for that matter, give me angst-ridden explosions of emotion over the resigned apathy of people committed to their paths in work and in life any day. This joie de vivre lies somewhere at the heart of my idea of the good life, and I will always be happiest around people who share it.

As I bring this mad, wandering past decade to a close, I have plenty of lost time I could lament; at twenty-seven, a birthday that left me oddly depressed, I did plenty of that. This time, though, I can take some time to marvel at it all, and know that I’m taking the best of it and putting it to some use. So here’s to twenty-nine, and to that thrilling sense of nowness, and to everything that may yet come in moments like that, even as I age. May those dreams continue for years to come.

Confessions of a Mouthpiece for an Elite Charade

30 Dec

In 2011…Georgetown found itself with a $1.5 million pot of money intended for student activities that the administration no longer wished to administer. It allowed students to vote on how to use the money. Out of several proposals, they chose one to create a “student-run endowment that invested in student and alumni innovative ideas that do good in the world.”…It was a perfectly laudable and well-meaning initiative, and it spoke to how many young people had been trained to think about change in an age dominated by a market consensus: as a thing that could be pursued by investment committee as much as by social and political action.

–Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

For the first time I’m in my life, I’ve received an indirect mention in a highly acclaimed work of non-fiction. As the public relations director for the Georgetown student government that helped push through the Social Innovation and Public Service (SIPS) fund mentioned in the above quote, I’ll be updating my résumé with a line that reads “Mouthpiece for the Elite Charade to Change the World.”

All joking aside, Anand Giridharadas’s new book came to me at a vital time as I re-think my role as a person on a road to a reasonably comfortable career that seeks to create positive change in one little corner of the world. Winners Take All opens with a chapter that follows a Georgetown student two years behind me (no acquaintance) who, while groomed for a by her financier of a father, also developed a strong urge to do good in the world, in part thanks to Georgetown’s devotion to Jesuit ideals and an Aristotelian philosophical tradition. (The book name-drops two Jesuit priests, Frs. Matthew Carnes and Kevin O’Brien, who I’d cite as mild influences on my life, and major influences on a few friends who did a better job of getting to know them.) As a result, she was drawn to a career at McKinsey, the elite management consulting firm that pitched her on a chance to be a change agent. As she settled in, however, her doubts began to grow: her clients were mostly wealthy corporations, and any public benefit to her work was often tangential at best. Is this really the best way to effect positive change in the 21st century? Or is that claim just a convenient ruse for people who want money and prestige to claim some broader benefit for their work?

Winners Take All takes no prisoners as it examines these do-gooding elites. Giridharadas’ primary targets are not the greed-is-good purveyors of unrestrained capitalism who led the neoliberal rise, but instead the liberals who quietly accept its premises (wittingly or unwittingly) and try to soften the edges. It blasts Silicon Valley in particular for its unctuous claims about changing the world while operating in ways that are blithely indifferent to, if not actively destructive of, the human lives on the other end of the screen. Giridharadas sits down with some philanthropists and social impact investors, who struggle to varying degrees to justify their work and the system that makes their wealth possible. He spends some time with the “thought leaders” from TED talks and Davos lectures who claim to have simple answers as opposed to the old ideal of the public intellectual who sees complexity and pokes holes. No one who tries to “do well by doing good” gets off unscathed, though some certainly emerge as more admirable than others.

Giridharadas concludes with Bill Clinton, the Georgetown alumnus who started his political career as an Arkansas populist before becoming the Third Way triangulator-in-chief as President and the founder for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an echo chamber for wannabe world-changing elites who get together to network with one another. (In one of the book’s high points, Giridharadas skewers several CGI panels designed to reflect on rising opposition to high-minded globalists and their seeming loss of touch with the masses that consist only of high-minded globalists.) Giridharadas lingers on Clinton’s closing address at a CGI conference: “All that worked in the modern world was private, donor-financed world-saving, full of good intentions, unaccountable to the public, based on win-win partnerships initiated by companies and philanthropists and other private actors, blessed (sometimes) by public officials…The only problem-solving approach that worked in the modern world, according to Clinton, was one that made the people an afterthought, to be helped but not truly heard.”

While Winners Take All effectively highlights the mixed motives and questionable efficacy of world-changing elites, the quote on Clinton illustrates a perhaps a more serious threat of market-focused theories of social change: the way in which it undermines democratic norms, and indeed the entire public realm as a sphere of human activity. The recent populist turn in American politics will likely make some elites even more comfortable with the idea of some aristocracy operating above the supposed dirty work of day-to-day politicking, which feeds a cycle of bitterness and division. The book makes little effort to offer up an alternative save a return to a more redistributive system, which one senses is insufficient to counteract the market-based thinking that has suffused so much of the dialogue. Perhaps simple recognition is an adequate start.

On a more personal level, I’ve been wrestling with questions like this since my DC days. I went to a few recruitment and orientation-type events for a McKinsey competitor, but decided I’d rather spend my first two years out of Georgetown failing to write novels instead. It would be a stretch to say my decision was a noble rebellion against the elite charade, but I was certainly skeptical of any claims about the overarching good that work could achieve, a sense cultivated in part by my critical tutors in academia and back home in Duluth and in part probably just based in my temperament. If I was going to end up in a career with pretensions of world-changing, it would look very different.

Even so, it’s fascinating to see how some things come full circle: I now work for a consulting firm with a stated social mission. My firm has little else in common with the McKinsey machine; it is a nonprofit, it does not drape itself in overwrought claims of influence, and its efforts are largely grounded in service to a place and its people instead of a vague ethos of excellence. Even so, I now get the sense that I could have thrived in that high-end consulting world, to say nothing of what it would mean for my wallet and sense of prestige. I’ve taken an odd path to where I am now, with an eclectic writing life and an idiosyncratic urban planning master’s degree, and while I’ve wondered some over the past two years if I wouldn’t have been better off with a gaudy MBA as a credential of broader expertise, I am also independent enough that I will always relish a chance to view my chosen field from some distance and play the loyal opposition, if not an unabashed critic.

As for my own complicity, I will make no apologies for the SIPS program: there were limits on what we could do with it, and it has gone on to do some very laudable work, including funding for low-income Georgetown students to spend their summers in DC. I also take pains to emphasize the blurriness of class distinctions, and that sometimes those who have seen the belly of the beast are the most qualified to critique it. (Giridharadas, for example, is a McKinsey alumnus, and many of his interview subjects are contacts from his days in that world.) Those of us who brush into these circles at certain points in our lives must acknowledge our place within these larger debates, and be able to step out and reflect on our roles. The dynamics of power and class and democracy will always be fluid, but a commitment to self-examination and transparency need not be.

Waiting on Miracles

25 Dec

Greetings from the tail end of my annual whirlwind Christmas tour. As usual, it included the raucous, loving excess of Maloney Christmas in Chicago, the still quiet of Schuettler Christmas on a snowless plain in Wisconsin, and a small blended gathering back home in Duluth. I had designs of putting out a short Christmas story on this blog, but this time of year is always horrid for diligent writing effort, and while I’ll continue to plug along on the story, it’s far from ready.

This holiday is exhausting, and I enjoy the travel rush and have relatively few people to buy for. For whatever reason, organizing myself for the whole giving and receiving side of Christmas gets harder with time. As someone who leads a largely secular existence, I have some questions about what this holiday really offers for the non-churched aside from an excuse for rampant commercialism, over-the-top decorations, and a lot of corny nostalgia that I have less patience for every year. That leaves me with some great parties and family reunions, but I don’t think there’s any need to confine those to late December. Something, clearly, is missing.

So, to find some meaning behind what this all means for me, I’ll settle for a quote from the woman I’ve been quoting a lot lately, because somehow a Jew who never had kids can best encapsulate Christmas:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion of Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Merry Christmas.

Reload Mode Hounds

12 Dec

A few games into the high school hockey season the hype phase begins to fade and reality sets in: we begin to learn what teams actually have, and how far they might go. The preseason puzzle on the east side of Duluth tried to figure how the Greyhounds would reload in the absence of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, Ian Mageau, and a number of other members of a deep senior class. Fresh off a return to their perch atop 7AA, a victory over Edina in a memorable clash of goliaths, and the bitter taste of a state championship game loss to Minnetonka, northeast Minnesota’s hockey bluebloods are looking to fill those gaps and take care of some unfinished business.

The 2018-2019 Hounds are off to a solid, if not exactly flashy, start. This is in part to due to their opponents—White Bear Lake and Wayzata both look tough in the early going, to say nothing of a front-line Andover team—and in part due to Mike Randolph’s coaching system, which always looks for consistent control instead of gaudy scorelines, especially as the team tests combinations and works its systems in the early going. Since a near-disaster in the first three minutes of the season against White Bear they’ve been stout defensively, and stayed that way throughout a back-and-forth affair with now-second-ranked Andover, which ended in an overtime loss in front of a packed house at the Andover Community Center on Saturday.

Luke Kron’s game-winner was a key moment for the Huskies, who had never beaten East before in their history. Their goaltender, Ben Fritsinger, is the real deal, while the top line of Kron, Charlie Schoen, and Nick Dainty had its moments of dominance. They are a deep group on a mission for their first Tourney berth. But from an East perspective, the loss is hardly cause for concern. It was an overtime loss in December; their lineup is less settled than the highly experienced Huskies, and as the game built and the bench shortened, it was the Hounds who carried more of the play. If the top line can finish its chances and the defensemen can rein in floaters who sneak in behind them, they’ll be tough to beat. History tells us the Hounds will improve as the season goes along; will they stay true to form, and how does Andover counter?

Randolph’s typical tinkering will likely continue into January, but the early returns do little to seed any doubt that the Hounds are right back among the state’s best despite their graduation losses. Deep programs often do better than observers might expect after graduating a very successful senior class, in large part due to the quality of many players who were buried on the depth chart the season before. The early contributions of a junior like Charlie Erickson, who would’ve seen a regular shift on any lesser team a season ago, or of a senior such as the giant Jonathan Jones, are an immediate testament to that maxim. The Hounds are playing four lines with regularity, and cycling through a host of defensemen as they look for the group that will get ice time in February and perhaps beyond. With no shortage of options, they are right among the state’s top teams in a season where few to no AA teams look like the East, Edina, and Minnetonka super teams of a season ago.

Mike Randolph has played goaltender roulette and started three different tenders over the first four games. Back around the start of the decade, Randolph’s handling of his goalies was a subject of some criticism, and not without some justification. The goalies, often left on an island watching action at the other end of the ice for long stretches, were often called upon to make only a few saves on breakaways, and their performance in those moments—and mental makeup as they tried to withstand them—could lead to swift hooks and cratering confidence. In recent years, however, Randolph seems to have gotten the goalie game right.Seniors like Gunnar Howg, Kirk Meierhoff, and Parker Kleive weren’t guaranteed anything, but won their respective jobs in open competition and were the no-doubt starters down the stretch and through strong playoff runs. Whether the wheel finally stops on veteran Lukan Hanson, upstart Konrad Kausch, or the unheralded Brody Rabold, someone will need to seize the opportunity.

Aside from a goaltender, the players who will be most essential to East’s rise over the course of the season will be its remaining front-line stars. The team boasts a top-notch defensive pair of Carson Cochran and Frederick Hunter Paine, as tenacious a net-front presence as the state can offer in Ricky Lyle, and of course Ryder Donovan, who has a chance to join the pantheon of East all-time greats. Donovan is projected to go in the first three rounds of the NHL draft, which would be the highest position of any Hound who played his senior year at East since Rusty Fitzgerald in 1991. (A very achievable 50-point season would put him in the top five Hounds since we have statistics; a difficult but not impossible 75 would get him into third, behind the possibly untouchable pair of Chris Locker and Dave Spehar.) The bevy of quality players and the steadiness of the system will ensure that East continues to look like one of the deepest teams in the state. But to truly separate themselves, the Hounds need a huge season out of Donovan, and his breakaways and laps skated around opponents need to turn into points. Lyle and Brendan Baker will be his wingmen, and with Jack Fitzgerald’s expected return from injury against Cloquet, the lower lines should fall into place.

This team’s potential reminds me of past Hounds editions such as 2012-2013 or perhaps even 1997-1998: groups that had graduated more top-end talent the season before, but still had a couple of major stars, and still had the customary program depth to make a deep run into March. Solid team defense, quality special teams, and steady improvement can turn dreams into reality. If the top line scores the way it can, the second line, anchored by Logan Anderson, should be productive as well. A couple of inexperienced defensemen will need to take steps forward; after a few scary opening minutes against White Bear Lake, the early returns on the rebuilt blue line corps, particularly its top four, are encouraging. (Jayson Hagen waits in the wings as a reinforcement when healthy, too.)

Before March, however, is Cloquet: on Thursday, East renews its longtime rivalry with the Lumberjacks, and rarely has this never-predictable rivalry been more up in the air. Cloquet opened the season hyped as a third highly-ranked 7AA squad beside East and Andover, but the early returns have been an utter disappointment. The Jacks are 1-5, and while most of the losses have been fairly close games with good teams, they have not looked in sync in any facet of their game. East went winless in the teams’ two meetings a season ago, and this rivalry has a way of flattening any talent gaps and erasing any momentum. It will be an instructive game for how both teams handle a chaotic, playoff-like atmosphere, and could invite the emergence of some unsung heroes. As the tinkering continues, the real tests begin to mount, and we’ll learn more about where these Hounds truly stand.