The State Tournament is over, which means it’s time to wind down my hockey coverage on this blog. If you miss my philosophical rambling, good news: I’m working on a post that should go up this weekend. But before we put away our skates and get ready for spring, I figured I’d say a little bit about Duluth East’s season.
22-8-1, 6th place at State. The record books might call it the weakest East season in five or six years, but plenty of programs in the state would’ve loved to have had that. If you’d offered me that before the season, I would have snapped it up. For a team whose dynasty was supposed to be running on borrowed time, for a team with only four seniors, for a team whose youth teams feeding in hadn’t been quite as good as the last few, even with the unusually large number of Marshall-bound players factored in—it was a superb year. The offense got off to a slow start, but grew better as inexperienced players settled into their roles. The Hounds lost a couple of frustrating games, but also went 4-0 against the toughest conference in the state, demolished a supposed threat on the road in Grand Rapids, won two games in the Schwan Cup Gold, and restored order against Duluth Denfeld.
It was enough to earn the top seed in 7AA—something they really didn’t deserve, given their regular season losses to Elk River and Cloquet, but with five quality teams in the section it didn’t amount to a grave injustice, and the Hounds once again dispatched of Grand Rapids without too much trouble. That set up the anticipated final against Elk River, in which the Hounds were outplayed for long portions of the game but found a way to head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year. The dramatic comeback made for one of the most thrilling and rewarding section titles in team history.
The State Tournament was a mild disappointment. A series of upsets left the Hounds with the 4-seed, and a battle with #5 Eagan; whatever the rankings said, it was a very even match-up on paper. The Hounds looked the better team for the better part of two periods, but hockey can be a cruel game, and two fluky goals had them staring at a big hole. The offense struggled to generate much traction after a key injury, players began to press, and the wheels came off some in the third period. The results in the consolation bracket—an overtime win over Stillwater, and a one-goal loss to Roseau on a late goal—were respectable, but not quite, well, enough for a consolation prize. But, as the Eagan loss showed, hockey can be a fickle sport. The Hounds fought to the end, the younger players gained some valuable experience, and the seniors graduate knowing nothing but State Tournaments in their time at East.
For a second straight year, the heart and soul of this team was its top defensive pair. First Meirs Moore and Phil Beaulieu, and then Beaulieu and Alex Trapp, were rocks on defense and put up big numbers ranging forward into the attack. Beaulieu, a Mr. Hockey Finalist, will go down as one of the finest defensemen in the history of a program that has produced as many D-I defensemen as anyone, and Trapp will have his shot at the next level, too. While less flashy, senior Joey Marinac’s steadying presence will also be missed, leaving Bryton Lutzka as the only returnee among the top four defensemen. Lutzka improved markedly as the season went along; I feared he might be their defensive liability heading into sections, but he shined on the highest stage, and the Hounds will need his big hits and improved discipline to give their blue line some order next season.
The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, either. While Alex Spencer and Nathaniel Benson spent most of the year playing forward on the third line, both are converted defensemen, and it would be no surprise to see one or both slide back to steady the defense next season. The third pair saw very little ice time, but there is some potential there, too. They might not have the offensive sparkplugs they’ve had the past couple years, but they still have the look of a deep and fairly steady group.
At forward, junior Nick Altmann had a breakout year, and though he was slowed by injury at the start and end of the season, senior Jack Kolar was also a force; someone will have to step up to take his place. The good news, of course, is that Kolar was the only senior, and there will be plenty of people fighting to fill out the remaining spots on the roster. Junior Brian Bunten and sophomores Ash Altmann and Ryan Peterson are locks for next season; Bunten is Nick Altmann’s longtime partner in crime, the younger Altmann may have the highest ceiling of any forward on the squad, and Peterson’s work rate is second to none. Beyond that, there’s a long list of forwards who cycled through the lineup this past season; Maysen Rust played more than the rest, but Matt Lyttle, Evan Little, Auston Crist, Nick Funk, and Jackson Purdy should all have a shot at a regular shift next year if they put in the work over the summer.
The East Bantam AA team didn’t have a stellar year, and some of its talents are still just first years, meaning they’re unlikely to get the call to varsity. (Freshmen have rarely played varsity for the Hounds over the past decade, and I don’t expect a change there.) They were still competitive with many good teams, though, and will be playing in the VFW State Tournament in a few weeks. And with so few graduating seniors, East doesn’t need a whole bunch of bantams to jump right in; a few here and there should do the trick, and the rest can mature a bit more on JV.
In goal, junior Gunnar Howg quietly had a very good season, especially when one considers his improvement from start to finish. At the beginning of the year, some compared him to JoJo Jeanetta, the East goalie in their 2011 2nd place State Tourney run, largely because of his unconventional style and relative lack of hype coming into high school. Others bristled at this comparison; it seemed early to be comparing him to the most successful East playoff goalie of recent years. Statistically, though, Howg’s junior year was superior to Jeanetta’s. He had the benefit of a strong defense, but it’s an encouraging sign, and if he keeps working to improve, he could be a top-notch goalie in 2014-2015.
The 2014-2015 team may not have the obvious stars of the past few years, but even though they’re the Cakeaters of the North, Mike Randolph’s teams have always been able to assume the blue-collar mantel without too much difficulty. (Even if Randolph retires, I’d be surprised if he isn’t succeeded by a disciple with a similar thought process.) They enjoy a deep feeder program that continues to give them plenty of quality players, and if the coaching staff can cobble all the pieces together, they’ll be in good position to defend their section crown yet again next season.
Looking around the rest of 7AA, the stiffest challenge is almost certain to come from Elk River again. The Elks came ever so close to beating the Hounds this past season, and their youth teams over the past two years have been as good as any in the state. They will have some holes to fill; they’ll miss star goalie MacLean Berglove, forward Chase Springman, and a couple of other players who provided good depth, most notably on defense. Their biggest question concerns two stars who could leave; sophomore Matt Kierstad has already earned himself an invite for a tryout with the U.S. National Training and Development Program, and junior forward and leading scorer Jake Jaremko could also be a flight risk. With those two, they’re a clear favorite on paper; without them, they’re a bit on the young side, and it could easily be another race to the wire with the Hounds.
Some other teams will have a say, though. Grand Rapids will really miss its two graduating superstars, but their collection of talented sophomores should be ready to carry more of the load. With another good bantam team feeding in, they’ll be good, though on the young side. St. Michael-Albertville should continue its steady rise to relevance, and Cloquet, which, gave contenders fits late this past season, should be even more dangerous with a little more experience. Forest Lake and Andover have deep enough programs to remain relevant despite some losses, too. In other words, it’ll be another year of a deep, competitive section, though the Hounds still own the crown until someone dethrones them.
For now, though, it’s time to thank our seniors and hit the weights in preparation for next year. These past two seasons, in which the Hounds have silenced many doubters and extended their dominion over 7AA, have been an absolute delight for a returnee to Duluth in need of some way to get through the long winters. Odds are that I’ll be following from a distance again next season, but I’m excited to watch it all unfold, and as always, I’ll have a certain weekend in March cleared on my calendar.