Eight games into Duluth East’s hockey season, the defining feature so far is, perhaps, a blissful lack of drama. The past two seasons have been tumultuous in so many ways, with deeply frustrating valleys in December of each year. A large group of seniors that carried East to great heights and some frustrating lows graduated in 2016, leaving us with some very young Hounds with a different look and a different attitude. While this season has had its high points and low points, the Hounds are more or less where we might have expected them to be: 5-3 and in the 10-15 range of rankings, showing flashes of great potential but with plenty of work to do if they hope to come out of a loaded section.
The Hounds have played the three teams that should wind up ranked 4-6 in Section 7AA, all of whom have beaten or tied them over the past two years. This time around, they handled all three, winning by a combined 16-2 score. Two of their losses were by one goal (one with an empty-netter) to top ten teams, and the third was the season opener to a surprise White Bear Lake team that is now making its own bit for a top ten ranking. They also have wins against a struggling but dangerous defending state champion, Wayzata, and a stout Bemidji team. There’s room for improvement; the Centennial loss in particular stung, as they went from looking like world-beaters with a 2-0 lead in the first period to melting into ineptitude later on. But on the whole, the team looks respectable and steady, which is not always the case in December, even with highly skilled East teams.
There have been some pleasant surprises to date. Coming in, I worried the scoring might be top-heavy, and over-reliant on the top line; they have been anything but. East is rolling four lines, all generating offensive zone time and putting up some points. The second line of Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Nick Lanigan has been a real bright spot, with quality production and excellent puck control. Despite their inexperience, this team’s forwards are already playing that classic Mike Randolph cycle with more precision than they mustered in the past two seasons.
The young defense is largely living up to its promise, avoiding stupid mistakes outside of a few ill-advised penalties. Perhaps most encouragingly, the healthy competition between returning senior Kirk Meierhoff and sophomore Lukan Hanson seems to have produced the intended results. Hanson put in some strong performances before a struggle against Centennial last week, but Meierhoff has elevated his game, and boasts a .968 save percentage and just three goals allowed in four and a half games. The job, I suspect, is his until further notice.
If there’s one thing that could make the Hounds more dangerous, it’s more offensive production out of the top line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan. They’re leading the team in points and certainly look like the top line, but the numbers aren’t anything awe-inspiring, and with the star power that the other contenders in 7AA feature, they need their top forwards to step into leading roles and carry the load when necessary. An obvious way to improve: fix up that power play, which lately has spent most of its time retrieving the puck from its own end. So often here, less is more, and they can lead if they avoid forcing things and take it all naturally.
It could also behoove the team to have some sort of Plan B. Randolph’s cycling master classes are fun to watch, and can beat teams into submission. But at times the opponent diagnoses it and throws East off its game, and the team needs to be able to respond in positive ways when they do lose that control. Whether that involves something tactical or simply turning a few top players loose and letting them do their thing, another course of attack makes them that much more lethal.
They will need that lethal touch to do much of anything in the playoffs. This isn’t one of those years where East can just lock down defensively and expect to get out of 7AA: Elk River and Grand Rapids currently sit ranked #2 and #3 in the state, respectively. The Elks may be the deepest team in the state, while the Thunderhawks have one of the most dangerous collections of top-end talent in recent years. This is the peak year for both, their best chance at glory in decades (for Rapids) or since the early 00s (for Elk River). Both teams lurk on the schedule later in the year, and the Hounds have some work to do if they want to be more than a possible spoiler. There will be a talent gap, and coaching can only go so far to bridge it; work ethic and leadership, those staples of the 2015 run, must do the rest. Convincing wins over some amped-up rivals are a good start; now, they need to take that to the next level, and not get frustrated when other top teams throw them off their game.
Whatever comes next, I’m happy to be home to watch them regularly after a couple years away, and to know that I’ll be doing this for a long time to come. As today’s News Tribune story shows, this is something that spans generations and endures, not just some passing fancy of convenient demographic growth. The crowds at the Heritage Center (and at Mars for the Marshall game on Thursday) are the best they’ve been in years, and people just seem to get what an enjoyable ride this is, and why this culture can help pull back kids like me who’ve gone to see everything the world has to offer and decide we belong right back here. With that kind of legacy, how can this not be fun?