The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.
The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.
The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.
The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.
The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.
In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.
While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.
The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.
Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.
Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.
The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.