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.

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