Little did we know that a miserable February trip Forest Lake would be the last Duluth East hockey game until January 2021, an ugly wound left to fester for two extra months. The intervening period had little to offer from a high school hockey perspective: stop-and-start summer activity, a halfhearted bridge league, another lengthy pause right when it seemed like we might be ready to go. Now we have hockey, albeit in near-empty arenas and with ubiquitous masks, leaving the game a shell of the spectacle it should be. But it is hockey nonetheless, and as one of the fortunate few able to attend games, I am resolved to make the most of it.
The delay only added the mystery around a team in year two of an unfamiliar rebuilding cycle. While last season had its question marks at the start, the Duluth East senior class of 2020 was, at least, reasonably deep, and we had some idea of what we would get. Before things came apart toward the end, they basically were what I’d expected: a team ranked in the 20-25 range in the state, capable of some surprise showings against the state’s best and ugly defeats, a potential thorn but no front-line contender. Most of the leading scorers off last season’s edition have graduated and moved on.
Those departures might imply the team is due for an even darker 2021, but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. For starters, the program is still plenty deep, and another respectable senior class has stepped forward to fill some of the holes. Players like Dylan and Brady Gray and William Weinkauf aren’t going to put up massive numbers, but they are going to forecheck hard and apply a work ethic that can get results; Garrett Johnson has size and a hard shot, and Matthew Locker has settled into a steady role. Zarley Ziemski is capable of being a very productive high school player.
The real reason for excitement, though, comes in the younger classes. Kaden Nelson, the headliner in the junior class, has taken a step forward and looks like he can be a force up front; he leads the team in scoring through six games. There were flashes of brilliance from Cole Christian as a freshman, but it didn’t add up to a whole ton of production; now, he is starting to collect the points, and at times the offense seems to run strictly through his creativity. Several times a game, Christian leaves me laughing with delight as he does ridiculous things with the puck in tight spaces, his puck control on par with that of anyone who has come out of this program in my time watching. Freshman Wyatt Peterson showed some instant potential with the first goal on the season; Aidan Spenningsby and Henry Murray give the team the makings of a capable defense, showing flashes and collecting points. The versatile Grant Winkler, meanwhile, has a hint of Phil Beaulieu in his ability to play just about any role, and as a sophomore is starting to make this team his own. Two young goaltenders, Zander Ziemski and Dane Callaway, both have shown plenty of promising signs.
How good the Hounds actually are, though, remains a bit of a mystery. They are 4-1-1 through six games, but only one came against a front-line opponent, and while there are glimmers, there has been nothing sustained enough for me to think this is a top 20 team in 2021. The Hounds tied the best Denfeld team in decades out of the gates in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair. Their sole loss to date came at the hands of Grand Rapids, the frontrunner in 7AA, in which they came out in a painfully cynical forecheck. For a period it almost worked; they stuck around and created some halfway decent chances, but it swiftly became inane once Rapids went up, and the ultimate 3-0 result belied an effort that generated nothing in the way of offense and triggered my Forest Lake PTSD. Beyond that, the Hounds have plugged along against middling competition, logging wins over Superior, Brainerd, and Cloquet twice. They’re good, workmanlike showings, and help restore some degree of the order that slipped away late last season.
With that base of success to work with, they will now need to step it up in the coming weeks as the schedule grows more difficult. First up is Hermantown, as a long-running cold war lifts, at least temporarily; from an East perspective, one could hardly think of a worse season to meet the Class A juggernaut from the suburban swamp behind the mall once again. It will likely be ugly. After that they visit Minnetonka, and after a reset against some of the local competition they’re stuck with in a travel-limited season, Moorhead, St. Thomas, Roseau, and rematches with Rapids and Hermantown fill out a decent enough schedule given the circumstances.
Another Covid-era quirk means the Hounds basically already know their playoff fate. With 7AA splitting into northern and southern playoff brackets, East is all but assured the 2-seed in the north, making for a fourth meeting with Cloquet in the quarterfinals for the right to have a semifinal date with Rapids. The destination is clear enough; the path they take there is the only question, as we look for signs of progression and competitiveness. To do that, the program needs to resist the chaos and get players into roles where they’re set up to succeed. With that, we can get a sense of just how much this Hounds group could grow, and if we might be looking ahead toward a return to the lofty standards of the past.