Tag Archives: 7aa

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

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.

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Semifinal Saturday

24 Feb

When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, Semifinal Saturday at the DECC was the premier hockey day of the year, far better than anything at the State Tournament. The yearly collision between Grand Rapids, Cloquet, Duluth East, and some random metro interloper made for thrilling hockey every time, and even though East often wound up on the wrong end of things in those years, I could tell that I was a part of hockey at its pinnacle. The DECC, then a sterile home rink for the Hounds during the regular season, came to life. 4,000-plus fans would pack the place, and the Cloquet and Rapids fans would ally in support of whichever of the two was playing East. The student sections lined up across the long sides of the ice, maximizing opportunities for chanting horrible things back and forth at one another. The atmosphere was electric.

Perhaps most importantly, the hockey delivered. The East-Cloquet rivalry rose to its most vicious peak, as Dave Esse’s arrival in Cloquet brought about the Jacks’ longest run of sustained success. They ended East’s long winning streak over the Jacks in 2001, and handed Mike Randolph his first section final loss in 2002. East avenged that loss in a double-OT 2005 thriller, setting the stage for two memorable Cloquet wins in the Reid Ellingson-Ben Leis goaltending duel in 2006 and David Brown’s four-goal soul-crusher in 2008. It was a remarkable run of seven playoff games in nine years, all but one of them thrillingly tight, with Cloquet holding a 4-3 edge. Games beyond that rivalry delivered too, though, with East’s surprising run in 2003, and injured Tyler Johnson’s sudden appearance to boost Cloquet past Elk River in the final minute in 2007. Grand Rapids fans, of course, will forever treasure Patrick White’s overtime game-winner over the Hounds in that 07 session.

Lately, Semifinal Saturday hasn’t quite been what it once was. The trouble probably began around 2009, when Cloquet fell off a cliff talent-wise, and left the semis with two metro teams every year from 2009 to 2012. Over that same stretch, East also had a surge in talent that allowed the Hounds to dominate the section; their only close playoff games during that run were a 2009 semi with Forest Lake in which the Rangers’ goalie made 54 saves, and the 2011 section final in which they stole away a late victory from Grand Rapids.

Something else changed in 2011, though: Amsoil Arena replaced the dear, dumpy old DECC. At first blush it seemed like a win, as 7AA added a state of the art modern facility with more seating and a video board. In practice, though, Amsoil has diminished the 7AA playoff experience unless it features a section final between two northern teams. Amsoil has a remarkable ability to look empty even when attendance is pretty good, a fact attributable to those loud, ugly yellow seats with poor sightlines in front of the glass. Student sections wound up at opposite ends of the ice, nearly inaudible to one another. On Semifinal Saturday, Amsoil too often becomes a home to placid family outings, with a group of kids, dwarfed by the large UMD student section bleachers, yelling inaudibly in a corner.

There have been flashes since. There were three northern teams again in 2013, which helped boost attendance; that year gave us a genuine thriller between Elk River and Grand Rapids, and a renewal of the old East-Cloquet rivalry, albeit a pretty flat one. 2014 and 2015 featured some quality East-Rapids matchups, one of which delivered, albeit with snoozers in the other semi.

There is some hope that Semifinal Saturday could return to its former glory in the near future. First off, we have an East-Cloquet game this year. For the first time in a while, Cloquet looks like it’s on an upsurge of young talent; whether or not they can hang with East this season, there’s some hope they’ll bring new life to what has become a fairly predictable three-horse race. 7AA needs that East-Cloquet playoff rivalry to rise above the rest. Grand Rapids and Elk River, meanwhile, are two of the most skilled teams in the state, and will crash in the first semifinal of the day. Grand Rapids may be due for a drop-off in the not so distant future, but Hermantown yet come through to help carry the mantel of northern AA hockey, and even a young Marshall group could climb its way into the picture. With apologies to our southern 7AA friends, who mutually agree that this arrangement isn’t great, these games are so much better when they involve northern teams. It’s nothing personal against the South; merely our Northern pride as the region that built hockey in this state, and a solemn commitment to carrying that tradition forward.

A couple of years ago, Section 7A shook things up by moving its semifinals from the Range to an evening session at Amsoil. Now, instead of heading home to rotate through radio feeds of five other metro-area semifinals, I get to go cover those. One of those games will involve Hermantown, so I’ll have a chance to get a nap in, but seeing the Range descend on Duluth is a welcome sight, and the nightcap, between Greenway and Hibbing this season, is as good as it gets. (I’m especially looking forward to that one after my coverage of their December meeting humbled me with the reception it got on the Range.) Here’s to another Semifinal Saturday, and one that will, hopefully, leave us with a few games to remember.

The Broken Section Seeding Process

18 Feb

At the end of the regular season in high school hockey, a factor that has little to do with on-ice results weighs on teams’ fates. This week, the coaches in each section meet in smoke-filled rooms to set the seeding for their respective section tournaments. (In most cases, this is now done electronically; in 7AA they literally do meet in a smoke-filled room at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley, a tradition sadly interrupted this season, when Duluth Marshall had the nerve to schedule a game for itself on the sacred Wednesday night.) The coaches cast preliminary seeding votes, view the results, debate and make cases for themselves if they think the first vote hasn’t been fair, and then vote a final time to decide who gets which seed. To avoid sabotage, coaches do not rank their own teams, and the highest and lowest vote for each team is thrown out. Even so, the process is messy, controversial, and is responsible for an average of 37 aneurysms per year among users on the USHSHO Forums.

The leading controversy this season, as it so often does, comes out of 7AA, where Cloquet leapfrogged Grand Rapids to claim the 3-seed. The storyline in 7AA all season long was that one of its three big contenders (Elk River, Duluth East, Grand Rapids) would claim the top seed, and thereby avoid having to play two games against top-flight competition to make the State Tournament. Cloquet, however, threw a wrench in things. I was at the Rapids-Cloquet game this past Tuesday, and it was as stunning a high school game as I’ve seen in a while, as the Lumberjacks jumped all over Rapids and forechecked them to death in a convincing 4-1 win. It was a coming-out party for a young Cloquet team, and an exclamation point on a sudden, ugly late-season turn that has an incredibly talented Grand Rapids team struggling to find answers.

Grand Rapids, interestingly enough, doesn’t lose much of anything with this arrangement: there’s not much distinction between being the 3-seed or the 4-seed in 7AA this season. With losses to Elk River and Duluth East, they knew they were going to have to go through the Hounds and Elks regardless. The order is just different there, and they play Andover instead of Duluth Marshall in the first round, which I’m not convinced is a drawback, either. Likewise, even if Cloquet beats Marshall a third time, they’ve earned themselves a date with Duluth East, who’s beaten them 5-0 and 5-1, respectively, this season. For Rapids and Cloquet, the actual difference is minimal.

Backers of top-seeded Elk River, on the other hand, are crying foul. Their squad’s reward for the top seed could well involve a semifinal meeting with a team that spent a fair amount of time in the top 5 in the state this season, and they’re understandably leery that the Rapids sleeping giant will awake at the wrong time. (Mixed in here, one suspects, is a fair amount of frustration over the location of the 7AA semis and final, an entirely separate issue that has also not treated Elk River well.) No one out there honestly thinks Cloquet had a better season than Rapids, but two of the factors that have long swung section seeding meetings—record in the section, and performance in the second of two meetings between teams—tipped the scales. The logic the coaches used shouldn’t have surprised anyone who’s paid attention to section seeding over the years, though that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things.

Over in 8AA there was controversy as well, but the reasons were entirely different. Bemidji had stumbled through the first half of their schedule, with four losses to section foes, before turning it on down the stretch. The Lumberjacks beat St. Michael-Albertville, who had been the presumptive 2-seed, in their only meeting, and also avenged an earlier loss to Roseau. In a section that was a total seeding mess, one might have thought that Bemidji’s late-season run and avoidance of truly bad results would boost them up to the 3-seed, perhaps even the 2-seed; that would certainly be true if we applied the logic the 7AA coaches seemed to use. Instead, the Lumberjacks were consigned to the 5-seed. That result that does have its own internal logic, as they lost twice to 4-seed Brainerd, but seems awfully harsh for a team that is playing well right now, is 3-3 against the teams immediately above it, and that most observers would agree is one of the two or three most talented in the section.

The coaches’ vote is a meat-making process that will, inevitably, lead to butthurt. I’m not terribly sympathetic to those who are upset, a position I will maintain even if my alma mater someday seems to draw the short stick in one of these controversies. (The fact that this hasn’t happened in recent memory has led to some laughable efforts to endow Mike Randolph with magical powers of ballot box stuffing or persuasion.) Teams just need to find ways to win, period. But I recognize it does affect things, and I can think of two ways that could remove some of the intrigue:

Use an algorithm to do the seeds. Plenty of people have designed algorithms that can spit out dispassionate rankings of high school teams. The Minnesota State High School league has even offered up one, QRF, as a valid criterion for making seeding decisions. I enjoy looking at computerized rankings, but this one is probably the worst of the bunch, to the point where I look at other algorithm-based rankings in creating my subjective ones, but completely ignore this one. (I’m sure an effort to look at its past ability to predict playoff results would back this up.) And while I’d love it if the MSHSL were to contract out Lee Pagenkopf’s PageStat or MyHockeyRankings (or *my* hockey rankings), these aren’t really realistic options at this point in time. (Though seriously, MSHSL, you know where to find me if you want me.) Given the finicky nature of some of these algorithms, and the different and ultimately subjective weights they can give toward things like strength of schedule or margin of victory while ignoring raw head-to-head results, I lean away from this option, and instead toward another:

Mandate that all teams within a section play each other once in a game that contributes to section standings. Right now, schedules are built around conferences, which are, for the most part, useless relics left for us by football, which doesn’t even use a conference system anymore. This is dumb on many levels, and leaves us with some ugly controversies when teams don’t play all of their section opponents, or play them a different number of times. Silly flaps between programs like Eden Prairie and Holy Family, which refuse to play for political reasons, lead to a lot of guesswork, use of competing forms of logic, and grievances. There is no quality control in scheduling, and the seeding process inevitably suffers.

Under this model, teams would play a sort of league schedule where they play their section opponents once. Home venues would rotate by year. Teams could schedule additional meetings with their section rivals, if they so choose; it only makes sense in the case of longstanding rivalries, and especially for the Greater Minnesota teams that face long travel times. Those additional meetings, however, simply wouldn’t count toward section standings. Section standings could then rely on a consistent point system just like a college conference, with tiebreakers such as head-to-head record or goal differential on hand to break any ties. (The goal differential one would need to have limits, though; top teams running up scores on the bottom of the section shouldn’t determine seeds.) We’d have a simple, clear order at the end, and a playoff structure to resolve any disputes.

I don’t expect change anytime soon, but sooner or later, the clamor for transparency should become too loud to ignore. With the complete death of conference relevance, hockey has a chance to adopt an added dose of sanity. So, much as I enjoy munching on my popcorn as 7AA undergoes its annual explosion, I’ll gladly forego that for the sake of a system that makes more sense.

7AA Takes Shape

7 Feb

Duluth East had been rolling along in the second half of its season, with wins in eight of nine games heading into a section showdown in Elk River on Saturday. That run came to an end with a dull thud, as the Elks imposed their will in a 4-1 win. The victory gave the Elks the top seed in 7AA, and consigned the Hounds to a 2-seed and a likely road through Grand Rapids to make a ninth straight section final.

Saturday’s result probably says more about Elk River than anything, and revealed a team well-built to resist a team like East. They’re deep and break out smoothly, building from that great defense in back; the Hounds’ signature forecheck and puck control game never really got off the ground. The Elks were remarkably disciplined, which is a major testament to new coach Ben Gustafson, who appears to be a significant upgrade. This team could be a lippy and loose at times in recent seasons; a stupid major penalty cost them a three-goal lead in the section final just two seasons ago. And where last season’s team might have folded after a seeming goal was waved off and East immediately followed it up with a shorthanded goal, this Elks group had an immediate response. They didn’t take a single penalty the entire game, thereby avoiding an improving Hounds power play that can pile on the pressure, even if its overall numbers aren’t remarkable. Their stars came to play as well, with their D-I defensemen, Nick Perbix and Benton Maass, scoring the two early goals and a healthy Jax Murray controlling play for long stretches.

The biggest bright spot in defeat for East was Kirk Meierhoff, the goaltender who has come into his own as a senior; the line of Jack FitzGerald, Austin Jouppi, and Brendan Baker, a pleasant surprise all season, had a decent effort, too. Any other effort to take anything out of this one as a Hounds fan probably starts by noting that Elk River was at the peak of its game, while East was not. The Hounds’ top line in particular spent much of the game running around its own zone; a handful of shifts aside, many of their rushes forward degenerated into failed dangles through a dominant defensive corps. Those moves may work against Superior, but the team game wasn’t quite at the level it needed to be. If Elk River has a weakness, it’s probably in goal, yet they failed to put much rubber on a goaltender who only lasted ten minutes in the playoff meeting between these two last season. The Olympic ice sheet in Elk River is not friendly for a team that relies on setting up a forecheck and closing down space. The return of injured Logan Anderson could help shore up the forward depth as well. Despite being outplayed for long stretches on Saturday, it was still a very tight game until late in the 3rd, and the Elk faithful around me was leery of East popping a quick one on a breakaway.

The Hounds rebounded on Monday night with a 5-1 win over Cloquet, an effort similar to their 5-0 blanking of the Jacks back in December. This time they had no trouble keeping the forecheck rolling, and clean rushes for the boys in purple were few and far between. This Lumberjack team has done a good job of cleaning up on the second tier in 7AA, but is too young and too thin to hang with the likes of the Greyhounds at this point in time. If nothing else, it restored order for East, and reminded me why this is still one of the most enjoyable rivalries out there, even with one team in solid control. A large crowd packed in under the arched wooden ceiling in Cloquet, and the two student sections went at it relentlessly, showing both their love for their teams and creative disdain for the opposition. (Anytime the renditions of “The Wheels on Your House” come out, it’s probably an entertaining night.)

7AA seeding will be pleasantly free of drama this season. Elk River has been its most complete team since day one, and while East’s win over Grand Rapids flipped the 2 and 3 seeds, it doesn’t alter a whole lot in the big picture. Rapids, winners of six straight since its loss to East; they’ve played no one in the top 15 over that stretch, though they do have Moorhead this coming weekend. Duluth Marshall’s second season in AA, much like its first, has me raising an eyebrow at their performance down the stretch, as losses to Andover and Cloquet have likely consigned the Hilltoppers to a 6-seed. Andover has a lot of losses, but has also had its share of respectable showings against good teams, including a tie to Grand Rapids.

In the end, though, this is a three-team race for the title, as has been the case over the past several seasons. Elk River has set the standard and remains the most complete team in the field, but must exorcise its Amsoil Arena demons. Grand Rapids has its front-line skill, and will have to ride it to heroics in big games. That leaves the Greyhounds as something of the wild card, which seems weird to say in a season where their ranking has barely budged all season long. But when they’re on their game, they can roll a deep group and frustrate any opponent. Do that, and they have a shot; after that, they could use a step up from some of their top players on the highest stage. East’s top players have been there before, just two short years ago; can they find that level again? Over the next month, we’ll learn the answer.

A Whirlwind Week of Hockey

17 Jan

Between the past two Saturdays I attended seven hockey games in eight days, an exhausting string even for someone who watches as religiously as me. It was blistering tour featuring all of northeast Minnesota’s State Tournament contenders, plus a pair of Lake Conference powers who came north to visit. I enjoyed long nights and raucous arenas, not to mention connections with friends old and new at all of them, except for the one in Hermantown, where I instead had the misfortune of being surrounded by Hermantown parents displaying typical Hermantown parent behavior.

It all got off to an inauspicious start, as Minnetonka came to play Duluth East on Saturday the 7th. After a start to the season defined largely by consistent efforts, the Hounds were MIA from puck drop at the Heritage Center, and the Skippers pummeled them to the tune of 6-0. It was one of the ugliest losses of the Mike Randolph era—an inordinate number of said losses do seem to come against Minnetonka—but it shows how far things can all go to pieces when a normally disciplined team lapses. The Skippers, meanwhile, looked like world-beaters, and while they have potential, they’ve failed to back that up with any consistency. They are a perplexing program, one with perpetual talent but just one trip to state in the past ten years. Maybe this new rising generation will be the one that changes things, but I’ll wait until March to draw conclusions.

The Hounds were again on my calendar for Monday for their crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld, and in the early stages, they again looked nothing like they should. Slowly, however, the offense took over, and while it took a few power plays that sent Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley into cahoots, the final shots (54-15) showed the completeness of the Greyhound domination from the middle of the first period on. Denfeld goalie Benjamin LaFont gets credit for keeping it somewhat close, a feat he repeated during Thursday night’s 5-1 loss to Hermantown. This has been a dark year for the Hunters, with just two wins to their name and no junior varsity. After stringing things along for a few seasons thanks to a handful of strong bloodlines and transfers, the bottom seemed to have fallen out. But this week’s rivalry games showed a group of Hunters that still have their pride intact, and look stout enough to at least make things interesting in the 7A playoffs.

“Interesting” is not normally a word associated with the 7A playoffs these days, and the Hermantown Hawks reminded us why on Tuesday, when they outlasted AA power Grand Rapids for a third straight win over the Thunderhawks. This was the most entertaining game I’ve seen all year, a back-and-forth, open affair brimming with emotion. A coaching chess match came to the fore in the second period, when Rapids’ Trent Klatt started looking for ways to get his elite threesome at forward—Blake McLaughlin, Micah Miller, and Gavin Hain—away from Hermantown’s Ryan Sandelin-led top line. Sandelin and company contained the Big Three whenever they were on the ice together, and Bruce Plante was wily enough to keep up in the line-matching game. Hermantown, meanwhile, exploited the mismatch of the second lines, and Logan Judnick’s goal held up as the game-winner. The Hawks were clinging to life in the late stages as the Big Three surged forward, but did enough for a 4-3 win, and some frustrated Grand Rapids defenesemen started a scrum in the corner after the buzzer sounded. It was a painful error: two of them were given game misconducts, and had to miss Thursday’s contest with Duluth East.

Few regular season games were as anticipated as this one, as the Greyhounds welcomed in the team that ended their 7AA dynasty in exhilarating fashion the year before. The atmosphere at the Heritage Center was the best I’ve ever seen, and both teams had something to prove: East needed to win to show it belonged in the 7AA conversation, while a loss could consign Rapids to the 3-seed, despite their strong start to the year. With so many thrillers in recent memory between these two, it had the makings of another classic.

The game, however, didn’t offer much in the way of drama. Thursday was one of those defining Duluth East games, a dominant performance that offered Greyhound hockey at its finest. East went on the attack early and never let up, controlling the puck for long stretches yet still showing enough discipline to make the Rapids stars seem fairly pedestrian when they did go on the rush the other way. They unleashed a barrage on Rapids goalie Gabe Holum, and while he held the game to 1-0 for a period and a half, the floodgates burst loose late in the second. The 5-0 final was East’s finest statement to date, and after Elk River stumbled against Centennial on Saturday, they suddenly look like they’re right there in the heart of the 7AA race.

The Thunderhawks, meanwhile, face a conundrum. Their amazing top line carried them through a dominant December, but with just one win in five games before a recovery effort in their win over Cloquet on Tuesday the 17th, there are some cracks in the walls. It’s not hard to look good when a team returns a group of stars with incredible chemistry, but as the competition builds its own combinations and settles into its systems, it grows more difficult for a good AA team to thrive off sheer skill alone. If ever a team could, it’s this Thunderhawk group, but a concurrent decline in team discipline has been their bête noir. Trent Klatt has played with splitting up his now-somewhat-stoppable trio, a move I’ve judged as wise give the realities of AA hockey: one-line teams seldom win tough sections. But the Big Three have a chemistry together that’s hard to shrug aside, and Trent Klatt faces far more critical choices than he did a year ago, when he had the depth to run with the likes of East and Elk River. Few teams will be as interesting to watch down the stretch.

For East, the win was as much a display of talent as it was a win for the program’s famed systems. Mike Randolph teams are renowned for their offensive zone cycling and ability to shut down the opposition, but they’re at their very best when there are added wrinkles of creativity that display some of the natural skill on the team. We saw some flashes of that against Grand Rapids. Garrett Worth, the most technically skilled East forward since Jake Randolph, dangled all over the place. Ian Mageau was a physical force, disrupting the opposition and creating plays of his own, with three assists on the night. And while Luke LaMaster didn’t have a huge night on the scoresheet, his poise in his own zone started many a fluid Hound breakout. The machine work is all lovely and important, but it’s going to be these individual moments of brilliance that make or break this team’s playoff run.

Those top line Hounds had precious few chances to show their greatness against Eden Prairie on Saturday. Matched against Casey Mittelstadt and the Eagle top line, they were left in a mostly defensive role, which they filled with aplomb, though at the expense of some scoring chances. For its part, the East system held up well against the state’s most talented team. In a display of depth, the third line scored both goals, and the defensemen were equal to the task against Mittelstadt. The ending, however, was something no system can account for, as goaltender Kirk Meierhoff mishandled a lob in from the blue line by Nick Leivermann just ten seconds into overtime. It was an unfortunate twist for Meierhoff, who’s shown genuine improvement and been a bright spot for East this year, and recalled memories of some previous overtime affair between these two that ended on a crazy goal. But, no matter: the Hounds showed this week that they have the formula to run with the best when they’re on their game.

This was my second look at Eden Prairie on the weekend, as I’d seen them turn in a fairly pedestrian performance in a 3-1 win over Cloquet the night before. Under Lee Smith this season, the Eagles are the anti-Grand Rapids, deliberately avoiding heavy reliance on their stars in the service of a deep lineup and grinding performances. Perhaps it’s an attempt to atone for last season, when the Eagles lost the title game to a deep defensive team, and it’s not without risks, as games can stay tighter than they might be if they turned into a track meet. But winning it all in AA takes discipline, and with their new approach—and, one might add, with a certain hotheaded forward unavailable due to a misconduct the night before—Eden Prairie kept its poise and rolled its lines when East ramped up the pressure in the third period. Sure, East effectively shut down Mittelstadt, but the Eagles never panicked, and when a questionable call gave them a late penalty, they pressed in, creating a deluge of chances late in regulation before Leivermann’s fateful flip.

Perhaps these are all important turning points; perhaps these moments in January are just little skips that won’t be at all relevant when we look back in two months at the moments that defined these teams’ seasons. Either way, these teams delivered some of the cheapest, most entertaining theater available out there. We’re headed into the stretch run now, and it only gets better from here.

Hounds for the Holidays

23 Dec

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.

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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?

A Hawkish Outlook

12 Oct

Just a couple of years ago, the Hermantown Hawks were the darlings of the Class A Tournament, the last public school bastion of defense against the march of Twin Cities private school machines. How quickly the tables turn: the longest-running and incessant debate on the hockey forum this offseason has been about Hermantown’s dominance over Class A, and the competitive imbalance it creates. As with St. Thomas Academy before them, the Hawks’ consistent ability to pump out elite teams has prompted frustrated reactions from those who are stuck going up against them and lose, year after year: shouldn’t this high-powered team move up to AA?

As long as they kept losing state championship games, as they did for six consecutive seasons, they had an easy counterargument: for all their success, the Hawks clearly weren’t on the level of a St. Thomas or a Breck. But on the seventh year of consecutive title game appearances, God rested in his torment of Hermantown, and the Duluth suburb took home its second state title in ten years. With a loaded team coming back this coming season, anything less than a convincing repeat would be stunning. The Hawks are the undisputed superpower of Class A, and no one is even close.

I’ve been mostly agnostic in the A vs. AA debate, as I have no strong Class A loyalties. I respect teams’ rights to run their own programs as they see fit, and prefer not to throw stones when my own team makes scheduling decisions based on what it believes is right for its situation. Any complaints that spurted out of my Twitter feed were from an aesthetic standpoint; I want to watch competitive hockey at Class A State, not giant blowouts, and grew bored with some of the Hawks’ men-versus-boys contests last season. Sure, I think it’s fun when historic Range teams head to State, and as a northern boy, I’d appreciate another northern squad in 7AA so as to boot Elk River to a different section and carry the regional torch at State if they earn it. But this was not among the things keeping me up at night or making me mutter under my breath.

Hermantown defenders are right to make a few points. The school is playing where it was assigned, and its enrollment is nowhere near the AA cutoff. Nor are most of Hermantown’s advantages the product of an evil recruiting scheme, even if there may be isolated incidents here or there. (I’m not close enough to say whether those rumors have any teeth.) The school boundaries around Hermantown do lend themselves to open enrollment. Townships to the west and northwest of are in the Proctor school district, despite being closer to Hermantown and not touching Proctor. (Numbers from these townships help keep Proctor a decent-sized school for an otherwise tiny community.) The closure of Duluth Central also pushed a decent number of Duluth Heights residents to open enroll across the border, as Hermantown was both convenient, and higher-performing than those students’ new West Duluth schools. (Of course, it’s worth asking how much of this has to do with anything unique to Hermantown, and how much of it is just demographic inertia.)

That said, Hermantown does have its share of advantages that most small hockey programs in the state do not enjoy. It is an exurban community in a respectably-sized metropolitan area of about 200,000. That’s not huge, but it’s substantial, especially when accounting for the wealth of local hockey history and the presence of a prominent D-I program, many of whose graduates stick around. It’s growing, and adding young families. It’s not the wealthiest part of the Duluth area, but it’s certainly toward the upper end. Its basic urban design—large, sprawling wooded lots—does not lend itself to much density of lower-income residents, even if it also limits its economic and population growth potential. If we remember our lessons about urbanism and high school hockey, that tends to be good for hockey success, at least in the short run while the community is still growing.

The small size of the Duluth metro area also magnifies the Hawks’ position. The closest comparison to Hermantown in the Twin Cities is probably something like Delano, which is starting to surge toward hockey relevance. Delano, however, doesn’t have neighbors who aren’t also affluent and growing; no one is open enrolling there to flee the shuttering or struggling schools of Plymouth or Minnetonka, or to dodge bizarre borders with other Wright County towns. In an area that can only support a handful of options, just a handful of player moves can throw things out of whack. Unlike some Twin Cities schools that may lose a bunch of players to open enrollment or private schools, places like Proctor or Denfeld aren’t losing players all over the place; there are only two or three places that stand to benefit, and those places are likely in the same section. Duluth’s smallness and the extent to which everyone knows each other make it obvious who the winners and losers of player movement are, and make the scapegoats easy to identify. (We Duluth East fans know a thing or two about this.)

The advantages that some schools have over each other are blurry, and there are gradations of advantage and disadvantage all over Class A. East Grand Forks also benefits from a decent-sized metro and a convenient D-I school; Mahtomedi lurks just under the cutoff bar for AA and thereby builds some of the deeper A teams out there. Even small, relatively isolated towns aren’t all cookie-cutter; Luverne has surged to relevance in recent years, while nearby Worthington is at the bottom of the barrel, largely due to an immigrant-heavy population with no knowledge of hockey that has been drawn to its meat packing plant. The fans of the true small towns in Section 1A could probably gripe about how it’s been dominated by schools in larger towns (Rochester Lourdes, the Mankatos), or towns on the growing exurban fringe (New Prague). It’s worth remembering that even St. Thomas Academy was a Class A doormat at one time, and that it took years for Greg and Tom Vannelli to turn it into a consistent contender. These different levels of advantage are reality, and any assessment of a team can’t be a snapshot at one point in time, but needs to understand its long-term record and accomplishments to date.

Hermantown is clearly pretty far along on this spectrum of success now, and that’s to their credit. I don’t think any team should ever be forced to opt up, and any pressure to do so should only come after a long period of dominance. I want to see good teams and players in Class A, and more than one or two new opt-ups due to Class A success in a decade would quickly drain the field. That said, when a program is consistently putting other top five teams in its class in running time, it’s a clear sign of a mismatch, and the point at which even diehard supporters should see a case for a move.

There’s no doubt Hermantown could compete in AA, and rumors suggest the program may make the leap after this coming season. The move may come a year too late: this year’s squad, with a pair of potential Mr. Hockey candidates and depth across the board, could have easily contended for a AA title. While people might be able to cherry-pick a regular season result or two to claim they’re better than a bunch of AA Tourney entrants, we’ll never really know how good they are. (The AA playoff gauntlet is an entirely different animal from what the Hawks now face; just ask STA about its first three years in AA.) Beyond this year, Hermantown looks good, but perhaps not as good as last year and this year, and will face the 7AA minefield. If they do make that move, I’ll welcome them in and look forward to the battles; if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed, but life will go on. Much as I’d love to see some success out of Range teams, they face their share of internal obstacles in the search for a return to glory.

The whole debate relates back to a deeper question: what’s the whole purpose of the two-class tournament? The generic State High School League response will tell you that it gives more players a chance to play at State. That’s true, but from a hockey development standpoint, its true benefit is in giving more players a chance to aim for State: to grow hockey in areas that haven’t traditionally seen success, and to revive it in areas where it might otherwise have faded or died. Hermantown is as obvious a success story as any in 25 years of two-class hockey; it went from an afterthought to an unstoppable force, and probably wouldn’t have done so without being able to take the baby steps allowed by Class A. The Hawks have succeeded. Now we’ll see if they’ll let someone follow in their footsteps.