Tag Archives: cole christian

Return of the Hounds?

6 Feb

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.

Sick as Dogs

5 Feb

It’s been a season unlike any other for Duluth East. We knew coming in that the talent level wasn’t on par with previous seasons, and that this team would need to work more than any other to get the results it wanted. But the issues compounded from there. A blizzard in November disrupted the schedule from the start, and as vicious an attack of the flu as I’ve ever seen left basically the entire team and coaching staff in bed sick for over a week. The roster has bled a few players whose other priorities in life proved too much. Only a strong 4-1 finish in their last five will keep them from the program’s first losing record since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing has come easily for this group.

I’ve started and stopped this post about five times now, largely because any time I want to start to say something sweeping about this team, their next game immediately disproves it. After a sluggish start, they picked up some respectable wins against teams like Blaine and Lakeville North; after a brutal loss to Lakeville South, they upset Minnetonka. When the season seemed to be teetering on the brink this past week, they responded with a 5-0 shutout of rival Cloquet. Somehow, in spite of it all, they could yet go on a run in the playoffs, or they could be done in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

In previous seasons Mike Randolph has tended to settle on a lineup by late January, but as with last season, the rotations have continued right into the season’s final weeks. The team still feels unsettled, and every time I get the sense I’m on to Randolph’s plan, it all crumbles and he throws in some other wrinkle. The one recent season that was somewhat comparable to this one, 2014-2015, involved a radical and successful tactical innovation that turned the corner; this group to date lacks such a defining shift. There has been some modest success with a 1-1-3 forecheck this season, but whereas the 2-3 in 2014-2015 could actually produce some serious offense, the 1-1-3 felt more like a Hail Mary to hang on for dear life. For now, the experimentation goes on.

The Greyhounds’ great challenge this season has been their poor showing in section play. There was no real surprise in a loss to Andover; and narrow defeats to Grand Rapids and the first Cloquet game, in which the team played relatively well, are defensible. Less so are the more recent losses to Forest Lake, a team largely carried by its goaltender, and an Elk River squad that is also at its lowest point in decades. In a year when 7AA is not among the better sections in the state, the Hounds have, curiously enough, found more success outside the section than in it. The Cloquet win was a sudden break from this trend; time will tell if it was too little, too late.

Through it all, the Hounds still have some pieces that can make a run. Charlie Erickson has put the offense on his back at times, and Zarley Ziemski can be a weapon. They found some December success behind a potent power play and offense from the points, and after the opposition caught on, there now appear to be some adjustments that are making it look threatening again. Konrad Kausch is capable of stealing a game when he is on form, and from a raw talent standpoint is the best East goalie in years. One of the rare glimmers in a season that often has me shaking my head is the play of freshman Cole Christian, whose shiftiness and vision portends a strong Hounds career, even if he could stand to double his weight and grow a few feet. Randolph’s decision to give a couple of freshmen top six forward minutes has its detractors, but as I think back to Keegan Flaherty stunning White Bear Lake in 2005 or Ian Mageau setting up Ash Altmann’s dagger to Edina in 2015, I have to recognize it’s worked before. I’ll never critique the search for answers; there just need to be clear answers at some point.

One gets the sense that, regardless of the talent level, half of this team’s challenge is mental. If they get off to a strong start, this team can roll past other decent teams and compete with the very best; if they fall behind early, things often snowball into unwatchable ugliness. Maybe their ever-scheming coach can press the right buttons to get them to believe in these last few weeks; maybe it’s all been overthought to death and has left us only with frustration. Teams like the 2014-2015 edition don’t come along every day, but at least there is a model, and for all the deserved credit we give the 2-3, that group twice had to come back from three-goal deficits to make its great run, which is something no coach can plan for. That group, riding some exemplary senior leadership and some star turns from younger kids, found the heart to win four straight games they had no right to win. This team will need to dig just as deep, if not further, to find its own measure of success over the next month.