Tag Archives: duluth east

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.

Advertisements

Active Former Hounds, 2017

9 Sep

As has become an annual tradition, here’s my check-in on the post-high school hockey careers of all active former Greyhounds. The numbers all come from HockeyDB. Asterisks denote players who left East early.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* There’s no quit for Fitzgerald, who just wrapped up his third season playing in England, the past two coming with the Sheffield Steelers. He continues to pile up respectable point totals, and, after a second consecutive season with 197 of them, has now amassed 3,421 penalty minutes over a 16-year professional career. It’s pretty safe to say that one’s a record for an East alum.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* After two years in the Russian KHL, Fairchild took his services to the Swedish Hockey League, where he was the third highest-scoring player on the team as a defenseman—two points ahead of a teammate who is another 1989-born Duluthian, former Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly. It continues a long career of productive play from the blue line for the former Gopher and momentary NHLer. His Rogle BK team had a rough year, finishing second from the bottom in the Swdish table.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* After making his NHL debut in 2015-2016, Forbort took a big step forward this past season, as he stuck in the big leagues for a full 82 games. He was third among their defensemen in scoring, and tied for the team lead in penalty minutes and plus-minus. And when that guy you’re tied with in plus-minus is Drew Doughty, that’s a pretty good sign. Forbort has arrived, and doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* Welinski had a solid first full year of his pro career, and joins the ranks of productive Greyhound defensemen in that level. He was the second highest-scoring defenseman on the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, and one figures it’s only a matter of time before he gets the call.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato concluded a strong NCAA career by captaining UMD to a runner-up finish, and was named NCHC Defensive Player of the Year in the process. He was used in a more and more defensive manner as his college career went on, often matched against opponents’ top lines; this depressed his offense somewhat, though he was still one of the more imposing net-front presences in college hockey. He was drafted by the Maple Leafs, whose recent signing spree made spots hard to find. Once he reached free agency, though, the Avalanche snapped him up immediately, and he has himself a two-way contract to begin his professional career. We’ll see if and when he joins the ranks of ex-Hound NHLers.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) An injury slowed Randolph’s junior year at Nebraska-Omaha, but his 23 points were still among the higher totals for Maverick forwards amid a middling season. Next up, he’ll get a chance to wrap up his college career in style.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Olson stepped into a bigger role as a junior at North Dakota, where his 16 points more than doubled his combined total from the previous two. He should continue to be a regular contributor in the lineup in his final season in Grand Forks, as his team looks to rebound from what was (by their standards) a bit of a down year.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore’s sophomore season at RPI saw him shuffled in and out of the lineup some, as he had just two points after a more productive freshman year. If he can hold up defensively, he’ll stay in the lineup with his offensive skills.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano was part of the great Greyhound movement to UW-Stout, where he was one of three freshmen from the Class of 2013 to come in this season. With 13 points and 44 penalty minutes, he had the most eventful year of his three teammates.

Jack Forbort (’13 F) Forbort was the second of the three East grads at Stout, and finished one point behind Valesano for a total of 12.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano rounds out the Greyhound threesome at Stout, where he had ten points as a freshman.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) A fourth D-III player from the Class of 2013 took a more adventurous route than his ex-teammates, as he went to Nichols College in southern Massachusetts. (Yeah, I had to look that one up, and it’s pretty rare that I don’t know where a college is.) He appeared to be his usual scrappy self there, with a respectable point total and a pile of penalties to his name.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) After a somewhat unusual junior career, Beaulieu’s D-I debut was exactly what anyone who watched him in high school would have expected. He put up 19 points from the blue line for Northern Michigan, and one would expect that total to go up further as he settles in.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp moved to the college ranks this past season and played for D-III St. Thomas, where he offered his usual reliable services as a freshman.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) For a second straight season, Altmann had a mid-teens point total in the NAHL, was also quite productive in the playoffs, and for a second straight season had a cup of coffee in the USHL. We’ll see how things play out as he moves toward the next stage.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) After a slow start with Bismarck in the NAHL, Ash moved to the Wilderness to join his older brother and a couple of other ex-Hounds, where he was somewhat more productive. There’s still some potential here if things pan out.

Luke Dow (’16 F) As Greyhounds go, the Minnesota Wilderness is to the NAHL as UW-Stout is to D-III. The third of four East grads to play in Cloquet this past season was also the most productive, as Dow put up 32 points, one of the higher totals among the forwards on a strong team. (Probably worth noting: Alex Trapp’s father, Chris, is the owner of the Wilderness franchise.)

Ryan Peterson (’16 F) The last of the four East grads playing for the Wilderness, Peterson put up 14 points in his post-high school debut.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Donovan landed with the Coulee Chill for his NAHL debut, where he was a productive and steady contributor from the blue line. He’ll be joining the Greyound Wilderness Club this coming fall.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) Spencer joined four fellow members of the Class of 2016 in the NAHL, though he went much further afield, as he wound up in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was his usual self there: big and physical defensively, no shortage of penalties, and the very occasional offensive contribution.

 

Dropping from the list this past season:

 

Matt Cooper (’09 G) The Hounds goalie who parlayed an impressive club hockey career into a minor league season in 15-16 has moved on, but it was a pretty impressive run

Hunter Bergerson (’11 D) Completed a steady D-III career with St. Scholastica and now has moved on.

Nate Repensky (’12 D) An injury-riddled career came to an unfortunate end for Repensky, as Yale announced he’d “retired from the sport.” He had a couple of quality seasons in New Haven, living up to his potential when he was on the ice, and his consolation prize is an Ivy League education, so things should work out just fine for the kid.

Andrew Kerr (’13 D) Sometimes hockey takes a back seat to life. Kerr, who was set to join the Greyhound party at Stout, suffered a brutal injury in a freak accident on a water trampoline last summer. His neck was broken, and there was serious question about his ability to lead a normal life. Now, just one year later, he is walking again, and getting to a point where approaches normalcy. In a different world he would’ve joined three of his fellow 2013 classmates at Stout, but instead, he’s starting in at UMD this fall. Whether in Menomonie, Cloquet, or right back in a supportive community on the east side of those Duluth, those ties seem to linger.

Dog Days of Summer

24 Jul

This past weekend brought the Braemar Summer Hockey Festival, a series of summer scrimmages in Edina that lack the team from Edina. The tournament’s name was only partially accurate, as issues with Braemar’s South rink forced some games over to the Bloomington Ice Garden. Still, it was more than enough to entertain us hockey-starved fans, and a rink is a welcome escape from a 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. I saw part or all of seven of the Saturday scrimmages, which featured 22-minute halves in pool play. I didn’t stick around for the Sunday playoffs, but that really isn’t the point here: it’s more of a chance to get a quick idea of where teams stand four months out from the start of the season.

There’s no shortage of reasons to put little stock in the results here. Some kids miss the games for a variety of reasons, rosters are far from set, and coaches are free to be experimental with little regard for scores. Elite League tryouts also coincided with the final day, which I suppose is convenient for the Greater Minnesota teams in town for the scrimmages, but drains some talent from the Sunday finals. Still, coaches’ Twitter rants to the contrary, they also can be pretty good predictors: last year’s included a semifinal Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie, arguably the top two teams in the state by the end of the season, and most of the teams that looked not very good there stayed not very good.

Just figuring out who is who in these scrimmages can be a chore. Some teams match their players’ jersey numbers to the ones they wore last season, while others do not; some lost so many players that it’s hard to guess anyway, while Prior Lake likes to go with football numbers. (Was that you in the #70 sweater, Jackson Jutting?) There are no roster sheets, unless one happens to receive one from the Holy Family Hype Department. There’s always a smattering of odd-colored breezers and socks that make it clear who’s new to each team, too: before long, they’ll get the proper garb.

The defending champions were in town, and with Blake McLaughlin back in tow for his senior season, all is not lost in Grand Rapids. They had a low-scoring weekend, looking fairly tame except when McLaughlin flipped a switch, as he did in the dying minutes of a contest with Chanhassen, scoring twice and very nearly setting up a game-winner. For a few minutes there was a hint of the old magic up front, and Rapids could still be a thorn in someone’s side. The 7AA foe they slew in dramatic fashion in last year’s semis, Elk River, also rolled out a very green cast and had a quiet weekend, though there were some flashes from some of the new kids to give hints of relevance.

One of the bigger winners of the weekend was Wayzata, which coupled some opportunistic scoring with the typical Trojan defense. They fought past Holy Family in one of the better games of the weekend, put an impressive beating on Lakeville North, and were the only team to seriously test eventual champ Duluth East. Of course I thought the Trojans looked good in last year’s edition of this competition as well, and they took a few eons to get back to that level during the season, though get back they did. The Fire, meanwhile, have no shortage of talent but have some sorting to do: the forward lines seemed unsettled beyond the clear top talents of Ben Almquist and Garrett Pinoniemi, they have a goalie situation to sort out, and their defense, which should be their rock, got caught out on occasion against Wayzata. Holy Family’s roster is a jumble of new transfers in and holes left by departures, and this evolving cast of characters at the school with the most open borders in the state may take some time to jell.

I didn’t see Eden Prairie, but there were some rave reviews of Chris Konin, a Rhode Island and New England prep school transplant and who logged a hat trick against Elk River. The post-Casey Mittelstadt era doesn’t look too worrying for the only team to play in the past five State Tournaments. Having experienced players makes a difference when others are more unsettled, and this may help explain senior-heavy Eastview’s somewhat surprising run to the final. (I didn’t get a firsthand look at the Lightning.) Veteran Bloomington Jefferson seemed hit or miss; they stuck with East for a half before the Hounds overwhelmed them, and they scuffled back and forth with Benilde for a spell before they put away a very raw Red Knight group. Ken Pauly is never a quiet man on the bench, but I’d never seen him as distraught as he was midway through Benilde’s 10-1 undressing at the hands of East, in which his defense left trucking lanes down the center of the ice. Neither Lakeville really stood out, so it will likely be a down year in 1AA, with South looking somewhat better than North in limited viewing. And while Prior Lake may have missed their most opportune window to break through in 2AA, there’s enough left to give some good teams fits.

The team that did the most for its preseason stock this weekend was Duluth East. The Hounds were far from complete in Edina: second line forward Nick Lanigan and defenseman Will Fisher were out hurt, and top line center Ryder Donovan, fresh off his commitment to North Dakota earlier in the week, went off hurt early in the final group stage game and did not return. They also had a bunch of kids in the Elite League tryouts. But one could be forgiven for not noticing: the Hounds steamrolled through the weekend, and were tested just once, by Wayzata in the semis on Sunday morning. Longtime linemates Donovan, Ian Mageau, and Garrett Worth looked lethal, all three complementing each other and imposing their will, but there was little drop-off to the second and third lines, with a smoother-skating Ricky Lyle turning heads (or was it just the helmet he pulled out of a time capsule?) and Brendan Baker seamlessly sliding into Donovan’s spot when he got hurt. The defense, lacking Fisher, was on the small side but plenty mobile and able to control the puck, while Lukan Hanson, the heir apparent to Kirk Meierhoff in net, was hardly tested in the games I saw.

This is all cause for pleasure in Greyhounds Nation, but they know as well as anyone that nothing is won in July. Experienced, system-driven teams like the Hounds are well-built to succeed early on while others are still sorting through their parts. Continuous improvement is the key, and the new kids in black bantam breezers have some growing to do, too. We have yet to see what some of their biggest competition at the top of the rankings, from Edina to Moorhead to St. Thomas Academy (to say nothing of the 7AA rivals nipping at their heels) have to offer. But at this point, what’s not to like? Let’s start the countdown to November.

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.

de1617

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?

2016 Braemar Summer Scrimmage Notes

24 Jul

This weekend, Edina hosted a summer scrimmage series with a deep cast of teams worth watching. (The city, that is; the team was conspicuously absent.) I jumped at the opportunity to escape the heat and thunderstorms and join a herd of people wandering around Braemar Arena in shorts and jackets on Saturday. Player identification was not always an easy task; some teams had last year’s players wearing the same numbers, but others didn’t, and of course there are plenty of new kids cycling in. With no rosters available, it was often a guessing game. The teams played scrimmages of two 22:30 halves, with shootouts if the teams remained tied. (I, fortunately, did not have to witness any such atrocities.)

Summer tournaments are never great predictors of the future, and anyone who tries to hype these things up is missing the point. Still, they can offer some insights, and in this particular case, showed how little some things change. In the words of the late Denny Green, many of these teams are who we thought they were.

Wayzata 2, Holy Family 0

The first game I saw was also the most competitive, as the teams went scoreless through the first half. The Fire controlled a bit more of the play throughout, though it wasn’t lopsided in any way, and as we have seen over the years, Pat O’Leary’s Wayzata teams are perfectly content to play defense. The defending state champs claimed the lead in the second half courtesy of Griffin Ness, one of the cogs who will have to step up and lead the new-look offense. While Holy Family pressed forward from there in search of the equalizer, Wayzata began to pick them apart with 2-on-1s as the game wound down. Reid Waszczenko was excellent in net, and after the late second goal, the Trojans were safely on their way to victory. Matt Anderson missed a couple of quality chances when he jumped into the rush, including a gaping open net early in the second half; get either one of those right, and this was an entirely different game. Holy Family’s two Edina additions were immediately recognizable by their white helmets and green gloves, and Peter Tabor looked sound on the Fire back line.

For the most part, this was Wayzata being Wayzata and taking care of business. One important note on the Trojans, though: Hank Sorensen, their blue line hammer, was not present, and will play in the USHL this winter. Their defense is still pretty solid, but it’s a big hole to fill, and the guy I saw in the next game will be pleased to escape another encounter with him. One the Fire’s side, it also looked pretty familiar: there were a lot of good players there, and the Edina acquisitions do show just how high they’ve climbed in the west side private school pecking order. But, still, they’re in a section with arguably two of the top three teams in the state (Eden Prairie and Minnetonka), and they’ll need something extra to avoid yet another section semifinal exit.

Eden Prairie 4, St. Paul Academy 1

Casey Mittelstadt and friends were up next, and their battle with Class A 4th place finisher St. Paul Academy was a tale of four separate quarters. In the opening stanza, the Eagles looked like they would blow the Spartans out of the water, scoring three quick ones as Mittelstadt flew around the ice with ease. After that, however, SPA settled in, and kept things reasonably even for the remainder of the first half. Penalties marred the first ten minutes of the second half; the Eagles in particular were on the receiving end, to the point that an eventual penalty on SPA earned a sarcastic pounding of the boards from the entire EP bench. Mittelstadt joined the penalty parade as he voiced his displeasure to the referees. But the Eagles withstood the penalty barrage and then unleashed a barrage of their own, and only a heroic performance from Andy Beran kept it 3-1 through most of the period. Nick Leivermann finally put the cherry on top just inside the final minute.

Devlin McCabe scored the lone SPA goal, a top shelf water bottle juggler (though it didn’t look like he broke the bottle, as he did in a Tourney game last March). I didn’t devote a whole ton of attention to the Spartans, but they looked like they were a solid Class A team simply outgunned by AA power. As for the Eagles, there’s plenty to like beyond the obvious Mittelstadt-Leivermann combo: the pair wearing numbers 43 and 44 teamed up with Nolan Sullivan (I think) to make for a very solid second line, the defense is pretty steady, and Nick Wiencek is probably an upgrade in goal. Like last year, I think they’re probably preseason #1; like last year, they still have that non-quite-controlled emotional edge and the occasional lapses in play that make one suspect they’re beatable.

Grand Rapids 7, Chanhassen 1

I watched the first half of this one, in which the Thunderhawks marched out to a 3-0 lead. There are no secrets in Rapids this coming season: it all revolves around the top line. Gavin Hain had two of the goals I saw, while Blake McLaughlin had the other; I was later told that those two plus Micah Miller accounted for 5 of the 7 goals. Hain, I’d add, just seems to get better and better. On defense, John Stampohar was a force, and jumped into the play often. The difference between this Rapids team and last year’s, however, is the lack of depth: even as that top line steps up its game, they’re not going to have that dual threat they had when they could roll out two lethal lines. Strong goaltending and a somewhat more experienced D can make up for some of that, but Rapids looked pretty pedestrian against a less-than-stellar opponent when the lower lines were on the ice. How far can those big guns carry them? The early answer, after a later win over Elk River to win the group, is “pretty far.”

Elk River 4, Prior Lake 1

Prior Lake was up 1-0 when I walked in at the half of this one, and after watching the first few minutes of the second period, I was trying to figure out how on earth they’d managed that. Before long, the floodgates opened. The Elks’ top line of Jax Murray, Jack Perbix, and Kyle Bouten pulled off a lot of pretty passing sequences, as Murray and Bouten tallied twice each. The second line gave the Elks one of the best one-two punches of the teams I saw on the day. The defense didn’t seem particularly deep, but Nick Perbix was out there mixing it up as usual, and they turned back Prior Lake without much stress throughout the half. While they coughed up a bunch of goals in the second half of their later game with Rapids, the potential for a section title is there. Of note: unless he had a different number on, Jensen Zerban was nowhere to be found in the lineup, and Max Michaelis was out hurt.

I’d like to be able to say something about the Lakers, but all of three players on the team had jerseys, one of which was #71. I presume the one forward who jumped out at me was Jackson Jutting, but the Lakers made it difficult on us in this one. In general, they have a lot to replace, and I think they’ll slide a bit behind Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Holy Family in 2AA this year.

Duluth East 6, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1

That looks impressive, but it comes with an asterisk: this was far from a complete Benilde team, and they got blown out by their other two opponents in this comparatively weak pool (Delano and Lakeville South), too. Still, there’s cause for some optimism in Greyhound-land. The top unit may not be quite Rapids’, but it’s still pretty solid: Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan each had a goal (and their collective nickname, the WMD line, is excellent), while defenseman Luke LaMaster might have been the best player on the ice, and has plenty of chemistry with longtime partner Reid Hill. With only one really experienced skater beyond that, though, this game saw a whole heap of Hounds rotated through. While the newbies didn’t flash any stunning skill, they were all high-energy (at times a little too much so), and consistently took the play to the Red Knights, leading to goals up and down the lineup. The defense was poised and largely avoided the mistakes that often plagued the last two East D corps. The goaltending, which apparently had been the big red flag in East’s shootout loss to Delano and narrow defeat against Lakeville South, held firm in this one, as incumbent Kirk Meierhoff and a rising sophomore split time in net. That situation will be one to watch for the Hounds.

It’s hard to say much about this Benilde edition. They too were rotating lots of bodies, but without the benefit of an established top unit, with most of their players wearing jerseys with offensive lineman numbers. Ryan Bischel was in goal, and made some important saves, though he probably wants one or two of those East goals back, too. Adding Connor Mayer back into the mix will make a big difference. Still, there are a lot of holes to fill from last year’s regular season #1, and that fun-and-gun Benilde style is dangerous enough when there are good, experienced defensemen back on the blue line. There will likely be some growing pains for the Red Knights this season.

Stray Notes

The winners of the four groups at Braemar were Delano, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, and Grand Rapids, meaning the top three teams in AA last season will square off for the crown Sunday. (Teams may be further depleted due to Elite League tryouts, though.) One of those teams is obviously not like the others, so all credit to Delano. They’re going to revolve heavily around Ben Meyers, but one player can take a team a long way in Class A; we’ll see if they can give Breck a run in Section 2A. Reports had both Lakevilles looking pretty good, and probably both preseason top 15, meaning over half of the top 15 might have been in Edina on one day. Not bad for a dose of summer hockey.