As the Duluth East boys’ hockey team concludes an adventurous homestand, now seems an appropriate time for a midseason assessment. The team sits at 10-3-2 through 15 games, a showing that has them firmly in the top ten but hovering outside the very top tier of teams. Two of those losses are to the top two teams in the state, with a narrow loss to Andover in overtime and a much less narrow defeat at the hands of Minnetonka in early January. (The less said about the other loss, the better.) 1-1 ties with Eden Prairie and Blaine, on the other hand, seem to peg the Hounds accurately at this point in the season: right on par with a couple of teams that have the talent to go deep into March, but still in search of that missing ingredient to tip them over the top.
The rap on this squad so far has been its inconsistent offensive output. While they have occasional outbursts—seven goals against Stillwater, six against Grand Rapids, five against Lakeville North—they have a lot of plodding, low-scoring games. Midway through this past week’s Grand Rapids, when the Hounds were sitting at three goals in their past 80 minutes against weaker competition, speculation began to mount if their shot conversion rate could be historically bad. East has outshot every opponent this season save Minnetonka, but rarely do they put them away, and at times have to fight back from unexpected early deficits. This isn’t a wild surprise to anyone who’s watched Duluth East hockey over the years; excepting seasons when they have overwhelming offensive talent such as last season, the Randolph-Olson-Toninato teams at the start of the decade, and the dynastic mid-90s Dave Spehar teams, Greyhound hockey under Mike Randolph plays defense first. The team works its systems all season long, all with an eye to late February.
By mid-January, however, things should start to settle into form, and after half a season of endless tinkering, Randolph appears to have settled on several, if not all, of his lines. Ricky Lyle and Jonathan Jones are a heavy combination on the second line, which comes out against other teams’ top units, and with Logan Anderson centering things, they’ve got some offensive flair, too. Jacob Jeanette is becoming a force on the third line, and they’ve got some cards up their sleeve thanks to their depth, with Exhibit A being Zarley Ziemski, who came up to varsity to log a hat trick against Stillwater. The power play, while fairly pedestrian statistically so far, has started generating much better looks since Ryder Donovan moved to the circle, leaving Frederick Hunter Paine alone atop the umbrella.
On one front, the Hounds have improved: they are finally nearly healthy. There was a moment of collective fear in the Heritage Center when Paine went down clutching his side early in the Minnetonka game. After a two-game absence Paine returned to the lineup against Eden Prairie, and while he wasn’t quite throwing his weight around to the fullest extent, his presence was obvious. With all due respect to Ryder Donovan, Paine is unique on this team: he’s the only true offensive defenseman, and his physical play can change a game’s dynamics. He would have been very difficult to replace.
With Paine returning to health and Jayson Hagen also entering the lineup for the first time after a lengthy injury, East’s defense is finally rounding into form. Senior EJ Hietala has stepped up into a steady role, and sophomore Garrett Johnson has emerged as a reliable contributor with some offensive ability. Depth on defense was my biggest concern heading into the season, but if the Eden Prairie game is any indication, this team can feel fairly confident in its top six. None of them are going to light up the scoreboard the way Luke LaMaster did a season ago, but no one is asking them to do that; they just need to make smart decisions within the system and choose their moments to jump into the play.
Goaltending was another question mark heading into the season, and Randolph stuck with a three-man rotation through much of the season. Now, however, an injury to Lukan Hanson and raw statistics appear to have temporarily settled the matter: Brody Rabold has come out of nowhere to claim the starting job, and continues to put together strong performances. Randolph’s notoriously short leash come back out if Rabold ever hits a road bump, but for the time being, they appear to have a reliable goalie.
If the situation in back is indeed solidifying, this team’s fortunes down the stretch will rest on its offensive production. The elephant in the room here is Donovan, whose 22 points lead the team but still don’t seem quite commensurate with his many talents. His line, which lately has also featured Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker, needs to start carrying more of the scoring load for this team to make a deep run. The kid has a lot of pressure on him, but the skillset and effort are there; now, it’s just a matter of finding some chemistry and making smart choices as the stakes get ever higher. As good as Andover has been, and as dangerous as Cloquet can be, I think 7AA is East’s to lose if they can find this final piece of the puzzle.
And so the Hounds head into the home stretch. With the long homestand at an end, East meanders west this upcoming week into 8AA territory to face Brainerd and Moorhead. The rest of the season features a bunch of good-but-not-great metro squads that will be good tests of their ability to put away mid-level teams, plus two road rivalry contests against section opponents who are also in that tier in Cloquet and Elk River. The regular season will end with a bang, as they face another front-end opponent in Maple Grove. The tinkering period is coming to an end, and now this East team will have to rise or fall on the strength of the players it has.