Tag Archives: mike randolph

How the Other Half Lives

21 Feb

Duluth East’s 2019-2020 season came to an ignominious end on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss at Forest Lake in the 7AA quarterfinals. I could go through the litany of “first X since Y year” milestones that this season gave us, but I think that’s been hashed out enough elsewhere. Safe to say it was not an end result that left anyone very happy in the Duluth East camp, and we now have a longer than usual wait to see Hounds on skates again.

The first half of the season had its peaks and valleys, but the Hounds looked basically like what I thought they would be at the start: a borderline top twenty team, capable of some nice wins over teams like Blaine and Minnetonka but also blown out by Andover and Lakeville South. After a quality tie with Prior Lake in mid-January, the Hounds sat at 7-8-1, and I ranked them #24; hardly world-beaters, but respectable, and probably reflective of their talent level. I can work with this, I thought; get everyone on the same page behind a game plan and the Hounds could at least extend all of their historic streaks and take a crack at Andover at Amsoil with confidence in their roles and nothing to lose.

Things mostly went off the rails from there. First a snowstorm hit, and then a vicious bout of the flu; the team played just one game between January 14 and February 1, then finished with a marathon of seven games in 11 days. Tactically, East doubled down on the world’s most passive forecheck, and games became slow, plodding affairs. There were still some glimmers—a beatdown of Cloquet, an upset of Maple Grove, a late comeback to salvage a tie against Brainerd—but the hard-to-watch moments far outnumbered them and left East on the road against a Forest Lake team that had just beaten them for the first time ever.

The Hounds’ trap made its way down I-35 Tuesday night, and while the Great Wall of Greyhounds across the blue line held up, they generated nothing offensively. Even the greatest of schemes can still be vulnerable to the occasional display of star talent or the efforts of a stray forechecker to force a defenseman into a turnover. The latter was exactly what happened on Forest Lake’s lone goal on Tuesday night. When the Hounds failed to score on a five-minute major, I knew the season was over. An embarrassing scrum at the end was only a cherry on top.

This team was depleted from the start. Two players left before the season for juniors, and a third, who barely played a season ago but would have been a top nine forward this year, also bolted. Between one midseason departure from the team and a couple of late season injuries, I calculated at one point that six of East’s top eight underclassman forwards from a season ago were not on the roster. Even with those injured players back, the theater of the absurd continued, with one player forgetting his gear in Duluth for the quarterfinal and Ryan Cummings, their rock on the blue line, going off hurt in that game’s first period. (How different could that major penalty have looked with him bombing away from up top?) In a season when the Hounds would have needed the stars to align even at full strength, they clearly did not. The magic of a 2014-2015-style run would not strike twice.

As always, I thank the seniors for their efforts: Michael Sutherland, Isaac Schweiger, Nolan Haney, Jack Fellman, Finn Hoops. I give a special shout to Cummings, who blossomed as a leader in a season where he could have stepped up; to Charlie Erickson, the one who had the talent to leave but stuck it out to be the leader of this team; and to Konrad Kausch, the goalie who played every minute of the season and made many valiant efforts, sometimes singlehandedly keeping East in games. I’d say they deserved better fates, but hockey has no regard for such deserts, and it is what it is.

I could wrap up this post here, but I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t offer up a comment or two on the civil war that plagued East hockey this season. Every team has its parent-coach tension, whether justified or not. This season, however, reached a whole new level. I know I can’t say much that will change many minds; what I have to say probably won’t make anyone happy. But, from my unique perch in the middle of all of this, I present a few offerings.

First, I like and respect Mike Randolph. I will never buy the claim that he’s just been in the right place and the right time and isn’t a formidable hockey mind. I can point to specific instances over the years where strategic or tactical changes were directly behind big wins. As the keeper of a massive heap of data and no real dog in the fight (I want this program to win no matter who coaches, and expect Randolph will be long gone if and when I ever have a personal stake), I don’t think the preponderance of evidence suggests his style systematically undermines post-high school careers, whatever ulterior motives may be pushing other narratives. The likes of Ricky Lyle, Hunter Paine, and Austin Jouppi are just the latest examples. I watch enough other teams that I know the things so many people in the East fishbowl think are unique to East and Randolph are not all that unique to East and Randolph.

Randolph and I don’t talk often, but when we do, he’s only ever been cordial and humble, and the two of us could trade stories long into the night. He loves what he does and his broad legacy for high school hockey has a reach that has extended beyond Duluth East; some of it will likely only come out after he retires. I’ve watched in disgust as other heap abuse (a word I do not use lightly; I’m not talking about grumbling at the bar or along the rail) directly on him and others in his family. There was time when it seemed like most past critiques had faded away; that he had adapted and found a way to thrive even as the world changed around him, and I was happy for him.

But, then, I also like and respect a number of Randolph’s detractors, past and present. I scratched my head at some of the personnel changes and the nonexistent forecheck, failing to see the design I had in the past. (At least the 2015 2-3 had an attacking impulse to it!) Things just seemed unsettled this season (and to a large extent last season too), and that trickled down and left a sour taste. I watched as people who had defended him in the past struggled to hide their frustrations as the losses mounted, and I had no counterargument for their gripes. As some of the most sober-minded observers I chatted with this season noted, in the end, so much of coaching comes down to communication: the ability to press the right buttons, to make decisive changes seem purposeful, to make kids believe in the mystique that has in the past surrounded this program. Despite rumors to the contrary, Randolph will be back next season, and mending this bridge is vital to the program’s near-term future.

This season did not bring out the best in East hockey. The old Greyhound exceptionalism was gone, and normalcy did not suit anyone well. It’s time to flush out the system and start anew; time to remember the singular dedication that made this program great before. It’s also time to manage a balance between hockey and life, and to put this joyous but silly game in perspective. Let’s try to have some fun again, and while we’re at it, let’s have both the school and the people in the program rekindle the fire and make some effort to get some people back into what was often a depressingly empty Heritage Center this past season. This, too, shall pass; this program’s fundamentals are too strong to let a few gripes do long-term damage. Time to enjoy some playoff hockey and look ahead to a fresh start next winter.

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.

Rebounding Hounds

15 Dec

Few things are as predictable in Minnesota high school hockey as Duluth East contention. The program boasts 67 consecutive winning seasons and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal game since 1993, by far the longest streaks of any team in high school hockey; it has appeared in 11 straight 7AA finals. A few games into the 2019-2020 season, all of that looked to be in jeopardy. It still may be, as one upset win doesn’t change everything. But the Greyhounds’ season is slowly taking shape, and as new players step up and Mike Randolph tries to find the right formula, they may yet have a say in the direction of section 7AA.

A casual observer probably wouldn’t recognize very many members of these new look Hounds. A huge senior class that featured several high-end talents graduated. Logan Anderson and Jacob Jeannette, who would have been two-thirds of a Greyhound top line this season, left for junior hockey. Charlie Erickson is only returning player who had double digit point totals last season, and Zarley Ziemski is the only other forward with anything resembling regular varsity ice time. The defense returns three semi-regular contributors a season ago, but none of them were really the leaders of that unit, and few things are harder to replace in high school hockey than an elite defenseman such as Hunter Paine. This is particularly true in the Duluth East system, which asks its defensemen to both be active in the offensive zone and hold up going the other direction when the forecheck breaks down.

That inexperience was clear in the Hounds’ first few games of the young season. They held up into the third period in games against solid teams from White Bear Lake and Wayzata, but things unraveled in the third period as their opponents wore them down and sprung odd-man rushes. After a win over Bemidji, a 7-1 loss to section rival Andover exposed these shortcomings in the extreme, and Randolph dug deep into his bag of mysterious game plans as the Huskies handed him his worst loss to a section opponent in 31 years behind the bench. Chastened, the Hounds came out looking much more like a traditional East team in a game against Cloquet, but those shaky moments on defense ultimately outweighed a sound forecheck and led to an overtime loss.

With a 1-4 record and no semblance of momentum, a battle with a top ten Blaine team this past Saturday looked to be a tall order. But the Hounds came out and showed they won’t go lightly. They paired the solid system play they showed in Cloquet with improved defensive performance and kept gameplay fairly even. Down 1-0 in the middle of the second period, the game could have slipped away, but instead the team went to work and collected two dirty goals before locking down, popping a pretty third goal, and adding a fluky empty netter to seal their finest win on the young season.

The Hounds’ formula for contention in spite of the changes is evident. Konrad Kausch has looked strong in goal, a vital backstop to the growing pains of a young defense. The top line of Erickson, Ziemski, and Finn Hoops is starting to generate some offense, and a second line anchored by Jack Fellman and Nolan Aleff has its moments of quality. The defense, for all its travails, combines some experienced seniors and a couple of underclassmen who are capable of putting up some points; Isaac Schweiger, inserted into the lineup for the Blaine game, was the unsung hero in that upset. Lest we forget, this junior class (plus Jeannette and Kausch) went on a run and finished second at PeeWee AA state a few years back, so the track record is there.

Elsewhere in 7AA, Grand Rapids opened with wins over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Minnetonka, proving their young guns are capable of playing with some of the state’s top teams. Cloquet has also looked respectable and will ride star Christian Galatz as far as possible. Forest Lake is undefeated as of this writing, which will boost their standing in the QRF system that seeds the section, though they have yet to play a difficult opponent and have a tie against lowly Park of Cottage Grove. Right now, though, everyone is chasing the Andover juggernaut, a group defined by superb team speed and an elite top defensive pair. In their win over East they also showed a newfound physicality, adding an aspect to their game that had been missing in overtime section final losses to East the past two seasons. Taking down the Huskies will require an even more perfect game plan than a season ago; a complete team effort that combines a great goaltending effort, a defense that limits odd-man rushes, and an opportunistic offense willing to scrap for anything.

For now, though, we can delay any requiems for Duluth East: when they put it all together, they can compete. A week of home games that include two respectable but beatable teams, Centennial and Lakeville North, will be telling. They have a heap of important section games in the second half of the season, and will also get more contests against the state’s elite, from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove. With continued game-by-game progress, they could yet be a contender at the end.

Snowbound Hounds

13 Feb

Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.

At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.

The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.

The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.

Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.

We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.

7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.

Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?

Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.

The Greyhound Restoration

3 Mar

The Heart Attack Hounds struck again in the 7AA final. For a sixth straight year, this affair delivered playoff hockey at its absolute best, with late drama and overtime again winning the day. This section final invariably sends those of us in the stands through about as polarizing swing of emotions a team can inspire, but East found a way yet again.

The Hounds opened their playoff run looking like a team on a mission. Despite Grand Rapids’ struggles this season, there was a bit of intrigue in opening with a game against a team that had vanquished them the two previous seasons and an elite goalie. No such worries, as Garrett Worth scored 23 seconds in, Logan Anderson piled on two minutes later, and East was off to the races with a 6-0 win. The section semifinal performance was even more clinical, as they humiliated a Duluth Marshall team that had taken them to overtime in the regular season, 9-1. After five straight nervy section finals, this finally seemed like one in which the Hounds were comfortable favorites.

But if the East faithful expected an easier path, they were soon set straight. The final matched the Hounds with Andover, a young, speedy finesse team that arrived a season early under the diligent work of head coach Mark Manney. The Huskies withstood East’s early barrage, and their confidence began to build. East was a mess throughout much of the second period, with Andover springing an endless series of odd-man rushes. The deficit was two after the period, but it could easily have been more, despite what the shots read on the scoreboard. Uncharacteristic mistakes began to mount, from sloppy defense to selfish offense to fluky swings and misses and collisions among teammates. The game set off bad memories of the 2012 Lakeville South loss, in which East slowly but surely lost control against a speedy team that outworked them and created chance after chance in the other direction.

And so the Hounds began to chip away, and resigned themselves to dumping and chasing to break a trap. All three goals were of the dirty variety, with two tips off of Luke LaMaster shots, and a bank shot from behind the net by Ryder Donovan. The team just kept grinding and denying losing, to use an old phrase of Mike Randolph’s. As so often seems the case, an upset-minded team crumbled when the favorite began to surge. Once they tied it up, any doubt went away. The Hounds were going to rewrite a well-worn script, as they tied a section final with under two minutes to go for the third time in eight years, and finished off their opponent in the first overtime. This was the most excruciating of the bunch, thanks both to their heavy favorite status and the length of the overtime, but the Greyhounds were back on their game, and found a way yet again.

Mike Randolph, meanwhile, added to his legend as he locked up his 17th State Tournament berth. This was a season in which a head coach could have just taken off the leash and turned his team loose, and relative to some other good East teams, he did that with this group. But there were still some of those subtle tweaks he makes that help make a good team great. Of note: the late season flip of the second and third line centers, Logan Anderson and Brendan Baker. On paper it looked like a minor flip, but with Anderson on the second line, that group practically outpaced the top line in production in the late stages of the season, and Baker’s net-front presence on the gritty third line was a bonus, too. In the section final, Baker was credited with the goal that began the comeback, and Anderson took home the game-winner. East fans will know the Hounds work traffic in front of the net and tips more than anyone so that the team is ready to break down a packed-in defense in a playoff game, and sure enough, those two goals both came on tips.

As Baker and Anderson exemplify, the defining trait of this East team remains its depth. Two-thirds of the top line was held to zero points on Thursday night, but East won anyway. The one-loss 2012 Hounds probably had as much talent across three lines, but they didn’t achieve the balance of this group, especially late this season. Thursday night’s struggles notwithstanding, the defense also became far more solid as the season went on, and if they can revert to February form in St. Paul, the Hounds will stand a good chance. In goal, the Hounds just ask Parker Kleive not to lose things for them, and to date he has delivered, as he takes no chances and does what he needs to do. He was certainly not at fault for the closeness of the Andover game, and has earned his place among East State Tournament starters.

The Hounds now head to St. Paul, where they’ve landed the 3-seed and will face Tournament debutant St. Michael-Albertville. If the Hounds get past the Knights, that most epic of tournament matchups, East against Edina, looms for Friday night. If things go according to form, the last two rounds could be as good as ever, but history tells us to expect the unexpected here.

For now, though, Duluth East can bask in its restoration to the 7AA throne, and a 23rd State Tournament trip. A skilled senior class bookends its time at East with a second Tourney trip, and gets a chance to show how far it has come since 2015’s magical ride, when Worth beat Elk River in double overtime to win the section and Ian Mageau fed Ash Altmann for the goal that slew Edina’s dynasty. We’ll see what they can do for an encore.

A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.

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.

What’s “Wrong” with Duluth East?

11 Jan

A year ago, I wrote a post that tried to explain why a powerhouse program seemed to be struggling so much over the first half of a season. I had my theories then, and in retrospect, they look pretty good. Many of the details of that post, from the 6-7 record to the ugly upsets to the results against the same three opponents over the course of a week, could all apply to this season’s Duluth East team as well. This time, however, there wasn’t supposed to be an inexperience card to play: many of these players are veterans of last year’s Tournament run. Why, then, is this squad so seemingly mediocre, despite its talent?

First off, yes, this is life under a coach who uses the regular season to tinker in anticipation of playoff games. Mike Randolph is still playing around with different strategies and combinations of players to find what works best with the group he has. This is apparent to anyone who watched the Hounds spend most of the first two periods trapping against Grand Rapids before finally turning them loose in the third. This is a strategy East has used before with some success, and rests on a clever premise that allows the Hounds to frustrate talented opponents and then suddenly unleash their offensive talent when they have the mental edge. It very nearly pulled out the Rapids game, as East pulled out a third period comeback, but I think it also accorded a little too much respect to Rapids. It failed to attack them at their weakest, which is on defense in their own zone. It let Rapids dictate things for a little too long, and didn’t quite have the effect of winning the mental war that it can against teams that expect to win.

Randolph’s record speaks for itself, but there are risks in endless string-pulling and tinkering. It can backfire sometimes, and anyone who’s watched East hockey for long enough can point to games here or there and grumble about apparent micromanaging. I hinted at this last year, and think it’s more pronounced this year: the emphasis on systems at this point is probably holding the offense back some. Still, the only real recourse is to keep the faith. The man knows what he’s doing, and the worst thing that could happen to this team would be internal division, with players or parents whispering and pretending they know better. There’s no guarantee of success, but in recent years, Randolph has shown he knows how to adapt his teams to their strengths and get them where they need to be by late February.

Next, this team isn’t nearly as experienced as it may seem. Despite the apparent experience of last season, there are only three junior or senior forwards who played a regular shift last year, and with all of them on the top line, the “experience” on the lower lines is very young; Garrett Worth is the only one of them who really had a regular shift for most of last year. In addition, Randolph has tossed a few more sophomores and freshmen into the mix this year, most notably on defense; there will probably be more of that in coming weeks following the scary injury to Nathaniel Benson on Saturday. The youth movement is also something Randolph has done a number of times over the years, and often with some success, though it’s been less of a theme in this most recent run of Tournament teams.

East has no glaring weakness, but there’s also room for improvement everywhere. The top two lines are scoring some, but must up their output to meet their potential, and we’ll see how the Hounds handle the third and fourth lines down the stretch. Like last year, the defense has some talent and can control games fairly well (they’ve only been outshot once this year, by Eden Prairie), but like last year, they have to clean up the periodic lapses that leave them exposed in back. Kirk Meierhoff is the man is goal, and he’s been passable, but there’s certainly room for a little more.

Section losses have all but guaranteed they’ll play a team that’s at least something of an upset threat in the first round, just like last year. Nothing will come easy. The 7AA State Tournament entrant, however, will be one of three teams, and Elk River and Grand Rapids aren’t running away with anything yet. Rapids just played its most complete game against East since the 2011 section final, with some added (controlled) physicality and a Gavin Hain-reinforced blue line making a difference, but the Hounds still nearly won. Their meeting with Elk River awaits near the end of the season, but we all know the history there, and for all the Elks’ success so far, I’m not sure they have the star player that can break things open against an East system in the way that the teams beating East recently. Riley Tufte with Blaine, Mitchell Mattson with Rapids, and Casey Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie were all the primary protagonists in their wins, and raw talent is one of the best ways to overcome the integrity of an East system. Elk River might—might—have that in a healthy Jax Murray, but otherwise a game between these two will be a grind-it-out slugfest, and with the clock winding down and a State Tournament berth on the line, where would you put your money?

Finally, there’s one other, less tangible thing that last year’s team had that this one may or may not. Randolph lauded his 2014-2015 captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, in a way I’ve never heard him praise his players before. That kind of leadership is tough to replace, and this isn’t necessarily to indict the current captains, all of whom had some big moments in last year’s run.

Still, there is a risk here of complacency. A risk of “we’ve done it before, so we can do it again” becoming a crutch and a wish instead of cool confidence. A risk that comes with growing up barely knowing what it’s like to not make the State Tournament, and assuming it is one’s birthright. (These seniors were in 4th grade at the time of the David Brown Incident, which was the last time East lost in sections.) These kids are the kings of East after last year’s run, but a bunch of hungry teams are out there to take them down, and they’ll have to embrace that target and find that fire that spurred them along last year. They must keep working and denying losing, or the 7AA crown will find a new home.

The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

26 Feb

Three years ago, one of the most loaded teams in Duluth East history finished off a 4-1 win over Eagan on a Saturday in early March. That game, however, was not at the Xcel Center in St. Paul; it was at a consolation final in front of a half-empty Mariucci Arena. Their pride was intact, but Greyhounds Nation was left wondering what could have been. Mike Randolph, the Hounds’ longtime coach, made his way across the ice to salute the East fan base, as he always does at the end of the season.

I made sure to preserve that sight in my memory. At the time, there was good reason to think Randolph would call it quits after 23 seasons; his son was about to graduate, and he had just hit 60. Had he left then, his legacy might have been a somewhat complicated one. Yes, any reasonable observer would acknowledge his work in building up the program in the 1990s, and his two state titles with those loaded teams back then. But after that came a wacky saga that saw Randolph dismissed for a year before getting his job back, a series of section playoff upsets, and two bad upset losses once they did get back to State, the most glaring of those the 2012 affair that had wrecked his best season in over a decade. Every year, there was some grumbling from the stands, and while I had plenty of respect for Randolph, I would have been fine starting off a new era, too.

Randolph, however, came back. The results since have been nothing short of golden. Tonight’s 5-4, 3-goal comeback, double-overtime win over heavily-favored Elk River is the crowning moment of one of the all-time great runs in Minnesota high school hockey history, a streak of seven straight tournament berths, each more impressive than the last.

Sure, he still has plenty of talent to work with—though it’s gone down some each year. And yes, whiny southern fans, the section final is in Duluth. But anyone who thinks for a moment that this is at all a fluke or a function of game location isn’t paying close enough attention. In watching this team closely over the past three years, I’ve picked up on so many of the little things he does, so many of the little strengths he brings to the table that no other coach in the state does.  It helped that I had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while during that stretch, but it took careful observation to realize the totality of his control, and just how unique it is. Minnesota high school hockey fans are in the presence of a master at his craft.

Did anything change over time, to turn those disappointments into three straight thrilling Tourney berths, each more improbable than the last? Probably. Randolph sure thought so, saying “everything” had changed in how he handled his players over the course of his career. After the 2013 run, a few players joked about his wry sense of humor, a side of him I don’t ever recall hearing about when I was in high school. I told friends that he was going soft in his old age; I don’t know if the current players would agree with that after one of his famed bag skates, but whatever it was, he found a way to strike the perfect balance between pushing his players to give all they could without going overboard. This is the essence of good coaching, and performance in any sphere of life: to know how to push things to the limit and stay there, getting the most out of one’s own unique strengths.

He’s pulled just about every lever imaginable over the past three years, though I don’t doubt that there’s something else left in the bag of tricks. The 25 regular season games are merely a training ground for those three in late February that decide East’s fate. He preaches his systems, and makes his players believers, even when down 3 goals in the first period to a more talented team. 2013 and 2014 saw the creation of the most lethal power plays in the state, using East’s handful of top players in perfect positions to make up for a relative lack of scoring depth. Defense always comes first, and yet East never falls too far back into its shell, and by season’s end he’ll turn them loose on the attack when need be. This current season tested the limits of his ingenuity, with the radical adoption of a 2-3 forecheck after the defense was repeatedly shredded early in the season—only to abandon it at times in the section final against Elk River, when necessity demanded that they throw players forward. They hold back until they know they have the other team doubting themselves a little bit, smell blood, then strike.

Randolph will ride his top players at times, but everyone on the team has a role, knows it, and it’s no surprise to see some of them coming up big in the clutch. The second and third lines each scored twice in this year’s section final against Elk River, and in each of the past two seasons, players who I would have benched, being my impatient self, have made key contributions. It’s a complete cast of characters, from lunch-pail senior Nick Funk scoring the tying goal to freshman phenom Garrett Worth popping in the game-winner. He’s even played goalie psychology perfectly, benching both Dylan Parker and Gunnar Howg after struggles in their senior seasons, only to give them back the starting job with something to prove down the stretch. Both have taken the Hounds to the Promised Land, with Howg’s heroics in the semifinal against Grand Rapids the latest testament to that success.

The Hounds head to the State Tournament greater underdogs than they’ve ever been, and with an otherwise loaded field taking shape, it would be easy to shrug and say that this is enough of an accomplishment this year. And yet Randolph will surely demand that his team “deny losing” once again, and nothing is assured as they head into a first-round matchup with one of the state’s three elite teams. And even if the favorites advance, no matter what happens, a legacy is intact. It is one of brilliance, and we East fans are spoiled to enjoy it once again.

East Side Ingenuity

6 Feb

The final week of the high school hockey regular season begins next week. For Duluth East fans, this season is lurching oddly toward the finish line, filled with more uncertainty than any time in recent memory. There have been signs of progress along the way, as they’ve held two of the of the state’s best offenses under two goals, and had a few more offensive outbursts lately, but on the whole they are still a .500 team, headed for their first serious section quarterfinal game in over 15 years.

The most encouraging outing came on Saturday night in Elk River, when the Hounds played the Elks dead-even on the road en route to a 1-1 tie. After a slow start, a crushing hit by Alex Spencer jolted East to life, and the Hounds took it to the Elks for a majority of the rest of the game, bottling them up superbly and generating their own share of chances. A shot in the final minute of overtime might just have slipped in under the crossbar—no one will ever really know—but the statement mattered more than the final score: when they play well, East is on par with the section’s best.

The game showcased Mike Randolph’s spurt of ingenuity this season: a 2-3 forecheck, with the center manning the point along the blue line between the two defensemen. It’s something I haven’t seen out of a prominent high school program before, but it makes intuitive sense: with a struggling defense and a lack of talent to maintain the dominant forecheck of years past, the Hounds have resorted to doing everything they can to bottle up the opposition in its own zone. This approach comes at the obvious expense of bodies down low—with only two forwards deep in the zone, the offense runs the risk of becoming a very predictable series of passes around the perimeter—but it can make it difficult for even good teams to break out with any rhythm, and protects the defensemen from overexposure. The presence of the center on the blue line also frees the defensemen to pinch more freely than they might otherwise, keeping some semblance of the classic East cycle alive. To give an idea of its effectiveness, Elk River hadn’t been held under 3 goals all season long, but needed a late power play just to tie this game at one.

That cycle was on display again on Monday. East continued to work the 2-3 in Cloquet, a decision that may have sacrificed a chance at a win in the short term in the interest of preparing the system for the playoffs. They kept Cloquet bottled up for long stretches of the game, to the point that the Jacks’ offense degenerated into a string of icings, but the go-ahead goal never came, as East never generated quite enough in front of the net of sophomore Eric Newman. This is the weakness of the system: it gives East a shot against most anyone, but it also lets less skilled opponents hang around, and that is an especially important concern given the likely first round match-up against Andover, a team built around a great goalie and the occasional offensive surge forward.

The lack of offensive zone presence wasn’t an issue on Thursday against Blaine’s porous defense, but the sloppy defense reared its ugly head again, especially in the opening twelve minutes of the game, when East spotted the Bengals a 3-0 lead. While they showed their mettle as they battled back to twice tie the game, the game was already being played on Blaine’s terms, and that did not bode well for a team built around defense first. It was a second straight toss-up game with a top-ten team, but these track meet games are too volatile, and reminiscent of their most recent losses in sections, a 6-5 loss to Cloquet in 2008 and a 5-4 loss to Grand Rapids the year before, when East lost control for long stretches before coming back and ultimately failing to close the deal. Blaine is a top-ten team and deeper offensively than anyone in 7AA, but Grand Rapids and Elk River certainly have the firepower to get East into that sort of game (as Rapids did in January) and render all of this pining for systems useless.

The East defense remains the most profound concern. There are too many blown assignments and bad decisions leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional long stretches stuck in the defensive zone quickly deflate momentum. Stupid penalties have also been rally-killers at times. Gunnar Howg has won the goalie job back for good and has proven a savior at times, though he can’t do it all himself. I’ll avoid naming names, but a couple of players are frequent culprits, and must avoid the lapses that may end up costing this team its season.

The offense is showing more potential after a slow start. The longtime top line combo of Nick Altmann and Brian Bunten creates the most chances, many of which come agonizingly close but don’t quite make their way into the net. The all-junior second line, after leading the way early on and going a bit cold midway through the season, erupted in the Blaine game, giving some hope there. Luke Dow is certainly the most dynamic of the centers, and can run things from the point when East sets up the 2-3 in the offensive zone. The third line, usually featuring freshmen Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth with Matt Lyttle playing the high center role (with occasional Nick Funk and Ryder Donovan sightings) is now scoring with some regularity as the young snipers come into their own. The three freshmen on the roster have all come along nicely as this season goes on.

And so the Hounds head for their reckoning. They have two games in the final week, both against higher-ranked but beatable teams, Lakeville South and Minnetonka. Between those two games is the 7AA seeding meeting, which should be put on pay-per-view, but is most likely to hand the Hounds a 3-seed and a first round date with Andover. (There’s an outside shot St. Michael-Albertville could poach the 3 and leave East playing Cloquet in the quarterfinals, but I’ll be surprised if their schedule gets much respect at the meeting.) It doesn’t matter a whole lot, since the section is such a mess. Elk River has its best player in Jake Jaremko, but the depth, especially on defense, is not phenomenal, and Amsoil Arena has not been kind to them. Grand Rapids is bipolar, looking like world-beaters one moment and sickly the next; who knows if they can string together three straight wins. STMA is reasonably deep and hungry to prove themselves, but venturing into uncharted territory; Dave Esse has hard-working Cloquet rising to the occasion down the stretch. Andover has a goalie and a handful of skaters who can be difference-makers, and are plenty capable of stealing a game or two. Even Forest Lake, despite a poor year, has a history of doing well against Rapids, whom they are almost certain to play in the first round. And then we have these Hounds, trying to find that right balance and get back that East side energy and confidence that have kept them atop this section for the past six years. We’ll see if this group has it in them.