Tag Archives: mike randolph

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.

The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.

The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.

The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.

The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.

In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.

While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.

The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.

Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.

Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.

The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.

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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.

Learning How to Win

11 Jan

It’s been an unfamiliar sort of season for the Duluth East boys’ hockey team. With a new core and the burden of history, they’re off to a slow start, and there’s been a bit of declinist hysteria (all from outside the program, from what I’ve seen) surrounding a team that would, in a vacuum, simply be finding its way through a difficult schedule. But this is the burden of putting on the jersey of a six-time defending section champion with a target on its back. That burden can also be a source of inspiration, as was the case last season, when 7AA’s confident bluebloods stole a section title away from rising Elk River. Which story will be that of the 2014-2015 Hounds? My visit to Duluth this past week coincided with three of their biggest home games of the year, a stretch that included a decent win, an ugly loss, and a quality effort in a losing cause. As we enter the second half of the regular season, here’s my report on the state of the Hounds—a team that, in the words of its coach, is still “learning how to win.”

The week began in front of a packed Heritage Center for the yearly renewal of the crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld. Long cannon fodder for the Hounds, the Hunters surged to relevance two years ago when they beat East and made the 7A section final, and this year’s team looks to be on par with that one. The Hunters came out fired up and led 2-1 after a strong first period, but East regrouped in the locker room and went on to play solid system hockey the rest of the way. The only real issue from then on was special teams; Denfeld briefly tied the game on a late second period goal, and East squandered numerous power plays in the 3rd before giving the Hunters a breath of life with two late penalties of their own. Even so, they limited chances effectively, and held on for a 4-3 win.

The stakes grew higher on Thursday, when Grand Rapids came to town in a crucial 7AA battle. The Hounds embarrassed the Thunderhawks in Grand Rapids last season, and Rapids was only too pleased to return the favor this year. Once again, a poor first period was East’s undoing, as they were completely worked over by the Rapids forwards and down 2-0 at the intermission. Once again they did a reasonably good job of getting to their systems in the later periods, but another defensive breakdown made it 3-0. The Hounds got one back in the third and the momentum seemed to swing, with history creeping back into everyone’s minds, but an ill-timed penalty allowed Rapids to score the back-breaker, and they added an empty-netter when Mike Randolph pulled his goalie with 3 minutes to go. The power play goal and the empty-netter were Rapids’ only two shots on goal in the third period, showing that the Hounds could stifle Rapids when they did get to their game, but they took far too long in getting there, and it doesn’t take much for the Thunderhawks’ top forwards to leave their mark. The 5-1 final is more reversible than East’s 5-0 win in Rapids last season was, but it’s a mountain to climb.

Things only got more difficult on Saturday, when sixth-ranked Eden Prairie pulled into Duluth. Not only are the Eagles among the state’s elite, they bear a number of similarities to 7AA frontrunner Elk River with their dominant top line; to retain the section crown, East will have to beat a similar team. Finally, East had itself a good first period, grabbing an early goal and playing the Eagles even, and they kept that energy going through most of the rest of the game, ending with the most complete performance I’ve seen out of them this season. They were beaten on two moments of individual brilliance by Casey Mittelstadt, the state’s top sophomore, and despite plenty of chances, the tying goal just wouldn’t come. Mittelstadt finished his hat trick with an empty-netter, giving the Eagles their first ever win over East that did not require three overtimes.

East now sits at 6-7-1, and is at some risk of its first losing season since 1953. The nasty schedule continues on Tuesday, when the team visits undefeated, top-ranked Lakeville North. Things ease up somewhat after that, with five straight opponents outside the top 20, but this team can’t take any of them for granted, and every one will likely be a battle.

In trying to figure out the Hounds’ lurching start, the biggest difference is almost certainly the absence of Phil Beaulieu on the blue line. As Mittelstadt’s performance Saturday showed, a certain D-I player can make all the difference in a tight high school game. It’s also not coincidental that many of Mike Randolph’s greatest overachievers—1991, 1998, 2013, 2014—have been built around a fantastic defenseman or two who could run games from the back. Most fundamentally, the East system requires that defensemen be able to hold up one-on-one against other teams’ top forwards with relative frequency, for those moments when opposing teams do pierce through the clogged neutral zone. The East defense, young and unsettled, is taking baby steps in that direction, but when it has lapses, they are profound, and undo a team that is not built to overcome big deficits.

East’s meager 2.43 goals per game average might suggest offense is their biggest problem, but the numbers can lie. Randolph teams build from the back, and though they have decent forward depth, they don’t quite have the skill to win a shootout against Grand Rapids or Elk River. The Hounds don’t need brilliance from this fairly deep group of defensemen; they just need steadiness and intelligence, with no ill-advised pinches and basic competence in holding the zone. If they can move the puck effectively out of their own zone and limit the odd-man rushes, the chances will come; that’s when East can start worrying about cashing in on those chances, and improving the uncharacteristically poor power play. It’s a very achievable goal, but not a guarantee.

The other big part of the equation is the Hounds’ youth. With three freshmen and an eighth grader seeing ice time, there are going to be some rookie moments, as was the case on Middelstadt’s first two goals in the Eden Prairie game; the first came with an all-bantam-age third line on the ice, while he walked around defenseman Luke LaMaster on the second. The promise is obvious, though, as the young line had a very respectable showing in the offensive zone on Saturday, and LaMaster has shown some flashes as well. East has had some success over the years with the young guns when they grow up quickly enough (1994, 2000, 2005, 2010), though the last two seasons when they were not a top-3 seed—1993 and 1999, neither of which saw deep playoff runs—were also teams that had a couple of freshmen seeing regular ice time.

East has also had some unexpected goaltending intrigue, as incumbent Gunnar Howg’s rocky Elite League carried over into a pedestrian start. Ever decisive, Randolph benched the senior Howg in favor of sophomore Kirk Meierhoff, who has been reasonably good, if not quite a game-changer, ever since. It now seems to be Meierhoff’s job to lose, and we’ll see how he holds up against the Lakeville North assault on Tuesday. As with the young skaters, it is sink or swim for Meierhoff, and he will have to grow up in a hurry.

For all the travails, 7AA is winnable. Elk River is the obvious favorite with the record and ranking to match, but there are questions about its defense and goaltending, and Grand Rapids gave them a one-goal game. Rapids has the firepower, but appears an emotionally volatile squad capable of great peaks and valleys, depending on their psyche. Dave Esse has Cloquet improving, but they need a few more big wins to prove they’re for real; St. Michael-Albertville has a strong record against poor competition. Even Forest Lake and Andover appear modest upset threats.

Under Randolph, the regular season is a 25-game warm-up for three playoff games. It means learning a system, a process exemplified by the performance of Luke Dow, the junior center who had 34 points at Duluth Marshall last season. He has 12 at East so far, to lead the team; of course a tougher schedule makes things difficult—no 4-point games against Eveleth this year—but he’s also being asked to track back far more than before, and be a more complete player. The Hounds have also spread their scoring some, with the top two forwards, Dow and Nick Altmann, on separate lines to generate the depth necessary to keep pace with the top teams in the state. Player point totals do not tell this team’s story.

The goal is to have a balanced machine going by playoff time. It doesn’t work out every year, but as history shows, it does more often than not. The players simply need to keep the faith and keep at it through tough results, building on things like the Eden Prairie game, despite the loss. The margin for error may be smaller than ever, but they have the formula, and have had some sustained moments where they get there. If they continue to build on that and quickly get back to consistent execution when things do go wrong, they can play with nearly anyone, and if the clock is winding down late in a close game at Amsoil Arena, it’s hard not to like the Hounds.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part II

9 Sep

As promised, here’s part two, including sections 6AA-8AA and all of the Class A coaches that I have something to say about. Part One is here.

Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Pauly, now entering his 24th season coaching, is a high school hockey institution. He first took the Benilde job at the time when many private schools were on the rise, and he took his opportunity and ran with it, building the school up from nothing and having the ambition to quickly make the jump to AA. He left Benilde for a brief tenure at Minnetonka, where he also lifted that program to one of its two State berths in the past 20 years and set up a foundation for future success. His return to Benilde brought continued steady improvement, as the Red Knights are now the west side’s preeminent private hockey school. His teams play up-tempo, exciting hockey that lets players flash their offensive skills, though sometimes this has obvious consequences on the other end of the ice, with halfhearted defense and goalies hung out to dry. He’s a driven man; no one works the refs harder, and as the head of the Coaches’ Association, he’s been one of the most vocal defenders of high school hockey against other development models. That fire gets him into some trouble, but he’s certainly been one of the most influential coaches of the past two decades.

Lee Smith, Eden Prairie Smith makes for an interesting contrast to Pauly; he’s not one to actively grab the spotlight, and he doesn’t really have a distinctive style. What he does do, however, is get more out of his top players than any other coach. From Leddy to Rau to Spinner and Snuggerud, his teams revolve around those big guns, and the supporting cast usually knows its role and makes for a cohesive unit. His teams don’t do many memorable things when they don’t have those front-end stars in their primes, but when they do, few deliver as consistently and reliably. More often than not, favored, senior-heavy teams struggle with the pressure. Smith’s don’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Brian Urick, Minnetonka Urick seems to have a good handle on how to build a deep, successful team; there is no over-emphasis in any one particular area, and he’s had a couple of truly great teams. Minnetonka, which had been up-and-down in the past, is now a regular in the title conversation. That has only manifested itself in one trip to State, and that in a year when they had an overwhelming array of talent, though 6AA is very unforgiving. He has been outcoached tactically on occasion in big games.

Pat O’Leary, Wayzata O’Leary is one of the shortest-tenured coaches on this list, but he’s already made a distinct mark with his heavy defensive emphasis. His Wayzata teams just don’t give up much, period. He appears to be personable and well-liked, and as a young guy, he could have a long career ahead of him. The unsurprising flip side to the defensive emphasis is a lack of offensive dynamism, despite some considerable talent coming through. We’ll see if that evolves as the years go on.

Noel Rahn, Holy Family Rahn has done a good job of attracting talent to the Fire, and his players attract attention by putting up some big numbers. The move to AA was an ambitious one that probably helped that process, though it has also made it difficult to break through against the deeper suburban teams. They’ve also had some trouble keeping some of the top players they’ve attracted around until graduation. It’s all a work in progress, so we’ll see where the Fire go in the coming years.

Mike Randolph, Duluth East I could, of course, write an entire book about Randolph, who built East up from relative mediocrity and has kept the Hounds near the top of the heap for a quarter century. He couples his intensity with a complete command of the details of the game, and as a result is a very hands-on coach, always tinkering and correcting and looking for some little edge. He has learned things and evolved over the years, though there are certain constants to his complex systems that keep East relevant even when front-end talent dips. Defense comes first, the special teams are always excellent, and his teams are physical without going overboard. His weaknesses are, basically, his strengths in excess: he can be hard on his players, and try to pull too many levers instead of just turning them loose. This can create the high-pressure environment that will rub some the wrong way, and a number of his teams have caved under that pressure. Still, it’s hard to argue with the supreme confidence and the consistency of the results.

Dave Esse, Cloquet Esse does well with a program that doesn’t always have an overwhelming array of talent, and usually gets his Lumberjacks to play a complete, defensive team game. No high school coach works the trap as well as he does, and he gets his teams up for big games against rivals. In the years when he actually has had front-end talent, though, it hasn’t always come together. His fieriness has also gotten him into a brief bit of trouble.

Gordie Roberts, Elk River Roberts has the difficult task of filling Tony Sarsland’s boots; even when he wasn’t successful, Sarsland was such a distinct and memorable character that he casts a long shadow. Roberts is much more even-keeled; he’s not one to do anything radical, and has had his teams playing fairly well down the stretch, only to see things end in heartbreak two straight years. We’ll see how he responds to that, and how he evolves as time goes on.

John Rothstein, Grand Rapids Rothstein pushed the pace a bit more than his predecessor, Bruce LaRoque, did in his long stint in Rapids; the result was serious over-exposure of a thin defense. It’s still early, though, and Rapids has enough upcoming talent to make some noise.

Mark Manney, Andover It’s been up-and-down for this program, but Manney has gotten some good runs out of middling talent when they all buy in and play good defense.

Andy Lundbohm, Roseau The size of the program means Lundbohm has some challenges that most AA coaches don’t. He expects his big players to carry the load and leans on them, which is probably necessary to compete with the deeper teams out there. There were some rocky moments in the past few years, but the team held its own with some much deeper teams at State in 2014.

Jon Ammerman, Moorhead Ammerman succeeded Dave Morinville this past season, and will have to replicate his defensive success to keep up the Spuds’ strong tradition in 8AA. It’s too early to say much here. Seemed to be well-regarded in his brief stint in Windom.

Dave Aus, Brainerd (formerly of Blaine) Blaine won State the year before Aus showed up, but they’d yet to really establish themselves as a consistent contender. Under his oversight, Blaine achieved that, and is now a top-ten team year in and year out. The playoff results often did not always match regular season success, especially in his last few years in Blaine, when things seemed to snowball some. The Brainerd job should prove a very different sort of challenge, but the program has some potential, and Aus’s lack of stylistic rigidity should be a plus there.

Roy Nystrom, Albert Lea Like Lorne Grosso, Nystrom is an institution in southern Minnesota hockey, and usually does a good job of keeping his teams relevant, despite a fairly thin talent pool. He’s one of those people that make high school hockey unique, plugging along in a southern Minnesota town and putting out an entertaining squad, year after year.

Derrick Brown, Luverne Brown is very raw, but he has the confidence of someone looking to build something serious in the state’s southwest corner. He’s one worth watching.

Les Larson, Breck Despite a successful tenure to date, I just don’t have much to say about Larson. He isn’t very distinct. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also a perk of running the premier Class A program in the southern half of the state.

Mark Loahr, Totino-Grace Has had a very long tenure with many wins and numerous State berths, though he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive in building his program as some of the other private school coaches.

Jeff Poeschl, Mahtomedi A long-tenured coach, Poeschl has helped build arguably the strongest Metro Class A public program, and could be a real beneficiary of St. Thomas’s move to AA. I don’t know his work well, but he appears to be well-regarded.

Tony Couture, Little Falls Jared Festler and Ben Hanowski will help one’s coaching career, but Couture has done a nice job with a small-town program, building it into relevance and making State in 2012 without any such stars.

Bruce Plante, Hermantown Plante is the ultimate player’s coach. Easygoing and easy to play for, he turns his players loose and gets the best out of them, making for great team cohesion and some genuinely fun hockey. He’s overseen the growth of his program into a state power, and has Hermantown in a very good place going forward, with resource advantages that no Class A public school can match. I will admit that I’ve never been terribly impressed with his tactical chops, and while his shtick is amusing, his private school rants probably became a distraction after a while. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is great when the environment is loose and upbeat, but may not help when trying to escape a frustrating string of 2nd-place finishes.

Brendan Flaherty, Duluth Marshall Flaherty built up Marshall from doormat status in the mid-90s, and his teams have been consistently relevant for the better part of a decade, with the best teams coming when they had a couple of legitimate stars to lean on. Beyond that, nothing much jumps out; he’s not especially creative, and will look to rely on his above average depth on hand to wear down thinner Class A opponents. He’s a sharp contrast to the other Duluth area coaches, most of whom are distinct characters.

Kevin Smalley, Duluth Denfeld Smalley is one of the few people on this list who’s never been to St. Paul in March, but he does well for himself, all things considered. He coaches a feisty team that, while not especially talented, gets itself up for big games against local competition, giving these teams fits with some regularity. His teams are a bit rough around the edges, and that shows when playoff time comes around, but if he keeps at it and shores up a small youth program, he’ll get there in time.

Tyler Palmiscno, East Grand Forks Palmiscno has done it by the book these past two seasons, relying on depth and great defense to win a state title. The wheels fell off against St. Thomas in 2013, but he obviously learned from that, and the confidence this past season was obvious. There’s enough talent left in the chute that he could go on a run and really make a name for himself, though some other strong 8A teams will have something to say about that.

Al Oliver, East Grand Forks assistant (formerly of Roseau) Despite not being an active head coach, Oliver is just too good of a character to be left off the list. He brings the intensity and fire, making up for his lack of a hockey background. He’s learned a few things over the years, too: while not a tactician by trade, EGF’s style bears a lot of resemblances to the great Roseau teams from 06-08, particularly in its defensive emphases. The man just screams “northern Minnesota hockey.”

Tim Bergland, Thief River Falls Bergland is not one I claim to know well, but I’m impressed just about every time I see his teams in action. His teams are scrappy and fight hard, consistently entering the Class A top ten, even though they’re not blessed with great riches. Whatever he’s doing up there, he’s doing something right. Also coached in Fergus Falls toward the tail end of their run of six straight tourney berths in the late 90s/early 00s.

Jay Hardwick, Warroad He has a couple of very talented players, but Hardwick’s Warriors were arguably the 2nd-best team in Class A last season despite not being able to match the depth of East Grand Forks. There’s something to be said for that, and he bears watching in the coming seasons.

The Dynasty Lives

28 Feb

It was supposed to end last night. Five in a row was quite enough. The Elk River Elks had beaten the Duluth East Greyhounds during the regular season, and whatever the seeds said, everyone knew they’d had a slightly stronger season. The Elks were feted on Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, touted as a team returning to glory. When a star player left midseason, they pulled together. They weren’t remotely intimidated by the hostile environment in Amsoil Arena, keeping the mood light during pregame introductions and controlling the opening minutes of play. Star goalie MacLean Berglove was on top of his game; it took two rebounds for East to finally get a puck past him late in the second period, and the Elks had an immediate response just ten seconds later. It was a tight game at 2-1, but the Elks were in control. The clock ticked down on the Duluth East dynasty, and up in the stands, I was already writing a requiem in my head.

Not so fast.

East plugged away methodically for much of the third period, but despite a widening edge in shots, Berglove held firm. Then, with four minutes to go, a break: a penalty, the first one of the game. The refs had let the teams play, but Dylan Bouten’s takedown of East’s Alex Trapp was a bit too obvious to ignore. East’s lethal power play went to work, but the top unit, which included a wounded Jack Kolar, didn’t generate much. Out came the second unit, a line of three sophomores, including Alex Spencer, a converted defenseman whose primary purpose is to screen the opposing goaltender. Trapp very nearly found Spencer on a long breakaway pass, but the referees called it back. No matter, Hounds: back to work. With 2:08 on the clock, Spencer swatted a back-hander past Berglove to tie the game.

The clock ran out on regulation. Overtime. The Hounds smelled blood. Two minutes in, leading scorer Nick Altmann spotted daylight between Berglove’s pads, and fired his shot. I couldn’t see it from my angle, but I didn’t need to. It was bedlam at Amsoil. Sticks and gloves exploded in every direction, the student section toppled into a black-clad mass up along the glass, while Mike Randolph barreled out on to the ice to hug his student manager. The party went on through the awards ceremony and on into a frigid Duluth night, car horns echoing through the parking ramp and giddy kids hanging out of windows, jawing back and forth. The Hounds will head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year, and the fifteenth time in the past twenty-one.

The odds had rarely been longer. Yet somehow, this Hounds team that needed overtime to beat an awful Cambridge team in November found a way. Their coach, Altmann said, told them to “deny losing.” The finish was a carbon copy of their stunner over Grand Rapids in 2011, and not terribly far off from an even more excruciating upset of Cloquet in 2005. Randolph’s record in section finals speaks for itself: 15-1, those fifteen wins now tied for second-most in state history, behind only Edina legend Willard Ikola.

They did it with a team with only four seniors, and with only one returning player who had scored more than 15 points last season. Their offensive numbers were hardly dynamic, and the defense, while strong, had its occasional lapses. Goaltending was also a large question mark heading in, yet East got it done all the same.

To be sure, these Hounds were hardly the little sisters of the poor. They were in the top 15 all season long, and defenseman Phil Beaulieu is one of the state’s finest talents. His partner, Trapp, is also an elite high school defenseman, and the Hounds have their customary organizational depth, with no shortage of quality forwards. Yet once again, they are playing in March, while a host of quality teams will watch from the stands.

This East group found its share of improbable heroes, including Spencer and the scorer of the first goal, Bryton Lutzka. While talented, Lutzka prompted his share of head-shaking on my part over the course of the season; on Thursday night, he played his best game of the year. Before the third period, I joked with a friend on whether Beaulieu might just go out there and play the whole period. There was no need for that this season. Randolph had full confidence in his complete bench, and his bench bought what he’d been selling all season long. There are valid critiques that can be leveled at the storied coach, but a man doesn’t stay on the same job for twenty-five years without changing, and the current version of Mike Randolph seems to have struck the proper balance. His intensity is inspiring instead of overbearing, and his wry humor is peeking out more often; more than anything, he is having fun. And when a man can couple a life of hockey knowledge with a confident, fiery swagger, it’s no wonder when the results follow.

The Hounds will learn their opponent for Thursday’s quarterfinal on Saturday morning. For once, East will not be among the favorites; instead, they will head south with nothing to lose. It’s an unfamiliar position, but one in which East could thrive, so long as they stick to their game. While they have a couple of lopsided losses to top teams, they’ve also had a couple of very close games with them, and no one team stands head and shoulders above the rest in this field.

Elsewhere in the state, the playoffs have produced their share of thrillers. Eden Prairie beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s in double overtime to win the always difficult 6AA, while Roseau—whose population is smaller than the enrollment of Eden Prairie High—outlasted Moorhead in a back-and-forth barnburner. There was a fair amount of schadenfreude when St. Thomas Academy, the private school power that had overstayed its welcome in Class A, blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Eagan 4-2 in the 3AA title game. While not entirely unexpected, as the Cadets are a fairly young team, the loss meant at least one of my preseason predictions was right: AA playoffs really are an entirely different story. St. Thomas simply didn’t play deep and physical teams like Eagan in Class A, and beating that sort of team is going to require some adjustments from their default transition game and efforts to set up perfect shot. A few sections were less surprising, as emerging power Lakeville North rolled through 1AA, and an upset loss by Burnsville left Edina with smooth sailing to an eighth straight Tourney.

In Class A, the field may not necessarily be as strong as usual, but it is a unique one with a number of new faces. With St. Thomas in AA and Breck losing a stunner to Orono, only Hermantown remains among the class’s traditional powers. Top-ranked East Grand Forks barely scraped past an excellent Warroad team in double overtime, and another top-five team, Duluth Marshall, was stuck in the same section as Hermantown. That leaves the Hawks and East Grand Forks as odds-on favorites to meet in the final, but there is intrigue elsewhere. Undefeated Luverne rolled through 3A, and while they haven’t played anyone difficult all season long, they do have some talent, and have at least some chance of making some noise. Orono has already proven it can take down giants, and New Prague looks to be a dangerous, physical team as well. The Class A teams will kick off the action at 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, and after that, it’s four straight days of endless hockey. I’ll have an update on where to find my coverage of the Tourney in the coming days.