Tag Archives: sports postmortems

Pinstriped Pleasures

22 Oct

Half the fun of being a Yankees fan is the freedom to revel in being rich and evil. By those standards, the Bronx Bombers’ 2017 season was an odd one. With this year’s squad, we had a chance to enjoy things the way most other fans must: with cautious optimism, excitement at rising prospects, and eventually coming to realize that hey, maybe this team can make the playoffs and has a fighting shot once it’s there! This Yankee team was fun to watch, their most entertaining in years, and gave a necessary jolt of life to a franchise that had been treading water for years.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez had both shown their potential at the major league level, and there are always enough high-priced stars in the Yankee constellation to keep them relevant, even if said stars are past their prime (CC Sabathia), having down years (Masahiro Tanaka), or otherwise not living up to their contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury). In the Age of the Bullpen, they had about as impressive an assemblage of talent for the late innings as any team ever. With a young core and a strong farm system, an 88-win season and a chance at the second wild card berth didn’t sound too outlandish at the start. The ultimate result was within the margin of error of that prediction.

It didn’t come easy, though. Many of the things we assumed would be strengths (Tanaka, that bullpen) were surprisingly inconsistent. Injuries depleted the lineup at times, most notably to Gary Sanchez, but also afflicting Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro after fine starts to the season, and ruining most of Greg Bird’s year. The Yankees had the run differential of a team that should have won 100 games, meaning their end total of 91 was in some sense a pretty serious underachievement.

They made up for it in the postseason. After an early deficit against the Twins made the Wild Card game look lost from the get-go, Gregorious had an instant response, and the Yankee offense rolled from there. Down 0-2 to a Cleveland juggernaut after a brutal blown lead, they flipped a switch and restored order in the Bronx behind a rejuvenated rotation and that bullpen. Again down 0-2 to Houston, the offense awoke at home in Game 3, and a late stunner in Game 4 seemed to flip the whole series. Yankees fans had every reason to be confident heading back to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the ALCS, but you can’t predict baseball, Suyzn, and the feisty Astros fought back, while the Yankee bats went cold.

Unlike the Yankees’ ALCS run, a 2012 push that felt like it was running on fumes, this roster was laden with energy and hope for the future. To get the obvious out of the way, there was Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season got most of the national headlines, and gave the Bronx Bombers a bona fide offensive star for the first time since Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez listed into decline. Didi Gregorius set the Yankee record for home runs by a shortstop, and has succeeded at the impossible task of being Jeter’s successor. He and Castro create a dynamic double play combination with plenty of years ahead of them, and combine with Judge and Sanchez to form a multifaceted offensive core.

Some of the more important moves for these Yankees took place off the field. ALDS review snafu aside, Joe Girardi stayed himself, handling the craziness of New York and (eventually) managing his pitchers well, and while I’ve gone up and down on him over his ten(!) years in the Bronx, I believe he deserves an extension. Brian Cashman comes out of the past year and a half looking brilliant, with particularly with his deadline moves. In 2016, he had the guts to admit the Yankees were out of it and held a fire sale that rebuilt the farm system overnight. This season, he shored up the rotation and the bullpen with a couple of decisive moves that made a deep playoff run possible.

They bring back everyone who was anyone on offense, and have Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres lurking in the wings to help in the spots with the biggest long-term question marks. The bullpen will be just as lethal, and if it lives up to its fullest potential, will be practically unhittable. The rotation, the weak spot to begin with, remains the biggest issue, though it’s full of respectable options. They’ll have to make decisions on Tanaka and Sabathia, whose postseason performances may have earned them both extensions; they could do a lot worse than those two, especially with Tanaka, whose rough regular year was probably a blip. Severino is still growing into his role, Sonny Gray is fairly reliable, and if Jordan Montgomery can reprise his respectable role from this past season, they could have a complete rotation, albeit one with little margin for error. Of course they could just go shopping to shore things up, but within a monster free agent class coming up after this next season, I expect they might save their pennies for now.

No season without a pennant is a true success in Yankeeland, but it was hard not to enjoy this one, even with the end result. Yankee Stadium came alive again, or perhaps truly alive for the first time since the move across the street in 2009. It’s been loud, of course, but the intimidating Yankee environment hasn’t quite been the same in the new behemoth, and the ring of ever-empty box seats and paltry attendances (by Yankee standards) at times even this season attest to this loss of the old ideal. But this fall the Bleacher Creatures seemed to find that raucousness that made the old building shake, bouncing around and singing like soccer hooligans. After a phase of gradual decline and painfully long good-byes to old icons, the Yankees and their fans are finding their swagger again. The Yankees won back the Bronx this postseason, going 6-0 at home, and with any luck a couple of its old residents, Mystique and Aura, aren’t far behind.

For now, though, it’s time for a long winter, and for the first time in a while, “maybe next year” is more than an idle wish. And I do believe high school hockey teams drop the puck in less than a month…

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The Agony and the Ecstasy: Duluth East Hockey 2015-2016

26 Feb

2016-02-25 18.51.02

Duluth East’s string of seven consecutive 7AA titles has come to an end, as all great runs must. It came in heart-wrenching fashion, as rival Grand Rapids, so long the Hounds’ whipping boys, snatched away a 6-5 win on Alex Adams’ goal with six seconds left in regulation. East had just killed a late Rapids penalty, and the 7AA final seemed destined for overtime for a third straight year. It only took a momentary lapse; a sense that things might coast on into the sort of extra session that has treated East so well down the years. Instead, a supremely talented Grand Rapids team fulfilled its promise and punched a ticket back to St. Paul. If anyone ever earned the right to end a dynasty, it was this team, and they did it in a way that will go down in Rapids legend.

It was the sort of game that produced bedlam so incoherent that the details, in retrospect, are a blur. The leads went back and forth all night long, and the crowd at Amsoil Arena, 6,100 strong, nearly blew the roof off the building. For a fourth year in a row, the 7AA final gave us high school hockey at its pinnacle, as everyone in the building grinned manically through their nerves. This is how hockey is meant to be. Even when the Hounds grabbed their 5-3 lead in the third period, it never seemed safe. This was the sort of night where coaches’ best-laid plans went out the window, and it all turned on sheer emotion.

Not that Mike Randolph didn’t try. He switched lines and showed occasional glimpses of 2-3, and unlike the regular season game in which the Hounds sat back, they went at it with Rapids all night long. It made for spectacular theater. East used the TV timeouts to give Ash Altmann extra shifts, and by the end he was reunited with Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow, and those three marauded about the ice as the clock wound down. Even though his section final record now has a second blemish, Randolph took it with composure, and seemed downright proud of the Rapids players in the postgame ceremony. This one will sting, no doubt; it was a talented and balanced squad, even if it didn’t have the front-line firepower of Grand Rapids, East may not be able to match this depth again for a few years. But at this point, even someone as intense as Randolph can enjoy the spectacle for what it is.

Unlike some of the other big East senior classes, this one was often an adventure. They had their peaks and valleys, their moments of greatness and times of frustration. But they were playing up to their potential by the end, leaving it all on the ice as they barreled up and down the rink. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Altmann is perhaps the most identifiable name for the Hounds over the past few seasons, and was a force on Thursday night with a pair of powerful individual goals. His game-sealing dagger against Edina last season will remain one of the most indelible images in East hockey history. Peterson, a warrior through injury, likewise led this team, and has last year’s winner over St. Thomas to his name. Alex Spencer has his personal highlight reel of huge hits, Shay Donovan was always a steadying presence, Dow’s speed and dangles played a key role in many a win, and the versatile Nathaniel Benson found the back of the net for the first time all season in the section final. Auston Crist provided much-needed net-front presence, Marcus Skoog made his contributions, on John Orrey held down the backup goalie duties. We thank them for a long string of memories.

We East fans are blessed with eternal relevance, year in and year out. Even when the Hounds lose, it almost always happens in style, in a nail-biter against an elite team, with both teams giving it their all. It is hard to ask for much more. This year’s team was frustrating at times, with both flashes of great talent and head-shaking losses. I preached patience through their struggles, and with good reason: they would have it together by the end, and leave the ice with no shame. This latest batch of East players and their raucous fans in the stands are now members of this exhilarating hockey fraternity, one whose ties linger long past high school days. Whatever befalls the Hounds, be it a magical run like last season or the exploits of our alumni, whether it involves a crushing playoff loss or the rise of rival neighbors, we’re part of something that improbably draws us back, whatever roads we take.

I can now start to prepare for next week’s Tourney, which is East-free for the first time since my senior year of high school. It will be a strange feeling, but will also make it far less nervy, and I expect there will still be a host of Hounds wandering the X and downtown St. Paul. Grand Rapids’ elation at one Tourney berth makes us realize how lucky we are to have enjoyed so many, and as this great run now fades into memory, it will look that much brighter in retrospect. It began when East overpowered in Elk River in 2009, became routine in 2010, carried on through overtime after overtime in 2011, suffered heartbreak with a dream team in 2012, sought redemption in 2013, refused to die in 2014, and went on a magical run for the ages in its final season before Grand Rapids, four times East’s victim in sections over that stretch, broke through.

Some of the beauty of high school hockey comes in how fleeting it all seems, and how quickly it renews itself. There is promise for next year: a very talented junior class returns to take the reins, and as long as they find some depth, they’ll be right there for another run in 7AA. As I wrapped up my business in the press box Thursday night, I caught my enduring image from this season, one that sums up what this game and this sport means to all of us so simply: a lone Hounds player running up and down a flight of stairs in a near-empty Amsoil Arena. Conditioning for next season has already begun.

The Hounds’ Run for the Ages: 2014-2015 in Review

9 Mar

The Duluth East season is at an end, though Greyounds young and old are still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the past two weeks. The Hounds took us on a ride for the ages, as a mediocre season culminated in a second place trophy. The streak included one of the greatest comebacks in State Tournament history and one of the greatest upsets in State Tournament history on back-to-back nights, to say nothing of one heroic goaltending performance and yet another crazy comeback in sections. Much of the praise for the run, some of mine included, has been directed at Mike Randolph, and he certainly deserves the credit for devising a system that turned a defensive sieve into a trapping machine that shut down Edina’s bevy of forward talent. The old Hound found new tricks, even in retirement.

Importantly, though, Randolph gave all of his praise to the players, and it was those players who made it happen. It was largely forgotten after the first half struggles, but East was ranked in or around the top ten by most people in the preseason, and while there may not have been any can’t-miss D-I upperclassmen, over half of the players on this team will have the chance to play some hockey after high school if they so choose, some of them at a fairly high level. This team was deeper than many, including all of 7AA; by the end of the season they had three competent lines that could score, and rolled six defensemen for the first time in several years. As Edina so often shows the rest of the state, depth kills, and any team with confidence in its full bench is in a position to outlast teams that may have a few more front-end stars.

East didn’t score much this season, but the numbers there are a bit misleading. Thirteen different skaters recorded a point in the State Tournament, and while it was only ever a Plan B, they did show some genuine offensive talent when they had to, rallying back against teams like Blaine, Minnetonka, Elk River, and St. Thomas Academy. Luke Dow and the Altmann brothers are high-quality high school forwards, while Ryan Peterson was one of the stars of the Tourney, and Brian Bunten was a consistent presence. Garrett Worth has the potential to become the next in a line of great East snipers, and Ian Mageau and Ryder Donovan will likely join him in some offensive prowess in the coming years.

This East team had its issues, though, with only one returning defenseman who played defense last year. There were signs of promise from the whole corps, but sloppy or boneheaded moments often did them in; a number of East’s losses involved two reasonably good periods that were undone by one abysmal one. In net, Gunnar Howg hit enough speedbumps to see two other goalies cycled through the job before winning it back with a stellar performance against Lakeville North. A young group including three freshmen and a sophomore slowly found its way against that typically brutal schedule. The first half was a laundry list of can-you-top-this frustrating games: a narrow escape against St. Michael-Albertville, a blown lead in Centennial, a 7-1 shellacking (despite nine power plays!) at the hands of Edina, a loss to Eastview in a winless holiday tournament, and then rock-bottom, a 5-1 home loss to rival Grand Rapids.

It is hard to pin down any one turning point in East’s season. Nick Altmann pointed to a narrow loss to Eden Prairie in January, a solid effort in a bounce back from the Grand Rapids game two days prior; immediately after that came Howg’s performance against North. But there were still bumps. A loss to Anoka led to the adoption of the radical 2-3 forecheck that was the star of East’s best regular season game, a tie at Elk River that proved they had a shot at the section. But even though that scheme played a huge role in some of the Hounds’ wins down the stretch, there were other games where they never really got it going or had to drop it to make up for big deficits.

To pull off this run, this team needed to have something else going for it, some intangible quality that takes all of those clichés about sports and makes them real. Grit, heart, character, determination, belief: whichever word you like. Randolph’s line from the 2014 section final reappeared: “deny losing.” They played each of their six playoff opponents during the regular season, and didn’t beat a single one of them. But yet they got it done. They took down a goalie with a bright future who’d flustered them in a regular season tie, an archrival out for their blood that threw everything they had at them, the Mr. Hockey winner and his team of section destiny, high-powered St. Thomas Academy in its AA Tourney debut, and then the two-time defending champions, a team that had lost just once in its previous 37 games.

The heroes were different every night: Howg against Grand Rapids, a couple of third-liners against Elk River, Ryan Peterson against St. Thomas, the Altmann brothers against Edina. A big hit from Bryton Lutzka here, or desperate goal line clearances from back-checkers there; Alex Spencer throwing it down with Parker Mismash, showing Edina that East wasn’t going to take his agitation lying down. It was a total team effort, and while they exceeded my wildest expectations, after each win, the next one didn’t seem like it would be so implausible. They’d done it before, so why not do it again?

Luck played its part, as it must in every miracle run. There were so many pipes, trickling pucks, and convenient bounces. Dylan Malmquist’s injury will forever be an asterisk on the Edina game. Even so, the Hornets had more than enough firepower to win, and the Hounds made Edina’s other stars look ordinary with their discipline. Their reward was, hands down, the best sports memory I have ever had: 21,000 people in a record-breaking crowd, rising to applaud the darlings of the north. (Call it the East fan’s paradox: we spend the entire regular season as the Evil Empire of 7AA, only to come down to St. Paul to adoration.) It helped that they took down two of the most hated teams in the state, but it was a run that reminded many why it is we love this Tournament so much, and why Minnesota high school hockey has no equal.

The final against Lakeville North wasn’t to be: the Panthers were too good, too precise, and too smart to fall into some of the same traps that others before them had. East lost to one of the all-time great teams to come through the state, and did a decent job of hanging in there, giving some faint hope for yet another comeback. There was no shame in the effort, and while the fourth title remains elusive, another big-time trophy is on its way back to Duluth, none more improbable than this one.

And so we bid farewell to our seniors: Nick Funk, Matt Lyttle, and Evan Little, all of whom came into their own as regular forwards down the stretch, and chipped in big plays in the playoffs. Backup goalie Lucas Hedin, who gave a delicious salute to St. Thomas Academy after East finished them off. Bryton Lutzka, whose experience and big hits led the way on an otherwise green defense. Gunnar Howg, a two-time Tournament goalie who found his niche as a Hound. And the captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, two hardworking longtime linemates who drew their coach’s highest praise: “you see those two guys right there? They drive the bus.” We wish them all the best, whether in hockey or in life beyond dear old East. Together, they made some memories to cherish.

For the rest of the team, meanwhile, it’s back to work: time to hit the weights, plan an offseason regimen, and probably enjoy some free time away from the rink, too. This was a pretty young team, and there will be a lot of talent coming back next year. Grand Rapids will be loaded, Elk River will be out for revenge, Cloquet is still there, and Marshall is joining the AA party. Seven in a row is nice and all, but eight has a pretty good ring to it, don’t you think?

My annual State Tournament reflection essay (which also, unsurprisingly, includes some stuff about East) is available here.

Six Wild Myths

15 May

The Minnesota Wild’s season is over, with a funny bounce and that platonic ideal of the hockey bro, Patrick Kane, spelling its doom in the sixth game of the Western Conference semifinals. While it was a second straight defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, it was also the second-best finish in franchise history, and a clear improvement on the team that got steamrolled by Chicago in the first round a year ago. To wrap it all up, here are six things that were said about this Wild team or the players on it that were either proven false, or should not be taken as gospel:

Mike Yeo is in over his head.

This might be the most obvious one: any midseason worries about the Wild’s young head coach were overwrought, and he deserves some time to see what he can do with this equally young, exciting core of emerging players. He had them playing a style that matched their skill set, and for the most part it was positive, possession-focused hockey, not the endless traps of the Lemaire Era. The “same old Wild” storyline from some in the national media was laughable; Colorado trapped more than the Wild did, and even the Blackhawks did so with some regularity. The Wild’s cycles aren’t exactly up-tempo hockey, and can sometimes lend themselves to inane passing, but they usually did a good job of generating chances for a team not blessed with an overload of offensive firepower.

Yeo can go a bit overboard with his line shuffling, and it was aggravating to see Dany Healtey oozing about the ice in game situations while the likes of Erik Haula rode the bench. Like his young players, he has some learning to do. But he has shown he can learn from mistakes, and there’s no reason to think he can’t be this team’s coach for years to come.

The Wild couldn’t win with Ilya Bryzgalov in net.

Bryz is no star, and his playoff stats are nothing to write home about. He is also definitely not the Wild’s future. But for a fourth-string goalie pressed into a very difficult situation, he wasn’t half bad: on the list of things that went wrong in the postseason, Bryzgalov’s performance is not near the top. Competent coaches can design game plans that lighten the burden on questionable netminders, and Mike Yeo did just that this postseason. The most you can ask of a goalie in Bryz’s situation is to give the team a chance to win, and he did just that.

It would be great for the Wild to have a goalie who can legitimately steal a game, as Corey Crawford did for Chicago in Game 6. They just don’t right now. Darcy Kuemper has probably done enough to earn a chance to be that man, though they need to have a realistic Plan B going forward, too.

Zach Parisé had a poor postseason.

As of this writing, Parisé’s 14 points in 13 games are tied for second-most of anyone in the playoffs. That’s more points than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, and several other players who Parisé’s equals or superiors. That’s also a higher rate of points per game than he had during the regular season, and also comes in higher than most of his seasons in the NHL. True, his performance wasn’t incredibly consistent, and only 4 of those 14 points were goals. But, as with Bryzgalov, this is not among the major reasons the Wild lost. Parisé’s work ethic was superb as always, and his line was always the focus of the opposition’s most intense attention. No, he didn’t put the team on his back, but he was good enough.

Of bigger concern was the performance of Mikko Koivu. Sure, he was hurt, but it showed in his play, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. That’s not to say he can’t continue to be a productive player for the Wild, but his days as a top line center are probably in the past. It sure didn’t seem to help much when Yeo did put him on a line with Parisé.

There is an easy narrative about Matt Cooke.

After Cooke took out Tyson Barrie’s knee in the first round, people outside Minnesota were quick to label him a goon, this incident only being the latest in a long history of indefensible play. Wild fans, on the other hand, tended to see a player who’d made a serious dent in his penalty minutes, and for the most part cleaned up his act; the 7-game suspension, they argued, was an unfair punishment for a distant past. There’s some truth to both stories.

Cooke is tough to handle because he is more than a simple goon; he really is a productive player who brought excellent energy to the Wild third line. But no matter how much he seems to have left that past behind, there will always be that risk, and any team that signs him (and its fan base) will have to understand that. Such is life with Matt Cooke.

With all of their youth, the Wild are guaranteed a bright future.

Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Wild over the next few years. Mikael Granlund looks like a star in the making, and Erik Haula was arguably the Wild’s best player in the Chicago series. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Justin Fontaine…the list of youngsters with serious potential goes on and on. The three young members of the defensive corps, while wobbly at times, held its own against the much more experienced Blackhawks and contributed some to the offense, usually in the form of Jared Spurgeon.

Still, there’s room for some cautionary notes. Many of these players only played a fraction of a long season, and a couple of flashes in the playoffs shouldn’t be taken as signs of future stardom. Reality is that a few of them probably won’t pan out, and there will be further growing pains and a need for patience. There is a Minnesota sports tendency to fetishize some of these homegrown kids, too (the flip side of this being the excessive expectations directed at the few high-priced free agents they do bring in, like Parisé). The Wild can’t let that cloud its judgment of these players’ progression, and they need to keep on bringing in quality youngsters if they want this to be more than a small window of contention.

The Wild MUST Get Thomas Vanek.

Vanek is a great player who would liven up a rather paltry power play, and might be enough to make the Wild’s offense truly formidable. The Wild does need another top-flight forward or two, and shouldn’t rely solely on the young stars’ progression to find them. I’ve got nothing against him. But the moment a team starts to convince itself that it has to have a certain player, they usually end up overpaying or otherwise behaving rashly. This team has needs beyond its top two lines, most notably on defense: I dream of a team on which Ryan Suter doesn’t have to play absurd minutes for the team to win. Again, the improving kids can help, but defensive depth was a weakness this past season. If they waste too much on one player, the trickle-down effects on depth could prove more of a hindrance than a help.

Another thing to understand about Vanek: he’s 30. If there’s a time to splurge on a free agent in his prime, it’s now: the Wild has every reason to load up for a run over the next few years, with Parisé and Suter in their primes and all the kids growing up. But fans also need to realize that he’s not going to get any better than he is now, and will almost certainly be overpaid by the end of his contract. It’ll all be worth it if he helps get the Wild to the promised land, but it can’t let other needs slide if they want to build a complete, championship team. Vanek, or a comparable forward, is just one piece of the puzzle.

***

The road to success is slow and long, but the Wild look to be on it, and had this otherwise erstwhile NHL fan glued to every game over the past month. There’s a lot of potential here, and this franchise finally looks to be coming into its own. The future is now, and it’s time for the Wild brain trust to seize this opportunity and run with it.

The Duluth East 2013-2014 Season in Review

14 Mar

The State Tournament is over, which means it’s time to wind down my hockey coverage on this blog. If you miss my philosophical rambling, good news: I’m working on a post that should go up this weekend. But before we put away our skates and get ready for spring, I figured I’d say a little bit about Duluth East’s season.

22-8-1, 6th place at State. The record books might call it the weakest East season in five or six years, but plenty of programs in the state would’ve loved to have had that. If you’d offered me that before the season, I would have snapped it up. For a team whose dynasty was supposed to be running on borrowed time, for a team with only four seniors, for a team whose youth teams feeding in hadn’t been quite as good as the last few, even with the unusually large number of Marshall-bound players factored in—it was a superb year. The offense got off to a slow start, but grew better as inexperienced players settled into their roles. The Hounds lost a couple of frustrating games, but also went 4-0 against the toughest conference in the state, demolished a supposed threat on the road in Grand Rapids, won two games in the Schwan Cup Gold, and restored order against Duluth Denfeld.

It was enough to earn the top seed in 7AA—something they really didn’t deserve, given their regular season losses to Elk River and Cloquet, but with five quality teams in the section it didn’t amount to a grave injustice, and the Hounds once again dispatched of Grand Rapids without too much trouble. That set up the anticipated final against Elk River, in which the Hounds were outplayed for long portions of the game but found a way to head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year. The dramatic comeback made for one of the most thrilling and rewarding section titles in team history.

The State Tournament was a mild disappointment. A series of upsets left the Hounds with the 4-seed, and a battle with #5 Eagan; whatever the rankings said, it was a very even match-up on paper. The Hounds looked the better team for the better part of two periods, but hockey can be a cruel game, and two fluky goals had them staring at a big hole. The offense struggled to generate much traction after a key injury, players began to press, and the wheels came off some in the third period. The results in the consolation bracket—an overtime win over Stillwater, and a one-goal loss to Roseau on a late goal—were respectable, but not quite, well, enough for a consolation prize. But, as the Eagan loss showed, hockey can be a fickle sport. The Hounds fought to the end, the younger players gained some valuable experience, and the seniors graduate knowing nothing but State Tournaments in their time at East.

For a second straight year, the heart and soul of this team was its top defensive pair. First Meirs Moore and Phil Beaulieu, and then Beaulieu and Alex Trapp, were rocks on defense and put up big numbers ranging forward into the attack. Beaulieu, a Mr. Hockey Finalist, will go down as one of the finest defensemen in the history of a program that has produced as many D-I defensemen as anyone, and Trapp will have his shot at the next level, too. While less flashy, senior Joey Marinac’s steadying presence will also be missed, leaving Bryton Lutzka as the only returnee among the top four defensemen. Lutzka improved markedly as the season went along; I feared he might be their defensive liability heading into sections, but he shined on the highest stage, and the Hounds will need his big hits and improved discipline to give their blue line some order next season.

The cupboard isn’t exactly bare, either. While Alex Spencer and Nathaniel Benson spent most of the year playing forward on the third line, both are converted defensemen, and it would be no surprise to see one or both slide back to steady the defense next season. The third pair saw very little ice time, but there is some potential there, too. They might not have the offensive sparkplugs they’ve had the past couple years, but they still have the look of a deep and fairly steady group.

At forward, junior Nick Altmann had a breakout year, and though he was slowed by injury at the start and end of the season, senior Jack Kolar was also a force; someone will have to step up to take his place. The good news, of course, is that Kolar was the only senior, and there will be plenty of people fighting to fill out the remaining spots on the roster. Junior Brian Bunten and sophomores Ash Altmann and Ryan Peterson are locks for next season; Bunten is Nick Altmann’s longtime partner in crime, the younger Altmann may have the highest ceiling of any forward on the squad, and Peterson’s work rate is second to none. Beyond that, there’s a long list of forwards who cycled through the lineup this past season; Maysen Rust played more than the rest, but Matt Lyttle, Evan Little, Auston Crist, Nick Funk, and Jackson Purdy should all have a shot at a regular shift next year if they put in the work over the summer.

The East Bantam AA team didn’t have a stellar year, and some of its talents are still just first years, meaning they’re unlikely to get the call to varsity. (Freshmen have rarely played varsity for the Hounds over the past decade, and I don’t expect a change there.) They were still competitive with many good teams, though, and will be playing in the VFW State Tournament in a few weeks. And with so few graduating seniors, East doesn’t need a whole bunch of bantams to jump right in; a few here and there should do the trick, and the rest can mature a bit more on JV.

In goal, junior Gunnar Howg quietly had a very good season, especially when one considers his improvement from start to finish. At the beginning of the year, some compared him to JoJo Jeanetta, the East goalie in their 2011 2nd place State Tourney run, largely because of his unconventional style and relative lack of hype coming into high school. Others bristled at this comparison; it seemed early to be comparing him to the most successful East playoff goalie of recent years. Statistically, though, Howg’s junior year was superior to Jeanetta’s. He had the benefit of a strong defense, but it’s an encouraging sign, and if he keeps working to improve, he could be a top-notch goalie in 2014-2015.

The 2014-2015 team may not have the obvious stars of the past few years, but even though they’re the Cakeaters of the North, Mike Randolph’s teams have always been able to assume the blue-collar mantel without too much difficulty. (Even if Randolph retires, I’d be surprised if he isn’t succeeded by a disciple with a similar thought process.) They enjoy a deep feeder program that continues to give them plenty of quality players, and if the coaching staff can cobble all the pieces together, they’ll be in good position to defend their section crown yet again next season.

Looking around the rest of 7AA, the stiffest challenge is almost certain to come from Elk River again. The Elks came ever so close to beating the Hounds this past season, and their youth teams over the past two years have been as good as any in the state. They will have some holes to fill; they’ll miss star goalie MacLean Berglove, forward Chase Springman, and a couple of other players who provided good depth, most notably on defense. Their biggest question concerns two stars who could leave; sophomore Matt Kierstad has already earned himself an invite for a tryout with the U.S. National Training and Development Program, and junior forward and leading scorer Jake Jaremko could also be a flight risk. With those two, they’re a clear favorite on paper; without them, they’re a bit on the young side, and it could easily be another race to the wire with the Hounds.

Some other teams will have a say, though. Grand Rapids will really miss its two graduating superstars, but their collection of talented sophomores should be ready to carry more of the load. With another good bantam team feeding in, they’ll be good, though on the young side. St. Michael-Albertville should continue its steady rise to relevance, and Cloquet, which, gave contenders fits late this past season, should be even more dangerous with a little more experience. Forest Lake and Andover have deep enough programs to remain relevant despite some losses, too. In other words, it’ll be another year of a deep, competitive section, though the Hounds still own the crown until someone dethrones them.

For now, though, it’s time to thank our seniors and hit the weights in preparation for next year. These past two seasons, in which the Hounds have silenced many doubters and extended their dominion over 7AA, have been an absolute delight for a returnee to Duluth in need of some way to get through the long winters. Odds are that I’ll be following from a distance again next season, but I’m excited to watch it all unfold, and as always, I’ll have a certain weekend in March cleared on my calendar.