The time for Laker hockey is upon us.
Lake Superior State is getting set to drop the puck on the 2019-20 season, its 54th of collegiate play. The sixth season for Damon Whtten behind the bench will see its first game on Saturday, October 5th, when the Merrimack Warriors come to Sault Ste. Marie.
Last season, Lake State compiled a record of 23-13-2, the best mark for the squad since 1995-96, when Jeff Jackson guided the team to a 30-8-2 record. So many superlatives exist to describe just how eventful last season was to the team and its coach that this is not the place to list them.
One question burns on the minds of the Laker faithful: Can they do it again?
As we did last season, we will break down our preview by positions (forwards, defence, goaltending), scheduling and an overall outlook.
Mike: The story of the front unit for Lake Superior is obvious: Where will all of the goals come from?
Of the 123 goals scored by the team last year, the Lakers will be without the players who scored 48 this season. Diego Cuglietta, Anthony Nellis and Gage Torrel all saw the fruits of their labour last season after toiling for three years prior. But, as Whitten said during the WCHA Media Day, there was no reason to suspect that those players would have the seasons they did. There is no reason to suspect that forwards like Max Humitz (who will garner a ‘C’ this year) and Ashton Calder, can continue the upward trend.
The Lakers also saw more offensive support out of their 3rd and 4th lines, with Brendan McKay, Bryan Basilico and Hampus Eriksson all seeing increases from their previous season.
Dennis: The Lakers finding point scorers will be the big question to start the season. Max Humitz is within distance of the 100 point mark, coming into the season with 76. We saw Calder get going once he got some more ice time as the season went on – 22 points in 37 games. But with the likes of Cugiletta and Nellis gone, the forwards we didn’t see much of last year will have to step up, and the rookies too. Miroslav Mucha is one played I’m looking forward to seeing step up this year.In his last year of juniors he scored 55 points in 59 games with only 28 penalty minutes.
As for the incoming freshman forwards, all four are highly touted…and one a little moreso because of his name.
First is Roberts Blugers. Originally from Riga Latvia, Roberts came up in the American system via Shattuck St. Marys before moving into the NAHL with Fairbanks, playing 110 games for the Ice Dogs, and scoring 80. He did spend a season as an Assistant Captain with the Madison Capitals, playing in 62 games but only getting 17 points. All throughout he has represented his home country in various international tournaments, getting a silver medal in the U20 WJC in ‘17-18.
Mike: Laker fans may remember his brother Teddy at Minnesota State. He had 108 points in his time with the Mavericks and was a regular terror in Mike Hastings’ lineup. Last season, he appeared in 28 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins, collecting 10 points.
Dennis: Next is Frenchman Louis Boudon, from Grenoble, France. Louis played on the U18 & U22 teams of VIllard-de-Lans club, wearing both the Captain’s ‘C’ and ‘A’ at various times (fun fact: former Laker assistant coach Rich Metro both played & coached Villard-de-Lans main team, earning them a France2 championship in 2001-2002 and the French Cup in 2002-2003 as a player). Coming to North America he started his career by dominating in the NA3HL, playing 46 games and totalling 81 points and earning him a place on the All-Tournament team, the first all-star team and the league’s MVP. He moved onto the NAHL, playing for the Northeast Generals, playing a total of 108 games and scoring 119 points. Louis has also represented France in various WJC and international tournaments.
Dustin Manz is a bit more local, coming from Vanderbilt, Michigan. He spent a few years playing for Little Caesars in the UPHL before moving into the NAHL, playing for the Aston Rebels alongside current LSSU goalie Mareks Mitens. He did alright, appearing in 56 and getting 16. But like a number of players, playing the last two years in the BCHL for Prince George seemed to light a fire. In 2017-18, appearing in 58 games he netted a total of 43 points. The next season, in 28 games Manz scored a total of 70 & helping his team to a championship.
Mike: Manz is down the road a bit from my hometown of Cheboygan. Many Lake State students drive past Vanderbilt on their way up to the Soo from downstate and know just how small of a town it is. I cannot confirm it, but Manz may be the first DI athlete to come out of Vanderbilt.
Dennis: Finally, a name that may be familiar with many: Niko Esposito-Selivanov. Yes, that Esposito and that Selivanov. His grandfather is none other than former Boston Bruin & New York Ranger legend, and 2 time Stanley Cup winner Phil Esposito, who is actually a native of the Canadian Sault. His father, Alexander, was a late round pick for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1994, but wouldn’t see play with them in the NHL. He would be a regular with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets. He would make a name for himself, moreso however, in Europe. But this is all unneeded pressure for Niko. He has come up through the Shattuck system also before playing a season in the USHL with both Sioux City and Waterloo…both of which are largely forgettable. Last season he was out in the BCHL playing for Cowichan Valley, playing 50 games and scoring 41. Hopefully last year boosted his confidence, or maybe he can tap into whatever runs in his family since the Lakers are going to need it going forward.
Mike: Going into last season, the biggest question mark for the Lakers was on the blue line. They had lost four players to graduation and, with a couple of exceptions, had less collegiate experience to lean on than desired. Thankfully, that wound up being a non-issue.
Steven Ruggiero has graduated, but he is the only loss on the back end. Collin Saccoman (who will wear the other ‘C’) and his shot blocking prowess return for one more year. Juniors Lukas Kälble, Will Reidell and Tyler Anderson all saw much improvement with another year under their belts. Also returning are Alec Semandel, who cut his teeth in 17 games last year, and Jacob Nordqvist, the only freshman to appear in all 38 games last year.
Dennis: What Damon & co have on the blueline is certainly interesting. Of the 10 players currently on the roster, four have not played a single game for the Lakers, and only two of them are freshmen. Kaeble and Saccoman are both looking to be our top players, since even though Riedell and Anderson saw some early improvement last season, their play still leaves something to be desired, but hopefully they will prove me wrong. I’ll be glad for it. Nordqvist was a solid player for us, and is 100% earning a regular spot. But what about that final spot?
Alec Semandel is the only other returning player who has seen the ice. While he didn’t look great, he seemed to have the skill to play. What he did over the summer will make a big influence this season.
Both Mitchel Oliver and Bennet Vida are returning players who have not seen the ice outside of a scrimmage or exhibition game. The little we saw of Vida during the game against the USNTDP his freshman year made him look interesting to me, but that was really the last we saw of him.
Assuming it’s not Oliver or Vida, that leaves our two freshmen: Michael Mannara or Arvid Henrikson. Without tape, it’s hard to judge defensemen on a statline, but from what I can tell from Eliteprosects, Mannara looks to be a scrappier sort of player who is solid as assisting on goals when he’s not in the box.
Henrikson, on the other hand, is actually a Montreal Canadiens 7th round draft pick. And he’s big, listed as 6’5, 212lbs. Like Mannara, it looks like he can put up some points, his +/- is also actually listed, and overall is a positive player through his career. But this will only be his second year in North America, so hopefully he’s become comfortable after only 39 games between the USHL and NAHL.
If I had to venture a guess at early season pairings, it would ideally be something like this (ignore sides, etc):
Mike: Graduated from last year’s squad is Nick Kossoff. While he played in tandem with Mareks Mitens in 2017-18, Kossoff took the reigns on the starter position last season and did well with it, posting a 2.42 goals against average an a .918 save percentage. He also etched his name in the Laker Hockey record book with his 63 save performance against Denver in October, 2017.
Mitens started 11 games last year, posting a slightly better 2.31 GAA and .919 SV%. Granted, he had a smaller sample size to work with, but could be thrust into any game situation. He was the only goaltender in the nation who collected a win in Mankato.
One thing both goaltenders could look forward to last season was the improved offense. In Whitten’s first two seasons at Lake State, his teams averaged under 2 goals per game. Not surprisingly, this put great pressure on goalies Kossoff and Gordie Defiel to play near-perfect games. The past few seasons, there has been a bit more breathing room for the netminders (especially with the 3.24 goals per game average last year), taking away the notion that they needed to steal victories.
Dennis: I mean, there’s really not much to say here, right? We have three goaltenders: Mareks Mitens, Roman Gengert and newcomer Seth Eisele. While it’s not a cut and dry situation, I think the #1 spot is Mitens’ to lose.
Being a junior, I’m sure Roman is getting anxious to play, but Eisele has a pretty good resume behind him. While playing for the Wenatchee Wild in the BCHL, he played a total of 34 games, with a 2.64 goals against average and a .887 save percentage in the regular season, he helped his team to win a championship & be named to the all-rookie team. He would move into the NAHL after 3 games with the Surrey Eagles, playing for the Lone Star Brahmas. Playing in 33 games, posting a 2.28 GAA and a .928 Save % in the regular season, he would be named the NAHL (south) Goaltender of the year and named to the All-South division team.
Unless one of either Bengert or Eisele really shine, I think we will see Mitens in the starting role, with probably Bengert as the main backup, at least to start the season. As practices roll along, however, I would not be shocked to see Eisele in that role.
Dennis: Overall, I think the schedule is a solid one for the Lakers. They will have to win often to start the year, going up against non-conference opponents for the first month, two of them on the road before starting up WCHA play against Ferris here in the Sault. We got the lucky draw this season, only having to take one trip the 49th state, playing Anchorage & Fairbanks back-to-back in January. We do, however, have to take the trip to Houghton to play tech during their Winter Carnival. It’s certainly not an easy environment to play in regularly, but that weekend will be downright toxic.
Mike: Non conference play sees Lake Superior hosting Merrimack and Denver to start the season, and road trips to Michigan and Notre Dame in October, plus the Catamount Cup against Providence and Vermont after Christmas.
Merrimack still has intrigue with former Laker head coach Scott Borek at the helm. His Warriors finished last in Hockey East last year. They have been down for a while and are probably a few years away from competing.
Denver made yet another trip to the Frozen Four last season, falling to Massachusetts. They will be one of the favourites to contend in their conference as well as on the national scene. David Carle will enter his second season at the helm of the Pioneers, with assistant Dallas Furgeson. Furgeson was coach of Alaska for 9 seasons before taking a job in the WHL.
The Wolverines made the trip up to the Soo last season. In the days of the “2 for 1 deal” that schools like Lake Superior seem to be stuck with, this is not a return trip. The Lakers went to Ann Arbor in 2016, picking up a split. Mel Pearson’s bunch fell short of expectations, so it awaits to be seen what happens with them.
Notre Dame appears on the Lakers’ schedule for the first time since the Florida College Hockey Classic in which Lake Superior defeated Jeff Jackson and the Irish to claim the championship. That squad has not been to Sault Ste. Marie since the dissolution of the CCHA, which is too bad.
There is also the matter of a home game against Alabama Huntsville being played in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario at the home of the Soo Greyhounds. There will be more to come on this as we get closer to February.
Dennis: I’m not quite sure on this one. Last year’s preview seemed much more upbeat, a bit more clean-cut when it came to looking at the roster and such, but this year feels more like a mixed bag. I certainly don’t think it will be as flashy as last year’s run, but we also aren’t defending our GLI title, instead it’s back out to Burlington, VT for the Catamount Cup, which would be nice to bring home too. I certainly think we have some hidden potential waiting in the rafters, and I can only hope that the coaching staff will use those weapons effectively. This team is gritty and has heart, and this town has been behind this team for a long time. I think it’s time to make it out of the first round.
Mike: On the national level, there is doubt that the Lakers will do what they did last year. Within the league, there is doubt that the Lakers will do what they did last year. It’s easy to look at what the team lost and question if they can replace that. Perhaps it takes a homer point of view to have that “gut feeling” that they will finish in the top half of the league. It will take incredible effort from all involved, but it can be done. After all, Minnesota State loses immense amounts of talent season after season, yet remain the class of the WCHA. With them, it’s no longer a question of will they reload.