By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – A little over a week ago, the Muskegon Lumberjacks were a frustrated hockey team.
They were in the midst of a maddening three-game losing streak, with all three losses coming by one goal. They weren’t picking up any ground in the standings or showing many signs of improvement.
So the front office decided a roster overhaul was in order.
Within a matter of hours last week they traded forwards Frederik Tiffels and C.J. Smith and acquired forwards Christopher Dodero from Chicago and Alex Toscano from Fargo.
They also tapped into their “affiliate” list, calling in forward Steven Spinner and defenseman Luc Snuggerud for immediate assistance.
“We felt it was time to get some players in here that are more in line with our style of play,” Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said. “We felt like we needed more grit in the lineup, more muscle up front, guys that were willing to go in the corner first, so if you don’t win the race you win the battle. We were looking for players to do a lot of the little things that weren’t getting done.”
The results were instantaneous and impressive. The Lumberjacks won two of their next three games, and the loss came in overtime, meaning they still gained a point in the standings.
In the first game, last Wednesday, they scored a season-high six goals in a 6-5 win over Cedar Rapids. In the other two they went toe-to-toe with the powerful Dubuque Fighting Saints and looked every bit as good as the defending league champions.
The best game was Saturday night, when Muskegon downed Dubuque 3-1.
Much of the improvement was directly traced to Spinner, who scored two goals in the three games, and Snuggerud, who had a goal and two assists and was named the co-recipient of the United States Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Week award.
But suddenly the Lumberjacks are back at a crossroads, because Spinner and Snuggerud have decided to go back home to Eden Prairie, Minnesota to finish their high school hockey seasons. Both were Muskegon draft picks last spring that made the team in training camp, but decided high school hockey was a better option this season.
Lumberjack officials tried to convince them to stay with the team beyond their three-game visit, but they weren’t persuaded. That means the team will have to go forward without its two newfound stars.
There is a chance they could return later in the season, according to Krygier.
“We tried to keep them here again this weekend, but for some reason kids from Minnesota want to go back and play a lower level of hockey,” Krygier said. “To me, playing at a lower level, if you’re a serious hockey player, does not make sense. You don’t get better playing at lower levels. But for some reason, the culture in Minnesota, they think it’s more important to play in front of a big crowd and their girlfriends.”
The Lumberjacks have other personnel issues, as well. Forward Trevor Morbeck has been suspended by the league for two games after receiving a five minute major penalty for elbowing last weekend. Center Mason Jobst is out with a concussion and is not expected back this weekend, while forward Luke Sandler has been designated for assignment to another team.
On the plus side, forward Connor Hurley (3 goals, 7 assists) and goalie Eric Schierhorn will rejoin the team this weekend after spending last weekend playing in tournaments.
The Lumberjacks will also have the services of another “affiliate” player – forward Grant Jozefek – on Friday night in Youngstown for one game only.
Jozefek was Muskegon’s top draft choice in last spring’s draft after scoring 54 goals and 62 assists last season in the Atlantic Youth Hockey League.
Even without Spinner and Snuggerud, Krygier thinks he will have an improved team when his roster is finally intact again.
“I feel we’re going to be tougher to play against – a little grittier,” he said. “I think we had a breakthrough. Our special teams and penalty kill had been terrible all year – guys weren’t willing to sacrifice. So we made a few changes and put guys out there who were hungry and wanted to do a good job and we got better.”
JACKS TIED FOR SECOND
The Lumberjacks (8-6-3) enter play this weekend in a four-way tie for second place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. Muskegon, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Green Bay all have 19 points in the standings, while first place Team USA has 21.
Muskegon has played three more games than Green Bay and four more than Dubuque and Cedar Rapids.
The Lumberjacks will play a home-and-home series this weekend with the Youngstown Phantoms, with Friday’s game on the road and Saturday’s at home at 7:15 p.m.