By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – There’s no shortage of optimism these days at the L.C. Walker Arena.

After four years of struggling in the United States Hockey League, the Muskegon Lumberjacks think they have the right combination of players to finally become a championship contender.

The Jacks will begin testing that theory tonight in Ann Arbor, where they open the season against Team USA.

They return for their home opener on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. against the Madison Capitols, then travel back to Ann Arbor on Sunday to play the Team USA.

Nobody knows how many wins will come in the busy first weekend, but the Lumberjacks believe by the end of the season, they will be among the best in the league.

The optimism starts in the front office.

“The number one question we get is are we going to win, what do we see in our crystal ball,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “We believe we’re a top 8 team and top 8 teams make the playoffs.

“We think we’re vastly improved.”

The players also believe they’re ready to pile up wins.

Mason Jobst, the team captain, is starting his fourth year with the Lumberjacks. He’s been on several mediocre and downright bad teams in Muskegon, but he thinks those days are over.

“I can easily say this is the best team I’ve been a part of in Muskegon,” Jobst said.

Only Lumberjack Coach Todd Krygier is holding back a bit, refusing to make predictions before any games are played.

“My philosophy is to prepare to win the next game,” Krygier said. “We’re planning to win the next game.

“I’m very optimistic and excited, but at the same time we’re dealing with young players who sometimes have a tendency to believe their own headlines versus doing what it takes every day to win. It’s easy to talk about but harder to do. I prefer less talk and more action.”

What’s the source of the optimism after four straight frustrating seasons?

It begins with the return of 11 players from last year’s team, which got very hot at the end of the season, winning 10 of its 14 final games and barely missing the playoffs. The Lumberjacks have also three other players with USHL experience, bringing the number of veterans to 14.

Eleven of the 23 players on the Lumberjacks roster are committed to play NCAA hockey at various universities.

Even more impressively, six players on the roster were recently named to NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary 2015 Players to Watch List. That means pro scouts believe they have the potential to be chosen in next year’s NHL draft.

The players on that list are goalie Eric Schierhorn, forwards Tom Marchin, Cooper Marody and Steven Merl and defensemen Joseph Cecconi and David Trinkberger. Muskegon had more players on the list than all but one of the 17 USHL teams.

Forwards Matt Iacopelli and Matej Paulovic have already been drafted by NHL teams.

“We have more talented players this year, for sure,” Krygier said.

Most of the returning Lumberjacks are forwards, and scoring is expected to be a team strength.

The top returnee is Iacopelli, who led the USHL last year with 41 goals. He also had 23 assists to tie for seventh in the overall scoring race with 63 points.

Iacopelli was a third-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in last summer’s NHL draft. “I don’t think he knows how good he can be,” Krygier said of Iacopelli. “To be drafted in the NHL is a huge accomplishment.”

Also returning to the front lines are Jobst (10 goals, 35 assists); Jack Rowe (who had 10 goals and 35 assists in only 19 games with Muskegon last season); Marody (9 goals, 21 assists), Robbie DeMontis (4 goals, 25 assists), Chris Dodero (7 goals, 9 assists in 38 games) and Paulovic (6 goals, 10 assists in 29 games).

Veteran newcomer forwards are Marchin (6 goals, 12 assists with Indiana last season) and Griffen Molino (8 goals, 31 assists with Lincoln last season).

First-year forwards are Merl, David Keefer, Nicolas Carbone and Kevin Dineen.

The Lumberjacks struggled defensively last season, and the blue line corps has been largely rebuilt.

The only three returnees are Cecconi, Daniel Willett and Christian Wolanin. The first-year defensemen are Mitch Eliot (the Lumberjacks’ top draft pick), Trinkberger, Ryker Killins and Bo Hanson.

The Lumberjacks recently traded for veteran defenseman Liam McGing, who spent last year with Chicago of the USHL.

“We were a very poor defensive team last year,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “If we defend well we’ll be a very tough team to beat.”

The goaltending is expected to be strong with the return of Schierhorn, who posted a 20-17 record last season with a strong 3.21 goals against average.

Schierhorn shared time in goal for much of last season before taking over the No. 1 job down the stretch.

The other goalie will be newcomer Michael Latorella.

Krygier said Schierhorn will start Friday’s opener, but he refused to commit beyond that point.

“The everyday goalie will be the one who stops the puck most,” he said.



Eric Schierhorn – Anchorage, Alaska
Michael Latorella – Macomb, Michigan

Mitch Eliot – Grosse Pointe, Michigan (Michigan State University commit)
Joseph Cecconi – Youngstown, New York (University of Michigan commit)
Daniel Willett – Bayville, New York
David Trinkberger – Landshut, Germany
Christian Wolanin (A) – Rochester, Michigan
Ryker Killins – Wawa, Ontario (Ferris State University commit)
Liam McGing – Chicago, Illinois Bo Hanson – Boise, Idaho

Bo Hanson, Boise, Idaho

Matheson Iacopelli (A) – Woodhaven, Michigan (Western Michigan University commit)
Cooper Marody – Brighton, Michigan (University of Michigan commit)
Griffen Molino (A) – Trenton, Michigan (Western Michigan University commit)
David Keefer – Brighton, Michigan (Michigan State University commit) Steven Merl – Coral Springs, Florida Robbie DeMontis – Kleinburg, Ontario (Yale University commit)
Matej Paulovic – Topolcany, Slovakia
Jack Rowe (A) – Cary, Illinois (University of North Dakota commit)
Nicolas Carbone – South Bend, Indiana
Chris Dodero – Bloomingdale, Illinois (Colorado College commit)
Kevin Dineen – Faribault, Minnesota Tom Marchin – Algonac, Michigan
Mason Jobst (C)  – Speedway, Indiana
Tom Marchin, Algonac, Michigan
Steven Merl, Coral Springs, Florida