By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – It’s a common for professional sports teams to bulk up their rosters as they chase championships.
It sometimes costs quite a bit, in terms of talented young players or draft picks.
But they say it’s worth it, because they want to win now, and believe they’re just are a few pieces away from making that happen.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks are not a pro team, but they’ve been pursuing the same strategy.
The Jacks are in the middle of the battle for first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference with 23 games left in the regular season. They also have high hopes of contending for a Clark Cup championship during the playoffs in April.
They’ve been busy adding pieces to the puzzle and making their team as strong as possible.
They started their playing shopping spree in November, picking up standout defenseman Trevor Hamilton from Fargo for a first-round draft pick in the USHL Phase 2 draft this spring.
On Jan. 6 they acquired forward Max Humitz from Lincoln for a seventh round draft pick.
Then last week they acquired forward Mark Petaccio from Des Moines for second and tenth round draft picks.
So far the moves have been paying big dividends.
Hamilton, an offensive-minded defenseman with a mean slap shot, has six goals and 11 assists in 23 games.
Humitz has been on a tear since coming to town, posting three goals and four assists in only seven games.
Pettacio is off to a very promising start, with one goal and four assists in five games.
All three have played significant roles in helping the Lumberjacks revive a struggling offense and win more games in recent weeks.
The value of the newcomers was particularly obvious last weekend.
The forward line of Humitz, Pettacio and Will Graber (a December acquisition who came in exchange for Cooper Marody) combined for six points – one goal and five assists – in the Lumberjacks’ 5-2 win over Fargo.
Then Petaccio scored the winning goal for Muskegon in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Fargo.
“I’m very pleased, and I don’t think we’re hitting on all cylinders yet,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck, regarding the newly acquired players.
There could be an added bonus to the recent trades, according to Vanbiesbrouck. Hamilton and Humitz are eligible to return to the team next year, because they will have another year of age eligibility.
Pettacio will run out of USHL eligibility at the end of the season.
Vanbiesbrouck admits that the trades have cost quite a bit in terms of draft picks. That was particularly true of Hamilton, who cost the club a first round pick.
“It does affect our draft this year,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “That’s the price you pay for wanting to win now.”
Vanbiesbrouck wouldn’t rule out adding another experienced player or two as the playoffs approach.
“There’s always the possibility,” he said. “Our goal is to be playing in the last period of the last game, but we’ve got to get to the big dance first. I want to give this team every chance it can get to win. There’s no reason we can’t gel at the right time.”
The Lumberjacks are hot again.
They have won three games in a row and four out of their past five, following last weekend’s sweep of Fargo.
They are 23-11-3 and in second place in the Eastern Conference. Muskegon is three points behind first place Cedar Rapids and three points ahead of third place Dubuque.
The Jacks will face a major test this weekend when they host Dubuque on Friday and Saturday at L.C. Walker Arena. Puck drop is at 7:15 p.m. both nights.
The Lumberjacks are running out of chances to control their own destiny against Dubuque and Cedar Rapids.
After this weekend they will only play Dubuque one more time, in Dubuque on Feb. 20. Their final two games against Cedar Rapids will be at home on Feb. 27-28.