By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – If you asked Muskegon Lumberjacks fans to guess the top pro prospects on the team, Joseph Cecconi may not get mentioned a lot.
That’s because fans mostly notice big goal scorers, and he’s definitely not in that group.
Cecconi, a 17-year-old defenseman, only has two goals and nine assists in 39 games this season. Last season he had two goals and four assists.
His strength is stopping opposing teams from scoring.
But that’s a pretty big strength – enough to land him on NHL Central Scouting’s midseason pro prospect report, which was issued in January.
He was ranked 70th among North American draft prospects, and was one of only 44 USHL players to make the list. He was the highest rated USHL defenseman on the list, and ranked as the sixth best overall prospect in the league.
Earlier in the season Cecconi was given a “B” rating by Central Scouting, which means he is projected to be a second- or third-round pick in June’s National Hockey League draft.
Surprisingly, no other Lumberjacks were named on the midseason prospect list. Two Jacks – Matheson Iacopelli (Chicago) and Matej Paulovic (Dallas) – were selected in previous NHL drafts.
“He defends well, he’s big, he can skate,” Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said about Cecconi. “He’s got good skill and a good mind for the game, and that all adds up to a lot of potential.”
The Lumberjacks acquired Cecconi last season in a trade with the Green Bay Gamblers. He was an affiliate (comparable to a minor leaguer) of the Gamblers at the time, playing midget major hockey in Buffalo, so the Jacks gave him his first taste of USHL hockey when they called him up in December.
He helped solidify the Lumberjacks’ leaky defense in 2013-14, and has been a top four defenseman for the team this season.
Cecconi is fourth on the team with a plus-nine rating. That means the Jacks have outscored opponents by nine goals when he is on the ice.
The top three plus/minus players on the roster are Paulovic and Tom Marchin, two high-scoring forwards, and Christian Wolanin, a more offensive-minded defenseman.
But stay-at-home defensemen can also play key roles in the offense, according to Krygier.
“He moves the puck to the forwards,” Krygier said. “A good, simple pass is the first offensive play. He defends well and makes that first good pass, which helps us get on offense.”
Cecconi is committed to play hockey at the University of Michigan next season. Several other USHL players will also join the Wolverines in the fall, including three who were ranked even higher on the pro prospects list: Youngstown’s Kyle Connor, Team USA’s Brendan Warren and Sioux Falls’ Cooper Marody, a former Lumberjack who was traded earlier this season.
The website UofMdiehards.com posted the following observation about Cecconi:
“He is considered a stay-at-home defenseman, a Niklas Hjalmarsson type, one that will use the body, but will do the little things that are important when being a potential man on the top defense pairing.
“Some people believed that if he possessed more offensive prowess he would be a potential first-round pick. However, that does not mean that the scouts are not impressed with Cecconi and they also believe that he has a future in the NHL.”
Cecconi said he’s excited about being on the draft prospect list, but “it doesn’t mean anything unless you perform well the rest of the year.”
He thinks he’s improved dramatically during his time in Muskegon, thanks to his teammates and what he describes as a “great coaching staff.”
Despite the excitement over the upcoming draft, and playing college hockey next season, Cecconi said he’s able to stay focused on the task at hand, which is helping the Jacks compete for a championship.
“I just put it all in the back of my head and just try to play my game every night,” he said.
The Lumberjacks opened last weekend on a sour note, dropping a 6-3 decision to Dubuque.
But they battled back on Saturday with a three-goal second period and defeated Dubuque 3-2.
The victory was significant for several reasons. It allowed the Jacks to remain three points ahead of Dubuque in the Eastern Conference standings, which is where they were before the weekend series.
It also showed, once again, that the Lumberjacks respond well to adversity. They are now 7-0 on the season following games they lost by three or more goals.
Muskegon is 24-12-3 and remain in second place, five points behind first-place Cedar Rapids.
“I was very disappointed the way we played Friday night in such a big game,” Krygier said. “On Saturday I thought we responded really well.”
The Jacks will finish off a six-game home stand on Friday against Youngstown at 7:15 p.m. After that they will be on the road for five straight games, with the next home date on Feb. 27.
Ticket sales on the rise
The Lumberjacks have been greeted by bigger crowds over the past few weeks at L.C. Walker Arena.
Attendance on Saturday was 2,727, the second largest crowd of the season. On the previous Saturday (Jan. 24), there were 2,540 fans on hand to watch the Lumberjacks defeat Fargo.
The biggest house of the season thus far was 3,296 on Oct. 29 for a game against Team USA.
Muskegon is averaging 1,853 fans at home this season.