By Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks are coming off the best finish in their short history, winning the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference title and advancing to the Clark Cup finals last spring.
But the vast majority of the players from that team have aged out and moved on. That means the Lumberjacks will head into the 2015-16 season with a lot of young newcomers who are eager to make their mark in the league.
That probably means the Jacks will have a rebuilding year with limited success, right? Not according to third year Coach Todd Krygier.
“I want immediate results,” said Krygier, whose team opens the new season on Saturday with a game in Waterloo before returning home on Saturday Oct. 3 for the home opener against the Team USA Under 17 squad.
“I have no patience, so I wouldn’t ask the fans to be patient. We have a ‘win now’ mentality and we expect to compete and win a Clark Cup.
“I am excited about the upcoming season.”
The Lumberjacks finished last season with a 35-21-4 record, good for the fourth and final playoff spot in the very competitive Eastern Conference.
They caused a big stir in the playoffs, eliminating the top-seeded Youngstown Phantoms three games to one and the Dubuque Fighting Saints three games to two, before being swept by the Sioux Falls Stampede in three games in the finals.
While the goal of winning remains the same, the style of hockey will change considerably for the Lumberjacks this season.
The Jacks, who were a big, physical team last season, will switch to a more fast-pace style of play involving more puck possession, forechecking and speed, according to Krygier.
“We have a team that is very fast and very skilled,” Krygier said. “Last year we had good speed, but I think we have better speed and more skill.”
The Jacks are fortunate to have a few players back from last year’s squad, most notably forward Matej Paulovic, who had 17 goals and 33 assists in 51 games last season.
“It’s a great thing he’s back,” Krygier said. “He was a point-a-game guy for us last year and we expect him to be that or more this season.”
Joining Paulovic on the first line will be forwards Collin Adams and Rem Pitlick. The trio combined to form the team’s most productive line during preseason games.
Adams, a Lumberjack affiliate player last year, spent three games in a Muskegon uniform.
Pitlick was acquired in an offseason trade from the Waterloo Blackhawks, where he had seven goals and nine assists in 47 games last year.
Krygier said both players are expected to be major point producers this season.
“Adams was one of the top scorers in midget hockey and Pitlick is going to be a top scorer,” the coach said.
The Lumberjacks will also have experience with returning forwards Robbie DeMontis, Max Humitz, Will Graber, Keegan Ward, and Dante Palecco.
DeMontis, a fourth-year Lumberjack, is expected to step up and pick up more of the scoring load this season. He had seven goals and 22 assists in 60 games last season.
“Robbie is one of the guys we are looking to step up offensively,” Krygier said. “He is a good solid two-way player and one of my go-to-guys. I am hoping he can advance his production.”
The Lumberjacks also picked up a pair of experienced forwards from the Lincoln Stars – Dominick Sacco and Chris Klack.
Sacco had 12 goals and 15 assists last year for the Stars in 60 games while Klack recorded two goals and six assists in 22 games.
Jacob Coleman, Logan Drevitch and Danny Digrande will join the Jacks as first-year USHL forwards this season. Coleman, a former club affiliate, has played a handful of games with the Jacks in the past.
The experience level falls off sharply among the defensemen, with only three returning from last year’s team.
Trevor Hamilton will lead the defense and will serve as team captain. Hamilton, who features a blazing slap shot from the blue line, had nine goals and 19 assists in 44 games for Muskegon last season.
“He is a leader,” said Krygier, when asked why Hamilton was chosen to be captain. “He leads by example on and off the ice, and he is a humble guy and a warrior.”
Mitch Eliot and Bo Hanson are also returning on defense.
Eliot picked up four assists in 58 games, while Hanson had a goal and four assists in 51 games.
One key addition to the defense is Carson Vance, who was recently acquired from the Chicago Steel. He had five goals and 13 assists for Youngstown and Chicago last season and should add some needed experience to the blue line corps.
Former Lumberjack affiliate defensemen Alex Green and Zach Berzolla will also play full time for Muskegon after spending a few games with the team last season.
Defensemen Graham Lillibridge and Nate Kallen are newcomers to the league.
The Lumberjacks will also have two new goaltenders this season. They will be charged with the major task of replacing standout goalie Eric Schierhorn, who may have been Muskegon’s most valuable player last season.
Joey Daccord, a seventh round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators last spring, is slated to be the Jacks’ starting goaltender. He attended Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts last season.
“It’s pretty rare when a NHL team drafts a young goalie,” said Krygier about Daccord. “I think his fundamentals are fantastic and he demonstrates his skills on the ice.”
Devin Cooley will start the season as the Lumberjacks’ backup goalie. He spent last season with the San Jose Junior Sharks.
Muskegon Lumberjacks roster
# Name Position
2 Mitch Eliot D
3 Nate Kallen D
4 Graham Lillibridge D
5 Carson Vance D
7 Alex Green D
8 Zach Berzolla D
9 Bo Hanson D
11 Trevor Hamilton D
12 Dominick Sacco F
13 Collin Adams F
15 Dante Palecco F
16 Rem Pitlick F
17 Jacob Coleman F
18 Danny Digrande F
19 Robbie DeMontis F
20 Matej Paulovic F
22 Logan Drevitch F
23 Keegan Ward F
26 Chris Klack F
27 Max Humitz F
28 William Graber F
29 Joey Daccord G
30 Devin Cooley G