By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Under normal circumstances Matej Paulovic may have been starting his college hockey career this fall.

That’s the usual progression for players who have spent their teen development years in the United States Hockey League.

But Paulovic broke into junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. While the OHL is a traditionally elite training ground for talented young players, and has served as a pipeline to the National Hockey League, it has its drawbacks.

High scoring Matej Paulovic is back for another season with the Lumberjacks. Photo/Jason Goorman.
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High scoring Matej Paulovic is back for another season with the Lumberjacks. Photo/Jason Goorman.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) considers OHL players to be professionals and won’t allow them to play college hockey. That’s even true for players like Paulovic, who only spent a few months in the league.

So with a dwindling number of professional minor leagues in the U.S. and Canada, there are limited options for young players who aren’t competing at the collegiate level.

The good news is that Paulovic was a 2014 draft pick of the Dallas Stars, so a pro hockey career could still be in his future.

But in the meantime he’s back in Muskegon for his third season with the Lumberjacks, who open their home schedule Saturday at 7:15 p.m. against the Team USA Under 17 squad at L.C. Walker Arena.

“I was talking to my agent, and he told me in the middle of the summer that I would be coming back here for one more year,” Paulovic told Local Sports Journal.

“If I get a chance to play somewhere (in North America) in the future I would like it. But I don’t know what will happen. I would like to play in the NHL someday. We’ll have to see what happens after this season.”

Paulovic seems very happy to be back in a place where he’s been successful and comfortable for the past 1 ½ seasons.

“I like it a lot here,” he said about Muskegon. “I like the coaching staff and the players. This season is important for me, so I’m just trying to get ready.”

The Lumberjacks, who have a lot of young first-year players, are more than thrilled to have Paulovic back.

“We are fortunate to have Matej return,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “It is a unique situation.

“I am not sure of his status with Dallas anymore, I believe he has one more year of eligibility in their system before having to be signed. Slovakia has a pro league and so do other European countries including the KHL, so they would be options for him as well. Hs time with us is well invested for his future in hockey.

“Matej is the only top 20 scorer in the league from last season to return, we are most fortunate to have him come back to Muskegon and lead us in every aspect of the game.”

Moving up every year

Paulovic, a forward with a nice scoring touch, has been displaying his offensive talent since his early days in midget hockey.

He started showing his potential in 2009-10, when he had 17 goals and 16 assists for an Under-18 squad in his native Slovakia, and 2010-11, when he notched 33 goals and 29 assists.

Paulovic came to North America in 2013 and started the season with Peterborough of the OHL. But he was unhappy with the amount of ice time he was getting, and told his agent he wanted a change of scenery.

He ended up with the Lumberjacks around midseason and scored six goals and 10 assists in 29 games.

Paulovic’s career really started looking up in the spring of 2014, when he was selected in the sixth round of the NHL draft by the Dallas Stars.

He returned to the Lumberjacks last season and really hit his stride. He teamed with forwards Tom Marchin and Griffen Molino to form one of the highest scoring lines in the league.

Paulovic produced 17 goals and 33 assists, while his line totaled 58 goals and 102 assists.

“We played really, really well together,” Paulovic said. “Marchin was a strong guy and Molino was fast, so it was really good playing with them.”

The so-called  “MPM Line” helped the Jacks experience their most successful season in their five-year history.

The team set a single-season club record for regular season victories with 35. And the Lumberjacks caught fire in the playoffs, upsetting first place Youngstown in the opening round and favored Dubuque in the Eastern Conference finals.

Unfortunately the run ended with a thud when the Jacks were swept by Sioux Falls in three games in the Clark Cup finals.

“We should have won the Clark Cup,” Paulovic said. “I think we’re a way better team than Sioux Falls. It was really hard to lose that series, but it just didn’t work out.”

Paulovic is one of a handful of players back from last year’s team, and by far the top-scoring returnee.

He’s starting the season on a new line with Collin Adams, who played in a lower league last year, and Rem Pitlick, who played for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL.

The three of them displayed a lot of chemistry in preseason games this fall and led the team in scoring.

“It’s a great thing he’s back,” Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said about Paulovic. “He was a point-a-game guy for us last year and we expect him to be that or more this season.

“Adams was one of the top scorers in midget hockey and Pitlick is going to be a top scorer,”

Paulovic is also impressed with his new linemates, as well as the Lumberjacks new roster as a whole.

“It’s a little different,” Paulovic said. “Those two guys are younger guys, but Pitlick has good speed and Adams has a good shot. We should be good this year, too.

“I think Muskegon is moving up every year. Last year we made progress, getting the most wins and making the playoffs. This year’s team is looking really good, and I think we have a really good chance to win the Clark Cup.”