Will Graber starting to prove he can be more than a big defensive presence for the Muskegon Lumberjacks

By Steve Gunn
LocalSportsJournal.com

MUSKEGON – Last year it wasn’t that important for Will Graber to score goals.

He was traded early in the season to the Muskegon Lumberjacks, a team that had a lot of older players who could score. So the Jacks used Graber’s 6-3, 185-pound frame to play strong defense against top opposing forwards, dig in the corners and provide a physical presence on the ice.LSJ Logo incert

But this year is different. The Lumberjacks are young, inexperienced and desperate for scorers. They are tied for last in the league in goals, and near the bottom in goals per game average. That’s a big reason why they only have two wins in their first eight games.

Will Graber

    Lumberjacks’ Will Graber

Graber showed signs of helping to fill the scoring gap last week by netting his first two goals of the season – one in a victory over Chicago last Wednesday, and one in a loss to Green Bay on Friday.

“It felt good,” said Graber, 19, a native of Longmont, Colorado. “Obviously on Wednesday we got the outcome we wanted, and on Saturday we didn’t, but I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Graber is more than capable of contributing offensively. Last fall, as a member of the Sioux Falls Stampede, he had four goals and six assists in the team’s first 20 games. Then he was traded to the Lumberjacks, who needed his size and strong defensive play more than his scoring ability.

He played the role he was assigned, and it obviously pleased the coaches, because he remained on the roster for the rest of the season, while several other players were shipped out in trades.

But he was definitely not in scoring mode. Between the trade in December and the Clark Cup finals in April, he had exactly one goal.

That one goal was exciting – a second overtime game winner in the Clark Cup playoffs against Youngstown. But that, along with five assists, were all the points he mustered with the Lumberjacks.

“Last year I had been producing very well at Sioux Falls, but I had a very different role when I came here,” said Graber, who’s committed to play college hockey at Dartmouth University. “We had a very deep team, and they wanted me to play more of a shutdown role – be sound defensively and then capitalize if I got scoring chances.

“But we had a lot of turnover here in the offseason, and we need guys to step up and score. Hopefully I will be one of those guys. We’re not scoring enough goals, and they’ve talked to me about taking advantage of my opportunities and burying the puck when I have chances.

“I’m just trying to focus on getting shots on goal every game and getting my body to the net. That’s something the whole team needs to work on – getting more traffic and shots to the net.”

While Graber was happy to break through with a pair of goals last week, he also had to deal with an embarrassing moment on Friday when he accidently shot a puck into his own net in the third period against Green Bay. That allowed the Gamblers to take a two-goal lead and cruise to victory.

The Lumberjacks were killing a penalty at the time, and Graber was off to one side of the goal when he took a pass from a teammate.

“It was kind of a hard pass across the crease, and it took an awkward bounce, went off my stick and went in,” Graber said. “I was very frustrated with the play.”

Muskegon Coach Todd Krygier is definitely not frustrated with Graber or his potential.

“Will is a solid two-way player who has good size and skill,” Krygier said. “He plays well at center and wing, and he’s a hard worker who is very coachable.

“We would like to see Will contribute offensively on a consistent basis without sacrificing his natural defensive abilities, particularly versus the opposing team’s top players.”

Graber said he looks forward to meeting those expectations while helping the Lumberjacks improve and escape the Eastern Conference cellar.

“If you look at the way things have gone, we haven’t played as many games as the other teams in the league, and we’re also fairly young and still learning,” he said. “It’s going to be a process.”

Lumberjacks update

The Lumberjacks are 2-6 on the season, good for four points and last place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They trail eighth-place Chicago by three points in the standings and first-place Dubuque by 12 points.

The went 1-2 on a three-game home stand last week, beating Chicago on Wednesday and losing to Green Bay on Friday and Saturday. They are currently 1-5 at L.C. Walker Arena.

The Jacks will have to wait a while to try to improve their home record,  because they are headed out on a four-game, two-week road trip. They play Friday in Chicago and Saturday in Bloomington before playing two games in Fargo Nov. 13-14.

The trip will give the team a chance to pick up a few much needed wins, particularly against two other struggling teams – Chicago (3-8) and Fargo (3-6).

The Jacks will return to home ice for a pair of games against Dubuque on Nov. 20-21.

New kid in town

The Jacks made an obvious effort to increase their scoring by acquiring forward Laine McKay from the Des Moines Buccaneers earlier this week for a future draft pick.

McKay has one goal and three assists so far this season, but obviously has the potential to do much more damage. Last year the 6-2, 194 pound forward piled up 22 goals and 26 assists in 52 games with the Hamilton Red Wings of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

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