By Steve Gunn
Adams, who was a first-year forward in the United States Hockey League, played on a line with two talented and more experienced scorers – Rem Pitlick and Matej Paulovic.
Pitlick stole most of the headlines, accumulating an amazing 46 goals and 43 assists to easily win the league scoring title and earn USHL Player of the Year honors.
Adams, a modest kid who doesn’t seem to crave the spotlight, also had a great season, with 27 goals and 34 assists, which left him second on the team in scoring. He tied for fifth in the league scoring race and was second among USHL rookies.
But when the season ended, and talk turned toward 2016-17, all of the buzz was about Pitlick returning and performing his offensive magic again.
That changed in August, when Pitlick suddenly announced he was giving up his last year of USHL eligibility to begin his college hockey career at the University of Minnesota.
Suddenly the spotlight is on Adams, who inherited the role of the star player who’s returning to spearhead the attack. He will lead the Lumberjacks in their season home opener on Saturday night against the Team USA Under-18 squad at L.C. Walker Arena at 7:15 p.m.
Adams says he doesn’t mind the extra pressure and expectations, as long as the team wins a lot of games this season.
“The extra pressure gives me more motivation to perform well for my team and help younger guys adjust better to the USHL,” said Adams, 18, a native of Brighton, Michigan.
Motivation has never been a problem for Adams. He came up through the youth hockey ranks determined to compensate for his relatively small size (5-9, 175), and became a great young player in the process.
“For smaller guys, it’s harder to get noticed on the ice,” said Adams, who was a big goal scorer all the way through his midget hockey years in the elite Little Caesars and Honeybaked programs. “So I’ve always pushed myself to be the best I can be, since I’ve always been one of the smaller kids on the team.”
New Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine said Adams’ small size doesn’t hurt his game at all.
“He’s fearless, and he has such strong balance that it’s hard to knock him off the puck,” the coach said.
Lafontaine said it was nice to have a big scorer on the roster when training camp began this summer, but added that Adams shouldn’t be expected to carry the bulk of the offensive load.
“It’s really important to have somebody we know can score, but it’s also important that he doesn’t have all that pressure on him,” he said. “It’s harder for players the second year after a strong first year. I hope he doesn’t feel too much of that pressure. We’ve got a lot of support for him.”
College hockey can wait
Adams said he was surprised by his success last season, and credits his former linemates for helping him develop. He said would have liked Pitlick to return this fall and help the team, but he understands and respects his decision.
“We’re really good friends and talk all the time,” Adams said about Pitlick. “It’s kind of sad to see a buddy leave who was planning to come back, but I’m happy for him and proud of him.”
Adams admits he also gave some thought to moving on to college hockey this season.
He graduated from high school last spring, so that was no longer an issue. And he’s already accepted a scholarship to play and study at the University of North Dakota, a traditional NCAA hockey power.
Meanwhile, the idea of someday playing professional hockey became a lot more realistic in June when Adams was selected in the sixth round of the National Hockey League draft by the New York Islanders. College hockey is a step closer to the pros, which Adams is keenly aware of.
“I didn’t expect to be drafted,” said Adams, who was back home in Brighton last June watching the draft on television. “I was at my friend’s house. We watched the first three rounds, then he fell asleep, and after the fourth round I dozed off, too. I finally woke up, and my name popped up three names later.
“It was hard to believe that I was blessed with the opportunity to be drafted by such a great organization. It was an undescribable feeling. It was a very emotional day for me.”
Adams could have played at North Dakota this fall and continued his development at the NCAA level, under the watchful eyes of the Islanders. But he decided he would be better off to slow down a bit and spend another year in Muskegon.
“I had some thoughts (about college), but I wanted to take another year and grow as a player and person,” Adams said. “(North Dakota coaches) asked if that would be an option for me this year, but I thought it would be better to stay another year.
“Being a smaller guy, I have to improve defensively. As a person I have to become a better leader. You grow through different experiences.”
LaFontaine thinks Adams’ decision was wise, and a definite sign of maturity.
“It shows that he realizes that (college hockey) is a huge jump,” LaFontaine said. “You’re not only playing against strong and much older players, but you also have to be ready to handle all the freedoms that college gives you. He looks at this season as a time to really focus on hockey so he will be that much more prepared for college. It’s the first season he hasn’t had to worry about being in school, as well.”
The coach says he sees strong signs of developing leadership in Adams.
“You see him talking to and encouraging other players,” he said. “He enjoys practice and wants to be pushed. I think he has a desire to be a leader, and it’s going to be a good year for that. He has never had to be the guy that, if he doesn’t show up, the team may be in trouble. This is his year to accept that role.”
‘We should be quite a bit better’
While the Adams-Pitlick-Paulovic line had big numbers last season, their contributions were not enough to make the Lumberjacks successful.
After Pitlick (89 points), Adams (61 points) and Paulovic (53 points), point production fell off badly, with the fourth-leading scorer only tallying 33 points.
The unbalanced scoring was one reason the Lumberjacks turned in a lackluster 27-26-3 record, finished seventh in the nine-team Eastern Conference and missed the playoffs, after winning the conference title the year before.
The situation may be better this season. Adams is the only returnee from last year’s top line, but the scoring burden isn’t expected to fall disproportionately on him. That’s because the Lumberjacks acquired several skilled and experienced forwards from other teams in the offseason, to help bolster the scoring attack.
They include Matt Steeves (12 goals, three assists with Sioux City of the USHL last season), Will Smith (13 goals, 18 assists in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), as well as Keeghan Howdeshell and Keenan Suthers, who both saw time with the elite Team USA Under-18 squad and will play major roles this year.
Adams believes their veteran presence, plus the development of other talented players who are still finding their niche, will help the Lumberjacks fare better in the standings this season.
“Our core last year was a lot of younger guys,” Adams said. “This year the core is a lot of older guys. So we have more experience, and we also have highly talented young players, and a great coach who has a great system.
“We should be quite a bit better, and have better results than last year.”
Through two games, the results have been decidedly mixed.
In last Friday’s season opener against the Team USA Under-16 squad in Plymouth, Michigan, the Jacks were blasted 7-2, leaving some fans wondering if a long season was in store.
But on Saturday night they rebounded with an impressive 7-3 victory over the Bloomington Thunder in Illinois. The Lumberjacks led 3-0, the Thunder pulled within a goal in the second period, but Muskegon slammed the door by scoring four of the final five goals.
Adams said the team got over its opening-game jitters and played more like itself on Saturday.
“We kind of had a little hiccup in that first game,” he said. “We have a bunch of new guys and there were probably some nerves.
“We weren’t happy with the way things turned out at all on Friday, and we worked harder and smarter on Saturday and came out ahead. (The victory) makes a big difference. If you start out 0-2 some confidence can get lost.”