By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
One trade came in late January when the Lumberjacks acquired veteran defensemen Ty Farmer and a future draft pick from the Youngstown Phantoms, in exchange for two draft picks.
Then earlier this week they announced they had acquired forward Austin Alger from the Omaha Lancers in exchange for an affiliate player who is currently in a lower league, as well as two future draft picks.
Alger, from Livonia, is a second-season USHL player who adds an extra threat to the lineup. He has 12 goals and 12 assists for the Lancers in 37 games this season.
“Alger is a solid three-zone player that provides the scoring punch we need,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck. “He can play both wing and center, and will be a valuable addition to Muskegon.”
Alger will be in the lineup this weekend when the Lumberjacks host Des Moines on both Friday and Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at L. C. Walker Arena.
The trades are a sure sign that the Jacks believe they have a chance to be a contender as the season winds down.
That wasn’t so clear a little over a month ago. The Lumberjacks ended 2016 with a 16-11-2 record, and were scrapping with several teams for the last playoff spot in the USHL’s tough Eastern Conference.
Only the top four teams in the Eastern and Western conferences qualify for postseason play.
But the Lumberjacks have been very hot in 2017, posting an 8-3 record between Jan. 6 and Feb. 4. They are currently 24-13-2 and tied for third place with Youngstown in the Eastern Conference.
The Jacks are only five points behind first-place Dubuque and three points behind second-place Chicago. More importantly, they are seven points (more than three victories) ahead of fifth-place Green Bay in the race for the final playoff spot.
Trades have paid off so far this season
The current situation is similar to 2014-15, when the Jacks started playing well in the second half of the season and management acquired several top players from non-contending teams down the stretch.
The new players helped the Jacks advance to the Clark Cup finals, which they lost to Sioux Falls.
Vanbiesbrouck admits that the same type of effort is underway now, with the recent trades.
“With 20 or so games to go, we’re trying to bolster our lineup for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs,” Vanbiesbrouck told LocalSportsJournal.com.
The GM said he doesn’t see any more trades on the horizon, but added that he won’t hesitate if another opportunity arises to make the team stronger.
“I’d like to say not, but we might get an opportunity,” he said. “It would have to be a top guy for the right cost. Both of these last moves were within our realm to pay for. We’ve got good chemistry in our locker room and we’re getting good production from a lot of guys. We’re pretty balanced right now.”
Solid trades have been a plus for the Lumberjacks this season. Before the last two deals, they brought in centers Mikael Hakkarainen and Marcus Russell and defenseman Jack McNeely, who have all fit in extremely well, according to Coach John LaFontaine.
“The moves we made in December and early January helped us get more speed, quickness and depth up the middle,” LaFontaine said. “We weren’t real deep at center.”
With more talent on the roster now, and the team playing well, LaFontaine thinks the Jacks are well-positioned to make the playoffs and compete for the league title.
“It’s tough to just get into the playoffs – there are no nights off – but we have all the makings of a team that can be a strong playoff team,” the coach said. “We have character, guys that compete at a high level, and guys that understand you have to be strong on the walls and play physical when needed.”
Rookie has a big night for Lumberjacks
The Lumberjacks had mixed results in a pair of games in Green Bay last weekend.
They lost 5-1 on Friday, which extended their short losing streak to two games.
But they bounced back with a big 4-2 win on Saturday, and their offensive punch came from a surprising source.
Rookie defenseman Travis Mitchell, who has been used sparingly throughout the season, exploded for a pair of second-period goals to give the Jacks a lead they held on to. They were his first two goals of the season, and his USHL career.
Mitchell played forward in the game, due to the absence of star forward Andrei Svechnikov, who was scratched due to illness.
It was an exciting experience for Mitchell, a native of South Lyon, Michigan, who has only played in 22 of the Jacks’ 39 games so far this season. His was the 331st player taken in the USHL draft last spring, and is the lowest draft pick currently playing in the league.
His playing time has increased in recent weeks, since the January trade of Scooter Brickey created an opening in the Jacks’ defensive corps.
Mitchell demonstrated on Saturday that he can be a valuable presence on the ice.
“It felt really good,” Mitchell said about his big night. “It was a big step for me personally, and I’m glad I was able to help the team pick up two important points in the standings.
“All the guys were very supportive. They were all giving me hugs and high-fives, all the way around.”
Mitchell would have liked to play more earlier in the season, but said he keeps a positive attitude, and tries to help out any way he can, when he’s a healthy scratch.
“During the pregame skate I stay out there a little bit longer than the rest of the guys and work with guys like (Lumberjacks forward) Will Smith,” Mitchell said. “During the game I help the team out with whatever is needed, like taking stats.”