By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – The United States Hockey League is a training ground for young, talented hockey players who are just launching their careers.

With so much youth on the ice, the teams that contend for Clark Cup championships are usually the teams with the most experienced players.

The Muskegon Lumberjacks apparently had that in mind when they constructed their roster for the 2017-18 season.

The Jacks enter the new campaign with 12 players with significant USHL service time, including eight returners from last year’s squad, which finished tied for second place in the league’s Eastern Conference, and set a franchise record for single-season victories.

The Lumberjacks will open the new season Friday night with a road game against the Lincoln Stars, followed by a game in Des Moines on Saturday.

Jachym Kondelik is one of several Lumberjacks expected to score a lot this season. Photo/Jason Goorman

The 2017-18 home opener will be Friday, Oct. 13 against the defending Clark Cup champion Chicago Steel, followed by another home game the next night against the Team USA 18 and Under squad.

“I think fans are going to see a little more speed, a little more depth throughout the lineup, a high competitive level, and probably overall a higher skill level throughout the lineup,” said Lumberjacks Coach John LaFontaine.

LaFontaine was new to the team last year, and joined the Lumberjacks organization just a few months before the start of the season. He wasn’t familiar with a lot of players, and had to install his system on the fly.

That’s probably why the Jacks sputtered a bit last fall, before getting hot in the second half of the 2016-17 season.

This year the coach is familiar with the players, and was around to help shape the roster in the offseason. He thinks that will be a big advantage this time around.

“This year I have returners who know what’s expected,” LaFontaine said. “We are so far ahead of last year, in terms of being on the same page and working together. I am excited about having a good start.”

Defenseman Marc Del Gaizo, who had a strong rookie season in 2016-17.

The team’s experience starts in goal, where Adam Brizgala returns as the full-time starter after sharing the job with standout Keith Petruzzelli last season.

Brizgala posted a sparkling 2.48 goals against average with a .914 save percentage and an 15-8-4 record last season.

Brizgala and Petruzzelli allowed just 157 goals, the fewest in team history. They became the first Lumberjacks goalies to each win more than 10 games in a single season.

LaFontaine thinks Brizgala is more than ready to become the No. 1 netminder this season.

“He has more confidence and poise,” the coach said. “He’s leaner and quicker. We’re excited about having him take the lead. His challenge last year was that we had two number one goalies. This year’s he’s number one and he’s ready for it.”

Brizgala seems to be taking his new challenge in stride.

“I didn’t think about it that much,” he said. “I know that I’m going to have a big role, I’ll be in my second year so the guys are going to expect more of me. So I just did my best this summer, we’ll see how it goes.”

The Jacks also expect to score more than their share of goals this season, with a solid nucleus of forwards who all put up promising numbers last season, and should all improve this year.

Starting goalie Adam Brizgala, who won 15 games last season. Photo/Eric Sturr

That groups includes returning forwards Anthony Del Gaizo (11 goals, 13 assists), Mikael Hakkarainen (9 goals, 9 assists) and  Jachym Kondelik (7 goals, 8 assists).

The Jacks were also aggressive about bolstering their attack by acquiring several experienced forwards over the summer through trades.

Perhaps the top name on that list is Emelio Pettersen from Manglerud, Norway, who registered 10 goals and 17 assists as a 16-year-old newcomer with the Omaha Lancers last season.

“He’s quick, elusive, and really smart with the puck,” said Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck, who acquired Pettersen from Omaha over the summer. “He’s got a lot to figure out, but when you have God-given ability it just comes out.”

Also coming on board with promising USHL resumes are Wyatt Bongiovanni (12 goals, 18 assists for Tri-City). Michael Graham (10 Goals, 8 Assists with Fargo) and Montgomery Graham (8 Goals, 16 Assists for Tri-City).

Unlike last season, when the Lumberjacks depended heavily on Andrei Svechnikov and Collin Adams for much of their scoring, LaFontaine expects to have much more balanced point production in 2017-18.

Mikael Hakkarainen (left) will be a key contributor for the Jacks this season. Photo/Eric Sturr

“Day in and day out, we should have four lines where anyone can score, which is harder for teams to play against,” LaFontaine said. “We have third and fourth liners who can put the puck in the net, I feel like we’re going to have a lot of scoring by committee, starting with the older guys.

“With that said, the key is going to be how hard all these want to work defensively. I don’t care how good you are offensively, if you’re not willing to move the puck and play defense, you’re not going to do very well.”

The Jacks will also be seasoned on the defensive end of the ice, with Marc Del Gaizo, Colby Bukes, Travis Mitchell and Collin Murphy all back from last year’s squad.

Marc Del Gaizo is also a threat offensively. He registered three goals and 20 assists last season, and his 23 points were second among USHL rookie defensemen last year.

Serving as team captain this season will be his brother Anthony Del Gaizo, who is entering his third year with the Lumberjacks.

“He’s our undoubted leader,” said head coach John LaFontaine. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a season where it’s more obvious who the leader is. Anthony brings heart and soul. He plays hard every shift, plays hard every practice, hates to lose, and demands a lot from everyone around him. He’ll make everybody else toe the line, work hard and get better.”

“I don’t think I should do anything different,” Del Gaizo said about his new role. “When someone tries to force being a leader, everyone can smell it, they can sense it. It’s just gotta be natural for you, if you can do it, people will look to you to lead them. If not, it’s no big deal. It’s not something I focus on.”