By Dave Hart
MUSKEGON- The Muskegon Lumberjacks are entering their 10th season in the United States Hockey League, and are still looking to hoist the league championship Clark Cup for the first time in franchise history.
There were times last season when it looked like that goal might finally be accomplished.
The Lumberjacks had their best regular season in franchise history, posting a 41-17-4 record, which was good for 86 points in the standings. They finished the season as Eastern Conference champions and earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Muskegon eliminated the Dubuque Fighting Saints in four games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, but the great season came to a screeching halt when they lost to the Chicago Steel in four games.
“The way the season ended wasn’t the way we wanted it end,” said second-year Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton. “But our players gave it their all and it was a season to remember. We are still continuing to push for a Clark Cup championship.”
Now the Lumberjacks are ready to roll again in their quest for the Cup, kicking off the 2019-20 season at the USHL Fall Classic in Pittsburgh this weekend. The Jacks will open on Thursday at 10 a.m. against Dubuque, then play their second game on Friday at 5 p.m. against Lincoln.
The new season will then continue on the road with a pair of games at Youngstown (Oct. 4-5) and against Team USA (Oct. 11).
The Lumberjacks’ first home game will be Saturday Oct. 12 against Team USA.
Muskegon will definitely have a new look, with only five players returning from last year’s great squad.
Returning with the most experience is defenseman Nash Nienhaus. He has played in 110 games for Muskegon over the past two seasons, and last year had two goals and 11 assists for 13 points.
The Lumberjacks will have most of their experience up front, with the return of several forwards who can put the puck in the net – Danil Gushchin, Alex Gaffney, Oliver MacDonald and Cam Knuble.
Gushchin recorded 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points last season, while Gaffney had 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points in his rookie year.
MacDonald had eight goals and 19 assists for 27 points and Knuble totaled three goals and eight assists for 11 points.
Nienhaus and MacDonald have been named team captains.
“They both bring experience and this team will look toward their leadership,” Hamilton said. “Nashis a poised defenseman while MacDonald was one of our top forwards last year during the second half.
“Gushchin and Gaffney will also have bigger roles in their second season. They will play in many different situations, such as the power play and penalty kill.”
The Lumberjacks will have plenty of new faces, including several players with a lot of promise.
One of the most intriguing newcomers is defenseman Dylan Gratton, who was tendered by Muskegon last spring. That means the team gave up a No. 1 draft pick to sign him before the league draft.
Gratton played for the North Jersey Avalanche U16’s last season and had 14 goals and 18 assists, pretty good numbers for a defenseman.
“We have been impressed with him, which is why we went after him,” Hamilton said. “He will progress well throughout the season.”
The Lumberjacks also picked up forward Harrison Roy in a trade during the offseason with the Omaha Lancers. Roy has played in 110 USHL games with both Omaha and Cedar Rapids. He is coming off his best season, totaling six goals and eight assists in 34 games with the Lancers.
The major question mark for the Lumberjacks will be at the goaltending position.
The Lumberjacks have acquired both of their current goalies in the last 10 days, picking up Jack Williams from the Chicago Steel and Noah Giesbrecht from Tri-City.
Williams played a little for Muskegon during the preseason. Last season he competed in 39 games for the Springfield Jr. Blues of the North American Hockey League and posted a 2.85 goals against average.
Giesbrecht played in 45 games last year with two different teams in lower junior leagues.