By Steve Gunn
Nobody is more frustrated by that outcome than head coach Mike Hamilton, who was eager to see what his young but talented team could do in the grand finale of the season.
On the bright side, the coach notes that the vast majority of the players are eligible to return next season, and the experience they gained could lead to exciting things in 2020-21.
The Lumberjacks played what turned out to be their final game of the season on March 7, when they lost a road game 4-3 to Tri-City.
They were scheduled to have a two-game home stand the following weekend against Sioux City. They were getting ready to practice on Thursday, March 12 when word came that the United States Hockey League had suspended all games until further notice, due to COVID-19.
On March 18, word officially came from the league that the season was over. There would be no playoffs, no opportunity to compete for a Clark Cup.
There was no guarantee that the Lumberjacks would have been one of the 12 teams to qualify for the playoffs, but the situation looked promising headed into the final stretch of a regular season that included some exciting highs and depressing lows.
The Jacks, with a roster that included many young players in their first USHL season, lost their first four games of the 2019-20 campaign, and many fans feared the worst. Then they rebounded by winning seven in a row, and fans suddenly wondered if the Jacks would be an elite team.
But the roller-coaster ride continued. The Jacks hit the skids again between Nov. 2 and Dec. 27, posting an ugly 2-10-2 record. Then came another hot streak, with the team going 7-1-1 between Dec. 28 and Jan. 18.
From that point on there were wins and losses mixed together. The Lumberjacks had a 5-8-2 record between Jan. 24 and the sudden end of the season, but there were some promising wins, and Hamilton was encouraged.
The Jacks finished with a 21-23-5 record and 47 points in the USHL’s Eastern Conference standings. They were in sixth place – the final playoff spot in the conference – four points ahead of seventh-place Cedar Rapids with 13 regular season games remaining.
“I thought the guys were just starting to come together,” Hamilton told LocalSportsJournal.com. “They were taking some big strides and the record was starting to show that. We split with some very good teams for several weekends in a row.
“As a whole, the guys were proving they could play with anybody. Was it enough to make a deep run into the playoffs? I don’t know. But the experience they gained in our push to make the playoffs will reward us and help us get into the playoffs next year.”
Hamilton noted that the Lumberjacks organization made a major philosophical transition this season, following the hiring of new President of Hockey Operations Steve Lowe in November.
Lowe, who produced a Clark Cup champion when he ran the Tri-City Storm, believes strongly in building through youth, making smart draft picks, and developing a permanent pool of young talent that will be ready to step in and replenish the roster on an annual basis.
In the past, the Lumberjacks traded a lot of draft picks for older players who were running out of eligibility, in an annual quest for their first Clark Cup title. That left a shortage of young talent every season, according to Hamilton.
Lowe made several big trades this winter, giving up some good players who were in their final year of eligibility in exchange for valuable draft picks, as well as several talented younger players who will be eligible to return next season.
“We made some trades for a lot of draft picks and prospects,” Hamilton said. “Unfortunately those teams that were building for a playoff push this season did not get an opportunity to play for the Cup, but we were able to add a lot of youth and a lot of draft picks, and we were still winning hockey games.
“As an organization and as a team, it was a trying season, but we got through all the transition and change and we’re going to be better for it.”
Two of the most exciting players acquired through trades – talented goal-scorers Rhett Pitlick and Cameron Berg – are likely to return next season, Hamilton said. Pitlick was second on the team in scoring with 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points. Berg was fourth with 20 goals and 14 assists for 34 points.
Other players acquired in trades this season are also expected to play key roles next season. They include standout forward Dylan Wendt (8 goals, 26 assists), a Grand Haven resident who was fifth on the team in point production and finished the season as team captain; and Tyler Dunbar, a talented first-year defenseman who had two goals and 10 assists in only 26 games.
Forward Frankie Carogioiello and defenseman Michael Quinn – two very strong prospects who were acquired from Fargo in February for former Muskegon captain Oliver MacDonald – are expected to have an impact when they finally join the team next season.
The Lumberjacks are also excited about talented rookie forward Owen Mehlenbacher, who they recently signed through a tender agreement, meaning they gave up a first-round draft pick to secure his services. Last season he piled up 36 goals and 32 assists for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
Several key players who spent the entire 2019-20 season with the Lumberjacks are also expected to return. They include forward Alex Gaffney, who was sixth on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 19 assists in his second season in Muskegon, and goalie Jack Williams, who started playing well around midseason and stabilized the position, after numerous other candidates tried and fell short.
Those are just some of the players expected to form the nucleus of very strong roster headed into the 2020-21 season.
“About 80 percent of our roster from this season is eligible to return,” Hamilton said. “We just have to fit the pieces together. The good news is that there will be a lot of pieces to choose from. We’re in a very good situation. Next year should be an exciting year.”