By Ron Rop
When Muskegon Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton pores over his team’s 2021-2022 roster, he can’t help but get just a bit excited.
He sees plenty of experience at all levels of his team – in goal, along the blueline and up front. He also sees a young team that he fully expects to earn a spot in the Clark Cup Playoffs next spring. He sees a roster that includes one National Hockey League draft pick in defenseman Noah Ellis, a draft pick of Las Vegas. And nearly the entire roster is already committed to playing Division 1 hockey at some point after their USHL career ends.
In the meantime, there is some work to do since the Jacks lost its first four games of the season, including one in a shootout and one in overtime. “There was one game we would like to take back (Sioux City game played in Pittsburgh).”
There is no panic in Hamilton’s voice. Instead, he speaks of a confident and talented team that just needs a few games under its collective belt in order to start winning and climbing in the standings.
And it all starts in goal.
Jan Skorpik is the No. 1 goaltender, no doubt about it. The native of Brandys Nad Labem in the Czech Republic is a 20-year-old who Hamilton expects to be one of the league’s top netminders.
“He kind of took over our net for us last year in the playoffs,” Hamilton said. “We are expecting big things from Jan and he should be one of the best goalies in the league. He’s an over-ager. We have a lot invested in him and he needs to be solid.”
Cameron Korpi is 17 years old and is expected to chip in here and there, but his time to shine will come in future seasons. Hamilton said Korpi is here to get reps, to learn and be ready to be that No. 1 guy when called upon.
Jacob Guevin receives high praise from Hamilton, who calls the 18-year-old native of Drummondville, Quebec “one of the best defensemen in the league.” Guevin is a returning player who was snubbed in last year’s NHL Entry Draft so he should be playing with extra motivation and a bit of a chip on his shoulder to prove he was worthy of being picked. He recently came back to Muskegon after attending the Toronto Maple Leafs’ camp.
Tyler Dunbar is another returner who is draft eligible next spring and will be out to impress everyone over the course of the season. Noah Ellis came to Muskegon in a deal with Des Moines and is the NHL Las Vegas Knights draft pick. His skating ability sets him apart from most players along the blue line, according to Hamilton. Jacob Napier, the Jacks’ first-round pick in the last USHL draft is a blueline who is a native of Lancaster, NY.
“That top four is solid,” said Hamilton, who doesn’t ignore the fact they aren’t alone. “Nathan McBrayer, Anthony Cliché kind of come in as our next pair. They are a little bit younger. One is an ’03 and one is an ’04 and they are coming along and will be fantastic.”
The Jacks’ tender signing this season was Gavin McCarthy. He is a young blueliner who will be going up against forwards who could be 4-5 years older than him.
“Up front we have tons of depth, it’s just a matter of who will put the puck in the back of the net.” Hamilton said. “We have a lot of guys who were depth guys last season who were waiting and we’re now ready for them to take the next step. These are third and fourth liners that are now expected to be 20 goal scorers and that’s what should happen over time in our league. Mentally, it’s a whole different mindset for those guys to figure out how to go from the guy who played good defense and made the coach happy to being a goal scorer.”
Captain Jack Williams played on the Jacks’ top lines a year ago so it goes without saying, he will be counted upon heavily to put the puck in the net with regularity. While he’s just coming back from an injury, that isn’t expected to hamper him going forward. Phil Tresca, a 19-year-old, will be a top line center who also possesses plenty of skill. Quinn Hutson also was among the Jacks’ top forwards a year ago and, as Hamilton said, he could be the team’s leading goal scorer and possibly one of the league’s top point producers.
Ben Strinden, Owen Mehlenbacher are also returning forwards who will be counted upon to fill the scoresheet with goals and assists. Newcomers include Emil Jarventie, a native of Finland, who despite being just 16 years old, should be a dynamic player, if not this season, certainly in the near future.
“The rest of the guys, there is some junior experience, but not with our league so I just think with time that forward group is really going to come together,” Hamilton said. “We’re hoping our strong goaltender and our strong defensemen will carry the weight for us and keep us in games until this group really comes together up front.”
Finally, a home game
After starting the season with four games on the road, Hamilton and the Jacks’ welcome the chance to put on a show in front of their home crowd. Albeit against the Clark Cup champion Chicago Wolves.
“If this team, with the talent we have, doesn’t make the playoffs, I would question my coaching,” said Hamilton. “There’s a lot of talent here and there’s no panic. We know we are a few good bounces away from winning a couple hockey games. We could be sitting at 2-1 if we could have cleaned up a few areas.”
At this point, Mercy Health Arena has no crowd restrictions which means the Jacks are looking for feed off a big, enthusiastic turnout at the old barn.
“It’s been 2 years since we’ve had a crowd here,” Hamilton said. “We’re excited to get back home. I remember when you have a good crowd here what the buzz is like so we’re excited to get some fans in the building and there’s no doubt a little home cooking will pay some dividends for us.”