Duluth East hockey preview 2011-12

After coming up just short in three overtimes in last March’s Class AA state championship game to Eden Prairie, the Hounds have unfinished business. With very few holes to fill, East looks to be one of the top teams in Minnesota this coming season. Coming so close last season will only supply added fuel to the fire. Here is a look at what we can expect:

Key losses: G JoJo Jeanetta, F Zac Schendel (9 goals, 9 assists, 18 pts), F Phil Johnson (5-9-14), F Luke Renier (6-7-13), D Hunter Bergerson (4-8-12).

Key returnees: F Trevor Olson (28-39-67), F Jake Randolph (28-38-66), F Dom Toninato (28-35-63), D Nate Repensky (4-27-31), D Meirs Moore (6-23-29), F Conner Valesano (13-12-25), F Ryan Lundgren (7-12-19), F Alex Toscano (4-6-10), D Andrew Kerr (2-5-7)

To say East is returning a ton of scoring is a definite understatement. They return 130 of the 154 goals they scored last year (84%) and 223 of their 256 assists (87%). Not since the 1995-96 squad (the year after that incredible scoring machine led by Dave Spehar and Chris Locker won state) have they returned this much scoring.

The only offseason question is, who will replace Jo Jo Jeanetta in nets? Answer: Dylan Parker and Paige Skoog. Dylan is a junior who played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League which concluded a few weeks ago. He posted nice stats with a 3.11 GAA and a .903 saves percentage. Considering the caliber of players he was up against, those are respectable numbers. How this translates into his play for the Hounds this year remains to be seen for certain, but he seems ready.

If he isn’t, Paige Skoog, transfer student from Forest Lake, is capable. Paige played 20 games for the Rangers last season and did reasonably well. He’ll have a solid core of defensemen in front of him this season, which will help.

Besides bringing back the entire first line of Randolph-Olson-Toninato (which was East’s top scoring line since the 1995-96 line of Spehar-Locker-Wheeler), Valesano and Lundgren return from their second line. Coach Mike Randolph will need to replace Phil Johnson, who graduated. Alex Toscano (4-6-10), who scored the game winner in the state semifinals against Edina, also returns. Other returning forwards include seniors Steven Holappa (6-3-9), Kyle Campion (0-7-7), Dom Bergeland (1-2-3) and David Lofstuen.

On defense, East should again be very solid; Hunter Bergerson was the only loss to graduation. They also lost Nick Forbort (0-0-0), who transferred to Duluth Denfeld. Other than Moore, Repensky and Kerr, they’ll have sophomore Phil Beaulieu (3-7-10), senior Nate Kotter (0-6-6), and junior Beau Hughes (0-1-1). So East will be just as deep on the blue line as they are at the forward positions.

Schedule: Once again, the Hounds will feature a top slate of opponents as difficult as any team in Minnesota. These opponents will include Wayzata, White Bear Lake, Centennial, Burnsville, two other games in the Gold Division of the Schwann’s Cup, Maple Grove, Moorhead, Eden Prairie and Blaine. They also will play on the outdoor ice at Lake Minnetonka against Minnetonka on 1/21. And let’s not forget a huge rematch against Grand Rapids on 1/12 at the Grand Rapids IRA Civic Center. Rapids fans have their sights squarely on this one, especially after East ended their season in the 7AA section championship game last March. This game will be a huge one in terms of section seeding!

Projection: I don’t believe in jinxing a team by predicting a state championship, but will say that East has everything in place for a strong run. If the goalie situation works out as we hope, they’ll be as good as anyone in the state. Indeed, Let’s Play Hockey and Follow The Puck have tagged them at #1 in the pre-season poll, guaranteeing a big target on their back. It remains to be seen how the kids respond to being such a target. Grand Rapids also returns a number of good players but suffered more to graduation than East. My prediction is for East to beat Grand Rapids in a 7AA final rematch. After that, anything can happen.

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