The Detroit Lakes boys hockey team and coaching staff are far more comfortable starting the second-year under head coach Ben Noah despite the season’s delayed start.
“The excitement is so much different this year,” said Noah. “Last year it was anxiety-driven. Is this thing going to work? Are we going to get people to buy in? Now, it’s like we already have the buy in and we know our guys are ready.”
With the first year out of the way for Noah and his assistants Mike Miller, Tanner Lane, Jack Kippen and Cody Einerson, the Lakers should get up to speed faster than last season.
“Last year, it took us over half a season to come into our own and play our best hockey,” said Noah.
After a 4-7-2 start, DL finished the season winning 11 of the final 14 games to reach the section semifinals.
“This year, we’ll get there faster because we’re a veteran team,” Noah said.
Much of that experience is on defense and in goal. The Lakers have two solid options for starts in net between returning senior starter Jack Hines and junior Elijah Blow.
“Elijah is going to be pushing Hines to be his best because they’re both quality goaltenders,” said Noah.
Defensively, seniors Braeden Wimmer, Levi Gross, Lukas Justesen and junior Rian Solberg are slated as the top four with exact pairings still fluid.
Wimmer is DL’s top returning scorer. He was third on the team last season with 20 points (5G, 15A) behind graduated seniors Alex Bren and Jackson Fields.
“Wimmer’s going to be our heart and soul as far as what we want to do on the back end,” said Noah. “He’s going to be on the ice every other shift. He brings the size, physicality and speed on the back end. Without him, I think we’re always where we would be - the middle of the pack. With him, I think we’re going to be able to beat teams like Thief River and Alexandria.”
Re-tuning the Lakers’ schedule remains a work in progress, especially with COVID. Noah is pleased to have gotten Alexandria and Thief River Falls back in the mix. Noah and his staff have done the legwork to improve the competition level of DL’s games.
“Realistically, it comes down to relationship building with myself and the other coaches,” said Noah.
Besides the regular season, talk about future tournament play has also been in the works, mainly about how to make the Fergus Falls holiday tournament more meaningful.
Instead of North Dakota or Minnesota metro schools attending, Noah wants to see teams like Alex and Little Falls join the Otters and Lakers.
It makes sense on a section level for the three Section 6A teams and gets Noah and his team a level of competition they want on the schedule, potentially, more than once. It also brings together four teams from the same youth hockey district.
With four experienced players on defense, DL may roll just the four D-men in the early going.
A couple of sophomores, Jacob Thomas and Aiden Kennedy, will be lobbying for ice time, but may develop at the junior varsity level early in the season to prepare for 2021-22 when the three seniors are gone.
Solberg and Jacob McAllister are two of the four Perham players expected to contribute this year, along with Kennedy and Dayton Koethke.
Despite the December layoff, Noah and his staff have a solid idea on the makeup of all four lines to get the year started. That starts with the upperclassmen.
“This group of seniors is a great group of leaders,” said Noah. “They’re all bought in. Having a full season under our belt, our upperclassmen now understand our systems and know what to expect on a day-to-day basis. It’s going to make it so much easier for those underclassmen to transition and jump right into it.”
In the early going, Beau Boehne (11 points) and Jordan Fields (14 points) are likely to be relied upon to lead in scoring.
“They’re ready to take that next step,” said Noah.
McAllister is part of one of the Lakers’ key top two lines joining Jake Green and Tommy Fritz in an all-senior line of high motor players to combat the opponents’ best threesome.
“They’re going to be a high energy line; they can start games and periods for us and kill penalties,” said Noah.
Noah does not expect one player or one line to carry the offensive load.
“We’re going to have to score by committee, but we’re going to be deep with athletes,” he said. “If we get our systems in place and manage the puck and shifts well, we’re going to be hard to play and score against.”
The second tier of the offense is built on competition.
DL will start the season with another all-senior third line (CJ Killmer, Nicholas Hess, Jayden Geerdes) to go with an all-sophomore fourth line (Carter Bellefeuille, Cole Larson, Ben Hines). All three are making the jump from Bantam A’s last year.
Noah wants to see competition between those two lines to ramp up competitiveness in practice and produce in games.
One of the major team goals is to move up in the section playoff seedings. DL has been mired a four-seed or lower for years.
With East Grand Forks and Warroad the early 8A favorites, Noah wants his team locked into that three sport.
“That’s what we’re shooting for,” he said. “Our big goal right now is to take that next step and get into the top three seeds.”
That goal is part of the big picture, which to Noah and his staff, of creating a winning culture and building toward postseason success in DL.
Noah has made an emphasis to include the youth teams and their coaches with the overall vision of the program. That transcends what he expects from this year’s varsity and JV teams.
“I’ve been explaining to the kids that they are building the foundation and setting the environment for when these crops of kids come up,” Noah said. “If we do win the section and go to the state tournament, whether that happens this year or five years from now, these guys are a part of that and I want them to take pride in that. If they understand that it’s bigger than just this one year, we’re just in a better place mentally. I want these kids to come back five years from now and say we helped build this thing.”
Detroit Lakes opens the season at home in a rematch of the 8A quarterfinals against Kittson Central at Kent Freeman Arena Thursday, Jan. 14 at 7 p.m.