By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Midwest West Division is always an exciting circuit to watch. Every team continues to be able to beat everyone else, and the gap is very swiftly closing from top to bottom.
This is considerable, in terms of the Dells Ducks seeing the biggest year-over-year improvement (+18 points) followed closely by the Isanti Outlaws (+17). Now, to be fair, they’re closing the gap on the teams in the fourth through sixth spots. The teams above that include two more teams that saw year-over-year jumps, including the regular season champion Hudson Havoc. The Minnesota Moose improved by seven points to finish in third last year.
Between them were the first-year Minnesota Squatch, who had an outstanding debut season by posting 63 points. In the end, it was the Havoc and Moose that made the trip east to Utica for the 2023 USPHL Nationals. The Havoc, Moose and Minnesota Blue Ox have been the division’s representatives over the last three years, and they don’t want to give up their National-bound reputations any time soon.
The Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings, Blue Ox, Steele County Blades and Isanti Outlaws formed a strong middle pack, but each of those teams would obviously much rather be challenging for top spot and a Nationals trip. The Ducks improved well from what was a truly down year in 2021-22, but they still have more mountains to climb to be a top four contender. The Minnesota Mullets fell into their own down year last season, but Owner/Coach Chris Walby is confident his squad can turn it back around.
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Isanti Outlaws
The Havoc experienced some great moments last year, including starting out with three straight shutouts and winning their first nine games overall. A series of other good runs during the season parlayed into first place overall in the division, and the Havoc also qualified for their third Nationals since 2020.
The challenge for this year will be to come anywhere close to that success, as the Havoc have seen some of their highest turnover numbers in team history. That’s of course because they moved 10 players to NCAA hockey alone, as well as additional players heading on to the club level – commitments always being the true measure of success.
“Hudson was a veteran-laden team in 2022-23. The 2023-24 season will be a year of opportunity for younger players to come and make their way with the opportunity for ample playing time,” said first-year General Manager/Head Coach Todd Sanden. “With the youth of our team and mostly new players to Hudson we have yet to determine where our strengths and weaknesses lie.”
The team only returns two players – forward Asher Page and goaltender Kaleb Bents – making youth the key difference from year to year, in addition to the change on the bench.
“Asher and Kaleb will be leaned to carry the tradition of success that Hudson has enjoyed in its past,” added Sanden.
Page, from the nearby town of Amery, Wis., will be entering his third season with the Havoc, while Bents is in his third junior season and second with the Havoc after posting an 8-2 record with a .938 save percentage.
The Havoc also bring in some top players, including more local products. Evan Luxford is coming out of Sun Prairie, Wis., where he played for both Sun Prairie High School and the Janesville Jets 18U squad. Brady Burke joins the Havoc out of New Port Richey, Fla., and played in the NA3HL last year.
“Both have shown well in the early stages of our season,” added Sanden.
Watch for blueliners Jackson Schaefer, who has USPHL Premier experience from last year, and Mason Loughlin, who comes out of the NA3HL and has prior year Premier experience as well.
“They are both veteran defensemen that bring strength, poise, and an ability to defend physically,” said Sanden.
He is looking forward to seeing how this team competes in an ever-tighter division that gives no respite to any team hitting the ice.
“Being new to the USPHL Premier, I am looking forward to learning just how competitive the Midwest West division will be,” Sanden added. “My expectations are that it will be very good with many experienced coaches and well-run organizations.”
Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Minnesota Mullets
For a first-year organization, the Squatch sure didn’t look like one. Even looking past their second place finish as a first-year squad, it was eye-opening to see them field three of the Premier’s top 12 leaders in points per game. This was led at the start by Jake McAlpine who moved up to the NCDC after 17 years, and also included 103-point scorer Daniel Ellingson (now with the NCDC’s Ogden Mustangs). In short, the Squatch brought the offense from the get-go.
“We are looking to have another high-flying offensive team this year. We like to open things up which makes for an exciting brand of hockey,” said Head Coach Chic Pojar. “We believe this group will have an opportunity to make a run for Nationals.”
If last season’s team was so offensively potent and this year’s may be as well, what are some of the differences between the two Squatch teams so far?
“The main difference is we will have more depth. Last year most of our goal production came from one line,” added Pojar. “This year we anticipate that all four lines will produce. We have more skilled defensemen and they will play an active role in our attack.”
Dylan Thompson is back to the Squatch after a 27-point season last year, as is forward Justin Walter (12 points). Two defensemen coming back include Gareth Price and Thomas Wiesen.
Among the top newcomers is Premier-experienced goalie Trevor Roy.
“He had solid numbers, and I believe he won multiple Player of the Week awards,” said Pojar. “We are looking for him to be that veteran goaltender who will be a leader on and off the ice.”
Another USPHL veteran coming in is Midwest East All-Star Johan Karjalainen, and Jay Ellingson from Maple Grove (Minn.) High School. He is looking at a full season after playing in eight games for the Squatch last season. Jeb Gould (Dallas Stars Elite) and Patrick Dixon (Lincoln Stars AAA) are players to watch on the blue line.
“I think this Division is up for grabs this year,” added Pojar. “There are three new head coaches, so it will be interesting to see how those teams come together. I expect the Moose and Wisconsin Rapids to be strong again this this year.”
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Dells Ducks
You know your organization is on the right track when one year of not going to Nationals (2022) is seen as one of the major changes your team needs to make. Indeed, since the inception of the modern USPHL Premier Conference, the Moose have qualified for five out of the six Nationals so far, including making their return in 2023.
The Moose are able to make Nationals really as a by-product of producing players for the college game, and they had another great year of success – 13 Moose players committed to college hockey from last year’s team. The team returns a healthy number of veterans that will help the Moose towards their common goals of college placement and making Nationals.
“I think we are going to be a quick, hard-working team this year,” said first-year Head Coach Nic Leibold. “So far, we’ve had a lot of guys that show up every day to practice and are ready to go to work. We will be a blue-collar, disciplined team that should be ready to battle every game.”
The Moose have spent a lot of time already on focusing on details and finding a way to utilize improved depth.
“So far, we have made sure to emphasize discipline and little details,” said Leibold. “I think this year’s team has a lot of depth as well, with a lot of guys who are willing to play a simple style and do the little things right. It has been tough so far to make lines, because we have so many line combinations that I think could be really good.”
It helps that the Moose have their second-leading scorer from last year back, as John Becker comes in off a 25-goal, 52-point season. Zach Hutchinson also finished in the top 10 for scoring on last year’s Moose team with 20 points in 42 games. Also back as forwards are Jaden Aguilera (12 points in 36 games) and Tyson Clark (nine points in 25 games).
On defense, the team returns Thomas Dalsin, who had 17 points in 40 games this past season, and was also a strong contributor in the playoffs with four points in eight games.
Among the newcomers are a pair of twins, forwards Justus and Easton Harrison, who come in with four prior years of USPHL experience and are both entering their second full Premier season. Also joining are two former CIHA Voyageurs 18U teammates – Austrian native Matthias Mader and Russian native Sergei Kolesov. Mader is a blueliner and Kolesov is a forward.
Josh Rudrow, out of Resurrection Christian School in Colorado, is another forward to watch closely this year.
Leibold, a former goaltender for Legacy Christian High in Minnesota, comes in for his first year as head coach after two prior seasons as the Moose’s goaltending coach. He’s seen the Midwest West enough to know it’ll be tough to scratch and claw their way through to the top.
“I think the division should be pretty deep this season. A team like Hudson I will be watching closely. They have done a great job of having success, and I’m sure they will be ready to play hard again this year,” Leibold said. “I think the Blue Ox and the Squatch are also teams that are always hard to play against and we make sure to prepare heavily for them. Wisconsin Rapids and Steele County are also teams that are hard to play against. Really from top to bottom, I think our division is one that we have to ready to play hard every night.”
Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings
Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Isanti Outlaws
The Riverkings are back with hopes of continuing to fight for a chance at the top spot and a trip to the USPHL Nationals, the latter which has eluded them since making the trip in the Premier’s inaugural season of 2017-18. A large veteran contingent and better overall depth could be the tipping point that helps them achieve all of their goals.
“I really like our roster this year. We have a good mix of returners (nine) with newcomers coming in that have good experience at various levels,” said GM/Head Coach Paul Pechmann. “I think the difference this season compared to last year’s team is that we have experienced goaltending and more depth on defense. Offensively, we are deeper and scoring will be by committee this season.”
Goaltending-wise, the Riverkings will have another season where they can count on Ian Tumm and Bora Yildirim to keep them in games and on a winning track basically every night. Tumm put up a .916 save percentage and was 8-2-0-0 last year, and Turkey native Bora Yildirim put up a .912. “They will be guys we rely on,” added Pechmann.
Lucas Whitehead and James Deubel are back as two ‘04 defensive defensemen that’ll also help keep the goals against low, while up front, “we are expecting Bryce Cooper, Anthony Bagnole and Owen Atkins all to take another step in their development this season.”
While the Riverkings have a strong veteran presence, they also have even more new players joining the program. Pechmann’s leaving the door open to let every one of them make their own name this season.
“We have a lot of new and exciting guys coming in so I don’t want to slight anyone,” added Pechmann. “I’m expecting good things at all the positions as we have new guys that came here to make a name for themselves, so it’ll be interesting to see who takes the lead at their respective positions.”
Pechmann’s entering his second season as GM/Head Coach, so he has a good handle already on the wild Midwest West.
“I have no doubt this division will be as tough as it’s always been,” he said. “To get to Nationals, you have to go through the gauntlet here in this division and we’re ready to accept that challenge.”
Minnesota Blue Ox
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at Minnesota Mullets
The Blue Ox have a Nationals pedigree that is not far off from the perennial visitors (and their rivals) the Minnesota Moose. The Blue Ox made the big trip in 2019, 2021 and 2022, so they are well familiar with the level of play required to be one of the USPHL’s top teams.
This year, their players have the same wisdom for the most part, because they may have the largest returning contingent of any USPHL Premier team.
“We are experienced, wit 14 returning players who are big, fast and skilled,” said Jay Witta, the Owner, GM and Head Coach of the Blue Ox. “Our physicality and compete level will be much higher than last season.”
A big turnover of players from 2021-22 to last season took a little bit of a toll, in terms of finishing fifth and missing a third straight Nationals berth, but Witta expects a huge payoff here in 2023-24.
“We put the time in last season with 21 new players and hope to reap the rewards of that .500 season this year, with some great depth among our 14 returning players,” said Witta. “I also think that returner count speaks volumes of our program, that even in a rebuilding year, the majority of the players had a great experience and wanted to return to finish that fight. They are ready.”
The Blue Ox will return two of their top three scorers from last year, in Andover, Minn.’s own Tommy Babb (36 points) and Mike Abrego (29 points).
“Captain Tommy Babb was an instrumental piece we wanted back to help lead our team this season,” said Witta. “Mike’s a big strong powerful forward (5’11-195) with great hockey IQ and compete, who finished very strong last season and trained even harder this summer.”
A large group of returning forwards also include the ‘03 core of Dylan Hender, Chase Mann, Rylee Luebbers Dylan Smith, Harrison Foss, and Karl Grafelman, as well as ‘04 former defenseman Jack Wallace. Witta sees all of these players poised to improve and many, if not all, will have huge breakout seasons.
On defense, the Blue Ox bring back ‘03 Brendan Shaner and ‘04’s Gabe Myers and Arsi Malyutin.
“Brendan had a great breakout season last year as a rookie, and it will be fun to see him raise his game to a new level this season,” said Witta.
Myers posted 25 points from the blue line to rank fifth in overall team scoring, and Malyutin comes in off a 13-point season last year, with more confidence, Witta added.
In goal, the team brings back third-year Blue Ox goalie Eli Marchese (‘03), who will work alongside ‘04 returning goalie Justin Garstecki who posted a .931 save percentage and a 4-1 record last year. The third goalie, Jackson Clough, is the younger brother of the Blue Ox’s all-time leading scorer Michael Clough, now at Purdue Northwest University.
There aren’t a ton of new Blue Ox this year, but Witta’s excited about ‘04 power forward Haden Henke, out of Minnetonka, Minn. He is 6-4, 230 pounds, big, fast and plays with a high IQ. He might be paired with 6-5, 210-pound Swede Oliver Juen-Tavell when size is needed up front. Konrad Kudevitta is an ‘04 joining from Estonia, for whom he has played in the World Junior Championships.
“I feel good about our upcoming season, with the returns we have back and the new talent we have assembled. I know we are very good. It’s just we don’t know how good all the other teams are in our division,” said Witta. “I expect it to be at least eight teams deep as always, meaning anyone can beat anyone on any given night. And to be honest, we would not want it any other way. It should a great seventh year here for the Blue Ox in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.”
Steele County Blades
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Minnesota Squatch
The Blades are another team that have such a strong culture, they have no problem bringing back players loyal to the crest and with every intention of sending the Blades to the top of the charts and beyond to Nationals. They have a good reason to believe this could be their best season in “O-Town” Owatonna, Minn.
“We really like what we’ve assembled thus far. We have a good mix of veterans who know what it takes to be successful and are ready to relay that knowledge to the ‘new to our program’ players,” said GM/Head Coach Nick Adamek. “With the core of returning players we have, we feel that systematically we are already ahead of where we were last season, almost picking up where we left off. This allows us to get into the nitty-gritty of the game, which we weren’t able to do as much as our staff would’ve liked a year ago.”
Out of the top six teams, the Blades are the only squad to return not one but two All-Stars from last year’s roster.
“We are incredibly lucky to return All-Star Levi Preugschas, and his netmate Bence Gaspar,” said Adamek.
Preugschas won 14 games and posted a .914 save percentage to earn his honors, and Gaspar picked up two wins in his five appearances.
LaFleur was a 51-point scorer a year ago and one of the most electrifying forwards in the Midwest West. He is rejoined by linemate Brody Ward (39 points) and second-leading scorer Arturas Laurynavichus from Belarus (42 points).
“Both LaFleur and Ward are itching to show colleges what they can do to help their teams, and Art [‘04] is already gaining notable interest from higher level junior organizations,” Adamek said.
The Blades are also happy to return Steve Pribula as an experienced ‘03 on defense.
“His leadership and calmness on the back end are awesome already,” said Adamek.
Among newcomers, opposing teams will get to know Isaiah VanRyswyk and Quinten Friborg up front, as well as defenseman Aiden Waters. VanRyswyk is out of Albert Lea, Minn., and already had three years of Tier III hockey, including for the Midwest West’s former Rochester Vipers, for whom he posted 54 points in 2020-21. Friborg is a big offensive force coming out of the Bagley/Fosston co-op high school team as an ‘05, and Waters is an ‘04 USPHL Premier veteran from last season.
“Ish has been around the block and knows what it takes to be a junior hockey player and how to finish plays at our level. Aiden has been a great addition to the back end and has shown why he’s played as a forward in the past with his offensive game,” said Adamek. “Quinten Friborg has found a nice role on our squad as a young forward who has shown a ton of upside and willingness to learn.”
With a pair of All-Stars leading a mature and hungry group, the Blades have good reason to be excited about the new season.
“The great thing about having the core of vets that we have is knowing that on any given night anybody can beat anybody in our division,” said Adamek. “Our guys know we can’t take time off. I’m excited to see what the Dells brings this year. They’ve been gaining traction within the division the last few years. I am also eager to see what Coach Nic Leibold has in store for the Moose. He’s learned from a proven winner [Jon Jonasson] and I know he is itching to show what he can do.”
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings
The Outlaws have made some changes recently with a big coaching change, as they welcome in Donovan Gault as GM/Head Coach in their second season with the Outlaws moniker.
“I think we are shaping up to be a good team this year. We have a strong top six and have some solid guys in between the pipes as well,” said Gault, who has coached at the junior and college levels, including a turn as a former Steele County assistant coach. “I was not with the organization last season, however, I did get to watch them a little. I think the big difference I can see is we have more depth up front so we won’t have to rely on the same couple of guys every night.”
The Outlaws join the Blades in bringing back their two All-Stars, as both Tyler Schmitt and Easton Parnell return to Isanti this year, both building on huge offensive outputs from last season. With 81 points last year, Schmitt joins Fresno’s Noak Persson and Emil Loov as the only three top 15 scorers from a year ago to return to their Premier teams. Parnell, who scored 71 points last year, is in his fourth Premier season and has amassed 117 points in 107 regular season games since 2020.
While those two players will be expected to pick up where they left off and then add to that, the Outlaws are also expecting big things from Dillon Meyer and Korbin Manson. Meyer was a late season addition in February and picked up three points in four games.
There are several new players on board with the Outlaws, including ‘03 forward Lyndon Orr (Helena Bighorns / NA3HL) and ‘04 goaltender Zach White (University of Mary / ACHA).
“I’m really excited to see what Lyndon, who is a center, can do. He has really impressed us in camp and exhibition games so far,” said Gault. “Another new face I think will be a key component this year is rookie goaltender Zach White.”
Gault has already seen two teams during the preseason, so he got a good handle on what to expect the rest of the way.
“I think our division is going to be really good again this year. We have seen a couple of them in the preseason such as the Minnesota Squatch and Steele County Blades,” said Gault. “Both teams looked good. I’m excited to see what Todd Sanden has done down in Hudson. He always had really good teams in North Iowa.”
Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Minnesota Moose
Another squad returning an All-Star into the fray are the Ducks, who saw the division’s best year-over-year improvement, adding 14 points from a truly down season in 2021-22 and were able to nab multiple wins during the season against the Blue Ox, Blades and Minnesota Mullets.
Anthony Rohde is back behind the bench and ‘05 defenseman extraordinaire Jack Kopfstein is also back from an All-Star 31-point season last year. In his first two Premier seasons in the Dells, he has 46 points in 72 games.
“We at the Ducks feel like the roster we have is a strong roster to compete this season. The young men on this team have a hunger to compete and win,” said Rohde. “Throughout training camp so far, we can see that this team’s strength is their hard work and cohesiveness. Whatever is thrown at them they are going to push through it together.
“So far the difference between this team and last year’s team is we are more well rounded,” added Rohde. “There isn’t just one line that is counted on to score, or shut down, or grind it out. They all can do it.”
Two top 10 scorers from last year are also back alongside Kopfstein in forwards Reece Atkins (‘03) and Brayden Kirchmann (‘04), each of whom scored 17 points last year.
The team is excited to see what newcomers Austin and Owen Plumert and John Scott can do. The Plumert twins, both ‘05’s, line up at defense (Austin) and forward (Owen) and were the top two scorers on the Hudsonville, Mich., High School team last year. Scott is from around the corner in Reedsburg, Wis., a Dells town, and as an ‘05 was the second-leading scorer for the Reedsburg-Wisconsin Dells high school team.
“The Midwest West Division is always a tough division to play in so you can’t ever overlook any team,” added Rohde. “The Blue Ox will be a strong team, the Moose are always in the mix for Nationals, but with Coach Todd Sanden behind the bench this season for Hudson, they can be a very dangerous team.”
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Minnesota Squatch
The Mullets fall into that now common category of a Midwest West team bringing back several veterans who will work to push the team to higher echelons of the league. The Mullets have the added amenity of playing at an NCAA rink (Augsburg University) and living in University of Minnesota housing. Owner/GM/Head Coach Chris Walby believes that first class approach has brought in some players who will take the Mullets potentially to their highest finish in the division since finishing fourth in 2018.
“I’m really excited about this group. They come to the rink every day ready to work and get better. They’re a positive group and seem to be bonding as a team quickly,” said Walby. “The most noticeable difference between this team and last year’s team is the loss of starting goaltender Alex Falkenhagen. Alex was our captain, a three-year starter and has moved on to Fitchburg State University after aging out here. He’ll be missed on and off the ice.”
That said, the Mullets return a strong group of veterans led by top five scorers Jack Eckholm (21 points) and Jimmy Lindblom (15 points) along with fellow forwards Cade Anderson, Simon Panek and Kai Melton, along with blueliners Mason Rydberg and Owen Garvey.
Walby is looking forward to seeing what forward Caden Sutter and defensemen Aiden Elliott, Tanner Balsitis and Andrew Franken all bring to Mullet Nation. Sutter was briefly a teammate of Jack Eckholm on the Superior International Junior League’s Wisconsin Lumberjacks, while Elliott comes in as an NCDC Draft Pick of the Utica Jr. Comets out of North Shore Academy in Illinois. Balsitis has USPHL Premier and Midwest West experience and Franken joins from Wisconsin high school hockey.
They all seem to be ready to jump right into it against one of last year’s most offensively potent teams in the Minnesota Squatch. College scouts and coaches are sure to get an eyeful of talent every night in the Midwest West.
“The Midwest West Division is one of the toughest and most talented divisions in Tier lll hockey,” said Walby. “As a group, we produce several NCAA players each season. I see that trend continuing for another year.”