Photo by Hickling Images
Team: Muskegon Lumberjacks
Head Coach: John Lafontaine, 2nd season
"We're returning a high-end, high-compete goaltender in Adam Brizgala who is coming off a good first season and looks ready to take the reins. We have three returning defensemen and up front four returning forwards, plus three more with USHL experience. I'm optimistic. We have eight total returners that will help establish the culture and environment that we had at the end of the year last season.
We're excited about our draft choices and moves that we've made to bring in hungry, skilled, competent players to surround our veterans with. Anthony Del Gaizo was a good co-leader last season and is ready to shoulder most of the leadership this year. He will look to some of his returning players from last season as well as some of our new guys to help him with leadership responsibilities.
Lastly, we're very excited about a young, but experienced, Emilio Pettersen joining our team. He has speed and quickness to his game that are special attributes."
2016-17 Record: 37-18-3-2 (79 points, 3rd in Eastern Conference)
Top Returners: Adam Brizgala, Marc Del Gaizo, Anthony Del Gaizo, Jachym Kondelik, Travis Mitchell
Notable Additions: Wyatt Bongiovanni, Michael Graham, Monte Graham, Emilio Pettersen
Based on the players gone from last season’s roster, such as Andrei Svechnikov and Keith Petruzzelli, one would tend to think that the Muskegon Lumberjacks are primed to regress this season, but that doesn’t look like it will be the case. Head coach John Lafontaine and general manager John Vanbiesbrouck have added veteran, skilled players with a combined 334 games of USHL experience to a roster that already has a strong foundation, giving the Lumberjacks roster 785 games of USHL experience, the most in team history since the 2014-15 season, when they advanced to the Clark Cup Final. Muskegon looks poised to remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference in 2017-18.
The main reason for Muskegon to be optimistic this season is the fact that Adam Brizgala returns between the pipes. Despite being designated as a “backup” to Petruzzelli, now a freshman at Quinnipiac, last season, Brizgala played in nearly half of the Lumberjacks regular season games, in addition to compiling a pair of Clark Cup Playoffs appearances. In those 28 regular season contests, the Czech netminder put up a solid 2.46 GAA and .914 SV%, and looks to be an early contender to be one of the top goaltenders in the USHL this season.
In addition to returning players Marc Del Gaizo, Anthony Del Gaizo, Jachym Kondelik and Travis Mitchell, the Lumberjacks welcome three high-level players with USHL experience to the lineup this year in Wyatt Bongiovanni, Michael Graham, Monte Graham, and Emilio Pettersen. Bongiovanni is returning for his third USHL season and had a solid 2016-17 with the Tri-City Storm, tallying 30 PTS (12G, 18A) in 59 games. Michael Graham played 45 games over the last two seasons with the Fargo Force, totaling 24 PTS (12G, 12A) in that span. Monte Graham spent the last two seasons in Kearney, including winning the Clark Cup with Storm in 2016. He will bring valuable championship experience to the Muskegon locker room, and he is also coming off a solid season, with 24 PTS (8G, 16A) in 60 games.
Pettersen is arguably the most exciting new player of the three. The Norwegian forward is considered a top 2018 NHL Draft prospect and is coming off a year in which he had 27 PTS (10G, 17A) in 57 games for the Omaha Lancers as a 16-year-old. Vanbiesbrouck has referred to Pettersen as a “world-class player”, and Muskegon is hoping he can help the Lumberjacks back into the postseason and help lead them on a deep run toward the Clark Cup.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 16th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2017-18. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in five consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.