Rochester Post Bulletin
Casey Mignone and Mike Aikens weren’t quite sure what to expect when the Rochester Grizzlies opened their inaugural season in the North American 3 Hockey League back in September.
The Grizzlies roster is full of young and talented players, many of whom had little or no junior hockey experience.
At the halfway point of the season, there are no such thing as rookies anymore. And the Grizzlies have exceeded many people’s expectations, perhaps even their own.
Rochester is 19-7-0, solidly in third place in perhaps the NA3HL’s toughest division. They hold victories over both of the top two teams in the West Division, the Granite City Lumberjacks and the North Iowa Bulls. The Grizzlies are still well within striking distance of both of those teams, sitting just four points behind second-place North Iowa and five points back of division-leading Granite City.
The Grizzlies are back from their holiday break and will begin the second half of the season this weekend. They host New Ulm on Friday and North Iowa on Saturday, then travel to Willmar for a 7:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve game on Monday.
Mignone, the team’s head coach, and Aikens, its assistant coach and a Rochester native, talked with the Post Bulletin about the ups and downs (and more ups) the team experienced in the first half of its first season:
Nick Bucklin, who was in fall camp with the NAHL’s Austin Bruins, has settled in as the main starter in goal for the Grizzlies, with Max Clouser and Liam Kelly sharing time behind him.
Bucklin has played in 16 of the team’s 26 games, going 13-2-0 with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage. Clouser (3-2-0, 3.74, .870) and Kelly (3-3-0, 3.41, .870) have both gone close to a month at a time without playing in a game, but have been solid when called upon.
“They’ve all made good strides,” Mignone said. “Nick has been solid. Liam, of the three, has made the most strides, I think, and has come a long way. Max has been pretty good, as well, so we’re happy with all three.
“When you have three guys, there’s always someone sitting out. They all think they should be in there, which is what you want as a coach.”
Seth Bacon, who spent all of last season with the Austin Bruins, took the reigns immediately as a team leader and a force on the blue line. He is fifth on the team in scoring with nine goals and 23 points.
Rochester Lourdes graduate Logan Olson has provided a good mix of physicality and offense, as well, putting up a goal and 16 assists so far. Brock Hildenbrand (13 points) and Colin Mehren (10) have also chipped in some offense from the blue line. Austin native Bryar Flanders has played in all 26 games (some at forward) and Bradley Postula has played in 23. Newcomer Stephan Jirovec has played in six games since arriving in late November and has brought some more physical play to the Grizzlies lineup.
“I think everyone has done a really good job in the first half,” Mignone said. “Seth and Logan and Brock have been anchors back there and the other guys have all made good strides. We’d like to have one more guy to push them all a little more, but we’ve come a long way.”
“We don’t give up nearly the drastic Grade-A’s (scoring chances) as we did at the start of the season,” Aikens said, “so, as a whole, we’re getting better. We’re looking for guys who work together well and jell and communicate. I think (Bacon and Hildenbrand) have stepped forward in that department, for sure.”
The Grizzlies are 12th out of 36 teams in the NA3HL in goals against (76 total) this season and have a plus-45 goal differential through 26 games.
“We’ve put an emphasis on our structure without the puck,” Mignone said. “We talk to our ‘D’ about having good gaps and not letting guys get behind us, back-pressuring the puck hard. We’ve done a pretty good job of executing that philosophy.
“We don’t have too many old guys back there. Seth is really the only 20-year-old back there. Brock has taken on a big role for a younger guy. Logan and Brad have stepped up.”
For much of the first half of the season, the Grizzlies were top-heavy offensively. Vlad Sorokin (26-18—44), Richard Szabo (15-17—32) and Matthew DeRosa (14-16—30) carried a bulk of the scoring load, along with Peyton Hart (6-18—24). Joey Fodstad (12-8—20) is the only other Grizzly with more than 10 goals.
But that scoring load has become more evenly distributed in recent weeks, and the addition of Kasson native Nic Leisen (3-3—6 in seven games) in late November allowed the coaching staff to shuffle some top-line players around. Both Mignone and Aikens were pleased with the play of the team’s third line (Lukas Jenkins, Porter Haney, Flanders) and fourth line (Dylan Svoboda, John Rowell, Josh Hoffman) at the NA3HL Showcase, which took place right before the holiday break.
“They bring energy and are really good on the forecheck,” Aikens said of the third and fourth lines. “They’re disturbers. They just kinda go down and create havoc. The next step for those guys is, they create opportunities for themselves by the way they play, they just haven’t been able to finish some of those. The next step is, if they can make the play after they create the turnover, and put it in the back of the net, now we’re really going to be tough to play against.”
Rochester Lourdes graduate Lucas Newman also has somewhat quietly had a strong start, with eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points. He’s one of seven Grizzlies with 20 or more points.
“Newman has been pretty solid every night,” Aikens said. “He’s not as flashy as those other guys, but he’s almost always in the right spots and, if we can get him to be a little more flashy at times, playing with a little more confidence … I think we’ve created some depth up front. We have two lines for sure that can score, and we have two other lines that are creating chances and eventually will get to where they’re scoring, too.”
The Grizzlies have grown and jelled well as a team in the first half of the season, but there are still 21 regular-season games remaining.
“I think we still have a lot of room to grow and get better,” Mignone said. “We still have a lot of mental mistakes to get past. We have a couple of ladders to climb still, being more consistent with our decision making. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the ceiling of where this team could go.”
The team’s coaches and players said they know they can’t back down in the second half, especially playing in a tough division where every game is a battle and every point in the standings is important.
“We can play with the North Iowas and the Granite Citys,” Aikens said, “but can we do it on a consistent basis? Those teams are older, veteran-laced teams. I think we’re going to get there. Some rookies take until Christmas time to make that full (transition to junior hockey), some it’s a little earlier. But now, when we come back (for the second half), nobody is going to be a rookie.
“We’ve played with the top teams and know what it takes to have success.”
Mignone, in his first season as a head coach, said he continues to learn every day and has benefitted from having Aikens (a former head coach in the USHL) on staff.
“I thought we’d be competitive, but I don’t think anyone thought we’d be right where we are,” Mignone said. “We’ve said this before, but our expectations have changed.
“It’s been good. It’s been busy, kind of hectic. But that’s what I wanted, more hockey all the time.”
“I think if someone would’ve offered it to us on Day 1, where we’re at now,” Aikens said, “we’d have taken it.”