Monday, May 16, 2011

Muskegon had youngsters in '10-11

What’s in a number?

Birthdates oftentimes have a rippling effect on a young athlete’s eligibility. But the Lumberjacks showed in their first season in the United States Hockey League that, if a player comes to Muskegon, they’ll immediately get an opportunity to contribute.

Lumberjacks skaters who were 16 when training camp began in early September have since logged 163 games, including 24 Clark Cup playoff tilts. Only Fargo (187 games) and Sioux City (144) had more regular-season games logged by such players this season. Ten USHL clubs had fewer than 50 games played by such players.

The substantial number of games logged by the Jacks’ young players isn’t happenstance. It’s part of the team’s philosophy.

“We won’t take you if you aren’t ready to play,” Lumberjacks owner Josh Mervis said. “Players need to play. Not playing in five out of six games is bad for a young player. I won’t allow my program to do that, and (Lumberjacks head) coach Kevin Patrick shares my philosophy.”

The players’ regular-season exposure to the fastest, toughest juniors league in the nation paid visible dividends in the second season. Despite having logged fewer games than the teams still competing in the postseason, the Jacks’ 10 points by such players is still the high-water mark. Dubuque is the closest club with seven points.

Matt DeBlouw, a Chesterfield native who returned to Cardinal Mooney High School following the season, single-handedly posted one more point (8) than the Fighting Saints, who are competing in the Clark Cup Finals.

DeBlouw’s postseason point binge found him eclipsing his regular-season totals in both goals (2) and assists (4).

“That’s what happens when you take them and you play them,” Mervis said.

“Our young players clearly were well-seasoned and prepared for the playoffs,” Patrick said.

DeBlouw was one of five Jacks who were 16 years old at camp’s open to log at least 10 games in their rookie USHL seasons. Mark Yanis led the group in appearances with 54. Jordan Masters and Mike Moran recorded 49 and 44 games, respectively, and both notched 11 points. Max Shuart, who joined the Jacks in mid-March, scored one goal over his 10 games with the club.

“It’s great to be able to get opportunities right away,” DeBlouw said. “It’s exciting to think of how good we’ll be with the chemistry we’ve built and just having a season under our belts.”

“If we’re going to have a younger player on our roster, he’s got to have an opportunity to play and to participate,” Patrick said. “He’s choosing to play up a level, whereas on the Midget Major level, he’d have more of an opportunity to play in every situation, get a lot of puck touches and continue to grow his confidence.”

The Jacks have a rare network as the only USHL team in Michigan, Team USA’s unique situation withstanding. Michigan features numerous stalwart AAA-level teams that provide outstanding competition for players who develop “down on the farm.”

“That’s the really unique thing about playing for the Muskegon Lumberjacks – we have the relationships with great programs that allow our players to move up and down,” Mervis said. “If you are from the great state of Michigan, there’s only one place to play in the USHL – with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. You can get here younger. We’ll always be one of the younger teams in the league, because we move guys up faster.”

Exhibit A is John Parker, who served as the Jacks’ captain in their inaugural USHL campaign. Just a week after Jacks winger Charlie Taft committed to Colorado College of the WCHA, Parker also accepted a full ride to play at the perennial Hockey East powerhouse University of Maine. Four former Jacks will compete in Hockey East this fall, while another two will skate in the equally impressive WCHA.

“With the Lumberjacks, you can move on to wherever you want to move on to,” Mervis said, “whether it’s the American route – the NCAA route – or if the NHL tells you you’re so good you’re ready to go. Either way, we get them ready to go faster.”

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