By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
It's been said that adversity doesn't define a person; but rather, how you deal with it. The same could be said about an entire team.
Flashback to the end of the 2016-17 season. Lake Superior State had just skated to an 11-18-7 record and a seventh-place finish in the WCHA. On the roster that season was one senior- one! Nine of the top-10 scorers were sophomores or younger and two players had reached the 30-point mark that year, including then-sophomore Mitch Hults, who was also named to the All-WCHA Second Team after finishing tied for first in the league in assists and third in overall scoring. Freshman Kris Bindulis was one of eight newcomers who saw ice time for the Lakers and one of five freshmen who reached double digits in points (1G-11A—12PTS). Lake Superior State head coach Damon Whitten believed that despite the record, his squad was poised for a break-out year the following season (2017-18); after all, they were all coming back…or so he (and everyone else) thought. Three days after their season ended it was announced that Bindulis had signed with the Washington Capitals organization. Thirteen days later Hults inked a deal with the Anaheim Ducks. And the dominos didn't stop there. Throw in the loss of Owen Headrick to the OHL (left the team in January of that season), along with James Roll (moved on to play for Niagara) and all of a sudden, Whitten's master plan faced some unexpected obstacles.
The ripple effect was hard to ignore when the Lakers jumped back onto the ice for the 2017-18 season. Then, during the early stages of last year's campaign, the ripple in the water turned into a tidal wave. Already faced with the daunting task of plugging huge holes left by all-league players like Hults and Bindulis, Whitten and his crew watched significant injuries affect defensemen Lukas Kaelble and Collin Saccoman, meaning the Laker line-up at times had more questions than answers. The injury bug also slowed Anaheim draft pick and sophomore defenseman Steven Ruggiero at times during the second half of the season, and that was after he had to sit out the first half of the season due to transfer rules (transferred to LSSU from Providence University). Still, even with all of that, Lake State continued to steam forward. While their play didn't always translate into wins, something started to happen in the locker room to Whitten and his squad. Led by a small- yet special- group of leaders, including four juniors (now seniors), the Lakers began to develop a thickness to their skin and an edge to their game. After all, if they could weather the storm they had just experienced and come out skating on the other side, just imagine what could happen when the waves finally subsided and the clouds began to clear?
"I think as a coach you want to be as prepared as much as you can in today's game with all of the departures that happen, whether it's players leaving because of playing time or signing NHL contracts, but we did feel like we were building towards some more success and some better results in the standings (after 2016-17). With the departures it changed our roster quite a bit but it is what it is. No one was feeling sorry for us and we weren't either. You have to handle it and grow through it," remarked Whitten, now in his fifth season as Lakers head coach. "It's just something you have to learn to handle, and I think it's really good life experience and we all know life throws a lot at you as you grow up and move forward. Certainly these guys want to be pro hockey players and at some point, no matter how good you are, you are going to deal with adversity through an injury or a trade situation. You learn from it and you grow from it. Looking back on it though, I do think it had a lot to do with where we are at today."
Where Lake Superior State is at today is this- now one season removed from the roller coaster ride, Whitten's squad has not only become one of the most intriguing teams in the conference but the entire nation. The Lakers have rushed out of the gates by winning six of their first 10 games (6-3-1) and are 3-2-1 in the WCHA; good enough for fifth in the conference- a mere two points out of first. Five of those six wins have come on the road, including a 5-0 win at Bowling Green last weekend in Ohio, against a Falcons team that was ranked 10th in the country at the time. LSSU also posted a 5-2 win over then-No. 12 Michigan, to go along with weekend road sweeps at Merrimack and Alabama Huntsville. For their efforts, Lake Superior State enters this weekend's series against Northern Michigan ranked 20th in the latest USCHO.com national poll. It's the first time Lake State has been ranked since November 7th of 2016.
"I think a lot of it has to do with our senior class. They are very experienced. We just have great seniors on the ice and in the locker room," commented Whitten, when asked about the Lakers' 2018-19 earl-season success. "They have been through a lot. When they got here four years ago, they were immediately top-line players, power-play guys, penalty-kill guys. I think now you are really seeing their maturity on and off the ice, and they are doing a tremendous job leading our program."
"I think this year it's been about learning from our mistakes. We expected it to be a better year last year then what it turned out to be, but it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for this year, I think," continued Lakers senior goaltender Nick Kossoff. "We took a lot from last year and I think part of it was figuring out our team identity, which we have done, and then sticking to it. That has been the key to our early success, I think. A lot of our success is learning from last year."
Focusing in on a team's identity can often times be about as elusive as a bouncing puck, but Kossoff and company seem to have found it. The West Des Moines, Iowa native describes it as a hard-nosed style of hockey, mixed with a calmness that one can only achieve after experiencing the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. Fellow senior and Lake Superior State assistant captain Anthony Nellis explains it as an intense focus, centered around an expectation of excellence, that can only be developed through the experience of knowing exactly where you want to be and learning from where you have been. Along with senior co-captains Gage Torrel and Diego Cuglietta, the fearsome foursome seemed to have found the right formula when it comes to learning and excelling; winning and losing.
"After last year for us, it was a little concerning that this season was going to be our senior year. We made certain that what happened last year was not going to happen this year. I think that really helped build some things. It built some standards and we decided that the mentality was going to be different and how we battled the adversity was going to be different," remarked Nellis. "This year it's been very positive and everyone has been applying themselves and shooting for that standard that has been set."
Offensively, Nellis has been leading the pack. After striking for 12 goals and seven assists as a junior, Nellis is tied for first in the WCHA this season with seven goals and is tied for fourth in overall scoring with 13 points. In addition, four of his seven goals have come on the road, including one this past weekend to help the Lakers to a weekend split at Bowling Green. Right behind Nellis on the stat sheet are Torrel and Cuglietta. Torrel is currently tied for third in the WCHA in assists with nine and Cuglietta is tied for eighth in the conference in goals (five). In net, Kossoff is a perfect 4-0-1 on the year to go along with a goals-against average of 2.36 and a save percentage of 91.4 percent; putting him in the top-10 in the conference in both categories. Those numbers include the senior goalie's performance this past weekend against a potent Bowling Green offense, where he made 30 saves on 30 shots for a 5-0 shutout win. Going into that game, the Falcons were averaging nearly four goals per contest.
"When we talk about the senior class, Nick's maybe left out sometimes because he's not wearing a letter as a goaltender, but he is as good of a leader as any of these guys. He's a phenomenal student-athlete. He's a guy who you never have to worry about doing the right thing in the classroom and in the community, the weight room and on the ice. Again, that's kind of permeated throughout our locker room. That's the culture we have now because our seniors are doing things the right way all over and Nick is the epitome of that. It's been great to see him get rewarded with a good start; he's playing extremely well and he's very deserving," replied Whitten. "Again I have to go back to our senior class and Nick's a part of that group. I think they have done a really good job. They have been through a lot of highs and lows throughout the last couple years. I think in past years we didn't have that leadership core that had that experience and ability in the locker room to move a team forward and now we do."
"Our seniors now, we have been through it all. I feel that we are doing a good job of letting the younger guys know what to expect," added Kossoff. "We have kind of known what we are about for a while now, it's just been a matter of executing that. Finding our team identity; that's been a huge key for us."
And it's trickled down from the leaders to the newcomers and everyone in between. In addition to the Lakers seniors, juniors like Max Humitz, Brayden Gelsinger and Saccoman have shined on the ice this season as well. Through 10 games, both Humitz and Gelsinger have struck for three goals and five assists, respectively. Meanwhile for Saccoman (5G-2A—7PTS, now fully recovered from an injury that plagued his sophomore season, the Stillwater, Minn. product is the elder statesman on a Laker blue-line consisting of several talented underclassmen who roam the back end for Whitten. To date the LSSU defensive corps has been nothing short of spectacular when you consider the overall age of the group. Often times with a nightly lineup consisting of three sophomores and two freshmen defensemen, Lake Superior State is allowing just 2.70 goals per game and are near the top of the conference in penalty-kill percentage. One of the Lakers' top newcomers is defenseman Jared Nordqvist, who is second on the team in scoring with nine points and is tied for first in the WCHA in rookie scoring. No doubt, Whitten's seniors are leading the charge and everyone else is following behind.
"The team spirit and believing that no matter who we are playing, a win is very possible and that we are a good team this year; that's been something I have noticed with this group," mentioned Nellis. "We have to have the mindset that we can compete with whoever no matter where it is, whether it's in Minnesota or in Alabama. I think that's been a key and making sure that the younger guys understand that has been a part of the process. No matter who and no matter where; we can play with anyone. That's a mindset we have and that has been working for us."
"We know what our team is. We know there is going to be highs and lows. We know we are going to lose a few games and win some games. It's good to ride the high we are on right now but we have to keep pushing forward and stick with our process," concluded Kossoff. "Whatever happens outside the locker room with the media or with anyone else buying in or casting us out, it doesn't affect us. It can't affect us."
"We love coaching these kids every day and being with them. Just seeing their growth and development from last year to this year has been special, so the results aren't going to change the way we feel about this group, and not only the senior class but the entire group. They are a joy to be around every day," stated Whitten. "Right now though no one is reflecting on last year or where we were then and where we are now. Today we are getting ready and preparing for Northern Michigan and hopefully we will be ready to play Friday night. There will be time for some of that reflection as we progress through the season, but obviously we're not done."
Their next challenge is Northern Michigan, who skates into Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. this weekend for a two-game heavyweight fight and the beginning of the annual Cappo Cup series between the traditional Upper Peninsula rivals. The Wildcats are tied for first in the WCHA with Michigan Tech and Minnesota State. Speaking of the Mavericks, the Lakers host MSU next weekend, making this upcoming four-game homestand one of the most important nine-day stretches in recent memory for Whitten and his team. Yes, Lake Superior State has shown that they have the pieces to battle for a conference crown, but knowing it and doing it are two different things. Lake State knows from personal experience that expectations don't win trophies. They will be ready. Their senior class will make sure of it.
"Just letting them know that these are some of our biggest weekends coming up," replied Kossoff, when asked about the advice the Laker seniors have given the rest of the team preparing for the next two weekends. "It's not going to make or break our season, but they are going to be close games and tough hockey and we have to put a full 60 minutes of hockey together each and every game coming up if we want to have a good shot at home ice and winning the WCHA. This is our time. It's a great opportunity for us and we need to go out and grab it."