22 in 22: Minnesota Wilderness
September 3, 2015
The 22 Teams in 22 Days series features a look at all 22 teams in the NAHL for the 2015-16 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Friday, September 11th. 22 in 22 will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interviews with all 22 head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the 2015-16 season, including taking a look at their roster and their strengths as a team. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished. Best of all, 22 in 22 is done to provide the fans of the NAHL with an inside look at their favorite team and what to expect.
Head Coach: Corey Millen (3rd year)
2014-15 record: 39-15-6, 84 pts. (2nd in the Midwest Division)
2014-15 leading scorer: Darian Romanko (61 points)
2015 Playoffs: Won the Midwest Division, won the 2015 Robertson Cup defeating the Austin Bruins, 2-0
2015-16 Division: Midwest
First regular season game: Friday, September 18th vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
Home opener: Friday, September 18th vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
The Minnesota Wilderness became the first team from the state of Minnesota to capture a Robertson Cup as they won 10 straight playoff games on their way to the Championship last season. It marked the second straight season that a team from the Midwest Division has captured in the NAHL’s Holy Grail. It capped off a season for the Wilderness, which not only saw the team set new marks for on-ice success, but the Wilderness also established themselves as a leader in the commitment and advancement category.
The Wilderness saw 13 of their players from the 2014-15 team earn NCAA commitments, which included the likes of leading scorer Darian Romanko (University of Minnesota), All-NAHL Team defenseman Ivan Chukarov (University of Massachusetts) and goalie Brock Kautz (University of Minnesota). In addition, Chukarov was selected in the 7th round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabres. It capped an incredible couple of months for the Wilderness, which also saw long-time NAHL coach Corey Millen also earn his first Robertson Cup.
Millen said that he wasn’t really sure how things were going to shake out until the team started making its run in their first playoff series. The team finished tied for the top spot in the Midwest Division, but were one win behind Fairbanks for the division title and had to settle for the #2 seed. Then, the Wilderness went down 0-2 in their Midwest Division Semi-Final series to the Coulee Region Chill with home losses in Games 1 and 2. It was then that the team rattled off 10 straight wins on their way to the Robertson Cup title. “The Midwest Division is very good and all year, we were neck and neck with the defending champs in Fairbanks, so I think we knew it was a possibility, but with the number of injuries we had during the year and some of the adversity we faced along the way, we were really never sure that winning a cup was the first things on our minds,” said Millen. “I think we realized it was only a possibility when we beat Fairbanks in Fairbanks for the Midwest Division playoff title. Then it was just a matter of keeping the momentum going,” said Millen.
The Wilderness then had to take down the NAHL’s top team during the regular season, the Janesville Jets, which they did in Janesville in the Semi-Finals, setting up an all-Minnesota showdown in the Robertson Cup Finals in Austin. “We faced adversity all season long and I think we really showed our mental strength and fortitude in Game 1 of the Robertson Cup Finals as the game strayed into two, three and four overtimes. We were in uncharted waters and our guys really stayed the course and we got some big time performances. I think once we won Game 1 after five and a half hours and four overtimes later, we were a team of destiny and there was no slowing us down for Game 2,” said Millen.
With that type of success and player advancement, not only does the task of rebuilding a team face the Wilderness, but they embark on this season as the defending champs with the constant target on their back. The Wilderness will now face the challenge of becoming the first team since 2008 to win back-to-back Robertson Cup Championships. “In rebuilding our roster for this season, we tried to address our goaltending situation right away, but there were holes throughout the roster we had to fill because of the key players lost,” said Millen. “We lost almost all our scoring, so it is almost a total rebuild, but we do have some solid returning players come back fresh off of last year’s experience.”
The Wilderness have seven returning players to the 2015-16 team that played with the club last season. They include forwards Brett Heikkila (28 points), Alex Toscano (14 points), Jack Forbort (14 points) and Isak Bergland (10 points), but the top seven scorers from last year’s team are all gone. Returning defensemen include Janis Jaks (13 points), Alex Trapp (8 points) and Kyle Jones (17 games played).
Both goalies will also be new as Brock Kautz and Ryan Anderson are both gone. In their place the Wilderness turn to NAHL veteran netminder Chase Munroe, who played well for the Michigan Warriors at the end of last season, along with rookie goalie Dyllan Lubbesmeyer. “I think we are excited about both goalies because you have Chase, who is a proven NAHL veteran that played really well at the end of the season in Michigan, and then Dyllan is a guy who was the top goaltender in the state of Minnesota last year,” said Millen. Lubbesmeyer was selected the winner of the 2015 Frank Brimsek Award, given annually to the top senior goalie in the state.
Millen said the team’s approach for this season is to keep things realistic and understand that the team will be a new group of players. “It’s not easy to repeat because any time you have success, people want your players, which is great because that type of advancement and on-ice success usually go hand-in-hand. We did lose a lot and we are a different team, so we are going to have to form our own identity and see what the new players have to offer. We are excited about the returning and new pieces we have in place, but we are going to get our opponents best game on a nightly basis.”
Next up in the 22 in 22 series: Minot Minotauros