NA Now: Minnesota Wilderness
The NA Now series features a look at all teams in the NAHL for the 2021-22 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. NA Now looks into each NAHL team including interviews with all the head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Head Coach: Dave Boitz (5th Season)
2020-21 record: 56 GP, 25-27-4, 54 pts. (3rd in the Central Division)
2020-21 leading scorer: Grant Docter (40 points)
2021 Playoffs: Lost in the Central Division Semi-Finals to the Bismarck Bobcats, 3 games to 0
2021-22 Division: Midwest
First regular season game: Wednesday, September 15th vs. North Iowa Bulls
Home opener: Friday, September 24th vs. Kenai River Brown Bears
While every team in the NAHL went through hurdles last season dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps no team had a more topsy-turvy ride than the Minnesota Wilderness. The team opened the 2020-21 season on October 16th and played just three games in the first half of the season, posting a 1-1-1 record. Then the Wilderness would have almost a two-month layoff from November 20th to January 15th. Once the New Year hit, it was a five-month and 53-game sprint to end the regular season.
The Wilderness closed the regular season on a roll to make the playoffs in 3rd place in the Central, but the sprint to the end of the regular season took its toll as the team was then swept in the Central Division Semi-Finals by the Bismarck Bobcats, giving up 16 goals in the three games.
“It was a hard year for a variety of reasons. We played three games before the New Year and then from January 15th to May 15th, we played 53 games. It was a lot for our guys and I think by the end of the season, we were just tired. At the end of the year, we were playing good hockey and I think we finished strong, but I think we ran out of gas. We had a coaching change towards the end of the season and I thought everyone handled it very well,” said Head Coach and GM Dave Boitz.
Boitz had taken over for Jon Vaillancourt at the end of the season and officially became head coach once the season was over on June 11th. Boitz has been with the Wilderness organization for the past eight seasons, mostly as the General Manager, which included helping lead the team to their lone Robertson Cup Championship in 2015. Boitz, along with Associate Head Coach Brendan Phelps, would then get to work in building a team for the 2021-22 season, which included a priority in finding some more scoring. The Wilderness averaged just 2.43 goals per game last season, which ranked 21st in the 23-team NAHL.
“We needed some more scoring. Last year, we had a defenseman (Grant Docter) lead the team in scoring. Grant is a special talent, but we just needed more production from our forwards. We tried to get a little older up front and add some more scoring. We bring back a pretty significant portion of our defense and our starting goalie, so that should be solid again, but we have to find a way to generate some more offense,” said Boitz.
Defensively the Wilderness have a solid core returning, which includes the likes of Aaron Pionk, who had three points in 10 games played last season. Colgate commit Bobby Metz also returns after putting up 14 points in 62 games last season with the Wilderness and Northeast Generals. Sam Olson also returns to the defensive corps. The Wilderness also get a big boost with the return of goalie and Brown University recruit Jacob Zacharewicz. In his rookie season last year, Zacharewicz appeared in 31 games and posted a 12-12-3 record with a 2.48 goals against average and a .921 save percentage, which ranked 8th in the NAHL last season. Up front, the Wilderness do have a few returners back in Ethan Wolthers (18 points), Gunnar Thoreson (12 points), Hunter Young (9 points), and Cole Gordon.
Another change for the Wilderness will be a shift from the Central to the Midwest Division in 2021-22. “We are really happy to have the Magicians back as a division rival. They are right down the road and we have established a great and competitive rivalry with them since we both came into the league back in 2013. I think it’s also exciting for us to be going back to Alaska again. It is such a great experience to go and play up there and with the addition of Anchorage to the mix, it is a new city and area that we all get to experience and see,” said Boitz. “We talk a lot about what it was like back in 2015 when we won the Cup. Every team is different of course, but I think there are lessons our guys can learn from that team and what they did to win it all. We had a really good run in those few years around the Cup. The biggest problem we have had in recent seasons is too much turnover in our roster, so we have been really working hard to have some more consistency in recruiting. I think we are also focusing on limiting our in-season movement, because that just disrupts chemistry.”
Next up: Minot Minotauros