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Top scorers gone, but CEC hockey squad is 'energized'

If you don't recognize a good portion of the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey program when it takes the ice for Friday night's season opening game against New Prague, you won't be alone.

The top five scorers from last year's team are gone, lost to either graduation or junior hockey, taking 85 goals and 210 points from last season with them.

Top scorer Westin Michaud (26 goals, 31 assists, 57 points), senior-to-be Karson Kuhlman (25 goals, 22 assists, 47 points) and Dylan Michaud (4/7/11) are gone to play junior hockey. Beau Michaud (20/33/53), Drew Dincau (9/23/32) and Tanner Robideaux (5/16/21) are lost to graduation.

"I've never seen a situation where we've lost this many players or this much scoring," Coach Dave Esse said. Entering his 14th season as CEC head coach, Esse has a substantial rebuilding job ahead of him.

"We would have had to eventually replace everyone anyway, but we looked at it like having to go to a store and buy one piece of furniture at a time," Esse said by way of analogy. "Here, we have to go furnish an entire room. It all happened at once, and that's the reality."

The leading returning scorer is forward, and team captain, James Newgren (9/11/20). And, with the off-season controversy surrounding Esse's job security resolved, the coach said the team is ready to get down to business.

"We have a good mood in the squad," he said. "Our locker room atmosphere is the best I've seen in years and I attribute a lot of that to our captain, James Newgren, and the alternate, Ryan Lind."

The team has five seniors but will be young in key areas of the rink.

Senior Zack Strom (7-4-2, 2.17, .894) will be the number one goaltender, backed up by fellow senior Dylan McIvor.

"Zack will be the main guy," Esse said. "He had a great stretch run last year, he's going to have a great senior year and he's an outstanding young man. He has lots of confidence and gives us lots of confidence in front of him."

Lind (0/12/12 last season) and junior Dalton Johnson (3/8/11) will anchor the defensemen.

"It starts with Ryan, who has really improved," Esse said. "In fairness to him he's been hurt the last couple of years with shoulder injuries and right now I couldn't be more proud of how he's playing."

Sophomore Jack Kuhlman (0/1/1) and Nick Niemi will get substantial ice time on defense as well.

"Nick comes up from junior varsity and had an outstanding football season," Esse said. "That's carried right over into hockey."

Esse believes the six hockey players who played football will give the team added energy.

"They have high energy, but the confidence level goes up with winning in the fall," Esse said. "Good fall teams set the tempo and the tone for the whole rest of the school year so we were happy our teams did so well."

The team took the ice in the Lake Superior Conference Jamboree on Tuesday night but didn't score in three exhibitions against Marshall (3-0), Denfeld (1-0) and Hermantown (0-0), but Esse said the team got better throughout the evening.

"We didn't score a goal but we played very well against Hermantown," Esse said. "And New Prague will be a good test for us right out of the box on Friday night."

"What we'll see is a chance for someone else to shine and step up," Esse added. "Someone will score the goals for us, someone will step up and block shots. We need to find out who. And we as coaches are going to have to do a better job as teachers of the game and motivators for these kids. I'm energized and anxious to start."