Junior hockey: Wilderness end season out in the cold
It's a place the Minnesota Wilderness aren't used to — the outside looking in.
A late season slide that saw the team lose 12 of its final games, including nine in a row from mid-February to mid-March, saw the team end its season with a record of 26-29-3 — 13 points out of a playoff spot in the competitive NAHL Central Division.
The team finished its regular season April 4-5 with 5-0 and 6-3 home losses to the Aberdeen Wings, but coach and general manager Dave Boitz noted that the team had to play through plenty of adversity in the second half of the season.
"It was a combination of things," Boitz said. "We lost some older kids at the deadline, went through a period where guys were sick and injured, and we never rebounded from that time. We got younger while the other teams got older, and that hurt us."
And while the playoffs are a no-go for this year, the NAHL's being a development league takes a bit of the sting out of the difficult team finish.
"The players are playing for their personal development," Boitz said. "It leaves a frustration with me, though, that we didn't have a stronger finish. I felt badly for the 20-year-olds who wanted to be in the playoffs one more time. It doesn't feel good to finish fifth, but the guys played hard and did what they could. They move on to college now."
There are players coming back around whom the Wilderness can build, but one new face next year will be Gavin Rasmussen, who agreed to a tender at the end of the season. The senior was Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's leading goal-scorer this winter with 20, and added 10 assists to finish third on the team in scoring with 30 points.
Also this season, the Wilderness were led in goal scoring by Cloquet's Dylan Johnson, who finished with 24 goals and 22 assists in 59 games.
But to get players the exposure to scouts they need, making the playoffs is a bonus.
"One of the good things is that we have kids who are still on the (college) bubble," Boitz said. "Our home games fell at a good time for scouts so we were fortunate in that regard and down the road some of these guys will get that benefit."
While the season may not have ended how the Wilderness wanted, Boitz was pleased at the inroads the team continues to make in the community. A new two-year rink lease is signed and the team is ready to get back to business.
"We're positive about the new lease and happy we don't have to think about it for another 18 months," Boitz said. "We are happy with the deal and the city was very good to work with. We think there's a bright future."
Boitz sees the Wilderness as a solid community member.
"The crowds picked up at the end of the season, we were drawing well in March when we weren't contending and that means a lot," Boitz said. "I think we have a good relationship with the hockey community here, the business community has accepted us and other groups as well."
Boitz had one final word of thanks before he gets to work scouting for the NAHL's annual May tryout camp and the June draft.
"The billeters," he said, referring to those who open their homes to the players. "They are a great group of people. The volunteers. We have such a great core of people who help us out. I can't say enough about what they do for us every year. We owe it to them and to ourselves to get back to work and get back to where we need to be next season."