Defending the Fraser: All You Need To Know about the 2022-23 Rochester Grizzlies
The Rochester Grizzlies play their first home regular-season games of the 2022-23 season tonight and Saturday, against NA3HL Central Division rival Wausau. The Grizzlies will open their home schedule with nearly 20 newcomers on the roster, but expectations haven't changed. Their goal is to hang more banners.
ROCHESTER — New season, same story for the Rochester Grizzlies.
Turnover is part of junior hockey, and the Grizzlies have turned over more than half of their roster from last year's team that won the first North American 3 Hockey League championship in franchise history. Entering this weekend's home openers against Wausau (7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday) at the Rochester Recreation Center, the Grizzlies have 19 newcomers on their roster.
Still, expectations are high, with close to a dozen veterans returning and some high-end playmakers who can score goals. That talent was evident last weekend, when the Grizzlies opened the regular season with a pair of wins at the St. Louis Jr. Blues, scoring seven goals in both games and putting 93 total shots on goal in the series.
"Just having been through the grind of a season and the long bus rides and everything that comes with it, it helps a lot," head coach Ratzloff said of the team's veterans.
• Head coach: Chris Ratzloff (4th season, 125-23-6). A 1988 Rochester John Marshall graduate, Ratzloff took over as the Grizzlies' head coach in their second season and continued to build them into one of the best — if not the best — franchise in the NA3HL. The Grizzlies have a remarkable .845 winning percentage under Ratzloff, as well as three regular-season Central Division championships, two trips to the NAHL national tournament and one national championship.
• Assistant coach: Tyler Veen (2nd season). Veen served as a scout in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota for the Grizzlies, the NAHL's Austin Bruins and the USHL's Fargo Force before becoming a full-time assistant coach for the Grizzlies in the 2021-22 season. Veen helped guide the Grizzlies to a national championship in his first season on the bench.
• Goalie coach: Tait Carlson (3rd season): In two seasons, Carlson has coached two goalies who have won the NA3HL Goalie of the Year Award — Shane Soderwall in 2021 and Owatonna native Zach Wiese in 2022. Soderwall is now the starter for the Anchorage Wolverines in the NAHL, and Wiese is now playing Division I college hockey for the University of Minnesota. Carlson played junior hockey for the Rochester Ice Hawks, then ACHA hockey at St. Mary's University in Winona.
• Defending the Fraser: It took just four seasons for the Grizzlies to go from NA3HL newbie to league champion. Now the bullseye is squarely on their backs, even though 19 players on the roster had never suited up for the team prior to last weekend. New faces don't mean expectations have changed, though. There are close to a dozen veterans on the ice every day who know what the grind of a 47-game junior hockey regular season is like, as well as knowing what it takes to win a playoff series and a national championship. The banner hanging on the south wall of the Rochester Recreation Center says the Grizzlies are the defending NA3HL Fraser Cup champions. But it's a new season, with new players in many positions, and a new attitude from Rochester's opponents.
• Home Sweet Home: Even more so than in recent seasons, the Grizzlies will have a strong local flavor to their roster. There are currently 15 Minnesotans on the roster, including seven who played in Section 1, the high school section that includes southeastern Minnesota teams. That group of Section 1 players includes goalie Tate Cothern (Rochester Mayo); defensemen Matthew Haun (Rochester Century), Easton Hammill (Kasson) and Dawson McLaughlin (Eyota/Rochester Lourdes); and forwards Connor Stoffel (Hastings), Spencer Klotz (Northfield) and Joseph Yoon (Albert Lea).
• Tender-ized: The Grizzlies have had the NA3HL’s Goaltender of the Year each of the past three seasons (Backstrom, Soderwall, Wiese). We’re not ready to say they’ll make it four in a row, but if preseason camp and the first two regular season games are any indication, they’ll have three guys — Lucas Henderson, Kaleb Bents and Tate Cothern — who are motivated to be the No. 1 guy in goal.
GUYS IN GOAL
The Grizzlies' goalie situation is somewhat clear-cut early on. The team is carrying three on its roster — veterans Lucas Henderson and Kaleb Bents, and rookie Tate Cothern, a Rochester Mayo grad. Rochester's coaches have big expectations for all three, including Cothern, who is still working himself into game shape while the incumbents share time in goal early in the season. Henderson went 6-2-0 with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage last season, while playing behind the NA3HL Goalie of the Year, Owatonna native Zach Wiese, who is now playing with the University of Minnesota. Bents split time between Rochester and the Texas Roadrunners last season, putting up strong numbers (7-0-1, 1.56 GAA, .942 save pct.).
"Once we get more consistent in front of them (defensively), we'll know a little bit better what to expect out of (our goalies), but I think they've been solid so far," Ratzloff said. "Until (Cothern) gets up to speed and fully into game shape, we'll probably split (Henderson and Bents), for this weekend, then we'll (re-evaluate)."
DEEP ON ‘D’
• Perhaps the most difficult decision Grizzlies coaches will have on a weekly basis is which defensemen will play and which ones will sit. They have 12 blue-liners on the roster right now, three of whom are expected to play key roles when they return from injury — newcomer Hunter Demers (Fargo, N.D.) and veterans Tyler Huffer and Logan Kroyman, who suffered a severe knee injury in the national tournament last spring. ... Third-year Grizzly Per Waage will anchor this group; he'll be the team's captain and has already drawn interest from multiple Division III college programs. ... Former Lourdes' defenseman Dawson McLaughlin also returns. The 6-2, 195-pounder played in 23 games last season. ... Mahtomedi's Grant Dardis paired with Waage in the season-opening series to form a top pairing that is solid for 200 feet. Dardis (5-8, 170) is a potential NAHL call-up as the season goes along; he was a captain at Mahtomedi last season, when he had 21 points in 31 games. ... Ty Petzke (5-8, 140; Sheboygan, Wis.) has the potential to be a point-per-game player, while former Tartan High School standout Leo Milan (6-0, 180) and Jake Lange (6-1, 181; St. Louis) have made their presence known already, playing in both games in the season-opening series at St. Louis last weekend.
"We're still sorting things out," Ratzloff said. "We'll give all those guys a look and figure out who can fill the roles we need them to fill. These guys just need to show up and work and take care of themselves.
"Sometimes we'll just have to rotate through the bottom three spots on the line chart to get guys in. ... (Earning ice time) is about effort, decision-making, how much guys are developing. If they're showing us that they're learning ... everyone is going to make mistakes, so we don't look at it based on mistakes, we look at it as, are you doing the right thing in practice? Are you doing the right things in certain situations?"
FIREPOWER UP FRONT
• It's no secret inside or outside of the Grizzlies' locker room: Their coaching staff expects them to score goals. A lot of goals. Last season, Rochester averaged a paltry 4.4 goals per game, while allowing just 1.72 per game (second-best in the 29-team league). It opened its season with back-to-back seven-goal games last weekend, led by a three-goal, six-point weekend from veteran forward Austin Meers. A Swiss Army Knife who moved up and down the lineup for the Grizzlies last season, Meers will likely be locked into a top-six role this season. He scored 13 goals and finished with 34 points last season. Playing at the top of the lineup this year, Ratzloff can envision Meers — an alternate captain — being a 30-goal scorer, something the Grizzlies haven't had since their inaugural season of 2018-19, when Vlad Sorokin established a single-season franchise record of 41. ... Other veterans up front for the Grizzlies this year include Luke Nemeth (6-4, 200; Ames, Iowa) — who flashed at tryout camps with NAHL teams from Austin and Anchorage over the summer — as well as Tyler Ownby (5-10, 165; Sioux City, Iowa) and Max Clark (5-11, 160; Stockton, Calif.). ... Among the team's newcomers at forward, Northfield native Spencer Klotz (6-1, 175) has been impossible to ignore throughout summer camps and the first week of the regular season. He had a five-point weekend at St. Louis and is also expected to be locked into a top-six role. Klotz is a candidate for a call-up to the NAHL at any time — he was in tryout camps with Austin and Anchorage, and played one preseason game with Austin. ... Among the other new forwards of note are Zach Laurila, brother of former Grizzly Jake Laurila; Sollentuna, Sweden native Erik Hernborn; Woodbury's Ben Tschida, who has two years of NA3HL experience with the Alexandria Blizzard; Zach Sweitzer of Rosemount; Brady Strand, who played high school hockey at Park-Cottage Grove; Hastings' Connor Stoffel; Prior Lake's Riley Dueber; and Luke Sawicky (Osseo) and Joseph Yoon (Albert Lea), who will return to their high school teams when that season starts in November.
"It's a skilled group," Ratzloff said. "We have a bunch of guys who can really shoot the puck and score goals. We'll have days where we run into hot goaltenders or the shots don't go in, but scoring seven each night last weekend, that's a positive and a good start.
"(Meers') confidence is sky-high right now. Going through what he did last year — moving to different lines, being asked to play a lot of different roles — this year, I can see him scoring 30. I believe he can do that. In practice, he's working really hard, being a great leader. He knows he can play in any role in any situation, and that's huge for him and for us. He's faster, shooting the puck really well, shooting to score."