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Five Rochester Grizzlies who could play bigger roles this season

The Rochester Grizzlies will hold their main summer camp at the Rochester Recreation Center this weekend, then start practices for the 2020-21 season a week later. We look at a handful of veterans whose ice time and role on the team could be bigger this season — if they don't make an NAHL roster.

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The Rochester Grizzlies will hold their main tryout camp for the 2020-21 season this weekend at the Rochester Recreation Center. The Grizzlies won the NA3HL Central Division championship last season, but the league playoffs were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Post Bulletin file photo by Andrew Link)

It's been five months since the Rochester Grizzlies' bus was told to turn around while on its way to Peoria, Ill., for Game 1 of a North American 3 Hockey League first-round playoff series.

The goal that the Grizzlies had highest on their list last season turned out to be one they didn't get a chance to play for: A NA3HL championship. After a dominant regular season in which they won their first Central Division title, in just their second year of operation, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the league's postseason.

This week, many of the players from last year's team that went 37-8-2 will be back in Rochester, along with approximately 60-70 others, all trying to make the Grizzlies' roster for the 2020-21 season, which is scheduled to begin on Oct. 2. The Grizzlies' main camp runs Friday through Sunday at the Rochester Recreation Center, then the team will start practices for the season a week later.

Here are five players expected to be at this week's camp who could step into a bigger role for the Grizzlies in the upcoming season (if they don't land on an NAHL roster first):

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Zak Justice

ZAK JUSTICE, F

The Bemidji native had a bit of a slow start to his first season of junior hockey last year, scoring-wise, but as the season went on, Justice became a valuable forward for the Grizzlies’ on both ends of the ice, before injuries derailed his season in early February. Justice finished the season with nine goals and 17 points. Eight of those points came in the final nine games he played. He’ll be expected to play a bigger role at both ends of the ice and in the locker room this season, if he's not on an NAHL roster.

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Luke McKinch

LUKE McKINCH, D

McKinch was just 17 when he started his first season of junior hockey with the Grizzlies last fall. He signed a tender in March of 2019 after a standout career at Sheboygan (Wis.) High School. He played in 43 of the Grizzlies’ 47 games, the second-most among the team’s defensemen, and was starting to become a dominant player when the season was shut down. If he doesn't make an NAHL roster, McKinch will be looked at by the Grizzlies to help fill the void left by the departure of Michael Heitkamp, Noel Parker and Logan Olson. McKinch could be the puck-moving offensive defenseman that every team covets — the quarterback on the ice, so to speak. He only had two special-teams points last season but expect him to get plenty of opportunity to show what he can do with those units.

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Shane Soderwall

SHANE SODERWALL, G

Last year's NA3HL Goalie of the Year Mathias Backstrom is off to play college hockey at Nichols College. Sean Guerin tendered with Wichita Falls (Texas) of the NAHL. That leaves Soderwall as the Grizzlies' likely go-to, No. 1 goalie this season, if he doesn't land a spot on an NAHL team. Owatonna's Zach Wiese, who signed a tender with Rochester last spring, will push for time, but Soderwall will be the incumbent. He played in just 13 games last season -- Backstrom seized the starting job and ran with it in the second half -- but Soderwall's numbers were outstanding in those games. He was 11-1-1 with a minuscule 1.76 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. He gave up more than two goals in a game just twice and recorded three shutouts. If the 17-year-old from Algonquin, Ill., continues improving as he did a year ago, the Grizzlies will again have one of the top goalies in the league.

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Gavin Gunderson (11) is one of the most dynamic scorers to have played at Century. He finished his three-year varsity career with 69 goals and 140 points. He could be a go-to scorer for the Rochester Grizzlies this season if he doesn't make an NAHL roster. (PB file photo by Joe Ahlquist)

GAVIN GUNDERSON, F

The Rochester Century grad was just getting his feet wet with the Grizzlies last spring when the postseason was canceled. Gunderson joined the Grizzlies after finishing his senior season at Century — where he became the program’s second-leading scorer of all-time with 140 points — and stepped right into a loaded lineup. He was drafted by the Grizzlies’ big brother in the NAHL, the Austin Bruins, this summer, and by all accounts performed well at the Bruins’ main tryout camp two weeks ago, leading us to believe he could at least start the season in Austin, if not have a longer stint with the Bruins. Gunderson is a skilled playmaker who is at his best when he plays with an edge. He knows how to get under the skin of his opponents. That chip-on-his-shoulder mentality will translate well to junior hockey and should make him a valuable contributor in every situation this season.

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Ethan Noonan

ETHAN NOONAN, D

As a junior hockey rookie last season at just 17 years old (he turned 18 a month after the season ended), the Northbrook, Ill., native played the most games of any Grizzlies defenseman (44) and will be the team's top-returning defenseman scorer this season, after putting up four goals and 17 points last season. More importantly, Rochester was rarely scored on when he was on the ice; he recorded a plus-36 plus-minus rating last season. Despite being just 18, he'll be a veteran on the blue line and a team leader on the ice and in the locker room.

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