The Rochester Grizzlies have been on the ice for 18 days.
For all but one of those days, they’ve had to practice or scrimmage against their teammates.
That changes Friday when the 2019-20 North American 3 Hockey League season opens. And the Grizzlies — under first-year head coach Chris Ratzloff — have their sights set on improving from a successful first season.
Rochester went 31-15-1 as a first-year team in the NA3HL last season and lost a close best-of-3 series 2-1 against traditional league power North Iowa in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re anxious to get this season going,” Ratzloff said. “We’re just going to have to worry about what we do best, that’s our focus this weekend.”
Rochester plays its season opener at 8 p.m. Friday at Milwaukee, then plays at Peoria (Ill.) at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.
The Grizzlies’ home opener is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 20 against the Wausau RiverWolves at the Rochester Recreation Center.
“We saw a lot of good stuff,” Ratzloff said in regards to the Grizzlies’ preseason game last Saturday, a 4-0 win over NTG Norway, an Under-20 team. “We need to work on our systems and tighten up a little bit. We were a little too loose at times, but when we’re doing things the right way, it was evident that we were pretty dominant.”
Rochester returns seven players from last season’s roster, six of them forwards: Joey Fodstad, Porter Haney, Peyton Hart, Josh Hoffman, Lucas Newman and Johnny Rowell.
Austin native Bryar Flanders is the lone returner on defense.
That means Rochester will go into the season with a new trio of goalies. Mathias Backstrom of Sweden is the veteran of the group, but he has been sidelined by an injury for much of the preseason. That has allowed Sean Guerin and Shane Soderwall to battle for time. Ratzloff said he has been impressed with both of them.
“Once Mathias comes back I expect a nice three-guy battle,” he said. “There will be times when one of them has the hot hand and we’ll ride that out. But they’re going to compete, and I like what I’ve seen from them so far.”
Flanders is the veteran on a defensive corps that is mostly new to Rochester, but not to junior hockey. Grand Rapids native Michael Heitkamp is a talented blue-liner who played for Waywayseecappo of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last year.
“He’s a tough guy; he’ll be a leader for us on ‘D,’” Ratzloff said.
Three defensemen who signed tenders with the Grizzlies last fall are also on the roster and expected to be big contributors: Luke McKinch (Plymouth, Wis.), Ethan Noonan (Northbrook, Ill.) and Clayton Schultz (Eden Prairie).
Trevor Hubert, Isaac Leeman and Andrejs Bogdanovs round out the defensive corps.
“Overall, we’ll be pretty deep back there and we’ll be able to roll all our defensemen,” Ratzloff said. “The older guys will lead the way in the beginning, but our new guys are talented and they’ll be consistent contributors.”
In addition to the six returning forwards, the Grizzlies have added some more size and speed up front. Jesper Hofling of Sweden is a talented offensive player, as is Bemidji’s Zak Justice, who can play a physical game but also showed some offensive flair with a breakaway goal in last Saturday’s preseason game.
Eden Prairie’s Garrett Smith, Rochester John Marshall’s Teejay Torgrimson, and Rochester Lourdes grad Paul Hofbauer round out the forwards group.
“We’ll lean on our veterans early, especially with learning and teaching our systems,” said Ratzloff, who will be joined on the coaching staff by returning assistant coach Mike Aikens. “It makes a big difference having five or six guys who’ve done it once already.
“We’ll look to them to teach the young guys, help them, correct them and encourage them.”