Finding a way to produce more goals will be the focus of the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team this season.
Last season, the Panthers scored only 47 goals in finishing fifth in the Mid-State Conference standings with a 1-7 record while going 6-19 overall. Park Rapids was shut out five times while scoring only one goal in five other games. The Panthers received the No. 8 seed for the Section 8A playoffs and lost to No. 9 Red Lake Falls 3-2 in double overtime in a play-in game.
In addition to improving on the offensive end, having to replace 10 players who graduated will also be key to the Panthers’ success. Last year’s senior crew of Brett Pinoniemi (five goals, five assists as an all-conference honorable mention player), Cody Sagen (10 goals), Carter Opheim (five goals, nine assists), Cameron Hoyt (three goals, seven assists), Thomas Melvin (one goal, eight assists), Nolan Pederson (three goals, four assists), Jordan Baker (four goals, one assist), Jensen Rice (two assists) and Logan Arndt (one assist) combined for 31 goals and 37 assists while Brendan Kruchowski was the starting goalie, going 4-15 with 499 saves and 93 goals allowed. Arndt also played goalie, going 2-4 with 37 goals allowed and 138 saves.
Being counted on to lead a young squad this season are the eight returning players: seniors Josh Kuhlman and Ben Standlie and juniors Joshua Crandall, Brody Hagen, Joseph Huber, Alec Nordin, Caden Opheim and Jack Slagle.
Slagle scored 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 24 games while Nordin scored nine points (six goals, three assists) in 24 games. Opheim (two goals, one assist in 24 games), Kuhlman (one goal, two assists in 21 games), Crandall (three assists in 22 games) and Hagen (two assists in 23 games) also contributed offensively last season while Huber played in 23 games.
Slagle and Nordin return to lead the offense and will be joined by Huber and Opheim as forwards. Crandall returns at defense while Kuhlman and Hagen will move from forward to defense this season. Strandlie will be the starting goaltender.
Rounding out the 28-player varsity and junior varsity roster are sophomore forwards Mason Hayes, Jaxson Lund, Mitchell Nash, Garrett Stone and Liam Torola; sophomore defenseman Sam Meier; sophomore goalie Collin Hoyt; freshmen forwards Joey Hillukka and Quincy Jantz; freshman defensemen Ethan Eischens and Coby Hagen; eighth grade forwards Justin Baker, Eli Eischens, Josh Hillukka, Reed Sharp and Shad Torola; eighth grade defensemen Quinn Hoscheid, Conner Hanson and Jeron Pinoniemi; and eighth grade goalie Sawyer Torkelson.
“We’re going to be a very young team. We’re going to ask a lot of our underclassmen and we’ll see how they respond. I think they’ll do a nice job,” said Park Rapids head coach Derek Ricke, who will be assisted by Sam Coborn, Jared Naeve and Tyler Lehrke. “We have a lot of keys (to the season). The biggest key is seeing how our young guys respond to playing against higher competition. Another big key is finding guys who can score. We have to score more goals this season for us to be successful. So far I’m happy with how the guys are preparing and with their attitude. I’m really happy with our team chemistry. They’re supporting each other and hopefully that leads to success on the ice as the year goes on.”
Detroit Lakes (6-0-1) and Prairie Centre (6-1-1) topped the conference standings last season while East Grand Forks defeated Warroad 3-1 in the Section 8A championship game. East Grand Forks, Warroad and Thief River Falls are the favorites to win the Section 8A title this season.
Ricke is hoping his team will improve during the season and move up in the section standings.
“This is a great group of guys and signs point to them being able to adjust and figure it out,” said Ricke. “I think we’ll be similar to the last couple of years and finish in the 7th through 9th spot. The exciting part is we have an opportunity to move up. If we score some goals, it’s not completely out of the picture for us to be looking at being the No. 6 seed. I’m really excited to see what this young team can do this season.”