Sep. 17—When the Rochester Grizzlies opened their training camp in late August, it became evident very quickly that the best season in the organization's brief history is in the past.
The Grizzlies won a second straight North American 3 Hockey League Central Division championship and were a win away from a NA3HL national championship last spring.
But three-fourths of last season's roster and two-thirds of the coaching staff have departed.
The fourth-year franchise hasn't seen this many new faces in camp since its inaugural season of 2018-19, when everyone was new to the league, from the ownership group to the coaches to the players.
Third-year head coach Chris Ratzloff is ecstatic about the group he and his coaching and scouting staff have brought together this year. But with just five players back who dressed in last year's national championship game — a 5-1 loss to the North Iowa Bulls — Ratzloff said he knows it might take some time for the 2021-22 Grizzlies to become a well-oiled machine.
"Last year was a different year — in a good way — with so many high-end guys returning, who shouldn't have been here" because in a non-pandemic season, they'd have likely played at higher levels, Ratzloff said. "That made every start at a really high level last year. This year, we have some guys starting with NA(HL) teams and we don't know if they'll be back here (after final cuts are made later this month).
"It's a different year. Everyone is still learning."
The new-look Grizzlies will learn a little bit about themselves this weekend when they open the 2021-22 season against Central Division rival Oregon (Wis.), with a season-opening series at the Oregon Ice Arena. The Grizzlies and Tradesmen are scheduled to meet at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday.
"I'm really excited to see how we can compete against a good organization and see where we stand in our division," said second-year Grizzlies defenseman Jameson Folden, a Brainerd native who is one of the team's five returners who dressed in the Fraser Cup title game. "(Oregon) did a lot of trapping last year, hopefully we'll be ready for that. It'll be a good test for us to see what we can do."
Folden and the defensive corps, and second-year goalie Zach Wiese may be relied upon heavily early in the season to keep games close until the Grizzlies' forward lines settle in. Second-year forwards Justin Wright (12 goals, 23 points) and Cole Gibson (10 goals, 23 points) are the only players back who scored more than four goals last season.
Mason Thingvold, Per Waage and Ian Vannelli join Folden as returners on the blue line, where newcomers Jake Laurila (Milwaukee), Matthew Shaw (White Lake, Mich.), Logan Schwartzhoff (Woodbury) and Lourdes grad Dawson McLaughlin are expected to be among the newcomers who contribute.
"We still have more defensemen (on the roster) than we're able to dress for games," Folden said. "There's a little edge and competition in practice to see who'll be playing. Whoever is performing in practice and doing the right things is going to play.
"I like our d-corps, though. We're all smart, we all like to move the puck and we see the ice pretty well. We have a lot of guys who like to create offense, too."
Wiese, an Owatonna native, will start the season as the clear-cut No. 1 goalie. He'll get the nod in net in Friday's opener, then either Kaleb Bents (St. Croix Falls, Wis.) or Lucas Henderson (Lansing, Mich.) is expected to start Saturday. Wiese put up outstanding numbers as a rookie, going 13-3-0 with a 1.83 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. He shared time with NA3HL Goaltender of the Year Shane Soderwall, who is now playing for NAHL expansion franchise Anchorage Wolverines, who are coached by former Grizzlies assistant Mike Aikens.
"Last year Zach started out with a lot of confidence," said Ratzloff, who'll be joined on the bench this year by assistant coaches Tyler Veen and Tait Carlson. "He struggled for a bit, but was still winning games. He was just fighting it for awhile. Then at the end of the year he knew Shane was the guy in goal.
"This year, Zach is really confident and looking good in practice."
Up front, Wright and Gibson will lead the way early. Max Clark, Kyle Brown and TJ Norris are the other veteran returners at forward. The newcomers on the roster will all get a look early in the season as the Grizzlies try to build chemistry among their forward lines.
Wright will be joined on the top line by Kyle Bauer of Hastings and Adam Johnson, who was a captain at Mahtomedi High School last season. Gibson, Max Breon (a Breck graduate) and Austin Meers (who played for the CarShield AAA program in St. Louis last year) will make up the second line.
"The message we've been trying to give our guys is 'we control our own destiny,'" Ratzloff said. "No matter who we play, we control what we do."
------Meet the 2021-22 Grizzlies
Kyle Bauer (Hastings); Max Clark (Stockton, Calif.); Cole Gibson (Eagan); Chase Wilhelm (Prescott, Ariz.); Adam Johnson (Mahtomedi); Max Breon (Wayzata); Kade Shea (Duluth); Kyle Brown (Saginaw, Mich.); Luke Nemeth (Ames, Iowa); Austin Meers (St. Charles, Mo.); Tyler Ownby (Sioux City, Iowa); Justin Wright (Hong Kong); Kolton Kane (Sioux City, Iowa); Luke Morrisette (Arden Hills, Wis.); TJ Norris (Moville, Iowa).
Jake Laurila (Milwaukee); Ian Vannelli (Lakeville); Logan Schwartzhoff (Woodbury); Jameson Folden (Brainerd); Matthew Shaw (White Lake, Mich.); Per Waage (Plymouth); Dawson McLaughlin (Eyota); Mason Thingvold (Grand Forks, N.D.).
Lucas Henderson (Lansing, Mich.); Zach Wiese (Owatonna); Kaleb Bents (St. Croix Falls, Wis.).
Head coach: Chris Ratzloff (3rd season, 78-15-3)
Assistant coaches: Tyler Veen, Tait Carlson
ROCEHSTER GRIZZLIES 2021-22 REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE