(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)
The Lake Superior State Lakers are a case study in high offense guiding play. That is, whether last year with Max Humitz, or in years before with Diego Cuglietta, Damon Whitten’s teams have always played with speed and skill to provide goal scoring in bunches.
Now, Whitten’s patience has paid off again, as he has his team competing for an at large spot in the tournament as they competed for two years ago. This week, the Lakers are nationally ranked, and heading into a series of the week candidate against the high-flying Mavericks of Minnesota State. This weekend is one of the biggest in recent Laker Hockey history, because it can stake the Lakers to a good path in the WCHA, and because given their prestige in the league, any team that can beat the Mavericks is looked upon favorably by many in this game.
A big part of the Lakers’ success beyond the continued goal scoring of Ashton Calder, and the speed of the Lakers goes to their defense.
Two of the leaders for this team on defense are Mareks Mitens, their starting goaltender, and Yuki Miura, one of the most consistently strong defensive forwards in this league. Both are undrafted free agents, and both, according to Whitten, have a shot to get to professional hockey after this season.
How did they both get to where they are now?
Well Whitten and his staff made their first concerted efforts to get non North American players to Sault Ste. Marie, and it paid off. He and his staff followed Mitens during his NAHL season where he posted a 92.5 percent save percentage for the Aston Rebels. While there, Whitten talked to Head Coach Joe Coombs, and learned how talented Mitens was in net. Throughout the year the staff kept tabs on his performance, and to the team’s credit, they were able to win a battle against many other colleges, including at least one NCHC school to make Mitens a Laker.
Whitten is glad he did that because now, he has a Hobey Baker Candidate in his net as a senior. Thanks to the help of both Zack Cisek, and Pete Aubry before him, the Lakers have a professional-ready goaltender who has been able to participate in two NHL development camps (Islanders, and the Blackhawks where Aubry is now the Development Coach for goaltenders in their system). Through his first two seasons, Mitens played as a backup and used that time to get acclimated to the college game. Now, he is ready for the next level. He displays the same quickness we have seen since he burst onto the scene at the Under 18 World Championship for Latvia in 2016, but now, he has a consistent and more complete defense in front of him. Combine that with Mitens’ size and superb hockey intellect, and its fair to think that he could get a chance to play at the next level, or even for his home country during the World Championship being held in Latvia this year, given how late North American professional hockey will go, he could be the best Latvian goaltender available to play on what, to this point, would be the biggest stage of his career.
In addition, looking at Yuki Miura, Whitten had nothing but good to say about his growth and development. When Yuki came to campus, he did not kill penalties much, if at all when he was able to play. He had to sit out because of some eligibility issues, and he then dealt with a broken leg, followed by slow integration into the lineup.
Now Whitten noted that Miura on the penalty kill is so good that he stymies assistant coach, Mike York’s Power Play unit in practice with some regularity. Shot blocking is the biggest help Miura brings . Miura is a leader who is smart enough and wise enough at this level to anticipate the next move. In the professional ranks, the ability to kill penalties is paramount for rookies to play a lot early on. Yuki has all of that experiennce in spades, and he is one of the fastest players in this sport this year.
Both Mitens and Miura have brought a lot to the Lakers, according to Whitten. They are still pushing to get better each day, but thanks to Whitten, and his staff’s ability to work with these two players on their journey, they have inevitably extended the time both get to play hockey, and hopefully the celings for both at the next level.
As for these Lakers, their speed is matched by their suffocating defense, especially through the neutral zone. The forward group of this team is quite active in finding quick turnovers to score, and playing Mankato, we should expect the same. How these Lakers do in their WCHA opener, will tell the world of College Hockey a bit more about the ceiling of this team.
On recruiting, to find the next player like Miura or Mitens, especially relating to the ability to score goals , Whitten had this to say, “a lot of people think you have to go to North Dakota Denver or Michigan to be high scoring [when] you can come to Lake State and showcase yourself.” Given the track records of Mitens and Miura, that assertion is by no means limited to goal scorers, of which this program has had many come through it. The Lakers are a team with three NCAA titles, and one of the stronger traditions in all of College Hockey. They, like the rest of the WCHA, according to Whitten, deserve more of a look at the national level.
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