When Lake Superior State Head Coach Damon Whitten and his staff went to a USHL showcase a few years ago, they saw many good players at that event as they do every year. More than that, they saw, in Yuki Miura, a player that exudes continuous effort to get better, and to grow the game in Japan, his homeland. It was then that Whitten and his staff decided to recruit Miura.
Whitten and his staff at Lake Superior State won their first major recruiting battle getting Miura to come to the Upper Peninsula. Since then, things have not always been linear for Yuki. First, he had to deal with some eligibility issues which he has gotten resolved. Then, he sat out most of his nexr season due to dealing with a broken leg. After that, he slowly worked his way into the lineup, but when he was on the ice, he was noticeable. The first thing most people notice about him is his superb speed.
If you have not seen Miura play, we will note that he models his game after Tomas Plekanec. Miura is a tenacious player, who went from a playmaker with Waterloo, to one of the better penalty killers in College Hockey, with that same playmaking ability. When you stop your assistant coach’s power play continuously in practice to the point of good frustration, that is pretty indicative of what he does in games. As shown in the photo, Yuki goes all out to block shots in games, and this effort is consistent across all phases of his game.
The penalty killing was an adaptation for Yuki, that is he had to learn how to get better at that skill to see more time on the ice, and it has paid off for him. Now, in his senior season as a Laker, he is one of the better penalty killing forwards in the WCHA if not the country. To play more, Yuki had to evolve his game and be able to win more puck battles along the walls, and add some truculence to the speed and finesse he already has. Becuase of the staff at Lake Superior State, and his will and tenacity, he is in position to earn a professional contract as an undrafted free agent in North America next season. As an institution, Yuki is what personifies college hockey at its best.
Why is that? Well, not only is Yuki working dilligently to help his Lakers as they head to face Michigan Tech this weekend, but he is also already giving back and has a superb outlook on life.
First, regarding the attitude he has, Yuki was cut from Japan’s Olympic Qualifying Roster for the 2022 Winter Olympics, depriving him of the chance to play in the games, like his dad Takayuki did in the 1998 Nagano Games for his home country. That has not stopped Yuki from developing, and he is using the cut as motivation this season, to fuel his already strong drive. The next time the full World Championship Program is held, he wants to be competing for his country once again, and the effort and speed he has developed will go a long way to making that happen.
Regarding his giving back, Yuki is an active journalist for all of those in Japan considering playing college hockey, and more. He routinely blogs about his experiences and overcoming adversity. In addition to that, he makes videos showing how he works on improving elements of his game, like picking a puck up along the boards. In terms of advocates for college hockey in Japan Yuki is one of its greatest ambassadors and is at the forefront of Japanese players coming to play College Hockey.
All of Yuki’s work, in leaving his home to play in the Kladno program in the Czech Republic before coming to Waterloo, to adding elements to his game, and being a mentor for others in Japan wanting to play the game, combined with his incredibly upbeat personality showcase a player ready for the next level. We have oten referred to him as the happiest man in Division One Hockey, and we stand by it. After a 7-1 loss to Bemidji State last year, Yuki came out with ice bags on his legs from blocking so many shots and talked to us happily about the evening never being negative. For all of the opportunities he has been given, Yuki expalined that he was just so incredibly thankful for everything and everyone who has been and is a part of his journey in this game.
Well, we will close with simply saying this, the sport of College Hockey is better off with Yuki in it, and advocating for it. As to his work ethic on blogging and communicating, Mareks Mitens, the starting goaltender for this team quipped that when the rest of the team is home, they look on social media and see that Yuki made another video at the rink, long after practice has ended. His effort, humility, and tenacity to get better are evident through his rise to Lake Superior State, and highlight the endless promise his feature holds.
Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts
Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell
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.
Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: paypal.me/Seamorepsorts
Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.
Unlike the NCHC, you will not find as many drafted players here. The WCHA is heading into its final year in its current form before all schools not from Alaska or Alabama resurrect the CCHA with new Division One School, St. Thomas, joining the fray next season. With that said, this league, this year will be fun to watch. It presents a more defensive style across the board, save one or two teams, and gives a lot of undrafted free agents a chance to make a name for themselves. Nonconference play starts on November 20. Most teams will simply play some conference-mates for an extra few games that do not count towards their conference record. With all of this said, we have our predicted order of finish with some players to keep an eye on for each team as we move forward this year.
Minnesota State Mankato
The Mavericks last season achieved a rare feat They were one of only three teams to defeat a Fighting Hawks’ squad stocked with NHL ready talent and did so with the best team in this conference. Like many teams in this conference, they play defense well, but unlike teams further down these rankings, they have scoring up front that should have them competing for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament whenever this season starts. Dryden McKay is a stalwart netminder that will lead them from the back end, and up front, players like Julian Napravnik look to continue the strong offensive game that alum Marc Michaelis (Vancouver) brought to bear.
For this team, it has to be Dryden McKay. The reigning WCHA Goaltender of the Year plays bigger than his 5’ 11” frame. His lateral movement and calm positioning make him tough to beat when the squad in front of him is rolling, as they often are. Look for him to get some NHL offers after this season, especially if the Mavericks reach their goal.
Top Drafted Prospect
For a team with this pedigree to have only one drafted prospect speaks to both the market inefficiencies of the NHL draft overlooking players that may need more time to develop, and the strong development pedigree of Head Coach Mike Hastings and his staff. Anyway, the only drafted prospect on this team is Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Nathan Smith. The 6’0” forward had one of his best weekends against the Fighting Hawks, adding four points on the weekend where his team did not lose (tie, win). For Smith to take the next step, he will have to help replace the contribution of Michaelis. He finished his rookie season with 27 points (9G,18A) to his credit, and often sets up as a past first player who can win draws when needed (finished last season with only 52 shots on net).
2. Bemidji State
Zach Driscoll is back in net for the Beavers, if not for McKay slightly overshadowing him, Driscoll would be the best goalie in this league. Like many teams in this league, when they score first they are hard to beat. When they come from behind life gets a bit more tough for them. Head Coach Tom Serratore has a veteran group with only six freshman coming in. This large group of upper classman will be asked to lead the way for the only complete team that can challenge the Mavericks. Defensively, the Beavers play a more trap-style game through the neutral zone and focus on quality shots to win most off their games. This team does not need to dominate possession to win, just frustrate the skilled players they are facing through the neutral zone.
Zach Driscoll in net should get some looks at the next level. He plays a relatively calm game and benefits from playing behind a structurally sound defense. Tom Serratore’s system has elevated Driscoll to one of the better netminders in the nation, this year Driscoll will have one more chance to show why he deserves a look at the next level. If Bemidji State goes far on their relatively low amount of goals scored per game, he will have a contract from an NHL team next spring with a team needing a strong third goalie who can step up if needed.
No drafted prospects
3. Michigan Tech
The team with one of the best cheering sections in the country, Mitch’s Misfits, should have a lot to cheer about this year. Alabama Huntsville netminder Mark Sinclair transferred to Houghton after the Chargers faced an uncertain fate. Thankfully the program was saved this year and Sinclair should be the starter for a Huskies team that likes to play a bit faster than some of its competitors in this league, but still employs the same annoying defensive structure to earn looks.
Mark Sinclair, from our time covering multiple Huntsville games last year, like many Huntsville goalies before him, had to face high shot volumes nearly every single night. He shined in the Chargers’ series loss to the Fighting Hawks with his athleticism and ability to remain calm despite facing 74 shots in two games. Sinclair’s ability to stay calm and fight off rebounds should serve him well on a Michigan Tech side that projects to do a little bit better at shot suppression than his former side. For a pro potential projection, he plays a similar style to former Charger, Cam Talbot, calm and steady in net with the ability to perform the high-wire save as needed
Top Drafted Prospect
Carson Bantle (Arizona) taken in the fifth round of this year’s draft is the only drafted prospect on this team. In two years for the Madison Capitals in the USHL, Bantle put up 69 points in 111 games. He is a quick forward with a 6’4” frame and an ability to create his own offense on a dime. That said, how Bantle is used by Head Coach, Joe Shawhan, should be interesting to keep an eye on. In those same two years he was -34. While plus minus is not the holy grail for a forward, we expect Bantle to get a little bit better in his own end playing in Tech’s system.
4. Bowling Green
The Falcons play a style of hockey similar to the Mavericks, lacking some of the Mavericks’ shot suppressing skill in their own end. That said, this team is always interesting to watch. Every year the Falcons utilize arguably a faster lineup than the Mavericks, and do well, yet, recently every year seem to come short of their ultimate goal. Senior Eric Dop will lead the way for this team in net. The senior netminder will start the majority of games for a Falcons squad looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Eric Dop will determine how far this team goes. The 5’10” netminder came onto the scene strong in his junior season last year. In his first year of full time starting work he went 19-11-3 with a .902 save percentage in his first full year of starting. While those stats could be built on, Dop looks to build on his game. His athleticism is his biggest strength, and having time to develop the mental side of his game for two full years before taking the net should help him out this season. If Dop can improve on his 2019-2020 campaign he could get a look from a team willing to take a chance on a developing goalie. As Dop’s season went on, he grew into the role, and we expect a further progression this season.
Top Drafted Prospect
Brandon Kruse (Vegas) is the player to watch for this team. A senior leader who has put up 108 points in 120 games for the Falcons, Kruse will play a lot of the big minutes for a group looking to get to the next level once again. Kruse is a 5’9” winger who plays in all situations for his head coach, Ty Egner. If Kruse keeps his pace up, either the Golden Knights will sign him, or he will start in the top six in the AHL next season.
5. Lake Superior State
The Lakers are a speedy team. Up front they will need to replace the scoring contributions of graduated forward Max Humitz and a big senior class that left the Upper Peninsula. The Lakers are a Jekyll and Hyde squad. When this team is rolling, they are able to minimize high danger chances and clear pucks to their fast forwards to maximize high danger looks. When it is not, well, the other team can and often takes up residence in the Lakers’ own end. For evidence of how up and down this team can be, watch the returning players’ play in their first round loss to Bemidji State. When this team can score first, as they did in their Saturday win, their speed builds and makes it hard for a lot of the defense-first teams in this league to adjust. In their Friday and Sunday loses, they got scored on first and had to catch up. It is a cliché to say that scoring first in hockey makes life easier, but this team under coach Damon Whitten is emblematic of that.
Mareks Mitens, Yuki Miura
These two have developed every year and in Mitens’ case has had some looks at the next level with two stints in development camps (Islanders,Blackhawks). Miura has gone from a healthy scratch to a defensive stalwart for the Lakers and has some of the best speed and skating ability in the WCHA. Miura has blossomed into a key contributor in all phases for this team, and should get a look at least in the ECHL, if not the AHL next season. Both can get to the next level with some time in the minors and both are going to be leaders for this team this season. If Miura can add a few more goals to his tally, especially first goals, than Mitens’ job will be easier. For Mitens, if he has to see a few less pucks this year, we expect scouts to take note of his skill moving side to side and stopping more of them. Its’ easier to scout a goalie when they face an average amount of shots per game, compared to the wildly inflated shot totals Mitens has faced in his time with the Lakers so far.
Top drafted prospect
Arvid Henrikson (Montreal)
The Habs’ draft pick has some more work to do on the back end. He will be called on to play a bigger role for the team this year as he will play an important role in the needed shot suppression this team needs to have in order to rise above their station. The 6’5” defender also needs to increase his two points In 37 games to get a look from any NHL squad in any form. Henrikson has to chip in some offense to compliment the physically brusing game he brings in his own end.
6. Northern Michigan
The Wildcats have a lot of unknowns coming into this season. A team that finished third in this conference last year, lead by a lot of senior leaders, has to find replacements for them, and fast. This team has only three seniors, and one of them, Joseph Nardi, has been with the program for four years. The other two are transfers looking for new homes after coming from different schools. Can the Wildcats finish in the top half of this league again? Sure, but they have a lot of leadership to replace to do so.
If the Wildcats want to do anything of note this year, Griffin Loughran has to continue his success up front for this team. He is a 5’7” forward who plays with a bit of snarl to his game to compliment his offensive skill. In two years, he has 53 points in 72 games played, a respectable number for the West Seneca, New York Native. If he wants to make it to the NHL, he needs to chanel his snarl more productively, as in those same 72 games, he has 163 penalty minutes, which works out to him spending at least four minutes in the box on average for most of those games. A team in need of leaders, cannot have one of them frequenting the penalty box. If Loughran can hem that PIM number in a bit, the Wildcats will get more out of one of their key players.
No drafted prospect
7. Alaska Fairbanks
The Nanooks have an interesting team to watch this year, if you can stay up late enough to see their games. Mitens’ platoon mate at the 2016 IIHF U18 World Championships, Gustavs Grigals is a good goalie in his own rite and the Nanooks seem to have a way with developing players over the years to reach the next level, as Colton Parayko and his development path would indicate. While the Nanooks need to find a new conference situation after this season, this year could set up quite well for them if Grigals can handle the net, and if we see development in the large junior class that they have.
Grigals needs to take the next step and own the net, similar to what Mitens did for the Lakers in his first year of starting, for the Nanooks to have a chance to succeed. While we expect Mads Emil Gransoe, to get some work this year, the net is Grigals’ to lose heading into this campaign. Grigals is a 6’2” goalie with a flexibility in his game similar to Mitens. Grigals frame allows him to play a more conservative style than some of his peers in this conference, but Grigals confidence in net regardless of score is a big asset. Assuming there are development camps next summer, he will get a chance to show his stuff to a few NHL teams this next summer if he can command the net this season.
No drafted prospect
8. Alabama Huntsville
Like their Alaska breatheren, the Chargers need to find a new conference after this season. With that said, the Chargers have had themselves an offseason with a lot more activity than one would normally want. First, right before Memorial Day, their program was discontinued, before being allowed to raise over 700,000 dollars to reinstate it for this year as they look to find a new conference. In all of this, only one of the original recruits from the class now departed head coach Mike Corbett signed stayed with the program (Ayo Adinye), and new head coach and program alum, Lance West had to sign a vast recruiting class pretty quickly. This team also lost its starting goalie, and a few of its top players to other programs as well. With all of that being said all of those players that West has brought in, combined with returners, have some promise to establish Charger Hockey this fall.
Top UDFA to watch
Connor Wood is a senior leader for this team who will need to step up to provide a bit more offense than he as in previous years. He is defensively the best forward the Chargers have coming into this season and needs to improve offensively. That being said, we expect him to earn a minor league deal to try and work his way up the ladder.
9. Ferris State
The Bulldogs are a young team, like the Chargers, and like Alabama Huntsville, have a lot of questions to answer coming into this season. Roni Salmenkangas leads this team in net, and will have to face a lot of high shot games to have a chance to get the Bulldogs into the postseason.
Salmenkangas is another good goalie in this league, and could set himself up to earn a development camp look this upcoming summer. While looking at his stats from the past year, keep in mind that like Sinclair and others, he had to face high volume games with regularity and did not have much help in his own end. His style and frame, combined with his high hockey sense make him a developmental prospect to watch if he can help the Bulldogs rise up the standings this year.
No drafted prospect
10. Alaska Anchorage
The Seawolves are currently trying to save their program beyond this season, and facing a similar lack of funding issue that the Chargers did. With that said, the Seawolves finished last in the conference last season, and will have some work to do.
Joe Sofo will be a key piece for this team. Like Wood with Alabama-Huntsville, Sofo is a defensively sound forward and a senior leader. If the Seawolves want to move up the standings, he will have to chip in more offense than he has in previous seasons for that to have a chance.
(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee from Violent Turtle Photography)
Last night at the Sanford Center, Lake Superior State faced a strong Bemidji State team lead by senior goaltender Michael Bitzer. The Lakers were coming off a strong 2-0 shutout of the Bemidji State Beavers on Friday night. Last night, they recived a superb 36 save shutout from freshman netminder Mareks Mitens, and a timely go-ahead goal from Max Humitz 1:14 into the second period plus an empty net power play insurance marker from Diego Cuglietta to provide the same result. Mitens finished the night with 36 saves, including stopping many high percentage shots from the low slot and just outside his crease.
This game had some themes running throughout it. The Beavers utilized their speed all night and forced the Lakers to play in their own zone the majority of the night. The shot attempts on the evening were 81-29 in favor of Bemidji State. The Lakers were able to counter this with strong defense and superb effort from Mitens. He did not look out of position on any of the saves he made all night. Mitens even anticipated multiple deflections coming from Beavers on the attack and set up well to stop them.
(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee for Violent Turtle Photography)
Also, Lake Superior State skaters did a superb job of blocking shots, and clearing rebounds from in front of Mitens. On the night, the Lakers blocked 16 shots as a team. They were lead in that category by Colin Saccoman who finished the night with four blocks and a primary assist on the Max Humitz goal to earn third star honors on the evening. Mitens took home second star honors for the shutout, and Humitz earned first star honors for netting the game winning goal.
Another theme of the evening was the Lakers’ ability to counter Bemidji. Whenever there was a long sequence in the Lakers’ defensive zone, they were able to use some timely speed and smart puck decisions to clear the puck. They generated their best chances, including the Humitz goal in the second on the counter attack.
Also give credit to Lakers’ forward Yuki Miura. In only his third college hockey game, he played outstanding. On the top line, he generated the secondary assist on the Humitz goal. He found Saccoman who set up the Humitz goal.
Another thing that stood out to me was the main review of the game. It happened in the third period. The Beavers looked like they had scored. However, it was waved off after a prompt review for goaltender interference. Leo Fitzgerald skated across the crease and bumped Mitens which prevented him from playing the puck. Mitens knew it and immediately voiced his concerns on the ice about it. To the officials’ credit, they quickly reviewed the play and got the call right.
Finally, Mitens played just as strong for the Lakers tonight as he did for team Latvia in the 2016 U18 Worlds when we first saw him. It would be smart for Latvia to consider taking Mitens to the IIHF World Championships in Denmark this spring. Mitens has shown he can withstand high shot volumes, and plays quite well regardless of the team in front of him. He kept the Lakers in this one last night, and should merit strong consideration for WCHA Rookie and Goaltender of the week.
We think that Mitens and his goalie colleague Nick Kossoff should share WCHA goaltender of the week honors. Combined they stopped all 64 shots faced on the weekend.
Next week, the Lakers look to vault themselves into a playoff spot with a crucial two game set on the road against Alaska Anchorage.
Below are the highlights from last night including the two Lake Superior State goals and the goaltender interference call which nullified Bemidji’s best chance of the evening.