After finishing just one point out of a playoff spot last season, Muskegon Lumberjacks second-year head coach Todd Krygier hopes that this weekend's USHL Atlantic Challenge will provide his organization an opportunity to evaluate some of its new talent before the grind of the 60-game regular season schedule begins in earnest at the end of the month.
"We want to win, but we'll be more focused on seeing where we are as a team. We're bringing four to five guys up from our affiliate list. We're looking to evaluate some of our new talent, especially our young talent," said Krygier.
Krygier, a former University of Connecticut star who enjoyed an NHL career that spanned over 500 games, has a keen eye for talent. He is enthusiastic about the prospects for the upcoming season, including two of his players who are garnering significant interest for the 2015 NHL Draft.
Michigan recruits Cooper Marody and Joe Cecconi, both entering their second seasons with the Lumberjacks, will be two of the key players on the Jacks this season. Cecconi has been invited to this month's USA Hockey/CCM All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo.
Marody, a '96 from Brighton, Mich., is a promising right-shot forward out of St. Mary's Prep and the Honeybaked youth organization. More of a play maker than a goal scorer, Marody picked up nine goals and 21 assists in 58 USHL games last season.
"Cooper is real strong offensively. He has great potential if he continues to develop," said Krygier. "He just needs to focus more on the defensive side."
Cecconi made his USHL debut mid-season after the Lumberjacks acquired the hulking defenseman from the Green Bay Gamblers. He had two goals and four assists from the blue line, but acclimated himself well to the better and older competition.
"We pulled him in mid-season in a trade. We really thought he could have been playing in the USHL all season. He's a big defenseman. He has good mobility, has the skills and attributed needed to be a really good defenseman," said Krygier.
The '97 from Youngstown, NY measures in at 6-3, 203 lbs. He grew up in the Buffalo Jr. Sabres organization, where he was playing until last December.
A newcomer to the team is forward Dante Palecco from the Long Island Gulls. The organization is very high on the Yale recruit who they took in the first round of this past spring's USHL Futures Draft.
The Whippany, NJ native impressed at this summer's USA Hockey Select 16 Festival in Amherst, NY and will be with the Lumberjacks for the full season.
"Dante has great speed, a good shot. We really think he can take his game to the next level here. He's great with the puck. We need him to learn how to play without the puck and compete at a higher level," Krygier explained.
Recently committed Northeastern recruit Jamie Armstrong will be one of the players from the team's affiliate list who will lace them up this weekend in Long Island. Armstrong, a big-bodied winger and son of former NHLer and current St. Louis Blues scout Bill Armstrong, is heading to play prep hockey at Avon Old Farms this winter after playing for Bishop Hendricken in his native Rhode Island.
Armstrong is a player who could really blossom over the next few years. He's got the size and a lot of raw ability if he can bring it all together and elevate his game to the next level.
"We're really high on him. He's a winger who can go up and down the ice. He's strong, has good skills, can play physical and has a scoring touch," said Krygier.
One player who scouts and fans won't see this weekend is Vermont recruit Haralds Egle, who had problems with his student visa. He's gotten it worked out and will join the team in New York, but won't play.
Returning goaltender Eric Schierhorn and newcomer Michael Latorella will both see ice time this weekend as Krygier and the staff look to see who their go-to will be in net this season.
Latorella, a highly-regarded big goaltender out of the Honeybaked program, is expected to push Schierhorn for playing time. Latorella, a '98 from Macomb, Mich., is uncommitted, but most likely won't be for long.
The Lumberjacks will hit the ice three times over the weekend, starting off with Friday night's 8 p.m. tilt against the US National Development Program U-18 Team.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSports.