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Large school boys hockey preview: Duluth East's youth movement gets a spark with return of Beaulieu

Phil Beaulieu knew he wanted to return to Duluth East for his senior hockey season. He just didn't want to play for a new coach. So when Mike Randolph opted for another go-round with the Greyhounds, Beaulieu worked out a deal with his United Stat...

Pursuing the puck
####Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Weston Michaud (17) and Duluth East's Jack Forbort (27) and Phil Beaulieu (25) battle for the puck during last season's Section 7AA high school boys hockey semifinals at Amsoil Arena. 2013 file / News Tribune

Phil Beaulieu knew he wanted to return to Duluth East for his senior hockey season.

He just didn't want to play for a new coach.

So when Mike Randolph opted for another go-round with the Greyhounds, Beaulieu worked out a deal with his United States Hockey League team, the Fargo Force, that would allow him to miss a chunk of their season to play for East.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach Randolph, and I definitely wanted to come back and play one more season for him," Beaulieu said Monday.

Incidentally, Fargo traded Beaulieu to Waterloo earlier this month, meaning the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder will head to Iowa for the remainder of the USHL season after the Greyhounds play their final game. Beaulieu hopes that doesn't happen until mid-March -- after the state tournament.

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For East to capture its sixth consecutive Section 7AA crown, a host of youngsters will have to grow up in a hurry. The Greyhounds have just four seniors on their roster. Gone are Meirs Moore, Jack Forbort, Ryan Lundgren, Alex Toscano and Dylan Parker.

Despite the youth movement, the program's goals

remain the same.

"Expectations never change around here," said Randolph, who won his 500th career game a year ago during East's 26-5 season, which ended with a third-place finish at the state tournament. "We are very young -- probably the youngest team I've ever had. We have a lot of young kids, and young kids usually grow during the course of the season, whereas seniors sometimes can think they know it all and have gone as far as they can go."

Beaulieu will be relied upon to lead the way. His first order of business? Changing positions. Beaulieu moves from the blue line to forward, where he will center a line with sophomores Ryan Peterson and Ash Altmann. Randolph said he made the switch in an effort to generate more offense. Beaulieu admits he's always been more of an offensive-minded defenseman, so it's a transition both coach and player expect to go seamlessly.

Aside from Beaulieu, key returning forwards include Nick Altmann, Brian Bunten and Jack Kolar. Alex Trapp and Joey Marinac return on defense, and Gunnar Howg gets the nod in goal -- though Lucas Hedin will compete for playing time as well.

"We're going to play a lot of people early," Randolph said.

Randolph is entering his 27th season as head coach. He said the fire still burns and that the decision of when to walk away from high school hockey is something he will evaluate on a year-to-year basis.

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The Greyhounds commenced the season Tuesday at Cambridge-Isanti and will host Class AA's top-ranked team, Wayzata, on Saturday. Things don't get much easier from there with a schedule chock-full of upper-echelon squads -- Hill-Murray, Eden Prairie, Blaine and Minnetonka are among the notable opponents.

That level of competition makes Beaulieu's return even more significant. The veteran is accustomed to competing against high-end talent, both from juniors and his previous two seasons on East's varsity.

"He's had the opportunity to play with some excellent players, and he's been kind of a passenger," Randolph said. "He's no longer a passenger now. He's a leader; this is his team."

Beaulieu, who takes classes online, is ready for the challenge. He played for Fargo in a series at Youngstown (Ohio) on Nov. 8-9 before traveling back to Duluth in time for the start of high school tryouts Nov. 11.

"I know we'll have a good team and that we'll have a good chance of going back to the state tournament, so I wanted to come back for my senior year," Beaulieu said. "There's really nothing like Minnesota high school hockey."

Elsewhere in Section 7AA

Perhaps no team in Minnesota was hurt more by early defections than Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, which lost Westin Michaud and Karson Kuhlman to junior hockey. Dylan Michaud also tried the junior path, but currently is enrolled at Duluth Denfeld.

Westin Michaud (27 goals, 31 assists, 58 points), playing for Corpus Christi in the North American Hockey League, led the Lumberjacks in scoring last season. Kuhlman (27-24--51), meanwhile, is with Dubuque of the USHL. He has committed to Minnesota Duluth.

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Additionally, Beau Michaud graduated after tallying 21 goals and 34 assists for 55 points.

That's a lot of production to replace for longtime Lumberjacks coach Dave Esse, who underwent a bit of drama after last season when a petition made its way to the Cloquet School Board seeking his ouster. Esse ultimately survived and is back for his 15th season on the CEC bench.

"We've never lost this much scoring in one year," Esse said, adding that there's no "magic solution" to replacing goal-scorers. "When people graduate and people leave, other kids have to step up."

Hunter Roberts, Koby Bender and Kyle Klatt will be asked to pick up the scoring slack for a team that averaged nearly five goals per game last season while going 16-9-2 en route to the 7AA semifinals. This time around, expect less offense and more defense from the Lumberjacks.

Ryan Lind and Dalton Johnson solidify the blue line, while goalie Zack Strom is back after posting a 7-4-2 mark and a 2.17 goals-against average as a junior.

At Grand Rapids, it's a different story as Avery Peterson (27-35--62) surprised many by returning to the Thunderhawks for his senior campaign. The up-tempo forward, who will play collegiately at Nebraska-Omaha, led Grand Rapids to the brink of the state tournament a year ago. Peterson was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft in June.

The Thunderhawks came oh-so close to dethroning Duluth East in the 7AA title tilt, falling 4-3 to finish the season 19-5-3.

Peterson wasn't the only notable person to return. First-year coach John Rothstein, who starred at the school during its mid-1970s heyday, takes over for Bruce LaRoque. Rothstein, who led Grand Rapids to its first state championship (1975), was ranked No. 84 on Minnesota Hockey Hub's list of the state's top 100 all-time players.

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He inherits a team that hasn't been to state since the 2006-07 season.

The Thunderhawks also boast up-and-coming sophomore forward Jonah Bischoff as well as senior goalie Hunter Shepard, who played every minute a year ago. He had a 1.97 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.

WISCONSIN

Superior's Miller back for more

A year after producing one of the best offensive seasons in school history, Superior's Aaron Miller is back to lead the Spartans.

As a junior, Miller blasted his way to 36 goals and 38 assists. The forward's 74 points were second-most in a single season in Spartans history.

Superior went 19-9-1 in 2012-13, losing to Eau Claire Memorial in the state tournament semifinals.

The Spartans, who were dealt a blow when Aaron Wakefield-Zubiate tore up a knee during football season, open Friday against Green Bay Notre Dame at an Eau Claire tournament.

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