MUSKEGON – It’s amazing how one season has made such a difference in Jake Richard’s hockey career.

Last year at this time he was a talented but inexperienced rookie in the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ training camp.

The coaches all said he was going to be good – very good, in fact – but patience was required, because he was young and had some skills to develop.

They were right on the money with that call.

Richard had limited ice time in the first part of last season and did not score for the first two months.

Muskegon Lumberjacks forward Jake Richard

Then he finally found the net in early December and the goals started coming in bunches.

By the end of the season Richard had totaled 18 goals and 30 assists and his potential was very clear to everyone, including National Hockey League scouts.

He was chosen in the sixth round of July’s NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres. That means Buffalo will retain his rights for up to five years while he continues to develop, and one more year of that development will occur in Muskegon.

Richard is beginning his second season with the Lumberjacks in a far different role than last year.

He’s expected to be a top scorer for the team in 2022-23, and perhaps one of the top point producers in the United States Hockey League.

Richard had 18 goals and 30 assists last season after going scoreless for the first two months.

As Lumbejacks Coach Mike Hamilton put it, “We’re expecting huge things out of him.”

But Richard, who just turned 18, is not looking at the coming season that way. Rather than focusing on expectations, he just wants to play hard and let the goals come naturally.

“I will just try to go out and play my game, do the best I can and try to help the guys around me as much as I can,” said Richard, who will be in unform on Friday night when the Lumberjacks host the Chicago Steel in their first preseason game.

“I’m not putting pressure on myself, like thinking I have to score so many goals every night. I’m just trying to help my team any way I can. We have a lot of skilled players here.”

Richard admits it was tough to wait so long to get his first goal last season, but when the puck finally went in the net his confidence soared.

Richard parks in front of the Madison net in a game last season.

That first goal came on Dec. 11 during a game in Chicago. Richard scored again on Dec. 15, helping the Lumberjacks pull off a big 3-2 upset of the Team USA 18-Under squad.

Two days later he scored his third goal of the season in a 6-3 loss in Green Bay. On Dec. 18 he scored the game-winning goal in the Lumberjacks’ 3-2 victory over Green Bay.

“It was a little frustrating,” Richard said about the long wait. “The team was doing well, and you want to be doing the best you possibly can. But once I got it going it was a great feeling. Once I scored that first goal things really opened up for me.”

Richard is committed to play college hockey at the University of Connecticut and could have joined the Huskies this season. But he thinks he still needs to improve and believes he’s in the best possible place to do it.

Richard (19) trails behind teammate Quinn Hutson in a game last season.

“I did have the option to start college this year, but I felt for my development that another year in Muskegon would be the best thing for me,” Richard said. “We have a great training facility here and great coaches, so I knew that was the best choice.”

After a week of training camp, Richard said it will be nice to hit the ice for some real competition against Chicago on Friday.

“We’ve had a good couple of practices playing against each other, but you always look forward to playing another team,” he said. “It should be fun.

That’s particularly true playing against the Steel, who have become a heated rival of the Lumberjacks in recent seasons.

“Any time you play them you want to beat them, whether it’s preseason or not,” Richard said.