MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks decided last season that mortgaging the future was not good policy.

In the past the Lumberjacks – like many United States Hockey League teams – would part with younger players at the league trade deadline in exchange for veterans who could provide short-term help during the Clark Cup playoffs.

The following season, however, the older guys would move on to Division 1 college hockey and some of the younger players had departed in trades, leaving the Lumberjacks with a talent deficit.

That’s not the case this season. The Lumberjacks stuck with their existing roster at the trade deadline last season and had a good playoff run, anyway, winning their first two series before falling to the Madison Capitols 3-2 in a grueling Eastern Conference championship series.

Lumberjacks coach Mike Hamilton, who will kick off his fifth season on Thursday.

Because they kept their younger guys, the Jacks are set to enter the 2022-23 season with a solid group of talented players who have experience in the league and are ready to step into bigger roles.

Forwards returning from last season include Owen Mehlenbacher (17 goals, 25 assists in 2021-22), Jake Richard (18 goals, 30 assists), Ethan Whitcomb (8 goals, 8 assists), Tyler Hotson (7 goals, 20 assists) and David Hymovitch (6 goals, 13 assists).

The Jacks also return four very solid defensemen – Nathan McBrayer, Tyler Dunbar, Jeremiah Slavin and Gavin McCarthy.

Mehlenbacher (Detroit Red Wings), Richard (Buffalo Sabres) and rookies Michael Callow (Anaheim Ducks), George Fagaras (Dallas Stars) and Matthew Mordem (Arizona Coyotes). were all selected in June’s National Hockey League draft.

Muskegon forward Tyler Hotson

The Jacks will open the regular season at the USHL Fall Classic in Pittsburgh. They will play Sioux Falls on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. and Tri City on Friday at 5:30 P.M. The Lumberjacks home opener is Friday, Sept. 30 against the Chicago Steel.

“Having experienced guys around makes a big difference in a lot of ways,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton, who’s starting his fifth year with the team. “Second- year players grow a ton in terms of offensive production, they know the system and they provide leadership. They really help you get off to a good start.”

The Lumberjacks’ experience may not have been obvious during their six preseason games in September, when the team posted a disappointing 1-5 record.

While exhibition games are never a good measure of how well a team will do in the regular season, Hamilton said he and his staff noticed some trends that will have to be addressed as the regular season gets under way.

Muskegon’s Owen Mehlenbacher

“There’s more to preseason hockey than just the games,” Hamilton said. “The preseason is to pick a team and get some of the younger guys some touches. But we definitely would have liked to have seen some better results and more growth.

“We didn’t finish checks and there wasn’t much grit to our game. The offensive output was not what we thought it was going to be, and our inability to hold teams in their zone was disappointing. We have a team with a ton of talent. Now it comes down to us coaching these guys and making them better.”

Despite the preseason issues, Hamilton’s teams have demonstrated in the past that a rough start does not necessarily mean a rough year ahead.

Last season the Lumberjacks got off to a miserable 2-7-3 start and were mired in last place in the Eastern Conference. Then they got hot in November, December and January, finished the regular season with a 33-23-6 record, finished in third place in the eight-team Eastern Conference, and made a long run through the playoffs
There’s a lot to like about this year’s team, according to Hamilton, and every reason to be optimistic.

“Anybody who looks at this roster can see that there’s a ton of talent,” the coach said. “We’re excited and ready to go.”