The Rochester Grizzlies have some spots to fill in their lineup.
That’s what happens when a team goes 37-8-2 and wins the North American 3 Hockey League Central Division championship. Some of the Grizzlies’ top players from a year ago have moved on to college hockey. Some will move on to higher levels of junior hockey.
But some will be back in Rochester, looking to take care of some business that the Grizzlies didn’t get a chance to take care of last spring. They were on their way to Peoria, Ill., for Game 1 of a first-round playoff series when the NA3HL canceled its postseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the veterans who helped put the Grizzlies on the map as a favored destination for Tier III junior hockey players.
The road to redemption — or whatever the 2020-21 NA3HL season may bring — begins this weekend, when the Grizzlies welcome close to 100 prospective players to their main camp at the Rochester Recreation Center.
“We’re very excited to get back on the ice,” second-year Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. “It’s been a weird year. I’ve talked on the phone and texted and emailed with a lot of the guys, but I haven’t seen them since we last watched them play.”
The Grizzlies’ main camp is scheduled to run Friday through Sunday, with the team’s roster mostly set for the upcoming season once the camp concludes.
Ratzloff said he’s excited to see how the returning veterans compete with and against some talented younger or newer players at this weekend’s camp. He was able to see many of the Grizzlies’ veterans in action three weeks ago at the Austin Bruins’ main camp.
“We have more players this year who are actually coming to try out for the team than we had in camp last year,” Ratzloff said. “It’s looking like we’ll have 40-50 guys trying out and the rest of them we’ll fill in with our futures guys, the younger players we want to build relationships with and introduce them to who the Grizzlies and (Austin) Bruins are.”
Among the veterans who Ratzloff does not expect back with the team at the start of the season are standout forwards Peyton Hart — who signed a tender with the Austin Bruins last spring and a had a good camp in Austin in late July — and Matt DeRosa, who had a strong camp with the St. Cloud Norseman of the NAHL.
The Grizzlies will also have to fill spots vacated by some veterans who moved on. Defenseman Logan Olson and forward Paul Hofbauer are unlikely to return, Ratzloff said. Forwards Porter Haney and Jesper Hofling, and defenseman Noel Parker will all play for Gustavus Adolphus College, while defenseman Michael Heitkamp (Wisconsin-Stout) and NA3HL Goalie of the Year Mathias Backstrom (Nichols College) have also moved on to college hockey. A handful of other Grizzlies’ veterans have participated in NAHL camps and could make a roster at a higher level.
“Hartsy, DeRosa, those guys looked good in their (NAHL) camps and they probably won’t be with us at the start,” Ratzloff said. “I hope they won’t be with us at all” because they’ll stick on an NAHL roster.
Backstrom’s departure might be the biggest loss for Rochester. He went 18-5-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average (third in the NA3HL) and a stellar .939 save percentage (second in the league).
But the Grizzlies have solid options in goal. Shane Soderwall may be back for his second season after going 11-1-1 with a 1.76 GAA and .920 save percentage last season while sharing time with Backstrom and Sean Guerin.
Among the goalies who’ll push Soderwall is Owatonna’s Zach Wiese, a multi-sport athlete who signed a tender with Rochester after going 17-6-0 with a 1.82 GAA and a .910 save percentage last winter. Wiese was also a standout lineman for the Huskies’ section champion football team.
“Shane deserves to play and he could take Mathias’ spot,” Ratzloff said. “Zach, I’ve known him for a few years and I know how athletic he is. He’s been putting in the work this summer; he’s lost some weight and looks more like a hockey player than a lineman now. I’m really excited to see what he can do.”
Following this weekend’s camp, the Grizzlies will get just one week off before they come back to Rochester to begin practices for the season, which is set to begin Oct. 2.
“We’ll carry a few extra guys at the beginning of the season until we figure out what’s going on, just because this year is so weird,” Ratzloff said. “We’ll bring them in and work them hard for a month before we play games.”