The Clark Cup playoffs that will settle the United States Hockey League bragging rights for 2016-17 are still two months away. Sioux City Musketeers head coach Jay Varady was not getting ahead of himself.
By Joshua Boyd
“There are still 14 games left [for the Musketeers] and no one in the league has clinched a playoff spot yet,” said Varady, whose team is first in the Western Conference with a 30-9-5-2 record. “We have to take things one step at a time. The next step for us right now is to get an “X” next to our name. We need to stay with our identity.”
That identity for the Musketeers has been as a big-time puck possession team. Although standout Finnish forward Eeli Tolvanen is a definite sniper with 23 goals (fifth in the league), the Musketeers didn’t work their way into a first-place team due to offensive fireworks.
“We have a group that really scores as a committee,” said Varady. “We want to play a possession game. When we talk about defense, we talk about how we want to break it out of our zone, bring it through the neutral zone and possess the puck in the offensive zone.”
So, it’s not so much a case of “the best defense is a good offense” – their 128 goals for were ranked 11th in the league of 17 – but rather a case of playing really good keep-away. And that was definitely working as a defensive philosophy – the Musketeers’ 92 goals against were the lowest in the league (by 14) to end February.
“We don’t really score a lot. It’s more a group of players who play hard, and each night, it seems like it’s a different player scoring the goals for us,” said Varady. “We obviously have a couple guys on the leaderboard, but we have scored as a committee.”
The Musketeers know that, due to the competitiveness of the USHL as a whole, their fortunes could change at any time. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing well, but injuries or other circumstances could see them fall from their tentative hold on the top spot (the Waterloo Black Hawks were one point behind on Feb. 26).
“The USHL is an extremely competitive league. It’s not just us and Waterloo – I see five teams that have been really the same this year – us, Waterloo, Des Moines, Fargo and Lincoln,” said Varady. “Any time one team gets healthy, they get on a little run. If injuries begin to pile up, or someone leaves for the World Junior A Challenge, they may fall back. That’s just the teams in the west, too.”
Twelve points separated Sioux City at the top of the Western Conference and fifth-place Lincoln. The Eastern Conference was almost a carbon copy, with 13 points separating leader Chicago from fifth-place Green Bay.
Tolvanen has been extremely important to Sioux City’s fortunes this year. His skills have NHL scouts very interested – he is the seventh-ranked North American Skater in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft Mid-Term Rankings.
Rankings are, of course, based on where you’re playing and not nationality. Tolvanen is Finnish by birth, and has represented his country in five tournaments already. He won the Under-18 Worlds Gold Medal last spring.
“High-end offensive talent,” said Varady, when asked what the NHL coaches are so taken with when it comes to Tolvanen. “It’s his second year in the USHL, he’s averaging a point per game [40 points in 39 games], and he’s a ’99 birth year in the top five of league [goal-]scoring.”
The Musketeers identified Tolvanen as a burgeoning talent as far as three years ago.
“We saw him, tendered him and brought him over and he practiced with us,” said Varady.
Last year, Tolvanen rode a 17-goal, 38-point campaign to All-Rookie honors in the USHL. Just after last season, Tolvanen gave his commitment to Boston College. He’ll be joined on the Eagles roster down the road by his current linemate with both the Musketeers and the Finnish National Junior Team, Aapeli Rasanen. Rasanen, who had 20 points through 27 games, only recently committed to Boston College on Feb. 23. Rasanen was a 2016 draft selection of the Edmonton Oilers.
“We had Eeli, and we watched the World U18’s, and thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see his linemate in Sioux City,’” Varady said. “Sure enough, Aapeli wanted to play college hockey. Hopefully, they play another four years together.”
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