Folks, our USHL Awards Tour is at its end as we take a look at the men vying for the USHL Coach of the Year.
Some names such as Green Bay’s Derek Lalonde won’t be a surprise on this list given everything his team has accomplished. Though there will be some names that could raise a few eyebrows.
So let’s get started:
-Derek Lalonde, Green Bay Gamblers: All the former Denver assistant has done in his first year was make this team a juggernaut the USHL hasn’t seen in a while. They have skill on just about every line, their defensive corps is extremely sound and they have what might be the best 1-2 punch at goalie in the league. Lalonde came into a situation where he was replacing Eric Rud, who left for his alma mater in Colorado College. The dominating season, the relentless attack and solid defense could easily be Lalonde’s biggest mark on this team. But let’s not forget this. Guy made the moves to grab Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota) adding to an already potent team and parlayed that into getting Nick Schmaltz (North Dakota) and tendering Brendan Lemieux for the future.
-Anthony Noreen, Youngstown Phantoms: Noreen was an assistant and Youngstown becoming the head man in a matter of days after Curtis Carr left for Merrimack. Noreen built off what Youngstown did last season and turned them into an early season surprise for some. Now, however, there’s no surprises with Youngstown who could reach the Eastern Conference finals. Quite a turnaround from last year when the team missed the playoffs by a point.
-Kyle Wallack, Indiana Ice: Wallack has almost become the forgotten man out East this season with what Green Bay, Dubuque and Youngstown are doing. He’s been able to continue the Ice’s familiar high-octane style of offense but he’s done it while implementing younger players. That and he’s also been getting what many had hoped from goaltender Jon Gillies this season. He’s also retooled a defense which at times last season could be an Achilles heel for the Ice.
Mike Aikens, Omaha Lancers: Aikens became the head man early in the season after the team parted ways with Bliss Littler. He took a team which might have had the least USHL experience and they are now in first place by a point. Aikens took a roster with promise and turned into a team which has maybe the best shot at stopping Green Bay for a Clark Cup title. Aikens has also done all this in a Western Conference which has been about as wild as it gets. Aikens brought consistency to the Lancers and it looks like that may continue through the playoffs.
Brett Larson, Sioux City Musketeers: Here’s where there might be some eyebrows raised but give the man credit. Guy had a star in Schmaltz who wanted out of town. He took the pieces in the trade to strengthen a team which did have holes. Larson used what he had to climb out of the Western Conference cellar and into the No. 5 spot. Another move Larson made where should get a lot of credit is how much the Musketeers’ blue line has emerged and getting John Grahame as a goaltending coach. Grahame, before leaving for the NHL last week, made goaltender Matt Skoff (Penn State) a scary man in net as evidenced by six shutouts.
John Marks, Fargo Force: Marks has had a wild ride. He started the season with people calling for his head. He ends the season as a relaxed, silver fox wooing fans into why they should renew season tickets. Even when the Force lost 13 of 15 to start the season, players had no problems admitting it was not Marks’ fault. They were clear Marks and his staff were giving them everything needed to succeed. A nine-game winning streak, the longest in the league this year, proved that. So does being the No. 4 seed. But one must wonder, where would the Force be in the standings if they at least won three or four games during that slow start?
VERDICT: Let’s narrow the field down the three. The finalists being Lalonde, Noreen and Larson. Lalonde goes to final round leaving it up to Noreen and Larson. Noreen gets a hell of a lot of credit for what he did with Youngstown this year. But we give Larson the edge because he came into a new team, introduced a new system to players he was unfamiliar with and has them looking like a team which could upset someone in a short playoff series. Our final round comes down to Larson vs. Lalonde and yeah, we’re not going against Lalonde. We’d be stupid. The winner (as if there was really a surprise) is Green Bay’s Derek Lalonde.