WILLMAR — Point blank, the Willmar boys hockey program has struggled producing results over the past few years.

The Cardinals have won seven games total since the puck dropped for the 2017-18 season. Although the team had its highest goal-scoring production within this three-year stretch last season, Willmar’s 2.2 goals-per-game average ranked towards the bottom of Class A. Additionally, the squad allowed the most goals in the Central Lakes Conference at six per game. Willmar dropped 11 games by five goals or more en route to a 2-23-1 record and a winless mark in the CLC.

Like the rest of us, the players would like to make 2020 a distant memory.

So, with a new season on the horizon, the Cardinal veterans have replaced the tough days from the past with newly minted optimism. That is according to head coach Jamie Hagen.

“This year, it almost feels like a fresh start, I think even for our seniors,” said Hagen, who is in his seventh season leading the program. “There are only three seniors and those are the guys that have battled through those past couple of years.”

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Those three seniors are defensemen Aidan Donelan and Blake Tersch and forward Jack Michelson.

Donelan returns for his third varsity season. Tersch is back after finishing last season out of action due to injury. Those two will man the point while Michelson, a defenseman last year, moves to the forward spot and is expected to be a big, strong presence in front of the net.

Elsewhere, the team’s top returning point-producer is Ethan Stark. The sophomore winger is back after collecting six goals and three assists as a freshman.

Juniors Jason Malmgren (two goals, two assists) and Taton Hansen (five assists) are expected to make contributions at forward.

Freshman forward Cullen Gregory makes the jump to varsity and has impressed the coaching staff during the first week of practice. Cullen’s older brother, Ashton, was a captain on last season’s team.

“Those other guys didn’t experience those couple years in that way. I think the youthfulness out there helps; you can kind of feel that in the atmosphere on the ice,” Hagen said. “Those young guys are pushing those guys that are here. That part feels good and I think it feels good for the seniors to have those young guys come out and push them.”

The ongoing youth movement has improved the Cardinals’ overall speed compared to previous squads. Hagen and the coaching staff have all liked the players’ collective “hockey sense.”

Still, after losing 15 players to graduation, the team’s inexperience will likely loom large. Willmar will be without Elbridge DeKraai (17 goals, 11 assists), Devin Sankey (8 goals, 8 assists) and Ashton Gregory (six goals and six assists). The trio were the team’s top-three point producers last year.

The young Cardinals may have difficulty dealing with physicality at this level, particularly against some Class AA teams on their schedule. Also, they’ll try to grapple with their nerves while they get acclimated, but Hagen doesn’t want his players to worry about making a mistake.

“If you go 100 miles per hour and make the wrong play, we’ll let you know at the bench,” Hagen said. “If you hesitate, we feel you’re already behind the play. We want the guys to go and not hesitate, not think so much and just play the game.”

Junior Gavin Steinwand is one player aiming for a bump in production after getting his first taste of the varsity level. The goaltender was 1-10-1 in 2019-20 with a 5.98 goals-against average and a .843 save percentage last season. Steinwand is slated to be the starter in net this season.

“Having a guy who has seen some varsity pucks makes a difference,” Hagen said. “Coming in a stopping these varsity shots after coming from Bantams and getting comfortable facing these other teams, harder shots and quicker releases.is a big step. ... We expect Gavin to be on his toes and quarterback us through the defensive zone.”

Here’s a look at other area boys hockey programs:

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato's Gavyn Lund launches a shot at the net during a Section 3A quarterfinal game against Worthington on Feb. 20 at the Litchfield Civic Arena. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato's Gavyn Lund launches a shot at the net during a Section 3A quarterfinal game against Worthington on Feb. 20 at the Litchfield Civic Arena. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons

Head coach: Brice Berggren

2019-20 record: 12-15-1

2019-20 finish: Second seed in Section 3A. Lost to Hutchinson in the section championship

Key losses: Jake Johnson, Alex Heinonen, Trent Raisanen, Cole Evjen, Cade Marquardt

Returning players: Mason Schroeder (sr. F), Logan Benson (sr. F), Gavyn Lund (jr. D), Zach Zwilling (jr. F), Jack Hillman (jr. F), Grant Grochow (jr. D), Darby Halonen (sr. G)

First game: 7 p.m. Friday vs. Orono

From Coach Berggren: “We have several returning players and this also helps set the tone because they know what to expect and they have a goal that they are striving to achieve.

“I have the same expectations that I would for any season. We want to be a hardworking and mentally tough team. We play tough, blue-collar hockey and work hard to push ourselves to be the best we can be.”

Morris/Benson Area Storm

Head coach: Jeremiah Day

2019-20 record: 20-6

2019-20 finish: Seventh seed in Section 6A. Lost to Alexandria in the quarterfinals

Key losses: Jack Riley, Chase Engebretson, Matthew Tolifson

Returning players: Zach Bruns (sr. F), Will Breuer (sr. F), Brady DeHaan (jr. D), Reece Kuseske (sr. F), Tim Brume (jr. F), Brady Loge (sr. F), Peyton LeClair (sr. G)

First game: 7:15 p.m. Thursday at Willmar

Willmar's Ethan Stark (6) tries to keep the puck away from River Lakes' Tanner Stanley during the first period of a Central Lakes Conference game on Feb. 3, 2020 at the Willmar Civic Center. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar's Ethan Stark (6) tries to keep the puck away from River Lakes' Tanner Stanley during the first period of a Central Lakes Conference game on Feb. 3, 2020 at the Willmar Civic Center. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

River Lakes Stars

Head coach: Zach Johnson

2019-20 record: 15-11-1

2019-20 finish: Fourth seed in Section 6A. Lost to St. Cloud Cathedral in the semifinals

Key losses: Logan Stellmach, Griffin Duininck, Ethan Howard, Blake Blattner, Griffin Bjerke

Returning players: Tanner Stanley (sr. F), Bennett Bjerke (sr. F), Joel Sowada (jr. D), Sam Zeiher (jr. D), Abe Bullard (sr. D), Drew Tangen (sr. G), Joshua Venable (sr. G)

First game: 7 p.m. Friday at Northern Lakes

From Coach Johnson: “Section 6A, top to bottom, is one of the toughest sections in Class A. So our goal is always to get into the top-four of the section, host that playoff game, which we were able to do last year and play in front of our home fans, if we do have fans this year. That’s always been the goal, to take care of business and put ourselves in a good position for the playoffs.”