Boys hockey: Willmar Cardinals hope to keep getting better


— The

Willmar boys hockey team

is coming off its most successful campaign under head coach Jamie Hagen and its winningest season since 2013-14.

The Cardinals had a 9-17 overall record in 2022-23. In the previous three seasons, Willmar had 10 wins over that stretch, five in 2021-22.

Hagen is hopeful that his Cardinals can continue to build on this upward progression that the program has seen in recent years.

Willmar opens up its season against Breckenridge/Wahpeton at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, at Willmar Civic Center Arena.

"Our expectation is to continue to do better, obviously," said Hagen, who enters his 10th season as Cardinals head coach. "A lot of that core group is still here."

Despite losing six players to graduation, Willmar returns seven seniors and seven juniors. There are four sophomores and two freshmen.

"We've got a really good leadership core of guys that are really good with the new guys coming in," Hagen said. "We haven't had a group like this in a long time that is so cohesive and tight."

The Cardinals return three of their top six point scorers from 2022-23, including leading scorer Cullen Gregory.

Gregory, a senior forward and three-year captain for the Cardinals, had 33 points (21 goals, 12 assists) in 26 games in his junior season.

"He's been our heart and soul for the last three, four years he's been here," Hagen said of Gregory. "It's hard to believe he's a senior already.

"He's a beast out there and our expectations for him are huge."

The next three top producers behind Gregory — Ethan Stark, Eli Van Buren and Arron Fischer — all graduated. The trio combined for 74 points.

That leaves the Cardinals in a spot where they need to have players step up offensively.

Hagen has moved senior Deiken Carruthers from defense to forward in hopes of bringing more aggression to Willmar's lineup upfront.

"We're pretty much building from the back-end up starting with our goaltender," Hagen said. "From the back-end, things are looking good defensively and we just got to get some offensive production."

Willmar's main netminder this season will be senior Mason Thole after the Cardinals graduated Braxton Heid in net. Ian Ziehl will serve as the backup.

Thole returns between the pipes after a junior campaign that was plagued with a foot injury which was later diagnosed as arthritis this summer.

Thole played in 15 games and had a 3-3-0 overall record with a .825 save percentage and 6.15 goals against average in 2022-23.

"He's back and strong and healthy," Hagen said of Thole. "We're going to rely a lot on him."

Hagen is looking toward seniors Dylan Staska and Henry Michelson to lead the Cardinals' on the back-end. Staska had 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in 26 games. Michelson had four assists.

But with a roster which includes 20 players, Hagen recognizes the importance of staying healthy.

"We've got a small group, so the first thing is we have to stay healthy," Hagen said. "One of the things that we've really hit on the last couple of years is being aggressive and physical.

"I'm not so sure we can be that physical team."

So, coach. How do you go about balancing the two?

"We just got to play smart," Hagen said.

And as the season gets underway, the Cardinals will search for its first Central Lakes Conference victory since Feb. 9, 2016.

"We want to start by getting that first CLC win," Hagen said. "That's one of our goals — to get that first CLC win. We haven't had one in a while."

Nov. 28 — Breckenridge/Wahpeton vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Nov. 30 — Willmar at Sartell, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 5 — Morris/Benson vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Dec. 7 — Sauk Rapids vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Dec. 12 — Willmar at Prairie Centre, 7 p.m.

Dec. 14 — Willmar at St. Cloud, 7:15 p.m.

Dec. 16 — Redwood Valley vs. Willmar, 4 p.m.

Dec. 19 — Willmar at Marshall, 6 p.m.

Dec. 21 — Fergus Falls vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Jan 4. — Brainerd vs. Willmar, 7:15 p.m.

Jan. 6 — Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato vs. Willmar, 1:30 p.m.

Jan. 9 — Willmar at River Lakes, 6 p.m.

Jan. 15 — Willmar at Becker/Big Lake, 6 p.m.

Jan. 16 — Willmar at Morris/Benson, 6 p.m.

Jan. 18 — Willmar at Wadena-Deer Creek, 7 p.m.

Jan. 20 — Willmar at Hutchinson, 7 p.m.

Jan. 23 — Willmar at Sauk Rapids, 6 p.m.

Jan. 25 — Alexandria vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Jan. 26 — Prairie Centre vs. Willmar, 4:15 p.m.

Jan. 29 — Faribault vs. Willmar, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 1 — Willmar at Breckenridge/Wahpeton, 6:30 p.m.

Feb. 3 — Willmar at Redwood Valley, 1 p.m.

Feb. 6 — Willmar at Fergus Falls, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 13 — Wadena-Deer Creek vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.

Feb. 15 — River Lakes vs. Willmar, 6 p.m.