Don Babineau did not have to look far for talent when he chose to take on the challenge of building the Maple Grove Energy.
The veteran Minnesota Junior Hockey League coach made the move from the Hudson Lakers last season to coach closer to home with a team that had won just one game in its debut in the league in the 2011-12 season.
Using a large contingent of in-state players, Babineau has turned the Energy into the Minnesota League Minnesota Division leaders in just their third season and his second with the team.
Babineau, in his 15th year coaching in the league, said he couldn’t remember a team being so heavily influenced top-to-bottom by homegrown players for almost a decade.
“As far as quality top to bottom, you won’t see a Minnesota League team that’s so loaded with Minnesota boys,” Babineau said. “That’s something we try to do. We try to keep Minnesota players in Minnesota. We try to educate them about our league, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job keeping with what our goal was.
“The [University of Minnesota] Gophers do it. It’s one of those things that can be done. We try to get the kids to stay here and get some recognition right in their backyard instead of going out west or out east.”
In combination with owner Cal Ballard and director of scouting Mike Bowman, Babineau used that formula to lead the team to a winning record and 26 victories last season.
Babineau said the team presents a more affordable option for Tier III Junior players trying to put themselves in position to move up to a higher level of junior hockey and/or prepare for college.
“The price can definitely get up there real quick,” he said. “We’re trying to keep that mission, and so far it has paid off.”
The Energy has just three players from outside the state borders while rising to the top of their division. The league has been split the last two seasons between a Minnesota Division for in-state teams and a Great Lakes Division for other new additions.
Perhaps most promising in the recent surge is that the Energy showed off the depth and balance within a roster that has still remained shorthanded at times.
“We have guys that contribute up and down the lineup,” Babineau said. “We’re running three lines. For the most part, we’ve had a short roster the entire season. We haven’t dressed 20 for probably a month and a half or two months.”
The best example of the balance coming through has been leading scorer Gavin Smith’s production. Smith, who has 16 goals and 21 assists in 31 games, ended October and began November with five straight multiple-point games to spark the team's move to the top.
When Smith then struggled through a six-game scoreless streak as injury issues with other players resulted in line changes, Maple Grove kept rolling. The Energy won all but one game during that time, holding every opponent to three goals or fewer.
Smith returned to the scoring column Dec. 8 with a goal and two assists in a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Owls, giving the Energy 16 wins in the last 18 games for a 23-7-0-1 record.
“That just goes to show the guys we have around him,” Babineau said. “Coaches always say, ‘Guys, here’s your chance.’ These guys not only hear that, but they’re actually doing it.
“It makes me proud as a coach to know these guys are stepping up. They’re grind guys. They’re finding ways to win games.”
Maple Grove is tied for fifth in scoring in the league but ranks second in allowing the fewest goals.
“It starts from the back,” Babineau said. “Our goalies are 1-2 in the league. One’s a vet, one’s a rookie, and they’ve helped us keep momentum.”
Brian Anderson, the veteran, leads the league with a .938 save percentage and has lost just once while posting a 1.95 goals-against average. The rookie, Zach Larson, is second to Anderson with a .925 save percentage.
“I want him to do well every start he gets and I know he wants the same for me,” Larson said in a story on the team website. “I can’t say I’ve had a better goalie partner than Brian.”
Smith is one of six Maple Grove players with more than 20 points. Vladyslav Makorevych has 30, Travis Ricci has 27, Austin Burt and Austin Hill each have 26 and Blake Babineau, the coach’s son, has 23.
The Energy’s top players will be busy Sunday, playing a doubleheader.
Maple Grove will try for its first win in six games with the second-place Dells Ducks in the afternoon, prior to the Minnesota League Minnesota Division all-star game that the Energy is hosting.
Either Anderson or Larson will start the league game and the other will represent the team in the all-star game.
Hill and Brady Devesoki, the leaders of the defensive unit, will also play on the North all-star team along Smith and Ricci against the South.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.