Once everyone is healthy, these Cedar Rapids RoughRiders should be much improved

USHL season begins this weekend at Green Bay and Madison

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CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s important to remember the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders team that hits the ice Friday night for its United States Hockey League regular-season opener will not be the team that hits the ice at the end of the season.

Or the one that hits the ice a couple of months from now.

The Riders will be hamstrung early with injuries to four important veterans. Defenseman Jake Johnson and forwards Marc McLaughlin, T.J. Walsh and Jason Polin are out various amounts of time with a various array of injuries.

The club will try and survive until they return. Cedar Rapids is at Green Bay on Friday night and Madison on Saturday night.

“Right now, we’ve got a different team than what we expected,” said RoughRiders Coach Mark Carlson. “You saw those four guys sitting up there (in the press box during practice Wednesday), and that’s tough. We have to work with the guys we have. Just work at it every day and get better.”

The Riders were led in the preseason by newcomer Nathan Smith, who had three goals (all in one game) and two assists in seven contests. The Florida native has committed to play at Minnesota State.

Another newcomer, Brian Chambers, also impressed with a goal and three assists in five games. He is a Massachusetts-Lowell commit.

The club will lean heavily, especially early, on returnees Jordan Timmons and Liam Walsh. Timmons, a UConn commit, impressed last season after being acquired in a trade from the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks, though he missed a large chunk at the end with, what else, an injury.

This is the third season in Cedar Rapids for Walsh, who has six goals in 61 career games. Probable captain Dalton Messina will be counted on for performance on the ice and off it (leadership).

He had 12 goals in 56 games last season. The other returnee up front is Steven Agriogianis, a Penn State commit who had five goals in 34 games, missing much time via injury.

Johnson is the only guy on the team with USHL experience at defense or goaltender. Goalie isn’t necessarily considered much of a weakness, however, with the presence of Jiri Patera.

The 18-year-old from the Czech Republic was a sixth-round pick of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights in this past summer’s NHL draft. Michigan native Blake Pietila won what likely will be the backup goalie job with a strong preseason.

“Real simply just get in there and do his job,” Carlson said, when asked about his expectations for Patera. “Just play good, solid goal. We like Blake as well. Blake Pietila has come in here and done a very nice job. We feel really good about both goalies.”

Carlson buoyed the roster this past week swinging trades for defenseman Kyle Looft from Dubuque and forward Roman Ahcan from Central Illinois. Ahcan’s brother, Jack, was an all-USHL pick for the Riders as a defenseman in the 2015-16 season.

Cedar Rapids had its worst season a year ago, finishing 12-44-3-1 for a league-low 28 standings points. Things almost assuredly will be much better in 2017-18.

Though, with all the guys out right now, it might take some time.

“I like the guys we have,” Carlson said. “It’s the same as every year. It’s about coming together, becoming a team. It’s about everyone doing their job, improving every day and every game. That’s really what it’s all about.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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