Friday, October 07, 2005

WCHA Preview - 1. Denver Pioneers

Last year: 32-9-2, 19-7-2 WCHA (T-1st). Beat North Dakota in NCAA final.
Coach: George Gwozdecky, twelfth season at UD (255-161-33); 20th season overall (405-285-54)
Top returnees
Forwards: Gabe Gauthier, sr (26-31-57); Paul Stastny, soph (17-28-45); Geoff Paukovich, soph (12-9-21); Adrian Veideman, jr (5-14-19)
Defensemen: Matt Carle, jr (13-31-44); Andrew Thomas, soph (2-5-7)
Goalies: Peter Mannino, soph (18-4-1, 2.19, .927); Glenn Fisher, jr (14-5-1, 2.84, .889)
Top newcomers: Patrick Mullen, F; T.J. Fast, D; Chris Butler, D; Julian Marcuzzi, D
Biggest losses: Brett Skinner, D (4-36-40); Luke Fulghum, F (23-19-42); Jeff Drummond, F (16-23-39); Kevin Ulanski, F (11-22-33); Jon Foster, F (21-8-29)

Assess the team's 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
When everyone (including myself) assumed that Denver couldn't replace the leadership from guys like Caldwell and Berkhoel during the 2003-2004 title run, the Pioneers turn around and do just that. The team got huge goals all season long from veterans Fulghum, Foster, Drummond, and Gauthier, and they found the goaltender to carry them to glory once again. As a freshman, Mannino wasn't supposed to be able to win all those big games. But that's exactly what he did. Gwozdecky rotated goalies all season long, but Mannino took the ball in the playoffs, and he won both games in the Frozen Four. Not much went wrong for Denver a year ago, they were probably the best team in the country from start to finish, which was a bit of a contrast from the year before, when Denver came on late to earn their NCAA bid and eventually won the whole thing.

Assess the team's overall strengths:
For Denver, it's all about the veterans. The Pioneers lost some big-time talent off last year's team, including 71 goals combined from Fulghum, Drummond, Ulanski, and Foster. Gwozdecky is charged with trying to reload, and he has some people in place. Gauthier is as good as they come, and he's unbelieveably dangerous in clutch situations. He seems to have a knack for finding the net when his team needs it most. Stastny is a star in the making. Only a sophomore, he tallied eight times on the power play a year ago, and he's expected to only get better. Veideman and fellow junior J.D. Corbin will be expected to contribute more offensively, and Paukovich provides an aura of toughness on the team, though he needs to learn to contain his emotions, as evidenced by the illegal and dangerous hit on UND's Robbie Bina in the Final Five.

Assess the team's overall weaknesses:
There is some apprehension regarding this team because of the senior leadership they lost up front. 71 goals is a lot to replace from those four departed players, and it's not fair to simply assume that Denver will do it because they're Denver. The Pioneers also lost a big-play defenseman in Skinner, along with steady D-men Jussi Halme and Matt Laatsch. Thomas will be asked to do a lot more than he did as a freshman, though the talent is there. Also, will Fisher continue to play the good soldier in goal while Mannino gets all the big-game assignments? Will Mannino continue to get all those assignments? I think Gwozdecky has handled his goaltending very well the last two years, but the old saying is "If you have two goalies, you don't have any". If there's any question as to who Gwozdecky throws out there in a big game, that old saing may come into play, just as it did when Denver had Berkhoel and Wade Dubielewicz sharing time.

Best-case scenario:
Denver reloads again. Gauther, Stastny, Paukovich, Corgin, Veideman, and others replace the goal-scorers who moved on, and Carle and Thomas help form one of the top defensive groups in the country. By January, fans are left to wonder who these Fulghum-Drummond-Skinner guys were. And Denver is still hanging around when we all gather in Milwaukee to determine a national champion.

Realistic projection:
This team is not without their warts. This team is not without their holes. But the coaching staff does an absolutely outstanding job of keeping teams from exploiting any weaknesses that exist. It's not impossible to imagine Denver hoisting a third straight national championship trophy this April, even though they lost a ton of leadership from last year. This team is a bit shakier than last year, but they're good enough to come out on top in a very tough WCHA.

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