Thursday, October 06, 2005

WCHA Preview - 5. North Dakota Fighting Sioux

For the Sioux entry, we've called upon USCHO Arena Reporter and Fighting Sioux fan Patrick C. Miller. We thank him kindly, and we invite you to check out his fine work at USCHO.

Last year: 25-15-5, 13-12-3 WCHA (5th). Lost to Denver in NCAA final.
Coach: Dave Hakstol, second season (25-15-5)
Top returnees
Drew Stafford, junior (13-25-38); Travis Zajac, sophomore (20-19-39); Rastislav Spirko, sophomore, (16-21-37)
Defensemen: Matt Smaby, junior (1-2-3); Kyle Radke, sophomore (1-2-3)
Goalies: Jordan Parise, junior (2.13 GAA, .917 SV%, 17-7-3); Philippe Lamoureux, sophomore (2.19 GAA, .914 SV%, 7-8-2)
Top newcomers: T.J. Oshie, F (selected first round by St. Louis); Jonathan Toews, F; Brian Lee, D (selected first round by Ottawa); Joe Finley, D (selected first round by Washington)
Biggest losses: Matt Greene, D; Matt Jones, D; Colby Genoway, F; Rory McMahon, F

Assess your team’s 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
What a strange season that was. The Sioux were picked to finish high in the WCHA. They started off hot, then were hit with injury after injury. The offense disappeared and trips to the penalty box became far too frequent. By mid-February, practically everyone had written off the Sioux as a playoff team. Many questioned whether Dave Hakstol was the right person to replace Dean Blais. But then came March and the team suddenly came together and the offense caught fire. Jordan Parise emerged as the No. 1 goalie and played fantastic down the stretch. UND came up one game short, losing 4-1 to Denver in the national championship game. Lack of scoring in critical games has hurt the Sioux the past three seasons. Overall, it probably took too long for the players to buy into Hakstol’s system.

Assess your team’s overall strengths:
Jordan Parise has established himself as one of the best playoff goalies in college hockey and gives the Sioux the most solid goaltending they’ve had since Karl Goehring graduated in 2001. His backup, Philippe Lamoureux, put up solid numbers as a freshman and will challenge Parise for the starting job. The Sioux are in excellent shape here.

The team is talent-laden with no fewer than five NHL first-round draft picks (Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee and Joe Finley), six other NHL draftees and Jonathan Toews, considered a potential 2006 first rounder. The raw materials are there. The only question is: Can Hakstol and his staff put all the pieces together?

At the end of last season, the line of Spirko, Zajac and Stafford was one of the best in the country. If they can pickup where they left off, they’ll be formidable. Chris Porter and Erik Fabian, both juniors, are big, physical forwards who can grind and hit with the WCHA’s best. There’s plenty of young talent at the forward position that should make this year’s Sioux a faster, more exciting and higher scoring team.

The defense will be far different from that which Sioux fans have become accustomed the past three seasons. Brian Lee, Taylor Chorney and Kyle Radke give the Sioux more offensive talent at the blue line than they’ve had for several years. But Matt Smaby, Joe Finley and Zach Jones (Matt’s younger brother) can still bring the physical presence that’s characterized recent Sioux teams.

Dave Hakstol now has a year under his belt and has proven himself under the most trying of circumstances. He has the trust and respect of his players, which should make it easier for this year’s team to accept and learn his system.

Assess your team’s overall weaknesses:
Youth, youth and more youth – especially in the defensive corps. It’s likely that on any given night, half or more of UND’s roster will be freshmen. Smaby is a rock on defense, but he can’t do it alone. With junior Robbie Bina taking a medical redshirt year because of last season’s neck injury, the next most experienced defensemen are senior Lee Marvin, who’s seen little ice time the past three seasons, and sophomore Kyle Radke, who dressed for 29 games last season but saw limited playing time. The defensive corps will have to learn quickly under fire if UND is to have any hope of returning to the Frozen Four.

What is the best-case scenario for your team this year?:
Strong goaltending and an improved offense should help mask the growing pains that the young Sioux defensive corps are likely to experience early on, especially against WCHA competition. A high-scoring offense can make up for many defensive deficiencies. If UND can stay at .500 or above in the first half of the season and avoid injuries, experience and maturity will make them a very tough team to beat come playoff time.

Put your cowbell down and stop yelling at that poor goalie. Be as objective as you can possibly stand to be. Where will your team finish in the WCHA and why?:
Probably fourth, but a third place finish is within the realm of possibility if the team matures quickly and the talent plays up to its potential. I think Minnesota, Denver and Wisconsin will likely finish ahead of the Sioux. Once again, there are so many good teams in the WCHA that all predictions are a crap shoot.

Bruce's analysis:
Tough call. I think UND overachieved a bit down the stretch a year ago, but they rode the two most important things in hockey - quality defense and goaltending - to the Frozen Four. What hurts the most is that Greene and Jones are gone. They might have infuriated opposing players and fans, but the reality is that they were two of the best in the league. Replacing their defense, physicality, and leadership won't be easy. Zajac, Spirko, and Stafford are the keys offensively, and the goaltending will need to be just as good as it was last year, if not better. The Sioux have a chance to prove me wrong, but I don't see them cracking the upper tier of teams in the league. They'll finish with home ice for the first round, and probably make the NCAA Tournament.

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