Thursday, October 06, 2005

WCHA Preview - 6. Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks

Our guest blogger for Mankato is the author of the fine Western College Hockey blog, Chris "MaizeRage" Dilks. Chris was kind enough to fill us in on the Mavericks and their chances for improvement in 2005-2006.

Last year: 13-19-6, 8-16-4 WCHA (8th). Lost to Minnesota in WCHA first round.
Coach: Troy Jutting, sixth season (78-92-24)
Top returnees
David Backes, junior (17-23-40), Travis Morin, junior (12-19-31), Brock Becker, senior (8-6-14), Ryan Carter, sophomore( 15-8-23).
Defensemen: Kyle Peto, senior (3-24-27), Chad Brownlee, junior (1-1-2), Jon Dubel, senior (3-6-9).
Goalies: Chris Clark, junior (6-6-4, 3.42 GAA, .897).
Top newcomers: Brian Kilburg, defenseman; Dan Tormey, goalie; Mike Zacharias, goalie; Mick Berge, forward; Blake Friesen, defenseman.
Biggest losses: Brad Thompson, forward (13-11-24), Adam Gerlach, forward (11-11-22), Jake Brenk, forward (6-13-19), Steven Johns, defenseman (2-13-15).

Assess your team's 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
Last season for the Mavericks was a bit of a rebuilding year. They showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season, including going 5-0-1 in the month of November, a tight OT loss to Minnesota, a thrilling OT win at Wisconsin, and a dominating win against national champion Denver at home. The season also had it's fair share of disappointments though, as the young Maverick team wasn't quite talented enough to compete with the best in the WCHA.

The forwards for Minnesota State proved that they had the ability to score goals last season, as they scored 4 or more goals in 14 games last season. The defense also performed adequately for the Mavericks. Though there were no superstars on the blueline, the Maverick defense was often very good at keeping things simple and just doing their job.

In goal, senior Jon Volp started the year as the starting goalie, but eventually lost time to sophomore Chris Clark, who started the season as the team's third string goalie. Clark received the majority of starts in the second half of the season to gain more experience for the future.

Overall, it was a rather forgettable season for Maverick fans. Probably the biggest joy was looking at the players that would be coming back for this season and thinking about the potential that this team had.

Assess your team's overall strengths:
When discussing the strengths of the Mavericks, it's impossible to start anywhere but with junior David Backes. Backes very could be the best player in college hockey this year. Backes excels in every aspect of the game, averaging exactly one point per game in his first two years at Mankato, and also using his 6'3" 210 lbs. frame to be a physical presence on the ice. If Mankato plays well enough as a team to garner some of the national spotlight, Backes could be a Hobey Baker candidate.

Even more important than what Backes provides on the ice, is the leadership he provides off the ice. While other college players around the country were going after big money, Backes chose to stay in school. His teammates matched his commitment by staying in Mankato this summer and working out every day. The extra work put in this offseason, combined with the boost in team chemistry could help Mankato bridge the gap in talent between themselves and the top teams in the WCHA.

Complementing Backes on the Mavericks first line will be junior Travis Morin and senior Brock Becker. Morin is a tall, lanky center that specializes in passing the puck and making plays. Becker is an extremely fast skater that suffered some injuries in the second half of last season. If he stays healthy, he will be an extremely dangerous player that will create opportunities with his skating ability. Though the Mavericks are known more as a blue-collar team, they have a first line that can rivals just about anybody in the WCHA in terms of talent.

The second line for the Mavericks will be led by David Backes-clone Ryan Carter. Carter is another big forward that does just about everything for the Mavericks. He's called upon to score goals, take key face-offs, lead the top penalty killing unit, and quarterback the second line powerplay. He seemed to get better as the season went on last year, and if that development continues, he could be a dominate player in the WCHA.

All this talent up front means that the Mavericks should once again have a pretty good powerplay. The top powerplay unit relies on Travis Morin controlling the puck at the point, and either finding one of his wings down low for a quick shot, or firing a strong, low wrist on goal through traffic. Morin is the perfect quarterback for this type of powerplay. Ryan Carter has the same job on the second unit of the powerplay.

Assess your team's overall weaknesses:
It may be too early to call it a weakness, but Minnesota State's goaltending situation certainly has more question marks than Matthew Lesko's closet. Chris Clark will return as the starter. Last season, Clark made enough highlight reel saves to win over the average fan, but also let in enough weak goals to leave more educated fans tearing their hair out. Clark's play has been too inconsistent for the Mavericks to rely on him every night. In fact, Clark has yet to win two consecutive games in his two years at Mankato. Clark is a serviceable back-up goalie, but he’s not consistent enough to be an every-night starter in the WCHA.

That means Mankato will have to rely on two wild cards in net this season in freshmen Dan Tormey and Mike Zacharias. Zacharias was signed early by Mankato, with the intent of taking over for departed senior Jon Volp. Last season in the USHL, Zacharias put up so-so numbers on a bad team, while Tormey put up very good numbers on a very good team, earning second team all-USHL.

The three goalies will more than likely battle it out to see who earns the most playing time, and I’m guessing the battle won’t be decided until well into the season. The competition should make each goalie better, which is good, because if Mankato receives solid goaltending every night, there’s almost no limit to how far they could go.

The other major problem for the Mavericks last season was penalties. Mankato spent way too much time a man down last year, and in a league where every team has snipers on their power play, it’s a recipe for disaster. The reasons for all the penalties were threefold. Part of the reason for the penalties was that the Mavericks were often playing faster, more skilled opponents. Part of it was because Don Adam was constantly checking out the inner workings of his own large intestine. And part of it was just plain undisciplined play. The first two parts are going to be tough to correct, but there’s definitely room for improvement in part three. Perhaps it’s just a side effect of relying on fiery players that give their all on the ice that the Mavericks will have to live with, but being a better hockey teams means cutting down on mistakes, and taking dumb penalties is a mistake that the Mavericks can’t afford to make.

A final, minor point that I feel needs to be made is with the other incoming freshmen. Mankato didn’t suffer a lot of losses in the offseason, but I think those losses hit the Mavericks a little harder than the rest of the WCHA. Though they can bring in the occasional star like Backes, coach Troy Jutting has to rely on older, less talented players to fill out the roster. He can’t reload the way a North Dakota or Minnesota would. Because of that, I’d expect very little from the freshmen for Minnesota State this season. With the exception of Brian Kilburg, who should be a very good defenseman, I don’t think Mankato has any players that are going to make a serious impact until they are juniors or seniors.

What is the best-case scenario for your team this year?:
Finishing among the top of the WCHA and making the NCAA tournament seems a little far-fetched, but it probably also seemed far-fetched three years ago when the Mavericks surprised everybody by doing just that. If things go the Mavericks way, I would not be surprised if they ended up having a great season and found a way into the NCAA tournament.

There’s a couple things I think need to go their way for that to happen:

1. Somebody emerges as the starting goalie and plays great throughout the year, stealing a few games along the way.
2. No major injuries. This is an X factor any team, but Mankato doesn’t have the depth to withstand the loss of a good player for a significant period of time.
3. The defense keeps things simple. Sometimes the best thing for a defenseman is to know he’s in over his head. He’ll keep things simple and not make as many mistakes.
4. Emotional players like Ryan McKelvie and Brock Becker can stay out of the box.

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?:
Everything about this team makes me want to say at least 4th in the WCHA and an NCAA bid, but I’ll chicken out and go with conventional wisdom and predict a 6th place finish and right on the border of an NCAA tournament bid. There is so much potential on this year’s Maverick team, but there is always the problem that the WCHA has about as much potential for upward mobility as society in India. It’s going to be difficult to crack the top 5 with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado College, Denver, and North Dakota all having very strong teams.

I do think at the very least, Mankato will finish as the “best of the rest” in the WCHA, and face the distinct possibility of being ranked in the top 15 in the country and traveling on the road for the first round of the playoffs.

This will probably be the best chance the Mavericks are going to have at making a run at the big time. This is more than likely the last year for David Backes before he joins the St. Louis Blues. With all the effort the Mavericks have put into getting ready for this season, I think anything less than 6th place would be a disappointment.

Bruce's analysis:
I tend to agree with Chris. I think MSUM has as good a chance as anyone of finishing sixth, though I think anything higher than that might be overly optimistic. In choosing Mankato for sixth over UMD, I'm basically taking the proven talent MSUM possesses over the upside of UMD. At the end of the season, UMD might be the better team, but I expect the Mavericks to be a bit more consistent from start to finish. If Jutting can find someone to play goal well for his team, the Mavs could surprise a lot of people. One thing is certain: If David Backes doesn't have a season worthy of a Hobey Baker candidate, this team is sunk.

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