Thursday, October 06, 2005

WCHA Preview - 7. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

Last year: 15-17-6, 11-13-4 WCHA (6th). Lost to North Dakota in WCHA first round.
Coach: Scott Sandelin, sixth season (85-97-22)
Top returnees
Forwards: Tim Stapleton, sr (19-20-39); Matt McKnight, soph (6-13-19); Justin Williams, sr (5-10-15); Brian McGregor, jr (3-7-10)
Defensemen: Steve Czech, sr (3-10-13); Travis Gawryletz, soph (4-1-5)
Goalies: Issac Reichmuth, sr (9-12-4, 3.05, .896); Josh Johnson, jr (6-5-2, 2.98, .900)
Top newcomers: Michael Gergen, F; Andrew Carroll, F; Mason Raymond, F; Nick Kemp, F; MacGregor Sharp, F; Matt Niskanen, D; Josh Meyers, D; Jason Garrison, D; Nate Ziegelmann, G (transfer/North Dakota)
Biggest losses: Evan Schwabe, F (19-26-45); Marco Peluso, F (19-19-38); Brett Hammond, F (7-17-24); Tim Hambly, D (5-15-20); Neil Petruic, D (1-8-9); Jay Rosehill, D (0-5-5)

Assess the 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
Perhaps no team struggled under the weight of high expectations like UMD did. The Bulldogs returned almost everyone from their Frozen Four team, but the team never came together like it had the year before. The offense sputtered at times, and the coaches had a terrible time finding the right line combinations. Even with a ton of experience on hand, the Dogs' defense struggled, especially against the top teams in the league. And when the defense did play well, the goalies didn't, as both Reichmuth and Johnson were plagued by soft goals throughout the season. Those soft goals came at the worst possible times, as they were often momentum-killers for UMD. The team didn't respond well to adversity for most of the season, culminating in two embarrassing losses to North Dakota that mercifully ended the season.

Assess the team's overall strengths:
It's a fresh start for UMD. Their strength lies in the youth. The coaching staff has brought in one of the best recruiting classes in school history. But they are not void of experience on this team. Seniors Stapleton and Williams will lead up front, and team captain Czech anchors the blue line. The Bulldogs will rely on Stapleton for a huge season. He has the potential to be one of the top scorers in the WCHA. Niskanen, Gergen, and Raymond were all selected in the first two rounds of this year's NHL Draft. Niskanen was one of the top high-school defensemen in Minnesota a year ago, as he led his team (Virginia/MIB) to its first-ever state tournament appearance. He is a steady defender who has dynamic offensive skills. Gergen and Raymond are tremendous offensive talents, as is Carroll. Garrison is a big defenseman who has some skills, but can also knock people around. Reichmuth should have a good season - he wasn't the 2004 Midwest Regional MVP by accident. If he doesn't play well, Ziegelmann and Johnson will get chances to claim the job.

Assess the team's overall weaknesses:
Inexperience. While these young players are certainly highly-touted, none of them have ever been through a WCHA season. The defensive group is especially young, with Czech and Gawryletz the only returning regulars now that Rosehill has moved on to the pros. With how shaky the goaltending was a year ago, Sandelin will need these guys to grow up in a hurry. After last season's disappointing run, the pressure is on this team to show that the fluke was last season and not the Frozen Four run. And that's a lot of pressure on a young team that will spend a lot of time, especially before Christmas, trying to find themselves.

Best-case scenario:
The young guys are as good (or better) than advertised. Stapleton finally breaks out and becomes the go-to guy. Czech continues to be the steady hand on defense, providing leadership and mentoring the young players. Reichmuth returns to 2003-2004 form. If all this happens, UMD could very easily finish in the top four or five in the WCHA. Just don't ask me which one of those teams would fall back to allow it to happen.

Realistic projection:
I've heard nothing but good things about these new players. But they've played as many games in the WCHA as I have. That's not a good thing. Asking them to play key roles on this team might be too much. You need consistency to win in this league, and I don't see all these young players being able to do that. UMD will be hurt by a slow start in league play, but will improve as the season goes on. If the young guys gel, and the coaches find the right line combos, UMD could be the most dangerous road team in the first round of the playoffs. But an NCAA trip appears out of reach.

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