You might remember the fun we had here last March, when a disappointing UMD men's hockey season came to a merciful close, and I tried to play the blame game to figure out who was most at fault for the letdown. You can read the piece here (just scroll down past the baseball previews - it's near the bottom of the page).
No blame game this year. While 11 wins was a letdown for sure, there is a lot to be excited about.
The unofficial head of the unofficial WCHA/college hockey blog ring, Chris Dilks (an okay guy for a Minnesota State fan with Michigan ties), has requested that I take part, along with a bunch of other bloggers, in a roundtable discussion of the college season. He sent along seven questions. I'll do my best not to "Joe Morgan" any of them and actually answer them instead. Feel free to throw out some thoughts on UMD's season and future, though I'm sure it won't be as much fun as the discussion last year.
Give a brief summary of your team's season
UMD finished 11-25-4 overall, and 6-19-3 in the WCHA (ninth place). Expectations were low because of the 11 freshmen and the heavy personnel losses from the year before, and the start of the season was rough, with four straight losses by a combined score of 18-5. The Bulldogs showed some life in the next few weeks, going 7-5-2 in their next 14 games, including a win over eventual WCHA regular-season champion Minnesota, a win at Colorado College (after a 7-2 loss the previous night), and the program's first two overtime wins since November of 2003.
After a Denver sweep of UMD in mid-December, the Bulldogs placed second in the Florida College Classic in late December. UMD beat eventual Frozen Four participant Maine up and down the ice in a 4-1 semifinal victory, then lost to NCAA quarterfinalist Cornell in a shootout after a 1-1 tie in the title game.
Rock bottom happened shortly after the Florida trip. With expectations rising after the Florida performance, UMD lost their first seven games after the Florida trip, suffering sweeps against Michigan Tech, St. Cloud State, and Minnesota State. Wisconsin whipped UMD 7-2 on Brett Hull Night at the DECC in early February, but UMD came back the next night with a resounding 4-1 win. It would be UMD's last regular-season win, as they lost their last six games before the WCHA playoffs (against North Dakota, Colorado College, and Minnesota) by a combined score of 28-3.
With the late-season skid (1-13 after the Florida trip) as a backdrop, UMD flew to Denver for a first-round WCHA playoff series against the two-time defending national champion Pioneers. Denver needed to win the series to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble. And I think we all know what happened. If you forgot, I put together pseudo-diary of the big weekend. UMD outplayed Denver, in my view, in all three games, and they deserved to win the series in two games. Thankfully, justice was served after Jon Campion's Saturday Screwjob on Saturday night, as UMD blew Denver out of the building on Sunday night. With the win, UMD was off to the Final Five after the second-biggest playoff upset in WCHA history.
The run ended in the play-in game, as St. Cloud State beat UMD 5-1 on their way to the tournament championship game.
What were your thoughts on how your team's season ended?
It was a great show of promise for the future by the young Bulldogs. While the expectations weren't high, people had to believe that the team was going to do more than they did in the second half of the season. The way the season ended was great fun, with the upset win over Denver and the trip to St. Paul.
The team certainly peaked at the right time, and they may have found a goaltender. Sophomore Nate Ziegelmann got the start March 4 at Minnesota, following a 7-0 loss the night before. Ziegelmann made the trip after backup goalie Josh Johnson suffered a leg injury in practice on Friday morning. Otherwise, Johnson would have started the Saturday game. With Ziegelmann as the stopper, UMD had Minnesota holding on to a 1-0 lead until the game's final minute, when Hobey finalist Ryan Potulny scored an empty-net goal, his 397th goal of the season. Ziegelmann got the starts in Denver, and he was nothing short of outstanding in the three-game series. He got quality help in front of him, and the offense chipped in some huge goals.
With the improvement UMD showed in their final five games of the season, fans got a chance to see what the true potential of this group is. And the freshmen who worked so hard throughout the season finally got some rewards for their hard work and dedication. They also learned what it takes to win in the WCHA, a lesson that will only help them in the next couple years.
What offseason improvements can your team make to be better next year?
With so many young players, there is still work to be done. A number of the 2006-2007 sophomores have to get stronger. To name names, I wouldn't mind seeing a few more pounds on guys like Mason Raymond, Michael Gergen, Josh Meyers, and MacGregor Sharp. I expect a number of the guys to stay in town and work out, both on and off the ice.
There are no issues with the work ethic of these young guys, and they will continue to set a good example for what is expected of the players in this program.
Gergen and Raymond need to keep working hard to develop their goal-scoring skills. For UMD to really improve in 2006-2007, they need these guys to step up and score more consistently.
Ziegelmann and incoming freshman Alex Stalock should combine to make a pretty good tandem of goaltenders, and the hope right now is that defenseman Ryan Geris, who missed most of 2004-2005 and all of 2005-2006 with post-concussion issues, will be able to return for his senior season. If Geris can play, he's likely the team captain and will be their steadiest defenseman. He'd be a great leader for the entire group, as he stayed involved during his time away from the game by serving as a volunteer assistant. Geris gained great experience in that role, and it would only add to his ability on the ice if he can make a safe return to hockey.
Are there any players on your team that might leave for the pros during the offseason?
This will probably be more of a worry next season, as Raymond and Gergen, along with defenseman Matt Niskanen (first-round pick), may be candidates to depart. This year, I'm not concerned about anyone leaving the program to go play pro hockey, though I guess anything is possible.
Which player(s) will be expected to carry the load for your team next season?
Sophomores Raymond and Gergen, along with sophomore Nick Kemp, will be big scorers. Meyers is an elite defenseman in the making, and Niskanen is a big-time talent. Stalock has earned rave reviews from basically everyone who's ever seen him play goal, and he should make an impact as a freshman. Also, look out for freshman forward Mitch Ryan, who has turned a slow start into a huge season in the USHL.
The upperclassmen aren't strong in numbers, and they probably won't be strong on the ice next year. Senior-to-be Jeff McFarland works hard every time he steps on the ice, but he's not much of an offensive threat. Bryan McGregor has a ton of talent, and he started to put things together late last season, though his numbers didn't necessarily reflect that. I'm not sure what will happen to Mike Curry. His only two goals last season came in October at Michigan Tech, and he was prone to taking bad penalties and playing a bit out of control at times. He has talent, but he's been a bit of a disappointment so far at UMD. We'll see if he can turn it around.
Which player will be most vital to your team's success next season?
This almost sounds silly, but the answer might be a freshman. UMD had serious struggles with defense and goaltending throughout much of 2005-2006, and even though Stalock has never played a WCHA game, people are already talking about him being a star in the league. If Stalock can respond to the pressure, UMD could surprise some people. However, if Stalock isn't quite ready, and Ziegelmann struggles, UMD is in trouble.
They can score as many goals as they want, but as we saw with the Gophers this year, you won't win consistently in March without good defense and quality goaltending.
What is your expectation for your team next season?
This is still going to be a junior/senior-dominated league for the most part. With that in mind, UMD might still be a year away from being a bona fide contender in the WCHA. Unless guys like McGregor and Curry step up and the young defense is boosted by the Geris' return to the blue line, UMD will probably settle for a middle-of-the-pack season in the WCHA.
If UMD can catch a break and end up with a decent non-conference schedule (Bemidji State and Northern Michigan should be pretty good - the NMU series isn't set in stone yet - while UMD also gets to play in Ohio State's Christmas tournament), they should have the power ratings on their side. I can see the Bulldogs finishing in the top five of the WCHA and earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. I think the worst-case scenario has UMD finishing sixth or seventh and struggling to make the Final Five, which might increase the negativity in this town surrounding the program and head coach Scott Sandelin, who doesn't deserve to have to listen to some of the crap I've heard around town regarding his program.