When Justin Faulk and Mike Montgomery -- among others -- departed from UMD after helping the Bulldogs to the 2011 NCAA title, they left some question marks behind.
UMD had bodies on defense last season, but no one knew going in how it was going to play out. While there were some bright spots, the Bulldogs also had their share of struggles against forecheck pressure at times, and the defense had moments where it seemed unable to clear the puck out of the UMD zone.
Of course, things could have been much worse if undrafted freshman Chris Casto hadn't played as well as he did out of the gate. Two goals and 13 points in 41 games isn't a terribly impressive offensive haul, but Casto displayed a presence in the defensive zone that indicated he will blossom into a very good defenseman.
The now-sophomore is now a big key to the 2012-13 Bulldog team, one that should sport improved play and depth along the blue line.
Also returning is senior Wade Bergman, who played a ton of minutes, mainly five-on-five and on the penalty kill, last season. Bergman has 34 points in 107 career games, but scored some big goals over his first three seasons at UMD. Senior Drew Olson -- an assistant captain -- has played in 109 games, and while his offensive numbers aren't gaudy, he's probably the best skater UMD has among its defensemen. He's accomplished enough in that area that when forward depth has lacked in recent years, there's been talk of Olson moving to forward. It hasn't happened for a variety of reasons, but it's not like Olson would be embarrassed at the position.
Junior Tim Smith from Superior returns after playing in 22 games last season. Sophomores Luke McManus (third-year sophomore) and Derik Johnson (true sophomore) are also back. McManus got in 14 games last season, and probably saved his best hockey for the end, as he acquitted himself very nicely at the regional. Johnson played in 11 games and scored a goal and five points.
Casto, Bergman, and Olson will play big roles, and McManus showed in March that he's probably ready for increased playing time, too.
And I haven't talked about one of the WCHA's best freshmen yet.
Duluth native Andy Welinski left Duluth East early, opting to play for Green Bay of the USHL. He became one of the best in the league over his two seasons with the Gamblers. Welinski piled up 15 goals and 37 points last season while posting a plus-35 for the league's best team. While you never really know when the light will come for a freshman, the Anaheim Ducks' property seems poised to make an immediate impact at UMD. Welinski will probably be running the UMD power play very soon, perhaps as early as Friday.
The other freshman is Willie Corrin, another USHL product out of International Falls. Corrin has also benefited from two years in the USHL, his time spent with Fargo. He played 111 games there, tallying 36 points. He has puck-moving skill, but is also a tough defensive player.
UMD has eight defensemen on the roster, which means there will be plenty of competition for playing time. If I had to guess, I'd say that Welinski, Casto, Bergman, and Olson will -- in some way or another -- comprise the top four. The others will be left to compete for ice time, with McManus probably a nose ahead of the others heading into the season.
Don't look for Sandelin to decide on a rigid top six very early in the season. Even during last year's 17-game unbeaten streak, he rotated guys in and out of the lineup, and made sure everyone had a chance to travel on a road trip here and there. The top five -- Bergman, Casto, Olson, Scott Kishel, and Brady Lamb -- was largely unchanged for most of the season, but the other guys were given plenty of opportunity to play so they could stay fresh.
I doubt the philosophy will change this season. It just doesn't make any sense to staple-gun players to the press box early in the season. Then, when injuries happen, UMD would be stuck with players who aren't in any kind of groove on the ice because they never play.
This group has some snarl, some puck-moving ability, and Welinski brings some high-end offensive potential. It might not be getting the press that Minnesota's defensive group is getting, but UMD will be improved defensively this season. That improvement will be a big key to the upcoming season.