Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012-13 UMD Hockey Preview: Forwards

For being 5-8 and 160 pounds, Jack Connolly casts one hell of a shadow.

After four years, three All-American honors, three NCAA Tournament appearances, a national championship, a Hobey Baker Award, and 197 career points, Connolly has taken his talents to Sweden to play professionally in the Swedish Elite League.

On the surface, Connolly's departure -- coupled with the losses of offensive stars Travis Oleksuk and JT Brown -- would probably cripple UMD, dooming the Bulldogs to a second-division finish in this, the final season for them in the WCHA.

"Jack's a phenomenal player, makes the game easier for his linemates," said senior Mike Seidel, one of Connolly's linemates last season. Seidel talked about how he feels younger players will step up, even if it takes multiple players to fill that one void.

Oleksuk and Brown, the players that at least some national "pundits" felt were the only reason Connolly was able to pile up the points he did, also have moved on. Oleksuk is in the San Jose Sharks organization, while Brown is with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Seidel called all three "great two-way players," but one thing UMD didn't have last season, especially when it came to the penalty kill, was great depth.

Head coach Scott Sandelin -- who kicks off his 13th season Friday -- is hesitant to blame any one position for the PK foibles last season. UMD started poorly, as Minnesota went six-for-nine on the power play over a two-game sweep in Duluth in October. UMD's penalty kill was under 80 percent for the season, and combined with a power play that wasn't as good as the talent level suggests it should have been, the special teams were a bit of a disappointment.

In the 2010-11 championship season, UMD's special teams combined to out-score the opposition 57-38. Last year, the ratio swung the other way, as opponents outscored UMD on special teams 43-41. That meant the Bulldogs had to do damage at even strength, and they did, outscoring opponents 106-63.

(Going back a bit, the special teams ratio was 59-42 in UMD's favor in 2009-2010, 58-49 in 2008-2009, 24-23 in favor of UMD's opponents in 2007-2008, and 49-43 UMD in 2006-2007. In the 2007-2008 season, UMD scored 74 goals in 36 games, but still were barely outscored on special teams.)

Seidel will start the season paired with Caleb Herbert and Justin Crandall. The latter two have chemistry, and showed that a lot last season, especially early. While there is legitimate concern if Herbert is better as a center or a wing, a relative lack of depth at center has bolstered the decision to put the sophomore in the middle to start things out.

Connolly's other linemate for most of last season, junior Joe Basaraba, will skate with two of the more intriguing newcomers on this team, center Tony Camaranesi and winger Austin Farley. Camaranesi starred at Wayzata before playing a year in the USHL. He is a potentially dynamic center who can kill penalties and make plays, and he will be given every opportunity to make an impact on this team.

Farley, meanwhile, had himself a good run with the USHL's Fargo Force, where he made a name for himself by scoring big goals and not being afraid to flap his gums. UMD hasn't had a player of his ilk probably since Luke Stauffacher, and it's an edge to the game that's a lot of fun when it's on your team.

Guys like Max Tardy, Adam Krause, Jake Hendrickson, and Keegan Flaherty should be able to shoulder a little more of the offensive load. Sandelin said he'll likely run three power play lines at first, to gauge where the pieces best fit.

On the kill, which needs to be better, look for Crandall, sixth-year senior captain Cody Danberg, Krause, Flaherty, and Hendrickson to play big roles. As I mentioned, Camaranesi can also kill, giving Sandelin at least six forwards who can help in that area.

The depth of this group is good, even if the high-end talent isn't necessarily there like it was last year. The hope is that Sandelin can find more bodies to contribute, meaning his top players won't get worn down, as it looked they might have last year.

A big key is for guys to play their designated roles. As an example, it's unfair to expect Herbert to win faceoffs the way Oleksuk could, and it's unfair to think Camaranesi can make the kind of impact Connolly did right out of the gate. But if Sandelin can get them to play their roles well, there's no reason the team can't be good.

While there is concern about the center position and the ability of this team to win faceoffs without Oleksuk, UMD is strong on the wings. If the young guys can help boost the scoring, I don't doubt for a second that UMD will contend for home ice once again.

No comments: