Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bulldogs Kick Off Season Full of Promise

There were pieces in place.

Just not enough of them.

A lack of depth up front led to a lack of even-strength scoring, and it was that offensive drought that went a long way toward dooming UMD to its first losing season in a while.

How long? UMD's last losing season before 2012-13 ended on March 15, 2008. Freshman defenseman Willie Raskob turned 13 the day before.

"Our standard is a lot higher," senior co-captain Joe Basaraba said. "We expect to win. Last season was tough. Looking at this season, I think the future's bright."

Now, the Bulldogs have regrouped and reloaded for the first season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Optimism is abound that this group can resume its winning ways.

"It's been a fun group," head coach Scott Sandelin, about to start his 14th year at the helm, said. "We've got some good skill and good depth. The freshmen are very exciting."

UMD fans should be excited to see the further development of sophomore forwards Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley, along with defenseman Andy Welinski. All three of them played huge minutes last season as freshmen, showed themselves more than capable of playing at this level, and return ready to become even bigger parts of this year's team.

They're joined by another strong crop of freshmen, led by the hometown hero, Dominic Toninato. The former Duluth East star tore up the United States Hockey League last season in Fargo, along with Force linemate and fellow UMD freshman Alex Iafallo. The two are joined -- for the start of the season, at least -- by junior Caleb Herbert, who returns to wing after spending nearly all of last season at center.

"The opportunity to keep Dominic and Alex together," Sandelin points out, "two guys that played on the same line and had their chemistry in Fargo, it's like having returning guys, even though they're freshmen.

"And it gives us the luxury to try Caleb at wing. I think he's really enjoying it. There's a ton of skill."

(Remember, Herbert played wing as a freshman and had a great season. He started slowly as a center last year and ended with a relatively unspectacular 25 goals.

UMD's improved depth at forward is undeniable. Cameranesi sat out the exhibition with a minor injury, which put Max Tardy in the middle of Farley and Basaraba. They produced two goals, Toninato scored twice, and freshman Kyle Osterberg was an ignitor on the third line with three points. Osterberg is drawing plenty of preseason praise from 14th-year head coach Sandelin.

"He's a very competitive player," Sandelin said. "He plays kind of a rat role. If people remember Luke Stauffacher, how Luke played, he was an agitator but had the skill to score goals. I think he (Kyle) is very similar to that. He's not going to back down. He's gonna get involved in the corners and all over the rink."

Yes, it was an exhibition against a Canadian college team that didn't stand much of a chance against UMD's skill level. But UMD has players across its lines who can do things, as opposed to last year's squad that was missing that key forward depth.

That improved forward depth should help in another area: The penalty kill. UMD has scored just two short-handed goals over the last two full seasons. The kill wasn't bad statistically last year, but it didn't create much offense.

This year, players like Cameranesi, Farley, Herbert, and others are going to help on the kill. The improved skill level on the PK could give UMD an offensive dimension there it hasn't had since Mike Connolly was roaming the ice at Amsoil Arena.

"We do have the skill to do that if we need a goal late," co-captain Adam Krause said. "Maybe make those power play 'D' a little lazy and flying a guy up (the rink)."

Defensively, Welinski will play on the top pair, but it's unknown who will join him after Drew Olson graduated. Willie Corrin, Derik Johnson, Luke McManus, and Tim Smith all return, and Raskob is joined in the group of newcomers by Wild draft pick Carson Soucy and former Eden Prairie state champion Dan Molenaar.

There are a lot of questions on the blue line, but there is also offensive ability that was missing last year outside of Welinski and the graduated Wade Bergman. Raskob and Soucy both showed a lot of willingness to pinch in the offensive zone during the exhibition. Don't be shocked if we see some growing pains while everyone finds their role in this group.

UMD returns all three goalies, and Matt McNeely, Aaron Crandall, and Alex Fons all started games last year. I think McNeely will get a chance to win the No. 1 job at some point, but I also don't think anyone is going to be in a rush to make that happen. Aaron Crandall has plenty of experience, and there's no reason he can't split duties -- or come close to a split -- while things play out.

"Last year, we were waiting for someone to take it and run with it," Sandelin said. "They need to understand that someone needs to want that and step up and try to grab it. I think it creates some good competition, but the sooner the better (on a No. 1 emerging)."

Sandelin believes that he needs the goaltending to "steal some games" on occasion while a young team grows in front of the net.

Michigan Tech is in town this weekend. It's funny, because even if you go back to Basaraba's freshman and seasons, this program was something seriously awful (4-30-4 that year). Not the case now. The Huskies are a legitimate contender in the new WCHA, one that might look weakened on paper but still has a few very good programs calling it home (Minnesota State was in the NCAAs last year and is a top ten team in the preseason this year, and Ferris State played for the national title in 2012). Settle in, because this will be a fun way to start the season.

"I think it's going to be really similar to what we see week in and week out in our league," Sandelin said. "They play very aggressive. They go hard to the net. They have some big bodies. It's going to be one of those grind it out kind of series. Not a lot of room on the rink."

Next week, the NCHC grind begins. And it'll be a heck of a grind. Just look at the preseason poll. UMD is picked sixth, and no matter what you think of that placement, Colorado College and Omaha are behind us. Neither is going to be an easy out for anyone. It might not have the glitz of the B1G, but the NCHC is a contender for the meaningless label of "toughest league in college hockey."

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