Friday, October 02, 2015

Great Expectations

Senior-laden teams that have NCAA Tournament experience and plenty of motivation to take the next step don't always work out.

Captain Andy Welinski and the 2015-16 Bulldogs are determined to take that next step and see this program back to the NCAA Frozen Four. Last year's bitter ending -- a 3-2 regional final loss to Boston University where a controversial penalty on Welinski led to the game-winning power play goal late -- is last year.

UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, now in his 16th season, says "We've moved on."

By faceoff time against Bemidji State next week, it will have been nearly 200 days since Evan Rodrigues' power-play goal ended UMD's season in Manchester, N.H. That's a long time to stew on something, but this was pretty painful. No one would be mad at anyone in the UMD room that admitted they've thought a lot about the game since it ended.

But there is a new season to be ready for. And if the preseason polls are any indication, UMD isn't the only team looking to do what Providence did in April. Far from it.

Ten teams got first-place votes in the preseason poll. That's a preseason poll record. This season could be just as competitive -- if not more so -- than last season. The NCHC sent six teams to last year's NCAA Tournament. All but two were gone before the Frozen Four, and the survivors were beaten in the semifinals by two Hockey East teams. If you're betting against the NCHC putting six in the tourney again this year, you're either a fool or someone who simply hates money.

Oh, and why are you betting on amateur sports, you degenerate?

Anyway, UMD received the second-most first place votes (Boston College got more), and now the second-ranked Bulldogs head into a season full of expectations. Can they fulfill said expectations?

I picked UMD to win the NCHC, to sum it up, because I feel the Bulldogs have the fewest holes of any team in the league. That said, the Bulldogs lack the dynamic, explosive high-end skill Denver has up front and Miami has on the blue line, and UMD probably doesn't have the defensive depth or potentially-explosive freshmen forwards North Dakota possesses. It's far from a slam-dunk, as just about everything is this time of year.

Let's take a look at this UMD team, its depth, the freshmen, and answer some questions that came in on Twitter (@bruceciskie).

Previously on the Blog
UMD Projected Depth Chart (updated below)
UMD TV/Radio Primer
Preseason NCHC Predictions


At forward, UMD lost captain Adam Krause and do-everything Justin Crandall. Krause was the heart and soul of the team, while Crandall was second in goals with 13, including a team-high 11 in conference play. The leadership both provided is going to be difficult to replace (we'll discuss leadership as the blog moves on).

Who's back? Well, almost everyone. The top line of Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, and Karson Kuhlman is back intact. Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo will start a third year of being linemates at UMD, joined by potentially dynamic freshman Adam Johnson. Jared Thomas, Kyle Osterberg, and Austyn Young played well on the third line when given that duty last year. And assistant cap'n CAL DECOWSKI!!!1!! (it's an old bit, sorry) centers the fourth line as things get going Sunday with an exhibition against Lakehead. He'll start with Sammy Spurrell and Charlie Sampair with him. But no one can rest on their laurels.

On the lines, Sandelin says "I think that's the one nice thing. We have a lot of our lines intact. Look at Tony's line, you've got two-thirds of Dom's (line) back together. Jared Thomas and Kyle Osterberg played together a lot in the second half. If you really look at it, there's not a lot of changes. We've moved some guys around a little bit. You know it's a mature group. That familiarity is going to pay off."

Sophomore Blake Young is joined by freshmen Billy Exell and Parker Mackay as those waiting in the wings for a chance to crack the lineup. Young showed some potential as a big forward last year, and Mackay was captain in Spruce Grove last year and is a late find the coaches like a good amount.

Projected preferred lines
Farley - Cameranesi - Kuhlman
Iafallo - Toninato - Johnson
Osterberg - Thomas - Young (Austyn)
Sampair - Decowski - Spurrell
Young (Blake) - Mackay - Exell


A note on the freshmen: They're all older. Johnson played two years in the USHL, as did Pionk. Mackay was a three-year junior player in Canada who is 21 years old already (as is Johnson, while Pionk is 20).

If you are a hardcore fan who reads recruiting blogs and draft stuff, you haven't seen these names. That's because their draft eligibility is long gone. They're officially "under the radar" prospects. But they won't be under the radar for long.

I do think Mackay will struggle to crack the lineup consistently, at least in the first half of the season (barring injuries, of course, since that's always the great equalizer). It's not that he isn't ready or can't keep up in practice. It's that UMD has 11 forwards that can boast pretty significant playing experience, and Blake Young got quite a bit of ice time in the second half before he was grounded by a lower-body injury late in the year. It's a numbers game for the "fifth line," but it's a solid group that Sandelin and staff will make sure is ready to play when called upon.

I do think UMD benefits from having older freshmen to sprinkle into a pretty experienced lineup. I'm not saying there won't be growing pains. I'm saying the likes of Johnson and Pionk, who -- let's not mince words -- will play and play a lot from the outset, should be more prepared to take on the roles they're penciled in for than a younger player might be. The transition should be more seamless, and I do think it's fair to expect pretty consistent play out of both.

"I'm hoping they (Johnson and Pionk) can be big impact players," Sandelin said. "Adam had two great years in Sioux City, as did Neal. I think they're talented players. I think they're very driven, competitive. Neal's probably one of the most competitive kids we're going to have. Parker's been a captain, a leader, another good character, hard worker. Billy's got speed and skill, won a championship with the (Minnesota) Wilderness."

Sandelin said he expects an immediate impact from Johnson and Pionk, and noted Mackay is ready to step in if needed.

(The counter to this argument is Kuhlman, who came in last year having turned 19 just before the season started, and had a pretty good year from start to finish. His scoring dipped somewhat late, but he never looked out of place, and he earned a lot of trust from the way he played and how hard he worked. Jack Eichel is also a counter to this argument, but Jack Eichel isn't walking through that door.)


Pionk appears penciled in to a spot in UMD's top four on the blue line. I wouldn't be surprised to see him play with senior cap'n Welinski. You might have assumed Welinski would turn pro, but he chose to come back.


"It was tough for me to come up with reasons where I felt I really needed to leave," Welinski said. "One, I wasn't ready, and two, I didn't necessarily want to leave before I had to."

The former Duluth East blue-liner took a few weeks after the season ended before making his decision official. Before that, we already knew he would captain the team if he came back. And when I talked to Welinski in the days after the season came to a close, he didn't sound at all like a guy who was ready to bolt.

Sandelin was pretty pleased to see Welinski return.

"Anytime you get an elite player to stay for four years, it's huge," Sandelin said. "He's not just a great player, he's a great kid and he's going to be a great leader for us."

Welinski is joined in the returning group by Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy. Raskob fought off a couple trips to the press box in the first half of the year to become one of the team's more reliable rearguards in teh second half. By the end of the year, Raskob was playing the best hockey of his UMD career. Sandelin notes he's lost some weight and is in the best shape he's been in so far.

"We talked at the end of the year and told him if he played like that (in the second half), he wouldn't have been sitting out," Sandelin cracked. "That shows he learned, and I think that's the most important thing. I think he's looking to build off what he did at the end of the year and most of the second half."

Soucy, a draft pick of the Wild who got to meet with team management while they were in Duluth this week (no, he didn't sign), is in line for a huge year. I do expect that he will play with Welinski late in close games, and if you track minutes played, Soucy and Welinski will be the top two defensemen on the team, followed (in some order) by Raskob and Pionk.

Soucy is a steady, physical presence who's improved his puck-handling and skating appreciably since he arrived on campus. He was practically a beanpole when he got here, and he's filled out a bit to add strength to his frame.

Four guys who have playing experience fill out the defensive corps. Senior Willie Corrin, juniors Brenden Kotyk and Dan Molenaar, and sophomore Nick McCormack all saw ice time last year, with Corrin and Kotyk getting the most of the four. Corrin emerged as another offensive threat, while Kotyk -- an underrated skater, especially for a guy his size -- has a lot of potential.

Molenaar and McCormack both played in the playoff series against Denver, as the Bulldogs dealt with injuries and illness up front. The team was already shorthanded with Spurrell's season-ending back surgery and Brett Boehm's mid-season departure (he's playing, by the way, at the University of Saskatchewan now). When Iafallo went down with mono and Krause got suspended for the playoff opener, it forced both Molenaar and McCormack to play forward.

Projected preferred pairings
Pionk - Welinski
Soucy - Raskob
Corrin - Kotyk
McCormack - Molenaar


It might be too simple to say this is Kasimir Kaskisuo's net.

But I believe it to be Kasimir Kaskisuo's net.

That doesn't mean Matt McNeely won't play. It just means Kaskisuo has earned the right to hold the job until he loses it.

"He kept us in a lot of games," Welinski said. "It's game-changing saves left and right that really got us some wins. Without a few of those wins, who knows if we would have made the NCAA Tournament? He lets everybody from the crease out be able to play their game."

I firmly believe McNeely will play at least once -- if not two or three times -- in October. It all depends on a lot of variables, including how he performs in practice. But Kaskisuo slumped a bit in January last year, and UMD slumped along with him. I can't say for sure that the now-sophomore wore down from starting 20 straight games. Wouldn't be fair to assume that.

But there was no question he played much better after taking that day off, and getting another one off two weeks later against Northern Michigan. He was great down the stretch and was a big reason for UMD's success.

Nick Deery joins the program as the third goalie. He did turn down a Division I opportunity at Mercyhurst because of academics, so it's not a kid who can't play. But he's the emergency option for now.


I tossed out an invite on Twitter to submit questions, something I'll do quite a bit throughout the season. Here are a few.

Brent: "Does Farley have a chance to make a splash?"

Absolutely. I think there's room on this team for a couple 15-20 goal scorers, and Farley is as good a candidate as any. Remember, while his offensive numbers might have tailed a bit the last two years, he did finish second on the team in points during NCHC games (5-12-17).

I see this team being similar to last year, in that scoring comes from all lines and there isn't necessarily a "go-to" guy. That said, Farley is among the guys -- Toninato, Iafallo, Cameranesi, Osterberg -- who could break out under the right circumstances. Even if the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts, Farley could have big numbers this year.

Biddy: "What's the biggest hole to fill from last year? I say Krause's leadership."

Agreed, actually.

"It's a pretty close group," Sandelin said. "Here's a chance for Andy to be captain of a team that has a chance to do something. Our guys are going to work very hard toward that.

"We have four (captains). We have a big eight-man senior class. We chose to go with four guys. When those guys were picked by their teammates, we knew there were other guys in there, based on what they've done before on other teams. You've got some juniors and sophomores. Everyone plays a big part."

My thought: Leadership is grown organically. You can't force it, and you can't just assume it exists in a player just because he might be a senior. Also, some of the bigger leaders in UMD's history weren't guys that were designated as captains. Sometimes, it's the "other guys" stepping up and speaking up that makes all the difference on a team.

I believe Welinski -- a high-character kid who is very well-respected in the room -- will be a good leader. He isn't necessarily the same personality as Krause, but he doesn't have to be to be effective.

Adam (not Don): "Who will stand out among fresh faces? Will Kas leave early if he has another great year and teams need Gtenders?"

I think we've already answered the freshmen question pretty effectively.

As far as Kaskisuo goes, remember there is only one No. 1 goalie on a team. It's hard to break through at the position in professional hockey. I think UMD is as well-positioned in goal as it's been in many years, but Kaskisuo has to show some improvement. I thought he got away from his fundamentals at times last year, and I'm anxious to see what he's able to do after working with goalie coach Brant Nicklin for a full year.

But I always wonder about top college goalies. They're usually destined for the AHL or -- perhaps even more likely -- the ECHL after they leave school. You simply can't overdevelop a goalie.

Look at Jimmy Howard, for example. After three great years at Maine (an obscene .956 save percentage in 22 games in 2003-04), Howard turned pro.

He made his NHL debut with four games in the 2005-06 season, then didn't get back until the 2007-08 season. By the time Howard became entrenched as the Red Wings' goalie, he had played 186 regular season and 30 playoff games for AHL Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick didn't play much in the minors, but he actually played 38 games in the ECHL after he left UMass in 2007.

More recently, Aaron Dell left North Dakota after the 2011-12 season. He actually played 44 games in the CHL before getting an ECHL opportunity. He has yet to play his 40th AHL game, but is considered a decent prospect with the San Jose Sharks organization.

My point? It isn't easy to break through in pro hockey as a goalie. For the vast majority of guys, it makes more sense to play three or four years of college before moving on. Unless Kaskisuo has a "Hobey Baker consideration" type of season (which I wouldn't complain about), I'd think he'll be a Bulldog again next year.


Lakehead is the opponent on Sunday, as UMD tunes up for next weekend's home-and-home against Bemidji State. The Thunderwolves are younger than usual this year, but do return fifth-year senior goalie Jeff Bosch, who had two very good games against UMD last year.

Bosch stopped 57 shots at Amsoil Arena in an October exhibition, then made 48 saves in UMD's overtime win Jan. 2 in Thunder Bay. In total, Bosch has played against the Bulldogs four times, making 151 saves on 164 shots for a sparkling .921 save percentage.

Lakehead is typically -- even as a young team -- older, because its players often have major junior experience. They don't appear as big as they've been in the past, but Bosch has always given UMD trouble, so if he plays the whole game, there's certainly a chance the Bulldogs will struggle, at least early in the game. UMD has the ability to dress extra players, over the normal allotment of 20, for exhibitions. Guessing Sandelin will give his freshmen all a chance to play. If the past is any indication, Kaskisuo and McNeely will split the game in goal.

It's a good chance to look at the special teams units against a live opponent. The power play was statistically improved last year over 2013-14, but was still a source of frustration at times. As for the penalty kill, it had its moments, and with the number of experienced players back, I expect improvement there, even though UMD lost valuable killers in Crandall and Krause to graduation. Kaskisuo certainly plays a role in that unit, too, but the experience UMD possesses up front should be a big boost to the kill, and special teams in general.

Official practice starts Saturday, then the game is Sunday, so it could take time to get people's feet wet.

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