After years of success, are new-look Bulldogs rebuilding or reloading?A marvelous four-year run of sustained success has brought the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey program to new heights, highlighted by three Division I tournament appearances since 2009, a 95-50-21 record and an NCAA title in 2011.
A marvelous four-year run of sustained success has brought the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey program to new heights, highlighted by three Division I tournament appearances since 2009, a 95-50-21 record and an NCAA title in 2011.
The burning question as the 2012-13 season dawns: Can the Bulldogs maintain their edge?
UMD’s six seniors believe it’s entirely possible despite significant personnel losses from last season’s NCAA quarterfinal team. Coach Scott Sandelin, entering his 13th season, officially opened practice Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
“There’s a different makeup to our team, but I think we’re going to be good,” said senior winger Keegan Flaherty of Duluth, an assistant captain. “There’s a culture here now that we’ve worked very hard to create, and we’ve expected more and more of ourselves. It’s about staying positive and improving each day.”
After earning its first national title, UMD followed with a 25-10-6 record in 2011-12, which included a 17-game unbeaten streak (14-0-3), an 11-game road unbeaten streak (8-0-3) and eight weeks ranked No. 1, all program bests. The Bulldogs, picked to finish fifth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, placed second.
Yet four of the team’s top five scorers are gone, headed to professional hockey, led by 2012 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner, center Jack Connolly; All-American winger J.T. Brown, leaving with two years of eligibility remaining; and All-WCHA third team center Travis Oleksuk. The Bulldogs also lost senior goalie Kenny Reiter, who holds program career records for goals-against average (2.37) and save percentage (.912), and senior defensemen Brady Lamb and Scott Kishel.
“Those are big holes to fill, but to say the cupboard is bare would be unfair,” said captain Cody Danberg, returning from an injury that kept him out for all but last season’s opening game. “We’ve had good players come and go the last few years, and we’ve brought in other good players. Along the way our expectations have been raised and we don’t want to back down from there.
“Collectively, everyone is going to have to chip in a little more. We’re still important pieces to our team. We’re a younger team, but we’re excited.”
UMD’s defensive corps will be a strength and the forwards will require stars to emerge, while the goaltending is a question mark. A sizeable freshman class of nine will be looking to fit in.
The Bulldogs are ranked No. 12 and No. 13 in Division I in two major preseason polls, and have been picked fifth and sixth in two preseason WCHA polls. They’ll be playing a final season in the 12-team WCHA before joining the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2013-14.
“We’ve got some growing to do and I’ll have to be a little patient, which is usually not part of my vocabulary,” joked Sandelin. “Our older players have been successful and they’ll have to lead us, they’ll have to assume a lot of responsibilities. But I’m not asking those players to try to be any more than they are — they don’t need to change, just be hard-working, blue-collar players, and set a good example.
“We’ve got some inexperience in some spots, but we have depth, especially with our defensemen, and up front we have some very capable players. It will just take time to sort things out.”
Likely scorers are senior Mike Seidel, junior Joe Basaraba and sophomore Caleb Herbert. Herbert is the top returning scorer with 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points in 41 games as a freshman. Seidel had 17 goals last season.
Returning defensemen include seniors Drew Olson and Wade Bergman, junior Tim Smith and sophomore Chris Casto, all starters last season.
Junior goalie Aaron Crandall has played 20 games in two seasons and is the projected starter when UMD opens the season Friday at home against Ohio State. Yet he has plenty of competition from freshmen Matt McNeely (who played for the U.S. National Team Development Program and in the U.S. Hockey League) and Alex Fons (who played in the North American Hockey League.)
Among rookies, defenseman Andy Welinski of Duluth and forward Tony Cameranesi of Plymouth, Minn., both in the U.S. Hockey League last season, expect to see the most action.
“We’ve done a great job recruiting very good, very skilled players, and they’ll help,” said Olson, an assistant captain. “They’re joining a program that has built a winning belief over the last four years. It has instilled confidence in all of us. We have a good solid group that knows what it takes to win.”
UMD’s current four-year stretch has been matched only one other time in the program’s 51 Division I seasons — a 119-50-9 stretch from 1982-86 that also included three NCAA tournament appearances.