2017-18 Bulldog hockey season preview: Fresh faces abound on UMD men's, women's teams
Fans of the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey teams -- whether you're of the casual variety or a hardcore supporter -- are going to want to invest in a program this season when visiting Amsoil Arena.
Fans of the Minnesota Duluth men’s and women’s hockey teams - whether you’re of the casual variety or a hardcore supporter - are going to want to invest in a program this season when visiting Amsoil Arena.
And for the first couple months, no one should be ashamed if they find themselves frequently asking the question, “Who's that?”
The rosters of both Bulldogs squads underwent significant changes during the offseason, giving the equipment staff more nameplates and numbers to replace than ever before. The men lost seven seniors to graduation and three more to the NHL. The women also graduated seven and their starting goaltender is on loan to the U.S. National Team for the upcoming Olympics.
That forced both squads to call up 10 freshmen each. For men’s coach Scott Sandelin, it’s the most freshmen he’s had on a roster since his sixth season at UMD in 2005-06 when he had 11. That freshmen class included future NHLers Jason Garrison, Mason Raymond and Matt Niskanen.
For the women - who also brought in two transfers - its the largest rookie class since the program’s inaugural season in 1999-2000 when they had 15 players considered freshmen.
“It’s definitely interesting. There is a lot of energy,” said women’s coach Maura Crowell, who had 11 total freshmen in her first two seasons at UMD. “They’re young, they’re fun, they’re eager and they want to work really hard and are so excited to be Bulldogs. So we have that going for us, which is great.”
Crowell, whose freshmen are all straight out of high school, has plenty of experience dealing with younger players through her work on the coaching staff of the U.S. Women’s Under-18 National Team.
She said it’s a balancing act with younger players. As a staff, UMD can’t get bogged down trying to teach the intricate details of every system. You don’t want to overwhelm rookies with too much too soon, Crowell said.
“There is a lot of natural ability out there and you don’t want to suck that out of them.” Crowell said. “Keep it loose, keep it creative, keep them doing some of the things they were brought on to do. I think that’s really important because they are not just robots. Systems will come and I’m sure we’ll make our fair share of mistakes like everybody else in the country. When you can have a positive upbeat environment with a lot of good energy, with confident kids, I think it can be really special.”
Read more: UMD men put their trust in Captain Kuhlman
Sandelin has freshmen ranging in ages from 18-21 years old. Four just graduated high school in the spring and two of those players are joining the Bulldogs straight out of the Minnesota State High School League with minimal junior hockey experience.
Entering his 18th season at UMD, Sandelin preached a similar balancing act as Crowell when dealing with NCAA rookies. He wants to simplify the game at the start without taking away the strengths that each new recruit brings to the ice.
He said he also needs to be patient, though the Hibbing native admitted, “I’m not a patient guy.”
“Our goal is to try and make them better and instill in them some confidence,” Sandelin said. “It’s OK to go out there and make mistakes. Through that, they’ll grow and our whole group will grow that way.”
Of Crowell’s 10 freshmen, seven are forwards, two are defensemen and one is a goaltender.
Ashton Bell, a right wing from Manitoba who was originally committed to North Dakota before the program was cut, is expected to step right in and make an immediate impact. Her international resume includes a pair of silver medals playing for Canada at the U-18 World Championship.
Outside of Bell, however, the UMD women will lean heavily on their returning players and veteran transfers, though Crowell said freshmen forwards such as Naomi Rogge from Eden Prairie, Minn., Anna Klein of Lakeville, Minn., and Allie Rodgers of Oswego, N.Y., could be impact players, too.
Sandelin - with four freshmen forwards, five defensemen and a goalie - can lean on his veterans up front, though Minnesota Wild draft pick Nick Swaney of Lakeville and Justin Richards of Columbus, Ohio, are expected to play major roles as freshmen.
On the back end, Sandelin doesn’t have the same luxury. Of the 10 players he lost from last year’s team that won an NCHC postseason title and played for a national title, five were starting defensemen.
That means the team will need much more than its two NHL draft picks - Dylan Samberg of Hermantown and Mikey Anderson of Roseville - to be impact freshmen on the blue line. Scott Perunovich of Hibbing, Matt Anderson of Shakopee and Louie Roehl of Eden Prairie all may be asked to play major minutes this season.
“On the back end, it’s much like when (Carson) Soucy and (Willie) Raskob came in (in 2013-14),” Sandelin said. “We threw them in there as young players and let them play through mistakes. We know they’re going to make those.”
Sandelin said the toughest aspect of college hockey to get across to freshmen is the importance of every game in the NCAA, specifically in the NCHC. Eight of Sandelin’s 10 freshmen played 50-plus game schedules a year ago in junior hockey, which leaves some room for error in title races. A college regular season is 34-36 games, with a 24-game league schedule in the NCHC.
Enrico Blasi, entering his 19th season as head coach at Miami, echoed Sandelin’s sentiment. Blasi said his team of 14 freshmen, six sophomores, three juniors and three seniors struggled with the grind of college hockey and the NCHC a year ago, resulting in just nine wins - the fewest ever for the RedHawks under Blasi.
“I wouldn’t be worried about Scott because he still has some high-end, top-two lines,” said Blasi, who at NCHC Media Day highly recommended never fielding a roster of 14 freshmen. “We didn’t have that. We had to develop that.”
Neither Bulldogs team is expected to fall as far as Miami did a year ago. In fact, both are predicted by many to flourish again.
For one, neither team is as unbalanced at Blasi’s RedHawks were a year ago. Crowell has seven seniors, two juniors and seven sophomores while Sandelin has six seniors, three juniors and eight sophomores.
Catherine Daoust, a UMD senior forward, said having 10 freshmen was different at first, but after the first week of practice those rookies were just other members of the team.
Jared Thomas, a senior center from Hermantown, said the same thing about all his new teammates, a few of whom have provided comic relief to the locker room.
“There are a couple kids in the group and that always freshens the mood, you just laugh at the dumb things they’ve done so far,” Thomas said. “They’re learning really quickly and maturing as the days go on. That’s good to see and by the end of this month or the end of October, you won’t even look at them as freshmen anymore. They’ll be right in the mix.”