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Goals have been hard to come by for Bulldogs' Howard, but the NHL first-rounder is embracing the challenge

Isaac Howard, the UMD freshman wing and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, is attacking his first scoring slump like his the desire to be a better all-around player. He's welcoming it.

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Minnesota Duluth forward Isaac Howard (3) before playing against Denver at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — College is a time in a young person’s life where he or she often gets to experience new things, whether you’re an incoming freshman moving across the country to study engineering, or a first-round NHL draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, like Isaac Howard.

Howard, who put up 50 goals and 130 points a year ago with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, he’s experiencing a scoring slump for the first time in his young hockey career.

But he’s embracing it, just as any other college freshman would experiencing something else for the first time.

College hockey players play game in indoor arena
Minnesota Duluth forward Isaac Howard (3) skates with the puck against Arizona State at Amsoil Arena on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“It's been frustrating, but it's just good for my development and learning,” Howard said. “You're going to hit a cold patch in your in your career. I just have to be mentally strong throughout the season, show up every day and work hard. That's what I've done.”

It didn’t take Howard — an 18-year-old from Hudson, Wisconsin who went 31st overall in the 2022 NHL Draft — long to pick up his first college goal. That came 3:44 into the third period of a 3-2 overtime win against Arizona State in the season opener on Oct. 1, 2022, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.

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However, his next goal as a Bulldog didn’t come until 19 games — or 1,173 minutes, 55 seconds — later. That was 11:36 into the first period of a 6-1 loss at Omaha on Saturday.

Through 20 games, Howard has generated two goals and five assists for UMD. According to advanced statistics compiled by InStat, Howard has been credited with 33 scoring chances this season, though his expected goals total is just 4.5 .

college men play hockey
Minnesota Duluth forward Isaac Howard (3) skates against Denver defenseman Lucas Olvestad (11) at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“Production-wise has been challenging,” Howard said. “I don’t think anything has really clicked yet, which can be frustrating. But I think it’s good for me to learn that and go through tough times.”

Howard is the fourth first-round NHL draft pick to play for Scott Sandelin during the coach’s 23 seasons with the Bulldogs, joining Matt Niskanen (2005, No. 28, Dallas Stars), Dylan Olsen (2009, No. 28, Chicago Blackhawks), and Riley Tufte (2016, No. 25, Dallas Stars).

Niskanen and Olsen, both defensemen, only scored one goal their freshmen year. Tufte had nine goals, but the winger didn’t get his first until Jan. 13 of that season.

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Minnesota Duluth forward Riley Tufte (27) and Notre Dame forward Jake Pivonka (20) compete for the puck on Oct. 27, 2018, at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Sandelin said everyone wants to focus on the numbers, especially with first-rounders, but the Bulldogs coach is looking at other things, like what a player like Howard is doing — or not doing — to help the team be a better player and better contributor.

“He's had some good moments and he's had some freshman moments,” Sandelin said. “The thing I like most is every day he's coming to the rink and he's working. He’s got to get some of the fanciness out, get his feet moving. I’d like to see him skate a little bit more, handle the puck a little bit less, compete a little bit harder.”

Sandelin saw exactly that — skating more, handling the puck less — on Howard’s goal Saturday in Omaha. Howard got the puck from fellow freshman wing Luke Johnson just below the UMD blue line. Howard raced through the neutral zone and went wide, blowing past an Omaha defender, before turning toward the goal.

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Noticing the goalie was anticipating a pass — junior defenseman Wyatt Kaiser was available in the slot, though defended — Howard unleashed a quick shot from the bottom of the faceoff circle, beating the goalie past his blocker.

“It feels good,” Howard said Saturday of his goal. “I want to build off that and keep it rolling as more important games are coming up this season.”

‘Maybe not the transition I wanted’

Howard had 99 goals and over 200 points during the two seasons he played for the USA Hockey NTDP in international competitions and against older teams in the United States Hockey League and NCAA.

With just two goals and seven total points thus far, Howard said last week that this year is “maybe not the transition I wanted” going from the NTDP to college. However, it’s something he needs to go though if he wants to be more than just a scorer at the professional level, if he wants to become a player that is effective on both ends of the ice.

Isaac Howard shakes hands with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
Minnesota Duluth freshman wing Isaac Howard shakes hands with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after being selected as the No. 31 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft at Bell Centre on July 7, 2022, in Montreal, Quebec.
Eric Bolte / File / USA TODAY Sports

“I always want to be an offensive player, but even at the NHL level, you got to be able to play in your own end or you won’t be there for very long,” said Howard, who added that one of the reasons he chose UMD was to become a better 200-foot hockey player.

“That’s what this program is built off of, and that’s why I wanted to come in and develop my game,” he said. “I think I can continue to do that.”

From that first game on Oct. 1 against the Sun Devils to now, Howard said he feels like he’s become a stronger 200-foot player, one that’s not a liability on the ice. He said he feels he’s protecting the puck better and holding onto it longer. He’s better defensively, and becoming a stronger player down low, he said.

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The numbers say Howard is becoming a better defensive player, as well. While his minus-10 rating has him near the bottom of the Bulldogs stat chart for plus/minus, Howard has been minus-1 in UMD’s last seven games compared to his minus-7 rating in his first seven games of 2022-23.

His opponent’s expected goals when on ice number, as calculated by InStat, has also dropped to 14 total this year, which is seventh-most among UMD forwards.

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“It's a harder game, it's a harder game,” Sandelin said of the transition to college hockey. “What we've tried to impress upon him is that it's not just about the offense. If you want to keep getting better as a player and you want to move on to the next level, you still have to play both ends of the rink. I think he's done a decent job of that. I think he's grown into that. So hopefully now, maybe with that part, understanding that a little bit better, maybe the offense will come a little bit, too.”

‘Working his butt off’

When Howard popped in his second goal of the season Saturday in Omaha, UMD senior wing Quinn Olson said the bench was excited, and not just because it pulled UMD within a goal after falling behind 2-0 early. It lifted the team’s emotions, because Howard’s teammates are noticing the work he’s putting in each week.

college men play hockey
Bemidji State forward Mitchell Martan (14), Bemidji State defenseman Kyle Looft (7) and Minnesota Duluth forward Isaac Howard (3) chase the puck at Amsoil Arena on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“I've been super proud of him how he's worked through each day and continues to work on his skill set and find different ways to produce and be effective,” said UMD senior wing Luke Loheit prior to the series in Omaha. “He's been awesome. He's been working his butt off all year, and if he continues that, he's going to break through at some point.”

Of the three previous first-round draft picks that Sandelin coached, only Olsen failed to break through. He signed with the Chicago Blackhawks midway though his sophomore season after scoring just two goals as a Bulldog.

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Denver's Rhett Rakhshani losses his balance and falls to the ice as he battles with UMD's Matt Niskanen for the puck in the third period of their game at the DECC in October 2006.
Justin Hayworth / File / Duluth News Tribune

Niskanen , who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, put up nine goals and 22 assists for 31 points as a sophomore before signing with the Stars. Tufte led the Bulldogs in goals with 16 during his sophomore season, while also tallying 13 assists, when UMD won the first of back-to-back national championships in 2018.

Howard’s teammates, including one who won an NCAA title in 2019 with Tufte, are confident Howard will be an impact player for the Bulldogs.

“He's so young, but he's doing everything right,” said UMD fifth-year senior wing and captain Tanner Laderoute. “He's one of those guys that's out there (on the ice) early, out there late, in the gym, shooting right beside us. He's doing all the right things and he's going to be a hell of a player.”

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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