Dean Talafous thinks the Gap is closing.
But don’t run out to grab trendy-yet-overpriced clothes. He’s not talking about that Gap.
The Alaska-Anchorage coach said the gap between his team and the league’s elite has dwindled. And, judging from last year’s results, he may be correct.
The Seawolves were poised to host a first-round league playoff series for the first time until the bottom fell out. So is this the year?
Talafous doesn’t expect the rest of the coaches to think so.
“We’ll probably be picked last again, but that’s OK,” said Talafous, entering his fifth year in Anchorage. “We expect that. I don’t know what we’d do if we weren’t. If they pick us ninth and not 10th, I’m not going to tell the team. I think I’m going to go in and tell them it was 10th anyway. They just expect it.”
Interesting motivational tools aside, the Seawolves show signs that the power structure of the WCHA is, indeed, shifting a bit their way. A trip to Anchorage used to be viewed as tough solely because of the trip to Anchorage; the opponent didn’t cause much of a concern for the top teams in the league.
But when the Seawolves beat Wisconsin 4-1 in Madison, Wis., last year, heads turned. Once heads don’t turn at a score like that, Talafous’ job may be complete.
Don’t expect that to happen just yet, though. The Seawolves could be a quality team this year, but they have a number of things to improve.
Namely, the offense and a disparity in talent. The only way to make up for the latter, Talafous said, is to keep working.
“Probably game in and game out, we’re not going to match up man for man talent-wise,” Talafous said. “I think we have enough talent, if we do all the other things right, to win hockey games. And one of the things you have to do right is you have to play in both ends of the rink.”
The offense has seen some progress, but still lags behind most of the rest of the league. The Seawolves can make up for a bit of that with a stifling defense, but to become one of the elite teams in the league, UAA needs to convert on its scoring chances.
But Talafous is happy with the way things have come along.
— Alaska-Anchorage head coach Dean Talafous
“We doubled our power-play output, we improved our overall goal output quite a bit, we outshot 70 percent of our opponents,” Talafous said of last year’s team. “Three years ago, we were ranked 60-something [in the nation], [were] outshot every game, scored about a goal a game playing 0-0 ties and couldn’t score on the power play. We play very aggressive now and we’ve changed our whole look.”
Anchorage’s top line again looks promising but needs help. An all-junior trio — Steve Cygan, Mike Scott and Gregg Zaporzan — could make opponents take notice, but they might not even stay together.
If the Seawolves don’t form a solid second line, the top line may be split apart to try to spark some offense and create balance.
“If we can somehow create another line that can score as often, it might make it more difficult on teams to just watch one line,” Talafous said. “The only other possibility would be to split them up if we’ve got a couple other guys ready to step up and create two lines that can create scoring opportunities when they’re on the ice and then have a third line that at times can pitch in, too. That way it makes it a little more difficult for other teams to throw a blanket over one line.
“We always know they play well together. Maybe there’s three other guys that can create a scoring line by themselves and we won’t have to split them up.”
Senior captain Reggie Simon isn’t much of a candidate to be a big scorer, but he has another role with the team.
“Reggie’s just kind of a leader, a plugger,” Talafous said. “I don’t consider him an offensive threat, although he’ll chip in. Reggie’s just our leader and an inspiration because he’s such a hard worker and gets it done with very marginal talent at this level. Reggie’s going to be somewhere in the lineup and be a valuable part of it.”
Goaltending could be an interesting position this year, especially since no one is guaranteed a thing at the start of the season.
Cory McEachran left the team in the offseason, marking the second year in a row a goaltender left the Seawolves after the season. That leaves Corey Strachan, who had a 9-10-1 record and a 2.89 goals against average last year while splitting time with McEachran.
But the job isn’t going to be his without a fight. The Seawolves brought in rookies Chris King and Kevin Reiter to compete for the job. Sophomore Kurt Johnson is also listed on the roster.
“I told [Strachan], ‘If you’re a better goaltender, you’re going to play. If you’re not better, I think someone else is going to play for you because the two we brought in are pretty good goaltenders,’” Talafous said. “It’s hard because you like kids but you also know what it takes to win in the WCHA. You challenge them to get better but you bring in competition.
“Corey’s very athletic. He had some good games last year and he had some very average. If he takes all that freshman experience and comes back more determined and more confident and more consistent, he can be a good goalie. But that was three ifs, so that’s why you bring in a guy like Chris King. He’s a very, very confident kid. So if Strachs comes back a more confident, more consistent goalie, I think he’s going to play some. But if he doesn’t, Chris King will take the job from him.”
The Anchorage defense isn’t in much question, especially with Matt Shasby back after a strong freshman season.
“He meant as much to our team as a freshman as any freshman in the league,” Talafous said. “I’m not saying he was the best freshman defenseman, I’m just saying what he did for us was significant. I don’t know if there was another freshman defenseman that did more for their team than Matt Shasby did for us. We expect him to come back as a sophomore and really be one of the better veteran defensemen in the league.”
The Seawolves are a candidate for this year’s “Toughest Self-Inflicted Start” award. By scheduling Michigan State, Michigan and Merrimack in the Johnson Nissan Classic at Sullivan Arena, UAA has nowhere to hide in the season opener.
The Seawolves open with Michigan State on Oct. 13 and play Michigan the next night.
“We want to play some of the teams our fans never see, and we want to have the premier matchups in the evening,” Talafous said. “I just believe if you play the best often enough, you’ll figure it out and one day, you’ll start beating the best.”