Where do you go from here? Nowhere but up, Tim Watters hopes.
The Michigan Tech coach endured his worst season in a four-year collegiate coaching career last year, going 4-34, the most losses in a season in college hockey history.
All the more reason to think there’s nowhere to go but up. The best thing for the Huskies this season is that they start with a clean slate. Zero and zero.
And the players are in good spirits, Watters said, ready to get the new season underway and put the past behind.
“The mood of the team is very positive and upbeat, which is very good at this time of year,” Watters said. “I feel as a coach that we’re a better team at this time this year than this time last year.”
But things are still shaky in Houghton, Mich. The outlook isn’t great, and the talent remains at about the same level, so don’t expect the Huskies to make a worst-to-first comeback this season. Success is measured in small steps right now at Tech.
But if you give Michigan Tech only one look this season, make sure it’s at Paul Cabana. The junior right winger made a good impression on WCHA officials during the league’s trip to Norway this summer.
He only managed 15 points (10 goals, five assists) last season, but may be able to take a bit of confidence from his development with the league team.
“Paul is one of our most skilled forwards,” Watters said. “He’s a right winger that skates well, shoots well and we’re going to look for him to create and provide some offense for us this year. The trip to Norway, I’d like to think, is going to be a big boost for his confidence. That’s going to be the key. I think if he has confidence early in the year and gets some early success, I think he’s going to surprise some people.”
The rest of the offense is a question. Sure, the Huskies have Jarrett Weinberger back after leading the team in scoring last year, but that was with 19 points.
— Michigan Tech head coach Tim Watters
That ranked 61st in the league in scoring, behind eight North Dakota players and six Wisconsin skaters. The prospects for this year are nearly as limited.
“We didn’t have a lot of people that put up numbers last year, but I like to think we have some solid, hard-working forwards like Jarrett Weinberger, Tab Lardner and Matt Ulwelling,” Watters said, “three senior forwards that are capable of putting some decent numbers up for us.”
Part of the problem the last few seasons may have been a lack of good scoring chances, or even the capability to create those chances.
But Watters hopes this, finally, might be the year the Huskies at least have the chance of putting the puck in the back of the net.
“I like to think we should be able to provide some more offensive opportunities,” he said. “Whether or not we capitalize remains to be seen. But I do think we’ll have a skill level that we haven’t had in recent years and a little bit more balance in our lineup.”
It’s almost certain the Huskies won’t feature five players with 20 goals. But if they can get a good number with 10, they’ll be able to win their share of games.
One of the bright spots this season could be the incoming freshmen. The Huskies have 10 recruits listed to compete for positions this season, and Watters is excited about their abilities.
“I think the incoming freshman class is probably the most talented group of freshmen since I’ve been here,” Watters said. “I believe if you mix them in with highly motivated returning players that we’re going to have more depth and balance up and down our lineup. The freshmen, most of them are players I feel can step in and contribute and help us turn things around.”
But turning things around is a continuous process after a 4-34 season. It has to happen in the weight room, in dry-land training, and finally, on the ice.
And for Michigan Tech, it will have to happen by eliminating the gap between goals against and goals for. The Huskies were last in the league in both — scoring 1.79 goals per game while allowing 4.82.
In other words, the Huskies lost by an average of three goals per game.
“Your goals against average is a reflection of your whole team, not just your defensemen,” Watters said. “Our whole team is going to have to take responsibility to be a little more conscientious on the defensive side of the puck.”
The defense, though, will have to make quite an improvement for the Huskies to make waves in the WCHA. Mat Snesrud was also a member of the WCHA team that went to Norway and will have to draw from his experience to lead the defense through what could be another challenging season.
“We need some stability in our own zone and we like to think he’s going to come back off that trip with some renewed enthusiasm and confidence,” Watters said. “We’re going to rely on him and Clint Way and Adrian Fure to stabilize the defensive zone somewhat.”
In goal, a battle appears to be brewing between returners Jason Moilanen and Brian Rogers and newcomer Wayne Russell, all of whom have a legitimate shot at being the No. 1 goalie. Rogers tore an abdominal muscle in training camp last season and was lost for most of the season, or there may have been a better competition.
Whatever happens to the Huskies this year, it is essential that they have leaders to guide them through it, and Watters knows that.
“Leadership on the hockey club is especially important this year,” Watters said. “We’re going to have to work extremely hard for everything we get, and nothing’s going to come easy for us. If we have our leaders working as hard off the ice and on the ice to show the whole team this, I think we’ll show substantial improvement.”
And that’s what you hope for.
Good luck. And that would be the message to any team that has to both open and close the conference season with North Dakota and Wisconsin, back to back.
The Huskies probably deserves a better fate than this, and the coaching staff may wish they could hit fast forward and go right to Oct. 27.
It’s a mirror image at the finish. On Feb. 23 and 24, the Huskies host the Sioux; on March 2 and 3, they’re at Wisconsin. The Huskies will probably have to get their points somewhere in between.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Watters said. “It’s going to give us a good measuring stick early in the season. Where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.”