It’s a new era for Minnesota State-Mankato, but one era may go out with another.
Longtime coach Don Brose finished his career at the end of last season with a fourth-place finish in the team’s first year as a member of the WCHA and with an appearance in the Final Five.
But Brose may have taken a lot of the success with him in seniors Aaron Fox, Tim Wolfe and Ryan Schrick, three of the top six scorers from last year’s team.
The cupboard isn’t necessarily bare for Troy Jutting’s first year as the chief of the Mavericks, but there appears to be less talent this year than last.
To be able to return anywhere near the finish of last season, when the Mavericks were probably the best team in the nation not to make the 12-team NCAA field, it’s going to take a lot of sparks on offense, a quick adjustment by the freshmen and for the returning players to remember what it took to get to that point last time.
“I think having the kids back from last year’s team that have been put in those situations will definitely help us in terms of leadership and what it takes to succeed at that level,” Jutting said. “And I think freshmen, as with all freshmen, they have to find their way a little bit and understand what it takes to succeed at the college level.
“No matter where you played or who you are, 99 percent of the time there’s an adjustment when you get into college hockey. We’re going to depend on our older guys to show the way and hope that our freshmen come along in a hurry and understand what it takes to be successful.”
Mankato has a proud tradition in hockey, mostly in the Division II ranks, but still one that has lasted longer than some imagine. The history of the program is something that surely went into Jutting’s hiring as Brose’s successor.
Jutting worked as an assistant for Brose for 10 years and played for him before that. And he knows how to continue the tradition.
“I was very fortunate to work for Don for 10 years in that he allowed us a lot of room and gave us a lot of responsibilities,” Jutting said. “He’s an educator and part of that was preparing us to be able to take the next step, also. I’m thankful for the opportunity I had with him because he was a great teacher and provided a lot of opportunities for me to make decisions and have responsibilities. I guess until you’re actually put in that situation and you’re under the gun, you don’t know how it will be. “I also played for Don for four years in the early ’80s and was a part of that history and tradition and there’s no question we will try to continue to build upon that. The goals of the program haven’t changed. We want to be a successful program, we want to be a program that continues to head in the right direction.
“And I believe tradition and history play a big part in a lot of programs, in the success they have.”
This year’s Mavericks club has questions up front. Without Fox, Wolfe and Schrick, the emphasis gets placed on T.J. Guidarelli, Jesse Rooney and Peter Holoien, the top three returning scorers.
“Those kids are going to have to shoulder a bigger offensive load this year, there’s no question about it,” Jutting said. “They all have made progress throughout their careers and I see them taking another step this year in that direction. We lost some kids who produced very well for us. I think in terms of depth, I don’t think we have a 55-point scorer, but I think we have five or six kids that have the ability to score 25, 30 points this year.”
And Jutting hopes names like Tyler Baines, Ryan Severson, Jerry Cunningham and others will become well-known around the league. If they are, the offense probably did its job. If Guidarelli, Rooney and Holoien are the only ones who provide scoring, the offense will likely stall.
If the Mavericks’ defense can provide the effort that kept opponents to three goals a game, they should do fine in the WCHA. And with five defensemen returning, that wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Jutting said he would be more than happy with status quo on the blue line.
“We feel comfortable with the kids we have back there,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have the flashy defenseman, but that hasn’t been our style. Our defensemen play defense and if they can contribute offensively that’s great. But their first responsibility is to their own end and to keeping the puck out of the net.”
— MSU-Mankato head coach Troy Jutting
There’s little question who the leader of the defense is. Ben Christopherson, a senior, is one of the places Jutting will look for experience and leadership on the back lines.
“He’s been a very good player for us for three years,” Jutting said. “He’s had a good summer, he worked hard. We expect quite a bit from Benny.”
Then there’s Andy Hedlund, a junior who scored six points as a sophomore in a lesser role.
“He had a good freshman and sophomore season for us, where maybe he wasn’t counted on to be one of the top two, three guys,” Jutting said. “This year, he will be and I think he’s ready for that.”
In a league with quality goaltending nearly across the board, it’s essential to have someone worthy of the No. 1 moniker. Eric Pateman has been a workhorse for the Mavericks (he started 38 of 39 games last season) and is approaching the status of the better-known goaltenders in the league.
“One of his strong characteristics is Eric can play every night,” Jutting said. “He’s done that for us for two years; I see that continuing.”
But with a goaltender playing such a large number of games, one has to be concerned about burnout. Another concern is the power play, which finished last season eighth in the league at 15.3 percent.
“We definitely have to improve on the power play,” Jutting said. “If we want to get to the level we’d like to see ourselves get to, our power play definitely needs to improve this year. We did lose Aaron [Fox], who’s great power-play player, but we’ve got some kids that can get the job done and maybe we need to simplify things a little bit and make situations a little bit easier to understand.”
Jutting knows well the significance of the early part of the season. The Mavericks start with series against Colorado College, Wisconsin and North Dakota before playing Michigan Tech, Denver and Alaska-Anchorage.
Mankato then goes on an eight-game break from the league, nine if you include an exhibition against the Russian Red Army.
“It’ll all depend on how those first 10, 12, 14 games go in the beginning of the season,” Jutting said. “We’re going to be a younger team this year, we did lose a lot of experience, so those first four or five weekends are going to be a learning experience for our team. After we’ve had a chance to see how those go, we may have to make some adjustments.
“That middle part of the year will give us a chance either to step back and say ‘Here’s some of the things we need to do to compete for the top half of the league,’ or we feel pretty good where we’re at [and] we just need to keep improving on the things we’re doing.”