Troy Jutting knows well that the college hockey season doesn’t open with the drop of the puck in October, and it doesn’t start with practice in September.
It starts the day after the previous season ends because you can’t take summers off in the collegiate game anymore. Your opponents are going to come back stronger and you have to follow suit.
That’s why the Minnesota State-Mankato coach is excited for this season to begin. He’s seen his players come back in great shape after spending the summer in the weight room, which could give them a bit of an edge in the middle of the WCHA pack.
“The kids worked real hard and for the most part have come back in better shape,” said Jutting, who starts his second year as the Mavericks’ head coach. “I’m excited about the attitude of the kids and their work ethic, but in this league a lot of times it’s the experience that comes through in the end.”
In that, though, the Mavs have quite a bit to prove. They’ll start the season with 18 of their 26 roster spots filled by freshmen and sophomores.
There are some skilled players on the roster, but not as many proven ones as other teams feature.
But there are two players in particular the Mavs can, and will have to, count on — Tim Jackman and Eric Pateman.
Jackman made his debut last season with 11 goals and 14 assists. It was impressive enough that the NHL took notice. He became the first Mavericks player to be drafted while at school when Columbus selected him with the 38th overall pick in June.
He has followed that with a productive summer, Jutting said, and will be counted on to drive the offense.
“Timmy has goals of playing in the National Hockey League one day,” Jutting said. “Tim’s a level-headed kid. It was nice for him to get drafted, but I think Tim realizes that’s just a step along the way, and that he has to keep improving and performing in order for him to reach that level. He’s worked extremely hard this summer, and he’s back in great shape.”
In his fourth season, Pateman seeks to regain some of the form he had in his second year. That year, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound goaltender was the backbone of a team that made the Final Five and just missed the NCAA tournament.
His statistics slipped last season, though, with a 3.44 goals against average and a .894 save percentage.
Pateman needs to find the form that will once again allow him to steal some games and stay healthy. He missed three weeks last season with a back injury.
“He did a lot of things to strengthen his back,” Jutting said. “He’s focused and ready to go this year, so we’re hoping for big things from Eric again.”
But after Jackman and Pateman and a handful of offensive players, the Mavericks field players who need to prove they can play in the WCHA.
Nowhere does that ring louder than on defense, where Mankato will have to stop the shots from getting to Pateman. The goaltender can be solid, but not when he’s seeing 30-plus shots every game.
“We should be a little more experienced back there,” Jutting said. “I think Andy Hedlund is ready to have a great year for us as a defensive defenseman.
“With Joe Bourne and Peter Runkel now being juniors, we’re going to rely on those kids heavily to step up their game and make sure that we limit the shots on net.”
Sophomores Aaron Forsythe, Nate Metcalf and Matt Paluczak will get more work this season on the blue line.
There’s less concern at forward, where, in addition to Jackman, Nate Mauer and Jerry Cunningham return. Mauer, a senior, scored 14 goals last season to make his name as a goalscorer for the Mavs. Cunningham had 19 assists and looks to be more of a playmaker.
Jutting also noted he’s counting on more scoring from B.J. Abel, who had 11 goals and 23 points last year.
But the coach knows he has his work cut out for him early, with plenty of young players on offense.
“It’s going to be a little bit difficult, at least initially, because we have so many young kids and we have to see where they all fit in,” Jutting said. “The first couple of weeks, we’re going to have some decisions to make and see where kids fit and just how we feel we need to play in order to be effective.”
He pointed to Grant Stevenson, a 6-foot, 180-pounder from Grande Prairie of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, and Jeff Marler, one of the leading scorers in Canada’s junior system, for offensive support.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids, but when I say young kids, a lot of them are 20 years old,” Jutting said. “We’ll have to see how they adjust to the next level. It’s a big step, and some kids make it and some kids struggle with it. Hopefully, these kids will make it in a fairly quick hurry.”
The Recruits: A Smoother Road
It’s a little easier, Jutting said, to walk into an arena and say you’re from Minnesota State-Mankato now than in the years before the Mavericks joined the WCHA.
“I think the league itself gives you instant credibility,” he said. “Having a winning record two years in a row after joining the league has helped us some, too.
“And with kids like Tim Jackman and [incoming recruit] Jake Brenk getting drafted, that adds a little bit more credibility to it. Being a member of the league is obviously a huge thing in recruiting.”
Brenk comes to Mankato straight from high school in Breck, Minn.
The Schedule: Four to Remember
In one of the oddest quirks of WCHA scheduling in recent memory, Mankato plays four straight games against North Dakota. Although there is a weekend off for both teams between the games, those have the potential to be barnburners, considering Mankato’s favorable track record against the Sioux.
“I don’t know how they come about, but I don’t worry about that stuff,” Jutting said about the anomaly of scheduling. “Those are games we’re going to have to play at some point in time. It’ll be four games we better be ready for, or we’re going to be in trouble.”
The Mavericks got their first WCHA playoff victory over the Sioux in 1999, before they were even a full-time member of the league.