Last season left the Colorado College Tigers with a wealth of things to ponder over the summer.
How did they get off to such a bad start? Why could they score eight goals one night and struggle to put in a couple the next?
And the biggest: Is it going to be the same way next season, only without one of their best scorers and playmakers, and the goaltender who held them together?
Then there was the talk of the best returning scorer not returning. A restless time in Colorado Springs, indeed.
But as that new season opens, things are not bleak, not by a long shot. Colorado College still is one of the better teams in the WCHA, and it still has a legitimate shot of being one of the handful of teams from the league to earn a spot in the national tournament.
Looking at the Tigers critically, however, you notice a lack of experience in goal without the graduated Jeff Sanger; a lot of young players after losing eight from last season’s team, including Mark Cullen, a first-team all-conference selection; and what could be perceived as a lack of depth up front.
With nine freshmen on this season’s roster, the Tigers’ challenge is to get everyone in a place in which they’re comfortable.
“Last year, we kind of knew who was going to be slotted where and had so much experience coming back,” Tigers coach Scott Owens said. “This year, it’s a whole another experience. It’s a little scary, but at the same time it’s kind of exciting, too, to see exactly what you’ve got to work with.”
Perhaps the best thing the Tigers’ offense has to work with is Peter Sejna. A 50-point scorer last season, he’s likely to be the catalyst of the offense again.
Owens admits he wasn’t completely convinced at the end of last season that Sejna, a third-team selection, was going to be back for his junior year. Owens also said that if Sejna has another outstanding season, he “wouldn’t be surprised” if his offensive star left early for the pros.
So CC will have to get the most out of him this season. It wouldn’t be completely fair to say as Sejna goes, so go the Tigers. Noah Clarke and Colin Stuart have the potential to score big, but Sejna has, with 29- and 26-goal seasons, shown his ability to be a top-notch offensive force.
“I’d like to think he can get 65 points [this] year,” Owens said. “He’ll probably be playing with young guys too and it’ll depend on how quickly they can adjust. But I don’t think that’s unreasonable. He had 26 goals and I’d be real happy if he could muster up 26 to 29 goals again and pick up a few more assists. If you’d ask him, he’d be shooting for 65 points or so.”
Whereas last year the Tigers had two players with 50 points (Sejna and Cullen), Sejna might be the only one to reach that number this season. To stay strong offensively, they’ll need not only big performances from Clarke and Stuart, but mid-range scoring from some other players. Candidates include Joe Cullen (21 points last season), Scott Polaski (16), and newcomers like Brett Sterling, Aaron Slattengren and Marty Sertich.
But there are two necessities for CC:
“I’d like to have more consistent scoring, a little more scoring from the defense, perhaps,” Owens said. “And also we need everybody contributing, including our seniors and freshmen.”
After nonconference games against Mass.-Lowell, Maine and Iona, the Tigers open the WCHA season with series at Minnesota-Duluth, and at home against Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage.
“It’s something we as a staff definitely used in our preseason preparation,” Owens said, “making sure that we are ready to go. … I wish, in hindsight, that we had gotten off to a better start in league play and had a chance to not take fourth place.”
They’ll also need some quality goaltending to get to the NCAA tournament for a third straight season. Sanger’s 2.29 goals against average and .909 save percentage helped keep the Tigers in those games last season where the offense wasn’t firing.
Curtis McElhinney gets the No. 1 spot this season because of his experience in nine games a year ago. But Owens will give Gian Baldrica (two games last season) and newcomer Kjell Bennemark some time as well.
As always with new goaltenders, it helps having few questions on defense. The Tigers were second in the league in overall scoring defense last season and have much of that group back.
Captain Tom Preissing has emerged as an offensive threat from the blue line and leads a group that could be one of the league’s best defenses this season. The depth appears solid, especially with newcomers Mark Stuart, Weston Tardy and Jesse Stokke appearing ready to step in right away.
Those youngsters — the number of them in particular — are the reason Owens said his team is merely hoping for home ice in the playoffs. At least, that’s the goal at the start of the season.
“If we can get on a good roll and stay healthy, who knows?” Owens said.