Attention, Minnesota-Duluth defensemen. Your coach will be watching you closely this season.
Scott Sandelin missed working with blueliners, something he did regularly when he was an assistant coach at North Dakota. When Mark Strobel, who worked with the UMD defensemen, left Sandelin’s coaching staff for Nebraska-Omaha, it gave the third-year head coach his opportunity.
So if you have concerns with the Bulldogs’ defense this season, address them to the top man himself.
Insert a joke here about everyone having concerns about the UMD defense if you’d like. But Sandelin will take a young batch of players under his wing and try to help them improve individually and as a group.
He plans to make things simple for them, but, really, things are never simple when facing offenses of the WCHA’s caliber.
The Bulldogs allowed an average of 3.83 goals per game last season, second-worst in the league. That’s one of the things that has made Sandelin cringe in his first two seasons at UMD.
“What has transpired the first two years hasn’t been good,” Sandelin said. “There’s no single reason. When you talk about defense, you talk about six guys. We’ve had some breakdowns, we’ve made some mistakes. Some of it you can attribute to youth, but it seems like all the mistakes we made ended up in our net.
“We had some guys that were committed shift in and shift out, and we had some guys that weren’t. That is a major concern for me, and we are going to work extremely hard on getting better at that and making sure guys understand the importance of it. Hopefully, that’s going to lead to better results for us during the year.”
The Bulldogs will turn to junior Beau Geisler for experience on defense. Sandelin also wants him to take on more of an offensive role, something like 35-point scorer Andy Reierson had last season as a senior.
— Scott Sandelin, on his defense last year
But this year, Geisler and Jay Hardwick are the only juniors in the lineup, with no seniors. That kind of youth will provide UMD with its share of problems.
Sophomores Tim Hambly and Neil Petruic should be in the lineup regularly on defense. Freshmen Steve Czech and Ryan Geris could see a decent amount of playing time right away.
Above all, Sandelin wants his players to buy into a team-oriented defensive scheme.
“I’m not happy with giving up a lot of goals,” he said. “We did, and maybe part of that’s my fault. It’s not that we didn’t talk a lot about the defensive part, but you have to get guys to buy into both ends of the rink.”
Youth in the lineup won’t be limited to the defense, either. It’s a good bet that the Bulldogs’ offense will take on a younger look, but Sandelin isn’t expecting much from his freshmen this season — at least right away.
They’ll get their opportunities to play — which is an bonus because it creates competition for lineup spots — but with little on the line individually.
The Bulldogs list 11 forwards on their roster who are either freshmen or sophomores. But that includes T.J. Caig, who isn’t eligible to play until Dec. 28 because of a one-year penalty from the NCAA for involvement with a major junior team.
If UMD is going to make a run at a top-five finish, one of the team’s goals this season, it’ll need quality production from the older players.
Captain Jon Francisco scored 12 goals and 39 points last season, and he’ll probably need to equal or better those numbers to have his senior season considered a success. The Bulldogs also feature senior Drew Otten and Junior Lessard, who this season matches his name as a junior, as capable scorers.
But they’ll need consistent — there’s the key word — support from younger players like Tyler Brosz, Evan Schwabe, and maybe even newcomers like Marco Peluso.
“I certainly don’t want to change anything from an offensive standpoint; I want guys to have that freedom and creativity to try things up there,” Sandelin said. “I think we’ve got some guys that hopefully can provide some offense. I think we have more guys that can do that this year, but with some of them being young, you don’t know. It’s not like they’ve proven in this league that they’re consistent point-getters.”
There’s that word again — consistent. It also applies to the Bulldogs’ hopes for their goaltending. With Rob Anderson the only experienced goaltender, he’ll likely get most of the starts.
But, like the whole of the team, he had his good nights and his bad nights while sharing time with Adam Coole (he transferred to St. Cloud State) last season. He had a decent 9-11 record, but a 3.50 goals against and a save percentage of .890 didn’t get the job done every night.
“I certainly hope that’s an area that’s better than it was,” Sandelin said. “We went through stretches last year, and by no means was it entirely the goaltenders’ fault because we didn’t play very well at times in front of them. But you still need that big save here and there. When you see other teams get it, and when you need it you don’t, it’s kind of disheartening. I hope we get that. I can’t tell you we’re going to.”
That kind of uncertainty permeates the Bulldogs’ roster, as it does most of the teams that are fighting to get back in the middle of the WCHA pack. UMD’s hopes to emerge out of that group lie in a number of freshmen and sophomores playing bigger than their years.
“It’s working to get better every weekend and being consistent, not having a lot of peaks and valleys,” Sandelin said. “You have to stay as close to that consistency line as you can. If you do that, you can be a pretty good team in this league.”