The cyclical nature of mid-major college hockey programs might be coming around to disrupt St. Cloud State’s standing as one of the recent fixtures in the NCAA tournament.
Only Michigan and Maine have longer current streaks in the NCAA field, but the Huskies’ four-year run is in danger unless they can:
Coach Craig Dahl put the dreaded “rebuilding phase” tag on his team, but it’s unclear how long that phase is expected to last. The Huskies are expecting to have some bumps right out of the gate this season, but will they be able to come around in time to make a run at the national tournament?
Or will this be the start of a longer stretch of sub-par seasons for St. Cloud?
“At a place like St. Cloud, much like many other places — unless you’re a Big Ten school or something like that — it seems like everybody’s a little cyclical,” Dahl said. “Even Boston University and Boston College and North Dakota. It’s kind of the lay of the land, so to speak. But certainly it’s going to be something we’re not going to be used to, if it indeed turns out that way.”
At its worst, this Huskies team could have no one to lead the offense, an erratic defense and many nights of inconsistent play. The season outlook may appear dour — and it may be — but it could turn around on a few key names.
It’s going to have to start on offense, where last season a number of players didn’t live up to the expectations they set for themselves in the 2001-02 season. Peter Szabo dipped from 32 points in his freshman season. The same can be said for Mike Doyle — 32 points to 21.
That was one of the areas pointed out in explaining last season’s shortfall, and it’s a hot topic this season. Will they get back to the numbers they put up two seasons ago? Better still, can the Huskies survive if they don’t?
Matt Hendricks is the top returning scorer. He put up 18 goals and 36 points as a junior last season, then spent some time deciding whether to return to school or turn pro. That he’s back in school indicates he has some things to work on before entering the pro ranks.
Joe Jensen had 18 points in his freshman season and likely will be called upon in a greater role this season.
“Some of those guys are going to be asked to carry the mail,” Dahl said. “Whether they can or can’t is going to be the biggest question mark surrounding our team. I think our defense is going to be OK and our goaltending certainly is going to be fine. But that’s going to be the biggest thing: Who’s going to score goals?”
Dahl said he’s also looking for some scoring from players who proved they could do so in juniors. The transition to the college game has been the hard part for sophomores Brian McCormack and Brock Hooton, but now is the time for them to show they’re ready for big-time college hockey.
“You can’t expect your freshmen to do it, that’s for sure,” Dahl said. “Those are the guys that really have to get it done. If they don’t, there isn’t anybody else that you can say is going to score big.”
The possible shortcomings for an offense that lost three of its top four scorers of a year ago (Joe Motzko, Jon Cullen and Ryan Malone) put an emphasis on a defense that lost two of its best players (Derek Eastman and Jeff Finger, who decided to forgo his senior season).
The loss of Finger removes some of the nastiness that the Huskies’ defense has come to be known for. But sophomore Tim Conboy is cut from the same mold as Finger, Dahl said, and sophomore T.J. McElroy has shown a tough streak.
Dahl said he’s not concerned with the defense because of the return of players like seniors Ryan LaMere and Colin Peters. Newcomer Justin Fletcher, who was third among United States Hockey League defensemen with 43 points and was a league-best plus-34 last season for Sioux City, should see playing time — as will Casey Borer, an 18-year-old who played 56 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season.
The coach may not be concerned with the goaltending, either, but there are questions as to whether Jason Montgomery will be able to take over the No. 1 spot from Jake Moreland. Neither goaltender particularly distinguished himself last season, but Montgomery was only 3-7-4, despite decent statistics.
He’ll be challenged by newcomer Tim Boron, who was a conference MVP in the British Columbia junior league last season, and Adam Coole, who transferred from Minnesota-Duluth before last season. It appears they’ll all get a chance to take the starting spot, and the Huskies need one of them to emerge.
They’ll get an opportunity to get their footing early with six straight home games to start the season. They’ll need to get things rolling in that span, because the next six games are on the road. The Huskies close the WCHA regular season with series at Wisconsin, at home against Colorado College and at Minnesota.
“As young as we are,” Dahl said of the home start, “I think it’s real good for us.”
The Huskies don’t host Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth, and don’t travel to Denver or Minnesota State. … Forwards Jonathan Lehun and Brian Schuster left the team in the offseason. Lehun’s decision left the Huskies without a player who could have been among the top six forwards. … Last season, the Huskies became the first WCHA team to make the NCAA tournament after being knocked out of the league playoffs in the first round since Wisconsin’s “Back-Door Badgers” team in 1981.