Let’s get this straight: North Dakota’s question mark early in the season is offense?
Maybe that tells exactly how thin the questions surrounding the Sioux are. The early departures of Brandon Bochenski took a bite out of the offense, but UND returns seven players who scored 10 or more goals last season. Only Minnesota-Duluth matches that total in the WCHA.
And while it may be a statement to the depth North Dakota has up front, it’s also a testament to improved defense and goaltending. Once a liability, those areas will be the elements that are counted on as the Sioux make a run at getting back to the Frozen Four this season after just missing out last year.
But it’s hard not to think of how good this team could be if not for the losses of Bochenski, a 60-point scorer a year ago, and Parise, who added 55 points. You could throw Dean Blais into that mix, too — the longtime UND coach left in the offseason for an associate head coach job with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
Former associate head coach Dave Hakstol took over in the top spot with the Sioux, and he doesn’t think the team will have any trouble getting over the what-ifs.
“Somebody asked me that the other day, how do the guys in the locker room feel? I think typical of players, they’re pretty resilient,” said Hakstol, who spent four years as an assistant to Blais and got the backing of the former coach before being named to the top job on July 9.
“I don’t think they really have given it a second thought. I think very similar for the coaching staff. We feel good about the team. We should be solid in the back and and in goal initially, and I think maybe that’ll give us a little time to develop offensively and let things sift out a little bit up front. Some things have to sort themselves out among our forwards. I think there’s enough depth and enough ability there; it’s just a matter of who’s prepared and ready to step into those premier roles.”
The loss of the big-time scorers should help the development of some UND players who started out with solid seasons. Brady Murray was a third-team all WCHA pick and a member of the all-rookie team after a 19-goal season. A good summer of conditioning has put him in place to take a step into a 20- or 25-goal season.
Sophomore Drew Stafford didn’t get any of the accolades last postseason, but he has the potential to move from a 32-point season into a role as one of the nation’s best players, Hakstol said.
“Maybe that’s putting a little too much in his lap early,” Hakstol said, “But I think he has that type of ability to do that.”
Freshman Travis Zajac is getting mentioned as a rookie of the year candidate and could have a big impact as a responsible two-way centerman. But it’s also possible, Hakstol said, that the Sioux will feature a variety of mid-range scorers like sophomore Chris Porter and seniors Rory McMahon and Colby Genoway.
It will take some time for the Sioux to figure out what form their offense, which ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring a year ago, will take this season.
“Being solid on the blue line and in goal will hopefully allow us to have a little more freedom up front,” Hakstol said, “to let the guys play, to let them have some freedom offensively and really grow into those roles.”
North Dakota returns all eight defensemen who played last season and will be led by second-team all-WCHA selection Matt Jones and captain Matt Greene.
Jones, a senior, has shown great potential in his years at UND and could be an all-American this season if he continues along that path.
“Matt has very quietly been one of the better defensemen, in my mind, in the country over the past couple of years,” Hakstol said. “Certainly last year, he was a dominant force. We’ve had Matt Greene and Matt Jones paired up now for the last couple of years and the two of them are very committed to the game. They’re very committed as far as developing, and they both want to play in the National Hockey League someday. They were both elected as captains this year (Jones is an assistant), so I think that shows the level of respect they have there.”
Greene, a junior, made a big step in maturity last season while still being able to play his physical, intimidating brand of defense. His penalty minutes dipped from 135 to 86 from freshman to sophomore year.
Goaltenders Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise played a big role in the Sioux defense ranking seventh nationally last season and tied for first in the WCHA. That came after a wildly inconsistent season for UND netminders in 2002-03 and was a big reason why the Sioux won the MacNaughton Cup last season.
Hakstol said freshman Phillippe Lamoureux will push Brandt and Parise early before the team settles into what’s likely to be a two-man rotation.
That’s a throwback to the Blais era, and there’ll be plenty of those with Hakstol. It’s no secret that the team was motivated this offseason by their loss to Denver in the West Regional final last season, and this Hakstol-led UND team looks just as likely to have success as a Blais-led team.
“I don’t think philosophy- or style-wise you’ll be able to pick out a whole lot of differences,” Hakstol said. “But obviously, there are going to be some differences. My personality is a little bit different than Dean’s, and that can’t help but come out in the team’s.”