Where did things go wrong last season for Minnesota State? You could trace it back to before the season even started, before the Mavericks opened 1-4-1 or played the first half at 4-11-3.
Before the games even started, the Mavericks lost defensemen Matt Paluczak and Jon Dubel for the season because of shoulder injuries. That changed the team’s game plan from including one freshman defenseman in the mix to dressing three on a nightly basis.
The results were decidedly negative, for last season anyway. With Kyle Peto, Lucas Fransen and Chad Brownlee each playing 33 games or more, the Mavericks’ young defense crumbled. It allowed opponents an average of 4.59 goals per game, the worst of 58 teams in NCAA Division I hockey. Mankato allowed eight or more goals seven times.
So what else can the Mavericks hope for this season but a turnaround? Coach Troy Jutting now is hoping those young defensemen will have matured into WCHA-caliber players and will build off an improved end to last season.
“The two injuries to our old defensemen hurt us bad right away,” Jutting said. “To not have either one of those kids for the whole year started the season off on a bad note. We struggled to battle back from that. Although I will say this: The last month of the season, we were playing our best hockey of the year without a doubt. It took us a long time to get to that point, but I do think by the end of the year we had gotten it turned around and were playing much better hockey over the course of the last month of the season.”
The Mavericks carried a season-best three-game winning streak into the playoffs before extending it to four with a Game 1 upset of Minnesota-Duluth. But after a pair of six-goals-against outings, Mankato was done.
With Dubel back this season, the Mavericks are in a situation where they have five experienced defensemen in an eight-person corps. Six of the eight are either freshmen or sophomores, but the leadership of senior Steven Johns is expected to provide a needed boost.
“He’s a kid who from day one has been nothing but first class, and the type of kid that the other kids lean on because they do respect him for the way he conducts himself on and off the ice,” Jutting said. “He’s definitely going to be an important factor for us.”
It’s tough to tell whether it was a product of the shaky defense or because of issues of their own, but Minnesota State’s goaltending last season was subpar. Starter Jon Volp had a 4.35 goals against average and .878 save percentage, and yielded 10 starts to backups Kyle Nixon and Chris Clark.
Jutting hopes a better defense will produce better seasons for Volp and Co., but it’s clear they have some work to do, too. It’s important to note that Volp has shown he can be a good goalie — see the 10-5-2 season in 2002-03.
“Jon had a great sophomore season, and then last year because of our situation on defense, we hung him out to dry early on,” Jutting said. “I think it got to his confidence. Last year, while we did not get the play from our goaltenders that obviously you need to have to be successful in the league, I think it was a combination of us not doing a real good job early on of keeping the shots to where they weren’t premium quality chances all of the time, and I think it got to his confidence. I fully expect Jon to come back and have a great year this year because I think we will do a better job in front of him in terms of the kids of shots that we give up.”
An important side note to discussions of Minnesota State’s defense is that the team was 57th in the nation in penalty killing last season at 74.6 percent, while it was third in the country in most penalty minutes per game, 20.8. That’s a lethal combination, and something Jutting admits must be fixed.
The Mavericks were decent on offense last season, but much of that could be attributed to the departed Shane Joseph, a third-team all-league performer who probably would have been graded higher on a more successful team. But Mankato returns 74.2 percent of its goalscoring from last season, led by sophomore David Backes.
An all-rookie team selection last season, Backes scored 16 goals and 37 points to burst onto the scene. His intelligence on the ice helped him become a team leader right away, and Jutting noted that Backes features a rare combination: He’s 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, but can also handle the puck extremely well.
“It’s tough to find kids that size and as rugged as David is that can make the kinds of plays he makes with the puck,” Jutting said. “I’ll be very honest: I think David is just starting to scratch the surface. I think he’s one of those kids who’s finally stopped growing and he’s now really developing into his body. I think he’s a kid who’s just going to keep getting better.”
The Mavericks will be looking for Brock Becker to reverse a downturn his college career took last season, when he went from 26 points to 18. Jeff Marler had 10 goals at winter break, but then played the rest of the season with an arm injury and was ineffective.
Both of those players could lead a Mavericks revival if they can consistently produce this season. But that could be negated by a lack of improvement from the defensemen and goaltenders.
Jutting said he likes the way his players have approached this season mentally. That’ll be critical because, after an exhibition game, their first six contests are against North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota. It reminds Jutting of the start two years ago, when they went 2-3-2 in four games against St. Cloud State and two against Minnesota at the dawn of the league season, but then regrouped to finish 15-6-7 in the league and earn the program’s first Division I NCAA tournament appearance.
“To get off to a great start and win those games is a goal, but our main goal is, through the first month of the season, we want to make sure that we’re learning every game and getting better,” Jutting said. “Those types of games early on can really help you become a good hockey team throughout the season because you’re going to get tested right away and you’re going to know the level that it takes to compete in our league immediately. If you use those games and use them in the right direction, they can be very beneficial to you, even if you’re not fortunate enough to win a majority of them.”