It’s not hard to see why so many people are picking Minnesota-Duluth to win the WCHA this season, even after losing a Hobey Baker Award winner.
Junior Lessard fits into the equation because he and three other players are the only ones from the lineup at the end of last season not returning to the team. While the depth and experience the Bulldogs return from the Frozen Four last season isn’t a guarantee of success — see Minnesota’s start last season — the signs are there that UMD will be able to put it all together again.
Defense and goaltending look well-stocked. The offense, with second-team all-league pick Evan Schwabe leading the way, has enough guns to help offset the loss of 32-goal-scorer Lessard.
The Bulldogs got the dreaded “favorite” label from the WCHA coaches, which seems to have doomed more teams to third place or worse than been an accurate predictor.
“I have no problem with it,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, last season’s national coach of the year. “Time will tell. The biggest thing for me is the attitude we go in with. What I’ve seen so far through September with our workouts and the attitude the guys have brought to this month, I really like what I’ve seen.”
How the Bulldogs handle the pressure will be a key issue this season. While their 28-win season of a year ago was a breakthrough for the program under Sandelin’s guide, there were weekends and moments when maybe the pressure got to be too much.
With the regular-season title within reach on the penultimate weekend, the Bulldogs stumbled to a home sweep at the hands of eventual champion North Dakota.
Then, leading 3-1 after two periods of the national semifinal game against Denver, UMD allowed four third-period goals and lost 5-3, its first loss in 27 games where it led going into the third.
That last experience stuck with the Bulldogs all summer and drove them to get back.
“It was a good experience at the end of the year, and with a lot of guys coming back, obviously the goal is to get back — hopefully — there and certainly to do well in our league and get to the final 16,” Sandelin said.
They’ll have plenty to build on. Schwabe scored 19 goals and 57 points as the center on a line with Lessard and Justin Williams last season, and figures to have another good season with a new cast.
Sandelin is hoping for a big junior season from Williams and significant contributions from senior Marco Peluso and junior Tim Stapleton, among others. He said Peluso could be a 40-point scorer, while Stapleton could be one of the best forwards in the WCHA.
If the Bulldogs get more progress from seniors Luke Stauffacher, T.J. Caig and Brett Hammond and sophomore Bryan McGregor, their offense should be near the top of the league.
“Those guys aren’t big-point guys, but look at Luke,” Sandelin said. “If you would have told me he was going to get 60 points in two years, I would have said you’re probably crazy. But he’s proven that and he’s got confidence and the kid works his butt off and competes every game.”
But Schwabe will start the season as the one everyone is watching up front. Sandelin said he wasn’t sure whether the senior would be able to get to the 50-point mark again, but should still be one of the league’s best offensive threats as the team’s captain.
“I think he had an outstanding year for us last year,” Sandelin said. “From start to finish, he was consistent. If you look at him and Junior, they were no question two of the most consistent guys we had. And Evan developed into a top player. The thing that amazes me most about him is that he scored 19 goals. That’s pretty good.”
The loss of Tyler Brosz for the first month of the season because of a shoulder injury will take some punch out of the UMD offense, but with the community philosophy of scoring that worked well last season — eight players scored 10 or more goals and seven of them return — the Bulldogs appear to have another potent force.
Sandelin said he wants his defense, meanwhile, to take a more physical approach around their net, which will be manned again by second-team all-league selection Isaac Reichmuth. He expects seniors Neil Petruic and Todd Smith to lead that cause.
“I’m not saying we’re going to be a big, physical group like North Dakota, but I think we’ve got to do a better job defending from the goal line in,” Sandelin said. “I think we’ve got a good nucleus of guys to transition well and move pucks well and can contribute offensively. We’ve got experience there. We’ve got five guys that have played a lot of games. So hopefully that experience translates into being a little bit more consistent.”
It’s the same issue for Reichmuth, who improved his stats from year one to year two but took a while to round into form. It’s likely the junior hasn’t yet reached his potential, so there could be more big things ahead.
Sandelin, who will coach the U.S. world junior team but not have to miss any UND games to do so, said the team’s goals haven’t vastly changed from last season, despite the Frozen Four appearance. The only difference, he said, is that the team can realistically chase a league title from the start of the season.
But they vow not to put the cart before the horse in that respect.
“This team has never really gotten too far ahead,” Sandelin said. “And if we get too far ahead, we’re going to be in trouble.”