Craig Dahl addressed his team in preseason meetings with this question: If you’re in a race from St. Cloud, Minn., to somewhere in South Carolina, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
The St. Cloud State coach got a variety of answers, including get a map, make a plan, get gas, find someone to drive with.
OK, fine. Then Dahl threw in the kicker: Some would have nice, shiny cars while others would be driving jalopies.
Who’s going to win the race? The response he wanted was the one he got: You never know.
The 2004-05 version of the Huskies certainly aren’t the Porsche in the parking lot, but Dahl hopes they won’t be the Pinto, either.
“People are going to say you’re rebuilding, you’re very young, and that’s true,” Dahl said. “But there’s also history on your side saying that some young teams or some teams that are supposed to be quote-unquote rebuilding do better than you thought they were going to do.”
A year ago, the Huskies stumbled to a sixth-place finish after flirting with a top-three spot down the stretch, then missed the Final Five for the second year in a row and the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.
So while St. Cloud looks for another big year from senior Dave Iannazzo and junior Joe Jensen, and improvements from senior forwards Mike Doyle and Peter Szabo and its depleted goaltending corps, Dahl will be very honest in terming this another rebuilding year for his program.
It’s actually the second of a two-year rebuilding cycle, he said, caused by a downturn in recruiting during the seasons where the Huskies were stocked with talent.
It traces back to the 2000-01 season, when the Huskies won 31 games and had a roster that included Mark Hartigan, Tyler Arnason, Jon Cullen, Joe Motzko and others. Dahl said struggles in landing big-name recruits in that timeframe have materialized in today’s on-ice problems.
“It’s tough to get that top-end recruit to come because, ‘Where am I going to play?’” Dahl said. “The other schools will say they’ve got nine forwards who are awesome; where are you going to play? We got into that situation because of that, so we have to rebuild ‘er now.”
A big part of the rebuilding effort will have to be helping in the team’s goaltenders make gains in mental strength. With Adam Coole gone after graduating, the Huskies will turn to sophomore Tim Boron and junior Jason Montgomery, with a need to find someone who won’t disappoint.
The Huskies ended last season on a seven-game losing streak, and the defense allowed seven goals three times in that span. Boron saw most of the time in net down the stretch, partially because of a concussion Coole suffered, but struggled to reach his potential.
Dahl has what he considers to be an ace up his sleeve, but not for this year. Bobby Goepfert transferred from Providence, but he won’t be eligible until next season, when he’ll have two years of eligibility left.
“Montgomery and Boron, we’ll see what we can get out of them this year,” Dahl said. “You never know. … No matter what, I know that I’ve got a goalie next year that’s going to be good. So if one of these two guys doesn’t do it, Bobby certainly is going to be able to do it.”
That doesn’t say much for this season, but maybe it’s also a charge for the rest of the team. Dahl said he’s comfortable with his eight defensemen, three of whom are freshmen. A pair of sophomores, Casey Borer and Justin Fletcher, should have key roles in leading the group.
Borer is a hard worker who brings others along with him, Dahl said, and Fletcher is underrated in the coach’s eyes.
“I told Fletcher I think he can be as good as [ex-Minnesota defenseman] Keith Ballard, you just don’t have the fanfare yet,” Dahl said. “He’s very smart, cagey, great skater, good shot. He’s going to be good.”
Up front, Jensen had a modest 10 goals and 24 points as a sophomore, numbers which he can improve on. But a lot of eyes will be on Iannazzo — last season’s leading scorer with 16 goals and 27 points — along with Doyle and Szabo.
The Huskies also figure to get a significant contribution from six freshman forwards, including former Minnesota Mr. Hockey Nate Dey, but the veterans will bear most of the responsibility.
“[Iannazzo] was pretty good the second half of the year last year, and I think he knows the onus is on him and Doyle and Szabo,” Dahl said. “They know they’ve got to do something. He had a great summer of working out and he’s in tremendous shape, so we’re hoping.”
Hoping may have to be the way for the Huskies this season.