There are any number of ways to measure progress, but the most readily accessible is wins and losses.
In coach Jamie Russell’s first season at Michigan Tech, 2003-04, the Huskies were 8-25-5 overall and 6-19-3 in the WCHA. Last season, Tech was 8-25-4 and 7-19-2 in the league — virtually unchanged.
That lack of a significant gain in victories in either the conference or overall records might lead some to believe the Huskies are stuck right where they were when Russell took over at his alma mater.
Russell doesn’t follow that line of thinking. He points to a second-half resurgence last season as evidence his team made strides. Others might point to the development of individual talent in senior forward Chris Conner and junior defenseman Lars Helminen — in addition to graduated senior forward Colin Murphy, a first-team all-league member last season — to show there are good things going on in the program.
“We look at the product on the ice, and it was clear that we made a lot of progress just in the way we were playing,” Russell said. “We brought a lot of bodies in … and we’re going through a rebuilding process. We’ve stuck young players in prominent roles and they’re gaining a lot of experience. It’s really starting to come.”
The path of progress doesn’t get any easier this season for Michigan Tech, which brings 10 freshmen and 18 underclassmen into a season where Russell is dealing with a bevy of uncertainties.
But Russell has reason to believe his players will carry over an improved performance from the second half of last season and build upon that early this year. Tech pulled off road upsets of Denver and Minnesota (a sweep) after the holiday break and also swept Minnesota-Duluth on the road.
The next part of the progress, Russell said, involves improving a faulty penalty kill, scoring more even-strength goals and reducing the team goals against average. They’ll have to do that while dealing with another large incoming class.
The Huskies listed nine freshmen and 17 underclassmen a year ago; Russell had 18 underclassmen in his first season. Six players who saw action for the Huskies last season left the team before their eligibility had lapsed — one of the big reasons for the high degree of turnover.
At least the freshmen have some good examples to look up to. On offense, they are Conner and captain Brandon Schwartz; on defense, it’s Helminen.
Conner’s statistics dipped last year but he remained a noticeable part of the Huskies’ offense — especially to opposing defensemen, who tended to gravitate toward him. If he can get closer to the 25-goal level of his sophomore season, he’ll be contending for league honors again.
Schwartz, a senior, scored seven of his 10 goals last season after Jan. 1 to help spark the uptick in Tech’s play. But his greatest contribution likely is as a leader.
“Brandon’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen,” Russell said. “He does all the little things from conditioning — he’s here at 6:30 in the morning riding the bike — he pays attention to nutrition, to sleep. He’s a great student, he works hard, he’s a good offensive player, he pays attention to detail. He’s very approachable for the young players to sit down with him one-on-one. He’s done a good job of bringing them along and relating some of his experiences.”
A breakthrough season landed Helminen on the WCHA’s second team and likely will get him the Chris Conner treatment this season. In other words, everyone will be keeping more than just an eye on him.
“Other teams are going to be aware of Lars this year — I think they were last year to an extent — but I think he’ll do a great job responding to that,” Russell said.
But the questions linger. Will the Huskies get capable goaltending out of anyone? (Cam Ellsworth graduated and Bryce Luker left the team, leaving sophomore Kevin Hachey and freshmen Rob Nolan and Michael-Lee Teslak to vie for the spot.) Can Tech be anything more than a one-line power on offense? (That likely depends on players like Nick Anderson and Taggart Desmet contributing.) Are there solid defensemen waiting to emerge?
Chances are, Michigan Tech will need a yes answer to all of those to break out of its nine-year run of being among the bottom three teams in the league standings. Part of the process, the reasoning goes, is simply learning how to win.
“That’s not something you can explain to somebody,” Russell said. “You have to go through the process and find out, hey, this is what it takes to be successful on the road in front of 10,000 people — making the little plays, the good decisions. And we made a lot of progress last year.”