After a major step in the wrong direction sent 11 seniors out of the Minnesota-Duluth program on a disappointing note, this year’s group of seniors has a different sendoff in mind.
A year after going to the Frozen Four, the Bulldogs stumbled to a sixth-place WCHA finish and a 15-17-6 overall record that was a shock considering the experience level of the team.
So which one was the odd season out, 2004 or 2005? The four seniors on this UMD team want to prove last season was just a hiccup.
To do it, they’ll have to direct the team through a bout of inexperience caused by a massive level of turnover. The Bulldogs lost 14 players from last year’s roster and have 13 new faces, including two transfers now eligible to compete.
That’s where forwards Tim Stapleton and Justin Williams, defenseman Steve Czech and goaltender Isaac Reichmuth come in. As much as it will be up to underclassmen to do a lot of the work for the team, those seniors have a lot on their shoulders.
“We’ve gotten through the summer with our leaders and I see different people,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said, noting the surge in leadership exhibited by the class of four. “I think they know, ‘We have to provide this and we’re going to take the ball and run with it.’ You throw in the young guys and their enthusiasm and I think that’s really helped them. Now once we get into games and the ups and downs of the season, that’s where that type of leadership is going to be important.”
It will be important to help unravel the mystery that is the UMD team. Sandelin said there’s the element of the unknown with this year’s team because of the number of newcomers.
What is known is that the Bulldogs need big years out of their upperclassmen to avoid another disappointment.
Stapleton was one of three UMD players with 19 goals last season and has the potential for more. Sandelin wants Stapleton to become one of those players who draws fear from the opposition.
“He’s had a really good summer,” Sandelin said. “I see a little bit different attitude in him, too. He knows that this is his last year and he wants to be that leader. He came in good shape, he works very hard, he’s smiling, he’s having fun. … I see no reason why he can’t be one of the top scorers in our league.”
Czech, the team captain, was one of only two defensemen to play in all 38 games a year ago (the departed Todd Smith was the other). His role is magnified because the Bulldogs have only two regulars back from last year’s defense.
In addition to being the most solid defenseman the Bulldogs have, he’ll have to be a mentor.
“I think our whole team looks to him right now,” Sandelin said. “He’s a good, steady player and I think with him being the veteran guy back there, there’s absolutely no question they’re going to look to him.”
Czech may start the season paired with freshman Matt Niskanen, who comes to UMD straight from Virginia (Minn.) High School. Sophomore Travis Gawryletz will be a key figure in the defense, and Jim Jensen, a transfer from Ferris State, likely will get an opportunity because of his previous college experience.
“I think we’ve got a good group,” Sandelin said. “We addressed some needs. I think we got some guys that provide some offensive abilities, can run some power plays and be in those situations. It’s a pretty mobile group and we’ve got decent size there.”
Rookies figure to play a big role on offense, too, but a handful of experienced players figure to bear more of the offensive responsibilities this season. Players like Williams, junior Bryan McGregor and sophomores Matt McKnight and Mike Curry are expected to contribute more than the combined 17 goals they did a year ago.
Rookie Michael Gergen should start the season on a line with Stapleton and Williams, while freshman Mason Raymond likely will play alongside McKnight and McGregor. Newcomer Andrew Carroll led the USHL with 32 goals last season, and the Bulldogs are looking to find a center for him.
UMD is also looking for a goaltender who can play well every night, something it didn’t have a year ago. Reichmuth and junior Josh Johnson will compete for playing time with Nate Ziegelmann, a transfer from North Dakota.
As the most experienced position on the team, Sandelin is hoping not to have to worry too much about the goaltenders because there’s enough uncertainty to go around everywhere else.
Still, the Bulldogs have players who have tasted success and are hungry to get back to it.
“I feel confident that with the players we have here, we can do good things,” Sandelin said. “But in saying that, I’m cautious because I know other teams are getting better and have gotten better, too. … We do have some good players. You just don’t know how a lot of those freshmen are going to do.”