There are differing opinions on what to expect out of North Dakota this season, but history suggests that discounting the Sioux because they lost a few players is a bad idea.
A year ago, the UND offense was supposed to be in peril because it lost stars Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski to the pros. The Sioux didn’t light up opponents, but they got good performances out of a pair of freshmen — Travis Zajac and Rastislav Spirko — to get by most of the time.
Zajac, in particular, made his presence felt in the Sioux’s NCAA tournament run, scoring twice in the regional finals against Boston College, twice in the national semifinals against Minnesota and the lone UND goal in the 4-1 loss to Denver in the title game.
This season, the defense is in the spotlight. Four regulars from last year’s defensive corps are gone. Robbie Bina, who split 32 games between defense and forward before suffering a neck injury in the WCHA Final Five, will sit out this season — if not more — on a medical redshirt.
And again, the newcomers will have to come through. North Dakota lists five freshmen among its defensemen (part of 13 freshmen overall) and they’ll probably all get into the mix as the Sioux try to replicate the defensive success of a year ago.
That’s one of the reasons UND coach Dave Hakstol can list himself among the WCHA coaches who are playing a wait-and-see game with their teams this year.
“We don’t feel like we’re starting with a bare cupboard; probably the exact opposite of that,” Hakstol said. “We feel good about the ability and the skill level, and in the case of the returning guys, their experience level. I think up front we’re going to have a real nice mix; it’s just a matter of finding the right combinations. In goal, I expect us to have a real good, solid tandem there that can be consistent and be good leaders for us every night.
“Back on the blue line is where we’re going to be a little bit younger. We’re going to have probably three or four freshmen in the lineup each night, so the veterans back there — Matt Smaby, being a key guy leadership-wise back there, is going to have to be real solid every night and the young guys are going to have to make the adjustment. They’re very good, talented players. Now they have to make the adjustment to playing at the level the WCHA challenges you to be at.”
A certain level of newness was expected on the UND defense because it had three seniors at the position a year ago. But Matt Greene left for the pros and Bina’s prognosis cut into leadership and depth, respectively.
So now, the freshman class will play a huge role for the Sioux. Two of the defenders, Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee, played at the high school level a year ago but will be able to rely on international experience.
They’ll be looking toward Smaby for guidance, especially early. The Sioux voted the 6-foot-5 junior their captain days after the start of practice.
“He’s a natural-born leader and he’s ready to step into that role,” Hakstol said. “I expect him to be the guy that leads the way back on the blue line for us. The last five or six weeks of the year last year as we were going through our playoff run, he was arguably our most effective player on the blue line, and I expect him to just continue in that role.”
The playoff run was highlighted by the 12-game unbeaten streak of goaltender Jordan Parise. He was 10-0-2 before taking the loss in the championship game, and his jump in play near the end of the season was often pointed to as one of the reasons why UND, the WCHA’s fifth-place team, was so successful.
Now a junior, Parise will again compete with sophomore Philippe Lamoureux for playing time.
“They’re very competitive and they both want as many minutes in between the pipes as possible, but they’re both great team guys,” said Hakstol, who forecast the duo as a tandem this season. “As competitive as they are, they’re good teammates with each other as well as among the team. Jordy got hot and he took the ball and ran with it last year. That’s how it is come playoff time.”
The Sioux are hoping for more big things from Zajac (20 goals last season) and Spirko (16), with juniors Drew Stafford and Chris Porter having key roles. But with the loss of six full-time forwards, the freshmen will have work to do up front as well to help UND get to the NCAA tournament and a home-ice spot at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Jonathan Toews scored 48 goals and 110 points in 64 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school last season, while T.J. Oshie put up 37 goals and 99 points in 31 games for Warroad (Minn.) High School and Andrew Kozek led the British Columbia Hockey League with 48 goals.
The adjustment period will be different for each player, but it’s clear that North Dakota is going to need some big things out of its rookies all over the lineup.
“We need very good leadership out of our returning guys, whether they’re sophomores, juniors or seniors, and I think the young guys need to chip in right away,” Hakstol said. “If we’re able to do that, when you take a look at the league, if we can find ways to win some games early and have a respectable first half, I think by the second half of the year, this group of guys has a chance to really come together.”