“Every year, someone emerges in this league, if not one, two, three teams. You just never know … in this league, we talk about how strong it is, but you never know which team may emerge.
“Who knows? Nebraska-Omaha may be that team this year, Notre Dame, but I guarantee there’ll be a couple teams out of the pack that, no matter how strong this league is, will emerge and surprise a couple of people.”
And that, CCHA fans, is as close to talking smack as Bob Daniels comes.
Entering his 15th season as head coach in Big Rapids, Daniels has seen some pretty big highs, and some really disappointing lows. Daniels knows about dark horse teams. In 2002-03, the Bulldogs surprised everyone by capturing the CCHA regular-season championship and earning their first NCAA tournament invitation, all with an impressive Spartan- or Wolverine-like record of 31-10-1.
A year later, FSU had 15 wins overall, just 10 in CCHA play.
After that glorious single season, the Bulldogs lost just one key player, Chris Kunitz, who had amassed 35 goals and 44 assists his senior year. His talent and personality were sorely missed in 2003-04, but Daniels never blamed that season on the Kunitz Factor. Instead, he took the blame himself, for not realizing that his team might not begin one season the way it ended the one just before.
Last year, the Bulldogs finished the year with 27 league points, their best showing since their championship year, and the emerging team about which Daniels warned on this year’s Media Day very well may be Ferris State.
Just because the Bulldogs spend a lot of time in the middle of the CCHA pack, you shouldn’t assume that 1) that’s where they want to be, or 2) that’s where they’ll stay.
In fact, in making my preseason picks, I am pretty certain that picking FSU 10th will come back and bite me, Bulldog style.
Ferris State returns six of its top seven scorers from a year ago, and five of those guys scored 10 or more goals. In a league struggling for offense — on a team struggling for offense — that is a very encouraging sign.
“Up front is going to be our challenge in terms of trying to find a way to score some goals,” said Daniels. Senior Mark Bomersback, the team’s returning lead goal scorer, and junior Adam Miller “given the chance will be able to emerge and score,” said Daniels, “but that’s the big question for us.”
The Bulldogs took a bit of a blow when the promising Matt Stefanishion, who would have been a junior this year, left for the pro ranks in the offseason, but last year Stefanishion never lived up to the promise of his 21-point freshman effort.
Said Daniels, “Some teams have good scoring; for us our strength will be in net.”
Mitch O’Keefe had a very respectable freshman season, and junior goaltender Derek MacIntyre “will provide a nice challenge” for O’Keefe’s starting position, said Daniels.
This is less an issue for Ferris State than it is for most CCHA teams, unless you count the ability to ward off injury — something not to be underestimated, given the hard-hitting brand of hockey that the Bulldogs espouse.
Now, there remains no one from that championship team to remember how bitter the following year tasted. True, this year’s seniors were freshmen in 2003-04, but they had nothing with which to compare that year’s experience.
In fact, this year’s seniors have seen some fairly steady improvement in their tenure in Big Rapids — slow and steady, but consistent and persistent.
Daniels’ assertion that Ferris State’s strength is in its nets is a bit disingenuous. Sure, the Bulldogs could score more goals — nearly everyone in the CCHA can — but if the offense continues to produce, the only thing that will hold FSU back will be its overall team defense.
Only a handful of Bulldog players could be said to have been well-rounded last season, as the team’s plus-minus rating testifies. Fortunately for FSU, every guy who was on the correct side of that equation last year is returning, most notably senior defenseman Joe Van Culin, one of the league’s underrated players, and junior D-men Alex Spezia and Adam Welch, this year’s Bulldog captain.
Clearly it’s not the blueline, but the entire team defense, that must be improved for big doings in Big Rapids.
I know this pick will bite me … and yet, I’m reluctant to change it. I know that Bob Daniels knows far more than I about most things … and yet …
I just have to see it to believe it.