In one season as head coach, Dallas Ferguson managed to take the Alaska Nanooks from ninth place to fourth, from 20 league points to 34, and from first-round playoff loser to Joe Louis Arena. It’s no wonder that he was awarded a five-year contract extension last week.
And he doesn’t let a little success go to his head.
“We’re a program that takes it day by day, and we make sure we are successful each time that we come to the rink,” said Ferguson, reflecting on the Nanooks having been picked seventh in the preseason CCHA coaches poll, sixth by the media — lofty digs for an Alaskan team that made the CCHA tournament in Detroit last season for just the third time in the program’s 14-year history.
Even with Ferguson’s best steady hand at the helm, without goaltender Chad Johnson, there is absolutely no way that Alaska would have made the trip to Detroit at the end of the 2008-09 season. While it may not be fair to pin it all on Johnson, it would be difficult to underplay his role in the Nanooks’ success last year. The team had the 54th-best offense in the country, scoring just 1.90 goals per game — only Brown, American International, Michigan State and Michigan Tech scored fewer.
Johnson had the country’s best goals-against average (1.66) and save percentage (.940). How he was ignored for the Hobey Hat Trick is incomprehensible, as he wasn’t fronted by superstars.
“I get asked a lot about the loss of Chad Johnson,” said Ferguson. “Opportunities for other players are created when you have players leave the program.”
Ferguson thinks that Johnson’s departure is a good opportunity for sophomore netminder Scott Greenham, who in four games last season (3-0-1) had a 1.02 goals-against average and .958 save percentage. “I feel real good about where he is,” said Ferguson, “and being our starting goaltender from day one.”
The other obvious need for the Nanooks is in scoring. UAF has solid players that have never really clicked, like senior returning top scorer Dion Knelsen. Last year, Knelsen led all Nanooks in scoring (10-12–22) as just one of two double-digit goal scorers on the squad; in three seasons and 109 games, Knelsen has netted 26 goals.
“If you do things well away from the puck, hopefully you will get the puck back,” said Ferguson, who knows that it’s not just offense that’s lacking. The entire team needs to play a better transition game. A little confidence wouldn’t hurt, either.
“The big emphasis for us,” said Ferguson, “will be working hard and getting lots of pucks and bodies to the net. I don’t think there is any fancy way to create scoring chances other than working hard and being smart with the puck.”