Last year was quite the wild ride for Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs struggled early, picked it up around the holidays before going on a skid to end the season 0-3-2. That late skid dropped them to seventh in the league, but as soon as they hit the playoffs, they found the fire.
First they swept Colorado College on the road to advance to St. Paul.
Then they took out Minnesota, North Dakota and Denver to become the first team to win three straight games at the Final Five to take home the Broadmoor Trophy and catapult themselves into the NCAA tournament.
Once in the tournament, their luck continued. They took on the ECAC’s best goaltender on in Princeton’s Zane Kalemba and bested him, winning 5-4 in overtime. However, they couldn’t keep their magic going to get them to Washington, D.C., as the eventual national runner-up Miami edged them out of the playoffs 2-1.
With all of that, why aren’t the Bulldogs picked to finish in the top half of the league? Simple. When you lose nine players, seven of them seniors and one of them your goaltender, you end up having a few questions entering the next season.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainties when you kind of lose half your team [and] obviously, three key guys, including probably our best player in [goalie] Alex Stalock,” said coach Scott Sandelin. “Obviously we’ve got some holes to fill and certainly it starts in goal.”
If Duluth can fill its holes, it might end up coming close to what itdid last season. If not, the Bulldogs might be in for a long season.
Offensively, the Bulldogs had a lot of questions last season, given that their then-leading scorer, MacGregor Sharp, only had 17 points. Sharp and the Bulldogs answered that one with a vengeance, with Sharp scoring 50 points and two more players with point totals in the 40s.
UMD lost Sharp to graduation, as well as supporting players Andrew Carroll, Michael Gergen and Nick Kemp.
On the plus side, the Bulldogs still have those two 40-point guys in junior Justin Fontaine and sophomore Mike Connolly. Fellow, unrelated sophomore Jack Connolly was just under the 30-point mark. If all three guys can have big seasons again, that will help the Bulldogs tremendously. Getting more scoring from seniors Drew Akins and Jordan Fulton should also help.
If all else fails, Sandelin has four freshmen forwards he can try plugging in and seeing how they’ll perform.
“We’ve added some skill and speed and I think the style that we can play this year might be a little bit different than last year,” Sandelin said.
On the Blue Line
Duluth lost three big defensemen over the offseason. Josh Meyers, a defensive presence who could also put the puck in the net as well as steady defenseman Jay Cascalenda graduated and would-be junior Evan Oberg, just behind Meyers in point production, chose to leave early.
As a result, the Bulldogs are going to have a steep learning curve when it comes to their back line.
“We’re very young on the blue line,” Sandelin said. “I think it’s going to be a work in progress.”
One of those works in progress is freshman Dylan Olsen.
“He’s a 6-3 defenseman that can bring a physical presence, I think he’s got tremendous hockey sense and he’s got good hands,” said Sandelin. “I don’t think he looks like a freshman … but he’s going to be an ace addition.”
In the Crease
As mentioned previously, the Bulldogs lost their workhorse in Stalock, as he chose to leave Duluth early. That choice leaves Sandelin with one of three options: sophomore Brady Hjelle, who has the early nod, sophomore Kenny Reiter or freshman Aaron Crandall.
“That’s going to be a battle there,” said Sandelin.