Except for the last few games of the season, last year seemingly panned out the way the last few have for North Dakota: struggle early, surge in the second half, end up in the top half in the league (maybe or maybe not winning the MacNaughton Cup).
The difference is that each first-half struggle is a little different and the postseason ending was a bigger disappointment than usual. After getting to the Final Five, the Sioux had a lackluster two games there and followed it up with a heartbreaking overtime loss to New Hampshire in the NCAA tournament. As a result, UND is entering this season just like any other — with a chip on its shoulder.
“I hope so,” coach Dave Hakstol quipped when asked if the Sioux were entering this season with said chip. “I think we have a little chip on our shoulder every year when you enter into a new season, regardless of how the final year ended. But, in saying that, in all honesty, last year is a different year.”
One way in which this year is different is that Hakstol believes his team has a lot of questions that the rest of us might not see.
“We know that we have a lot of questions that we need answering,” he said. “We have some players returning that we know will do a good job for us, we know the role that they will play for us and the level that they’re capable of playing at. Along with that, like I said, we have a lot of question marks that we need to answer … now it’s a matter of us sorting out exactly what role players are capable of playing at.”
If the Sioux lost a lot over the summer, it was in the forward position. Two of the leading scorers — former Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan and utility man/talk show host Brad Miller — graduated. The team also lost Andrew Kozek and Ryan Martens to graduation and dismissed would-be junior Matt Frattin for repeated violations of team rules.
However, UND also has a lot coming back, particularly in senior Chris VandeVelde and sophomores Jason Gregoire and Brett Hextall, three of the top six scorers from last year (Nos. 2, 5 and 6, respectively).
In terms of incoming freshman, Danny Kristo has received the most hype and it will be interesting to see if he lives up to his potential or, at the very least, chips in as much as Hextall and Gregoire did last year.
On the Blue Line
Yes, losing Joe Finley, Zach Jones and, if you want to include him on this end, Brad Miller will hurt, if only for the fact that it means that the Sioux will have to replace them with freshmen.
However, the Sioux still have their rock and WCHA defensive player of the year still patrolling the back line in senior Chay Genoway, who may arguably be the best player in college hockey this year. Genoway can not only put up the points (32 last year; 3 goals, 29 assists, fourth on the team), but he’s rock solid in his own end as well.
Joining him in the back end include juniors Derrick LaPoint and Jake Marto and sophomores Ben Blood and Corey Fienhage.
In the Crease
One of the team’s question marks that Hakstol was elusive in pointing straight out may be in goal. The team returns their main netminder from last year in sophomore Brad Eidsness, who evolved into a solid player last year.
“I think maybe you look back on it from my standpoint, the area that Brad maybe did his best work was mentally,” said Hakstol. “I thought he handled all of the ups and downs of a freshman season. As a goaltender, he handled those very well.”
Still, stud freshman goalies don’t always work out as well in their sophomore campaigns, so if Eidsness struggles, Hakstol will have to turn to one of his two freshmen — either Aaron Dell or Tate Maris.