Season Preview: Denver Pioneers

You think the stock market fluctuates too much? Try being George Gwozdecky.

The last seven years have been like a cruel roller coaster ride for the Denver coach, who has watched his team look like it’s going to be a force in the WCHA for years to come, only to drop seven or eight places the next season. In even-starting seasons — 1998, 1996 and 1994 — the Pioneers have made the NCAA tournament. Otherwise, well … don’t ask.

But, this season at least, there’s a bright note for a team that finished ninth in the league last year: If you go by history, the roller coaster is up.

But that won’t guarantee the Pioneers much success this year — they’ll have to work for pretty much anything they get.

There’s good and bad for Denver.

The good is that the Pioneers have an improved second half of last season to work from, and the players appear to have taken it upon themselves this summer to make improvements.

“The first half [last year], we just buried ourself,” Gwozdecky said. “We put ourself in a position, especially with the league as difficult as it was, even though we were a much better team in the second half of the season, everyone kept beating everybody so we couldn’t gain any ground.

“Judging from the way our players worked this summer and the number of players who remained on campus to train and work and go to school, this should be a big improvement.”

The bad news is that they’ll have to improve while facing a tremendously difficult schedule: “Maybe one of the toughest schedules in the country,” Gwozdecky said.

Boston College, Boston University and Providence are some of the nonconference opponents on the schedule for the 2000-2001 season. In the league, the Pioneers start at St. Cloud State and then host North Dakota.

“We’ve got our plate full, but if you’re going to be a top program in the country, you’ve got to schedule that way,” Gwozdecky said.

Early in the season, the Denver defense will have to be aware of a new face in its net. Stephen Wagner is gone, leaving Wade Dubielewicz as the only returner with college experience.

Adam Berkhoel, who led the Twin Cities Vulcans of the United States Hockey League to the Junior A national championship last season and was named USA Hockey’s goaltender of the year, will make for a good competition for the top spot.

“Wade’s the leader in the clubhouse,” Gwozdecky said. “If you have that experience like Wade does, he’s going to have the first start and he’s going to get the majority of the playing time early in the season.”

But Berkhoel should see his share of time, though the team’s not counting on experience in juniors to translate into success in college.

“We were very pleased that Adam had the kind of finish he did to the season,” Gwozdecky said. “He really put the Vulcans on his back and was a major reason they were able to win the championship. We feel very good about his future here. He’s going to give our goaltending situation a tremendous 1-2 punch with Wade coming back.

“I really believe our goal situation is in as good a hands as it’s been for a number of years, dating back to the years (Sinuhe) Wallinheimo and (Jim) Mullen were with us. I think these guys are going to be a critical factor in our play this year and a critical factor in our success. I think both are going to get a chance to play and hopefully both get a chance to develop quickly so they can do their jobs.”

The Pioneers’ goaltending situation is critical also because of the penalty killing, which was eighth in the league last year at 81.5 percent.

Just add some more pressure onto a position in transition.

“Special teams are critical and penalty killing is a direct result of how your goaltending is,” Gwozdecky said. “If your goaltending is strong and makes some great saves, your penalty killing percentages and numbers look good.”

"I really believe our goal situation is in as good a hands as it’s been
for a number of years."

— Denver head coach George Gwozdecky

The defense will be counted on early to make that transition smooth. Last year, that may have been a problem, and who knows, it may be this year. But Gwozdecky knows why last year’s defensive corps had problems.

Yeah, they were inexperienced and such. But that’s not it.

“We weren’t very mean,” Gwozdecky said, “and we weren’t very nasty.”

So count on players like Judd Stauss, Bryan Vines and Jesse Cook to make some waves on the blue line. Junior Chris Paradise, who moved from defense to forward last season, started training camp at center.

One thing Gwozdecky said he knows he can count on is Stauss playing hard at all times. He was named the team’s defensive player of the year after scoring career highs in goals (four) and points (11).

Judging from his statistics, the fact Stauss is a defensive defenseman comes as no surprise.

“He’s our captain and not only does he know his role, but he plays his role extremely well,” Gwozdecky said. “There’s nobody that wants to win any worse than Judd does. It’s exciting to see the team respond to him and how he’s training and practicing. He plays his best game from our red line back. That’s his strength and it will remain his strength and hopefully a strength of our team as we move on in the season.”

The biggest player opposing defenses will have to key on is Kelly Popadynetz. The senior led the team with 40 points last year and may have to repeat his 15-goal output to give the Pioneers’ offense some punch.

Gwozdecky doesn’t doubt Popadynetz has that ability.

“Kelly’s capable of doing that and far more,” he said. “There’s not going to be the expectation that Kelly has to lead the way with a bushel of points. I think there are other guys that are going to support Kelly and put up some numbers.”

Kevin Doell led DU’s rookies with eight goals last year and Greg Barber added seven. If Paradise continues to play offense, he should be able to set up some plays. As a junior, David Neale needs to put up more points than his nine from last season.

And senior Bjorn Engstrom has to duplicate his 30-point season of last year.

“These are guys that are going to be pitching in and supporting us offensively,” Gwozdecky said.

And if Connor James, the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s rookie of the year last season with 93 points for the Calgary Royals, can make an impact even remotely like Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley did, the Pioneers may have found a gem.

If all this doesn’t happen, the Pioneers’ roller coaster ride could take a turn for the worse.

Et Cetera

The Pioneers’ home-and-home series with Colorado College takes on a different twist this year. They play Jan. 5 and 6, but the other series is split — DU hosts on Jan. 19 and CC hosts on Feb. 10.