As much as this is a time of change at Michigan Tech, what really has changed?
Sure, Mike Sertich begins his first full season as coach after taking over from Tim Watters early last year, and he gets to install his systems in training camp this season instead of in the middle of the week.
But there’s nothing yet to suggest the personnel is vastly improved, which may end up costing the Huskies a big chance.
With the lower half of the WCHA open for the taking, Tech has a golden opportunity to move out of the depths of the league.
It hasn’t finished higher than seventh since a fourth-place showing in 1992-93. It won only eight games last season, and six in the WCHA for eighth place.
If Sertich wants to break the pattern of mediocrity at Michigan Tech, he needs to start right away.
The team showed new life when he took over last season, but we’ll see in the players’ attitudes and effort this season whether that was a full resuscitation or merely an extension of life support.
“We’d like to believe we’re capable of moving up in the standings,” Sertich said. “We’d like to think that last year we took a great step attitude-wise, and hopefully that will carry over now.”
Sertich is quick to admit his team suffered some losses from last year’s team — two top scorers and three key defensemen — but said he’s encouraged by the talent in some of the newcomers.
One in particular has caught some eyes. Though not a true newcomer because he practiced while ineligible last year, Bryan Perez is starting to make a name for himself around the league.
Not that many around the league can tell you a lot about him, only that they’ve heard the name. If the Huskies are lucky, league coaches will be saying plenty about Perez by the time the season’s over.
Perez, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward, was the only player from the WCHA to make the roster for the USA Hockey Summer Challenge after competing at the national junior evaluation camp. It’s a sign that he might also be chosen for the U.S. national junior team this winter.
“It buoyed his confidence,” Sertich said. “There was no way to really tell after practicing for an entire year. He, No. 1, got drafted fairly high [first pick of the ninth round] by the Islanders, and, No. 2, did so well with the junior group.
“When we looked at the people who got cut there, there’s some talent there. Obviously, they saw the same thing, and we’re pretty happy about that.”
If nothing else, it gave Perez a chance to get on the ice against live action. He couldn’t play for the Huskies last season because he didn’t meet academic requirements.
“I think that was the most important thing,” Sertich said, “that he found out he could still compete.”
While Perez is likely to make offensive contributions in his freshman season, the Huskies can’t rely on his production.
Instead, they’ll depend on senior Paul Cabana to run the offense.
Cabana scored a career-high 15 goals and 21 points last year, but if the Huskies have aspirations of improving on a meager 2.53 goals per game a year ago, he’ll have to carry his increased share, as will everyone else.
“He’s led our team in goals for three years, so I’m guessing he’ll be right up there again to contend for that,” Sertich said. “I think the biggest thing Paul has to do is take care of Paul and not put so much pressure on himself.
“Enjoy it; this is his moment and that’s why he’s trained so hard. He did a heck of a job this summer.”
Brad Patterson, a 22-point scorer a year ago, is a prime candidate to be Cabana’s set-up man this year.
But even if the Huskies’ offense can find a way to put more goals on the scoreboard, can the defense prevent the opposition from doing the same?
Tech suffered severe losses at defense with Mat Snesrud, Clint Way and Adrian Fure graduating, and the second and third defensive pairings could be a a bit suspect this year as a result.
Greg Amadio, Justin Brown and Tom Kaiman, the top three defenders, will have to tutor some newcomers quickly. Each member of that trio has seen extensive playing time in his career.
“From there, it dwindles fast,” Sertich said. “There’s going to be some kids that are fresh out of high school and some kids that are out of junior.”
With the inexperience of the new defensemen, it’ll be imperative that the Huskies get solid goaltending early in the season. Brian Rogers has the job until he loses it, Sertich said. Cam Ellsworth will be there to back Rogers up.
With some shortcomings on the defense, the pressure is on Rogers.
“We’re counting heavily on him, but I will not be afraid to use [Ellsworth],” Sertich said. “He’s already shown me he’s a quality goaltender. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he pushed him.”
The Recruits: Age Factor
At 11, the Tech recruiting class is the largest in the WCHA this season. It also features a wide age range: Forward Colin Murphy turned 21 in April, while forward Patrick Murphy’s 18th came in July.
The older players, Sertich hopes, will be able to step right into the college game.
The Schedule: Tough Start
The first four weeks of the WCHA schedule could be brutal for the Huskies. They play at St. Cloud State, at home against Minnesota and Denver and at Wisconsin.
Sertich wouldn’t be so concerned about playing those teams if they weren’t all strung together so early.
“It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them,” he said. “Some of those teams we haven’t done historically well against in the past, we’re going to catch early at home. We’re just going to have to make some hay early.”