Maybe getting to the WCHA Final Five in its first season as a full member of the league wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to Minnesota State-Mankato.
The expectation was, if the Mavericks could be that good in their first season in the league, they’d always be that good. What many people didn’t realize is that was a veteran, experienced team. In the two seasons since the high-water mark, they haven’t had nearly as complete a roster.
The same could be said for this season, so that 1999-2000 team might again come back to haunt the Mavericks.
This is a team that lost two of its regular offensive contributors in the offseason — Tim Jackman to the pros and Jerry Cunningham because he didn’t meet eligibility requirements.
It’s a team with some proven scorers, but with more who have their work cut out for them. It’s a team with questions about stability on defense and at goaltender.
It’s a team that has hung around the middle of the pack in all three of its WCHA seasons. Now, coach Troy Jutting wants his team to build off moderate successes of those seasons and move off the bubble.
“I think when we started off into the league, there weren’t too many people around the league or who watched the league at all that would have said we had any chance at doing that,” Jutting said. “In terms of going out and competing most nights, we’ve done that.
“The thing I’d like to see happen over the next year or two is to where it becomes a thing where we’re not just competing every night, but we have a legitimate shot at finishing in that top five on a yearly basis.”
That could be an optimistic goal, looking at this season. Jutting admits it’s impossible to replace players like Jackman and Cunningham when their loss is discovered in July and August. Jackman signed with Columbus of the NHL; Cunningham fell three credits short of a degree required because he was a partial qualifier entering school.
The Mavericks still have some talented players — B.J. Abel, Shane Joseph and Steven Johns for starters — but there’s some doubt whether they can keep their heads above water for the entire WCHA season.
They have been in the race for a top-five spot until late in the season in the last two years, finishing in a three-way tie for sixth last year. But this time around, there’s a great deal of uncertainty.
“It’s one of those years where I really don’t know what to expect,” Jutting said. “I think we have a lot of good, young, talented kids. It’s just how fast they adjust to either their new role, an expanded role or the freshmen coming in, how fast they adjust to college hockey.”
Jutting also said he’s excited about having a young team because it means he’ll be able to do more true teaching in practice, as opposed to the mostly mental preparation that’s needed with an older team. It therefore remains to be seen if the younger players will be in the right mindset for the long WCHA season.
If the newcomers this season can have a freshman campaign like defenseman Johns did a year ago, the Mavericks will be in good shape. Johns made an immediate impact on a Mavericks blue line that needed it, and chipped in offensively, as well.
Jutting said he had a great summer of workouts — as did much of the rest of the time, according to the coach. Johns dropped his body fat three or four percent and made gains in strength testing.
The Mavericks should be able to field a defensive lineup with experience. Joe Bourne and Peter Runkel are seniors, Aaron Forsythe, Nate Metcalf and Matt Paluczak are juniors and Johns is a sophomore.
— MSU-Mankato coach Troy Jutting
“I know that it’s an area that people who follow the league closely think that maybe that was an area that we were a little down in last year,” Jutting said. “I think it’s an area that experience is going to help us back there. I don’t think we have a Jordan Leopold back there, but not many people do. But I do think that we’re going to be a lot more experienced back there than we have been in the past. Hopefully, that experience will provide us with some stability.”
Stability is the name of the game in goal, as well. After all, it probably couldn’t be any less stable than it was last season, when three goaltenders were injured. Eric Pateman played only three games last season and got a medical redshirt to replay his senior season, but he opted instead to return to McAuley, Manitoba, and work on the family farm.
Jon Volp entered to replace him but suffered a hamstring injury. Kyle Nixon, who joined the team at Christmastime, also was injured and took a redshirt.
Jason Jensen played in 29 games last season and stopped 89.9 percent of the shots he saw. Jutting said Volp and Nixon also have the potential to be the starter, with Nixon’s chance perhaps coming later in his career.
Abel and Joseph, Mankato’s top two scorers in 2001-02, return to lead the Mavericks’ offense, but they’ll need some help. Jutting said Grant Stevenson, who had a 16-point freshman season, could be one of the league’s better players at some point in his career.
The same goes for Jake Brenk, who saw limited time last season; Jeff Marler, who redshirted because of a broken wrist after lighting it up in juniors; and Brock Becker, who was added when it was learned Cunningham wouldn’t be back.
But for this season, much is left up in the air. Jutting’s happy with what the Mavericks have been able to control so far. If nothing else, they’ve had a good summer, and that’s the first step.
“In order to be a successful hockey team, that’s one of the things you see first: what kind of effort the kids are willing to put in when it’s not prime time, when the lights aren’t on,” Jutting said. “I feel really good about this group of kids in terms of their work ethic and attitude. A lot of times, that’s one of the biggest hurdles that you face as a college coach.”