Zach Parise is good. Really good. Maybe that’s even underselling one of the most anticipated incoming freshmen in years.
He’ll get his share of goals, do his share to help the North Dakota offense and maybe even be the WCHA’s rookie of the year.
But, at last report, he can’t play goaltender. He’s not going to line up on the blue line with any regularity. His job is to score goals and set them up for others.
Yes, Parise may be the most exciting freshman Dean Blais has seen in quite a while. But he’s only part of the chain, one of many elements that needs to be right if the Sioux are going to move back into the top half of the WCHA.
The goaltending needs to be shored up. The defense has to be stable. And, even with Parise, the offense needs to put away its chances.
Saying the Sioux are too young and unproven to make a real run at the top of the league would be a fair assessment. Saying they’ll be right in the mix next season also would be fair.
This season may still be a disappointment to Sioux fans who long for those far-off days (of two years ago) when their team was playing for a national championship. The future, however, looks bright, and with Parise and last season’s rookie of the year, Brandon Bochenski, up front, this Sioux team will provide its share of highlights.
Parise may not be the Sioux’s savior, but rather a part of the process of getting them back to the top of the league. There is some pressure there, but from what Blais has seen, it’s nothing that’s getting to Parise.
“He’s the real thing. He looks forward to it,” Blais said. “He’s just the type of kid who loves to play. He’s been over here when he doesn’t have class, shooting pucks and working because he loves the game. He’s a good student and just a great kid. I don’t know how long we’re going to have him because I can see him being in the top 10 in the NHL draft. That’s how good he is.”
Blais pointed out two players held in such high esteem that they don’t often get used in comparisons. From the standpoints of puck movement, the way he sees the ice and anticipates play, Parise reminds Blais of former Minnesota star Neil Broten and North Dakota record-breaker Tony Hrkac.
“Those good players like that know where everyone is and have a way of coming up with the puck,” Blais said. “But he’s a little more physical than both of them. He will absolutely love to get into a mucking game. He’s going to be at the next level, it’s just a matter of how long he wants to stay in college.
“It’s hard to predict what he’s going to do as far as goals and assists, but I’m just saying right now, I’ve seen good players here and he’s as good as any that’s played here, before he’s even played a game.”
The verdict on whether Parise turns the WCHA upside down will come at the end of the season. Bochenski didn’t have to do that to win top rookie honors last season. He just had a highly effective, 32-point season.
This season, he’ll be asked to be more of a playmaker, regardless of whether he’s playing with Parise (those pairings are up in the air, Blais said). He’s being asked to get his feet moving more and to take an increased role in the defensive zone.
Kevin Spiewak and Jason Notermann will be expected to up their contributions to the Sioux offense after eight- and seven-goal seasons, respectively.
“Right around 10 goals is OK, but Spiewak’s got capabilities to score 20 and Notermann the same thing,” Blais said. “Getting eight, nine goals as a senior would be kind of a disappointment because I think they can both do better.”
Another so-so season from the defense would be another disappointment. With the possible exceptions of departed seniors Aaron Schneekloth and Chad Mazurak, no UND defenseman made much of a statement last season. With a young team, the Sioux couldn’t win the shootouts they got into, and the defense and goaltending took most of the criticism.
This season, the Sioux have a new model for defense, one predicated on size. The defensive corps is big, averaging over 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds from the expected top six: Matt Greene, Andy Schneider, Nick Fuher, Lee Marvin, Matt Jones and David Hale. That may not be huge, especially by today’s standards, but the tenacity of the players should make up for it, Blais said.
“We’re just huge on defense,” Blais said. “We look like a football team back there. … We haven’t been that way in the past, we’ve been more of a puck-moving, more skilled (defense). Not that they’re not skilled — David Hale being a first-round draft choice, Andy Schneider getting drafted, Matt Greene getting drafted. So we’ve got skill back there.”
Every once in a while, the Sioux goaltenders showed skill last season. But in the WCHA, being an every-once-in-a-while goalie doesn’t get you very far. North Dakota has Josh Siembida and Jake Brandt competing for this season’s starting role.
Siembida had a great debut with the Sioux when he joined the team in late December last season. “After that, he realized what he was doing and didn’t play so well,” Blais admitted.
In a perfect world for North Dakota, the defense and the goaltending will work in harmony. The defense will allow the goalies to see the first shot, which the goalies will save, and the defense will clear out any rebounds.
This isn’t a perfect world, though, and with some issues still to be worked out in both positions, the Sioux could again be in for some high-scoring games.
This year, however, they may have the guns to keep up.