2002-03 St. Cloud State Season Preview

St. Cloud State has been to the NCAA tournament three seasons in a row, but …

St. Cloud State has finished second in the WCHA two seasons in a row, but …

St. Cloud State has the longest streak of appearances in the Final Five with seven, but …

St. Cloud State is starting to be mentioned along with the powers of college hockey, but …

But the Huskies’ Hobey Baker finalist has left. But the top goaltender is gone. But there are concerns with defensive depth because two players are ineligible for first semester.

This is the price of being a top program in college hockey and in the WCHA. Everything negative is magnified, even to the point where it overshadows the things that are going right.

To be sure, the Huskies have their work cut out for them to be in the running for the MacNaughton Cup in February and March, mostly because they don’t have Mark Hartigan or Nate DiCasmirro up front or Dean Weasler between the pipes.

But that doesn’t negate the fact that they still possess one of the best offenses in the league and have the talent to make a run at a high finish.

“I think we’re going to be decent,” Huskies coach Craig Dahl said, playing the coy role. “Time will tell.”

Time, however, is something the Huskies don’t exactly have on their side. They’ll play at least the first semester without defensemen Derek Eastman and Joel Peterson after both were ruled ineligible.

Eastman is the bigger hit. He was the top scorer from the blue line last season and that loss will shake things up significantly.

Dahl said both could be back for the second semester, but he wasn’t going to make any predictions or guarantees. Eastman and Peterson have to shore up their grades first.

It puts more pressure on the rest of the Huskies’ defense, especially the younger players. But they have some experienced returners who could hold things together — as long as injuries don’t further deplete the ranks.

Jeff Finger, Matt Gens and Colin Peters will have a little extra responsibility as older players. Ryan LaMere will miss the first weeks of camp after shoulder surgery this summer, but the Huskies are optimistic he’ll be ready for the WCHA opener against Minnesota State-Mankato on Oct. 25.

“I definitely have to step up and be a leader, especially early in the season,” said Finger, a junior assistant captain. “We should be fine, though. We’ve got some good young guys coming. They’re tough and have good skills; they just lack experience.”

Dahl pointed out Tim Conboy, a San Jose Sharks draft pick, as being in the mold of Finger. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Conboy is roughly the same build as Finger (6-2, 215), and is reported to be able to throw his weight around just as well.

Despite losing Hartigan and DiCasmirro, the Huskies still have a number of forwards who can pull their weight in the WCHA. It starts with Ryan Malone, who, after consulting with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hold his NHL rights, decided to return for his senior season.

SCSU D Jeff Finger races to the puck (photo: Jason Waldowski).

SCSU D Jeff Finger races to the puck (photo: Jason Waldowski).

But he’ll move to center this year, something that could pay off because, at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he can create some space near the net. The change was a decision from Malone, the coaching staff and the Penguins, who see his future up the middle.

Joining Malone in the top six forwards are captain Jon Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Mike Doyle, Joe Motzko and Peter Szabo. After scoring only 12 points in his freshman season, Hendricks broke through for 39 last season, with 19 goals.

Dahl called the progress of Doyle and Szabo key to the development of the offense. Szabo recorded 33 points in his freshman season; Doyle had 32. They’ll be expected to produce the same figures this season.

That gives the Huskies two solid lines, with the potential for more if freshmen work into the mix. Ottawa draft pick Brock Hooton and Jonathan Lehun from Toronto show promise, but a stress fracture in Lehun’s left tibia will keep him out the first weeks of the season.

“The nice thing is,” Dahl said, “with our returning veterans, they won’t be thrust into a situation where they’re going to be expected to score a lot.”

The Huskies as a whole, however, will be expected to score a lot, at least to keep some of the pressure off the defense, in its fragile state, and the goaltenders, who are in a changing state of their own.

Jake Moreland played in 17 games last season as a backup to Weasler. He’ll get the first crack at clinching the top spot — Dahl said he’ll get the start in at least the Huskies’ opening series at Ferris State.

“Moreland’s now really got a chance to be the man,” Dahl said.

But waiting for a chance are Jason Montgomery, who was with the team last season but didn’t play, and newcomer Adam Hanna. A two-goalie rotation isn’t out of the question.

Winning the WCHA isn’t out of the question, either. Doing so would show the Huskies are a lot stronger than some are giving them credit for, and would further state that they’re going to be around the top for a while.

“You always want to build your program to one where you can contend year after year,” Dahl said. He then listed off a number of college football’s best teams: Nebraska, Florida State, Miami and the like.

“They don’t win the national championship every year, but they’re always a factor in the race,” he said.