Chris Conner, Colin Murphy and Taggart Desmet broke onto the WCHA scene last season with a burst of offense not usually expected from Michigan Tech.
It was the kind of statement new coach Jamie Russell wanted to see his team make. Russell, a former Tech defenseman, wanted to shake the Huskies out of their doldrums by … well, shaking them out of their doldrums.
No more trapping. No more playing passive hockey. Russell wanted to see Michigan Tech, which now has gone 12 seasons without a winning record, use an aggressive forecheck as a spark for a high-octane brand of play.
And with Conner, Murphy and Desmet, the Huskies got just that. Conner, specifically, emerged as one of the nation’s best forwards, finishing with 25 goals — a nation’s-best eight of them shorthanded — and 39 points. Murphy chipped in 32 points and Desmet had 26.
The catch was this: They were on the same line.
The Huskies were just a one-line team, and when opponents realized that keying on the top line was tantamount to keying on the entire team, it was lights out.
So while the Huskies also were deficient in other areas of the game last season and look to improve on those, getting some backup for the big three is crucial to their offense.
“If we can get some more depth to our scoring and spread those guys out a little bit,” Russell said. “I think it’ll certainly help us be a more dangerous team.”
It didn’t work so well last season, but splitting up Conner, Murphy and Desmet is a possibility as Russell looks at this season. With key offensive figures Brett Engelhardt and Jon Pittis gone, the support load will fall on a number of players who haven’t had that kind of responsibility before.
One is Brandon Schwartz, who scored 19 points as a sophomore, making him the top returning scorer after the big three. He returned to Houghton in fantastic shape, Russell said, after a summer of work with a power skating instructor.
Russell said he expects to see more out of sophomore Tyler Skworchinski, who missed a significant portion of last season with an injury, and junior B.J. Radovich, who managed only three points in 34 games a year ago.
The team’s 11 newcomers will fit into the mix, too, with Russell saying because there’s so many of them, he’s going to need some of them to be impact players. Winger Jordan Foote may be one of them.
“If you can put a freshman out there and see what they do with Chris Conner on their line, that’s a pretty good opportunity,” Russell said. “As a player, that’s all you can ask for: ‘Give me the opportunity, and from there it’s up to me.'”
The coach admitted it took his players a while to make the adjustment to a more open game last season, but he isn’t giving up on it.
“It was a new system for everybody to learn, and we’re not changing a whole lot from last year,” he said.
The Huskies were last in the 10-team WCHA with an average of 2.55 goals per league game, but they managed the league’s fourth-ranked power-play unit at 20 percent. The other side of the game was just not pretty, period.
Tech was not only last in the WCHA in penalty killing (71.4 percent in league games), but also last of 58 Division I teams (73.2 percent overall). With the possibility that more penalties will be called this season because of the NCAA ice hockey rules committee’s crackdown on obstruction, a repeat of those figures would be fatal to the Huskies’ hope of improving.
The team’s defense as a whole must improve for the Huskies to avoid the cellar. A year ago, their defense was ninth in the WCHA and 56th in the country.
“You can’t lay everything goals against on a goaltender and say we’re not getting goaltending,” Russell said. “I think our goaltenders need to have a higher save percentage and we need to get our goals against down, but it’s a function of team defense and the guys that are playing as a unit together, cohesively, to get the goals against down and the shots on goal reduced.”
The goaltending situation with senior Cam Ellsworth, sophomore Bryce Luker and freshman Kevin Hachey is wide open, Russell said, and he’s not necessarily looking for great numbers, just wins.
But it’s incumbent on the Huskies’ defense to at least give the goalies a chance. Tech had a young defense last season and can claim a bit more experience, but its defensemen still have to deliver.
Senior Clay Wilson topped all expectations made of him in offseason workouts and will be expected to be a leader on and off the ice for the Huskies’ blueliners. Lars Helminen saw the minutes of a top-four defenseman last season despite being only a freshman, so he’ll have expectations, too.
“Playing defense doesn’t have a whole lot to do with talent,” Russell said. “It has to do with commitment, understanding the system, playing hard, winning battles, being a relentless opponent — I think those are all characteristics that, as an entire group of six players on the ice, we have to make the commitment to playing solid team defense.”