There are only so many ways to talk about the competitiveness of the NCHA. Besides, by now it is good for nothing other than stating the obvious. In light of such, letâ€™s cut to the chase and check out the teams that will soon be entering Division IIIâ€™s biggest king-of-the-mountain contest.
I will point out that I picked positions four through seven in the conference by balling up pieces of paper and throwing them across my office. I enjoy putting my opinions on the line, but quite frankly, I have no idea whatsoever how these teams are going to settle out. I was legitimately unable to defend any self-chosen order of finish.
Teams are listed in reverse order of predicted finish by USCHO.com.
Lake Forest Foresters
Head Coach: Tony Fritz, 31st season overall and at Lake Forest (339-394-40)
2007-08 Overall Record: 3-23-1
2007-08 NCHA Record: 1-13-0 (8th)
Key Returners: F Mike Kneeland, sr., (7 goals, 11 assists, 18 points); F Peter Pfeffer, so., (6-9-15); F Adam Love, jr., (8-5-13); D Matt Oke, sr., (1-7-8); G Brandon Kohuch, sr., (0-11-0, 4.89 goals against average, .876 save percentage); G Scott Campbell, sr., (3-12-1, 4.17, .908)
Key Losses: F Blake Oâ€™Keefe (4-8-12)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Eighth
Lake Forest enters its final year in the NCHA with nowhere to go but up. Over the past two seasons the Foresters have posted a disappointing 6-44-4 record while finishing last in the conference both years.
If the Foresters wish to find more success in their farewell season, solid goaltending will be essential. In what is good news for Lake Forest, proven netminders also happens to be its biggest strength.
The Foresters return a pair of experienced senior goalies in Scott Campbell and Brandon Kohuch. While Lake Forest is known for rotating netminders all season, head coach Tony Fritz says heâ€™s going to try a little different approach this season.
â€œWeâ€™re solid in net, thatâ€™s for sure,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s our greatest strength. Campbell has really risen to the top and Kohuch is right there with him. Weâ€™re going to try to establish (Campbell) as our best. Legitimately if we feel he is our best then weâ€™ll stay with him, but we havenâ€™t determined that for sure yet.â€
The Foresters will be relying on senior Mike Kneeland to carry much of the offensive load this season. Despite being one of the more underrated players in the league, Kneelandâ€™s production has dipped since he rung up 40 points as a freshman.
â€œHe should do that again; be solid for us,â€ said Fritz. â€œHeâ€™s got the skill level.â€
Fritz also pointed to juniors Peter Pfeffer and Justin Taylor, as well as sophomore Adam Love as players he expects to raise there production levels. Love was the leading goal-scorer for the Foresters last season.
The Foresters ranked last in the NCHA by averaging only 1.56 goals per game last year, in part due to a power play that sputtered along at only 10.6%. As a result, raising that number has been a priority heading into this season.
â€œI think it will be better this year. I think we look better at it this year and it will be a strength for us,â€ said Fritz.
Lake Forest also ranked last in the league in scoring defense, conceding 4.56 goals per game.
Fritz explained: â€œWell, I guess you could consider (our defense) a weakness, but I donâ€™t think it isnâ€™t just the (defensive) corps. We are getting out shot so much all the time so they are under an awful lot of pressure.â€
The Foresters expect an improved defensive unit this year and Fritz made special note of senior Matt Oke and sophomore Matt Helderman.
Junior Nick Ghidina and freshman Joel Gard are also expected to see significant action.
All told, itâ€™s been a rough couple years for the Foresters, but experience tells all fans of the NCHA never to underestimate Lake Forest. Considering itâ€™s their last season in the NCHA maybe, just maybe, they have enough in the tank to give some teams fits. Theyâ€™ve done it before.
St. Scholastica Saints
Head Coach: Mark Wick, 4th season overall and at St. Scholastica (46-53-15)
2007-08 Overall Record: 10-13-5
2007-08 NCHA Record: 4-7-3 (7th)
Key Returners: F A.J. Tucker, sr., (15-17-32); F Jordan Chong, jr., (11-10-21); D Jordan Baird, jr., (10-9-19); F Joey Martini, sr., (9-9-18); F Trevor Geiger, sr., (8-10-18); D Rob Rodgers, so., (2-9-11); G Steve Bounds, sr., (6-6-2, 2.41, .912)
Key Losses: G Tyler Johnson (4-5-2, 2.91, .898)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Seventh
The Saints have been a very interesting story since head coach Mark Wick took over five years ago. No longer on the D-III trash heap, the Saints have wreaked havoc on the league — at least in the playoffs.
They have won two straight quarterfinal series, defeating River Falls and Superior, both on the road.
Two years ago they made the Peters Cup Finals only to succumb to St. Norbert, and last year came out on the short end of a 1-0 semifinal dogfight against the Green Knights.
Where the Saints havenâ€™t been able to make a lot of noise, however, is in the regular season. It was Wickâ€™s initial recruiting class that turned the program around, and with them now being seniors he hopes it can translate into regular season success.
â€œHopefully we can do it this time with experience,â€ said Wick. â€œThis is the first time weâ€™ve been here with a junior and senior dominant group. They understand what types of things we have to do better during the season.
â€œWe have to win those tight games. We have to play with urgency. Hopefully that sense of urgency that has led to playoff success is something these guys can take into this season.â€
Tight games were no doubt a bane of the Saints existence last season, as nine of their 13 losses came by two or fewer goals. They also tied five times.
As far as the personnel the Saints will bring to the ice this season, it will mark the first time under Wick they enter the season with a clear number one goaltender: senior Steve Bounds.
â€œHeâ€™s a senior and weâ€™ve just kind of said â€˜itâ€™s your net, make the most of it,â€™â€ Wick explained. â€œHe has, and thatâ€™s what we expect out of him. I think heâ€™s ready for the challenge and right now heâ€™s the guy weâ€™re banking on.â€
St. Scholastica returns a ton of experience out in front of Bounds as well. In fact, it returns every defenseman from a season ago. Seniors Shane Auger, Kelly Reynolds, along with juniors Jordan Baird, Rob Rodgers, Neil Sauter, and Chris Meagher all are back, though they will be pressed for playing time by freshmen Austin Brown and Daman Milson.
â€œWe are very comfortable with the guys we have back there. We think we are stronger this year than last year,â€ said Wick. â€œThat said, our save percentage and goals against average got worse last year, and those are things we have to improve.â€
Senior forward A.J. Tucker paced the Saints with 32 points last season, but after that they were largely a scoring-by-committee type of team. Wick expects the same this year, though he says some of the veterans certainly need to be relied on.
â€œI think we have a little bit of both,â€ he explained. â€œWe expect everyone to be better than last year and we have certain guys we expect to score but itâ€™s not just one or two guys. Joey Martini has to score, Trevor Geiger has to score, Jordan Chong as to score and A.J. Tucker has to continue to produce the way he has.â€
On paper, St. Scholastica really does look as solid as any team in the league. With absolutely no weaknesses and great leadership from their upperclassmen, itâ€™s now or never for the Saints.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Pointers
Head Coach: Wil Nichol, 2nd season overall and at Stevens Point (14-9-4)
2007-08 Overall Record: 14-9-4
2007-08 NCHA Record: 5-6-3 (6th)
Key Returners: F Brett Beckfeld, sr., (12-10-22); F Sean Fish, sr., (6-11-17); D Tim Manthey, sr., (4-11-15); D Jon Ralph, sr., (2-10-12); D Garrett Suter, so., (2-11-13); F Ross Johnson, sr., (5-8-13); F Matt Stendahl, sr., (5-7-12); G Thomas Speer, so., (12-6-4, 2.04, .927)
Key Losses: None
2008-09 Projected Finish: Sixth
When head coach Wil Nichol took over the Pointers last season he brought a new attitude with him. It resonated and the Pointers registered a 14-9-4 season — a marked improvement from the 7-18-2 record they posted the previous year.
One of Nicholâ€™s primary concerns was bolstering a defense that had allowed 4.37 goals per game the previous year.
To do so, Stevens Point brought in three D-I defensive transfers: Tim Manthey, Jon Ralph, and Creighton Scarpone, as well as Garrett Suter, who was originally slated to play at the University of Wisconsin.
The personnel changes paid immediate dividends as the Pointers allowed only 2.37 goals per game last season, a full two goal drop in only one season.
Not be lost in the defensive shuffle is goaltender Thomas Speer. The sophomore turned in a stellar campaign last season, allowing just over two goals per contest, though Nichol isnâ€™t making any promises Speer will see exclusive time between the pipes this season.
â€œThe job is wide open,â€ said Nichol.
Where the Pointers did struggle last season was in the goal scoring department, especially down the stretch. They averaged just a shade over three goals per contest, and only posted more than two three time in their final nine games. Coincidentally it was a stretch in which the Pointers posted a disappointing 3-4-3 record. Additionally, they went 0-4-2 in their last six.
â€œYou know, this is a hard league,â€ said Nichol. â€œThere are great teams and great goaltending and itâ€™s hard to score on anybody.â€
The Pointers do return a slew of talent that Nichol hopes can boost offensive production. Included in the mix are a host of seniors that includes Brett Beckfeld, Sean Fish, Matt Stendahl, Ross Johnson and Russell Law.
Sophomore Nic Polaski, as well as freshmen Jon Madden, Luke Nesper and Travis Erstad also figure to play prominent roles in the Pointers attack.
Though Stevens Point is a bit of wildcard this season, they look like a team poised to make a run. They enter this season with 12 seniors, but Nichol thinks the experience factor might be a bit overrated when it comes to his team.
â€œYou hope our experience is better,â€ said Nichol. â€œBut last year itâ€™s really like everyone was a freshman because I was new. I do think it will help that we have a lot of guys back and they know what to expect now.â€
â€œIf for that and nothing more, I think we are probably a little farther along at this point than we were last year.â€
The Pointers started the year 13-5-1 last year before fading a bit down the stretch. The big question this year is whether a team laden with upperclassmen that now have some experience under Nichol will be able to perform at that level for the entire season.
University of Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets
Head Coach: Dan Stauber, 9th season overall and at Superior (161-48-31)
2007-08 Overall Record: 13-6-8
2007-08 NCHA Record: 6-4-4 (4th)
Key Returners: F Kevin Huck, sr., (12-14-26); F Logan Isley, so., (11-11-22); F Chris Berry, jr., (5-9-14); F Braden Desmet, jr., (4-10-14); F Talon Berlando, so., (1-13-14); D Brian Bina, jr., (4-8-12); F Rob Turville, sr., (4-8-12); G Chad Beiswenger, sr., (12-4-6, 1.77, .933)
Key Losses: D Derek Paige (1-13-14)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Fifth
Superior has been an interesting story over the past few seasons. They posted a respectable 13-6-8 record last season and were 6-4-4 in the NCHA, which was enough to earn playoff home ice.
The Yellowjackets are an impressive 33-12-9 over the past two seasons yet seem to have flown largely under the radar.
Much of this may be due to postseason disappointments. Since making the NCAA quarterfinals in 2006 they have failed to get out of the first round of the NCHA playoffs. Both losses have come in heartbreaking fashion via the mini-game, first to St. Scholastica and then last year to Eau Claire.
The point here is that it would wise not to let a couple playoff losses lull anyone to sleep. Superior returns the bulk of its team from a year ago and will no doubt render itself a serious league threat once more.
Senior goaltender Chad Beiswenger is expected to garner a majority of minutes in the Yellowjacketsâ€™ net this season. Beiswenger had a strong junior campaign with his 1.77 goals against average (GAA) and .933 save percentage. Both ranked in the top three in the nation.
With Beiswengerâ€™s help, the Yellowjacketâ€™s defensive corps held opponents to a paltry 2.07 goals per game last season.
At the blueline, Superior is led by junior Brian Bina. Senior Ryan Kuntz is also expected to play a major role defensively despite spending last season as a forward. Other defensemen who can be expected to see significant ice time include junior Josh Seifert, sophomore Jesse Junkermeier and freshman Kent Detlefsen.
Superior is quite deep at the forward position and is led by senior Kevin Huck and sophomore Logan Isley. The two led the Yellowjackets in scoring a year ago with 26 and 22 points, respectively.
Other weapons up front include seniors Rob Turville, Andrew Mackenzie and Eric Bausano, juniors Chris Berry and Braden Desmet, and sophomore Talon Berlano.
The Yellowjackets experience could very well work to their favor as they boast 17 upperclassmen this season.
With that much experience on a team that has only lost 12 games in two years, Superior appears to once again have the tools to compete for the conference crown.
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds
Head Coach: Matt Loen, 2nd year overall and at Eau Claire (11-16-1)
2007-08 Overall Record: 11-16-1
2007-08 NCHA Record: 6-7-1 (5th)
Key Returners: F Sean Garrity, sr., (11-15-26); F Andrew Johnson, sr., (13-6-19); D Greg Peterson, sr., (5-13-18); F Jesse Vesel, sr., (5-7-12); D Tyler Trudell, jr., (1-8-9); G Tyler Brigl, jr., (11-15-1, 2.53, .901)
Key Losses: None
2008-09 Projected Finish: Fourth
Eau Claire bounced around the middle-of-the-pack all season last year. When the dust settled the Blugolds were in fifth place, just a half-game under .500. As a reward they got to take a trip to Superior for a quarterfinal series.
Though it was a fourth versus fifth seed series, most were surprised when Eau Claire eked the series out in a mini-game. It was the Blugoldsâ€™ first ever NCHA playoff series victory. Most were even more surprised when they almost dumped Stout in the following weekâ€™s semifinal.
â€œWe just need to build on that,â€ said Blugold head coach Matt Loen. â€œThe tradition here hasnâ€™t really been established so I think winning that first playoff series really gives the guys confidence. Now they know they can do it and with everybody back I would hope, at least minimally, that we could accomplish that again.â€
The most encouraging news for the Blugolds entering the season is the return of senior forward Sean Garrity, despite the fact he was also listed as a senior last year. Garrity paced the Blugold offense with 26 points a year ago.
â€œI think that was a critical thing for us in that he got a medical redshirt,â€ explained Loen. â€œWe knew back last November already, but yeah itâ€™s nice to have him back.â€
According to Loen, heâ€™s also pleased with some added depth at the forward position.
â€œI think itâ€™s fair to say we have a lot more depth now,â€ said Loen. â€œJesse Vessel was a guy playing with Garrity most of last year but now heâ€™s on our second line with Andrew Johnson and Joe Bluhm. Bluhm is a guy that unexpectedly could jump out and have a pretty good year this year. The addition of Brant Marple, a transfer from D-I Northern Michigan also really adds to our depth.â€
When former head coach Luke Strand took over in Eau Claire, the Blugold team defense became significantly better almost overnight. Nothing changed in Loenâ€™s first season as the Blugolds only conceded 2.75 goals per game last year.
Expect the Eau Claire defense to be just as stingy this year.
â€œWe have every single defenseman back from last season so obviously that helps,â€ said Loen. â€œWeâ€™ve also added Dustin Trail who has three years in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) under his belt and I think heâ€™s going to be an up-and-coming player for us and in the league.â€
The Blugolds also have solid depth at the goaltending position, though for now junior Tyler Brigl is the man between the pipes. Brigl saw action in 27 contests last year.
â€œRight now (Brigl) is the guy. We also have Mike Devoney, a transfer from D-I Wayne State who is pushing to be that guy. Thatâ€™s a nice thing to have as I think thatâ€™s the thing we havenâ€™t had at Eau Claire: competition at each position.â€
Overall, the Blugolds appear to be continuing an impressive upswing. With added depth at every position and a team brimming with confidence following last seasonâ€™s playoff success, itâ€™s hard to see the Blugolds missing a beat from where they left off.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons
Head Coach: Steve Freeman, 13th season overall and at River Falls (236-98-25)
2007-08 Overall Record: 16-7-4
2007-08 NCHA Record: 8-5-1 (2nd)
Key Returners: F Derek Hansberry, sr., (19-19-38); F Dustin Norman, sr., (13-17-30); F Tyler Czuba, jr., (16-9-25); F Nolan Craner, so., (9-11-20); G Steven Ritter, jr. (8-5-2
Key Losses: F Tyler Dahl (8-35-43); F Pat Borgestad (23-13-36); D Jim Henkemeyer (4-24-28); D Jim Jensen (3-7-10); D Jason Usher (0-11-11); D Josh Meyers (2-8-10)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Third
The Falcons have been just as potent as anyone over the past few years, but have often fallen out of late-season discussion due to three consecutive playoff fizzles. They have not made the Peters Cup Finals since 2003-04, and have been bounced from the playoffs at home in three of the previous four years.
Still, River Falls no doubt remains a serious threat in the NCHA, though unlike most of the league will be taking the ice this season with a healthy dose of fresh faces as 12 freshmen grace this seasonâ€™s roster.
The Falcons will have to replace the scoring of All-American playmaker Tyler Dahl, who paced the Falcons with 43 points last season. The status of 36-point forward Pat Borgestad is also up in the air pending a ruling on a medical redshirt filing.
It could amount to the loss of two significant scoring threats, but the Falcons still will hit the ice with a talented offensive group.
â€œI think we are pretty deep at forward,â€ said Falconsâ€™ head coach Steve Freeman. â€œWe do have 12 new players in the lineup. Over time hopefully our new guys come along, but we do have some guys back who put some points up for us last year.â€
Seniors Derek Hansberry and Dustin Norman return after each posting 30 point seasons a year ago, while junior Tyler Czuba and sophomore Nolan Craner each posted over 20 points last season.
The Falcons also bring in a crop of offensive talent, including freshmen Ben Beaudoin and Andrew Harrison. Sophomore transfer Jason Yuel is also expected to figure into the mix.
â€œBoth those (freshman) are big strong power winger type players,â€ said Freeman. â€œJason Yuel played at Curry last year and had a lot of points out there so those are guys weâ€™re hoping to get some points out of.â€
Freeman made note of the fact he was not happy with his teamâ€™s defensive performance last season, but if the Falcons wish to stiffen up they must overcome the loss of four defensemen to graduation, most notably Jim Henkemeyer.
Elaborating, Freeman noted that â€œJosh Meyers is back and heâ€™s one of our senior captains. Heâ€™ll log a lot of ice time for us and is a very important player. Sean Pettinger will play a lot more than last year. Some of the new guys like Tyler Pederson and Bill Pinel also will see ice time.â€
The one absolute known for River Falls is that they are solid in net. Between junior Stephen Ritter and sophomore Bo Storozuk, the Falcons enter the season with two competent goaltenders. Storozuk is a transfer from Northland, who two years ago maintained a save percentage near .900 despite facing over 50 shots per game.
â€œAt this point weâ€™re talking a strong look at both of them,â€ said Freeman. â€œIf one guy really grabs the reins and does an outstanding job weâ€™ll play him for a while.â€
Despite its losses, River Falls is poised to likely make another run at the top of the conference. With a dozen freshmen and a relatively inexperienced defensive however, it might come down to what growing pains, if any, they will have to overcome.
University of Wisconsin-Stout Blue Devils
Head Coach: Terry Watkins, 13th season overall and at Stout (140-171-18)
2007-08 Overall Record: 18-9-3
2007-08 NCHA Record: 7-5-2 (3rd)
Key Returners: F Derek Hanson, jr., (22-20-42); Joel Gaulrapp, jr., (18-18-36); F Scott Motz, jr., (8-22-30); D Jack Wolgemuth, sr., (7-23-30); F Jeff Wheeler, sr., (11-16-27); D Nick Klaren, sr., (7-14-21); G Matt Koenig (11-4-1, 2.93, .902)
Key Losses: F Luke Schroeder (7-18-11); D Jeff DeFrancesca (2-5-7); G Mike Stone (7-5-2, 2.18, .921)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Second
Itâ€™s only been a few years since the Blue Devils surprisingly surged to the top of the NCHA standings. The big question was whether they were a one-year-wonder or whether they were there to stay. The answer has clearly proven to be the latter as Stout has done anything but fade.
Two years ago the Blue Devils lost in the Peters Cup semifinals at St. Norbert, then last year lost in overtime of the Peters Cup finals at St. Norbert. They also garnered their first ever NCAA tournament bid, but dropped a first round game at St. Thomas.
Though the continual strides they have made donâ€™t leave much room for improvement, room does remain. If Stout plans taking the next step, head coach Terry Watkins feels consistency is essential.
â€œI just hope we can be as good as we have been,â€ said Watkins. â€œIf anything, I think maybe weâ€™ve overachieved the past couple years. I hate to say that, but there are some darn good hockey teams out there. Everyone is just so good, and I think we won seven or eight games last year by one goal, so I think if we can be anywhere near the top in our league Iâ€™ll be really happy.â€
Like most of the league, Stout returns the bulk of its team from a year ago. All told, only four players graduated, though the most notable was All-American netminder Mike Stone. Though another netminder of his moxie may be difficult to find, the Blue Devilsâ€™ net is in good hands as an experienced Matt Koenig returns for his senior season.
â€œMatt was 11-2 at the turn last year,â€ said Watkins. â€œStone didnâ€™t even play in the first half last year. I always try to ride two guys and heâ€™s been one of those guys for three years. Itâ€™s not like heâ€™s untested and not capable. Heâ€™s third or fourth all-time on our games played list.â€
The Blue Devils have developed a bit of a reputation as an offensive juggernaut, and they return 11 players you scored in double digits last year.
â€œWell, Iâ€™d like to beat people 10-0 but thatâ€™s not the way it works,â€ joked Watkins. â€œI think sometimes when you run and gun you have opportunities to score more goals but also maybe give up more opportunities to have goals scored against you.â€
Derek Hanson, Joel Gaulrapp and Scott Motz are all juniors who are expected to pace the Stout attack again this season. The three combined for 118 points last season. Additional weapons include seniors Jeff Wheeler and Nick Klaren. Watkins also pointed to freshman Matt Morin as another forward who is expected to contribute.
â€œI think right now we have three lines that will score some goals,â€ said Watkins. â€œI think our scoring is going be pretty balanced.â€
Defensively, the Blue Devils return everyone from a year ago and are led by senior All-American Jack Wolgemuth. Other notables joining him on the blueline include senior Nick Klaren, junior Bobby Kuehl, and sophomore David Larson. Freshman Joel Whited is also figures to see plenty of ice time.
â€œOur seven and eight defensemen are just as good as our number five and six,â€ said Watkins. â€œSo I think we are pretty deep there and Iâ€™m pretty happy with our defensemen.â€
The Blue Devils have had as much success as anyone in the NCHA other than St. Norbert over the past three seasons, but have yet to win a NCAA tournament game. Itâ€™s the next logical step for them, and it wonâ€™t come easy, but they are certainly poised to make a run with the wealth of talent and experience they return.
St. Norbert Green Knights
Head Coach: Tim Coghlin, 16th season overall and at St. Norbert (322-92-35)
2006-07 Overall Record: 27-1-4
2006-07 NCHA Record: 10-0-4 (1st)
Key Returners: F Matt Boyd, jr., (17-22-39); F Tyler Allen, jr., (11-17-28); F Shane Wheeler, jr., (7-20-27); D Nick Tabisz, so., (9-16-25); F Steven Sleep, sr., (7-16-23); F Ryan Petersen, sr., (9-12-21); F Taylor Langford, so., (4-7-11)
Key Losses: F Marc Belanger (23-22-45); G Kyle Jones (21-1-3, 1.09, .950)
2007-08 Projected Finish: First
One might suspect the rest of the league should be cowering in fear of the Green Knights. After all, they just won the national title, shut out about 75 teams along the way, and lost all of two players from last yearâ€™s squad. Thatâ€™s right. Two.
The most notable is of course goaltender Kyle Jones. Jones is hands down the most decorated D-III goaltender of all-time and his absence leaves St. Norbert with a formidable hole to fill.
â€œItâ€™s a huge void. I donâ€™t think you can overstate that at all,â€ said Green Knights head coach Tim Coghlin. â€œA lot of guys can look good when they make 50 saves, but last year we played a very good team game out in front of him. Itâ€™s hard to make 19 saves a game, but have five of them be critical. Thatâ€™s where Kyle was at his best.â€
This year, at least to begin with, the goaltending duties will be shared between sophomore Blake Bashor and junior B.J. Oâ€™Brien, a transfer from D-I St. Cloud State. Coghlin is expecting to use a straight rotation through the first semester.
â€œWeâ€™ll rotate pretty much straight through,â€ explained Coghlin. â€œThatâ€™s our early season plan. Does it mean Iâ€™ll hold my own feet to the fire on that? Absolutely not. If for some reason we need to change the rotation we will, but my plan is like last year when Blake actually got seven starts in the first half of the season.â€
Not to be lost in the obvious Jones storyline is the graduation of forward Marc Belanger. Belanger led the Green Knights in goals and scoring last season, but those are not the extents of his importance to the team.
â€œLosing Belanger kind of roles off peopleâ€™s tongues,â€ said Coghlin. â€œBut when you go back and watch highlight videos you can not imagine the number of huge goals he scored last year. Every single time we needed something to happen he was the guy who put the puck in the net.â€
â€œThere is a question as to where those goals are going to come from this year.â€
The Green Knights are indeed deep at forward, returning 39-point forward junior Matt Boyd. They also return seniors Steven Sleep and Ryan Peterson, along with juniors Shane Wheeler and Tyler Allen. All scored over 20 points last season.
Sophomore transfer A.J. Gale, also from St. Cloud State, and freshman Alain Joanette are also expected to figure prominently into the scoring mix.
â€œThis is where we are going to need that real strong balanced attack. We do have the ability to play a very similar style to what we did last year though we have made a few tweaks in our game plan,â€ said Coghlin.
Even ignoring the Kyle Jones factor, team defense is the bread and butter for St. Norbert and that will not change as the Green Knights return all nine defenseman from last season.
Though blueliners such as Nick Tabisz, Adam Hammerbeck and Jason Nopper will likely end up seeing significant ice time, Coghlin says all nine will be playing this season.
Coghlin explained: â€œI think weâ€™re just a non-descript mix back there. No one is really physical, but they are all somewhat physical. No one is really skilled, but they are all fairly skilled. We are fortunate that we can rotate seven, eight, nine guys into the mix and barring injuries we will continue to do that.â€
As expected, St. Norbert is the odds-on favorite to once again win the NCHA. Though that will prove no easy task, Coghlin and the Green Knights will enter the season with the same mindset they did last year:
â€œIf you look at what happened last year our seniors were allowed to just go out and play. We really put the leadership on our juniors and I went with that same approach this year. I want (seniors) Steven Sleep, Ryan Petersen and Jon Skoog to be able to go out and just enjoy the year. That means the junior class â€” guys like Shane Wheeler, Matt Boyd and Tyler Allen have to step up this season.â€
Why not? It seemed to work out pretty well last time around.