Donâ€™t sleep on the MIAC
â€œThe MIAC is the most underrated conference in the country, from top to bottom.â€
Thatâ€™s the message heading into this season as the Western league that isnâ€™t considered a powerhouse and doesnâ€™t have Adrian within its ranks laces up the skates for the 2008-09 hockey season. With the national tournament expanding to 11 teams for the first time this season, many in the western region are hopeful the west can break in with four teams in the big dance.
While Hamline head coach Scott Bell believes the usual western allotment of two NCHA teams and the MIAC champion will be joined by the MCHA champion, the top of the MIAC is strong enough that we may see two MIAC teams in the tournament for the first time since 2005.
The St. Thomas Tommies were picked as a top five team in the USCHO.com preseason coaches/media poll, while the Hamline Pipers were the first team outside of the top 15, and the Bethel Royals also picked up votes. Toss in young teams like the St. Johnâ€™s Jonnies and Gustavus Adolphus Gusties, and the prospect of two MIAC teams in the national tournament is not far-fetched.
The remaining four teams in the conference all have question marks surrounding their teams as they enter the season. Can St. Maryâ€™s and Concordia improve on weak goaltending corps that may have lost games last season? Can Augsburg increase its offensive efficiency and get more than one player in double-digit goals this season? Can St. Olaf improve its power play to above 12 percent on the strength of young players?
The opening results against the NCHA-Interlock will help to paint the picture of where the MIAC is this season. Some early signature wins could help propel the conference to national significance and help make the case that more than one MIAC team might deserve a bid to the tournament. Scott Goldsworthy of St. Olaf understands the importance of these early-season games.
â€œThe west seems to really beat each other up consistently throughout the year,â€ Goldsworthy said. â€œAnd at the end of the year, your record might not indicate your talent pool but certainly I think youâ€™re going to be more prepared when it comes to league play and more prepared at the end of the year.â€
Games to Watch
With the stakes set, here are the top five games/series (in chronological order) involving MIAC teams this season:
Nov 20 — Bethel vs. St. Johnâ€™s: This early-season Thursday night game could have significant playoff implications down the line and will tell us a lot about these two teams.
Nov 28-29 — Primelink Tournament: St. Thomas opens up against Middlebury and then will face either Plattsburgh or Norwich the following day. Potentially the top teams in four separate conferences will face off in one tournament. A strong showing by the Tommies would improve the MIACâ€™s national standing.
Jan 4 — Adrian vs. St. Johnâ€™s: The most talked about team in Division III hockey faces a team near the top of the MIAC. The Bulldogsâ€™ national title hopes could be dashed with a loss to the Johnnies to start out the new calendar year.
Jan 9 — St. Norbert vs. St Thomas: The defending national champions against the defending MIAC tournament champions. Both games these teams played last season went into overtime.
Jan 30-31 — Hamline vs. St. Thomas series: The top two teams and MIAC conference finals participants from last season face off in a home-and-home with just three weeks remaining in the regular season. Home ice in the MIAC playoffs could effectively be determined with this series.
Augsburg Auggies: Getting It Together
Last year was the first season of a rebuilding effort by Augsburg coach Chris Brown, and that effort will continue into this season and beyond. The Auggies are composed this season of 10 freshmen, nine sophomores, four juniors, and three seniors. The onus will be on these young players to try and make an impact and ensure that Augsburgâ€™s season this year represents the second half of the 07-08 campaign more than the first half.
It was January before the Auggies won their first game last season, but then the team finished nearly .500 in the second half. However, even that doesnâ€™t tell the whole tale of Augsburgâ€™s year. Four of the teamâ€™s first six games were one goal games or ties, including against such stiff opponents as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, UWâ€”Superior, and St. Scholastica. On the early part of the season Chris Brown reflected:
â€œWe were giving up easy goals because we were so young. And it was hard on our goalies to sit there and stop some point blank opportunities.â€
But it was over winter break that the team refocused and with the increased experience, were able to rattle off some victories.
â€œWe came back after the break with a new attitude and took the approach we were going to play it as a new season,â€ Brown said.
That approach seems to have paid off in many areas of the game. However, one weakness of the Auggies last year was their inability to stop opponentsâ€™ power plays. With just a 75 percent kill rate, Augsburg was getting behind a man down. Brown views a lot of that as the result of several issues.
â€œThree things played into that poor statistic. On the penalty kill, experience helps. Obviously we had to roll out a lot of young players. The second thing you need on a good penalty kill is good goaltending, and I think our goaltending was average last year at best. And the third thing that contributed was our confidence. Itâ€™s hard to be a team that has confidence, especially when youâ€™re a man down, when you havenâ€™t won a game in a semester.â€
Night in and night out, Augsburg was skating eight to nine freshmen, and Brown feels that the increased experience of those players this season will help the team get off to a better start.
â€œNow weâ€™re in year two [of the rebuilding process] and many of those players played in a lot of situations.â€ the Auggies coach said.
Part of that rebuilding process will involve once again relying on young players to move the program forward. Brown claimed the team â€œneeded to hit a home runâ€ with this recruiting class, his first as the full-time head coach of the team.
He feels he was able to do that, bringing in a â€œvery experiencedâ€ freshman class that includes six freshmen aged 21 or older. Among those heâ€™ll be looking to have an impact early include blue liners Brandon Bukowski and David Hines, both of whom played three years of juniors, and Nick Guran and Travor Doden in the offensive zone.
The young players on this team lead to a lot of uncertainty. And while the program looks to have a bright future ahead of it, in the short term, Brown admits that the result this year is up in the air.
â€œWell itâ€™s hard to say. Obviously I think every teamâ€™s goal every year is to make the playoffs. And in our league, thatâ€™s a challenge every year. I think come February, hopefully weâ€™re peaking at the right time and we still have a shot at being a factor in the playoff race. I think with this young group as the season goes on theyâ€™ll only get better and better. And if we can win a few along the way and stay in the hunt come February, I think good things will happen for us.â€
Bethel Royals: Rebuilding or Reloading?
â€œWe graduated five guys that scored 127 points,â€ coach Joel Johnson says with a chuckle.
The laugh isnâ€™t to make light of the situation, but more of a release as he expresses his understanding of the challenges the Bethel Royals face in the upcoming season.
â€œWhen we take the ice, 50% of our lineup is going to be freshmen . . . [b]ut weâ€™ve still got some key guys in some key spots. So I hope itâ€™s not a total rebuilding year. I feel like it has some rebuilding aspects to it, but I feel like weâ€™ve got some good guys as juniors and seniors as well.â€
Johnson is in just his second season at the helm of the Royalsâ€™ program, and he sees a lot of differences between this and his first season.
â€œLast year I was very lucky there were so many leaders and so many upper classmen, and now you have to teach not only how to dress and get on the bus, but how to run the power play.
â€œIt just means that we havenâ€™t been able to get to everything weâ€™d like to be able to get to because we spent so much time teaching. Thatâ€™s a good thing — it just means thereâ€™s going to be a little bit higher learning curve. The things weâ€™re doing on special teams, for example, are very basic.â€
Because of the coaching transitions, the Royalsâ€™ small sophomore and junior classes meant this yearâ€™s freshman group had to be larger than usual. It is also the first season that Johnson can really put his own name behind the players who have shown up on campus. That doesnâ€™t mean heâ€™s singling anybody out as being especially important, however.
â€œOn one hand, itâ€™s too early to tell. We recruited a bunch of guys and have a wide open lineup. Time will tell who establishes themselves, and later on a guy who might not have caught our eye early ends up being a real consistent player for us.â€
Being the odd man out in the MIAC-NCHA Interlock forced the coaching staff to get somewhat creative in their scheduling for the early part of the season. Johnson feels, however, that the early schedule gives them a strong opportunity to see what the large incoming class can do. Theyâ€™ll be mixing lineups and constantly evaluating players through the early part of the season.
But no discussion of Bethel would be complete without mention of Aaron Damjanovich, a goaltender who has been the class of the MIAC.
â€œA goalie makes a coach and a team look much better than they may or may not be,â€ Johnson admits. â€œWeâ€™re very fortunate to have Aaron. It makes it a lot better knowing that heâ€™s there to provide stability and help bring other guys along in some important times early in the season.â€
The presence of the player who is likely the best stopper in the conference is one reason to be optimistic about Bethel moving forward this season. Despite that, Johnson has some refreshing honesty about where the team will end up in the standings.
â€œI have no idea. I really donâ€™t,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s honestly going to come down to three things: how our upper classmen respond to the pressure, because thereâ€™s going to be some seniors in particular that have to produce for us. The second piece is our goaltending. And the third piece is how the freshmen step up and provide good defense and maybe chip in a few offensive points every weekend. And I feel really good about the first two and donâ€™t know about the third. Iâ€™m looking at the schedule saying â€˜I could see us getting [to the playoffs],â€™ and I can also see other teams getting there, too. Iâ€™d like to think weâ€™re a playoff team.â€
Concordia Cobbers: Changing the Tone
In 1979, Concordia was the national runner-up. The Cobbers have been to seven NCAA and NAIA tournaments, and won the MIAC two times. Upon becoming the head coach at Concordia, Chris Howe gathered up this information and posted it in the teamâ€™s locker room. His goal: to put the pride back in the Cobber program and show his current team that there are players from the programâ€™s past who expect better than the recent downturn in the program.
Last season, Concordia tasted victory in the very first game of the season against the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — and then didnâ€™t get back in the W column for the rest of the year. However, this yearâ€™s squad is far from the team that took the ice last season. Fourteen new faces join the roster, and coach Howe knew exactly what he was looking for when he hit the recruiting trail.
â€œYou win with people and have to recruit good people. Thatâ€™s the most important part of the job — to recruit good people.â€
Some of the people heâ€™ll be relying on most this season are defensemen Erick Galt, forward Marc Harrie, and goaltender Eliott Okland. Howe has high hopes for Galt saying he has potential to be an All-American caliber player before heâ€™s done.
â€œHeâ€™s not big, but a fun guy to coach because he has so much ability,â€ Howe said.
Marc Harrie is a forward who had 26 goals in the NAHL. Heâ€™s a class of player that Howe is trying to build around.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to recruit guys who are small and can fit into these new rules. Protecting the puck carrier is good for my team because I have a lot of players who may not be as big, but have a lot of skill.â€
One of the places new players will be asked to step up is on special teams. Howe believes the influx of talent will be enough to turn around some of the Cobbersâ€™ woes on the power play and penalty kill.
â€œItâ€™s not a secret what youâ€™re going to do on the power play, you have to make a play. And I feel like weâ€™ve brought in some players who can do that,â€ he said.
Right away heâ€™s already seeing an improvement from last year reflected in the statistics. But heâ€™s not concerned about getting wins early in the season.
â€œWeâ€™re going to win some games [this year]. Itâ€™s a process and weâ€™re working every day to get better for our league. Thatâ€™s not the case [that you need early wins] so long as we stay focused on whatâ€™s going on and where weâ€™re trying to go. Weâ€™re trying to go forward.
â€œI see our team battling for a playoff spot in our league. Thatâ€™s our goal this year is to be in the playoffs at the end of the year. And thatâ€™s where I see us being and weâ€™re going to do our best to get ourselves an opportunity to play in the playoffs.â€
The Cobbers will certainly not be the pushover they have been in recent years.
Gustavus Adolphus Gusties: Unknown Quantity
Gustavus Adolphus returns most of the core from a team that finished just above .500 last season, including a signature win over St. Norbert at the start of the season — a game that would go down as the national championsâ€™ only loss of the season.
Leading scorers David Martinson and Patrick Dynan will return for their junior season. After tallying a combined 70 points last season, they will once again be charged with leading the Gusties offensive attack. However, with the loss of the teamâ€™s third and fourth leading scorers, forwards like juniors Joe Welch, Rory Dynam and Eric Bigham will have to step up their game to keep the Gusties 3.77 goals-per-game average from last season strong.
One of the bright spots for Gustavus last season was defensive scoring, as players like Mitch Carlson, Cody Mosbeck, Jay Fifield, and Niko Suoraniemi were able to tally double digit points from the blue line. And the good news is that all of those players with the exception of Suoraniemi will be returning to the squad this season.
But undoubtedly the story for the Gusties is that of sophomore goaltender Josh Swartout.
As a freshman he was able to secure a significant role, starting 14 games with a 2.54 goals against average (GAA) and a .893 save percentage. If Swartout is able to improve on those numbers — a likely scenario considering how young he is — he could become one of the elite goaltenders in the league.
If the Gusties are going to improve in the MIAC, generating more success on special teams will be one of the keys. Last yearâ€™s pedestrian 18.8% power play efficiency and 79.1 on the penalty kill will make it difficult to compete with the top teams in the league.
Another main question mark for Gustavus is the incoming freshman class. The group is an average size of six, but consists nearly entirely of players coming directly out of high school. While other teams in the league are increasingly bringing in players from junior leagues, the Gustiesâ€™ coaching staffâ€™s decision to bring in younger players will likely mean those new faces will need a longer time to adjust to the college game. If any of those freshman can develop into impact players, that development could be the difference between this Guatsvus team fighting for a league championship or sitting at home in late February.
Hamline Pipers: At the Top
Youâ€™re the defending regular season champion of your conference. You had the second best power play in the nation last season. And youâ€™re bringing back nearly your entire roster. And if youâ€™re the Hamline Pipers, thatâ€™s not even good enough to break you into the top-15 in the country in the USCHO Preseason Poll.
However, the Pipers are undeterred. Coach Scott Bell says that the team feels more confident as a group after last yearâ€™s success, and having so many returning players puts them in a position to improve the team even further.
â€œWe know guys who can kill penalties, we know guys who can play on the power play. Roles are defined. Weâ€™re not working on who can do what. So weâ€™re just working on getting better at what we do.â€
Players like Andrew Birkholz, defenseman Justin Hanna, and All-American Dustin Fulton. This core of Hamlineâ€™s potent offensive attack will be returning and will look to once again have a deadly power play attack that can put teams away.
And that consistency doesnâ€™t just apply to the iceâ€™s offensive zone, either. Matt Wanvig and Zachary Faust, the goaltending duo who carried Hamline to the regular season title last year, will both return as well.
â€œWe view goaltending as the most important part of our team, and we feel confident in our goaltending this year.â€ Bell said.
Pushing those two goaltenders will be a new arrival in net, freshman Beau Christian. He is one of several freshmen coach Bell is excited about. Ryan Kupperman and Brian Arrigoni will be playing on the top lines as forwards. Coach Bell says that those players will bring even more offense and speed to the Pipersâ€™ attack.
For the first time in Bellâ€™s career at Hamline, the Pipers have players at every class level, from freshman to seniors. This has allowed the team to enter the year focusing on getting ready for their games, and not wasting time getting organized as a program — which could be dangerous news for four NCHA teams who have to face the Pipers right out of the gate. The University of Wisconsin schools (River Falls, Stout, and Superior) and St. Scholastica will be a tough early season slate. Coach Bell is looking forward to the opportunity, however.
â€œThose four games will give us a benchmark for what we need to do in the MIAC and where we sit nationally as well as how do we match up with some of these top tier teams,â€ Bell said.
So where does he see his Pipers at the end of the season?
â€œI would say weâ€™ll be a playoff team with the MIAC. Thatâ€™s one thing I can say with confidence that I think we have a team that can make the playoffs. Weâ€™re one of those teams that can be scary if we get to the NCAAs because we do have some high-end guys.â€¦ Our goal is to see how we could do in an NCAA tournament.â€
St. Johnâ€™s Johnnies: Strong Core, New Coach
Most of the time in college hockey, players move on and graduate, and the coach has to refill the coffers with talent to keep his team at the level of the previous season. So it makes a situation like the one the St. Johnâ€™s Johnnies find themselves in this season all the rarer.
Coach John Harrington, who led the Johnnies for 15 seasons, resigned in late March to pursue a head coaching position with a professional team in Switzerland. Harrington led St. Johnâ€™s to a .620 winning percentage and five MIAC Championships in his time with the team. In July, Doug Schueller, a 2001 graduate of Bowling Green University, took over the reigns of the program.
But unlike many new coaches, Schueller now helms a program returning 20 players from last yearâ€™s squad, a team that finished above .500 on the season. Itâ€™s rare that a coach walks into an opportunity to have immediate success and Schueller realizes that he doesnâ€™t need to make wholesale changes to the team to see results on the ice.
â€œI may see things different than John did in the past, but for the most part those 20 returning guys have had the experience, have had the time in the league and they know what to expect. So I have to rely on them quite a bit to get us at least through the start of the season.â€
In addition, Schueller has retained one of the assistant coaches who worked under Harrington to maintain some stability within the program. His understanding of the league goes back to his own playing days, when Harrington attempted to recruit Schueller to St. Johnâ€™s, and from a recent crash course with former players and coaches who have seen the league more recently.
Schuellerâ€™s goal is to develop a hard-working team that can play with speed. However, he faces the difficult task of trying to judge players he hadnâ€™t seen in action until a couple of weeks ago. As a result, he sees a balancing act between looking at past performance and relying on what his own eyes tell him now.
â€œItâ€™s hard not to look in the past at what theyâ€™ve done numbers wise, thereâ€™s definitely some aspects there of players that have been productive in the past. But for the most part all of them get a chance to start with the new life and new attitudes in that they can earn spots on the team and figure things out.â€
As a mid-summer hire, Schueller did not recruit most of the incoming freshman class himself. However, with the large group of returning players, he did not need an extensive group of new faces this season.
Having the luxury of returning players, Schueller feels content to give his freshmen time to develop — players like Connor Rooney who â€œknows how to win hockey gamesâ€ and Kevin Medina who â€œis a dark horse with great speed, quickness, and skill.â€
Throw in returning senior goaltender Vince Wheeler, who had a 2.92 GAA and .883 save percentage last season with the freshman Steele DeFazio who will push him for playing time, and the Johnnies appear to be set up for success once again. Coach Schueller also has high hopes for the team this season.
â€œWe have a pretty good returning class that finished the season strong last year,â€ Schueller said. â€œDepending on how those upper classmen step up to the plate here, in the early season and through the MIAC play. Iâ€™d like to se us in the top three, four teams in the MIAC, competing in the playoffs for the national tournament.â€¦ Thereâ€™s no question in my mind that by the end of the year we can be a well-defined hockey team that can compete for that championship.â€
St. Maryâ€™s Cardinals: Experience Concerns
What happens when you take a team with less than 10 wins, remove the goaltender who got that team most of those wins, and add in a new coach? This perfect storm is taking place for the St. Maryâ€™s Cardinals, and new head coach Bill Moore will have a daunting task ahead of him.
Coaching changes are not something the St. Maryâ€™s hockey program is used to. Don Olsen helmed the program for 32 seasons. Olson left the program in June to become the Athletic Director at the College of Saint Scholastica. He coached over 800 games for the Cardinals, including 15 trips to the MIAC playoffs and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Moore, a 1985 graduate of St. Maryâ€™s, understands the legacy that Olson left behind.
â€œMy job is not to replace Don, because there is no replacement for him. Heâ€™s a great man, he did tons of unbelievable things for the school as well as our community, all I can do is to try and build from what he started.â€
Moore also understands that the program needs to refocus after losing goaltender Dan Smith, whose .891 save percentage kept the Cardinals in many games last season. And Moore admits that without Smith in net, St. Maryâ€™s likely would not have been in playoff contention as long as they were.
That is why this yearâ€™s focus is on team defense and lowering opponentsâ€™ shot totals. The Cardinals allowed 35 shots on goal per game last season, and the young netminders who will take over this season with little experience will likely be unable to successfully handle that barrage.
â€œThe biggest thing weâ€™ve got to do is weâ€™ve got to put more onus on the forwards and the defensemen to play better defense. â€¦ Weâ€™ve got to cut [the shots on goal] down to the point where weâ€™re giving up maybe 25 to 30 shots to give them an opportunity to gain that experience,â€ Moore said.
â€œThatâ€™s the one frustration I have from last yearâ€™s staff — why they didnâ€™t play some of the other goaltenders when they were out of the playoff scenario? So basically, we have two goaltenders who have never played a college hockey game in their life.â€
The lack of experience in the crease will require the team to play a more complete style of hockey this year, after being the most penalized team in the MIAC last season. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their defense might not be in line for an improvement. Many of the defensemen on the team are JV players who have recently moved up. Four specific blueliners have between 10 and 12 games of experience total. For a team that needs to cut down on shots, this is a potentially troubling sign.
Moore is less concerned about his forces on the offensive side of the ice, saying that he believes the team has forwards that can score goals for the team. However, the power play, which was at just 14% last season, will have some of the same experience questions as the rest of the team.
â€œWe lost our captain [Jeff Miller] 15 seconds into our annual intersquad with a torn MCL injury. Now we have three or four guys with little to no experience who have to play on the power play.â€
Even the top line will consist of all new faces, with sophomore transfer Trevor Tolibas centering two freshmen Vinny Unklesbay and Jimmy Becker. Moore expects the freshmen to show their skill and quickness from the outset of the season. So then, whatâ€™s the overriding theme of this Cardinals team?
â€œSkill wise we definitely have some players that can play. But we have some issues that weâ€™ve got to work out, too.â€
How quickly those issues are worked out is the primary factor that will determine if St. Maryâ€™s can be a playoff force this season. Coach Moore, for his part, is cautiously optimistic about where the team will be at the end of the season.
â€œRight now I would say I see us pushing the fifth and sixth spots, so Iâ€™d say we have an outside shot at the playoffs. But, if we can get some experience and keep healthy â€¦ our goal is to make the playoffs for the first time in six years, taking little steps at a time to get there.â€
Under the leadership of Moore, this team will be taking steps forward. If there are enough of those steps this season to push the team into contention is the question SMU will have to answer this season.
St. Olaf Oles: Question Marks Abound
St. Olaf might be the team in the MIAC with the highest range of positions they could finish at. After losing a talented senior class that included the teamâ€™s top scorer, Jeff Budish, coach Sean Goldsworthy reloaded the program, bringing in 14 new faces to try and get this team back into the upper echelon of the MIAC.
One of the major struggles for the Oles last season was on the power play, where they converted under 12% of their chances. Coach Goldsworthy believes that some of those new student-athletes, especially defensemen, can immediately have an impact on the power play unit and bring up the Olesâ€™ scoring.
â€œThe first thing you do is you increase your talent pool a little bit which I think we did,â€ Goldsworthy said. â€œSpecifically we increased our talent pool on the blue line. Four of our top eight defensemen are freshmen. They add a lot of puck movement and a lot of scoring to our power play, specifically to our blue line.â€
Of that group, he singled out two of the freshmen, Derek Grogan an all-star in the NAHL, and Caleb Harrison.
Elaborating, Goldsworthy said:
â€œI think whenever you can add offense from your defensive core, it can not only help you overall just on puck movement and transition, but also the immediate impact on the power play.â€
However, the only changes wonâ€™t be taking place on the power play.
Senior Jake Busch will not be the primary goaltender despite putting up the best numbers last season and having more starts than all other goaltenders on the roster combined heading into this year. Buschâ€™s 14 stars, four wins, 2.82 GAA, and .905 save percentage all led the Oles last season. Instead, sophomore Nick Krauss will get the bulk of the work between the pipes. His 3.26 GAA and .900 save percentage in four starts (winning two) are comparable to Buschâ€™s tallies and Goldsworthy saw something he liked in Krauss last season.
â€œNick brought a different element to the game and was able to elevate his game against certain opponents, one being St. Thomas, and at that point I think if the season would have continued Nick would have been our starting goaltender.â€
Whether the sophomore is able to outperform the senior, as the coaching staff expects, will go a long way to determining how the Oles fare this season. Buschâ€™s fall may have been far enough to put him behind freshman Ben Leis from the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (OPJHL) on the St. Olaf depth chart. Whether this is the sign of an actual talent disparity or rebuilding effort by the coaching staff will be one of the storylines of the season.
So does Goldsworthy think the Oles are capable of being an upper tier team in the conference?
â€œBarring injury and any specific collapses, I think we are. With 14 freshmen on the roster, I like our youth, I like our competitiveness. Itâ€™s just going to be a matter of how quickly the young guys can turn the corner and if they can do that by Thanksgiving, I think weâ€™ll be a competitive team in the MIAC when it comes to March.â€
St. Thomas Tommies: Reloading for Another Run
Whatâ€™s a coach to do when he loses his top three scorers to graduation and has to suddenly replace a significant portion of his teamâ€™s firepower?
If youâ€™re Terry Skrypek, head coach at St. Thomas, you create a beast of a defense, rely on your experienced goaltender Tyler Chestnut, and tell your offense to go score three goals a game, because the back end will hopefully hold the opponent to less than that.
Such a strategy all starts with the goaltender and Tyler Chestnut is as good as any in the MIAC. Last season, Chestnut won 18 games — four by shutout — while posting a 2.07 GAA and .912 save percentage.
â€œHe doesnâ€™t give up many goals,â€ said Skrypek of his junior stalwart. â€œHeâ€™s pretty steady and a coachâ€™s dream in terms of the way he plays the position.â€
Skrypek feels that Chestnutâ€™s confidence between the pipes spreads to the rest of the team, including the teamâ€™s strong defensive corps. Skrypek gives the first three sets of blue liners the modest moniker of being â€œpretty good.â€ They will have to be that and more to give St. Thomas a chance to reach their accustomed position at the top of the MIAC.
Skrypek admits his team will be down in terms of scoring and that the coaching staff will be experimenting off the bat with the goal being to find some players who can â€œput the puck away.â€ Some new faces enter the program with the goal of doing just that. Skrypek has done a shrewd job of bringing in transfer players who already have collegiate hockey experience, rather than attempting to rely on pure freshmen.
The list includes three new faces that will work together on a single line: Ian Schaser who transferred from Division I University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Parker Burgess and Evan Mackintosh who transferred from the now-defunct D-I Wayne State program, along with Kelly Kranz on defense, a transfer from D-III St. Maryâ€™s.
Those players will have to step up right away as St. Thomas plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
Or, as Skrypek so eloquently describes it: â€œWe donâ€™t have any patsies on our schedule this year.â€
Games against Superior, Scholastica, and Stevens Point will test the Tommies in the early part of the season, but it doesnâ€™t get any easier from there. The team will face two of either Middlebury, Plattsburgh, and Norwich in the Primelink Tournament over Thanksgiving, and then play University of Wisconsinâ€”River Falls and St. Norbert in early January.
Can they maintain the level from big non-conference games through the second half of league play? Skrypek points to an instance against Gustavus Adolphus from last season that he believes the team lost focus because the opponent was not in the top tier of teams. Avoiding those kinds of mistakes will be key to achieving one of his goals for the season — forcing St. Norbert to come to their barn to play in the NCAA Tournament, as opposed to the traditional arrangement that has the Tommies headed up there.
Skrypek says the key is to find combinations. Once that happens, he feels they can be as good as anybody. But with the decreased offensive production and increased reliability on defense, it does lead to some questions where St. Thomas will end up at the end of the year.
â€œItâ€™s hard to say. Our goal is to win our league and get a chance to go to the NCAAs and win the playoffs. I think weâ€™ve just got to ride on our senior leadership that we have. The talentâ€™s there, itâ€™s just a matter of getting it together. And we have to do some more coaching this year. Sometimes a coach can go along for the ride. Youâ€™ve got great players, you donâ€™t have to make many adjustments, or changes. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s going to be the case this year.â€¦ Weâ€™ll see, I think if we got on a roll we could be very good.â€
One thing is for certain, the competition in the MIAC this season will be something for hockey fans to watch.