Nebraska-Omaha expects to feel the heat in inaugural WCHA season

The resume Dean Blais has put together would make one think it would be an easy transition when he takes his Nebraska-Omaha team from the CCHA to the WCHA.

The former North Dakota coach won five MacNaughton Cups and a pair of Broadmoor Trophies in his 10 years at North Dakota, but Blais — now in his second season as head coach at UNO — knows the situation is different this time around.

“It’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” said Blais, who has been involved in professional and amateur hockey outside the WCHA since 2004. “There’s no ease at all [in making the transition]. The only thing I know about the WCHA is where all the hotels are. With 11 freshman in the lineup, we could be in for a real tough start.”

Blais led the Mavericks to a 20-16-6 record in 2009-10, falling two wins short of the CCHA semifinals.

“We accomplished some good things last season,” said Blais, who missed four games last season to coach Team USA to a gold medal at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships. “Twenty wins is not an average season, it’s a good season. The players accomplished a lot.”

Geographically, the WCHA is the right fit for UNO, but the preseason WCHA coaches and media polls don’t have the Mavericks in such a favorable location — projected to finish eighth and ninth, respectfully, in 2010-11. UNO has gone 2-3-2 against current WCHA opponents over the past two seasons.

Up front

Three of UNO’s top four scorers are forwards returning from last season. Joe Kemp (8-20–28) will be a junior. Rich Purslow (14-13–27) and Joey Martin (16-10–26) are seniors. The Mavericks lost top goal scorer Jeric Agosta (15 goals) to graduation, but Purslow and junior Alex Hudson each tied for second on the team with 14 goals.

Matt White joins the forward corps after racking up 82 points for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL. His 35 goals were tied for most in the USHL with Tyler Barnes (Wisconsin) and Anders Lee (Notre Dame).

“We’re young but we have talent,” Blais said. “We have players coming in from junior leagues that either led their team or their league in scoring.”

On the blue line

Eddie Del Grosso — UNO’s leading scorer from a year ago with 30 points — left a gaping hole at defense when he graduated in the spring. Blais said Del Grosso and fellow defenseman Mark Bernier logged around 30 minutes per game last season.

“[Defense] is our biggest question mark going into the season,” Blais said. “We have four freshman that are going to see playing time.”

Andrej Sustr, Michael Young and Tony Turgeon are those freshman expected to play. Eric Olimb is UNO’s leading returning defenseman in scoring with 20 points in 2009-10.

In the crease

Goaltender John Faulkner returns from a freshman season in which he split time with senior goalie Jeremie Dupont. Faulker saw more than half of the minutes in net, going 13-10-4 with a .905 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.

Fredrik Bergmann redshirted last season and Mike Taffe joins the team.

“Faulkner had a decent season last year,” Blais said. “Both [Faulkner and Taffe] are looking good. Bergmann didn’t get many games in. John’s going to have to be good from the start to allow Taffe to get used to the game.”