Freshmen class key to North Dakota’s run at a final WCHA title

A strong group of underclassmen and seniors give North Dakota the puzzle pieces it needs to make a run at the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy during its final season in the WCHA.

“We have an attractive group of seniors,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “We have guys there who we have relied on. When you look at our sophomores — Nick Mattson, Mark MacMillan and Michael Parks — you see a lot of potential there.”

But it is the freshman class, bolstered by the redshirts last season for Rocco Grimaldi and Colten St. Clair, that puts UND solidly in contention. The program was picked to finish second behind league favorite Minnesota.

An offseason party that resulted in a number of short-term suspensions may slow North Dakota in the first month of the season.

“Their productivity will dictate the kind of start we have,” Hakstol said, referring to the freshmen. “We’re very excited to get going.”

Grimaldi, who played four games before season-ending knee surgery, showed why he is the two-time WCHA preseason player of the year with his playmaking ability and creativity on the ice during the recent exhibition game.

Seniors Danny Kristo (19 goals, 26 assists for 45 points) and Corban Knight (16-24–40) are two-thirds of a potent top line. Senior Carter Rowney (18-15–33) looks good as well. Add in Grimaldi (1-1–2), St. Clair, MacMillan (7-16–23) and Parks (12-10–22) and the potential for three very good lines and a strong fourth exists after others find their roles.

A strong defenseman corps is led by senior Andrew MacWilliam, juniors Derek Forbort and Dillon Simpson and sophomore Mattson.

“I expect an outstanding season for Derek,” Hakstol said. “He really cane into his own during the second half of his sophomore year. He’s really looked like a dominant player for us. I expect him to be one of the guys who will pick up the minutes we lost in [graduated] senior Ben Blood.”

Senior Joe Gleason returns to the blue line after filling in at forward during last season’s injury-riddled campaign that ended on a high note with the Broadmoor Trophy and an NCAA tournament win over Western Michigan.

Having a good group in front of them should help junior transfer Clarke Saunders (Alabama-Huntsville) and freshman Zane Gothberg in net. They have big skates to fill.

“We lost two guys [Aaron Dell, Brad Eidsness] who logged all the minutes the last four years,” Hakstol said. “We feel we have two capable guys in a very competitive situation. Both will get some playing time early. We will let that dictate playing time later.”

About North Dakota

2011-12 overall record: 26-13-3

2011-12 WCHA record: 16-11-1 (fourth)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): Second

Key losses: F Brock Nelson, D Ben Blood, G Aaron Dell, F Mario Lamoureux

Players to watch: D Andrew MacWilliam, F Danny Kristo, F Corban Knight, F Carter Rowney, F Rocco Grimaldi, D Derek Forbort, G Clarke Saunders, G Zane Gothberg, F Colten St. Clair

Impact rookie: Grimaldi

Why North Dakota will finish higher than the coaches poll: Grimaldi, most everyone’s pick as preseason rookie of the year, gives North Dakota the playmaker it needs to spark the offense. The defense should be strong with well-regarded rookie Gothberg and transfer Saunders, who stole a few wins at Alabama-Huntsville, adding considerable depth between the pipes. More points from defensemen Nick Mattson and Dillon Simpson would provide a big spark.

Why North Dakota will finish lower than the coaches poll: Some preseason tumult and the subsequent suspensions could carry over into November, which could cost valuable league points as North Dakota tries to overtake presumed favorite Minnesota.