This Week in WCHA Hockey: Nanooks finding success with creative approach to recruiting

Alaska players celebrate a victory during the 2019-20 season (photo: Alaska Athletics).

After all the uncertainty that has swirled around the Alaska Nanooks in the past year or two, Erik Largen is happy that most of that is now behind the program.

The team is a successful one on the ice this year — currently fourth in the WCHA standings with a month to go in the regular season.

But some of that uncertainty has actually led to some positives for Largen and his Nanooks coaching staff, namely on the recruiting trail. But their new hotspot isn’t one of their “traditional” recruiting areas like western Canada.

“With everything that’s going on over the last couple of years with the negative perceptions of our program, we had to find some different markets to recruit into, some different areas,” Largen said. “So we’ve looked to Europe.”

The Nanooks have 10 players from Europe on the roster, and Largen says there’s more in the pipeline for the next few seasons. All of the European Nanooks hail from the Baltic Sea region — five Latvians, three Swedes, a Finn and a Dane.

“The Swedes, for them, it’s comfortable because it’s a smaller town, the weather is similar, the community is similar, and it’s a really good fit for them,” Largen said. “And Antti Vireanen, he’s from northern Finland, he said coming over here was not much of a change for him.”

One might look at a roster full of Latvians and call it a coincidence, but there’s a very good reason why they decided to come to Fairbanks: Karlis Zirnis.

The Nanooks assistant coach hails from Riga and just so happens to be the head coach of the Latvia Under-20 team. Gustavs Grigals, Kristaps Jakobsons, Eriks Zohovs, Roberts Kalkis and Markus Komuls all played for him before coming to Fairbanks, where he has been an assistant since 2018. He previously coached the Shreveport Mudbugs of the NAHL and played D-I hockey at Alabama Huntsville from 1999 to 2003 in the old CHA conference.

Komuls, Kalkis and Zohovs are freshmen and all three have played significant minutes for the Nanooks this season — defenders Komuls and Kalkis have appeared in 27 games and forward Zohovs has played in 26. Grigals, a sophomore goalie, has appeared in 12 games splitting time in net with senior Anton Martinsson (one of the Swedes). Jakobsons, also a freshman defender, has yet to appear in a game for the Nanooks yet.

“They’ve been really solid contributors,” Largen said. “Especially with Markus and Rob, you don’t see them on the scoresheet as much because we have an older team and they haven’t gotten as many opportunities as some of the older players, but they’ve done a good job of coming in and earning more and more. … “It’s not something where they’re scoring points back there but they’re playing meaningful minutes and helping us win hockey games even if they aren’t showing up in the box score most of the time.”

Komuls has just two points (a goal and an assist) in 27 games while Kalkis has four (all assists). Zohovs has six points playing mostly on the third and fourth line. The other European freshman are also playing a lot of minutes, too — Swedish forwards Didrik Henrant and Filip Svenssomn have played in 28 and 21 games, respectively. Vireanen, the Finn, has played 26 games as a sophomore defenseman.

Largen said he’s not concerned that these guys aren’t necessarily lighting up the scoreboard right now but he recruited them for a reason: He knows they’ll be four-year players and he can watch them develop into playing meaningful minutes on both sides of the ice. That’s not necessarily a new recruiting strategy with the Nanooks, or even one that’s unique within the WCHA, but it’s one the Nanooks are finally finding success with this season.

“I think you might find some guys that aren’t going to impact the game offensively right away like maybe some other schools are going to get, but they’re going to be really nice four-year players and they’re going to develop that offensive ability as they continue to get more and more comfortable and grow as players,” Largen said.

And even if those defensemen aren’t contributing offensively now, they have certainly helped the Nanooks improve their defense. Last season Alaska was in the bottom third of the country in scoring defense — they let in 114 goals in 36 games (3.17 per game). This season they’ve risen from 45th overall to 24th in goals against (they’re now at 72 in 28 games, or 2.57). That’s a pretty marked improvement.

Largen credits his defensive corps and also the three goaltenders on the roster — all of whom happen to be Europeans.

Martinsson, from Sweden, is 7-8-1 while Grigals is 6-5-1, the two have alternated for much of the season. Emil Gransoe, the lone Dane on the team, hasn’t played yet as a freshman.

“Anton has really seen an improvement year in and year out,” Largen said of Martinsson, who had a 3.17 GAA and .899 save percentage in his sophomore year, a 2.72 and .910 as a junior before improving this season to 2.46 and .922. “He’s continued to work, he’s continued to get better and he’s had the right attitude. It’s showed in his statline, but I think we’ve also built a little better team around him and given him some more help.”

The Nanooks are looking to finish the season at least where they are now: Fourth place in the conference. That would give them home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, something they haven’t had since the 2013-14 season. They hosted rivals Alaska Anchorage and lost in three games as the No. 3 seed.

Alaska travels to last-place Alabama Huntsville this weekend to try and put more distance between themselves and fifth-place Michigan Tech.

“One big goal for us was home ice, and we’re in a position where we’re able to control our fate with it with the schedule that we have down the stretch,” Largen said. “Every game is important right now. We want to be able to bring home ice back here to Fairbanks and we’re going to try and do everything in our power to try and do that.”

Beavers inch closer to Mavs in MacNaughton Cup race

It’s tough to call a five-point weekend on the road in Alaska a negative, but by failing to beat Alaska Anchorage before 3-on-3 overtime on Saturday night, Minnesota State has opened the door, ever so slightly, for Bemidji State to push them out of the way.

The Mavericks had a relatively easy 7-1 win on Friday before a much more-difficult 2-2 tie on Saturday, but Bemidji State took all six points from Bowling Green at home with a sweep. That put the Beavers just five points behind the Mavericks with six games to go for both teams. The Beavers have won eight of their last 10 games since 2020 began.

The Mavericks take on third-place Northern Michigan this weekend while the Beavers are idle; the teams will swap positions the weekend after that with BSU visiting Northern and NMU idle. The schedule makers gave us a treat, though — the Mavericks visit Bemidji on Feb. 28-29, the last weekend of the regular season.

Craighead helps NMU solidify third

Darien Craighead scored had a hat trick on Friday while five different players scored on Saturday as Northern Michigan swept Ferris State by a pair of 5-2 scores on the weekend.

Thanks to the sweep the Wildcats are now in third place in the WCHA; nine points clear of fourth-place Alaska and seven points behind Bemidji State with two games in hand on both teams.