Monday, October 05, 2015

Monday Musings: Bulldogs Explode in Second for Exhibition Win

Those in attendance Sunday night saw a UMD team that steadily improved as the game wore on, and ended up wearing down an overmatched Lakehead University group that was playing its third game in three days.

The 6-1 final was largely indicative of how the game was played, as UMD overwhelmed Lakehead from about the ten minute mark of the first period to its conclusion. The Thunderwolves used a first period power play goal to take the lead into intermission, but two significant Bulldog flurries late in the period really showed what was to come.

Power play goals by Tony Cameranesi and Nick McCormack -- Cameranesi scored on a five-on-three -- came 45 seconds apart and gave UMD the lead for good early in the second. Lakehead pulled effective starting goalie Jeff Bosch (24 saves on 26 shots) about halfway through the second, and UMD teed off on backup Justin McDonald, a former Midget teammate of UMD sophomore Blake Young. Austyn Young, Bill Exell, Alex Iafallo, and Blake Young scored goals 3:22 apart just after McDonald came into the game. That blew the game open, and UMD never looked back from there.

Shots ended up 50-11, with freshman goalie Nick Deery stopping four in the third after sophomore Kasimir Kaskisuo and senior Matt McNeely each stopped three in their respective 20 minutes of work.


I hate to be "that guy," but I learned very little from Sunday's game.

Worse yet, I'm not sure what I expected to learn.

Sometimes, there's a line to get a look at, or a newfangled defensive pairing. But even though the top line and top defensive pairing both feature freshmen, I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Adam Johnson and Neal Pionk. Wasn't disappointed by either of them.

This isn't a bad thing. It's a product of the team returning 21 letterwinners from a team that damn near made the Frozen Four.

The power play generated chances and moved the puck well. As frustrating as it can be when guys aren't shooting, reality is that possession is such an important part of a power play. Win the faceoff, establish possession in the offensive zone, and then it's all about generating opportunities by finding the spots on the ice where you can outnumber the opponent and execute your plan. Shooting for the sake of shooting isn't a good idea. It's a recipe for losing possession and chasing the puck down in your own zone.

The penalty kill got victimized by a goofy bounce for the Lakehead goal. Otherwise they were solid in limited work. Lakehead only got two shot attempts off during three power plays. I'm thinking the coaches will take that.

The freshmen all looked good. Johnson got extended playing time on the top line with Dominic Toninato and Iafallo, and Pionk played with Welinski, as expected. The "fifth line" came on in the second half of the game, eventually taking the spot of the top line on the bench, and Exell, Parker Mackay, and Blake Young had a good night, chipping in a couple goals. 


Had a few people at the rink and on Twitter ask why UMD decided against an experimental three-on-three. While I understand why some did it (Denver tried it after a 4-0 win over Calgary last night), ultimately UMD's call was to let the game dictate if there was overtime, and further if there would be a three-on-three period.

Why? What we were told is the decision was made because of the feeling that playing overtime -- even a fake, experimental overtime -- was not right after a regulation win of any kind. UMD has done experimental shootouts since that concept was introduced, but they came after convincing victories and made little sense in context.

Win a game 6-1, and now it's time of overtime? Nah, no need for that.


Bemidji is next. As I mentioned on the air, UMD owes the Beavers one. Last January at the North Star College Cup, Bemidji State put a pretty thorough 4-0 whipping on UMD. It was the low point of the season for the Bulldogs, one that spurred a bit of a turnaround starting the next afternoon against Minnesota in the consolation game.

That means nothing now, but it was a really impressive performance by the Beavers that afternoon, and I have to imagine UMD hasn't forgotten about it, especially with the aforementioned 21 players back from that team. Bemidji should be improved in the WCHA yet again, and this is a sneaky good matchup on the "Week 1" docket in college hockey. The atmosphere at both games -- especially Saturday's game in Bemidji -- should be very good. I expect the hockey will be, too.

By the way, this will be a regular Monday feature on the blog, recapping the weekend series and occasionally exploring other NCHC notes of interest. Hopefully you'll check back regularly.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Great Expectations

Senior-laden teams that have NCAA Tournament experience and plenty of motivation to take the next step don't always work out.

Captain Andy Welinski and the 2015-16 Bulldogs are determined to take that next step and see this program back to the NCAA Frozen Four. Last year's bitter ending -- a 3-2 regional final loss to Boston University where a controversial penalty on Welinski led to the game-winning power play goal late -- is last year.

UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, now in his 16th season, says "We've moved on."

By faceoff time against Bemidji State next week, it will have been nearly 200 days since Evan Rodrigues' power-play goal ended UMD's season in Manchester, N.H. That's a long time to stew on something, but this was pretty painful. No one would be mad at anyone in the UMD room that admitted they've thought a lot about the game since it ended.

But there is a new season to be ready for. And if the preseason polls are any indication, UMD isn't the only team looking to do what Providence did in April. Far from it.

Ten teams got first-place votes in the preseason poll. That's a preseason poll record. This season could be just as competitive -- if not more so -- than last season. The NCHC sent six teams to last year's NCAA Tournament. All but two were gone before the Frozen Four, and the survivors were beaten in the semifinals by two Hockey East teams. If you're betting against the NCHC putting six in the tourney again this year, you're either a fool or someone who simply hates money.

Oh, and why are you betting on amateur sports, you degenerate?

Anyway, UMD received the second-most first place votes (Boston College got more), and now the second-ranked Bulldogs head into a season full of expectations. Can they fulfill said expectations?

I picked UMD to win the NCHC, to sum it up, because I feel the Bulldogs have the fewest holes of any team in the league. That said, the Bulldogs lack the dynamic, explosive high-end skill Denver has up front and Miami has on the blue line, and UMD probably doesn't have the defensive depth or potentially-explosive freshmen forwards North Dakota possesses. It's far from a slam-dunk, as just about everything is this time of year.

Let's take a look at this UMD team, its depth, the freshmen, and answer some questions that came in on Twitter (@bruceciskie).

Previously on the Blog
UMD Projected Depth Chart (updated below)
UMD TV/Radio Primer
Preseason NCHC Predictions


At forward, UMD lost captain Adam Krause and do-everything Justin Crandall. Krause was the heart and soul of the team, while Crandall was second in goals with 13, including a team-high 11 in conference play. The leadership both provided is going to be difficult to replace (we'll discuss leadership as the blog moves on).

Who's back? Well, almost everyone. The top line of Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, and Karson Kuhlman is back intact. Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo will start a third year of being linemates at UMD, joined by potentially dynamic freshman Adam Johnson. Jared Thomas, Kyle Osterberg, and Austyn Young played well on the third line when given that duty last year. And assistant cap'n CAL DECOWSKI!!!1!! (it's an old bit, sorry) centers the fourth line as things get going Sunday with an exhibition against Lakehead. He'll start with Sammy Spurrell and Charlie Sampair with him. But no one can rest on their laurels.

On the lines, Sandelin says "I think that's the one nice thing. We have a lot of our lines intact. Look at Tony's line, you've got two-thirds of Dom's (line) back together. Jared Thomas and Kyle Osterberg played together a lot in the second half. If you really look at it, there's not a lot of changes. We've moved some guys around a little bit. You know it's a mature group. That familiarity is going to pay off."

Sophomore Blake Young is joined by freshmen Billy Exell and Parker Mackay as those waiting in the wings for a chance to crack the lineup. Young showed some potential as a big forward last year, and Mackay was captain in Spruce Grove last year and is a late find the coaches like a good amount.

Projected preferred lines
Farley - Cameranesi - Kuhlman
Iafallo - Toninato - Johnson
Osterberg - Thomas - Young (Austyn)
Sampair - Decowski - Spurrell
Young (Blake) - Mackay - Exell


A note on the freshmen: They're all older. Johnson played two years in the USHL, as did Pionk. Mackay was a three-year junior player in Canada who is 21 years old already (as is Johnson, while Pionk is 20).

If you are a hardcore fan who reads recruiting blogs and draft stuff, you haven't seen these names. That's because their draft eligibility is long gone. They're officially "under the radar" prospects. But they won't be under the radar for long.

I do think Mackay will struggle to crack the lineup consistently, at least in the first half of the season (barring injuries, of course, since that's always the great equalizer). It's not that he isn't ready or can't keep up in practice. It's that UMD has 11 forwards that can boast pretty significant playing experience, and Blake Young got quite a bit of ice time in the second half before he was grounded by a lower-body injury late in the year. It's a numbers game for the "fifth line," but it's a solid group that Sandelin and staff will make sure is ready to play when called upon.

I do think UMD benefits from having older freshmen to sprinkle into a pretty experienced lineup. I'm not saying there won't be growing pains. I'm saying the likes of Johnson and Pionk, who -- let's not mince words -- will play and play a lot from the outset, should be more prepared to take on the roles they're penciled in for than a younger player might be. The transition should be more seamless, and I do think it's fair to expect pretty consistent play out of both.

"I'm hoping they (Johnson and Pionk) can be big impact players," Sandelin said. "Adam had two great years in Sioux City, as did Neal. I think they're talented players. I think they're very driven, competitive. Neal's probably one of the most competitive kids we're going to have. Parker's been a captain, a leader, another good character, hard worker. Billy's got speed and skill, won a championship with the (Minnesota) Wilderness."

Sandelin said he expects an immediate impact from Johnson and Pionk, and noted Mackay is ready to step in if needed.

(The counter to this argument is Kuhlman, who came in last year having turned 19 just before the season started, and had a pretty good year from start to finish. His scoring dipped somewhat late, but he never looked out of place, and he earned a lot of trust from the way he played and how hard he worked. Jack Eichel is also a counter to this argument, but Jack Eichel isn't walking through that door.)


Pionk appears penciled in to a spot in UMD's top four on the blue line. I wouldn't be surprised to see him play with senior cap'n Welinski. You might have assumed Welinski would turn pro, but he chose to come back.


"It was tough for me to come up with reasons where I felt I really needed to leave," Welinski said. "One, I wasn't ready, and two, I didn't necessarily want to leave before I had to."

The former Duluth East blue-liner took a few weeks after the season ended before making his decision official. Before that, we already knew he would captain the team if he came back. And when I talked to Welinski in the days after the season came to a close, he didn't sound at all like a guy who was ready to bolt.

Sandelin was pretty pleased to see Welinski return.

"Anytime you get an elite player to stay for four years, it's huge," Sandelin said. "He's not just a great player, he's a great kid and he's going to be a great leader for us."

Welinski is joined in the returning group by Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy. Raskob fought off a couple trips to the press box in the first half of the year to become one of the team's more reliable rearguards in teh second half. By the end of the year, Raskob was playing the best hockey of his UMD career. Sandelin notes he's lost some weight and is in the best shape he's been in so far.

"We talked at the end of the year and told him if he played like that (in the second half), he wouldn't have been sitting out," Sandelin cracked. "That shows he learned, and I think that's the most important thing. I think he's looking to build off what he did at the end of the year and most of the second half."

Soucy, a draft pick of the Wild who got to meet with team management while they were in Duluth this week (no, he didn't sign), is in line for a huge year. I do expect that he will play with Welinski late in close games, and if you track minutes played, Soucy and Welinski will be the top two defensemen on the team, followed (in some order) by Raskob and Pionk.

Soucy is a steady, physical presence who's improved his puck-handling and skating appreciably since he arrived on campus. He was practically a beanpole when he got here, and he's filled out a bit to add strength to his frame.

Four guys who have playing experience fill out the defensive corps. Senior Willie Corrin, juniors Brenden Kotyk and Dan Molenaar, and sophomore Nick McCormack all saw ice time last year, with Corrin and Kotyk getting the most of the four. Corrin emerged as another offensive threat, while Kotyk -- an underrated skater, especially for a guy his size -- has a lot of potential.

Molenaar and McCormack both played in the playoff series against Denver, as the Bulldogs dealt with injuries and illness up front. The team was already shorthanded with Spurrell's season-ending back surgery and Brett Boehm's mid-season departure (he's playing, by the way, at the University of Saskatchewan now). When Iafallo went down with mono and Krause got suspended for the playoff opener, it forced both Molenaar and McCormack to play forward.

Projected preferred pairings
Pionk - Welinski
Soucy - Raskob
Corrin - Kotyk
McCormack - Molenaar


It might be too simple to say this is Kasimir Kaskisuo's net.

But I believe it to be Kasimir Kaskisuo's net.

That doesn't mean Matt McNeely won't play. It just means Kaskisuo has earned the right to hold the job until he loses it.

"He kept us in a lot of games," Welinski said. "It's game-changing saves left and right that really got us some wins. Without a few of those wins, who knows if we would have made the NCAA Tournament? He lets everybody from the crease out be able to play their game."

I firmly believe McNeely will play at least once -- if not two or three times -- in October. It all depends on a lot of variables, including how he performs in practice. But Kaskisuo slumped a bit in January last year, and UMD slumped along with him. I can't say for sure that the now-sophomore wore down from starting 20 straight games. Wouldn't be fair to assume that.

But there was no question he played much better after taking that day off, and getting another one off two weeks later against Northern Michigan. He was great down the stretch and was a big reason for UMD's success.

Nick Deery joins the program as the third goalie. He did turn down a Division I opportunity at Mercyhurst because of academics, so it's not a kid who can't play. But he's the emergency option for now.


I tossed out an invite on Twitter to submit questions, something I'll do quite a bit throughout the season. Here are a few.

Brent: "Does Farley have a chance to make a splash?"

Absolutely. I think there's room on this team for a couple 15-20 goal scorers, and Farley is as good a candidate as any. Remember, while his offensive numbers might have tailed a bit the last two years, he did finish second on the team in points during NCHC games (5-12-17).

I see this team being similar to last year, in that scoring comes from all lines and there isn't necessarily a "go-to" guy. That said, Farley is among the guys -- Toninato, Iafallo, Cameranesi, Osterberg -- who could break out under the right circumstances. Even if the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts, Farley could have big numbers this year.

Biddy: "What's the biggest hole to fill from last year? I say Krause's leadership."

Agreed, actually.

"It's a pretty close group," Sandelin said. "Here's a chance for Andy to be captain of a team that has a chance to do something. Our guys are going to work very hard toward that.

"We have four (captains). We have a big eight-man senior class. We chose to go with four guys. When those guys were picked by their teammates, we knew there were other guys in there, based on what they've done before on other teams. You've got some juniors and sophomores. Everyone plays a big part."

My thought: Leadership is grown organically. You can't force it, and you can't just assume it exists in a player just because he might be a senior. Also, some of the bigger leaders in UMD's history weren't guys that were designated as captains. Sometimes, it's the "other guys" stepping up and speaking up that makes all the difference on a team.

I believe Welinski -- a high-character kid who is very well-respected in the room -- will be a good leader. He isn't necessarily the same personality as Krause, but he doesn't have to be to be effective.

Adam (not Don): "Who will stand out among fresh faces? Will Kas leave early if he has another great year and teams need Gtenders?"

I think we've already answered the freshmen question pretty effectively.

As far as Kaskisuo goes, remember there is only one No. 1 goalie on a team. It's hard to break through at the position in professional hockey. I think UMD is as well-positioned in goal as it's been in many years, but Kaskisuo has to show some improvement. I thought he got away from his fundamentals at times last year, and I'm anxious to see what he's able to do after working with goalie coach Brant Nicklin for a full year.

But I always wonder about top college goalies. They're usually destined for the AHL or -- perhaps even more likely -- the ECHL after they leave school. You simply can't overdevelop a goalie.

Look at Jimmy Howard, for example. After three great years at Maine (an obscene .956 save percentage in 22 games in 2003-04), Howard turned pro.

He made his NHL debut with four games in the 2005-06 season, then didn't get back until the 2007-08 season. By the time Howard became entrenched as the Red Wings' goalie, he had played 186 regular season and 30 playoff games for AHL Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick didn't play much in the minors, but he actually played 38 games in the ECHL after he left UMass in 2007.

More recently, Aaron Dell left North Dakota after the 2011-12 season. He actually played 44 games in the CHL before getting an ECHL opportunity. He has yet to play his 40th AHL game, but is considered a decent prospect with the San Jose Sharks organization.

My point? It isn't easy to break through in pro hockey as a goalie. For the vast majority of guys, it makes more sense to play three or four years of college before moving on. Unless Kaskisuo has a "Hobey Baker consideration" type of season (which I wouldn't complain about), I'd think he'll be a Bulldog again next year.


Lakehead is the opponent on Sunday, as UMD tunes up for next weekend's home-and-home against Bemidji State. The Thunderwolves are younger than usual this year, but do return fifth-year senior goalie Jeff Bosch, who had two very good games against UMD last year.

Bosch stopped 57 shots at Amsoil Arena in an October exhibition, then made 48 saves in UMD's overtime win Jan. 2 in Thunder Bay. In total, Bosch has played against the Bulldogs four times, making 151 saves on 164 shots for a sparkling .921 save percentage.

Lakehead is typically -- even as a young team -- older, because its players often have major junior experience. They don't appear as big as they've been in the past, but Bosch has always given UMD trouble, so if he plays the whole game, there's certainly a chance the Bulldogs will struggle, at least early in the game. UMD has the ability to dress extra players, over the normal allotment of 20, for exhibitions. Guessing Sandelin will give his freshmen all a chance to play. If the past is any indication, Kaskisuo and McNeely will split the game in goal.

It's a good chance to look at the special teams units against a live opponent. The power play was statistically improved last year over 2013-14, but was still a source of frustration at times. As for the penalty kill, it had its moments, and with the number of experienced players back, I expect improvement there, even though UMD lost valuable killers in Crandall and Krause to graduation. Kaskisuo certainly plays a role in that unit, too, but the experience UMD possesses up front should be a big boost to the kill, and special teams in general.

Official practice starts Saturday, then the game is Sunday, so it could take time to get people's feet wet.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

UMD Notes: TV Coverage, Radio Updates, Streaming Options, Etc.

We're ten days out from UMD's exhibition game against Lakehead, and 15 days from the regular season opener against Bemidji State. Time for some updates on media coverage.

--> First, UMD had a few games selected for television in announcements over the last week or so. CBS Sports Network and its wonderful crew won't be in Duluth this year, but the Bulldogs will be on twice. Games Feb. 19 at North Dakota and Feb. 26 at St. Cloud State will be televised on the network. CBSSN will continue with its NCHC Frozen Faceoff coverage from Target Center as well.

Fox Sports North has added four UMD games to its schedule. FSN will have the Bulldogs' series against Minnesota Oct. 16 (at Minnesota) and Oct. 17 (in Duluth). They will also televise UMD's home game against Colorado College Feb. 5 as a sort of lead-in to the network's massive Hockey Day Minnesota coverage from Bayfront Park the next day. Also, the game Feb. 27 at St. Cloud State will be on FSN.

I'm not sure what NBC's plans are for Notre Dame hockey coverage, but I suppose a broadcast or stream of UMD's games there could still be added. Haven't heard anything on that.

--> I've seen it brought up on Twitter, and a couple have asked me my thoughts on this. For the record, I've been first in line to criticize FSN and its unwillingness to even recognize the existence of the state's non-Gopher college hockey teams on Hockey Day Minnesota. It's about the only negative to what is a great day for the sport and the network.

So some of you, knowing that I've been pretty upfront about this over the years, might think it's strange that I'm not first in line to rip FSN for picking up the Gophers-Penn State game on Feb. 6 and not UMD's home game, which is a few hundred yards from Bayfront Park.

This time around, I'll back them on the decision.

I doubt this is FSN's reasoning, but here is why.

The high school games at Bayfront are scheduled for 10am (Denfeld-Eveleth) and 1pm (East-Lakeville North). Anyone who's ever watched these games knows that the 1pm game rarely ends before 3:30. The college game -- now scheduled to be Gophers-Penn State -- starts at 4, because the Wild aren't at home and have no control over start times. They play at 7.

For anyone who wants to attend the high school games and UMD's game against Colorado College, a 4pm start would make the goal practically hopeless, unless they leave the East game early or resolve to miss the start of the UMD game.

Hockey Day Minnesota being in Duluth, and at such a great venue as Bayfront Park, is a big deal. It should be treated that way. It's going to be a wonderful day in a great hockey city, so I'm fine with anything that allows people to experience as much of the day as possible, even if FSN didn't make this decision with that idea in mind.

Selfishly, I love it. If my son doesn't have games of his own that day, it's an opportunity for me to take him to Bayfront without having to worry about leaving early to get to Amsoil for a 4pm UMD game. I can deal with that.

I get that Duluth territorials want Duluth splattered all over Hockey Day Minnesota. But Duluth will be featured on FSN more between 7pm Feb. 5 and 4pm Feb. 6 than it probably has ever been in any 21-hour period prior to that. Spin it however you want, but Hockey Day Minnesota will be a win for Duluth ... especially if the weather cooperates.

--> Besides UMD's TV coverage (all non-FSN home games locally on My9 and streamed via the package), we of course have you covered on the radio. 92.1 The Fan is your home for Bulldog hockey in Duluth, and we have a growing Red Rock Radio Bulldog Sports Network to carry games throughout northern Minnesota and even into western Wisconsin. You can also stream every game via the FREE iHeartRadio app. Download it today, search out 92.1 The Fan, and make us one of your favorites. It's a fantastic app that allows you to take the Bulldogs wherever you go.

LISTEN TO THE RADIO (Sorry, it's a Twitter bit of mine).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Preseason NCHC Predictions

Another season is upon us, and now it's time to fruitlessly predict how the NCHC will finish pull out the crystal ball and make some picks.

Before we do that, here's how they finished in 2014-15:

1. North Dakota
2. Miami
3. Omaha
4. Denver
5. UMD
6. St. Cloud State
7. Western Michigan
8. Colorado College

For fun, here's how I picked them:

1. Miami
2. St. Cloud State
3. North Dakota
4. UMD
5. Omaha
6. Denver
7. Western Michigan
8. Colorado College

Not as bad as the year before, but still not very good. Of course, that won't stop me from trying again. I wish I wasn't so stubborn.

8. Colorado College

I was prepared to move the Tigers out of the cellar, even with questions up front and in goal, largely because of defenseman Jaccob Slavin. Then I turned on the NHL Network and saw him playing for the Carolina Hurricanes. Guess that means he's not coming back.

(Kidding. I knew he was gone. But seeing that was a stark reminder of how young CC is going to be this season.)

It seemed the Tigers had some moments of positivity in Mike Haviland's first season. There were plenty of nights where CC was competitive and just lost out on some bad bounces, or the stunning lack of scoring really reared its ugly head. I just don't see how they get out from that with 14 freshmen on the roster this year. Haviland will have a much better team, though. If the Tigers get goaltending they could really surprise.

7. Western Michigan

How stupid competitive is the NCHC? Western Michigan is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. I have them seventh in an eight-team league.

Highly-respected veteran coach Andy Murray lost big forward Colton Hargrove to the Boston Bruins, but he returns speedy forward Sheldon Dries and highly-skilled Nolan Laporte, who can score goals while also getting under the skin of opponents. The hard-nosed Broncos did lose talented defenseman Kenney Morrison and four-year goalie Frank Slubowski, but Lukas Hafner is back in net, and Murray has some promising young defensemen to deploy.

(The team overall is young. Laporte and Hafner are the best -- in my view -- of a five-man senior class at WMU.)

Western might not wow anyone with its speed or pace of play, but the Broncos are a formidable foe because of how consistently hard they play. They're as good as anyone in the league at making life hell for opponents in all zones.

6. St. Cloud State

Last year, the Huskies finished sixth in the NCHC. How did they end their season? By blitzing Omaha in a two-game road playoff sweep, then taking down No. 1 North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals before bowing to Miami in the title game. Oh, and then SCSU went to the NCAA West Regional, beat Michigan Tech, and ended its season a win away from a second trip to the Frozen Four in three years.

Not too shabby, eh?

Bob Motzko has built a power here, a team capable of annual NCAA trips, and this year is no different. With that being said, the Huskies do have to fill some holes. Goal-scorer Jonny Brodzinski left early, and SCSU also lost steady leaders like Joe Rehkamp and Nick Oliver up front, along with Andrew Prochno and Tim Daly in the back.

Talent? They've got it. Joey Benik already made the leap, and he could be a darkhorse Hobey candidate. David Morley and Kalle Kossila lead a strong senior class, and Charlie Lindgren is rock-solid in goal.

5. Omaha

Some teams lost talented players. Omaha lost its backbone. If not for Ryan Massa, UNO doesn't make the Frozen Four. He might not have been at his best in the semifinal loss to Providence, but Massa was as good as any goalie in the country last year, and he was that way basically from start to finish.

He's gone now, but Dean Blais isn't shedding tears and wondering how his team will compete. While Massa was backstopping UNO to Boston, young players were learning the ropes and showing a ridiculous amount of promise. Now, the Mavs have Avery Peterson and Jake Randolph back as sophomores, joined by junior forwards Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel, as dangerous as anyone in the league.

Blais will need Luc Snuggerud and Joel Messner to keep stepping forward on the blue line, as depth there is a bit questionable.

4. North Dakota

"Bruce, you're doing it again. You're underrating UND."

North Dakota fans should be happy. It seems I do this every year, and every year UND outperforms my expectations.

I respected Dave Hakstol as much as any opposing coach I've ever dealt with. I've heard nothing but good things about Brad Berry, who takes over after Hakstol left for the NHL. This prediction isn't about coaching. Not in the least.

Instead, I'm curious about UND's forward depth and goaltending. Even if Drake Caggiula puts up All-NCHC numbers as I believe he will, and even if Nick Schmaltz has the big year I think he will, I don't know that North Dakota has the scoring depth to win the league again.

What do I know? That North Dakota's blue line -- featuring Paul LaDue, Troy Stecher, captain Gage Ausmus, and soon-to-emerge Tucker Poolman -- is as good as any in college hockey. And just think: Jordan Schmaltz left early for pro hockey.

3. Miami

A disappointing end to last season, for sure, losing to Providence in the first round of the NCAAs, and when you look on paper, it's easy to say Miami was gutted up front. Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber, and Blake Coleman are all gone.

But the underrated Sean Kuraly and Anthony Louis are both back up front, and the RedHawks were able to supplement a large senior class (ten guys, including both primary goalies) with another strong recruiting class, led by NTDP star Jack Roslovic.

Defenseman Matthew Caito is one of the seniors, and sophomore Louie Belpedio will be one of the nation's best blue-liners this year (you'll notice I voted Belpedio to my preseason all-league team).

Despite the heavy losses, I expect Miami will content. Rico Blasi's team might not score as much this year, but they'll be stronger from the net out to make up the difference.

2. Denver

Similar to North Dakota, I do question Denver's forward depth. Trevor Moore and Danton Heinen are the most explosive forwards in the conference, but Jim Montgomery does need to find them a new center (assuming he keeps them on the same line). The good news? With all due respect to Daniel Doremus, Montgomery could put a broomstick in between those two and get 20 points out of it (it's an old wrestling analogy, just go with me on it). If Montgomery needs volunteers to play center on that line, I'll look into my college eligibility.

In all seriousness, you're not going to find a better one-two scoring punch, possibly in the country. Whoever plays center will be a better player for it, just having these two to feed. We talk about great centers making the linemates better. In DU's case, the unbelievably-talented Moore and Heinen can make the center better.

(Again, assuming they stay on the same line. I'd have to think DU at least starts out that way.)

Joey LaLeggia is the biggest loss in the NCHC, but Denver's blue line isn't a barren wasteland without him. Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher are ready, and Montgomery has some nice complimentary pieces in Matt VanVoorhis and Adam Plant. Freshmen Blake Hillman and Sean Mostrom will compete for a piece of the pie as well.

Oh, and the goalies. Tanner Jaillet and Evan Cowley both return, and while both had their share of struggles at times, Montgomery has a potent tandem in net.

1. UMD

Before you cry "HOMER!," know this:

2015-16 is my 11th year calling UMD hockey. I'm such a terrible homer that this is the first time I've ever picked UMD to win its conference.

And I have my reasons.

It starts with preseason All-NCHC goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo. Here's what I wrote about him in March:
Kaskisuo was fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, to the point I voted him Most Outstanding Player for the Northeast Regional (votes were due before BU got the late power play). He played well in both games, and this summer will be a key to his success going forward. I think he has a chance to be one of the best goalies in the NCHC, if not Division I, next season if he has a good offseason.
Now, we see it all come together for Kaskisuo. He unquestionably had a rough patch last season, and there were times his fundamentals were just a little off what they should be. If he can improve that .917 he put up as a freshman by even a couple percentage points, UMD is off and running. If something happens to Kaskisuo, senior Matt McNeely is waiting in the wings. "Matty Ice" only got in five games last year, but one of those was a crucial 2-1 win over Minnesota. In that game at the North Star College Cup, McNeely played possibly his best game as a Bulldog and helped UMD snap a four-game losing streak that threatened to spoil a promising season.

Preseason all-league defenseman and cap'n Andy Welinski leads a stout blue line that returns big-minute guys Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy (emerging as a top prospect on the Wild blue line, by the way), along with improved senior Willie Corrin. Oh, and Hermantown's Neal Pionk debuts this year after two strong years in the USHL.

Up front, the top line of Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, and Karson Kuhlman return intact, along with juniors Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo. UMD adds former Hibbing star Adam Johnson after he had a very good year in the USHL last year.

Not that it should matter, but given the difficulty UMD had extracting points from games against Western Michigan last year, it probably helps the Bulldogs that they only see Western Michigan once this year. It's the kind of scheduling break that could make a difference in such a competitive league.

UMD has skill, size, depth, and goaltending. I believe the Bulldogs have the fewest holes in the NCHC, and they are my pick to claim the Penrose Cup.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Preseason All-NCHC Team Announced

The NCHC announced its preseason all-league team yesterday. Here is the pertinent information.
Four teams are represented on the 2015 NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team led by two selections each from Denver and Minnesota Duluth. The Pioneers placed two forwards on the team in junior Trevor Moore and sophomore Danton Heinen, who earned 21 and 20 votes respectively. The third forward is North Dakota senior Drake Caggiula, who garnered 17 votes. UMD senior defenseman Andy Welinski anchors the Preseason All-NCHC defensive pairing with 22 votes while Miami senior Matthew Caito is the other defenseman, receiving 10 votes. Minnesota Duluth sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo completed the Preseason All-NCHC Team with 14 votes.

Moore (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) was a First-Team All-NCHC selection and the NCHC Forward of the Year as a sophomore in 2014-15, when he led the NCHC with 22 goals and was third in the conference with 44 points in 39 games. His 30 points in conference play also led the NCHC while his 13 goals tied for the league lead. Heinen (Langley, B.C.) was the NCHC Rookie of the Year and a Second-Team All-NCHC recipient a season ago when he tied for the NCHC scoring lead with 45 points, third among freshmen nationally, including 16 goals in 40 games. The Boston Bruins prospect also chipped in 26 points in conference play, tops along all freshmen. Caggiula (Whitby, Ont.), also a Second-Team All-NCHC honoree in 2014-15, compiled 36 points in 42 games on 18 goals and assists each. In conference play, he tied for the NCHC lead with 13 goals and totaled 22 points.

On the blue line, Welinski (Duluth, Minn.) was another Second-Team All-NCHC member from last season, tallying 21 points in 40 games with 51 blocked shots. The Anaheim Ducks prospect recorded 12 points, including seven goals, and blocked 25 shots in conference play as a junior.  Caito (Coto de Caza, Calif.) was an NCHC Honorable Mention pick last year when he compiled 24 points in 39 games and posted a plus-19 rating, tops among NCHC defensemen a season ago. In conference play, he tallied 16 points, including three goals, blocked 45 shots and accrued a plus-10 rating as a junior.

Rounding out the NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team is Kaskisuo (Vantaa, Finland), who earned NCHC All-Rookie Team honors in goal last season after posting an 18-14-3 record while making 36 starts, recording a 2.30 goals-against average and posting a .917 save percentage. He was one of just two NCHC netminders last year to start all 24 conference games as he went 12-9-3 with a 2.27 GAA and a .918 save percentage.

Last season, four of the six student-athletes chosen for the NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team were also named to the 2014-15 NCHC All-Conference First Team at the end of the season.

2015 NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team
F – Trevor Moore, Denver, Jr. – 21 votes
F – Danton Heinen, Denver, So. – 20 votes
F – Drake Caggiula, North Dakota, Sr. – 17 votes
D – Andy Welinski, Minnesota Duluth, Sr. – 22 votes
D – Matthew Caito, Miami, Sr. – 10 votes
G – Kasimir Kaskisuo, Minnesota Duluth, So. – 14 votes
For those interested, here's how I voted:

Tony Cameranesi, UMD

Louie Belpedio, Miami


Most difficult choices I had were Cameranesi over Austin Ortega and Drake Caggiula at forward, and Belpedio over Caito, Paul LaDue, and Carson Soucy on defense.

For UMD's sake, I hope the voters are as sharp with these picks as they were last year. If Kaskisuo especially is good enough to be all-conference in March, UMD will be in great position going into the postseason.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

UMD News and Notes

Couple UMD headlines from the last couple weeks:

--> For those unaware, Duluth native Brett Larson was chosen to replace Derek Plante as an assistant coach. Larson was a no-brainer choice if he was interested, given his experience with this program from 2008-2011, one of the more successful three-year runs in UMD history. He knows a lot of these kids already, and he obviously knows the system and the culture of the program. Larson is a high-character guy who will relate well to kids and parents out on the recruiting trail.

--> UMD picked up another St. Scholastica transfer, adding forward Luke Simpson. As a freshman at CSS, Simpson talled 12 goals and 26 points in 28 games. He's from Canmore, Alberta, and will have to sit out this season as a transfer. He will wear No. 26 and can practice with the team even though he can't play. He will have three years of eligibility starting next fall (technically, this is considered a redshirt year for Simpson, so he doesn't lose a year of eligibility on the transfer). He's listed at 6-1 and 195 pounds, so he's not at all undersized. It'll be interesting to watch him compete in practice.

Defenseman Brenden Kotyk transferred from CSS to UMD in 2013, and it was obvious early in the 2013-14 season he was a guy who could play at this level. He proved that when he actually played at this level last year.

--> A couple former UMD players have signed pro contracts recently. 2013-14 co-captain Joe Basaraba signed with Orlando (ECHL) after a year in Cincinnati last year. 2013 graduate Drew Olson is heading to Hungary to play for MAC Budapest. Also, 2012 Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly, for those wondering, will play for Rogle BK of the Swedish Hockey League (their top league, used to be called Elitserien). It will be Connolly's fourth season in Europe and third in the top flight (Rogle was in the second division last year, but earned promotion through a playoff). Connolly had four goals and 30 points for Rogle last year.

--> UMD rotates out of the North Star College Cup this year, but for those interesting in going anyway (we're playing in Marquette, Mich., that weekend), the event has been shifted a day. The NSCC will be a Saturday-Sunday event January 30 and 31 at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul. The semifinal matchups are St. Cloud State vs Minnesota State, followed by Bemidji State vs Minnesota. Bemidji is the defending champion. I asked around, and it appears to be a move aimed at improving attendance. One of the big fan complaints I've heard was it was impossible to get to the early game Friday for anyone who worked all day. Hopefully this helps drive some more attendance for the event, which despite my admitted skepticism is pretty cool.

One thing it likely isn't tied to much is television. The Wild are off that weekend for the All-Star break, so FSN's only potential conflict is the Timberwolves.

UMD Depth Chart 2015-16

Greetings, and hope you've enjoyed the summer.

I'll post separately with a couple headlines from the last week or more, but here is the annual UMD men's hockey depth chart.

The normal reminders: The lines are simply an opinion/guess meant for entertainment purposes only. Then again, if you're betting on college hockey line combinations, you should probably seek some sort of help. I'll throw a few comments after each position group.

Austin Farley - Tony Cameranesi - Karson Kuhlman
Alex Iafallo - Dominic Toninato - Adam Johnson
Kyle Osterberg - Jared Thomas - Sammy Spurrell
Charlie Sampair - Cal Decowski - Austyn Young
Blake Young - Billy Exell - Parker Mackay

I believe we start the season with what became last year's top line intact. There is little doubt that Farley, Cameranesi, and Kuhlman were the go-to guys down the stretch, with the shift made possible by their consistent play, combined with Iafallo's illness, Toninato's injury, and Krause getting suspended for the playoff opener in Denver. The door was ajar and those three blew it open. Farley and Kuhlman may not have scored at Cameranesi's clip, but they played off their center very well and helped him have what I thought was his best season at UMD.

Johnson is a lefty, but certainly capable of playing at the right hand of Toninato, who really needs to show improvement (well, more consistency) in the faceoff circle this season. No reason to break Toninato and Iafallo up now, and Johnson could really benefit from their chemistry as the third member of this line. Based on last year's lines, this is the only spot in the "top six" that appears to be open as the season approaches.

Thomas emerged late last season, and at a great time as Toninato was injured, and I think Spurrell was ticketed for more than fourth-line minutes before his season was wrecked by back surgery. Osterberg is a great fit on this line.

Decowski has the versatility to play just about anywhere on any line, and his attitude is such that he'll do that is asked of him. Sampair struggled, I thought, last year, but started to emerge in the second half, even if the numbers didn't necessarily show it. However, a couple experiments with more five-on-five minutes didn't go that well. The Youngs were both a bit of a surprise. I thought Austyn did a great job becoming a solid third- and fourth-line guy, and Blake worked his tail off to get better. As he learns more and more how to use his big body, he will be a threat to crack the lineup every night. Exell has speed to burn, and Mackay played a ton in juniors in different roles. He could be an interesting guy to watch develop.

Carson Soucy - Andy Welinski
Neal Pionk - Willie Raskob
Willie Corrin - Brenden Kotyk
Nick McCormack - Dan Molenaar

Struggled with where to put Pionk, but I tend to think he'll settle into the top four given how well he played in Sioux City. Soucy and Welinski are easily UMD's big-minute guys, with Soucy's pro future really starting to brighten (Hockey News ranks him eighth among Wild prospects).

We tried to tell Raskob's story a lot late in the season. Outside of a game here or there, he showed a ton of improvement as the year wore on. Raskob was a healthy scratch a couple times in the first half, but he kept battling and eventually settled comfortably in the top four.

Corrin also emerged as a playmaking threat last year, scoring his first three collegiate goals and showing a knack for jumping in the play offensively. His chemistry with Kotyk was a factor, as the big man jumped in to a regular spot in the UMD lineup after sitting out a transfer season.

McCormack and Molenaar are both good players, but both struggled with health last year. They will keep everyone else on their toes as they challenge for playing time.

Kasimir Kaskisuo - Matt McNeely - Nick Deery

Clearly, Kaskisuo is the top dog entering the season, but give McNeely credit. After a shutout of Notre Dame at the Ice Breaker, McNeely struggled mightily the following Friday against Minnesota State, and he ended up ceding the job to Kaskisuo the next night in Mankato. "Kas" started every game after that until the third-place game at the North Star Cup, and Kaskisuo played every minute of UMD's NCHC schedule.

But when UMD needed McNeely, he was ready. It didn't translate to many minutes, but the work-ethic was there and it's a great sign heading into his senior season. Deery replaces Alex Fons as the third goalie. He's the "In case of emergency: Break glass" option, and he had Division I interest. He won't play much, if at all, but he'll have plenty of opportunity to get better in practice.

UMD's team save percentage of .912 was the team's best since the Alex Stalock-led .920 put up in 2008-2009.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why the NBA is Still Killing the NHL

Let there be no doubt: The NHL is growing.

Boosted significantly by local Chicago numbers, the Stanley Cup Final did very well, relatively speaking. The numbers, including eight million-plus viewers for the clinching game on Monday, are even better when you consider the NHL has never done wonderfully in the ratings when "non-traditional" markets are involved. When it's an Original Six or a blue-blood (i.e. Pittsburgh), the league can pull some good numbers. But when Tampa Bay, San Jose, or that ilk play, the numbers tend to go down.

(Tampa pulled some really good local ratings this time around, which has to make the league happy. The buzz there was palpable, especially compared to past championship series involving teams like Los Angeles or Carolina.)

However, the NBA Finals -- featuring mid-size market teams with big-market superstars -- more than doubled the NHL's strong -- by its standards -- numbers. Game 6 Tuesday pulled over 23 million viewers, and Game 5 Sunday topped 20 million, too. Imagine if you replaced "Golden State vs Cleveland" with "L.A. Lakers vs Anyone."

So the NHL is growing. Any hockey fan will tell you they prefer many things about hockey to basketball, and even casual hockey fans will agree that the Stanley Cup Final is riveting television. The secondary ticket market was abuzz, and fans who attend are ridiculously into the games.

Why doesn't it translate to TV numbers that at least draw the gap closer?

(Keep in mind, too, that this is not a head-to-head comparison. The NHL and NBA do not contest their championship series games on the same night and haven't since 2009, when it happened once.)

Greg Wyshynski chimed in with an excellent piece on this before the Final started. It largely cites the lack of true superstars in the NHL, the guys fans care about no matter what team they're on. Yeah, there's Sidney Crosby, the most polarizing player in the game (think the John Cena of the NHL, or the LeBron of the NHL, because anyone who says they like hockey has an opinion on Crosby, good or bad). But no one else really moves the needle that way, no matter how hard we might try.

Greg also notes that the thought of watching hockey on a beautiful evening in June probably isn't something fans are big on unless they have a compelling reason to (or if they have a dog in the proverbial fight).

And he's right.

But the star power issue is worth revisiting, because I think I have an answer.

Turn on an NBA game, and the biggest names in the game are always accounted for. LeBron is always doing something, as are guys like Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, and so many others. Rare is the night where a big NBA name is rendered invisible by the opponent, or by their own ineffectiveness. Even when they're off, you know where they are.

In the NHL, star players are constantly checked tightly and largely rendered invisible in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews is a factor all the time, even when he isn't scoring. But the stories of the Cup Final were Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos because of what they weren't doing. There were long stretches of games where you would have struggled to find either of them with a searchlight.

It seems petty, because many of us who watch hockey do it because it's such a great team game. But we're not talking about hardcore fans. We're talking about those who only check in late in the playoffs, or only care about star power.

It's not that Chicago and Tampa don't have star players. And it's not even that the NHL does a poor job marketing individual stars, though it could be better in this area. So what's the problem? Guessing, but perhaps these casual fans turn on a game, hear about Antoine Vermette and Jason Garrison, then decide they don't know who those guys are and watch "Flip or Flop" instead.

And even if I'm right on this, I don't have the solution. I'd complain about all the obstruction and stick infractions that happen during playoff games, but it's clear by now the league (or the players, or a combination of the two) wants games called this way. Light on penalty stoppages and heavy on "turning the other cheek." Like it or not, and I don't, but the ship has sailed. The idea that star players should have to fight through this garbage is archaic. Things are happening that are against the rules. Call some damn penalties.

With that, we might have stumbled on something. Rarely do NBA officials hesitate to call fouls. Sometimes -- see "Shaq, Hack A" -- this leads to games dragging on and on. OK, not sometimes. Often.

Yet it doesn't drain the ratings. Why? Maybe fans like the idea that the rules are being enforced, even when the stakes get high.

So maybe that ship hasn't sailed, NHL. Your commissioner used to work for the NBA. He has to have a few connections still, right?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

North Dakota Can't Get This Right

Hope everyone's had a great spring. Summer is almost here, believe it or don't.

If you're a Twitter follower (@BruceCiskie if you're not), you'll be excited -- or dismayed -- to know that our third annual 100 Day Countdown to the UMD season opener starts July 1.

(Yes, the exhibition is Oct. 4, but we count down to the first game that counts, which is Oct. 9 against Bemidji State.)

Later in the offseason, I'll draw up a projected line chart for the upcoming campaign, an exercise that serves to get me really excited for the season. But today, we talk about one of our adversaries.

Out at North Dakota, they've been Nickname-Free since 2012, when the NCAA finally twisted their arm enough to get them to drop Fighting Sioux. Well, officially at least.

Go to any sporting event involving a North Dakota team, and you're bound to see a few "Sioux" jerseys floating around. Hell, there was a guy in a Sioux jersey at UMD's regional in Manchester this past March. UND was playing in Fargo, mind you.

There's a large group of UND fans who simply haven't moved on from the Sioux name. And since the school has been sans nickname this whole time, they haven't had any real reason to move on.

It's something that could change this summer. The university has a committee put in charge of finding the school's next athletic nickname. The process has made headlines throughout the spring, and now UND is down to seven options for a new name.

"No nickname" remains one of the available choices, along with "Fighting Hawks," "Green Hawks," "Nodaks," "North Stars," "Roughriders" and "Sundogs."

I'm not here to break down the choices. Honestly, I don't care what North Dakota calls itself.

But it has to call itself something, at least in my view.

The process of a new nickname, at least to me, is partially about moving on. UND's rabid -- that's a compliment, guys, so don't flood the inbox -- fanbase has been given no reason to move on from a name it loved so much.

Yes, the argument exists that a large number of fans wouldn't move on anyway. Maybe that argument is correct. But what is undeniable is this: No nickname means the vast majority of the fanbase will not move on.

They might not want to, but this process should be about moving on, not endorsing the status quo, where "Sioux" is only not UND's nickname officially. Fans yell "Sioux" at the end of the national anthem, still chant "Let's Go Sioux" during the game, and still wear Sioux jerseys and other clothing bearing the logo all the time. The university might not be making bank on the nickname, but it still exists.

While a new name doesn't guarantee the Sioux legacy will fade away, no name guarantees it won't.

So for what it's worth, as much as I appreciated the old name and the old logo, and as much as I respect what UND has, I strongly feel UND has to implement a new name and not go with no name at all.

I also recognize UND can't win here. No name, and exactly what I've laid out happens. But those loyal to the Sioux name will struggle to accept any name that is put in front of them. They'll reject it at first, and it might take years to reach full acceptance. It'll be a process, just like the last few years have been.

It's been three years, and it's time to start new traditions.

Ok, there's my $.02. It's time for me to move on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Andy Welinski to Captain 2015-16 Bulldogs

To the surprise of -- probably -- no one, Duluth native Andy Welinski has been named captain of the 2015-16 UMD men's hockey team.

Official word:
Defenseman Andy Welinski has been promoted to the University of Minnesota Duluth's team captain position for the 2015-16 season while a trio of fellow seniors -- forwards Tony Cameranesi, Cal Decowski and Austin Farley -- will serve assistant captaincy roles with the Bulldogs.

As a minutes-munching assistant team captain last winter, Welinski set career highs for goals (nine -- a number bettered by only one other National Collegiate Hockey Conference blueliner), points (21) and plus-minus (+2) en route to securing a spot on the All-NCHC second team. In addition, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick generated the second most shots (100) of any league defensman and was one of just five rear guards to score shorthanded. Welinski, a Duluth native and 2012-13 Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Rookie Team selection, has finished as UMD's top scoring point man in each of the three previous seasons and will head into his senior year with 58 lifetime points (18 goals and 40 assists) to his credit.

Cameranesi, who like Welinski has skated in all 114 games since joining the UMD program two years ago and is also a National Hockey League draftee (Toronto Maple Leafs), paced the Bulldogs in scoring for the second time in three years this past season, racking up nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points. Farley was three slots back on the team's scoring charts with 24 points (eight goals and 16 assists) and tied for the team lead in both power play goals (4) and game-winners (3) while Decowski, UMD's 2014-15 nominee for the NCHC Sportsmanship Award, chipped in a personal-best 16 points as a junior. That trio took shifts in each of UMD's 40 outings this past season.  
I talked to Welinski after UMD's heart-breaking loss to Boston University in the NCAA Northeast Regional (I'm still not in a frame of mind to further discuss the events of that game). At the time, he was deciding between returning for his senior season or joining the Anaheim Ducks organization (they drafted him in 2011). He played both sides well, noting that he's always wanted to play pro hockey, but his time at UMD was a dream come true, and it would be an unbelievable honor to wear the "C."

In the end, the draw of captaining his hometown team, and the sting of last year's bitter ending in Manchester, won out for Welinski. It wasn't surprising. He told me he decided after the BU game that he wanted to return, but he knew he was emotional at the time and needed to think about it and weigh everything before deciding.

After so narrowly missing out on a trip to Boston (and I firmly believe UMD would have been a factor and not just window dressing at the Frozen Four), Welinski and assistant captains Cameranesi, Decowski, and Farley hope to lead the Bulldogs to the 2016 Frozen Four in Tampa.

Can't think of a better way to go out than that.