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.

Forwards
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.

Defensemen
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.

Goalies
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.

Monday, May 11, 2015

About the Wild and Baby Steps

So the Wild lost in four straight to Chicago and are done. It's probably my fault, since I had them winning it all.

(I was most pleased about my "Wild in six" prediction in the first round, because I know a lot of really smart people who didn't agree. But alas, I blew it big-time when I misunderestimated Chicago.)

Anyway, the Wild lost in six to the Blackhawks last year. Four this year. So it's a step backward, right?

Well, it isn't that simple.

The team's step backward actually took place from Nov. 4 through Jan. 13, a stretch where the Wild went 11-16-5 and blew some great opportunities to make headway in the Western Conference.

See, it was that stretch of average/really bad hockey that led the Wild to trade for Devan Dubnyk on Jan. 14 and start its season-ending tear the next night in Buffalo.

For nearly three months straight, the Wild battled night in and night out to just get a seat at the playoff table. Not many teams can be 13th in the conference after Jan. 1 and still make the eight-team tournament. Especially in a very difficult Western Conference. Just being able to do that -- especially given 1) the very difficult schedule, 2) the fact so many teams in the West were fighting for those seats at the table, and 3) the Wild had to do it almost exclusively by scoring goals five on five because the power play was completely useless -- was a hell of an accomplishment.

It also probably should have foretold the premature end to the season.

Go back and watch Games 2 through 4 against Chicago. And the third period of Game 1.

Then go watch the Wild win race after race and -- more importantly -- battle after battle against St. Louis the series before.

Chicago was dialed in against Minnesota, but the Wild were clearly slowing as the series wore on. Advantages I thought existed going into the series did not. We know the Blackhawks have a ton of scoring punch. Patrick Kane is incredible. Jonathan Toews is Mr. Everything. Their blue line sells out and blocks shots like no other, and Joel Quenneville is great at what he does.

But I thought Minnesota had the edge down the middle, with improved center depth (even if they're not great on draws). Then Brad Richards undressed Marco Scandella in Game 1. And Charlie Coyle didn't score in the series (also didn't finish the series playing center, a real indictment considering how much time the coaching staff invested in Coyle in the middle during the regular season). I was wrong.

I also was surprised at how slow Minnesota's defensemen looked. I knew Chicago had speed to burn up front, but the Blackhawks really made the Wild look silly in their own zone at times.

Offensively, Corey Crawford played well for the 'Hawks. He did. You don't post a near-.950 save percentage, even in a small four-game sample, by accident. But the Wild made it too easy on him. There wasn't enough net drive, and the blue line didn't do a good job creating lanes and getting pucks through traffic, something Chicago was much better at (and Dubnyk's elite puck-tracking ability was sneakily on display throughout).

Chicago also won an inordinate number of races and battles for pucks. Why is that? Did the Wild see a dialed-in adversary and struggle to meet the intensity level? Did the Wild finally succumb to the three-month grind they put themselves through just to get in?

I think it's a little bit of a few things, but the fatigue factor certainly weighs heavily. You're never going to get a team to admit it ran out of gas (though UMD was close in March when Denver won those two games in the NCHC playoffs). But the Wild clearly didn't have as much energy against Chicago as was present against the Blues in the previous round.

Watch Jason Zucker nearly get beat to a loose puck by Marian Hossa. Watch Scandella lose a board battle to Richards. Watch Coyle's effectiveness slip.

Too many guys weren't at their best against Chicago, while the Blackhawks played four very strong games.

So is it a step back.

Decisively, no.

The Wild needed to rip off a hell of a run in the second half of the season. When Dubnyk came on board, Minnesota was 18-19-5, good for 41 points, 13th in the West. As it turns out, making the playoffs required a minimum of 55 points in 40 games, a 70 percent rate that is almost unfathomable against a tough slate of Western foes.

The Wild got 59 points, nearly 74 percent of the available points.

The end result -- loss to Chicago in the second round -- was the same. The end result -- getting swept -- looks worse than a year ago.

But the fact this team was still alive to get swept in the second round is something worth noting, not forgetting.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Adam Krause Gets AHL Deal

While former UMD forward Justin Crandall made his pro debut Wednesday (two assists for ECHL Reading against Florida) and defenseman Derik Johnson should debut this weekend, we were waiting for word on UMD captain Adam Krause.

Wait no more.

I've learned that Krause -- from Hermantown -- is moving on to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on an AHL deal starting next season. The two-year Bulldog captain will report to the team's ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers (great name and logo).

Krause completed his four-year run at UMD in Saturday's Northeast Regional final loss to Boston University. In 133 games, Krause compiled 16 goals and 37 points, including seven goals and 17 points in 31 games this season. Krause also was a plus-15 on the 2014-15 campaign, as UMD went 21-16-3.

A strong leader in the locker room, Krause was also a fantastic student (NCHC Scholar-Athlete Team this year) and one of the most active UMD players you'll ever find when it comes to community service. He was a nominee for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, as well as the Hockey Humanitarian Award.

By the way, Krause's Wheeling Nailers face the Reading Royals on Wednesday. Just saying.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

UMD Notes: Scott Sandelin Laments Loss to BU

Scott Sandelin apologized for going off on a tangent a little bit, but who could blame him?

Asked what he would remember about his 15th UMD team, the fifth to make an NCAA Tournament and the eighth to win 20 or more games, Sandelin started by talking about how this was really "a team," one that didn't have a superstar but had a lot of unselfish players.

Then came the tangent.

"I've had a lot of great teams," Sandelin said. "It's not even about winning. We've had some great kids. This group was pretty special. Unfortunately, they almost got to where they wanted to go. That's the part that's hard for a coach, when you see that. It was a fun group to work with. They worked hard. They cared about each other.

"Like I've said, some things you can't control. I kind of feel like that last game kind of got taken out of our hands. I don't like that, because I think it cheats the kids a little bit. They're the ones that people come to watch. You just want them to play and decide a game. That's the unfortunate thing, that's the thing that probably stings the most. Whether that sounds like whining, I really don't care. Because the bottom line is that for four of those guys, they can't play again.

"Sorry, I went off the deep end a little."

The topic, not surprisingly, came up a couple times at Sandelin's season-ending press conference Wednesday. In this case, he sort of brought it up on his own, but he was asked about it earlier.

"Obviously disappointed, but proud of our team and how we played," he said. "Some things you can't control as we saw. Came up a little short."

Asked about memories of the Minnesota win, Sandelin acknowledged it's a highlight for a lot of people, but also said "I'll remember more the disappointment of losing a game that some other factors came into play, and our kids not advancing to play in Boston."

I haven't brought this up much, largely because I know most of you are UMD fans, you're probably bitter about what happened, and I doubt you need any reminders. Also, the more I think about the way that game ended, the more bitter I get about it. Can only imagine at least a few of you are the same way.

It might be a topic we can discuss more in-depth at some point, but now is not the time. I'm glad the coach said what he said, because frankly the easy way out would be to repeat the "Some things you can't control" line until everyone goes away. Sandelin did a good job elaborating on his frustration without really stepping in something.

******

For those who haven't heard, UMD's non-conference schedule is as follows for 2015-16:

Sunday night exhibition vs. Lakehead
Opening weekend home and home vs. Bemidji State (Fitzgerald triplets!)
Then a home and home vs. Minnesota
The following weekend, at Notre Dame
Then home vs UMass-Lowell to finish October

The other non-conference series is a two-game set at Northern Michigan in early February. UMD will also host the U.S. Under-18 Team for an exhibition after Christmas.

I have not seen the full schedule, but clearly it will become NCHC-heavy beginning in the first week of November.

******

According to sources, UMD picked up a verbal commitment from Hibbing/Chisholm defenseman Scott Perunovich this week. Since I reported the commitment on Twitter, Perunovich has made it official. One of the first people to congratulate him on Twitter? Hermantown sophomore Ryan Sandelin. I think you've heard of his dad.

Anyway, Perunovich was one of the top 1998-born players in the Northland last year. As a sophomore for Hibbing, he racked up 56 points on 11 goals and 45 assists in 27 games. Perunovich is likely three to four years away from pulling on a Bulldog jersey, but I've heard nothing but good things about his puck skills and vision.

Former Bluejacket Adam Johnson is the top forward in UMD's 2015 recruiting class. Oh, and Scott Sandelin hails from Hibbing. There's that, too.

Andy Welinski Undecided on UMD Return

UMD defenseman Andy Welinski will either get paid to play hockey next season, or he'll captain what could be one of the top teams in college hockey.

While he is leaning toward a return to UMD, Welinski hasn't made a decision yet. The Ducks draft pick is weighing his options carefully before making one.

"Something that I looked at coming into school, and it's been this situation after each year," Welinski told me. "It's gotten bigger after every year, so I've got some options to look at, and we'll see where it goes.

"With the resources I've used and people I've talked to about previous guys who've made this decision, it needs to be what I want to do. Do I think I'm ready? What I learned when I was younger in high school is you need to set both feet and stick with it. It does no good to look back and say 'Wish I would have done that.' It's purely a development decision. Do I think I can play?"

(For those who don't know, Welinski left Duluth East a year early and went to the USHL, where he put together a couple pretty strong years with the Green Bay Gamblers.)

Welinski said he doesn't have a timetable for his final answer.

Will he be motivated by the bitter ending to UMD's 2014-15 season? Perhaps.

"Initially, right after, I made my decision right away that I was coming back," he said. "The emotions and everything, without weighing anything on it, I wanted to be back. You want to play one more game in a year. The opportunity to have one more year is something not everybody has."

The well-spoken blue-liner will graduate next year if he returns, another piece that will weigh on his decision.

If he leaves, he says Duluth and UMD will always have a special place in his heart.

"I've been living a dream here for three years. I grew up going to UMD games, and idolizing all these players. It's easy to get lost in it. It's unbelievable, the facilities and university, being just a couple miles from my house. It's something that I'll never forget.

"From a people standpoint, the people I've met in college, especially my teammates and coaches, they've really impacted my last three years."

If he stays, Welinski will be honored to wear the "C" for the program he grew up watching.

"Kind of a dream. We came in with eight guys in our class. You never know who's going to be there our senior year. It would be a huge honor. From the seniors and older guys who've worn letters my first three years, I've learned a lot from them."

Welinski might be a little conflicted about this decision, and there may be some lingering bitterness over the end of the season (justifiably so), but that smile was as wide as I'm sure most of yours were when I asked about being on the third UMD team in history that can brag about ending Minnesota's season.

"Can't complain here," he said, laughing. "We matched up well against them. It's the biggest upset that a two-seed beat a three-seed in the tournament. It's obviously exciting."

(Yes, people actually called it an "upset." The other three UMD wins must have been accidents or something.)

From a readiness standpoint, my eyes are biased, but I think Welinski has some development he can achieve at this level. By no means was he ever rotten, but I do think he tailed off a little bit in the second half compared to the first. It showed itself with more inconsistency from him than we had seen before Christmas.

That said, Welinski's been a big-minute guy for UMD now for three years. Not many guys come in as freshmen at this level and play the number of minutes he logged from the outset, and he has been on UMD's top pair for most of his Bulldog career. If he leaves, it's hard to begrudge him, given the resume he's got from his college career.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday Musings: BU Takes Advantage of Late Power Play to Eliminate UMD

One second.

That's all that separated UMD from a successful penalty kill in the third period against Boston University. Crow all you want about the holding penalty against Andy Welinski -- and based on the standard that had been set by the WCHA crew in calling nothing for most of the first 55 minutes and change, it was a terrible call -- but the Bulldogs were that close to rendering the call moot.

But Evan Rodrigues got open enough to rip a shot by Kasimir Kaskisuo and give BU a 3-2 lead it would hold for the final 2:24 to advance to the Frozen Four.

It was one of those moments. You could see the play develop, and there wasn't much that could be done. Rodriguez made a great play to drag the puck around a sliding defender, and he ripped a shot Kaskisuo had little chance to stop. Sometimes, you have to tip your cap.

UMD shut down Jack Eichel, who was held off the scoreboard for just the sixth time in 39 games, but the Bulldogs couldn't contain linemate Rodrigues, who scored twice. As a result, BU heads to the Frozen Four with North Dakota, Omaha, and Providence.

For most of Saturday, I actually thought UMD was the better team. The difference was that Rodrigues ripped off a couple great shots, and the Bulldogs couldn't solve BU goalie Matt O'Connor when they were able to generate gobs of offensive zone time and wear down BU a bit.

UMD showed its best traits on Saturday. The Bulldogs played with speed, were physical when required, rarely got pushed around despite BU possessing some bigger guys, and clearly weren't awed or intimidated by the Eichel line, even though it's damn good and Eichel's going to win the Hobey. Kaskisuo battled, played calm and relaxed, and just didn't get rattled. Neither did the rest of the team.

******

Four Bulldog careers closed on Saturday night in Manchester. Senior forwards Justin Crandall and Adam Krause, defenseman Derik Johnson, and goalie Alex Fons put on our colors for the final time.

Those doors close, and more doors open. Both the "warm bodies" door -- UMD has four recruits lined up for 2015 -- and the "leadership" door.

The 2015-16 recruiting class includes forward Adam Johnson of Hibbing, near the top of the USHL in scoring this season, and defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown, who leads the USHL in scoring by defensemen. Also, the staff has added Spruce Grove forward Parker MacKay, who should sign this spring. Nick Deery will come in from the MJHL as the third goalie starting next year.

(MacKay and the Saints are in the AJHL North Division finals at the moment, tied 1-1 in a best-of-seven series against Bonnyville. MacKay has eight goals in eight playoff games so far.)

That will fill the physical void.

How about leadership?

Great teams need strong leaders. Oftentimes, leaders emerge who aren't wearing a letter on their jersey. But UMD is losing two strong captains and a third guy in Johnson who -- in his last two years -- went from "barely able to get in the lineup" to being relied on for big minutes in big spots.

If Andy Welinski returns, the Bulldogs have a good candidate to be captain.

(More on this in a bit.)

But others will be needed. Will some seniors step up, like Cal Decowski (ahem, CAL DECOWSKI!!!11!1!), Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, etc.? Will we see leadership from juniors like Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterberg, or maybe Carson Soucy?

Too early to tell.

But it will come from somewhere. If it's effective and strong leadership, UMD will be a contender again in 2015-16.

******

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.

His presence allows Hunter Miska to play one more year in the BCHL with Penticton. Senior Matt McNeely will back up Kaskisuo. His work ethic, even in not playing much this season, caught the eye of many around the program. McNeely is a highly-respected part of this team, and for good reason. His play against Minnesota at the North Star College Cup wasn't an accident, and if something had happened to Kas, he would have been ready to go when called on.

******

Now, for potential flight risks.

Welinski is the big one. The Ducks draft pick has multiple options, beyond "return for his senior season" and "sign with Anaheim." Because he was drafted in 2011, he could become a free agent if he waits out 30 days after leaving school and turning pro.

I have no indication what the mobile defenseman will do at this point.

Our other drafted players were sophomores Soucy and Toninato and junior Cameranesi. Soucy (Wild) will almost certainly be back. I'd be surprised if Toronto signed either Cameranesi or Toninato, though Cameranesi could be tempting given the organization's need for a reset and the strong year he had. His lack of size could be a hindrance, though he has plenty of speed and skill, and he showed a lot of toughness shaking off that big hit he took in the second period Saturday and not missing a shift.

Of the undrafted players, forward Alex Iafallo bears the most watching, I believe. I wouldn't rule out interest from the pro ranks, but will it be the right fit and make him decide he wants to leave?

Last year, we went into the offseason fairly certain Caleb Herbert would turn pro, and he signed within a week. The year before, we were surprised to see Chris Casto make the jump, but that also happened pretty quick after the season ended.

Reality: We should know within a month what departures we're dealing with for 2015-16, if any.

******

Finally, a word of thanks. First, the UMD staff -- Scott Sandelin, Jason Herter, Derek Plante, Christian Koelling, Chris Garner, DR. Suz Hoppe, Hogie, Bill Watson, Brant Nicklin, Blake Palmer, Josh Berlo, Bob Nygaard, Brian Nystrom, Jay Finnerty, Morgan "Li'l Nyggs" Nygaard, Jeff Stark, and everyone at Amsoil Arena and within the athletic department who help make this job easier.

It's cliche, but this job isn't worth doing if it ever stops being fun. I enjoy every day I get to spend around the UMD staff and players. I told Josh Berlo Saturday that this was the best group I've worked with in my ten years calling games, and I meant it. These kids were a treat to deal with, and they were a hoot to be around at the rink, on the bus, and at the airport.

Thanks to Matt Wellens for assimilating himself as best as possible, and for the transportation help in Manchester.

Most importantly, thanks to my wife and son for continuing to sacrifice and allow me to do this. Couldn't ever manage doing it without their support.

And thanks to all of you. I don't spend much time on blog metrics, and I'd probably keep writing this even if no one was reading it regularly. But I know a lot of you do, and I appreciate it. We're doing some different stuff at the radio ranch, and that's affected my ability to give you the kinds of updates I used to. Thanks for the patience, and for your loyalty. It isn't unnoticed.

Hopefully we can reconvene the band in October and take this thing to the beaches of Tampa next April for the 2016 Frozen Four.