I'm thinking this will all sound a bit obvious. But since I start my player/season previews etc ... so early (ahem ... back in August) and with the lack of any substantial news (a good thing generally), there isn't much for a blogger to write about. So, I thought today I'd give you my ideas about what needs to happen this season for the Seawolves to succeed.
First, allow me to define what I mean by succeed. At minimum this coming season, success means finishing with more points than last season. The 08-09 finish put the Seawolves only 6 points out of 5th place and home ice. If they'd won three more games (depending on other results of course) then we very may well have been sitting in the Sully watching playoff games instead of looking at them on TV from Denver. Let me put it simply, it was the best 9th place finish EvAH.
But would 24 points be a rousing success? Nah. It would be minimally successful but really only if the placement that 24 points gave was higher than 9th. My point here is, that each and every point and placement in the standings higher than last season will represent a higher level of success. Each of us fans will have varying degrees by which we measure that. For me, I'd say anything more than a 30 point season translates to "quite successful".
Allow me now to breakdown some parts of the game that will have to click to reach that 30 point plateau. In order of importance:
Team DefenseLast year the Seawolves gave up an average of 26.7 shots per in WCHA games. Only one other team had a lower average. This has been a statistic which has improved steadily during Shyiak's tenure. I like to think it has become a key part of the team's identity and I expect it will be somewhat of a strength this coming season.
Time and again we've all seen players going down to block shot attempts. It is a matter of commitment. Every player must be willing to get in front of a shot. It means sound positional play. It means getting in the lanes and being responsible. If the puck in in the Seawolves half of the ice, then the mindset of every player must be on taking away opportunities from the opposition. Every backchecking forward has to stay with their man. The defensemen have to face up and direct everyone as needed. If a shot attempt doesn't get to the goal then it can't go in the net.
Last season the Seawolves PK was a substandard 75.8%. For comparison's sake, Minnesota killed off over 89% of their penalties. A well-coached, well-prepared and properly executed penalty kill should be over 80%. All five teams in 1st through 5th last season finished with better than 80 PK's. All five teams in 6th through 10th didn't. The team took 18.5 minutes of penalties per game last season. Not the worst in the league, nor the best. Something less than that would be helpful. Obvious yet?
GoaltendingI hate talking about goaltending but I believe this is the 2nd most important facet of the upcoming season. Last season neither UAA netminder exceeded .900 save percentage. It seems that at one time or another both guys were victimized by flukes and/or garbage much more often that should be the case. It's not a knock on either one. Just a statement describing some circumstances. We definitely saw too many ... ARGHHHH moments.
Down the stretch though, both Jonny O and Bryce stepped up their games and for the first time in a couple of seasons, we saw one or the other actually stand on their head. Bryce finished with a real nice 2.60 GAA which came on the strength of his play in the 2nd half. In order to help the team reach it's goals, both guys will need to have better seasons. Goalies are going to give up the occasional softie. The fewer times that happens this season the more likely the team will succeed. In whatever combination they see action, a combined save percentage of over .900 and a GAA of less than 3 is going to be necessary. Still Obvious?
Transition GameThere is nary a team in the WCHA that can't put the pedal to the metal. There is a lot of run and gun hockey every weekend. Last season we saw one of the best skating Seawolf teams to EvAH hit the ice. There is speed throughout the lineup. I'm confident that UAA can (as they say) "skate with anybody".
But transitioning the puck from defense to offense isn't just about wheels. It's about tape to tape passing. Forwards have to be quick to recognize the change of possession. They have to see the ice well enough to get into position for the pass and have quick enough boots to get them there. Defensemen have to keep their heads up and decide quickly whether to pass or skate with the puck. And the choice they make will be damned important. A pass that doesn't click rarely turns into something positive. A carry that results in a dump to the wrong side doesn't help anything.
This is one part of the game where coaching makes a big big difference. Shyiak, Blair and Simon will need to do their homework every week to try to identify the various opponents tendencies. They will likely have to tweak the systems week to week. But ultimately, it will come down to the guys on the backend making good decisions with the puck and executing those choices effectively. Just as obvious?
Scoring69 goals in conference play was the total last season. That won't be enough this season to get to the previously discussed level of success. About 30% more pucks will have to find their way into the opponents nets this coming season. If that sounds like a shitload well ... it is and it isn't.
The Seawolves scored 2.46 goals per game last season. 85 goals would mean a smidgen more than 3 goals per game average. More than a couple of players will need to have their highest production in green and gold to make that happen. Guys that dropped their output from 07-08 to 08-09 will need to step up in 09-10. Some rookie forward(s) will have to contribute. Veteran blueliners will need to score more often. A rookie blueliner contributing would be a nice bonus.
The power play last season was a paltry 13%. That was pretty much identical to 10th place Michigan Tech who won a whole 2 WCHA games. Some combination of coaching and execution needs to happen to push that number somewhere closer to 20%. Coach Shyiak has it dead on right when he talks about first timing shots on the power play. The quicker the man on the point gets the shot off the more likely it will find a lane to the net. Look at any truly successful WCHA team and you'll find AT LEAST one guy on the blueline that can rip it first time. Obvious to me.
HealthThere isn't much a team can do to keep from getting bitten by the injury bug. On average in this league it seems that at least one team suffers from some serious manpower shortages due to injury every season. Last season that was Michigan Tech. The Seawolves have had their turn at that injury bug rotation in the past. The one thing the staff and players can do is ensure that everyone is in the best physical shape possible.
Hopefully, everyone worked their asses off during the summer and are continuing that modus operandi here in the preseason. Not even the best conditioning though can prevent certain injuries from happening. Perhaps one mitigating factor is roster size. The Seawolves have 22 skaters available in the first half and 23 in the 2nd half. That should help to turn an injury to one player into an opportunity for another.
Another helpful facet related to health may just be that this team is BIG. I know I've harped on that for a couple of years now. But this season we're going to see the largest Seawolf team to EvAH take the ice. I'm reckoning they'll be the largest team in Division 1. I know they're bigger than any other WCHA team ... by quite a bit in some cases.
Summary:I'm sure there is some other aspect/facet that I might have addressed here. What do you see as being important? Would you put these things in a different order?Team Defense -- I'm confident it can be what it needs to be.
Goaltending -- There's every reason to expect Bryce and Jonny O to be improvedTransition Game -- There is quite a bit of experience and talent on the backend and enough speed on the frontend to improve this facet of the game.
Scoring -- It might seem like a tall order but we're talking about less than one more goal per game than last season.
Health -- The team is just so damn big and there's enough extra players that (knock on wood) it shouldn't be an issue.
In ancient Greece, a young man approached Socrates and queried him as to the secrets to success. Socrates took the young man by the hand and led him to a river. Together they walked into the water until the water was quite deep. At that point, Socrates pushed the young man under the water and held him there.
The young man struggled to no avail in order to return to the surface. At the point when the his struggle was lessening and his face was turning blue, Socrates pulled him to the surface. Wide-eyed, gasping and terrified the young man asked, "What the Fuck?"
Socrates answered his question with a question (philosophers do that). "What did you want more than anything else when you were under the water?" ... The young man answered, "Air." Then Socrates said, "Well, when you want success as much as you wanted air just now, then you'll most certainly achieve it."
I warned you it was all pretty much obvious.