The 2010-2011 season is nigh. In just days, the team will head down for their exhibition game to Soldotna against the University of Windsor Lancers. It's the players first real opportunity to show their coach what they can contribute toward the team's success. There are a number of things that need to happen this season for the team to improve on last season's 8th place league finish.
I think the relatively correct assumption that this is a rebuilding year for the Seawolves is appropriate. It can be nothing else with a predominantly young team. Let's break some things down into categories first ...
You can't win a game without [Insert Your Favorite Goal Scoring Hockey Cliche here ...]. Which means that every player on the Seawolves squad that can needs to score goals. Every veteran forward needs to improve their goal production this season. Every rookie forward will need to find his stride and the quicker the better considering there are going to be 5 guys not dressing for every game. Producing goals will be one ticket to staying in the lineup; for everyone ... including veterans.
I've gone up and down the roster imagining line combinations and it's a task I'll never envy a coach having to do. There are myriad ways of putting guys together that one might think would be positive based on tendencies of the players and their individual skill set. But that's the thing, every scenario I ran through my mind made good sense for one reason or another. So there's not much to be gained from that exercise.
Whatever the lines, there are a number of returning players to focus on regarding future production. The upperclass forwards on this team pretty much all will be required to score; Grant, Parkinson, Wiles, Haddad, and Portwood. That group produced a combined 32 goals last season. That really ain't gonna cut it this season.
There's a big group of sophomore forwards we ought to be seeing putting the puck in the net this year. Spencer, Gellert, Bruijsten and Naslund sure ought to be able to improve on the 12 goals they scored last year. As a group that's a pretty low. Lastly, if a combined group of 4 regular playing freshman this season don't score at least 12 goals this season then the team is in trouble. There will have to be some production replaced.
Some scoring may come from the blueline. Last season the blueliners contributed 13 goals. When I look at all the returning experience on the backline, I see lots of offensive potential. The Seawolves will need some of that potential to become reality.
Defense ain't all about defensemen. This UAA team will need a solid defensively oriented work-ethic this season for a couple of reasons. Last season the Seawolves gave up 139 goals. It shouldn't take much more than just saying that semi-obscene number to impress it's importance. A team's defensive accomplishments are powered by all 5 skaters on the ice. When forwards aren't trying to make something happen in the opponent's end then they damned well better be back in the defensive end stopping the other guys from scoring.
13 times last season the Seawolves allowed their opponent to score 5 or more goals. Thirteen. Times. And this season, the Seawolves look to start one of two rookie netminders each game? Damn straight the defensive effort from the whole freaking team needs to improve dramatically. Not just in small increments or percentages ... in big huge ways. Slack backchecking is 'teh suck' for a rookie goalie. The goal for shots against every night for this Seawolf team ought to be 20. The closer to that number the better.
Penalty minutes must also decrease and keeping them lower will be another defensive key. Giving up power plays to teams with a guy that will be bombing it in from the point next year in the NHL ain't a roadmap to winning. And lots of opponents have some guy on the blueline who's capable of bombing in a first timer on the power play. The fewer times we allow that to happen the better.
Commitment and responsibility in the defensive end are the watchwords for the year. Forwards are going to have to give up their bodies for the team and block shots. Defensemen are going to have to be sharp and not lose their assignments. The first happened too infrequently last season and the second happened far too often.
Much of what the Seawolves will do this season will start from the backend. Whether it's on a breakout pass or carry up the ice or on a counter-attack from a turnover. Good teams in the WCHA are first good defensively.
The importance of power plays and penalty kills can never be overstated. Last season UAA's special teams numbers weren't good (79% and 13%). This year's numbers need to be better. It can't be stated any simpler. Unless at a minimum the Seawolves can score close to 20% of the time and keep the opponent from scoring 80% of the time, the team will have little chance for improvement over last year.
Those numbers are the minimum to be considered as marginally successful. Elite teams always have better numbers. I don't remember a time where UAA's percentages were both in line with that minimum standard. Did I say they need to be so this year? At least.
I'll leave that at that. Analyzing any mechanisms to address the problems is above my pay grade. I just like the simplicity of saying it needs fixed.
Another potential key to success is the WCHA schedule and the different 4 game series that come about with the stupidly unbalanced and far too long 28 games. This season the Seawolves play Colorado College 5 times (4 league games and 1 non-conference), Denver 4 times and Minnesota State 4 times. These 12 games against only 3 different team will tend to weight our results. In other words, the better we do against those three teams the more likely we'll have more success than last year.
Last season the Seawolves played Minnesota 4 times, Denver 4 times, SCSU 4 times, CC 4 times and Minnesota State 4 times. 5-13-2 was the result.
Minnesota State and Colorado College are likely to be teams near UAA in the standings this season. Dominating the 8 games against them with 6 wins would be helpful. It might be too much to hope to take 3 out of 4 games versus DU but it could happen. 8 wins would be optimal, I'll settle for 7. But any less and the team is faced with making up for it somewhere along the line. I'm certain we'd like UNO and Bemidji to just roll over and give us four games. But it isn't going to be quite that easy.
Secondarily, the Seawolves must start winning more at home. The number of points we lost at home last season was brutal. How many ugly Friday night losses did we sit and watch at the Sully? Too freaking many is right.
Every season there are intangible things that arise and make themselves known. Injuries and inelibilities are factors for every team at one time or another. This season the Seawolves start the season without one of their most important players. Kane Lafranchise is ineligible academically. As an experienced and dependable blueliner his absence will be a challenge to overcome. I expect someone to be able to cover for him not being there, but I doubt they'll match his play. It is a loss but not one that can't be dealt with.
I see lots of bright spots. I hear nothing but good stuff about Scott Warner. One of my readers who's been visiting practices regularly is stoked about Justin Kirchevel. The one practice I went to included a pretty sweet goal from Brett Cameron from a shot with a really quick release. I'm fairly certain Wes McLeod is a more highly rated prospect coming in as a freshman than was Lee Baldwin last season. Matt Bailey comes with a decent resume and I'm hopeful he'll have an impact at some point.
Brad Gorham's half season last year should ensure that he hits the ice full stride this season. Look for him to be a key on the power play trying to drop those bombs in from the point. With Curtis Leinweber's experience at different positions look for him to be dangerous anytime he's on the ice. I'm not saying he will be ... but I'm saying he can be ... from forward or defense. Tommy Grant can obviously score more than 9 goals. What is his upper limit is the question?
And Wiles? You and I saw an ability in him to elevate his game at times last season and just go make a goal. If he only matches his 9 goals last year that'll surprise me big time. Nick Haddad and Jade Portwood are two upperclassmen that must take more shots if they want to score more goals. Both of these guys have been role players through their careers but an occassional selfish shot attempt or two more a game would be a good thing in the long run. Lots of other forwards need to shoot more too.
The team has some solid penalty killing specialists but needs to improve execution on the power play in big ways. Don't bet against any number of blueliners stepping up and filling a scoring role this season. Luka Vidmar has a good eye and enough accuracy to find a lane to the net. Gorham can boom it. I know Darwitz is offensive minded and McLeod's resume shows he does well in that end of the ice. We'll all look forward to seeing Kane return in the 2nd half and hopefully have an impact. And I think Quinn Sproule may surprise us with some of his offensive play.
I'm pretty optimistic that our sophomores will tend toward the break out side of things.; Naslund and Bruijsten should find their stride and Gellert and Spencer will continue to progress. I like the defensive experience as a unit that our blueliners possess. And I'm fairly certain that every player on the team knows he's playing in front of a rookie goaltender and will desire to do his part in helping Gunderson and Kamal keep the GAA's down.
There is every reason to believe that the experience of the upperclassmen will be very important to our success. That's 9 guys that are pretty much going to be playing every night (barring injury/eligibility) who have all been through the wars. In terms of the defensive theme, the upperclassmen will need to lead by example. If they aren't going down to block shots then I promise you none of the freshman will. But if every upperclassmen sets the tone by giving it up, then I promise you every freshman on the team will do the same. And the sophomores best be doing so just to keep a freshman from taking their spot eh?
I've tried to preach the defensively philosophy as a bridge to next season and beyond since I see this as purely a rebuilding year. If the Seawolves can find a defensive structure and the discpline to play such a style then it can only portend good things for the future. While I don't expect any championships this season, it is true that one getsgo there through playing great defense. In every sport. Always. It's time for the Seawolves to start playing that way so that perhaps one day in the future there will be some sort of championship or one or another kind to celebrate.
In case you're not as obsessed as me and some of my readers; here are links to my class by class breakdowns and comments about each player ...
So that's what I say. What about you?