The University of North Dakota men's hockey team held it's annual media day today at Ralph Engelstad Arena. It was the opening of what's a high-anticipated season for the Fighting Sioux. Below readers can find the outlook, video links and thoughts from the media by longtime hockey guru Virg Foss.
North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol, now in his seventh year behind the Sioux bench, knows full well how much of a grind the college hockey season is. With 30 postseason wins over the last six years, Hakstol and the Sioux have repeatedly demonstrated the abilty to keep the highs and lows in perspective during the course of the season.
Entering the 2010-11 season, however, Hakstol is quick to point to UND's first 10 games as vital to the team's development.
During that stretch, the defending WCHA Final Five champion Sioux will sandwich lengthy road trips to Alaska and Maine around a trip to Bemidji State, where the Beavers will open their new arena. Following that six-game road trip, UND will open the WCHA season at home against fierce rivals Denver and Minnesota Duluth.
"If you break down the entire schedule," Hakstol said, "that first 10 games is as tough as it gets.
"In saying that, I think it's the right challenge for this team. We have to embrace the fact that we're a veteran team. We'll probably get our noses bloody and learn a lot about ourselves, but in terms of the people we have in our locker room, we will do what we need to do to meet the challenge."
What Hakstol has in the locker room is an experienced group that returns 80 percent of its goal-scoring production, including 20-goal scorer Jason Gregoire (Jr., Winnipeg, Manitoba) and 2009-10 WCHA Rookie of the Year Danny Kristo (So., Eden Prairie, Minn.).
The Sioux will also receive a boost from the return to health of All-America defenseman and Hobey Baker candidate Chay Genoway, the team's captain who missed all but nine games last season due to post-concussion syndrome.
Four talented freshmen, including a pair of first-round draft choices, will also be in the hunt for significant playing time.
"Everyone will get opportunities to prove what they can bring to the table," Hakstol said. "Depth will hopefully be a real strength of our team. The players will decide who ends up in what role."
BETWEEN THE PIPES
After becoming the first Sioux goalie to appear in at least 40 games in each of his first two seasons, junior Brad Eidsness (Chestermere, Alberta) has cemented himself as one of the top goalies in college hockey. A workhorse who won 24 games for the second straight year and led the nation in minutes, Eidsness is undoubtedly battle-tested.
"Brad has played a lot of hockey over the last two years," Hakstol said. "One thing he's shown is the ability to continually improve his game. We want him to continue to improve and provide stability for our hockey team."
Eidsness will be pushed by sophomore Aaron Dell (Airdrie, Alberta), who went through an up-and-down rookie campaign that included a road shutout in his first career start.
"Aaron has to use the experiences he went through as a freshman to step into a true goaltending tandem this year," Hakstol said. "He'll have the opportunity to prove he can continually earn starts throughout the year."
Sophomore Tate Maris (Denver, Colo.), who Hakstol terms "the ultimate teammate," also returns to the mix for the Sioux.
ON THE BLUELINE
UND boasts arguably its deepest defense corps of the Hakstol era, a group that includes numerous experienced veterans and a pair of highly touted freshmen.
But the heart and soul of the blueline, and the entire team, is fifth-year senior captain Genoway. The 2008-09 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most dynamic players in college hockey, Genoway has received a clean bill of health and will provide the Sioux with an immense boost, on and off the ice.
"Great leaders bring a presence to a room when they walk in," said Hakstol. "Chay, in his own way, adds a whole different level of intensity and excitement to our locker room, our practices and our game days.
"Hopefully he will see some of the rewards of the difficult times he's seen over the last 10 months," Hakstol said.
Fellow seniors Derrick LaPoint (Eau Claire, Wis.) and Jake Marto (Grand Forks) have formed one of the WCHA's most effective and efficient defense pairings and Hakstol expects more of the same in 2010-11.
Marto provides smooth-as-silk skating ability, while the 6-foot-3 LaPoint has carved out a niche as one of the top penalty-killing defensemen in college hockey.
Blood broke through in a big way with 14 points and 96 penalty minutes as a sophomore, providing the Sioux with a punishing defender who is also capable of lugging the puck in transition when needed.
"He's an absolute presence on the blueline," Hakstol said. "He's going to be a force for opposing players to deal with."
MacWilliam, meanwhile, stepped right into the lineup as a freshman and often displayed the poise of a senior.
"We look for Andrew to continue his development into more of a leadership role and a solid, efficient two-way defenseman that brings a real edge every night," Hakstol said.
Two newcomers to watch this season are freshmen Derek Forbort (Duluth, Minn.), a 2010 first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings, and Dillon Simpson (Edmonton, Alberta), who is draft eligible in 2011.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Forbort is a strong skater who possesses a well-rounded skill set.
"Derek is a special talent," Hakstol said. "He's a really gifted young man who brings a great work ethic and a real will to improve and develop his game. I think he will play significant minutes for us in key situations as a freshman."
Simpson, whose father Craig enjoyed a highly successful NHL career and is now the lead analyst for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, plays with a poise that belies the fact he is UND's youngest player.
"Dillon has a very good understanding of what is happening around him on the rink," Hakstol said. "He has great ability to see the ice, make the right play and make it look simple. As a young player moving into the WCHA, you need maturity beyond your years and I think Dillon has that."
UND's forward unit includes five players who scored at least 10 goals last season, as well as several more capable of doing so.
Gregoire led the team with 20 goals as a sophomore last year and excels in all three zones. The left winger is arguably UND's most complete player and is primed for an even bigger year of production.
"I expect him to be one of the best players in college hockey," Hakstol said. "He's not a flashy player. He reminds me a lot of (former Sioux and current New Jersey Devil) Travis Zajac. Everything he does is efficient, solid and consistent."
Kristo wasted no time in establishing himself as one of the most dynamic forwards in the WCHA, putting up 36 points and a team-leading nine power-play goals on his way to the league's rookie of the year award. His game-breaking speed and big shot off the wing make him a threat to score every time he is on the ice.
"We need him to be a guy we can rely on to provide offense on a daily basis," Hakstol said. "But he's also a guy we hope develops into a reliable, two-way forward who eats up a lot of minutes."
During UND's playoff run to the Broadmoor Trophy last spring, the most effective Sioux line on many nights was the trio of Evan Trupp (Anchorage, Alaska), Matt Frattin (Edmonton, Alberta) and Brad Malone (Miramichi, New Brunswick). When it is clicking, the senior trio plays with a relentless style that makes it one of the best lines in the WCHA.
Trupp, who had a career-best 34 points last year, is a playmaker who is capable of creating offense seemingly out of nowhere. He has also developed into a dangerous penalty killer.
"‘Trupper' is one of the guys on our team who, any time, can produce a highlight reel play," Hakstol said. "I look for a big senior year out of him as a guy we'll rely heavily on in all situations."
Frattin re-joined the Sioux at the Christmas break after sitting out the first half under a team-imposed suspension. Upon his return, Frattin emerged as one of the top forwards in the WCHA, displaying a combination of power and finesse that has Hakstol expecting a special senior season. In fact, Hakstol goes so far as to say Frattin is capable of being the top goal-scorer in college hockey.
"I think he's just discovering how good he can be," Hakstol said. "The final two months of last season, I though he was one of the most dominant players on the ice, night in and night out, with his production and physical presence.
"Matt is ready and poised, with the experience he has gained over his time here, to become a premier player on a national level and I think we're going to see that this year."
The line is anchored by 6-foot-2, 212-pound center Malone, a bull of a forward who is more than capable of holding his own offensively.
"He's really turned himself into one of the most effective power forwards in the game," Hakstol said. "He was already our most physical player up front last year and we started to see more offensive confidence with his development."
Long known as an agiator, junior Brett Hextall (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) was perhaps UND's most indespensible power-play weapon last season. The Sioux operated at 24.4 percent with the man advantage in 34 games with Hextall in the lineup, compared to just 6.5 percent in the nine games he missed due to injury.
"He's an outstanding power-play player with his ability around the net and willingness to go to some of the tough areas," Hakstol said. "He inspires our bench. He plays with such an intensity and has become a real force for us."
Hakstol calls junior forward Mario Lamoureux (Grand Forks) the "pit bull" in the Sioux lineup. A physical forward and a reliable penalty killer, Lamoureux achieved career highs in every offensive category last season.
"Mario is a hard-nosed player who works hard every day to improve the little areas of his game," Hakstol said. "He really embraces the role he plays on our team and he turned into a real leader last year."
Several sophomores will be in the hunt for significant roles after gaining valuable experience last year.
One of those sophomores is Corban Knight (High River, Alberta), who is expected to center one of the top scoring lines for the Sioux.
"By the last month of our season, Corban was becoming a dominant offensive player," Hakstol said. "That's the role we see for him. He has a great opportunity to be a premier player in the WCHA."
Mike Cichy (New Hartford, Conn.) is a skilled player capable of adding offense to the Sioux lineup with added consistency.
"I think Mike is going to show us real good things," Hakstol said. "We've seen some great accountability on Mike's part in terms of improving different areas of his game and we're excited to see him break through and become a regular part of our roster."
At 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Carter Rowney (Sexsmith, Alberta) has the tools to be a key contributor.
"We really need to have his size up the middle, and his presence as a real solid, two-way centerman," Hakstol said.
Brett Bruneteau (Omaha, Neb.) is a gritty, two-way forward in the mold of Lamoureux.
"‘Bruno' is one of the guys who is absolutely dedicated to improving himself in all areas of the game," Hakstol said. "We hope to see him play a great role for our team this year."
Davidson stepped into the lineup last season when injuries hit the Sioux blueline, despite having never played the position at the collegiate level, and acquitted himself well.
"For three years he has set the bar in terms of work ethic and the attitude he brings to the team," Hakstol said. "This year we'd like to see him become a regular part of our lineup as a winger and bring a big, strong physical presence."
Gleason is a smooth skater who logged 39 games on defense as a freshman.
"With his battle level, Joe carved out a real solid role for himself last year. His versatility will be a real benefit," Hakstol said.
"Ryan (Hill) didn't play a whole lot of games (last year) but he's a popular teammate who brings great work ethic," Hakstol said.
Nelson, a 2010 first-round pick of the New York Islanders, is a highly touted recruit with a tremendous ceiling.
"Brock is a very exciting young player," Hakstol said. "He is extremely talented with an outstanding work ethic. We expect him to have an impact in an offensive role and develop his two-way game.
Rodwell, meanwhile, projects as a power forward.
"He's coming in with great experience out of the AJHL and we expect him to be able to provide that consistent, north-south physical presence on a daily basis," Hakstol said.