St. Cloud, MN – After a record setting 31 wins in 2015-16 the Huskies had an enormous task ahead of them heading into the 2016-17 season. Losing 219 points of offense and All-American goaltender Charlie Lindgren made the 2016-17 season a certain rebuilding year for the Huskies. They finished with a 16-19-1 record – the lowest number of wins for Coach Bob Motzko since the 2010-11 season and second lowest since he took over the reigns in 2005-06. Nevertheless, Motzko was upbeat about his squad last season feeling he had a good nucleus of players to work with and a “fresh feel” about the team. Certainly, although not intended, a great deal of pressure was placed on the large sophomore class to act as a ballast as they treaded the choppy waters of the NCHC. Not helping matters was the reliance on two first-year goaltenders, Jeff Smith and Zach Driscoll who had their struggles the first half of the season in the rugged NCHC as the Huskies barely kept their head above .500 with a 9-8-1 overall record. However, as the season continued the sophomores did perform finishing the season with five of the top seven points scorers and a defense led by sophomores Jimmy Schuldt, Will Borgen and Jon Lizzotte. Goaltending took a turn for the better as well with Jeff Smith taking over the majority of minutes compiling a 92% save percentage over the second half of the season.
Thus, with the official first day of practice this Saturday (9/30) the coaching staff is upbeat about the team and anxious to continue the momentum they started in the second half of the 2016-17 season. The normally sedate Coach Motzko even willing to proclaim the team is “light years ahead of where we were at this time last year. There’s great excitement. the guys are in great shape.”
Early predictions have the Huskies finishing second in the NCHC preseason poll and ranked ninth in the USCHO and sixth in the USA Hockey/USA Today preseason polls.
Experience, depth and improved goaltending should lead the Huskies to success in 2017-18. In particular, the junior class consisting of eight returning players will be expected to carry a heavy load both on offense and defense. With that said, here’s a preview of the team by position as they head into an exhibition game with Regina on Saturday, September 30th.
There’s been a shake-up in the goaltender position since last season. 2016-17 part-time starter Zach Driscoll has opted to return to junior hockey for another season leaving juniors Jeff Smith and David Zevnik and newcomer David Hrenak to battle for playing time. With a year under his belt and nearly 1500 minutes of playing time in 2016-17 Jeff Smith should have the inside track as the #1 goaltender to start the season. After some struggles early on last season Smith responded well to the tutelege of goaltender coach and former SCSU player Mike Lee and finished the second half of the season with a .92 save percentage. His final numbers in 2016-17 included a 10-13-0 record, 2.77 GAA and .905 SV%. Numbers that will need to be improved upon if the Huskies are to have success this season.
The Huskies solidified their goaltending position with the addition of David Hrenak, a 19 year-old from Povazska, Bystrica, Solvakia. Hrenak was a teammate of fellow recruit, Easton Brodzinski with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). In 33 games he was 15-14-1 with a 2.24 GAA and .923 SV% including four shutouts. The 6″2″ 181 goaltender was ranked the 24th North American goaltender in the NHL Central Scouting final rankings for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Neutral Zone, a leading source on NCAA prospect rankings has Hrenak ranked as a four star (out of 5) recruit. Still maturing as a goaltender, Hrenak has solid footwork, a good glove-hand and doesn’t give up a lot of rebounds.He should provide strong competition to Smith at the goaltender position.
David Zevnik will remain the third goaltender and provide added depth to the position.
Coach Motzko comments: “Goaltending is at a different level to start this season. Jeff Smith is in better shape and has more experience. He has been outstanding in camp so far. David Hrenak has high promise and accolades. He will be an outstanding college goalie. We will get him in there early.”
With a great deal of depth and experience at defense this will be a position of strength for the Huskies and one of the top units in college hockey. Led by junior and captain, Jimmy Schuldt, a preseason NCHC All-Conference team pick, the Huskies will have an impressive top four unit averaging close to 33 games last season. This unit also contributed well to the offense adding 19 goals and 43 assists for 62 points last season. Sophomore Jack Ahcan was named to the All-NCHC Rookie team and led the defense with 5 goals and 16 assists for 21 points. The unit is rounded out by junior Will Borgen, a Buffalo Sabres draft pick (2-10-12) and junior Jon Lizotte(4-6-10) who continues to play at a high level.
An incredible amount of depth will provide significant competition to positions 5 and 6 on defense. Veteran players Clark Kuster and Mika Ilvonen both took a red-shirt year in 2016-17 but look to insert themselves into the lineup this season. Kuster, a 5’10” 185 junior from St. Louis compiled 20 goals, 42 assists and 62 points in 151 games for Cedar Rapids of the USHL. An intense competitor, he plays hard defensively, has good puck skills and possesses a very hard shot. His shot was legitimately measured at 101 mph in a team competition. Senior Mika Ilvonen, a 5’8″ 162 native of Espoo, Finland has suited up for 39 games in his career. He had 5 assists in 2014-15 and 1 assist in 11 games in 2015-16. He’s a former World Junior player for Finland.
The unit will also be pushed by newcomers, Tyler Anderson (Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Lucas Jaycox (Warroad, MN). The 6’2″ 200 pound Anderson blossomed into one of the top defenseman in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League during the 2016-17 season with 12 goals and 34 assists for 46 points and 31 PIM in 53 regular season games. He also had an impact in the playoffs with 8 points in 12 games. His efforts during the season earned him two MJHL Defenseman of the Month honors and a spot on the 2016-17 MJHL All-Star Second Team. Jaycox, an imposing 6’2″ 194 pound left shooting 20 year-old defenseman from Warroad, MN has played two plus years for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. A defensive oriented blueliner, Jaycox had 3 goals and 18 assists for 21 points in 122 games including 107 PIM and +24. Both of these players should see time in the defensive rotation this season.
Coach Motzko comments: “This is the most depth I’ve had at defense since I’ve been here. We have a good mix of toughness and size. This unit should start good and get stronger as the year goes on. We’re excited about this defensive corps. We may have something special here. I don’t have a clue what our defensive pairings will be yet.”
There is a lot of excitement at forward with the return of six upper classmen (4 juniors | 2 seniors) to provide leadership and experience to this squad. Seniors Judd Peterson and Blake Winiecki are proven goal scorers and combined for 23 goals in 2016-17. However, Judd Peterson was hampered by a bad hip which has been repaired in the off-season and he should be primed for a stellar senior campaign. The junior class consisting of Jacob Benson, Mikey Eyssimont, Robby Jackson and Patrick Newell have been lineup regulars since they were freshman and are expected to have a huge impact this season. This group of juniors contributed 37 goals and 96 points last season and the numbers can only go up this season. Sophomores Ryan Poehling, Nick Poehling and Jack Poehling were an impressive group of brothers last season, got stronger and gained more confidence as the season wore on and combined for 15 goals and 36 points. Ryan Poehling, still just an 18 year-old was a first round draft choice of the Montreal Canadians and is certain to be a member of the Team USA World Junior team this winter. Add to this group sophomore Jake Wahlin (6-6-12) and you have a highly effective sophomore class that will contribute more to the offense this season.
An intriguing group of junior hockey veterans round out the group of forwards. Easton Brodzinski (Blaine, MN) carries on the legacy of the Brodzinski family at SCSU following in the footsteps of his father Mike who was a prolific scorer for the Huskies from 1984 to 1987 compiling 146 points and brother Jonny, currently with the Los Angeles Kings who netted 64 goals and added 48 assists for 112 points in just three seasons from 2012 to 2015. At Blaine (MN) High School he amassed 52 goals and 34 assists for 86 points in 92 games. Moving on to the British Columbia Junior Hockey League powerhouse Penticton Vees, he piled up 36 goals and 40 assists for 76 points in 65 games and finished the USHL season in 2016-17 with 23 goals and 16 assists for 39 points in 53 games placing him 12th in league goal scoring. Don’t be surprised to see Brodzinski on a power play unit as the season progresses.
Blake Lizotte (Chisago Lakes, MN) was one of the top offensive stars in the USHL last season finishing second in the USHL in scoring with 65 points (19G, 46A) and in 56 games. His 46 assists also ranked second in the league, and he was fifth among all players with an average of 1.16 points/game. Lizotte dished out multiple points in a game 12 times, including a season-high five assists in Fargo’s first game of the season, a 7-4 win in Omaha over the Lancers. The Lindstrom, MN native was named to the U.S. Junior Select Team for the World Junior A Challenge and helped Team USA to a gold medal in the tournament. Here’s another player that could see time on the power play as the season progresses.
The Huskies have bolstered their depth at forward with the addition of Veteran NAHL forward Kevin Fitzgerald. The 6′ 180 pound left-shooting forward from Hinsdale, IL most recently played for the Aberdeen Wings of the North American Junior Hockey League. The 21 year-old has played portions of three seasons in the league and a majority of the 2014-15 season with the Vermont Lumberjacks of the EHL. Fitzgerald led the Wings in scoring with 22 goals and 37 assists for 59 points in 60 games. Fitzgerald is a good skating forward who has improved his offense each year in the league and will provide added depth to the SCSU forward position. In early practices the coaching staff has been impressed with this recruit.
SCSU added a big body and seasoned junior hockey player in St. Cloud native Will Hammer.The St. Cloud Cathedral graduate put in three years and 169 games in the NAHL between the Aberdeen Wings and Minnesota Magicians prior to committing to the Huskies. He found more maturity and production in his game after being traded to the Minnesota Magicians by Aberdeen for the 2016-17 season. With the Magicians, Hammer once again found his offensive game netting 18 goals and adding 23 assists for 41 points in 60 games while playing for former SCSU goaltender and head coach Scott Meyer. The 20 year old should assume his role as a big, strong forward that can help the Huskies offense and should immediately see some ice time for the Huskies in 2017-18.
Coach Motzko Comments: “We should see a breakout year from some of the juniors. The guys in the middle of the offensive unit have to raise the bar. Blake Lizotte has looked fantastic so far and Easton Brodzinski shoots like a Brodzinski. Hammer and Fitzgerald will be great additions to our depth.”
The Huskies begin their 2017-18 season with an exhibition game with the University of Regina at 7:00 PM CT on Saturday, September 30th at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.