St. Cloud, MN – Recent preseason polls have the SCSU Huskies pegged at #3 nationally (College Hockey News), #6 (US College Hockey Online) and to finish #2 in the NCHC. I don’t place a lot of confidence in preseason polls even though they make for fun preseason discussion. However, I’ll make a few general predictions about the Huskies prospects for this season:
The Huskies WILL be a legitimate favorite to repeat as Penrose Cup Champions in 2018-19.
They WILL treat their fans to another NCHC Frozen Faceoff appearance in St. Paul in March.
They WILL make their 13th all-time appearance in the NCAA tournament in the 2018-19 season.
If I’ve learned anything about the formula for success in college hockey it’s essentially three things beyond outright talent – experience, depth and goaltending. This team is blessed with all three. SCSU loses four players from the 2017-18 squad that went 25-9-6 overall, won the regular season NCHC title and made their 12th appearance in the NCAA tournament – 5th in six seasons. Success under new Head Coach Brett Larson should follow once again.
They lost three seasoned forwards including Mikey Eyssimont, who left a year early to join the LA Kings organization, compiled a career 102 points and finished second in team scoring, reliable power forward, Blake Winiecki (Florida Everblades, ECHL) who posted 16 points, down from his two previous seasons and speedy, Judd Peterson, now with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, a solid penalty killer who finished with 2 short-handed goals, 18 points and +10.
They only sustained one loss on defense but it was a big one as Will Borgen also left a year early signing a contract with the Buffalo Sabres and most likely joining Judd Peterson with the Americans. An antagonizing defenseman, Borgen logged lots of minutes, could play both sides of special teams and could change the course of the game with his physical play. He led the team in penalty minutes by a long shot with 68, sometimes untimely, but also finished the season + 9.
St. Cloud State returns 11 forwards (including 8 upperclassmen), 7 defensemen (5 upperclassmen) including 4 returnees who each played over 30 games last season. Add to this senior goaltender Jeff Smith, who logged 19 games and sophomore David Hrenek who started 24 games and you get the picture – depth and experience at every position.
The Huskies return 78% of their scoring punch from last season including nine of their top ten goal scorers. At defense, three of the top four defenseman return and they combined for a +37 a season ago. And, they received a shot of adrenalin with the return of three-time captain and Hobey Baker finalist, Jimmy Schuldt, a leader both on and off the ice.
With an exemplary class of first-year players who should contribute substantially, the Huskies have the luxury of not pressuring them to lead but simply to contribute and get better as the season progresses.
So, with that primer out of the way here’s a position by position preview including comments from my sit-down with Coach Brett Larson on October 3rd:
Perhaps the singularly most important position on the ice when it comes to season-long success, it’s mandatory to have two goaltenders you can rely on. In that respect, they do with senior Jeff Smith and sophomore David Hrenak, certainly one of the top one-two punches at goaltender in college hockey.
David Hrenak, from Slovakia arrived at SCSU as a heralded freshman from the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL and ended the season as a member of the NCHC All-Rookie team and an All-NCHC Honorable Mention honoree. He was also a member of Team Slovakia in the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships. Validating his success, following the season, he was drafted in the fifth round by the LA Kings. Highly competitive on the ice but with a perpetual smile on his face off the ice, he took hold of the #1 position as the season wore on and finished with a 13-7-2 record, a 2.03 GAA and .922 SV% including three shutouts. With a tremendous upside, he’s an athletic and positionally sound goaltender with a good glove. Hrenak will once again be one of the top goaltenders in the NCHC.
Jeff Smith, who entered the 2017-18 season lighter and in improved physical shape played in 19 games losing only twice all season and proving to be worthy of splitting time in goal with Hrenak. Smith finished with a 11-2-4 record, 2.57 GAA and .910 SV%. The 6’2″ 190 pound native of Maple Ridge, BC improved his agility and quickness and he’ll be ready to compete for playing time this season.
Once again, David Zevnik, a 24 year-old senior from Lakeville, MN will be backing up Smith and Hrenak.
Expect to see both Hrenak and Smith alternating to begin the season.
Coaches Comments: “We have depth at goaltender. Jeff Smith returns and he’s here to challenge and fight for the position. He looks focused, committed and ready to battle for the job. Hrenak continues to get better. He loves competition and nothing rattles him. We’ll do some rotation to start the season.”
The announcement by three-time captain and Hobey Baker finalist Jimmy Schuldt that he would be returning to the Huskies for his senior season was a shot in the arm for the Huskies. A coveted free agent, Schuldt proved his passionate loyalty to his teammates, St. Cloud State hockey and his confidence in the coaching transition by returning for his senior season. It also was a reflection of his desire to complete some unfinished business and do what no other SCSU hockey team has done – namely lead the Huskies to a National Championship. One of the top defensemen in college hockey and an outstanding student he’ll no doubt be a Hobey finalist in 2018-19. A rarity in college hockey these days for a player of his caliber, he will complete his senior season and create a legacy as one of the top defensemen ever at SCSU, rubbing shoulders with players like NHLers Bret Hedican and Duvie Westcott, two of the all-time best at that position. He’s been a member of a NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship and NCHC Penrose Cup Championship and has been named to the NCHC All-Rookie Team, All-NCHC First Team, NCAA All-American West Team and a Hobey Baker Finalist. He’s also a shoe-in to hit the career 100 point club sometime this season.
Rounding out the outstanding depth on this squad, fellow senior Jon Lizotte has been lost in the shadow of Schuldt but has carved out an exemplary career as a Husky. A four- year player, he also has that rare combination of sneaky offensive ability and strong defensive play and compiled 17 points while finishing +20 on the season. He has a blue-collar approach to the game that will be invaluable as a alternate captain and leader.
Junior Jack Ahcan may have fallen victim to that “sophomore slump” after making quite as a splash as a rookie and being named to the NCHC All-Rookie team. Still, he was named to the Frozen Faceoff All-Tournament team last season and posted 22 points. The 5’8″ 180 pound Ahcan will be surrounded by seven teammates at defense measuring six feet or more and the coaching staff will give this talented defender free reign to carry the puck up ice and be more involved with the offense.
Sophomores Luke Jaycox and Tyler Anderson combined to play in 50 games last season and gained valuable playing experience and will be expected to battle for regular playing time once again. Senior, Clark Kuster has had limited playing time as a Husky but has a cannon of a shot and will also be battling for playing time. Mika Ilvonen was a forward in Finland then converted to defense and will start the season at forward for the Huskies.
A talented group of newcomers – Brendan Bushy, NHL draft choice Nick Perbix and local native Spencer Meier fill out one of the most talent laden defensive units in college hockey. As a result, there will be lots of competition for playing time and I suspect all will be shuffled into the lineup to start the season. This is a deep, deep unit.
Coaches Comments: “Once again, we have great depth at this position. Ahcan and Lizotte get overlooked because of Schuldt. It’s hard to believe there is a better top three in college hockey. Lizotte is all heart and compete. Ahcan is at his best when he’s moving pucks and jumping into the offense and making plays. All three newcomers are very good. We’re very impressed with the play of Perbix in practice thus far. Meier easily gets the hardest worker award.”
The Huskies are blessed with a lot of experience at forward and and will have a group of seniors that have experienced loads of success during their time at SCSU. Robby Jackson, Patrick Newell and Jacob Benson were all part of a heralded incoming class in 2015-16 that also included the now departed Mikey Eyssimont. They’ve experienced a Frozen Faceoff Championship, a Penrose Cup Championship and been a part of two NCAA tournament squads. On the down-side, they’ve experienced the frustration of losing in the first round of the NCAA’s to Ferris State in 2015-16 and Air Force in 2017-18. However, on a positive note they get one last shot at a successful league and NCAA run in 2018-19.
Pre-season all-league NCHC pick Robby Jackson, a 21 year-old senior, rivals anyone in college hockey for his goal scoring celebrations but backs it up by putting the puck in the net often. He led the Huskies in scoring in 2017-18 with 15 goals and 27 assists for 42 points and has a deadly accurate wrist shot accounting for many of these tallies. Not just an offensive player, Jackson has a solid work ethic and his defensive game has blossomed as well. Jackson will join the 100 point club this season.
Finishing 4th on the team scoring chart last season, Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Ryan Poehling ( 13-17-30) is primed for a break out season. He finished the year with 6 goals in his last nine games and even though he is only 19 years old the 6’2″ 200 pound forward is entering his third season of college hockey and is mature beyond his years as a collegiate player.
Sophomore Blake Lizotte made the NCHC All-Rookie team last season and is quickly becoming one of the most exciting forwards in college hockey. Another player with tons of talent and a motor that won’t quit he’ll be a scoring leader for the Huskies this season. Easton Brodzinski is another member of the 2017-18 NCHC All-Rookie team and it was well-deserved. A natural goal scorer with a wicked wrist shot he netted 14 goals his rookie season. He’s another primed for a huge offensive year.
Senior Patrick Newell is an experienced forward being counted on to be a leader this season. Skilled and tough along the boards for his size he’s finally filling out physically which will certainly help his game this season. Senior Jacob Benson was named alternate captain and had a disappointing year from an offensive standpoint with 17 points. He has a tendency to score big goals but needs to be more consistent in his farewell season.
The Poehling twins, Jack and Nick are a coaches dream with a work ethic through the roof. Expect to see these two chip in more offensively this season. Junior Jake Wahlin is another that scores big goals but much like Jacob Benson needs to have a more consistent offensive game. The talent is there and as a Junior it’s hoped he’ll at least double his 11 points from last season. Sophomore Kevin Fitzgerald was a surprise as a rookie earning 38 games of playing time and added 5 goals and 14 assists. He has a combination of skill and grinder and makes every line he’s placed on more productive. St. Cloud native Will Hammer had limited playing time his rookie season but looks to increase his playing time this season.
First-year players Micah Miller, Minnesota Wild draft choice Sam Hentges and Nolan Walker will all be difficult to keep out of the lineup. Hentges has been particularly impressive in early practices and is rebounding nicely from a season of limited play due to injury last year in the USHL. All three are extremely talented and will be contributors as freshman.
Coaches Comments: “Once again – depth. We currently have intense competition for the #1 line. We’re fortunate, as we have a first and three second lines. Senior Robby Jackson is coachable and committed to play the right way. He has a great work ethic and pays attention to detail. Ryan Poehling is poised to have a huge year. He’s ready for a big step. He’s young but acts like a leader. His brothers are a coaches dream. They have character and skill and put the team first. You win championships with players like this. We expect a big year out of senior Patrick Newell. The freshman are all fitting in. We’ll have to play them all. Sam Hentges has been a surprise. He’s been very good in practice and skating with one of our top lines.”
The Huskies begin the season with an exhibition game with Mount Royal University of Calgary, AB on Sunday October 7th at 5:00 PM CT at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. They then begin their non-conference schedule with a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska to play the University of Alaska Nanooks on October 12 and 13.
Coaches Comments: “The schedule to start the season is good. We’ll be able to play our full lineup vs Mount Royal and insert all three goaltenders. Obviously we’re happy we are going to Fairbanks early in the season. I’ve been to Anchorage as a player and coach but not Fairbanks. The trip will be without distractions and good for team bonding. The early schedule will also allow us to do some experimenting and to rotate players into the lineup.”