St. Cloud, MN- When the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was formed on July 9, 2011 St. Cloud State University was not one of the six founding members. It was not until late September of that year that SCSU along with Western Michigan University accepted invitations to become the 7th and 8th members of the league. To say that St.Cloud State has been a key member of the conference would be a gross understatement. After winning the MacNaughton Cup in their final year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the Huskies nary missed a beat winning the Penrose Cup in the inaugural season of the NCHC. Heading into the 2019-20 season they’ve won the Penrose three of the six years and have racked up more league wins (88) than any other league member. Denver and North Dakota (81) and reigning National Champion UMD (76) follow next in line.
A year ago, in my season preview, it was elementary to make some bold and confident predictions concerning the Huskies post-season prospects. This season not so. Competing in arguably the toughest conference in college hockey from top to bottom, they’ll have their work cut out for them as they look to maintain their success in the league.
I had a sit down with Coach Larson to reflect briefly on the 2018-19 season and to look forward to the challenges of the new season. We also discussed the large class of first-year players that make up essentially his first recruiting class. Not surprisingly, there’s been little talk of their quick exit from the NCAA tournament last March in the West Regional in Fargo. It’s not purposely being ignored, however internally and within the team, it’s in the past and they’ve moved on. And, of course the large contingent of first years players have no connection with that game.
Said Larson “It’s a different feel than last year. You leave the season with such a bitter taste in your mouth you have a tendency to forget all the good things that happen. But, there’s a big picture here. We still have a job to do and we have a great group with us and have the opportunity to have a great year (this season). Our goal now is to honor those guys (from last season) and try to find a way to get it done this season.”
Nevertheless, he was surprised there were few questions from the Media concerning that game during the recent NCHC Media Day. It may be that there is a greater recognition of the parity in college hockey these days. With the prospect base in the United States, Canada and Europe growing combined with the lack of growth in the number of Division I collegiate teams it logically improves the talent of all teams and closes the talent spread between all 60 teams. Former SCSU coach and current Miami assistant coach Eric Rud told me the other day “there really aren’t any bad teams in college hockey these days”.
Bucking a trend of recent seasons, all four of the team captains are seniors. The now departed Jimmy Schuldt, an exemplary leader, was a captain for three seasons. With only five seniors on this squad, four of the five have been placed in this leadership role. It makes sense. With ten first-year players, it’s imperative the leadership group guide the youngsters properly and quickly as many will be in the lineup from day one. Captain Jack Ahcan, an All-League and All American player, fought underdog status during the recruiting process but dispelled any questions about his size and toughness having immediate success at the junior hockey and collegiate level. He’s become one of the top defensemen in college hockey and has earned the respect of his teammates. This week, following the end of a practice and the departure of the coaches, Ahcan was barking at his teammates who were circled around him at center ice. He’s been there and was prodding his teammates to get better with the season a mere two weeks away.
The Poehling twins, Jack and Nick were no-brainers as assistant captains. You’ll never find two harder working players at forward and they’ll demand nothing less from their teammates. In practice last Monday, it was Nick Poehling leading the charge of forwards down ice in rink length sprints. Finally, fifth-year senior Clark Kuster has had little game time over his first four years due to an injury his first season and depth on defense the following three years. It doesn’t matter. The 24 year-old has the maturity, persistency and drive to succeed and it’s recognized by his teammates. “Clark (Kuster) and I look forward to leading and teaching the new players.”said Ahcan.
Here’s a look at the team by position with coaches comments:
Junior David Hrenak enters the season as the number one goaltender. Hrenak finished the 2018-19 season with a 23-5-2 record, a 2.18 GAA and .906 SV%. The LA Kings 5th round draft choice was a NCHC second team All-Star last season and the expectations are high for Hrenak who has played 54 career games for the Huskies. However, he’ll be pushed by two quality first-year players in 20 year-old USHL veteran Joseph Lamoureaux and another junior hockey veteran in 22 year-old Jaxon Castor.
Lamoreaux, a native of Shorewood, WI completed his second season with the Madison Capitols of the USHL with an unimpressive 3.60 GAA and .897. However, before you draw any conclusions based on his statistics, realize he played for a team with the fewest wins and scored the lowest number of goals in the league. Lamoreaux had little offensive support despite being a workhorse playing in 48 games and facing more shots (1548) than any other goaltender in the USHL – 122 more than the next closest goaltender.
Castor, is an interesting story. The Phoenix native was on the NHL Central Scouting radar in 2017 and was an early commit to Arizona State University in 2015. After two and a half seasons and 82 games with Dubuque of the USHL Castor found himself traded to the Shreveport Mudbugs of the NAHL. But, Castor embraced the situation and took over the goaltending reigns of the second year Mudbugs leading them to the NAHL Robertson Cup Championship and was named Robertson Cup MVP. In the process, he posted the leagues best GAA of 1.50 and a .931 SV%. This also led to some discussions with the staff of the Huskies and ultimately enrollment at SCSU to work on some eligibility issues. Meanwhile, during the 2018-19 season he manned the nets for St. Cloud State University’s ACHA (Club) squad. With eligibility issues behind him, he’s ready to compete for the goaltending position.
Goaltending coach Matt Bertram told me “I think both have the ability to push David this year. (It’s) Always good for goalies to have competition.It keeps everyone sharp and driving to be at their best. I have enjoyed getting to know both Jaxon and Joey – they definitely are students of the position and want to keep improving every day. It will be great to start working with David in practice. “He has worked very hard this summer and is coming in with a attitude that he has something to prove this season. I feel like he is set up to have a great season.”
Coach Larson commented “David Hrenak will come back and have the best year of his career. I know he is motivated. He’s such a likeable guy sometimes if wish he had a mean streak in him.”
CenterIceView Comments: The Huskies depth at goaltender is substantial. All three goaltenders are capable of being inserted int the lineup and you should expect to see all three get some early season playing time. Hrenak is the incumbent goaltender and will be given every opportunity to be the every night starter. However, he’ll be pushed and if he shows inconsistency the coaching staff will have two quality goaltenders to insert. Lamoreaux will have the luxury of a solid blue line in front of him which he is not accustomed to and Castor, who has shown the ability to play well in big games needs to prove he can be consistent.
Perhaps the strongest position on the team, the Huskies return five starters from last season in Jack Ahcan, Nick Perbix, Luke Jaycox, Spencer Meier and Brendan Bushy. They add two other veterans in fifth-year senior, Clark Kuster and junior, Tyler Anderson, who missed the entire season due to injuries in 2018-19 and will likely claim a red-shirt year. Newcomers include 6’3″ 190 pound Ondrej Trejbal from the Czech Republic and Trevor Zins, a puck-moving defenseman from nearby St. Michael, MN.
Led by All-American and NCHC All-Star and top returning point-man Jack Ahcan and his 34 points the defense should be ranked as one of the top units in college hockey. A diverse group, they have the offensive potential of Ahcan, Tampa Bay Lightning Draftee Nick Perbix and Spencer Meier and defensive oriented Brendan Bushy, penalty-killing specialist Luke Jaycox and the versatile Tyler Anderson. Kuster adds a 100 MPH slap shot and it’s hoped he’ll be able to use that weapon this season. Trejbal has been impressive early and given the opportunity can add offense as well. However, due to eligibility issues, Trejbal will not be eligible until the 6th game of the season. With the glut at defense, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to spot the smooth-skating Zins at forward if injuries dictated.
” I think we’ll have one of the best defensive corps in the league led by Jack Ahcan. Returning to the Huskies after fielding several professional offers is huge. And then, with Perbix, Bushy, Meier, Jaycox and Anderson I really feel there is a great unit back there to start with.”
CenterIceView Comments: This is as strong a group of defensemen as there is in the league. However, they may have to bail out the team early in the season until the youngsters at forward get acclimated to a higher level of play defensively and begin to find their scoring touch. An experienced group of defensemen is priceless in college hockey and the Huskies have the luxury of depth and experience at this position. Injuries are always a factor and it’s comforting to know they have nine defensemen available to step in. Trejbal is an intriguing player and will likely see the ice sooner than later. With questions on offense, any help they can get from the defense in this department will be a bonus.
The position where uncertainly surfaces is at forward and that’s for obvious reasons. The team lost it’s top five scorers – Newell, Lizotte, Jackson, Poehling and Schuldt. This group contributed 213 points (77 goals and 136 assists) and dominated minutes on the power play. Two of these players left as underclassmen and three – Lizotte, Poehling and Schuldt could very well be in an NHL lineup this season. It’s not that they won’t have skill at this position it’s simply a matter of playing experience and the growth young players go through in their first year. They’ve recruited high-end skill in Zach Okabe, Jami Krannila and Kyler Kupka and future staples in the lineup in Chase Brand and Thomas Rocco. Henry Enebak, a Prior Lake, MN native who played with the Poehlings in Lakeville rounds out the lineup.
In the meantime, they’ll have to squeeze as much offense out of veterans Nick and Jack Poehling, Easton Brozdzinski, Kevin Fitzgerald, and super sophomores Sam Hentges, All NCHC Rookie Nolan Walker and Micah Miller. Jake Wahlin, a senior has returned much leaner and it’s important for him to regain the scoring touch he was recruited for. Junior Will Hammer, a big body who showed a flare for scoring in junior hockey will finally get his opportunity as well.
The strategy to start the season will be quite straightforward. Match top line of the Poehlings and Fitzgerald against the opponents number one offensive line to wear them down and limit their offense. And, in the meantime, punch in a few goals themselves. Then, hopefully goal scorers like Hentges, Brodzinski, Walker and hopefully Miller and Wahlin will be able to gain matchups that will allow them to provide offense. Newcomers Kupka, Okabe and Krannila will be looked at to supplement the offense of the veterans and hopefully by the second half of the season will find their offense as well. You could see high-energy Thomas Rocco see some penalty kill time this season.
“Obviously we’ll go through some growing pains as we’ll be young at forward. But, I love our leadership up front with Nick and Jack Poehling and Kevin Fitzgerald. We’ll look at the steps Walker, Hentges and Miller will make after their freshman year. And, then look at the freshman coming in with Krannila, Okabe and Kupka and we feel those kids as they grow will become Robby Jackson and Patrick Newell. Brodzy got better and better all year and we will really count on him for our offense. I think Micah was a great complimentary player but a guy that can finish a bit and he should have a great year.” said coach Larson.
CenterIceView Comments: The cupboard has been depleted but it’s not bare as the Huskies return 216 points from last season (4th in the NCHC) and 79 goals (4th in the NCHC). The task however, is to try to replace some of the scoring punch from a season ago. It won’t be easy and it’ll require some patience as a group of talented youngsters get acclimated to the toughest league in college hockey. But, adversity creates opportunity and there will be plenty of it for these incoming players. Kupka may be the most logical choice to have success early. His size, experience and history of scoring at every level may allow him to be one of the top first-year scorers in the league. Zach Okabe is a future star but he’s the youngest player on the team. Coach Larson calls him a “sponge” as he’s very coachable and eager to improve his game. Both Okabe and Krannila are smaller players physically. We’ll have to see how they cope with the more physical NCHC. Chase Brand is an older, experienced player and could be the sleeper of the bunch.
“When you look at our team this year, the first word you think of is “team”. It’s a team that will go four lines, solid defensive corps and good goaltending. We’ll have to be detail sharp and obviously work hard. We have some skill and good leadership. I like our first year players.” commented coach Larson.
Note: Thanks to Wally Langfellow of Minnesota Score for additional content