St. Cloud, MN – When the St. Cloud State University Huskies face Western Michigan University on December 1 at Baxter Arena in Omaha, NE it will have been 268 days since their last competitive game. Coincidentally, they were scheduled to face these same Broncos last March 13 in the first-round of the NCHC quarterfinals. Already on-site at Lawson Arena, the NCAA pulled the pin on balance of the season and the team traveled back home to clear out their lockers for the season.
Sans five seniors, four of which were named captains, the Huskies will be led by a totally new regime of captains as they navigate the most tenuous season in college hockey history. What we do know, is the Huskies are scheduled to begin play in a “Pod” at Baxter Arena on December 1st along with the seven other members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Assuming everything goes as planned, the Huskies and their conference brethren will play 3-4 games a week and a total of 10 games during the period of December 1-20. Games will occur throughout the week with a respite for a respective school’s final exam period. Teams will be placed in Divisions (East and West) with the East consisting of St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Miami and Western Michigan. The remaining squads including North Dakota, Omaha, Denver and Colorado College will be slotted in the West. In all, including the “Pod”, teams will play their division partners six times each and cross-division teams twice. That will make for a 26 game conference season.
Obviously, with the pandemic spiking and experts suggesting the next couple of months the most troublesome even with strict testing protocals in place, nothing can be guaranteed. However, the Big Ten, Hockey East, Atlantic and WCHA will have already started their seasons and the NCHC can take some direction from these other leagues and the over than 40 games in various venues before the NCHC “pod” begins.
The Huskies will be led by upperclassmen as chosen by their teammates. Spencer Meier, a junior defenseman from Sartell, MN will wear the “C” and he’ll be the second St. Cloud Area player in the past five seasons to be named captain as Ethan Prow, another defenseman was named captain for the 2015-16 season. On being named captain, Meier commented “It’s amazing. It just means the world to me. I’ve been watching these guys since I was three and being named captain was really special. I’m just going to show up and be myself. I’ll continue to work hard and lead this team.”
Alternate captains include the following players:
A: Luke Jaycox (Senior | Warroad, MN)
A: Kevin Fitzgerald (Senior | Hinsdale, IL)
A: Seamus Donohue (Senior | North Oaks, MN)
“the leaders are well-rounded, humble, love to be a Husky and will do everything they can to win a championship” commented coach Dave Shyiak. “Spence is a good person – always wanted to be a Husky, does things the right way and leads the right way on and off the ice. Jaycox is a blue-collar guy, brings it every day and is a gamer and leads by example. Donohue wore a letter at Michigan Tech and within two months here earned a lot of respect in the locker room. Fitzgerald has a great personality, the guys love him and he works hard on and off the ice. He’s the kind of guy you love to have on your team.”
Of note is that all of the seniors will be eligible to return for another season in 2021-22 due to a recent announcement by the NCAA’s Division I Council that voted to give eligibility relief to winter-sport athletes regardless of how many games they play during the 2020-21 academic year. Athletes now have the opportunity to play five seasons within a six-year span rather than the typical four seasons in five years.
Here’s a look at the team by position with coaches comments:
It’s no secret. You win with consistent goaltending and there’s no denying this is a team strength in 2020-21. Los Angeles Kings 5th round draft choice David Hrenak has nearly three full seasons under his belt and despite his affable demeanor, he’s a serious competitor on the ice. Thrust into action as a first-year player, he logged 14 games in 2017-18 and a total of 82 career games. He’s never had a season under .900 SV% and has career numbers of 2.37 GAA and .910 SV% and 9 shutouts. He’s collected numerous league accolades including 2017-18 NCHC All-Rookie Team and Second Team All-Star in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Typically hard to beat on the first shot with good angles and reaction time Hrenak has the experience and tuteledge at the collegiate level to have a successful senior season.
Presumeably backing up Hrenak to start the season, Joey Lamoreaux and Jaxon Castor could be starters on many Division I teams. Both had limited playing time last season but the 6’3″ Castor played well in a key 7-2 win over Minnesota State in the Mariucci Classic, started four games and finished the season with a 3.65 GAA and .859 SV%. The 6’1″ Lamoreaux, an NCHC All-Academic Team selection was inserted in two games and had a 3.25 GAA and .893 SV%. Hrenak will be the starter on December 1 but both Castor and Lamoreaux will be counted on to push Hrenak for playing time this season.
“David, Jaxon and Joey each spent the off season getting into the best shape possible” goalie coach Matt Bertram told me. “It has shown from day one of on-ice training. Each one of them is stronger and can hold their positions longer, which allows them to be more patient and allow the game to come to them. As a group, they are very close and have been pushing each other every day in practice and their play has been very good from the start. The high level of play on a consistent basis of each of them is what has been the most impressive part of their season so far. They are each very focused on making steps to improve their game every day. I expect David to have a great start to the season, but also expect Jaxon and Joey to continue to push him to be at his best.”
Exerience and depth personify this group. Hrenak is stronger and quicker and has loads of collegiate experience. A strong year from Hrenak is the key to this years squad. Backups Castor and Lamoreaux will be game ready if needed. Goaltending is a strength on this year’s team.
All you can do when you lose a player like four-year regular Jack Ahcan to graduation is to try to soften the blow. One of the Huskies all-time best, Ahcan finished his career with 103 points for second place on the all-time points list for a SCSU defenseman. Rarely injured, he logged 144 games and was named All-American in 2018-19. Compact at 5’8″, it didn’t deter him from playing a physical game racking up 123 penalty minutes in his career. Following the 2019-20 season, Ahcan, a free agent signed a professional cotract with the Boston Bruins.
Also lost to graduation was fifth year senior Clark Kuster who was an alternate captain in 2019-20. Wth limited game time the first four seasons, Kuster finally took advantage of opportunity and saw action in 27 games, played solid defensive hockey and was +4 in plus/minus. Following the season, he was signed to a professional contract by the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL.
The Huskies attempted to fill these departures with Michigan Tech graduate transfer Seamus Donohue (North Oaks, MN) and defensive-minded junior hockey veteran Brady Ziemer (Carver, MN). Donohue, a coveted transfer was a staple in the Michigan Tech lineup for three seasons. The 6’0″ 185 pound left-shooting defenseman, was one of the top defenseman for the MTU Huskies and was an assistant captain in 2019-20. A stalwart in the lineup, he appeared in 117 career games for the MTU Huskies showing his durability. In Donohue, the Huskies get a good skating, puck-moving, mobile defenseman, that defends well and can be inserted in the power play. He’s been extremely impressive in practice and an indication of his leadership ability was being named an alternate captain by his teammates. Quite an honor for a first-year transfer.
Ziemer committed in 2017 but played two years of junior hockey in the BCHL and USHL before joining the Huskies. With defensive play his top priority, don’t expect him to be burying the puck that often. He’s strong and compact, plays the physical game and will make an open-ice hit. He skates well and transitions the puck quickly and is difficult to beat defensively. It’ll be difficult to keep him out of the lineup.
The balance of the defensive unit is experienced and gives the Huskies a great deal of depth. Captain and junior, Spencer Meier leads the group and has already logged 72 games in his first two seasons compiling 5 goals and 15 assists for 20 points. He’ll be counted on in every situation for the Huskies including the power play and penalty kill. Junior alternate captain and senior, Luke Jaycox is coming off offseason hip surgery and his skating and mobility seems much improved as a result. He’s been a penalty kill specialist for the Huskies the first three seasons but has a knack for the offensive end of the game and don’t be surprised to see more offense out of him this season. Junior, Nick Perbix is a 2017 draft choice of the Tampa Bay Lightning. At 6’4″ and 200 pounds he has that prototype physique the NHL is looking for. The knock on Perbix has been inconsistency and the need to improve his defensive play to be successful at the next level. At times, he can be dominant in games and a he has a knack for offense registering 9 goals and 26 assists for 35 points in two seasons.
The group is rounded out by four other veteran defenseman who look to be battling for those 4th to 6th spots on the blue line. Brendan Bushy has logged the most ice time of the group with 70 games over two seasons. An experienced player, the coaching staff will look to Bushy for solid defensive play, shot blocking and a physical presence at the blueline with his 6’2″ 230 pound frame. From the Czech Republic, sophomore, Ondrej Trebil skates well for a 6’3″ defenseman and was difficult to keep out of the lineup the second half of last season. He’s another who could add to the offense this season. Tyler Anderson, a 6’2″ 210 pound defender was hobbled with injuries his first three seasons only appearing in 24 games. A three-year Academic All-NCHC and NCHC Scholar Athlete selection, he’s looking to prove when healthy, he can be a regular in the lineup. Finally, 6’0″ Trevor Zins didn’t crack the lineup in his first season but was a successful junior hockey player with 56 points in 99 games in his final BCHL season. He’s an older, experienced player and has impressed in practice.
“We’ve been working with these guys since September and from what I’ve seen our energy level is great and it’s all positive” coach Dave Shyiak told me. “I’m not sure we’ve changed our schemes much from last year but our main objective is to play better between the two blue lines. Our guys are strong on both sides of the puck and we just want to do a great job protecting the middle of the ice. We know Nick Perbix is a key for us and he has taken a step forward. We like all our guys and there’s a lot of competition right now. We’re still navigating our lineup to start the season.”
The loss of puck-mover Jack Ahcan was a huge hit to the blue line. The addition of Donohue couldn’t have come at a better time. Mobile and skilled, he has helped fill that hole. Senior Luke Jaycox and juniors Spencer Meier and Nick Perbix need to provide leadership by example to the rest of the unit. Despite the loss of Ahcan, the defensive unit as a whole should be improved this season. Keep an eye on first-year defenseman, Brady Ziemer who will bring a physical, defensive character to the unit. If Perbix can consistently elevate his play it’ll be a big boost to this defense. Finally, don’t underestimate the impact a seasoned coach like Dave Shyiak will bring to this revamped group of defenders.
2020-21 Alternate Captain Kevin Fitzgerald (Photo Prout)
The Huskies are looking to re-tool an offense that saw it’s point production drop from 156 goals and 429 points in 2018-19 to 94 goals and 260 points in in a season-shortened 2019-20. At forward, the team relied upon the now-departed gritty forwards Nick and Jack Poehling to produce offense when in ideal circumstances would have been best used as a checking line against their opponents top line. But, they were a young team last season and the coaching staff needed to squeeze as much out of them as they could.
Here’s a review of the forwards by class:
Seniors Kevin Fitzgerald, Easton Brodzinski and Will Hammer all contributed in different ways last season. Maybe underappreciated in the league for his offense, Brodzinski has been the most consistent with double-digit goal scoring each of his first three seasons. A true sniper, he’s certain to join the 100 point club this season if the team is able to complete at least 26 games. Fitzgerald has been a consistently reliable forward the past three seasons counted on to play effective defense but also contribute to the offense. Experienced and expected to take on a bigger role this season, the alternate captain will be a leader at forward. Will Hammer, a 6’2″ 210 pound power forward saw just two games each of his first two years but cracked the lineup and played in 32 games last season. His role is pretty defined – play solid grinding defense, mentor those on his line to play the same style and grind out minutes while spelling the top lines. I expect his role to be the same this season.
The coaching staff is waiting for an offensive explosion out of the junior class of Sam Hentges, Nolan Walker and Micah Miller and odds are it’s likely to happen this season. Through the course of their careers at SCSU all have been consistently inconsistent on offense. Last season, Hentges had 6 goals in the first 8 games and then one in the final 20. Walker who made the NCHC All-Rookie team in 2018-19 with 8 goals and 27 points slipped to just 2 goals and 12 points last season. Miller, who found his traction the second half of last season, had no goals in the first 11 games and 7 in the last 20. All three are at their best aggressively attacking the net and using their speed to beat their defenders. For the team to be successful, these three need to bring their game to a different level as experienced juniors.
The freshman class got loads of NCHC game experience last season. Coach Brett Larson consistently placed them on the ice in crucial situations providing them valuable experience that will pay dividends this season. Both Jami Krannila and Chase Brand finished in the top ten in team points with Krannila having perhaps the biggest impact. Surprisingly gritty for a slight frame, he found a home in the right circle on the power play and was highly successful the last 5 games of the season with 2 goals and 4 points against top-ranked UND, Denver and UMD. Brand, now a 21 year-old sophomore, didn’t play like a freshman with a maturity to his game netting 5 goals and adding 7 assists for 12 points. With a full season behind him, he’ll be ready to ramp up his game in 2020-21. Zach Okabe, the youngest player on the squad last season had a career game vs Minnesota State in the Mariucci Classic with 4 goals and got more comfortable as the season progressed with 5 points in the last 11 games. Highly skilled, he still needs to add strength and lengthen his stride to be more dominant and it’ll be interesting to follow his progress this season. Finally, Kyler Kupka and Thomas Rocco saw limited ice time as first-year players and both finished with 2 assists. Both found the jump from junior hockey, Kupka from the AJHL and Rocco from the NAHL to be challenging. But, both should see increased ice time this season with Rocco most likely seeing time as a grinder and penalty kill specialist and Kupka hopefully as a point producer.
With four roster positions opening up after last season, the Huskies added high quality forwards Jared Cockrell, Veeti Miettinen, Jack Johnston and Joey Molenaar. All experienced players, each has a diverse resume with Cockrell the most game ready at the collegiate level. A graduate transfer from Colgate, he’ll immediately be an impact player for the Huskies. A proven point-producer with a high-energy game, he’ll be in the lineup immediately and should see time on the power play. Miettinen, the 6th round draft choice of Toronto is perhaps the most intriguing. A record-breaking scorer in Finnish junior hockey, he should provide much needed pop to the offense. Slight in build, he makes up for it with explosive speed and high-end puck handling skills. He’ll benefit greatly from the larger ice surface of the HBNHC. Miettinen could be a legitmate NCHC All-Rookie team candidate. Johnston, a 21 year-old freshman has three years of junior hockey on his resume collecting 50 goals in the NAHL. Another high-energy player, he could be the sleeper of the bunch this season. Joey Molenaar, has a 6’0′ 180 pound lean frame and good wheels. Unfortunately for him, he spent quite a bit of 2020 rehabbing his shoulder after January surgery. A good skating, smart and high character player, he’ll need to work on his strength but may be slightly behind to start the season. However, he should have a successful career as a Husky.
“We have depth at forward” commented coach Brett Larson. “Last year we were building a foundation and an identity with this group. Right now we’re seeing really good development. Obviously we are counting on the older guys like the junior group of Hentges, Walker and Miller but we need growth out of the younger guys as well. They are a group that gained a lot of experience last season. We definitely have depth and speed and it’ll help with our line matchups.” One thing for certain is there will be ice time for all the players in the “Pod” in Omaha. “Everyone will get used in the bubble” said Larson. “It’s a good opportunity to earn time in the lineup.”
This is a highly interchangeable unit of forwards and it may take a few games early on to find the right line combinations. More offensive depth leads to better line matchups and more opportunities for the scorers. I see improved scoring this season from players including Brodzinski, Walker, Miller, Hentges and even Chase Brand. The two Finns will be fun to watch particularly if they are paired on a line. Cockrell is a senior and point-producing players generally excel their senior year. He’s certainly a bonus to the offense. The bottom line is they will score more points per game as a team than they did in 2019-20.
The Huskies drop the puck on December 1 vs Western Michigan followed by Colorado College on December 3rd and Denver on December 5th.
The Broncos are in transition seeing the departure of their top five scorers including High McGing, Dawson DiPietro, Wade Allison and Austin Rueschoff. They’ve also seen the departure of outstanding defensemen Cam Lee and Mattias Samuelsson. Top that off with the loss of Associate Head Coach Dave Shyiak, now with the Huskies and they are rebuilding.
Colorado College needs to rebuild an offense that lost Chris Wilkie and Nick Halloran who combined for 61 points and 40% of their goal scoring.
Finally, Denver, already ranked 4th in the USCHO poll despite losing 65 points in departing forward Emilio Pettersen and defenseman Ian Mitchell still has a strong stable of talent in Brett Stapley, Cole Guttman, Bobby Brink and Kohen Olischefski. It’ll be a key early season test for the Huskies.