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October 5, 2006 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

North Dakota Has Plenty Left

by Virg Foss/Staff Writer

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — No team in college hockey has won more NCAA tournament games in the past two years than North Dakota.

That's the good news for them, albeit without a national championship to show for it, just two trips to the Frozen Four.

Yet no other school lost five underclassmen to pro hockey after last season as did the Sioux. Junior goalie Jordan Parise, junior forward Drew Stafford, sophomore defenseman Matt Smaby, sophomore forward Travis Zajac and sophomore forward Rastislav Spirko all gave up college hockey eligibility to sign with professional teams.

Parise and Zajac signed with New Jersey, Stafford with Buffalo, Smaby with Florida and Spirko returned to native Slovakia to pursue pro hockey.

That's the bad news. Those are the type of losses than would decimate many programs. Yet with 19 players returning and 11 NHL draft picks on the roster, the Sioux are setting their sights on an NCAA title.

"Guys who have moved on are great players and will have great professional careers," said forward Chris Porter, one of just three Sioux seniors. "But we're concentrating on the guys who are back and the guys who are coming in. And I think we're real strong in those area."

The Sioux do have three super sophomores to lead the way. The trio of T.J. Oshie (24 goals), Jonathan Toews (22) and Ryan Duncan (16) combined for 62 of UND's 164 goals last season. The 62 goals is 18 more than any rookie threesome scored for any other Division I team. (see chart below)

Oshie (St. Louis) and Toews (Chicago) are first-round NHL draft picks, but both chose to return to school and tackle some unfinished business.

"They (St. Louis) left it up to me," Oshie said. "My decision was that I wanted to come back. I love this place too much to leave right now."

Like Oshie, Toews, the highest Sioux draft choice ever (No. 3 in the NHL Entry Draft last June), came back to college in a year where a record number of players jumped to the pros from college campuses everywhere.

College Hockey News, in its preseason predictions, lists Oshie as a first-team selection and Toews on its All-America third team.

Losing to Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinals in Milwaukee last April was a driving force in the return of Oshie and Toews.

"I think that is one of the reasons Jonathan Toews stayed," Oshie said. "He wants to win a national championship. I think everyone on our team left the rink last year kind of bitter that we fell short."

It's the most underclassmen UND has lost in year since after the 1986-87 season. After that season, goalie Ed Belfour, defenseman Ian Kidd and forwards Bob Joyce and Tony Hrkac signed pro contracts after UND won an NCAA record 40 of 48 games on its way to the national championship.

In 1987-88, the Sioux barely finished over .500, compiling a 21-20-1 overall mark, a 16-18-1 record in the WCHA and failing to earn another trip to nationals.

"Hopefully it won't be such a drastic falloff (as in 1988)," said UND associate head coach Cary Eades, an assistant coach under Gino Gasparini in the 1980s. "A team at or around .500 is not what we're going for this year."

The Sioux have a program that is used to setting the sights high. With seven NCAA championship banners hanging at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, they want to add more.

That's why UND's five victories in NCAA tournament play the last two seasons ring a shade hollow when they are not capped with a banner.

"We've just got to figure out the right games to win in the NCAA tournament," said head coach Dave Hakstol, who has been to the Frozen Four in both his two years as coach. "That's what we're trying to figure out this year."

The last five NCAA championship teams have come from the WCHA as well as six of the last seven, including North Dakota in 2000.

Hakstol said he doesn't expect anything else but excellence from the WCHA this year, even though a number of league teams had rosters raided by the pros.

"A lot of people have said that the WCHA might be down this year," Hakstol said. "Don't bet on it — the WCHA is going to be tremendous this year. It just might be a little more wide open."

There's little time for Hakstol to put the pieces together. After the Sioux open with a non-conference series at home against Quinnipiac on Oct. 6-7, the Sioux face Wisconsin and Maine the following two weekends. Those two schools joined North Dakota and Boston College in last year's Frozen Four.

"Coming out of the gate fast is critical for this team," Hakstol said. "I think we have the capability of doing that."

It's a young team, with 18 freshmen or sophomores on the roster. That number is deceiving.

"We're a pretty young team," Hakstol said, "but we've got great experience levels throughout our lineup. The majority of our players have been to at least one Frozen Four, many have been part of two Frozen Four teams. Along with that, we have guys who have won the Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA playoff champion, 2006) and MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular-season champion, 2004)."

The makeover from a year ago doesn't stop with the players. Associate head coach Brad Berry left to coach in the Vancouver Canucks organization and was replaced by former Sioux player Dane Jackson, a veteran coach of pro minor league teams.

"We're not starting where we left off last season," Hakstol said. "This is a new year, and we're climbing a new mountain. We're starting at the base of that mountain."

Starting low, aiming high.

"I don't expect a down year at all," Porter said. "As a whole, I think we'll be more sound than last year."

High-scoring 2005-06 rookies

Team           Top 3 rookies                                               Total
North Dakota T.J. Oshie (24), Jonathan Toews (22), Ryan Duncan (16) 62
Quinnipiac David Marshall (22), Brian Leitch (14), Chris Myers (8) 44
Niagara Ted Cook (20), Les Reaney (13), Vince Rocco (11) 44
Minn.-Duluth Michael Gergen (14), Andrew Carroll (13), Mason Raymond (11) 38
Minnesota Phil Kessel (18), Ryan Stoa (10), Blake Wheeler (9) 37
Boston College Ben Ferriero (16), Nathan Gerbe (11), Brock Bradford (6) 33
Source: UND media relations hockey press guide

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