Welinski Leading Duluth's Large, Important Rookie Group
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
Andy Welinski was hoping to be playing for Team USA in the World Junior Championship during the holidays. He was invited to this summer's evaluation camp and survived the cut down to 34 players, but he was not selected for the 27-player preliminary roster earlier this month.
Instead, Welinski will head to the Florida College Hockey Classic with his Minnesota-Duluth teammates and continue to do what he's been doing all season — play a key role on a team that has needed big contributions from its freshmen.
The Bulldogs lost more than half of their scoring from last year's NCAA tournament team, including each of their top three point-getters. Taking at least a small step back was to be expected, but the Bulldogs were hoping to avoid having too big of a drop-off. In order to do that, they were going to need at least a few of their nine freshmen to be impact players right away.
Although all the freshmen have hit a bump or two along the way, UMD has gotten just about everything it could've expected from the core of the group. Welinski has seen top-four minutes all season and is first in the WCHA among freshman defensemen with 11 points.
Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley have both been top-six forwards all season and are currently first and second in freshman scoring with 19 and 16 points, respectively. Matt McNeely has started 10 of 18 games in goal and has really picked up his play the last few weeks, going 4-0-0 with a .920 save percentage in his last four games.
"It's been huge for us," said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. "There's no question we were expecting those guys, especially Tony and Farley based on what they did in the USHL, to come in and contribute offensively. And Welinski on the blue line, with what we he did in Green Bay, we were hoping that he could come in and play big minutes for us and play on the power play for us."
Welinski, Farley and Cameranesi were all standouts in the United States Hockey League last season. Welinski was the named the league's defenseman of the year and helped lead the Green Bay Gamblers to a Clark Cup title. Farley led the Fargo Force and ranked 10th in the league in scoring with 59 points in 51 games. Cameranesi, a fifth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, finished third in scoring for a Waterloo Blackhawks team that lost to Welinski and Green Bay in the finals.
Welinski, a third-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, struggled a little bit with the speed of the college game earlier in the season, something Sandelin cited as a reason Welinski probably wasn't invited to the World Junior camp. But Sandelin said Welinski has come a long way just in the last month and a half and has developed into the all-around player the Bulldogs expect him to be.
"I think the speed was the biggest thing I had to adapt to," said Welinski, whose parents also went to UMD. "With more experience, I don't want to say it's gotten easier, but now I know what to do and know how to play certain situations. I think I've been able to be in the lineup a lot, and that helps your confidence a lot.
"Playing an extra year of juniors in the USHL, especially in Green Bay with the team we had and all the offense we had, it gave me a lot of opportunities to contribute offensively. College hockey is more difficult, though. You have to be an all-around player and can't just be offensive-minded. One of the biggest things was just being aware of that. Not really changing your game, but just being more aware of defense. I think that was a big change from juniors to college."
Farley and Cameranesi, who are two of the Bulldogs' top three scorers, started the season on the same line and really started to click when they joined up with senior Mike Seidel, who leads the team in goals. For a while that was the only line scoring for UMD, so Sandelin decided to move Farley to a line with Caleb Herbert and Justin Crandall in the hopes of jumpstarting a second line.
The new trio combined for four goals and five assists in their first game together — a 7-3 win over Michigan Tech on Nov. 30. The Bulldogs have scored four goals or more in four of the six games since the move was made, something they had done just twice prior to that. The move hasn't slowed Cameranesi either — he has seven points in the last six games. Sandelin said the key has been just letting the freshmen play their game.
"You put them out there and you let them play and you let them make mistakes," Sandelin said. "We didn't have a lot of discussions about what their role was going to be. I don't really do that a lot with freshmen. I think you just let them go out there and play, and let them learn by playing. They're just playing the way they're capable of playing. Obviously they're getting opportunities to play a lot and be in situations to score."
McNeely has been competing with Aaron Crandall for playing time all season, but appears to have edged a little bit ahead in the last couple weeks. At 6-foot-3, he takes up a lot of space, but Sandelin also noted his athleticism and ability to handle the puck. Although his .899 save percentage doesn't jump off the page, his teammates said he's proven that they can rely on him.
"Everyone has confidence in him," Welinski said. "He's a really good goalie. It's been a good battle between him and Aaron Crandall. I think Matt's done a good job of stepping into the role he was expected to fill and challenging for more playing time. He's kept us in a lot of games."
The Bulldogs have gone 5-2-1 in their last eight to move into seventh place in the conference. If they're going to climb higher, the question might not be whether the freshmen can step up — they already have — but whether some of the upperclassmen can start matching the freshmen's output.