NCHC Teams Set to Jump Right Into Fire
by Dave Starman/Columnist
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Some questions and answers after attending the inaugural NCHC Media Day, as the league gets set to embark on its first season.
What was the overall impression?
It's easy to be impressed with the league so far. For a first-year operation, they really had their act together. It was organized, the players were where they were supposed to be. The regular-season trophy was on display, and all I can say is, it's a really big piece of hardware.
I like their enthusiasm. They're really excited to get going. They're looking to be progressive. It reminds me of when Tom Anastos, and then Fred Plestch, were running the CCHA. The key to any good organization is being progressive; this group has that mindset.
Are the teams concerned about how they might beat up on each other?
Everyone firmly agrees, there could be four teams that don't make the NCAA Tournament because of how close things are. There was a lot of discussion on the teams' non-conference schedule, and the importance of it being a huge factor for them late in the season. The other thing is, they feel their teams will be very good late in the year because constantly playing each other will make them better. There's no weak sister and there's hardly ever an easy night. It's that way in most conferences these days, but it's true more than ever for the NCHC. Dean Blais' team was picked 8th — you don't think Omaha will be playing a guts-out game with Dean behind their bench to disprove that poll ranking? It's the price you have to pay to be in a good conference. Because of their conference, the coaches believe it will boost their recruiting that much more, so it's worth it to them from that standpoint.
How is Jim Montgomery fitting in at Denver so far?
Replacing George Gwozdecky, and under the circumstances which it happened, is not ideal. You have to love Montgomery's enthusiasm and that he went back to the beginning to learn how to coach. He's not trying to re-invent the wheel. I am impressed that he's shown — not reverance, but he's acknowledged how well Gwozdecky put the program together. His goal, he said, is to create his own identity, but he knows he has good players and that a winning tradition is already established. He looks like a perfect fit.
Montgomery's relationship with Patrick Roy is interesting. He learned a lot from Roy in terms of being a pro and being ready every day in his preparation, doing things the right way. He's excited that he and Roy are in the same city again because he's got someone right there to lean on now that Roy is head coach of the Colorado Avalanche. He's still learning the lay of the land, but there's no reason for him to feel uncomfortable anywhere he goes because of his track record. He played at Maine, he played for Shawn Walsh and Grant Stanbrook — he's been successful everywhere he's gone. He's got great pedigree.
Who are the players to watch in the NCHC this season?
One of the first that comes to mind is Dillon Simpson at North Dakota. Of their top three scoring defensemen from last year, he's the only one back. There's good blood lines there with his father having played in the NCAA and NHL, and he gets it. When you grow up with a guy who was a winner, you can make a case a lot rubs off on the kid (look at Eric Nystrom!). He certainly understands what it means to be a leader and have a pro mentality, a business-first mentality. I also think that he's gotten to a point where his skating, hand skills and hockey sense can slow a game down and allow him to make a lot of plays. As a senior, he's younger than some of the freshmen. Without Derek Forbort back there he will have a lot on his shoulders, but he's the type of player that will respond to that.
Of course, in Miami, there's the three-headed monster of Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly. They're going to be fun to watch, like the Harlem Globetrotters On Ice sometimes. It's not easy to replace Carter Camper, Pat Cannone and Andy Miele, but Miami did it. Rico Blasi went out and replaced all three. That's some group. When I look at them, I say any three can be a leading Hobey candiate. Kuraly has solid size, smarts, and great hands. Riley Barber can shoot as well as anyone and has a pro release. Czarnik's "stick radar" (I might coin that phrase) is unbelievable. He's like Cannone; he can put a pass anywhere and probably do it in the dark. I'd probably say Czarnik would be more likely to wind up as a Hobey finalist in the end, but who knows.
Western Michigan also has two key guys to keep an eye on — forward Chase Balisy and defenseman Kenny Morrison. I think Morrison could be the next star defenseman in college hockey. He shoots the puck a thousand miles an hour. Last year CCHA teams game planned to eliminate him on the power play to make other WMU defensemen more involved. He can make a huge impact, but like Simpson, he's coming back minus a huge core. Over the last few years, WMU has lost Witkowski, DeKeyser, Tennyson and Haar from the backline. That is an NHL quartet.
Is Andy Murray still in for the long haul at Western Michigan?
Murray seems to be having the time of his life at Western. He loves it. At Media Day, he was telling opposing coaches that he can't wait for them to come to Lawson and see the atmosphere (a/k/a The Lawson Lunatics) there. He told them they wouldn't believe how cool the place is. He goes to all the other events on campus, he goes to football games and walks around. His enthusiasm is infectious.
Who is the best goalie in the league?
Denver's Sam Brittain stands out to begin the season, as does Ryan McKay at Miami, Frank Slubowski at Western Michigan and Ryan Farragher at St. Cloud State. It's hard to pick just one. North Dakota is still trying to establish a big-time No. 1 goalie, same for UNO. The thing with Miami is, McKay has fellow sophomore Jay Williams to help push him. Blasi has made the two-headed monster in goal work before and Nick Petraglia is a rising star in the world of NCAA goalie coaches.
How is Dean Blais holding up at Nebraska-Omaha?
Blais hasn't yet had the results he'd hoped when he came back to college hockey, but the two-time national champion remains as committed to being there as the day he arrived. He's looking forward to making sure this is a better season. He's a motivator and he has the enthusiasm. He's the rock behind the program right now, while the assistants do a lot of the nuts and bolts. It's Dean's job to get them ready to play. He knows what it takes to be a winner. He's looking forward to this season and to having normalcy return to his dressing room. The Andrej Sustr sweepstakes took its toll, as NHL guys were in and out of their dressing room on a daily basis. WMU dealt with it all last year also with Dan DeKeyser (truth be told, it was between two teams for about a year — you can guess who). Now they are looking at a year without every game being a recruiting trip for NHL scouts.
Can St. Cloud State effective follow up its Frozen Four appearance?
The first thing St. Cloud State did coming back from Pittsburgh was rename its arena the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. When Brooks came to St. Cloud in 1987, it was a passion mission. He was really bothered by the fact that Michigan and Massachusetts had a lot of Division I hockey schools, and Minnesota only had two. He said it was time for Minnesota to step up and become the same thing that everyone else was. Since then, Mankato has grown strong, and Bemidji and St. Cloud have made the Frozen Four. Duluth won one and the Gophers are, well, the Gophers and that means they are always a threat. Huskies coach Bob Motzko said that's why it's nice to have his name on their building. It is Minnesota hockey pride.
Motzko believes Joey Benik can have a huge year. He broke his leg 20 minutes into the first practice last year, and didn't return until the end of the season. But when he did, he made an impact right away, leading the Huskies in the NCAA Regionals. Motzko said he won't push Benik hard early on with things he needs to improve upon, but rather at first, they just want to make sure he re-assimiliates. Nic Dowd is a composed and polished player, too, and was impressive to talk with at media day.
Who's gonna win this thing?
It depends. Does North Dakota get off to a good start? Traditionally, they're a second half team, and Dave Hakstol emphasized about how it will be one week at a time. He told me, "I looked at the first-half sched and thought, 'This is tough.' Then I saw the second-half sched and said, 'This might be tougher.' My feeling is you can't look past the next game." I think having a good first half will be important to North Dakota, especially in this dogfight the NCHC will be. If they have a good first half, they set themselves up.
Western has some challenges scoring wise. UMD coach Scott Sandelin believes Tony Cameranesi can be a star for them, but do they have enough to be at the top. Miami, top to bottom, has the best team in the conference but one injury here or there, or a kid slumps for a month, and who knows.
Some people like Colorado College third, and others have the Tigers seventh. This year, all bets are off across the board because of all the conference reshuffling. So the best news is we're going to find out soon.
Dave Starman is entering his 11th season as analyst for CBS Sports Network's TV package. He'll be contributing to College Hockey News throughout the year. The network will air the forst NCHC conference game ever on Oct. 18 when North Dakota plays at Miami, the first of a doubleheader that also sees Minnesota-Duluth at Colorado College. Ben Holden is play-by-play on Starman's crew, and Shireen Saski is entering her 15th season as rinkside reporter.