November 14, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Team of the Week: Denver

Pioneer Freshmen Filling The Void

by Gregg Paul/CHN Reporter

Every elite team inevitably goes through the ordeal of losing players to the pros long before they use up their eligibility. The Denver Pioneers are no exception to this rule.

Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle signed with the San Jose Sharks and Paul Stastny signed with the Colorado Avalanche. That left a huge void in the Pioneer lineup.

But elite teams also know how to retool, and Denver's crop of freshmen are up to the task, despite the inevitable growing pains.

"Brock Trotter is a terrific finisher," said Denver coach George Gwozdecky. "(Rhett) Rakhshani ... we probably have three or four guys."

Having guys that can finish is never a bad thing, but there is so much more to the game to focus on. New players need to find their roles.

"There are so many new guys in new roles of primary responsibility, but they're still not comfortable with those roles," said Gwozdecky. "That's why you sometimes see it looks like a bloody tennis match or ping pong match. You're just trying to keep the puck safe and out of your zone."

This past weekend, freshmen and upperclassmen alike contributed as Denver went into Wisconsin and swept the Badgers, earning the Pioneers this week's CHN Team of the Week distinction.

Ordinarily when you think of freshmen coming into a program you assume that there are going to be mistakes. One thing that separates hockey from the other mainstream sports is that the structure of development is vastly different from the other sports. Kids are groomed for elite levels at an early age, and by the time they get to college they are more like a seasoned veteran than a typical freshmen in the other sports.

"They are going through a period where they are learning about this league, about the different rinks, the different atmospheres, environments, and the different opponents buildings," said Gwozdecky. "To be in the position we are, getting a chance to play a lot of our younger guys and as well as they are playing for us this is going to be a terrific opportunity for them. It's just going to be a benefit for them as the schedule starts to balance out."

Denver's 6-4 start comes despite playing eight of the 10 games on the road. Not bad. But it has only meant more pressure for the youngsters.

"Usually you can see in power play and penalty kills the guys who you are really counting on for specific primary roles, they are going to be playing on your specialty teams," said Gwozdecky. "We've got (Tyler) Ruegsegger, Rakhshani, (Keith) Seabrook, Trotter, those four guys for sure are playing a ton."

Relying so heavily on freshmen can be both a blessing and a curse. If they perform well, then great things can happen. If they succumb to the pressure, then disaster can be imminent.

Watching Denver play you can see that these players are not typical freshmen. They have played in pressure packed situations and are more seasoned than other players. Rakhshani came from the US National Development Program, and Keith Seabrook is the brother of current Chicago Blackhawk Brent Seabrook.

"We've put them into very uncomfortable, stressful situations and they have met my expectations," Gwozdecky said.

"Good players want to be in those kind of situations. They want to be in one of those atmospheres. That's one of the reasons why they decide to come to Denver where they can be put in those important positions in big important games whether it is the regular season or post season, and that's one of the reasons why we want players like that."

The late, great basketball coach Al McGuire once said that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. However, when it comes to college hockey, becoming a sophomore might be just one step closer to leaving school for the allure of a pro contract. Most college hockey coaches are merely buying time to keep their programs among the elite.

Trusting the youth to benefit the whole of the team is unique to college hockey. Hopefully when these freshmen become sophomores, they can also become juniors and seniors as well.

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