Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Catching up with Minnesota & college hockey (May 2017)

Here's what has been going on with Gopher hockey that you may or may not missed this month. Don't worry if you fall into the latter category. It is the offseason, after all.

-As far as the men's team goes, Minnesota still remains without an assistant coach. It's one of two college hockey vacancies although the other (Michigan assistant) appears to be filled yet not announced. Don't expect the Gophers to go too much longer (sometime this week or early next) without Grant Potulny's replacement. With the school year over and interviews had, little is left other than naming a new assistant.

The job is open due to Potulny last month taking over as head coach of Northern Michigan.

-While the men have already announced its 2017-18 schedule, the women's schedule won't be out until June. North Dakota's decision to drop the sport put much of the calendar in flux. Each of the remaining seven WCHA teams had four games to fill.

I'm interested to see Minnesota's final result. Booking non-conference games in the past has been a challenge. Between travel (other than Lindenwood, every non-WCHA school is east of Ohio and a flight), financial (it's cheaper for ECAC and Hockey East teams to play one another) and competition, the Gophers ended up with interesting non-conference schedules. Minnesota hosted "1 for 2" with Penn State and BU where the Gophers played a single game against those two teams at home (St. Cloud State came down to be the fourth team) for a two-game road series.

The team technically played 33 games each of the past two seasons in spite of needing to fill only six non-conference games. One of those was the US Hall of Fame Game where Minnesota faced a fellow WCHA team. Two others that didn't count were against the post-collegiate Minntesota Whitecaps (another team with issues scheduling others).

With an extra four to fill this season, going from 28 to 24 WCHA games, would playing conference opponents in non-conference be the case again? Does it open up new opportunities for Minnesota? What effects does this have for other WCHA teams? Plenty of good questions will be answered.

-Whoever Minnesota faces the team will be doing so without three forwards. Kelly Pannek, along with six alumni, will be missing the season suiting up for Team USA as an Olympian. Sarah and Amy Potomak, meanwhile, are among 28 players trying to make Canada's 2018 Olympic roster.

-Incoming freshman Brannon McManus helped the Chicago Steel win the USHL Clark Cup.

Obviously there is other news throughout the college hockey landscape that affects Minnesota. Some more than others.

Big Ten:

Michigan: New Wolverines head coach Mel Pearson (still weird to write) is expected to fill his assistant coaching vacancy with his former Michigan Tech assistant Bill Muckalt, according to the Detroit Free Press. Muckalt, previously head coach of Tri-City (USHL), was also a candidate for the Tech head coaching job Pearson left to take over for Red Berenson (also weird to write). At this point. the Wolverines and Wisconsin are showing the importance of keeping up with the Big Ten Joneses by bringing in top-tier assistants.

Pearson's Michigan contract is 5 years at $350K, according to Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald.

Michigan State: New Spartans head coach Danton Cole (not as weird to write) completed his coaching staff by naming Chris Luongo and Joe Exeter as assistants. Mason Appleton, meanwhile, is the team's 2017-18 captain. The Green Bay native was one of the team's bright spots as a sophomore.

Notre Dame: Two big storylines from the Big Ten's newest hockey team are whether juniors Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork turn pro or come back for another season. Getting both to wear a Fighting Irish sweater, on top of a team mostly returning intact from a trip to the Frozen Four, would put Notre Dame in the preseason driver's seat.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Bjork decided to turn pro this week and sign with the Boston Bruins in a move I'm sure no Gopher fan is sad to see. This comes after the forward represented Team USA in this month's World Championships. Petersen, a goaltender and Buffalo Sabres draft pick, also decided to also go pro Wednesday. While not the biggest surprise, replacing a captain and three-year elite starting goalie is a challenge Jeff Jackson would prefer not to have entering his team's first year in a high scoring conference.

Ohio State: JB Bittner took Exeter's spot as Buckeyes assistant, the latest in a rotating cast next to Steve Rohlik. More importantly, OSU took some steps towards building a smaller rink.

Right now the idea is part of a larger plan. Until a shovel hits the ground, it remains just that, an idea, and no guarantee anything happens. A 4,000 seat rink is more than needed, however. Playing in a 1/3 full Schottenstein Center with a tarped off upper deck brings a library-like atmosphere. Any loud cheering becomes a whisper when it makes its way to the upper reaches of the building. No game, not even Michigan, comes close to filling the lower bowl.

No team has a worse atmosphere and arrangement in the Big Ten than OSU playing in a oversized basketball arena. Sadly, there isn't another option. The men's and women's teams can either play in an antiquated 1500 seat rink, as the women currently do, or one of two separate 18K seat arenas in Columbus. A sensible middle ground doesn't exist. Ohio State has a men's hockey fanbase, but it'd be better served with a smaller building where the team has a decent chance of selling out night in and night out.

4K might be a size between both teams - too small for the men's 5K average and also being too big for the women's team - yet one needed.

Penn State: Guy Gadowsky had his contract amended after a season where the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten conference tournament and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

Wisconsin: The Badgers named senior Cameron Hughes captain to replace Luke Kunin, who signed a pro deal with the Minnesota Wild. Also: Head coach Tony Granato joined many of you in being a college graduate, all the while being a college head coach, unlike most of you.

I'd be happy if college hockey featured combat sports trash talking only for Granato to be able to say things like, "I got a degree in sports with a minor in kicking (insert team's) butt."

Rest of Minnesota:

Bemidji State: As part of the WCHA releasing its schedule, the Beavers host Air Force October 20-21. About time the Serratore brothers battle on the ice.

Minnesota Duluth: With Neal Pionk turning pro and signing with the New York Rangers, along with four senior defenders graduating, the Bulldogs are bringing in Dylan Samberg a year earlier to play on the blue line. Samberg, who helped Hermantown win the 2017 Class A championship, is seen as the top Minnesota HS defender available in this year's NHL Draft.

Minnesota State: The good news for the Mavericks is that the USHL Goalie and Player of the Year was committed to Minnesota State. The bad news is the word "was." Matiss Kivlenieks decided to sign with Columbus over going to college, the latest anti-college move by a Blue Jackets team which shares a city with Ohio State.

St. Cloud State: Bob Motzko was named head coach of US World Junior team for a second straight year. Ryan Poehling followed up his combined freshman year of college/senior year of HS by winning a gold medal with the US U-18 team. Poehling, a Lakeville native, is currently in Buffalo for the NHL Scouting Combine and expected to be a first round draft pick; the second Husky chosen in the top thirty picks in as many years.

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