It's tough to define the type of season that North Dakota had last year. They were one game away from winning the NCHC regular season title. But they needed a third period collapse by Ohio State just to sneak into the NCAA tournament. But they were less a second away from heading to overtime for the right to play for a national championship. Were they that good? Were they that bad? The truth is, probably a bit of both at times. On night's they could put the puck in the net, they were one of the most feared teams in the country. But that team just didn't show up consistently enough.
This year's team looks largely the same. Leading scorer Rocco Grimaldi is gone, but replaced by arguably the top offensive recruit in the country(not named Jack Eichel). Senior captain Dillon Simpson graduated, but will be replaced by a talented freshman(who strangely, is only four months younger than Simpson). Everybody else is pretty much back for another go round, and they'll be hoping it's a little more clear just how good they are.
|Drake Caggiula, JR||Mark MacMillan, SR||Michael Parks, SR|
|Nick Schmaltz, FR||Connor Gaarder, SR||Luke Johnson, SO|
|Brendan O'Donnell, SR||Stephane Pattyn, SR||Bryn Chyzyk, JR|
|Austin Poganski, FR||Colten St. Clair, JR||Trevor Olson, FR|
|Extras||Wade Murphy, SO||Johnny, Simonson, FR||Coltyn Sanderson, JR|
|Jordan Schmaltz, JR||Paul LaDue, SO|
|Troy Stecher, SO||Nick Mattson, SR|
|Tucker Poolman, FR||Keaton Thompson, SO|
|Extras||Gage Ausmus, SO||Andrew Panzarella, SR|
|Zane McIntyre, JR||Cam Johnson, FR||Matt Hrynkiw, SO|
NHL Draft picks: Poolman(WPG), Thompson(ANA), Mattson(CHI), LaDue(LAK), Murphy(NSH), N. Schmaltz(CHI), Poganski(STL), Parks(PHI), MacMillan(MTL), Ausmus(SJS), O'Donnell(TBL), J. Schmaltz(STL), Johnson(CHI) McIntyre(BOS)
Free Agent targets: Stecher
Goal-scoring was an issue for North Dakota last season. They put up good scoring numbers overall, but late in the season, they struggled to score goals at key times, which almost cost them a trip to the NCAA tournament, and ended up being their downfall at the Frozen Four.
They lost last year’s leading scorer Rocco Grimaldi to the pros, but add one of the top recruits in the country in forward Nick Schmaltz, which should be more or less an equal trade-off. Grimaldi was a tenacious worker and would generate twice as many chances as Schmaltz, who sometimes shows signs of laziness, but Schmaltz is a much more skilled passer and finisher that will likely convert at a much higher rate than Grimaldi would.
Overall, North Dakota’s forwards are a fairly blue collar group. Early recruiting has been a struggle for North Dakota in recent years, and the result of those struggles bears itself in this group of forwards. At one time, Nick Schmaltz, Luke Voltin, Chris Wilkie, Shane Gersich, Ryan Gropp, Miles Koules, and Austin Poganski were all highly-regarded commits expected to be playing key roles on this team. Gropp and Koules ended up in the CHL. Wilkie and Gersich were deferred to next season after their development didn’t progress as hoped. Voltin had his commitment rescinded after struggles on the ice and in the classroom. Only Schmaltz and Poganski appear on this year’s roster, with Poganski’s expectations diminished after slipping into the fourth round of the NHL Draft. Those losses certainly weren’t fatal, but likely puts North Dakota more in the range of a team competing for a three or four seed in the NCAA tournament again, rather than competing for a one seed in the NCAA tournament.
What North Dakota lacks in high-end offensive talent, they’ll make up for in depth, experience, and the typical North Dakota-style of fast, physical hockey. With Grimaldi’s departure, Mark MacMillan is the leading returning goal-scorer with 12 last season, but seven different returning players had more than five goals last season, and many of those players, like wings Luke Johnson and Drake Caggiula have the potential to increase those totals.
The real strength of this team will be on the back-end. North Dakota is in the running with Minnesota and Boston College for the most talented blueline in the country. First round NHL draft pick Jordan Schmaltz returned for his junior season, largely to play a year with his younger brother Nick.
Paul LaDue put together an excellent freshman season last year, where at times, he was North Dakota’s best defenseman. Freshman Tucker Poolman who, like LaDue, comes to North Dakota as an older freshman, and could make a similar impact as a freshman to LaDue. Troy Stecher and Nick Mattson bring a high level of mobility to the blueline and are very effective puck-movers.
Zane McIntyre returns for his junior season, albeit with a new last name. He should be in the running for this year’s Richter Award for college hockey’s best goalie. Last year, he led the NCHC in goals against average(1.99) and finished second to Denver’s Sam Brittain with a .926 save percentage. He almost single-handedly stole the Midwest Regional title in last year’s NCAA tournament for North Dakota.
With many of the NCHC’s other contenders unproven in goal, bringing back McIntyre gives North Dakota a huge edge on the rest of the league. And should allow North Dakota to steal a few games they don’t deserve when their offense lets them down.
I see a lot of last year's North Dakota team in this year's team, which, as I said in the opening, is both good and bad. This is going to be a tough team to score on, and they should be able to generate enough offense to compete at the top of the league, but I don't quite see them keeping pace with Miami for the league title.
But they've also got a pretty meh non-conference schedule outside of a marquee home series against Providence in late October. Drop a few non-conference games, and they could be in a position where they're better off in the league, but chasing teams like Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud in the national Pairwise Rankings at the end of the year. The good news is that North Dakota hosts an NCAA regional this year, so they only have to worry finishing in the top 14 in order to get home ice in the NCAA regional.