It might not be a stretch to call freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo the most important player in the NCHC this year. The 6'2" freshman from Finland is slated to be Minnesota-Duluth's starting goalie, replacing outgoing senior Aaron Crandall. It's a scary proposition heading into a season with a freshman goalie with no college experience, but a fresh start in goal may be just what Minnesota-Duluth needs.
Last season, the Bulldogs were about as close to even as a team can get. Their overall record (16-16-4) and conference record (11-11-2) were perfectly split. They both scored and allowed 104 goals on the season. They did allow 70 goals in conference play while only scoring 69. They were the quintessential middle-of-the-road team.
But there was one area where Minnesota-Duluth was not equal with their opponents, and that was in goal. As an anecdote, the Bulldogs season ended last year at home with a 4-3 loss in the playoffs to Western Michigan, in a game where Minnesota-Duluth outshot the Broncos 37-11. While that's an extreme example, the numbers bear out a similar problem plaguing them all year long. The Bulldogs were +175 in terms of shots on goal last season(1171 shots for, 996 shots against). To take that many more shots than the opponent and still end up with the same amount of goals suggests a pretty staggering disparity in goaltending.
Minnesota-Duluth's goalie duo of Aaron Crandall(playing 80% of minutes) and Matt McNeely(playing 20% of the minutes) combined for a .896 save percentage last season, while Minnesota-Duluth's opponents combined for a .911 save percentage. How big of a difference does that make?
Let's assume for a minute that Minnesota-Duluth's goalies stopped the puck at the same rate as their opponents last season. Give each team a save percentage of .910 and suddenly, Minnesota-Duluth's goal differential swings from an even 104-104 to 105.39 goals for and only 89.64 goals against. That's a sixteen-goal swing over the course of only 36 games played.
Calculate the Bulldogs' Pythagorean record using that new goal differential and their expected winning percentage jumps from .500 to .580 or roughly an 18-14-4 overall record. It also likely puts the Bulldogs squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
And remember, that's only assuming the Bulldogs equal their opponents' shooting percentage. College hockey isn't like the NHL where shooting percentages tend to even out over time. It correlates much more closely to team quality in the NCAA. Fifteen out the 16 teams in the NCAA tournament field last year--Minnesota State was the only exception--had a better shooting percentage than their opponents(as did any team you could reasonably call a ‘bubble team').
UMD returns most of their key contributors from last season, with the exception of Caleb Herbert, who was somehow the team's leading scorer, and Joe Basaraba. Meanwhile, a large percentage of their top scorers, players like Kyle Osterberg, Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, and Dom Toninato, were underclassmen last year, and should make strides in their development this season. The defense remains virtually unchanged, losing only one player that played 24 games last year, and adding a 6'5" transfer from D-III. This was a pretty good group of skaters last year, and should only be better this year.
Which brings everything back to Kaskisuo. There's no doubt he's highly-regarded. He came over to the US last season from Finland to play for the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL and set the league on fire with a ridiculous .944 save percentage. But performing in college hockey is a big step up from junior hockey.
Barring a huge turnaround in the play of junior goalie Matt McNeely, Kaskisuo will pretty much be the guy in net for the Bulldogs this season. If he can come in and put up that .910 save percentage--which isn't all that difficult, 49 goalies in the NCAA last year hit at least that mark--Duluth could be a team competing to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing out the past two years. A .920 save percentage or better--difficult, but not impossible, 27 goalies hit that mark last year--and the Bulldogs may be legitimate contenders for the NCHC title.