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Offseason Outlook: Minnesota Duluth

Matt Dewkett

Life is pretty good for Minnesota Duluth right now. After being inches from their season crashing and burning in disappointing failure on the final weekend of the regular season, they took advantage of their second life by winning four close, low-scoring battles to take home the school’s second men’s national championship.

Next year will present a new challenge for the Bulldogs. Last year’s team was mostly considered to be rebuilding following a run to the national title game with a senior-laden group. They had zero expectations and the NCAA Tournament run was a shocking and pleasant surprise. Next year, the Bulldogs will likely start the season ranked number one in the country with the expectation that they at least contend to defend their title in the NCAA Tournament.

They’ve got a good group coming back, but it won’t be easy. Here’s a look at how UMD’s team shapes up for next season.

Key departures: Joey Anderson, So.(Signed by New Jersey), Karson Kuhlman, Sr.(Signed by Boston), Jared Thomas, Sr., Blake Young, Sr., Avery Peterson, Sr.

There’s some big losses in there, but one of the benefits of UMD being such a young team this past year is that this isn’t all that bad relatively speaking.

They lose Joey Anderson after just two seasons which is rough, but not unexpected, especially considering what he accomplished in his two years in Duluth. Still, he’s probably the most talented offensive player UMD has had in a long time, and it’s going to be difficult to replace him.

From a pure numbers perspective, the outgoing seniors don’t look like that big of a loss. I mean, Karson Kuhlman was eighth on team scoring with less than .5 points per game this year. But the NCAA Tournament showed just how valuable those guys were.

Kuhlman parlayed his NCAA Tournament run into an NHL contract with the Bruins. I had always kind of pegged Kuhlman as a very good college player, but not much of a pro prospect, but I could see him carving out a niche as a role player in the NHL. I had put his former teammate Alex Iafallo in a similar category, but Iafallo earned a spot in the Kings line-up in part thanks to his ability to be hard on the puck and create turnovers. Kuhlman is great at that and is a high-character player. I could see him out-kicking the coverage and sticking in the NHL for a while.

Jared Thomas developed into a reliable scorer as a senior, but I suspect the Bulldogs will be able to find enough offense to replace him. The bigger issue will be if they can get a second line centerman to play as well in the neutral and defensive zones as Thomas did.

The insane amount of hype from the national title run kind of killed this, but Kuhlman and Thomas were definitely potential Raboin Effect candidates(My fake award for the player that doesn’t get much credit until the year after they leave when their unit goes to hell without them. Justin Kloos was this year’s runaway winner).

Key Returners: Dylan Samberg, So., Scott Perunovich, So., Mikey Anderson, So., Actually, everyone on their blue line, Hunter Shepard, Jr., Riley Tufte, Jr., Peter Krieger, Sr.

I don’t know if this was mentioned at all during the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota Duluth had five freshmen and one sophomore on defense. Scott Perunovich won national rookie of the year this year, and maybe isn’t the most exciting rookie defenseman coming back. Dylan Samberg continued his meteoric rise with a great end to the season, and with his ceiling, he could potentially be one of the best defensemen in college hockey next year.

Perunovich led the Bulldogs in scoring this past season, and he’ll likely have to drive the offense from the blue line again. If Samberg and fellow sophomore defenseman Mikey Anderson can continue to develop the offensive side of their game as well, that would be a huge help because the Bulldogs will need all the offense they can get. They should be really tough defensively though.

At forward, first round NHL Draft pick continues his tortoise-slow progression. Tufte nearly doubled his freshman point totals as a sophomore, which is a huge positive, but he was still probably the fourth or fifth biggest offensive threat on the Bulldogs. They’ll need him to step up and be the primary guy on their offense next season.

Nick Swaney dealt with injuries early in the year, but looked good towards the end of the season. He’s got some scoring ability, and if anybody is going to make a big jump in offensive production, he seems the most likely candidate.

Parker Mackay will be a senior next year, and while he isn’t quite as fast as Kuhlman, he would seem to be a great fit as the veteran leader that is really tough to play against.

Key Newcomers: Jackson Cates(‘97 USHL), Cole Koepke(‘98 USHL), Tanner Laderoute(‘97 AJHL), Noah Cates(‘99 USHL, 5th rd NHL), Hunter Lellig(‘99 USHL), Charlie Dovorany(‘99 USHL)

The Bulldogs have had some big wins on the recruiting trail recently, though given the nature of college hockey recruiting, that means most of those players are lined up for classes a couple years down the road. This is a solid class, which is fine, because there aren’t a lot of major holes to fill.

They’ll add some a couple of older freshman previously committed to WCHA schools in Jackson Cates and Tanner Laderoute. Cates had signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan Tech last year, but re-opened his recruitment after Michigan Tech’s coaching change and eventually committed to Minnesota Duluth, where he will play with his younger brother Noah. Cates took off this past season in the USHL going from 21 points as a rookie two years ago, to 63 points and fifth in league scoring this year, albeit has an overager. That fits the profile of a solid, immediate contributor to the line-up, but likely one with a lower ceiling.

Tanner Laderoute was initially committed to Alaska-Anchorage before earning an offer to play for the Bulldogs. Laderoute is another overage player that is known for his high-energy, relentless style of play. He should fit in well with the aggressive, hard-on-the-puck style of hockey the Bulldogs like to play, and be a solid contributor in a lower line capacity.

Cole Koepke is a local kid from Hermantown. A solid winger with good shooting ability, he has taken off in his second year in the USHL to the point that he earned a mention from NHL Central Scouting in their final draft rankings this year.

Jackson Cates’ younger brother Noah Cates is the one NHL Draft pick in the bunch, selected in the fifth round of last year’s NHL Draft by Philadelphia. Cates is a skilled player that is just beginning to fill out physically. He scored 55 points in the USHL this year, which was 11th in league scoring. He’s not quite Joey Anderson, but is probably as close as UMD is going to get, and has a good chance at helping making up some of Anderson’s scoring loss, especially on the power play.

Charlie Dovorany was probably the most hyped of this group of commitments when he chose the Bulldogs as a 16-year-old, but has played just 31 games over the past two seasons due to injury, including a knee surgery this winter. As of March, it was undecided whether Dovorany would join the Bulldogs this year or next year. But if he can stay healthy, he is a terrific player. His offensive upside is a bit limited, but he’s a smart, responsible centerman that plays a really mature game.

The Bulldogs don’t need much on defense since they’re returning everyone, but Hunter Lellig will provide some extra depth. He’s an extremely physical defensive defenseman that can lay some punishing hits. Next year will be all about development for him so he can take an expanded role once Samberg and Mikey Anderson leave for the NHL.

Overall:

I think the Bulldogs are in better shape than some of the other teams that we’re going to take a look at here. Teams are built from the net out and their goalie/defense tandem should be one of the best in the country.

That said, the Bulldogs are going to start next season with the #1 ranking because of their performance in magical extra-county games, but they finished this season 7th in the computer rankings. This past year’s Bulldogs teams struggled to score goals and it looks like you’re hoping for a lot of individual best case scenarios just to match that next year. Nine goals probably won’t be enough to win another national title for them(For the love of God, I hope nine goals isn’t enough for anyone to win a national championship ever again.)

I could see the Bulldogs making a push for a number one seed in the tournament next year, but more likely I think they’ll be in more of a two seed range at the end of the year.