It’s that time of year again. Each day (or so) for the next couple weeks TCHB will be unveiling its preseason top 16 teams in the country. 16 of course because 16 teams make up the NCAA tournament field. Today’s team is the #11 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs
The defending national champions check in at #11. I can see the steam coming from the ears of a few Bulldog fans already at being ranked only 11th, so let me elaborate: first off, without some, um, conveniently timed calls Duluth wouldn’t have even made it to the Frozen Four, much less win a championship. Granted, luck is a part of any title run in any sport, but that this team was some sort of juggernaut is extremely incorrect. Second, Kenny Reiter was pretty darn good last year in the playoffs, shutting out Union, allowing 3 goals on 33 shots to Yale, 3 goals on 34 shots to Notre Dame and 2 goals on 24 to Michigan, his lone hiccup game. In fact, Duluth was outshot in all of its postseason games except for the title game, and as anyone who knows anything about hockey can attest to, that’s not a great way to win games. Finally, Reiter was great in the postseason, but was 29th nationally in save percentage last year. Either he can step his game up at the right time or, more likely, some regression is in store.
Forwards: Duluth will have to go without two of its three best players as Justin Fontaine (22-36–58) and Mike Connolly (28-26–54) are both gone, but ther is still a nice group of forwards back. The most exciting is probably JT Brown, a Sophomore who was maybe Duluth’s best player in the Frozen Four last year. He had 16 goals and 37 points as a Freshman and with his speed I think he’ll get a nice free agent deal from an NHL team, possibly next summer. Jack Connolly (18-41–59) and his beard are also back, and while he is supremely talented it will be interesting to see how his stats look with no Connolly or Fontaine, not necessarily just from a talent standpoint but also a chemistry one. Travis Oleksuk will provide some Senior leadership, and the 14 goals he scored last year doesn’t hurt either.
Defense: With all of the talent up front, Duluth’s most talented player last year was probably Justin Faulk, who left to sign with the Hurricanes. While needing to shore up his defense a bit, Faulk had 33 opints from the blueline and was one of the most talented offensive defensemen in the country. Wade Bergman, Brady Lamb, Drew Olson and Scott Kishel are hardly the greatest group of defensemen around, so at least one of Chris Casto (Lincoln, USHL), Derik Johnson (Penicton, BCHL) and Andy Welinski (Green Bay, USHL) had better be as advertised, otherwise it’s tough to see Duluth being the 4th best scoring defense in the WCHA again.
Goaltenders: Kenny Reiter had a .914 save percentage in conference games, w hich is pretty good considering the number of shots he saw, and Adam Crandall is likely to improve on his .890 mark, so Duluth should be solid if not spectacular in net. I just wouldn’t expect a four game run like they had last spring.