We’ve reached the home stretch. For the next week, TCHB will be unveiling the final five teams in the preseason top 16 countdown. 16 of course because there are 16 teams in the NCAA tournament. Today’s team is the #4 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
This year is probably the last time I’ll be able to use the above logo, as the NCAA has rebuffed North Dakota’s use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo for a final time, and it will be retired shortly (more on that later). On the ice, the Sioux were perhaps the best team in the country last year, but lost to Michigan in the national semis 2-0. I perhaps am overrating the Sioux, placing them 4th after they lose 6 of their top 7 scorers from last year, but there is a lot of talent back that will try to make a run at Tampa.
Forwards: Let’s start with what they lost. Hobey finalist Matt Frattin (60 points), Jason Gregoire (43 points), Evan Trupp (41), Brad Malone (40), and Brett Hextall (29). Despite all these losses, there is a ton of talent back in Grand Forks. Corban Knight was one of the more unheralded player last year, scoring 14 goals and notching 30 assists on the Sioux’s second line, and he’s also one of the better faceoff guys in the country. He really came on late in the year last year with some hefty shot totals (even if it wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard), but was surprisingly held shotless in the loss to Michigan.
The big key for the Sioux this year seems to be Danny Kristo. He missed a good chunk of last year with frostbite and had only 8 goals in 34 games played, but he had 15 goals as a Freshman. He’ll likely be with Knight on the first line and get every opportunity to get his game back to where it was as a Freshman. He scored on his first shot back after the injury, and had a goal in each of his first three games coming back from injury last year, so the talent is definitely there. He just needs to put it all together.
Another youngster that had a couple of injury problems was Brock Nelson. As a fan, I was frustrated with his play last year, but even though he didn’t really show a nose for the goal, he was a gritty forward who came back from a pretty nasty collision against RPI and is reportedly ready to go after being hurt in the Frozen Four.
Their biggest guy though might be their smallest and one of their youngest. Rocco Grimaldi comes in with as much fanfare as I’ve seen from a Sioux freshman. Certainly the most hype since some Toews guy. Rocco led the NTDP in scoring last year, and led the U-17s in scoring the year before that. He’ll be without his NTDP linemate JT Miller as the latter has bolted for the OHL, but despite being only 5’5″ I see a pretty big year coming from Grimaldi.
Defensemen: As good as Frattin was last year, the Sioux’s best overall player might have been Chay Genoway. I saw some Sioux fans complaining about him being on the ice for a few goals last year, but that is because he played against the toughest competition and got the toughest faceoffs (i.e. a ton of defensive zone faceoffs). His pro future is uncertain, but he will definitely be missed at the college level. They also lose Derrick LaPoint and Jake Marto, two guys who weren’t flashy but were certainly very good at the college level.
The Sioux got a huge boost when Ben Blood announced he wasn’t going to sign with Ottawa and instead would be coming back to Grand Forks. Blood led the nation in +/- last year and despite the limitations of that statistic it is not a stretch to call him the best defensive defenseman in the country. A player who needs to take a big step forward is Andrew MacWilliam. He was much better than I thought he would be in his Freshman year, but didn’t progress as I expected last year.
Lastly, watch for Dillon Simpson. The Oilers pick isn’t as mobile as I thought he would be but he played 30 games as a 17 year old for one of the best teams in the country. If he improves his skating a bit he could be a very good player for the Sioux, and will likely get a lot of time quarterbacking the powerplay.
Goaltenders: It’s tough to say that the INCH goalie of the year needs to improve, but he does. Aaron Dell did a great job stepping up when Brad Eidsness was abysmal last year, but Dell’s .912 save percentage in WCHA play last year ranked 6th in the league. The Sioux won last year by limiting the number of opponents’ shots and while that is the key to winning any year, it will be extra important for them to do it this year. If Dell struggles, the Sioux still have Eidsness on the roster. He was horrible last year but in 2009-10 he had a .914 save percentage in WCHA play, which ranked 3rd in the league, so the potential is there.
The Sioux look to spend one of their last years in the WCHA and their last year (probably) as the Sioux competing for a WCHA title and if some of the younger guys step up they will be in the hunt for a national title as well.