Wednesday, September 26, 2012

News, notes and links

It's still the preseason, so it's early. But observations and interviews suggest that the intensity has been ramped up more than a little bit at All Seasons Arena with new coach Mike Hastings at the helm. I wrote about that for my regular Wednesday Free Press column, which is available here. There certainly seems to be a new-sheriff-in-town attitude right now, which is understandable, considering Hastings needs to establish his identity as a coach right away and players want to make a good first impression on the new guy.

Currently, the Minnesota State men's players are locked out of their All Seasons Arena locker room and using one of the high school rooms there while their space undergoes some renovations. While MSU awaits upgrades to take place at the Verizon Wireless Center, it's trying to make its current facility as up to date as possible. Since the day he was hired, Hastings has talked about trying to take care of the players — with the idea that the better they're treated the more that can be asked of them.

The Mavericks will open the regular season on Oct. 12-13 with a nonconference series at Alabama Huntsville. Minnesota State is the only Division I program that is playing the Chargers in Huntsville (their other home games are against club teams and Division III programs) which were bound for extinction a year ago, in Huntsville. On Wednesday, UAH announced that coach Chris Luongo has resigned and Kurt Kleinendorst was hired to take his place.  No details have emerged regarding Luongo's resignation, but the timing sure seems odd considering we're a little more than a week before the season's set to kick off.

I poked some fun at the team party situations that caused some problems at North Dakota and Minnesota last week. But the situation at North Dakota, which has led to the suspension of several players, appears to be no laughing matter. Good reporting here by the Grand Forks Herald.

The NCHC got its not-so-lucrative TV deal with the CBS Sports Network for next year, but, this year, that network is ignoring most of the teams that will be in the conference it's partnering with. The network unveiled its 18-game college-hockey schedule for this season, and no current WCHA teams — yes, even the ones forming the NCHC next season — will be shown. If it wasn't obvious that Notre Dame was the real prize the NCHC missed out on (the Irish will go to Hockey East next year), just look at the schedule. The Irish will be shown six times in addition to the two nationally televised games they'll get on NBC Sports Network, with whom they have a TV contract to show all home games starting next year.

To be fair, we're still waiting on the WCHA to make some big decisions regarding its future, whether its the league's championship location or media deal, if it has one, for 2013-14 and beyond.

Media pick Mavs 10th

The WCHA's preseason media poll was released at midnight Wednesday, and Minnesota State was picked to finish 10th in the 12-team conference. Minnesota was picked first with Nick Bjugstad earning preseason player of the year honors. Rocco Grimaldi is the preseason rookie of the year, earning the same award as he did a year ago, however, the North Dakota freshman took a redshirt season after suffering an injury.

Following is a look at the results. There were 25 voters, representing newspapers, websites, radio stations and blogs, s. (PucKato's picks can be found a couple of posts down):

1. Minnesota (24 first-place votes)
2. North Dakota (1)
3. Denver
4. Wisconsin
5. Minnesota Duluth
6. St. Cloud State
7. Colorado College
8. Nebraska Omaha
9. Michigan Tech
10. Minnesota State
11. Bemidji State
12. Alaska Anchorage

Preseason player of the year
Nick Bjugstad, F, Minnesota (16 votes). Others receiving multiple votes: Erik Haula, F, Minnesota (4), Mark Zengerle, F, Wisconsin (3)

Preseason rookie of the year: 
Rocco Grimaldi, F, North Dakota (8 1/2). Others receiving multiple votes: Nic Kerdiles, F, Wisconsin (5), Jordan Schmaltz, D, North Dakota (2 1/2), Brady Skjei, D, Minnesota (2), Andy Welinski, D, Minnesota Duluth (2)

Preseason All-WCHA
F-Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota (20)
F-Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin (17)
F-Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State (8)
D-Joey LaLeggia, Denver (20)
D-Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State (9)
G-Sam Brittain, Denver (7 1/2) & Josh Thorimbert, CC (7 1/2)

Others receiving multiple votes: F-Danny Kristo, North Dakota (7), F-Erik Haula, Minnesota (6), F-Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College (5), F-Corban Knight, North Dakota (3), D-Nate Schmidt, Minnesota (7), D-Wade Bergman, Minnesota Duluth (3), G-Juho Olkinuora, Denver (3), G-Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin (2)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

MSU women picked 7th

The WCHA women's coaches preseason poll was released on Tuesday, and Minnesota State was picked to finish seventh in the eight-team league. This will be the Mavericks' fourth season with coach Eric Means at the helm. He is 22-75-9 with the struggling program.

Minnesota was the overwhelming favorite to win the league, getting six first-place votes and 48 points. North Dakota and Wisconsin each received a first-place vote and finished second and third, respectively with 44 and 40 points. Minnesota Duluth (32) was fourth, followed by Ohio State (24), Bemidji State (19), Minnesota State (12) and St. Cloud State (9).

Wisconsin senior Brianna Decker was the pick for preseason player of the year, getting four votes. Minnesota's Amanda Kessel and North Dakota's Jocelyne Lamoureux each received two votes. The Gophers' Hannah Brandt was the unanimous pick for preseason rookie of the year.

Read more here.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks will open the season Friday and Saturday with a two-game series against Wisconsin at All Seasons Arena in Mankato. Means will not be available for those games nor for the next two as he will be serving the rest of a five-game suspension for a post-game incident late last season in Duluth.

Monday, September 24, 2012

PucKato's preseason picks

The WCHA preseason media poll will be released on Wednesday, and I nearly went up to the deadline before finally turning in my ballot. Other than picking Minnesota to win it, there aren't too many obvious choices this year. So without further ado, here's a look at my ballot.

1. Minnesota 
2. North Dakota
3. Denver
4. St. Cloud State
5. Wisconsin
6. Nebraska Omaha
7. Colorado College
8. Minnesota State
9. Minnesota Duluth
10. Michigan Tech
11. Bemidji State
12. Alaska Anchorage

Player of the year: Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
Rookie of the year: Teddy Blueger, Minnesota State

Preseason All-WCHA
F-Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
F-Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
F-Danny Kristo, North Dakota
D-Joey LaLeggia, Denver
D-Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
G-Josh Thorimbert, Colorado College

A few thoughts ... The Gophers are the clear-cut favorite to win the WCHA this season, with the return of several outstanding players, including preseason MVP favorite Nick Bjugstad, who opted to return for his junior season. ...

North Dakota is a solid choice for second place, but the standings turn pretty murky after that. I suspect there could be an eight- maybe nine-team race for the other four home-ice spots that lasts late into the season. ...

I didn't quite draw the names out of a hat but was pretty set at putting Denver, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin into the upper half. The next grouping in my mind is a big one with Omaha, CC, MSU, Duluth and Tech. Bemidji and Anchorage take up the bottom. ...

I see Wisconsin (even without Justin Schultz) and Minnesota State making the biggest jumps up in the standings (I didn't have the guts to give the Mavericks home ice), with Colorado College and Minnesota Duluth (it was a heck of a run) slipping the most. ...

Call it a homer pick, but I went with Teddy Blueger as the rookie of the year. After where he was drafted (second round), the interest from the OHL and a reportedly excellent prospect camp in Pittsburgh, it sure sounds like he's the real deal. Why not? ...

As for the all-league picks, I thought the skaters were all solid. (A few forwards also under consideration included Corban Knight, UND; Ben Hanowski, SCSU; Rylan Schwartz, CC; Erik Haula, Minny; and even Jean-Paul LaFontaine, MSU.) But the goalie pick was tough. There will be lots of turnover in net this season. In Thorimbert, went with last year's third-team All-WCHA selection.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't know how to party

The college hockey season is right around the corner, and it probably can't come soon enough for the coaches, especially since their players ...

Earlier this week, North Dakota announced that its team captains — Andrew MacWilliam, Corban Knight, Danny Kristo and Carter Rowney — have been suspended for the season-opener against Alaska Anchorage due to a team party held over the weekend. While there appears to be no legal issues at the moment, the incident apparently was serious enough to cause the UND athletic department to put the team on probation "under which any further violations could result in immediate reduction of scholarship, suspension from competition or expulsion from the program."

Meanwhile, a team party at Minnesota resulted in one of the team's rookies, Connor Reilly, suffering a season-ending knee injury. Reilly, who had knee surgery in March, is one three brothers from Chanhassen who will be freshmen for the Gophers. The others are Connor's twin brother, Ryan, and younger brother Mike. They played for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL last season along with Minnesota State freshmen Bryce Gervais and Nick Buchanan.

Those stories come on the heels of the recent report out of Boston University that detailed a rather disturbing party culture among the hockey players at that school.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Backes featured in NHLPA video

In response to the NHL owners' lockout of players, several players put out a video to give a message to fans. Former Minnesota State captain David Backes is prominent in the video, which also features superstars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. I'm writing about Backes — and why it should come as no surprise that he's a person the players want out front on this — for my regular Wednesday column in The Free Press.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hastings hits the ice (updated)

For the first time since spring of 2008, Mike Hastings ran a hockey practice as head coach. On Monday, the new Minnesota State coach was on the ice with the Mavericks. It was the first day of preseason practice, and coaches get two hours of ice time per week with their entire roster. The official start of the season is Saturday, Oct. 6, and MSU will play an exhibition game against Lethbridge on Oct. 7.

"It's really nice to be handling it again," said Hastings, who spent the last three seasons on the bench at Nebraska Omaha and the year before that as an assistant at Minnesota. Prior to that, he spent 14 seasons as the head coach of the USHL's Omaha Lancers.

Monday's 40-minute, up-tempo practice at All Seasons Arena was a good one, Hastings said, but it's still early.

"For me, I'm still learning about the team, and they're still learning about how things are going to be done," he said.

Other notes:

• Hastings said he wants the Mavericks to play an aggressive brand of hockey, both offensively and defensively, and much of Monday's practice seemed focused on that. "We've got a long way to go to play that type of style," he said. "You have to be in elite shape, and we're not there yet. ... But I like the group; I like what I see."

• Hastings said team captains have yet to be voted on but he's counting on the leadership of the Mavericks' seniors. That group includes last year's captain, defenseman Tyler Elbrecht, and one of the team's top goal scorers, Eriah Hayes. It also includes goalie Phil Cook, forward Eli Zuck and defenseman Evan Mosey.

• Hastings is also aware that success will depend on a big step forward by a group of freshmen coming off a solid year. That group includes three notables: WCHA All-Rookie selection Jean-Paul LaFontaine, last year's MSU points leader Matt Leitner and defenseman Zach Palmquist.

• The Wenatchee Wild of the NAHL was on hand to watch practice. The Washington-based team practiced at ASA and also toured the university. The team will do the same at other colleges throughout the state this week, according to assistant coach and former MSU goaltender Chris Clark. Good to see Chris again.

• Update: MSU has put its preseason prospectus on the web. Read that here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Plan C?

We're going to make sure we bat this thing out of the park with the bonding issue. But it's about answers, not about problems. If that doesn't get done, then we have to find another way to get the facilities taken care of. And if we need to do that, we have to turn to the people in this area, and we will find a way.

— Mike Hastings, April 16, 2012

Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said those words during his introductory press conference after being hired. Well, state money for Verizon Wireless Civic Center was left out of the bonding bill. Then, this week, it was revealed that the project was given a low ranking on a list of projects vying for money available from the state economic development agency (DEED).

It's clear that the city of Mankato is frustrated by that ranking. Actually, it's the latest in a long list of rejections of arena projects. Three times, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed money to Mankato, even as funds were eventually approved for new arenas in Duluth and Bemidji (and Crookston!) and a major renovation in St. Cloud.

In a press release, Mankato officials say DEED "got it wrong." Meanwhile, the city is holding out hope that Gov. Mark Dayton will pick the civic center project anyway.

The project calls for moving the MSU men and women to the downtown rink permanently, upgrading locker rooms and offices and adding training space. It also calls for arena improvements that could see new, appropriately colored seating and, possibly, new up-to-date scoreboards. 

But it also calls for some very necessary repairs to the rink, including a new floor and ice-making system, as well as boards and glass. As I wrote about in my column Wednesday, those repairs have to be done with or without state money (have you seen the bench areas?). It's a matter of simple upkeep on what is now a 17-year-old building.

Not knowing when they might be moving downtown fulltime, the Mavericks did recently make some nice aesthetic updates to the Don Brose Hockey Center at All Seasons Arena, adding some color to the rink (as well as a nice tribute to David Backes and Ryan Carter). Take a look at assistant coach Darren Blue's Twitter photo from a few weeks ago: 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Viva Las Vegas

Three Minnesota State alumni have signed with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. That group includes defensemen Channing Boe and Cameron Cooper, as well as Joe Schiller, who can play both forward and defense for the Wranglers as he did at MSU.

Boe, whose Maverick career ended in 2011, spent most of last season with Vegas.

"Channing made huge strides last year," coach/general manager Ryan Mougenel said. "He's a big body that makes good decisions on the blue line, and we need him to be an impact player for us to have success this year."

Cooper played nine games with the ECHL's Toledo, Ohio, team after the college season ended last spring.

"Cameron comes highly recommended from his college coaches," Mougenel said. "I look forward to him developing with our guys out here and proving to be another big body when we need it."

Schiller played eight games for Vegas after the Mavericks' season ended.

As for other MSU alumni ...

• Austin Lee will remain a Maverick, having signed with the CHL's Missouri Mavericks.

• Michael Dorr and Mike Louwerse signed to play in Europe, going to Germany and Denmark, respectively.

• Other recent signings include Rylan Galiardi going to the ECHL's Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators after playing last season with the Florida Everblades. Florida, meanwhile, re-signed former Mav Trevor Bruess.