Previews: UNO must overcome offseason turmoil

Matt White (Nebraska Omaha)

Nebraska Omaha junior forward Matt White led the Mavericks in scoring in the 2011-12 season, putting together 17 goals and 23 assists. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

Nebraska Omaha lost each of its last six games of the 2011-12 season, but the Mavericks’ problems lasted far beyond the final horn of the final game.

If you hadn’t heard, let’s start at the beginning: Namely, the home stretch of the Mavericks’ last campaign.

UNO appeared to be a solid candidate for a top-six finish in the WCHA coming into the final three weeks of the regular season, but controversy, bad luck and solid opposition came together to see the Mavs split at Colorado College and then get swept at home by both Denver and Minnesota.

Head coach Dean Blais’s team then saw its season end in the first round of the postseason, with UNO getting swept at St. Cloud State. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, though, that early end to the campaign wasn’t the last of their troubles.

Turmoil lasted into the offseason, starting with the departure of junior forward Terry Broadhurst in March. Broadhurst, UNO’s second-leading scorer last season with 16 goals and 20 assists, forwent his final year of eligibility to sign a professional contract with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.

A member of Blais’s coaching staff soon followed Broadhurst out of Omaha. Troy Jutting, now an assistant at UNO, was relieved of his duties as head coach at Minnesota State in April, leaving UNO associate head coach Mike Hastings to take over with the WCHA’s other Mavericks in Mankato, Minn..

July then saw UNO lose another of its starlets to the professional ranks. Jayson Megna, whose 13 goals and 18 assists in 2011-12 saw the freshman finish third on the team’s scoring chart, opted to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The mini-exodus wasn’t yet over. Blais lost a second member of his coaching staff, with assistant coach Brian Renfrew taking a scouting position with the WInnipeg Jets.

Some good news for UNO, though: Blais has replaced Hastings and Renfrew with arguably the best candidates available. Jutting arrived in Omaha to complete a swap of sorts with MSU, and Blais was also able to lure new assistant coach Steve Johnson away from a similar role at St. Cloud State.

Most of UNO’s youth is also back, and with another year’s worth of experience under its belt. Junior Matt White (17 goals and 23 assists in 2011-12) returns, and he will be expected to lead the way for a team that, in Broadhurst and Megna, lost 27 percent of of its scoring from last season.

The Mavericks’ defensive corps, one of the the biggest blueline groups in the country, will also need to perform in the new season if UNO wants to get back into what it will feel is its rightful place in the top six of the WCHA.

UNO’s defense certainly doesn’t lack size, as only one of the Mavericks’ blueliners is listed as being below six feet tall. The D-men must help to improve upon last season’s performance, though, which saw UNO concede 2.95 goals per game.

Question marks also come up with UNO’s special teams. The Mavericks’ had the WCHA’s third-best penalty kill and scored ten shorthanded goals, but the power play was a nightmare, finishing at the foot of the league table in that category at 17.1 percent.

The Mavericks will also need to sort out their goaltending as they enter their final season in the WCHA before the new National Collegiate Hockey Association begins play in 2013-14.

Senior goaltender John Faulkner (2.93 goals against average and .886 save percentage in 2011-12) is back, and he will face stiff competition from highly-touted freshman Anthony Stolarz to see who wins the starting job. Would-be sophomore Ryan Massa (2.59 GAA, .914 SV%) is sitting out the 2012-13 season for personal reasons.

Still, if UNO can sort out the issues it faces entering the new campaign, a top-six finish is there to be had. The media covering the WCHA is picking the Mavericks’ schedulng podmates (Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota Duluth) to finish in the middle and lower tiers of the WCHA, and solid performances against that group could springboard UNO to success against the rest of the league.

Head coach: Dean Blais (Minnesota ’77)
2011-12 record: 14-18-6 (11-12-5 WCHA)
Predicted finish in 2012-13: 8th
Home ice: CenturyLink Center Omaha; Omaha, Neb.
-Capacity: 16,680
-Average attendance in 2011-12: 7,864

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