Previews: How will UMD cope without Connolly and Co.?

AMSOIL Arena

Last year’s senior class at Minnesota Duluth helped usher in a new era for the Bulldogs at AMSOIL Arena, completed in 2010. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

Every college sports season ends on a bittersweet note, with celebrated seniors playing their final games in their schools’ colors.

It always marks an end of an era for those players and their universities, and you could argue that no men’s hockey team will miss its 2011-12 senior class more than Minnesota Duluth will miss its.

A group that included 2012 Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly, fellow forwards Travis Oleksuk and David Grun, goaltender Kenny Reiter, defensemen Brady Lamb and Scott Kishel left UMD after last season as arguably the most decorated senior class in Bulldog hockey history.

Even when putting to one side Connolly’s Hobey Baker triumph, that UMD senior class’s list of accomplishments is supremely impressive. Four consecutive 20-win seasons, a national championship in 2011 and their help in ushering in a new era at the fabulous AMSOIL Arena will ensure that that group lives long in every Bulldog fan’s memory.

That set of players has now departed Duluth, Minn., however, and the new season will see head coach Scott Sandelin’s club try and move on with the talent that’s returning.

The 2012-13 Bulldogs will be one of UMD’s youngest teams in recent memory, but, as ever, expectations remain high. UMD was picked 12th in both major national preseason polls.

Questions over how to replace their former stars will need to be answered in a hurry, though, if the Bulldogs are to escape any major bumps in the road as they deal with growing pains.

Still, it’s not all bad news for UMD. Far from it, in fact.

The Bulldogs’ top three scorers are gone – J.T. Brown left, too, following his sophomore season – but sophomore Caleb Herbert (14 goals and 19 assists in 2011-12) and senior Mike Seidel 17 G, 20 A) certainly both know where the net is, and they’ll be expected to help the new Bulldogs hit the ground running.

The biggest strength of this season’s UMD men’s team, however, appears to be the talent and experience of the returning defensemen.¬†Seniors Wade Bergman (3 G, 15 A) and Drew Olson (1 G, 7 A) have logged a ton of minutes in their first three seasons in Duluth, and their experience should prove invaluable over the course of the new campaign.

Sophomore Chris Casto (2 G, 11 A) had a promising first season at UMD, and many eyes will be on junior Luke McManus (0 G, 2 A) to see if he can build on his solid performances in the NCAA regionals last season against Maine and then eventual national champion Boston College.

Sandelin will need to find a starting goaltender, though, and in a hurry. Junior Aaron Crandall (3.07 goals against average and .855 save percentage in four appearances in 2011-12) is Reiter’s heir apparent, but newcomers Alex Fons and Matt McNeely will also be vying Pfor the starting role.

There are other Bulldog freshmen that fans throughout the WCHA will want to keep an eye on, too. Incoming forward Austin Farley comes to Duluth fresh off a 59-point season with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, and defenseman Andy Welinski was last season’s USA Today Junior Hockey Player of the Year.

It remains to be seen whether these young Bulldogs will live up to the always-high expectations placed upon Sandelin’s team, but it will be fun to watch them try. A solid showing in the 2012-13 campaign, the team’s last-ever one in the WCHA, ought to leave UMD in good shape for another solid postseason run.

Head coach: Scott Sandelin (North Dakota ’86)
2011-12 record: 25-10-6 (16-7-5 WCHA)
Predicted WCHA finish in 2012-13: 5th
Home ice: AMSOIL Arena; Duluth, Minn.
-Capacity: 6,600
-Average attendance in 2011-12: 6,328

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