It’s been a momentous summer for the Old Dog. After 47 years of earning a living and spending the last nine plus years working in the air conditioning and heating industry, I retired. Well, semi-retired—I’ll be doing some free-lance work, and, of course, still posting my manic ideas about Husky hockey starting in the fall.
However, I’ll be spending my summers back in Michigan, as Mrs. Dog and I have a second house about 75 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge. Mrs. Dog has spent summers there since 2013, when she figured out that staying in Texas when it’s 100 degrees or more every day is no way for a human being to live. That left the Old Dog, who might be a slow learner, to work a few more years to pay off the houses. But that’s behind us now, and I bought a pickup truck for the summers “Up North” (but no truck in Texas—I might be banned from claiming to be a Texan, but there you are).
We’ll be returning to Dallas in October and staying until next spring, when the Old Dog and Mrs. Dog will again head for the glories of the northern Michigan summer. On our way home in October, we’re going to take a detour and head to the Copper Country to take in the Huskies’ opening series against Alaska.
It will be our first trip to the JMac since Winter Carnival in 2002, which was a lousy trip in some ways. It was almost 40 degrees, snow statues were partially melted, and Tech got absolutely smacked around, both physically and on the scoreboard by St. Cloud State, a showing that I felt would have made John MacInnes turn over in his grave.
But enough of this stuff. Let’s talk hockey. What about the 2019-20 edition of Husky Hockey? What does it look like to the Old Dog?
This week, we’ll look at this year’s roster. Next week, we’ll peek at the schedule. In my final pre-season column, we’ll examine the strong and the weak squads in the WCHA. And then we’ll be ready for the opening road series against Robert Morris in Pittsburgh.
I’d toss in a column about the coming re-alignment of the WCHA, but, other than the fact that all WCHA teams from states that don’t start with “A” are running off to form a new league in two years, there’s not much to say because there’s been almost complete radio silence about the whole thing, other than the mandatory statements about “the best for our program and our student athletes” announcements that the four Michigan teams, two Minnesota teams and one Ohio team have issued.
To get a feel for this year’s team, let’s start with the goaltending. This should be a real strength. Matt Jurusik is back for his final NCAA season, with a full year in a Tech sweater behind him. By and large, Jurusik was solid in most games last season, but he’s never struck me as the kind of goalie who could steal games and guarantee you’ll have a chance to win even when you are the underdog. He’s a classic “good team goalie” who makes the saves he should and a few, but not most, of those he shouldn’t.
Robbie Beydoun enters his junior year, and he’s a real contrast to Jurusik. He’s the kind of keeper that makes a ton of saves he has no business stopping but can have games where he gets beat when he shouldn’t. If he can become more consistent, and not give away a point or three against teams that don’t have strong offensive talent, he and Jurusik will be vying for the starts most nights.
Freshman Blake Pietila, yet another member of the Pietila clan to become a Husky, posted solid numbers in the United States Hockey League last year. However, unless Jurusik and Beydoun stumble or get hurt, Tech may be better served with Pietila claiming a red shirt year and adapting to the NCAA in practices and not in games.
Of course, goaltending depends on good defense, and in some ways, the Huskies are loaded in the back end. While Keegan Ford is the only senior, Tech returns juniors Seamus Donohue, Mitch Meek (who missed much of last season to injury), Cooper Watson, Todd Kiilunen and Tyler Rockwell—plus sophomores Tyrell Buckley, Eric Gotz, and Colin Swoyer. That’s a ton of experience, and a strong freshman class may have trouble breaking into the lineup, although Brendan Datema, a 6-5 220 pounder who was a star in the North American Hockey League last year, could be a factor for MTU.
The biggest problem last season was the lack of offensive production from the blue line. If the Huskies can put the puck in from the points, it will be a huge factor in a successful season. The other defensive issue from last season was too many penalties at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances. It’s critical that Tech not face as many penalty killing situations as they did last season. The penalty killing was okay, but even a good PK rate isn’t enough to overcome too many short-handed situations. Given the way the rest of the WCHA plays, offense is generated as often as not on the power play. If Tech’s defensemen can stay out of the box, it will go a long way to reducing the pressure to score a ton of goals.
As we turn to the forwards, there’s more uncertainty. With just two seniors (Alex Smith and Captain Ray Brice) and two experienced juniors (Justin Misiak and Greyson Reitmeier), the offensive burden will fall on the shoulders of sophomores and freshmen. Everyone is expecting second year winger Brian Halonen to be a major threat, but the reality of college hockey in this era is that anyone who stands out offensively is given extra attention every shift, and the stifling defense that Halonen is sure to see will be a sharp contrast with what he saw last season. There are other sophomores who could have a major impact—all of whom had bright moments, particularly in the first half of last year—including Tommy Parratino, TJ Polglaze, Trenton Bliss, and Alec Broetzman.
And then there’s this year freshman forward class. Alberta Junior League teammates Logan Ganie and Parker Sartesky were both point-a-game producers last season. Logan Pietila (there’s that name again) was less prolific but played in the higher-rated USHL and is considered to have real potential. With ten upperclassmen ahead of them, they are likely to be in a dogfight for game-day participation, let alone serious ice time.
Without question, the Huskies offensive output needs to improve. Can this group do it? You can’t expect to win 20 plus games and vie for an NCAA tournament slot if you score three or fewer goals most nights, because that’s what pulled the Huskies down in the second half of the 2018-19 season.
Finally, there’s the coaching staff. Joe Shawhan, bless his Yooper soul, is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. But he left the Old Dog scratching behind his ears on more than a few occasions last season with some of his comments about the Huskies locker room and with his lineup card roulette, particularly for the goalies. Assistants Chris Brooks and Dallas Steward are solid, and now that this staff has had two full seasons to work together, us fans (who always think we know as much as the coaches and are usually insanely delusional about that…) are expecting great things.
On paper, this year’s roster is intriguing. A ton of experience mixed with just five seniors, plus uncertainty about the offensive game, will make this a season worth watching. By the end of 2019 we should have a decent idea of where this team might be headed, and it could be for the NCAA tournament, or it could be off the tracks and into a ditch.
We’ll all just have to wait and see. But isn’t that why we watch?