As the 2021-22 NCAA hockey season creeps toward us, all semi-rabid Husky hockey fans are panting and pacing, just waiting for the puck to drop. While we are waiting, the Old Dog is taking a look at this year’s Michigan Tech roster. As we noted last week this is the largest roster that Tech has ever posted, with 19 forwards, 10 defensemen, and 3 goalies.
Last week, we discussed the crowded situation at forward. This week, we’ll address the rest of the team, starting with the defensemen. Once again, getting into games will be tough no matter what you’ve done before. To make sense of this unprecedented situation, we can divide these blue liners into three groups.
The IN CROWD
The Huskies will bring back a very solid crew on defense. Colin Swoyer, who improved tremendously last year and was a 2nd Team All-WCHA selection, could be the Top Dog. His senior class cohort Eric Gotz isn’t far behind. Gotz perhaps needs to be a bit more assertive in the offensive end to reach the next level. These two assistant captains will almost certainly be blue line anchors.
There are two more D-men who are just about a lock to play every night. Chris Lipe, who’s played in almost every game since he arrived in Houghton, will be a junior this year, and his skills and hockey sense could be better than anyone else on the back end.
Finally, grad transfer Michael Karow will have a rock-hard place on the roster if he can deliver as he has for the past four years at Boston College. At BC, Karow was their #1 defensive anchor, a shut-down guy who could be counted on to make life tough for the other team’s top line. Karow hails from Green Bay and has already played an incredible 131 NCAA games for the Eagles. Given the offensive talent in Hockey East, Karow should be on the lineup card every night.
The LIKELY GUYS
I’ve dubbed the next group the LIKELY GUYS— three players who could dress every night but will be competing for just two slots. This includes Brett Thorne, who had an outstanding freshman year and showed signs of becoming a formidable offensive defenseman, as well as Tyrell Buckley and big man Brendan Datema. Buckley was an unquestionable surprise last year, as he went from rarely dressing for games to playing (and usually very well) nearly every night. Datema had flashes of excellence last year and has an enormous upside on the power play with his booming slap shot. Datema, though, will have to improve in several categories if he expects to play more than against select opponents where his size will matter.
The GOTTA EARN IT Group
Finally, we have a group of players that GOTTA EARN IT. With seven defensemen in the first two groups, it’s going to be a rough sled trail for the remaining three defenders on the roster to see game time more than very occasionally. Jed Pietila has already spent a year with the Huskies, and he was unable to break into the lineup once last season. The Old Dog suspects he will be highly motivated to get some game time this year, but without any real experience in the NCAA yet, we’ll have to wait and see.
Tech has two incoming freshmen joining the defensive side of roster this year as well. Grant Docter was a Minnesota high school phenom who put up 91 points in 99 games there. He’s also posted 40 points in 56 games in one year in the NAHL and 15 points in 53 games in two years in the USHL. In two years in the NAHL, Trevor Russell had 42 assists and one goal in 105 games. To be very honest, these two young men will likely have their character tested this season because it’s going to be very difficult for them to see any game action unless Tech is hit with a rash of injuries.
In THE ICY NETS
With some stellar defensemen as regulars and a group of forwards who’ll have to work like Dogs on both ends of the ice if they want to stay in the good graces of coach Joe Shawhan, the Huskies’ goalies should be poised for an outstanding year.
That takes us to a discussion of Tech’s goaltending this year. Blake Pietila, Logan’s twin brother, surprised everyone (except, I suspect, himself) by becoming a top level college netminder in 2020-21. In 24 games last season, Pietila put up all-star numbers: a 14-9 win/loss record, a goals against average of 1.81 and a save percentage of .934. In the goaltender-rich world of last season’s WCHA, those weren’t enough to make the all-conference team but they are superb by any standard.
The presumed #2 guy, Mark Sinclair, saw action in 65 games at Alabama-Huntsville before transferring to Tech, and got into 8 games last year. It seemed to the Old Dog that Sinclair had a bit of difficulty adapting to playing behind a defensively-minded team instead of the porous Charger squads in Huntsville, where crazy shots poured in constantly and no one really expected a lock-down performance in the net. Nevertheless, he’s a solid college talent and, with his experience at this level, he’s a great backup to Pietila.
Finally, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for Cayden Bailey. Bailey was all-everything in the NAHL before joining the Huskies last year. With Pietila claiming the starter’s spot most nights, and Sinclair ready to step in whenever needed, Bailey was never able to get into a game. Like Jed Pietila, we can assume he’ll be working extraordinarily hard to change that scenario this year, but again, we’ll have to see how things unfold for Bailey.
No matter what, goaltender coach Jamie Philips will have a deep room to work with and Husky fans can expect top notch play in the crease every night. Any one of the keepers who falters will have someone right behind him ready to take advantage of any opportunity to shine.
The BIG PICTURE
There’s no doubt about Michigan Tech’s appearance on paper this coming season. They are loaded on the defensive side of the ledger. Based on previous performances, Tech fans would be justified in expressing disappointment if any other team scores more than three times in sixty minutes. The goaltending should be great and the defensive corps is experienced and deep.
Moreover, any defenseman who can help the forwards put the biscuit in the basket will likely earn more playing time.
Still, the math is simple. Ten defensemen and six spots on the lineup card. Three goalies and one crease.
As the investment industry says, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” For any Husky, whether on the ice, in industry, business or any other endeavor, the name of the game is what have you done for me lately?