With the historic 2009-10 season set to begin Friday with a non-conference series against Air Force, the Bemidji State men's hockey team looks to build on the success of last season's Frozen Four run to achieve another championship season.
The coming season is historic on many fronts, bringing an end to a near 40-year era of hockey in the John Glas Fieldhouse. The season also is the last for College Hockey America, the conference the Beavers have called home for nearly their entire existence as a Division I program.
The Beavers are coming off an incredible 2008-09 season that saw the team capture the CHA regular season crown, the league playoff title and the NCAA Midwest Regional championship - earning a trip to the Frozen Four. The Beavers ended 20-16-1, saving their best for last by going 7-3 in their last 10 games.
Gone from the team via graduation are forwards Tyler Scofield, who led the team in goals (22) and ended second in points (39); Matt Francis (13-13--26); Brandon Marino (7-12--19); and Travis Winter (6-1--7). Francis and Scofield were two-thirds of the Beavers dynamic first line that generated 38 percent of the team's total offense.
On defense, rock solid Cody Bostock is gone as well. Bostock was a solid veteran who played great positional defense.
Major losses came in the goaltending department as the Beavers leading goalie last season, Matt Dalton, chose to sign a professional contract to forego his final two seasons of college eligibility. Also gone is Orlando Alamano, who served as a very capable back up.
As a result, the Beavers begin the season with major questions marks in goal and on offense.
"No doubt one of the big questions marks going into the season is scoring," said Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore. "Can we put together two lines that generate offense? We need to have some guys step up and fill the scoring we lost from Scofield and Francis, especially."
One forward who will be counted on heavily is junior Matt Read, the CHA Pre-season Player of the Year. Read paced the team in scoring last season with 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points.
"Read's one of the best players to come through our program," Serratore reported. "We need guys to surround him with; guys who can step up their play."
One group who will be leaned on will be the line of sophomore Shea Walters (4-11--15), sophomore Ben Kinne (8-7--15) and junior Ryan Cramer (2-4--6). The line played very well down the stretch last season and served as a major contributor to the Beaver's late season success.
Also looked upon to take on more of a scoring role this season will be sophomores Jamie MacQueen and Darcy Findlay, juniors Emil Bilberg and Ian Lowe, and seniors Chris McKelvie and Tyler Lehrke.
"MacQueen at times scores at will during practice," Serratore reported. "We're hoping as a sophomore that will start transferring more into game situations. Lowe can skate and has a quick release, plus he scored a lot of juniors." Bilberg will miss the early season after suffering a preseason injury that required knee surgery.
"We know Read will do his thing," Serratore reported. "After that we'll be looking for a bunch of guys to score eight to 10 goals each - kind of scoring by committee. That would take care of a lot of our concerns."
The second major question mark is in goal. With Dalton and Alamano gone, the Beavers face the reality of starting the season without a proven goaltender in the fold.
Back after a learning season will be sophomore Dan Bakala, who's only game experience last year came in exhibition play.
"Bakala is our No. 1 guy coming into the season," Serratore reported. "He's a very good athlete and a hard worker. In two exhibitions last year he played very well - we have confidence in him."
The Beavers have also brought in two new goalies - Travis Bosch and Mathieu Dugas.
"Bosch has a lot of experience in juniors with great stats," Serratore said. "He kind of plays like Dalton and knows how to stop the puck. Dugas is very athletic and very strong side to side. At times he's a little too aggressive, but we love his quickness.
"No doubt we'll be inexperienced in goal, but we'll throw them to the wolves and see who emerges as No. 1. It's the most valuable position - if a team is strong in goal typically it's a good team overall."
Without a doubt the strength of the Beavers comes on defense with six returnees coming back who saw extensive ice time last season. In addition the Beavers coaching staff is enthused with some first year players who will press strongly for ice time.
The talented returnees are headed by seniors Chris Peluso and Kyle Hardwick, junior Ryan Adams and sophomores Tyler Jundt and Brad Hunt. Hunt had a huge freshman season ending as the team's third leading scorer (9-23--32) and Serratore said he expects him to continue to improve with the sky the limit on how far he advances as a player.
"Peluso skates well and has good puck skills, while Hardwick is a warrior who can eat up a lot minutes," Serratore reported. "Adams played well in the national tournament and Jundt improved down the stretch last season as well."
The Beavers coaching staff is also enthused about newcomers Matt Carlson and Jake Areshenko.
"Carlson is 6-3, mobile and has a nasty streak to his game," Serratore reported. "Areshenko is also a bigger kid at 6-0, 200 who's 21 years old and physically ready to play. He's an athlete."
Additional freshmen to look for are forwards Jordan George, Aaron McLeod, Brance Orban and Matt Hartman. In addition, defenseman Brady Wacker also looks to contribute.
"We don't like to put undue pressure on our freshman players," Serratore reported. "You never know how long it's going to take them to adjust to playing at this level. As a group, these guys are a solid mix of quickness, speed and puck skills."
George has shown a lot of talent in the early going, Serratore reported.
"He skates, makes plays and is a pure hockey player. Like most of our freshmen, he needs to get stronger. Hartman brings a nice blend to this class at 6-0, 200. He has good size, strength and the ability to grind it out - more of a power forward type of player."
Can the Beavers repeat the magical run of 2008-09? The answer ultimately lies in the season ahead.
It all starts Friday.