New season, fresh start: Amid changing college hockey landscape, Bemidji State hopes to erase memories of rough 2013
BEMIDJI — For much of the past two years, it seemed like Bemidji State was stuck in time, watching the rest of the college hockey world transform around it.
The Beavers watched as teams broke away from the Western and Central Collegiate Hockey Associations to form two all-new conferences.
They waited as the WCHA extended invitations to those leftover from the CCHA’s demise.
They even helped the league extend a hand to former conference foe Alabama-Huntsville.
So, while the rest of college hockey has transformed around it, the view for Tom Serratore and the BSU hockey program looks… eerily similar than it did before.
“From a competitive standpoint, not much has changed for us,” Serratore said. “Our league is still going to be tremendously competitive from top-to-bottom. It’s no different than the old WCHA.
“And in the nonconference we’re basically playing the same teams we did before.”
Indeed, pick up BSU’s schedule this season and one might mistake it for a Beaver schedule circa 2010 — their first year in the league.
St. Cloud State, North Dakota and Minnesota all make appearances on the slate despite no longer belonging to the WCHA.
The nostalgia might wear off quickly.
The Beavers travel to St. Cloud State this weekend for a nonconference series against their former conference foe. The puck drops at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday. The Huskies won the McNaughton Cup last season and made their first-ever Frozen Four appearance.
This season, they joined five other former WCHA teams plus two from the CCHA to form the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
It’s a daunting challenge for a Beaver squad that lost nine seniors from a disappointing 2012-13 season that saw BSU finish 6-22-8 overall and 5-16-7 in the conference.
“It’s tough,” Serratore said. “But the schedule is the schedule. I mean, if you have the choice would you want to open up with (St. Cloud State)? The answer is probably no, but you don’t have a choice. You have to take them on right away.”
All four of BSU’s nonconference opponents (SCSU, Minnesota, UND and Miami) were ranked in the top ten in the USCHO.com preseason poll.
“It will be a very good indication of where we’re at and how much work we need to do,” Serratore said.
In addition to losing nine seniors from last year’s squad the Beavers have added 10 new players — nine freshmen and a transfer. The returners scored just 35 of the team’s 74 goals. Sophomore Cory Ward had nine as a freshman and is the team’s returning leader in goals.
In other words, Serratore says it’s the youngest team he’s ever had.
“It’s been a rat race,” he said. “We have 10 players. The whole complexion has changed when you lose nine guys and bring in 10. It’s a big learning curve. The college game is a lot more complex.
“But I think it’s gone pretty smoothly in the early going. Their work ethic is good, which is a testament to the leadership of the upper classmen.”
This year, junior defenseman Matt Prapavessis was named captain while seniors Matt Hartmann and Jeff Jubinville were elected alternates.
Prapavessis said he likes how the team returned from summer. They recognize it wasn’t up to normal BSU standards and are doing all they can to change that.
“It’s been a long summer after a kind of disappointing year so we’re looking forward to get after it,” he said. “We want to start winning some games.
“We want to be in the top of the standings. It’s going to be different since the forces from the past are in a different league. But it’s still going to be a battle.”
If there’s one thing that will help BSU win games in the new-look WCHA, it’s a tough defense.
The consensus from league coaches seems to be that while teams may not have the same kind of scoring punch that existed in the old league, defense will be the name of the game.
“It’s going to be a defensive battle every night,” Prapavessis said. “We don’t want to lose that. We always take pride in our defensive game.”
During a leaguewide conference call with coaches and media in September, Serratore echoed many coaches, saying he thinks the Beavers will be offensively challenged but strong behind the blue line.
“Those are going to be our main strengths,” he said. “Andrew Walsh was very good for us last year. He played especially well at the end of the year. We’ll have to rely on our defensive core, rely on Walshie.”
Walsh, a junior from Dawson Creek, B.C., returns in net with his 2.65 goals against average and .916 save percentage. He saw a lot of time at the end of the season and often kept the Beavers in games they may have been out of early with a lesser goaltender.
Prapavessis returns to anchor the defense as well as the penalty kill and a strong power play. The Beavers also expect big things from returners Sam Rendle, Sam Windle and Graeme McCormick.
Offensively, BSU might struggle early to find its footing.
Ward returns, as do proven scorers Radoslav Illo, Danny Mattson and Jeff Jubinville. But the Beavers will need to find contributions from players who were third-and-fourth liners last season. And Serratore is adamant the freshman class will get a chance to show what they can do early.
“We’ve already inserted some younger guys into key roles, so we’ll see what happens,” Serratore said. “We’re still trying to get a good look. But there’s no question, these young guys have to play. Some guys are going to be playing some significant roles, and will be seeing some significant minutes.”
Time will tell how this new group comes together in the new WCHA. But the Beavers, like most in the college hockey world, think the new league will be more competitive.
Can they keep up?
“I think it will be good for us,” Prapavessis said. “Playing top teams will only make us better. We’ll be ready to play someone tough every week.”