The rookie class

Last offseason, the WCHA lost an amazing 17 underclassmen to the pros. Now that the regular season has come to an end in the pro ranks, it is interesting to look back on those players and see how their rookie seasons panned out.

Some had fantastic seasons. Others, you have to think, probably wish they would have stayed in school. More than half of the players who left never stepped foot in the NHL (9 of 17).

Europe-bound players (two)

Defenseman Kyle Peto (Mankato) and forward Rastislav Spirko (UND) went overseas to play. Neither had any illusion that they were going to make the NHL. Both left college for personal reasons. Spirko had 33 points in 54 games in Slovakia. Peto played in Finland, but recently moved back to the States to play in the ECHL.

AHL-only players (seven)

Seven of the 17 spent the entire season in the AHL. This was anticipated by goalie Jordan Parise (UND) and Kris Chucko (Minnesota). After scoring just four goals as a sophomore, a change of scenery might have been needed for Chucko, a former first-round pick. Parise was an older player and got a contract offer in a situation he liked.

As for the others, another year of college may have been beneficial.

Defenseman Brian Salcido (CC) posted a 7-20–27 line in 76 games, while forward Ryan Carter (Mankato) went 16-20–36. Both played for the Portland Pirates.

Defenseman Matt Smaby (UND) was 2-14–16 in 66 games for a Springfield team that finished with the second-worst record in the AHL. Forward Robbie Earl (Wisconsin) posted numbers of 12-18–30 in 67 games for the Toronto Marlies and forward Danny Irmen (Minnesota) had numbers of 17-20–37 in 80 games for Houston.

A taste of both (four)

Four players in the group started the season in the AHL, but were regulars in the NHL by season’s end.

Forward Ryan Potulny (Minnesota) played 35 games in the NHL for a terrible Flyers team, scoring 7 goals and adding 5 assists. Forwards Drew Stafford (UND), David Backes (Mankato) and Joe Pavelski (Wisconsin) all ended up playing more than 40 games in the top league.

Stafford, a Buffalo winger, and Pavelski, a San Jose center, are regulars on Stanley Cup playoff teams.

NHL from the start (four)

Four of the 17 players made NHL teams out of camp and stuck with the top squad throughout the season.

Forwards Travis Zajac (UND) and Paul Stastny (Denver) may have raised some eyebrows when they signed after their sophomore seasons, but both proved they were ready to go. Stastny had an unbelievable rookie season, tallying 78 points in 82 games for Colorado. He set an NHL rookie record for most consecutive games with a point. Zajac had 42 points in 80 games and was a regular on New Jersey’s second line.

Forward Phil Kessel (Minnesota) and defenseman Matt Carle (Denver) both played a couple games in the AHL during the middle of the season for different reasons, but still should be considered as NHLers for the entire season. Kessel, who had to battle a quick bout with testicular cancer, had 29 points in 70 games for the Boston Bruins. Carle, a key contributor on San Jose’s NHL playoff team, had 42 points in 77 games from the blue line.

Who made correct decisions? Who made wrong decisions? How big of an impact will the results of this class have on guys who are considering leaving this offseason? You tell me.

Finley aims to progress

We’ve all seen how tough the WCHA can be on freshmen defensemen.

Mike Commodore and Matt Greene were blue line regulars on Stanley Cup Finals teams last season and are representing their national teams at the World Championship this spring. When they were rookies at UND, both had their freshman moments. Erik Johnson was the first college hockey defenseman ever taken No. 1 overall in the NHL draft. He went to Minnesota and he, too, had his freshman moments.

It is one of the hardest positions to step into and make an impact. We’ve seen freshman forwards enter the league and tear it up. When’s the last time you saw that from a freshman defenseman? It doesn’t happen.

Now, imagine a high school senior trying to step in and play defense in college hockey’s top league. Scary thought? That’s the challenge Joe Finley had two seasons ago. Finley accelerated high school and entered UND when he should have been a senior. I think it is easy to forget that he should have been a rookie this season.

He was younger than most UND freshmen this season. He’ll be younger than at least one freshman next season.

There were groans about Finley from fans early in the season, but by the end, most of them subsided. He ended up leading the team in plus/minus and teammates singled him out as a guy who elevated his game during the stretch run.

Finley announced Wednesday that he is returning for his junior season. He keyed on two main reasons: he wants to win a national championship and he wants to continue to develop.

If you look at the pattern of some past big Sioux defensemen (Commodore, Greene, David Hale and Matt Smaby come to mind) — they all took a similar path. They had their growing pains as freshmen. They struggled at the start of their sophomore year, but were very strong by the end. And as juniors, they all were dominant enough to springboard into an NHL contract.

"Plenty of other guys who fit the mold that I’m trying to conform to have played in this program," Finley said. "My goal is to keep developing — puck handling… skating… I want to be building every day.

"From the beginning of the year to the end of the year, I think it was pretty evident that I was more comfortable on the ice. I’m looking to expand that role. You need to prove yourself that you can play in different situations. All in all, I think my development has come a long way."

Now the next challenge for Finley is to play like Commodore, Greene, Hale and Smaby did when they were juniors… even though he technically should be a sophomore.

Toews makes Team Canada

UND sophomore Jonathan Toews has been added to Canada’s roster for the World Championship, Hockey Canada announced today.

Toews is the only college player on Canada’s roster and one of two non-NHLers on the roster. He will suit up alongside former Sioux defenseman Mike Commodore.

Canada fell to Finland in an exhibition 4-2 yesterday. Toews scored one of Canada’s goals, while playing on a line with NHL All-Stars Shane Doan and Rick Nash. Doan raved about Toews’ play after the game.

Canada opens the tournament in Moscow on Saturday against Germany. The tournament runs through mid-May. Toews said he definitely will not make any decisions on whether he will sign with the Chicago Blackhawks or return to UND until he’s back from the World Championship.

Former Sioux players Brandon Bochenski and Matt Greene will compete for Team USA at the tournament.

Central Scouting releases final rankings

The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau released today its final rankings for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Here is a list of WCHA players (I don’t think I missed any, but if I did, let me know):

Top North American skaters

1. Kyle Turris, F, Wisconsin recruit
11. Ryan McDonagh, D, Wisconsin recruit
22. Mike Hoeffel, F, Minnesota recruit
23. Patrick White, F, Minnesota recruit
27. Billy Sweatt, F, Colorado College

38. Jim O’Brien, F, Minnesota
56. Nico Sacchetti, F, Minnesota recruit
57. Brad Malone, F, UND recruit
65. Jake Hansen, F, Minnesota recruit
68. Brendan Smith, D, Wisconsin recruit

75. Casey Pierro-Zabotel, F, Michigan Tech recruit
86. Drew Leblanc, F, St. Cloud State recruit
92. John Lee, D, Denver recruit
97. Travis Erstad, F, Wisconsin recruit
109. Nick Larson, F, Minnesota recruit

115. Matt Frattin, F, UND recruit
116. Ben Blood, D, UND recruit
118. Jordy Christian, F, St. Cloud State recruit
130. Taylor Mattson, F, Minnesota recruit
140. Tyler Kieffer, D, St. Cloud State recruit

144. Tyler Johnson, F, Colorado College recruit
145. Jason Gregoire, F, Denver recruit
176. Brandon Martell, D, Minnesota recruit
189. Cade Fairchild, D, Minnesota recruit
203. Brian Schack, D, Minnesota

Top North American goaltenders

5. Brad Eidsness, UND recruit

Or, if you prefer, here are the team-by-team list:

UND: F Brad Malone (57), F Matt Frattin (115), D Ben Blood (116), G Brad Eidsness (5G)

Wisconsin: F Kyle Turris (1), D Ryan McDonagh (11), D Brendan Smith (68), F Travis Erstad (97)

Minnesota: F Mike Hoeffel (22), F Patrick White (23), F Jim O’Brien (38), F Nico Sacchetti (56), F Jake Hansen (65), F Nick Larson (109), F Taylor Mattson (130), D Brandon Martell (176), D Cade Fairchild (189), D Brian Schack (203)

Colorado College: F Billy Sweatt (27), F Tyler Johnson (144)

Denver: D John Lee (92), F Jason Gregoire (145)

St. Cloud State: F Drew Leblac (86), F Jordy Christian (118)

Michigan Tech: F Casey Pierro-Zabotel (75)

Plays of the year

A week ago, I wrote about the top 10 storylines for the 2006-07 season in the print edition. Here are my top 10 plays of the year.

They are not ranked in order of importance, otherwise Chris Porter’s game-winning goal in the West Regional would have been No. 1. Instead, it is not on the list. I mainly focused on the play itself, and not the situation. There certainly wasn’t a shortage of plays to choose from. Thanks to YouTube users RedFrogND and flyckn, you can watch all but one of the top 10.

10. (tie) Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie score from behind the goal line. I took the easy way out of this one by picking a tie, but come on, they were kind of the same thing. Both are top line players. Both scored from behind the goal line. Both came in Denver. Duncan did it with his forehand, banking the puck off DU’s Peter Mannino. Oshie’s came against Michigan when a long rebound bounced off the back wall to his backhand. His quick shot hit the outside of the net and then the goalie before going in. YouTube version of Oshie’s goal — 4:50 mark.

9. T.J. Oshie roofs a backhand from deep in the slot against Mankato. Oshie made a toe drag to get around a Mankato defenseman and roofed a sharp backhand over the goaltender’s left shoulder from deep in the slot. I can’t remember the last time I saw a player go top shelf with a backhand from that far out. YouTube version — :10 mark.

8. Jonathan Toews burns Nick Canzanello. One of several Mankato defensemen that got burned by Toews this season. On this play, Toews danced around Canzanello to the inside before getting off a shot and scoring.

7. Rylan Kaip KOs Anchorage captain Chad Anderson. Despite not fighting in three years and giving up a few inches, Kaip hammered Anderson and sparked the Sioux to a home win. Afterward, the Sioux said Kaip picked a good time to drop the gloves and applauded him for his effort. YouTube version.

6. T.J. Oshie checks 6-foot-7 Maine defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin completely over the boards. In one of the few highlights from the Maine series, Oshie drilled Danis-Pepin near the Sioux bench. The Black Bear player flipped over the boards and rolled into the tunnel to UND’s locker room. Months later, the play still received a huge ovation from fans every time it was shown. YouTube version — :28 mark.

5. Jonathan Toews walks Mankato’s R.J. Linder. Even more impressive than the play against Canzanello, Toews entered the zone with speed and burned around Linder to the outside. He cut back toward the net just in time and buried his shot between the goaltender’s legs. YouTube version — :26 mark.

4. Philippe Lamoureux makes a cartwheel save against Boston College. BC forward Nate Gerbe had Lamoureux down and out of position. Right when he fired the puck top shelf for the sure goal, Lamoureux kicked his legs up in the air and got the puck. It was ESPN’s No. 1 play of the day. YouTube version.

3. Ryan Duncan burns Duluth’s Bryan McGregor. The most impressive play of the season for the Hobey Baker winner came when he entered the zone 2-on-2. Duncan did a toe drag to get around McGregor, who stumbled to the ground because of the move. Then Duncan avoided a poke check from the goaltender and slammed the puck five-hole for the goal. YouTube version – 3:02 mark.

2. T.J. Oshie sets up a goal from his back. In a play that brought back memories of Alexander Ovechkin’s goal from his back, Oshie made an unbelievable setup. Streaking down the left wing, Oshie pushed the puck to the inside of Denver captain Adrian Veideman and skated around the outside. He got past the defenseman, but tripped and fell down shortly after. While on his back, he took a whack and the puck and sent it across the slot, right on the stick of Ryan Duncan, who finished the play. YouTube version — 3:01 mark.

1. Robbie Bina scores from 170 feet away. While on the penalty kill against Minnesota, Bina flipped the puck the length of the ice. It bounced three times and on the third hop, it jumped past Gopher goalie Jeff Frazee. The play has been viewed by more than 200,000 on YouTube and was the No. 1 play of the day on SportsCenter. YouTube version.

How would you change the list? Did I forget any plays? Let me hear it.

Playoff updates, etc.

Three former UND players have advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and the New Jersey Devils eliminated Tampa Bay on Sunday. Drew Stafford and the Buffalo Sabres also have advanced.

Parise still leads the NHL in playoff goals with six. Zajac had a strong game Sunday, setting up teammates for some great chances and he was applauded by analysis for a big shot block in the closing seconds.

New Jersey plays Ottawa in the second round and Buffalo will play the New York Rangers.

*****

A few former Sioux are in the Calder Cup playoffs in the AHL.

The Manitoba Moose take center stage. Not only is Winnipeg the closest geographically to North Dakota, the Moose have three former Sioux in the locker room — assistant coach Brad Berry and forwards Lee Goren and Colby Genoway. The Moose are tied 1-1 with Grand Rapids. Manitoba’s win came in a 1-0 Game 1 decision in which Goren scored the lone goal.

Ryan Bayda has three goals in three games for Albany, which trails Hershey 2-1.

Karl Goehring’s Milwaukee Admirals are down 2-0 to Chicago. Goehring hasn’t played yet in the playoffs.

*****

In the CHL playoffs, three former Sioux are still alive.

With his team trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven quarterfinal series, Mike Prpich tallied a hat trick to force a Game 7 for New Mexico.

Colorado, led by Aaron Schneekloth and Brad Williamson, is up 3-2 in its quarterfinal series.

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Russia beat Team USA 6-5 to win the IIHF Under-18 World Championship.

The Americans swept the Directorate Awards at the tournament. James vanRiemsdyk (New Hampshire recruit) was named the best forward; Kevin Shattenkirk (BU recruit) was named best defenseman; and Josh Unice (Bowling Green recruit) was named best goaltender. Unice, you may remember, played against the Sioux in December as the goalie for the U.S. Under-18 team.

Gopher recruit Jordan Schroeder, the youngest player on the American team and one of the youngest in the tournament, finished third in overall scoring. He trailed two teammates — vanRiemsdyk and BU recruit Colin Wilson.

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In less encouraging news for Minnesota, people in the Cities say Gopher forward Kyle Okposo has made it clear that he intends to sign with the New York Islanders.

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USHL playoff update:

Omaha, which features Sioux recruits Brett Bruneteau and Jake Marto, has fallen behind 3-0 in its first-round series with Des Moines. Marto has two assists in three games. Derrick LaPoint’s Green Bay Gamblers also have fallen behind 3-0 in their series with Indiana.

Brad Malone and Sioux Falls are up 3-0 in their series against Lincoln, which is coached by former UND standout Steve Johnson.

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NAHL playoff update:

The U.S. Under-17 team, which features Sioux recruit Danny Kristo, was swept by Mahoning Valley in the second round of the playoffs.

Apologies and news

The Herald made a mistake in this online story this afternoon.

Because I was out of the office covering baseball games, I do not know the details of what exactly happened, but I can say it was an honest mistake by the writer. It was corrected as soon as possible.

The Herald apologizes to everyone for the mistake. I have talked to Jonathan about it, too, and he was understanding and very classy as always.

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Toews will leave Sunday for Finland and the Team Canada World Championship camp. It will last from April 23 to April 26. TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that Toews has a shot at making the roster. The rosters should be finalized soon as the first round of the NHL playoffs come to an end. The World Championships will be played in Moscow from April 27 to May 13. Toews won’t be making any decisions on his future until he’s back from overseas.

*****

The signing period opened last week and letters of intent should be rolling onto campus soon. We all know who the future signees are already. Once UND knows exactly who is staying and who is leaving, the coaches will decide on which freshmen will be on campus in the fall.

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Drew Stafford scored his first NHL playoff goal Friday night with a backhand from the slot. In bigger news, Zach Parise actually did not score for New Jersey on Friday.

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In the World Under-18 tournament, USA and Canada met in the semifinals, just like they did in the World Junior Championship (U20). Like the WJC, the game went to a shootout. This time, however, it was James vanRiemsdyk (New Hampshire recruit) and the Americans who won it.

Team USA will play Team Russia for the gold medal Sunday. It’s the fourth consecutive gold-medal game for the Americans at the U18 tournament. Future Gopher Jordan Schroeder and current Gopher Jim O’Brien are both having great tournaments for Team USA.

Toews invited to Finland

UND forward Jonathan Toews will participate in Team Canada’s pre-World Championship camp in Finland, Hockey Canada announced today.

Toews is one of seven players who will help Team Canada prepare for the tournament. Of the seven, Toews is the only who will be flown from overseas and he is the only non-professional.

The camp will run from April 23-26. The tournament runs from April 27 to May 13.

TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie reported that Toews also has a shot at making the World Championship squad.

Former Sioux standout Mike Commodore already has been picked for the Canadian squad. Former UNDers Brandon Bochenski and Matt Greene will play for Team USA. Both teams will finalize their rosters after the first round of the NHL playoffs, when they can make additions from teams that get knocked out.

Random Thursday

Wednesday night was big for former Sioux in the NHL playoffs. Drew Stafford had an assist for Buffalo. Jason Blake had a goal for the Islanders. Travis Zajac had two assists for New Jersey.

And Zach Parise continues to tear it up for the Devils. Parise scored two more goals and now has six in four playoff games. He’s the leading goal scorer in the NHL playoffs. The Star-Ledger’s Rich Chere discusses the historical impact of what Parise is doing in an article.

Parise’s Devils are tied 2-2 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay has been playing forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis for an unbelievable 25 minutes per game. People have been wondering what New Jersey was going to do for an answer. CBC broadcasters said tonight that the Devils have found an answer — Parise.

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The WCHA will have its ninth early departure today when Minnesota defenseman Erik Johnson signs with St. Louis. This move is hardly a surprise, as Johnson and the Blues said last summer that he would play for one season at Minnesota. During his time there, Johnson did nothing to indicate he planned on staying longer. The biggest surprise may be that Johnson didn’t sign and join St. Louis for the last two weeks of the season.

Now, Minnesota will await word from forward Kyle Okposo and defenseman Alex Goligoski. The Star Tribune reported last week that Okposo is looking to sign with the New York Islanders, but the pro team feels he would be best served by spending another season at Minnesota.

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UND defenseman Joe Finley is in Hershey, Penn., watching Hershey’s first-round playoff series. Hershey is the AHL affiliate of Washington, which drafted Finley in the first round of the 2005 draft. Finley is expected to make a decision on his future shortly after he returns.

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Recruiting playoff updates:

Matt Frattin’s Fort Saskatchewan Traders were eliminated in the AJHL finals.

Danny Kristo’s Under-17 team swept Alpena in the first round of the NAHL playoffs. Now, they are going against Mahoning Valley, which is up 1-0 in the series. The teams play at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mahoning Valley. You can catch those on webcast here.

The USHL playoffs got underway this week. Omaha, led by recruits Brett Bruneteau and Jake Marto, will play Des Moines in the first round. Green Bay, led by Derrick LaPoint, will play Indiana in the first round. And Sioux Falls, led by Brad Malone, will play Lincoln in the first round.

Like last summer, I plan to catch up with most of the recruits during the summer for Q&As. Look for some of those to start coming soon.

Shots from fans

As I said in an earlier blog, members of the Sioux team met Ryan Duncan at the airport when he got home from winning the Hobey Baker Award. Van Larson was at the airport when this happened, snapped some photos and was kind enough to send them in and allow me to post them. Also, everyone’s favorite blog troll sent a photo from the West Regional in Denver.

Enjoy.

Picture 1: Andrew Kozek seeks out the celebrity. Matt Watkins looks on.

The players look at the Saturday Herald. From left: Andrew Kozek, Jonathan Toews, Chay Genoway, Joe Finley, Darcy Zajac, Ryan Duncan and Chris VandeVelde.

The team poses for a shot with the special edition of the Herald. From left: Taylor Chorney, Dave Hakstol, T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Joe Finley, Matt Watkins, Ryan Duncan, Zach Jones, Darcy Zajac, Andrew Kozek (in front), Chris VandeVelde and Chay Genoway.

And from Denver, the team gives the final stick salute of the season.