Two years ago, I was sitting down and looking at the makeup of future UND teams.
I looked at the 2012-13 squad and said, “That team is going to be really, really good.”
I figured it would win the MacNaughton Cup. Figured they would be poised for a run at the national championship. Figured they might be just as dominant as the 2010-11 squad, and as long as they didn’t run into Shawn Hunwick, this would be the team to beat.
Who was going to compete with their depth?
Top line: Brock Nelson, Corban Knight, Danny Kristo.
Second line: Stefan Matteau, J.T. Miller, Rocco Grimaldi.
Third line: Mark MacMillan, Carter Rowney, Michael Parks.
Best line in college hockey? Heck, that may have been the best two lines in college hockey.
But then, some dominoes fell the wrong way.
Miller got drafted by the wrong team — one that wanted to sign him immediately. He signed and played for the New York Rangers this year.
Matteau, after repeatedly telling the staff (and others around the country) that he’s coming to UND, changed his mind to go play major juniors. He also signed out of high school and played for the New Jersey Devils this year.
Nelson, who most (myself included) thought would stay for his junior year, signed with the New York Islanders and played this season for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the AHL.
And with that, UND lost three first-round picks that were scheduled to be on this year’s team. That changes things.
They recruited Connor Gaarder and Bryn Chyzyk to fill Miller and Matteau’s spots late in the game. They are solid contributors, but they are not 6-foot-2, NHL-ready power forwards with soft hands.
Yes, losing players unexpectedly is the name of the game in this age of college hockey. That’s why everyone outside of UND has missed the NCAA tournament at least once in the last 10 years — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, Michigan… everyone. That’s why none of the above-mentioned teams have a shot at winning the title this year.
You have to adjust to it and move on without them. And UND did its best.
They were still a pretty good team this season. They were a post away from winning the MacNaughton Cup (remember the OT in Mankato?). Another post away from going to the Frozen Four (one of three posts, actually). Average teams don’t get that close to those achievements.
They still won 20 games, got home ice, got to the Final Five for the 11th straight year (when nobody else has been there more than two years in a row) and reached the NCAA tournament once again (winning a game there).
Considering all of that, you have to classify this team as a good team.
But they weren’t a great team.
What kept them from being great? It’s hard not to go back and look what was penciled in for this season.
After Nelson signed, UND never found a left winger for Knight and Kristo. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Just about everyone got a chance up there — Grimaldi, Rowney, Parks, Mark MacMillan, Mitch MacMillan, Brendan O’Donnell and Drake Caggiula. They even tried moving Kristo to his off wing and Player X to right wing. Nothing ever clicked the way Nelson did on that unit. Simply, UND was never able to replace him.
Interestingly, it didn’t really affect the production of Knight and Kristo; they were still two of the top scorers in the nation. But it’s scary to think that they might have been able to do even more with Nelson (or if someone else clicked).
They also seemed to have trouble finding the right mix for Grimaldi. He played left wing, right wing and center with a bunch of different players. Again, it’s hard not to look at the above-listed potential line combination with Grimaldi and Miller, who clicked on the same line for two years at the NTDP and dominated the World Under-18 tournament together in 2011.
I’m certain that the coaches and players don’t want to hear about Miller and Matteau. They moved on long ago without them, and they aren’t in the business of “what ifs.” They were happy with the team they had.
But there’s no denying that their de-commitments — and the loss of Nelson — had a big impact on this season. You can try to plan for guys to leave after three years in college (they were prepared for Aaron Dell’s early signing after last season), but there’s no way to plan for guys not showing up at the last minute, especially in this day and age when all the top players are committed years in advance. It can catch up to you.
As for the loss to Yale, it wasn’t for a “lack of heart” or a “lack of effort” or that they “didn’t want it.” Trust me, they wanted it bad. The team just didn’t play well enough to win. They certainly didn’t catch any breaks along the way (all three of UND’s posts went out, Yale’s one post went in, disallowed goal, etc.), but that’s beside the point, because UND didn’t play well enough against a Yale team that has NHL-bound players.
In the end, we saw a pretty good team this season with a very good senior class. But we were never able to see the exceptional team that the coaches had lined up for this year.