By Michael Caples -
Our college hockey team previews begin with the team that made a run at a national championship last season. Now the question is simple – can the Bulldogs repeat?
Not much was expected to come out of Big Rapids last season, at least not by the people outside of the Ferris State locker room. Those people – myself included – were dead wrong. Ferris State put together a season that will long be remembered. A CCHA regular-season championship and the team’s first trip to both the Frozen Four and the NCAA title game captivated the hockey people of Michigan, and rightfully so. And despite falling to perennial power Boston College in the final, the Bulldogs have plenty to celebrate from the 2011-12 season. However, with the conclusion of each season comes turnover, and the Bulldogs were not immune. Fan favorite Chad Billins is now a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins, while goaltender Taylor Nelson is now a member of the AHL’s Worcester Sharks.
The NCAA title game appearance is just the cherry on top of a highly successful career for Bob Daniels. The longtime coach will start his 21st season behind the Ferris State bench this fall, and he will continue building on his school record for wins. The 2011-12 CCHA Coach of the Year (he was a finalist the year before, too) continues to maintain a top-level program in Big Rapids, with no signs of slowing down. Last season, he coached the Bulldogs to a 23-11-5 overall record, and a 16-7-5 mark in conference play.
And it is a good thing the Bulldogs have a coach like Daniels behind the bench this season. As is the case with many collegiate teams that experience high levels of success, there’s now a lot of turnover on the roster. At a quick glance, there are glaring omissions at each position. Leading scorer Jordie Johnston has graduated. As has Billins, the top defenseman. And as mentioned earlier, Nelson has concluded his collegiate career as well. But then when you dig a little deeper, you will realize that the Bulldogs not only lost Billins, but four other defensemen who played significant minutes for the Bulldogs – Derek Graham, Michael Trebush, Brett Wysopal, and Tommy Hill. That means a steep learning curve for freshmen defensemen Zach Dorer, Connor Schmidt, Brandon Anselmini, and Sean O’Rourke. Freshman goaltender Charles Williams will become the understudy for C.J. Motte, who played in 12 games last year for the Bulldogs. The club also added forward Dakota Klecha, Kenny Babinski, and Matt Robertson.
If the water bottle is half full…
You don’t reach the NCAA title game without a talented roster from top to bottom. The Bulldogs experienced a great deal of success last season, which will mean confidence and experience for this year’s group of guys. They will have a strong senior class in forwards Kyle Bonis, Matthew Kirzinger, Eric Alexander, and Travis Ouellette. Motte, a native of St. Clair, posted a 1.98 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in his 12 starts last season. With a season under his belt, he should be ready to take over between the pipes for Nelson.
If the water bottle is half empty…
The losses will just be too much to overcome for the Bulldogs. A loss of five defensemen that played in a significant number of games for Ferris State last season is a major, major hole, and filling it will take time for Daniels and Co. They are also losing 20 goals and 36 points from Johnston, and 29 points from Billins; which is a lot of scoring for a team who averaged less than three goals per game last season. The Bulldogs will struggle to play shutdown defense and win close games the way they did last season with inexperience from the blue line down.
The Bulldogs will need more scoring out of Kirzinger. The now-senior right winger was second on the team in scoring behind only Johnston last season; now he will have to be the big man on campus. The Leroy, Saskatchewan native isn’t the biggest player on the Bulldogs’ roster – he checks in at 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds – but he has the offensive skillset necessary for big numbers in the CCHA. Expect him to build on the 10 goals and 24 assists from 2011-12 if the Bulldogs hope to have another successful season.
Motte will have to be the difference-maker for the Bulldogs. As Ferris State breaks in a practically brand-new defensive corps, there’s going to be some mistakes. And that means a goaltender hung out to dry. If Motte, a NAHL and USHL alum, can steal a few games for the Bulldogs, they can once again make some noise in the CCHA standings. If he falters, it might not be a repeat of a Cinderella-like season.
From the CCHA preseason synopsis:
Head Coach: Bob Daniels (21st season)
2011-12 Overall Record: 26-12-5
2011-12 Conference Record: 16-7-5-1 (1st)
Letter-winners Returning/Lost: Team – 18/8; Forwards – 12/4, Defense – 4/3, Goalies – 2/1
Key Returnees: Kyle Bonis, SR, Fr (19-11-30); Matthew Kirzinger, SR, F (10-24-34); C.J. Motte, SO, G (5-5-2, 1.98 GAA, .925 Spct.); Travis Ouellette, SR, F (9-15-24); Garrett Thompson, JR, F (11-12-23)
Key Losses: Chad Billins, D (7-22-29); Jordie Johnston, F (20-16-36); Taylor Nelson, G (21-7-3, 2.10 GAA, .924 Spct.)
NHL Draft Picks: 0
Impact Freshmen: Matt Robertson, F, Smiths Falls (CCHL); Connor Schmidt, D, Des Moines (USHL); Charles Williams, G, Lincoln (USHL)
Noteworthy: Last season marked the first time in school history that any team from Ferris State competed in a national championship game. The Bulldogs went 26-12-5 in the 2011-12 campaign, the second most wins in a season in program history.