‘Constant growth’ but the focus has already shifted to next season; Omaha Hockey year-end wrap-up

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Chayse Primeau scored a career-high nine goals and 23 points this season and was named to the NCHC All-Conference Second Team. Photo courtesy of Mark Kuhlmann.

Well… We made it. When players reported to campus in the late summer months of 2020, nobody knew what this season would look like, if there would be one at all. It wasn’t an easy task for anyone involved, but 10 games in a Pod, 25 games against NCHC opponents and the fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in Omaha program history later, the 2020-21 season is in the books.

‘Constant growth’

It’s a term that head coach Mike Gabinet has used repeatedly this season, but it’s one he feels sums up his group perfectly. Especially when you consider the record his team put together with the challenges they faced.

Look up and down the lineup and several guys took a step in the right direction this season.

“I think there’s been constant growth throughout the season,” Gabinet said. “I think you’ve seen older players develop and raise their game throughout the year, you’ve seen younger players develop, and you’ve seen the team come together. When you see your schedule at the start of the year it’s a little bit overwhelming, but I thought we did a nice job of staying in the moment and taking things one step at a time.”

Prime year for Primeau

Second Team All-Conference, leading scorer, Hobey Baker nomination- the list keeps going. It’s all part of the junior year Chayse Primeau put together.

“I thought Chayse took his practice habits, his compete level and his strength training to another level this season, and I think it directly resulted in the offensive production you saw him have,” Gabinet said. ”When you go from a sophomore to a junior, the expectation is you’re going to take that next step, and he did a tremendous job with that.

“Really happy for him and we’re looking for him to take another step in his senior season.”

As a freshman, Primeau put up just a 3-3-6 line across 25 games. He followed it up with 8-12-20 in 36 games as a sophomore. However, the big jump came this season, as Primeau was arguably the Mavericks most consistent forward throughout all 26 games.

Primeau set career highs in goals (9), assists (14) and points (23), which tied Tyler Weiss for the team lead. He also posted a career-best .513 faceoff win percentage.

After starting the year at the bottom of the lineup, Primeau moved up to a line between Weiss and Taylor Ward and the trio were never separated. That line became the Mavericks biggest offensive threat over the remaining 20 games as the three combined for 29 goals and 68 points.

 Potential for more

When Jonny Tychonick transferred to Omaha last April, many expected the 2018 second-round pick to have an offensive breakout in his first season with the Mavericks. However, those numbers didn’t come.

Through the first 10 games, Tychonick only generated two points. Turnovers were also a glaring issue and it seemed as if the North Dakota transfer was trying to force the play at times.

However, the defenseman started to turn the corner in the second half and played some of his best hockey of the season down the stretch.

“I think Jonny would be the first one to tell you it was frustrating at the start and then he got sick at the Christmas break and missed some time,” Gabinet said. “But I thought he really started to play some good hockey in the second half. Similar to some of our other upperclassmen, I think he’s got another level in his game he needs to find.

“It starts with having a great summer and getting stronger so he can handle those big minutes. He sure took some steps in the right direction for us and I think he’s going to have a real successful season next year.”

Next season starts now

Although there might not be any games on the calendar until October, the job doesn’t stop behind the scenes. The past two weeks for the head coach have been filled with exit interviews with the current members of his roster and conversations with his staff. The focus has quickly shifted to next year and beyond.

Transfer portal

College hockey has almost started to look like NHL free agency with the number of players on the move in recent weeks. With over 200 players currently in the portal, there are several intriguing options to follow. In the two weeks since the season-ending loss to Minnesota though, Gabinet and his staff have already been active.

The Mavericks have already seen five members of this year’s roster enter their name in the portal. Forwards Josh Boyer, Travis Kothenbeutel and Noah Prokop, along with Alex Roy and John Schuldt on the blueline. Boyer has already transferred to St. Lawrence, where he’ll be immediately eligible next season.

Gabinet said he’s unsure how much roster turnover there will be next season. However, the Mavericks did add a player since then with Minnesota senior forward Brannon McManus.

A 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-handed shot, McManus received interest from multiple schools around the country, but ultimately chose Omaha. In his four seasons at Minnesota, McManus put up 39-48-87 over 136 career games. That includes 9-16-25 this year. Before joining the Gophers, he also spent parts of two seasons with the Lancers, so he’s no stranger to Omaha.

It’s an intriguing addition for an Omaha team that could use another right-shot, point-producing winger. However, it does raise the question of how this will impact the lineup next season. Especially if Kevin Conley and Martin Sundberg both return next season, there are currently no openings at forward. That doesn’t even include the group of freshmen that will be coming in next season.

If recent history is any indication, this shouldn’t be a surprise as the Omaha staff hasn’t been afraid to dip into the transfer portal and grab a player. They might not be done yet either. McManus joins Conley, Tychonick, Jack Randl and Nate Knoepke as the latest to do so.

Develop on defense

It’s one of the biggest question marks surrounding this roster heading into next season, how can Omaha’s young defensive core continue to develop?

The Mavericks actually gave up more goals (3.1) and shots against (32.6) this season than they did in 2019-20 (3.0 and 30.8 respectively). Also surprisingly, Omaha skaters combined for a -12 plus/minus rating compared to a +15 plus/minus in 2019-20. Of that plus/minus total, the defensive core combined for a -5 rating compared to a +7 last season.

Omaha defensemen did combine for 208 blocked shots and were able to limit opposing chances, especially on the penalty kill. Now they’ll need to build on it.

“I think that’s probably our biggest room for growth heading into next year,” Gabinet said. “When you look at the top teams in our conference, they have a really solid 1-4 or even 1-6 in their defense core, so I think that’s an area for us to keep developing and keep growing.”

Sophomore Kirby Proctor and freshman Nolan Krenzen both took strides forward this season. They’re both still young at just 19. Brandon Scanlin has blossomed into one of the top defensive prospects in the NCHC and he’s still just a sophomore.

Tychonick was a second-round pick for a reason and when you throw freshman Jake Harrison into the mix too, there are reasons to be optimistic.

Building blocks

After having a freshmen class with 12 players in 2019-20, six freshmen hit the ice for Omaha this season. Krenzen and Harrison appeared in 21 and 10 games respectively on defense, while three others were regular contributors up front.

Matt Miller skated in all 26 games and was fourth on the team with eight goals. Brock Bremer posted a 6-7-13 line, while Jimmy Glynn had 2-5-7. Those two also skated in 25 of the 26 games this season.

The final member of that group is Kaden Bohlsen, who was limited to just three games due to injury. Bohlsen put up 13-19-32 in 44 games with Fargo (USHL) one year before.

“Kaden was injured for pretty much 80 percent of this year, and I think he might be one of the least talked about guys of that group, so I’m excited to see him play for a full season as well,” Gabinet said. “But I just love all four of those guys. First off, they’re extremely hard workers and great individuals, but they’re also talented players. I know they’re going to put the work in this summer and they’re going to be a big part of our future here.”

What could the 2021-22 roster look like?

There’s already been one departure with Boyer heading to St. Lawrence and it’s almost certain the four others in the portal will also move on. But are more on the way? Omaha’s three seniors (Conley, Knoepke and Sundberg) are still deciding on what’s next, but they all hope to make their decision soon. Conley has continued skating in Omaha since the season ended and it would surely be a boost if the captain opts to return next year.

As far as the depth chart and who’s coming back, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Omaha roster loses at least one more player to the transfer portal, if not more. Much of the latter will depend on who returns.

There’s also the potential of losing someone to a pro contract. Primeau and Scanlin have both found themselves listed amongst the top potential undrafted college free agents to sign this year and have had scouts watching since the Pod. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see either of the two make the jump.

At 6-foot-4 and as smooth of a skater as he is, it’s hard for scouts to miss the potential based on Scanlin’s size alone. He’s had at least two Eastern Conference teams in pursuit this season, but it’s unknown to what extent. Scanlin has been one of the Mavericks most reliable and smartest players at both ends of the ice the past two seasons.

As for Primeau, there’s also been interest, he’s still contemplating his plans for next season. His brother Cayden is currently a goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens and his father, Keith, played 909 NHL games, so he’s no stranger to the professional game.

As of now, Gabinet is still unsure what his incoming 2021 class will look like. With everyone receiving an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, it ultimately comes down to a numbers game, but he hopes to have his class finalized soon. Here’s a list of the current verbal commits fans could potentially see in the fall.

Award season

The team will announce individual awards in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, here are some predictions.

Outstanding Forward: Chayse Primeau

Primeau set career highs in goals (9), assists (14) and points (23) this season and was the Mavericks best forward on a nightly basis. Although Weiss and Ward were also a big part of that line, there’s not much debate when it comes to this one.

Outstanding Defenseman: Brandon Scanlin

Scanlin also set career highs in assists (15) and points (17) this season and was the Mavericks most reliable defenseman on a nightly basis. The sophomore played in 24 games and had multiple assists in three of them. He was elevated to the top power play early in the season and picked up nine assists on that unit. Scanlin also blocked 21 shots. 

Outstanding Goaltender: Isaiah Saville

This one doesn’t need much explaining. Saville compiled a 12-11-1 record and started 24 of the Mavericks 26 games. Saville finished the season with a 3.03 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage. He also had one shutout.

Rookie of the Year: Matt Miller

Although Bremer matched Miller’s point total of 13, when you look at the season overall, Miller is the choice. Five of Bremer’s 13 points also came in one game. Miller skated in all 26 games this season and was an effective player at both ends. He was also involved with both units on special teams.

Most consistent player: Kevin Conley

Yes this award is intended for the player with the best plus/minus rating on the roster, but Conley actually finished the season with the worst rating on the team at -9. However, it’s hard not to recognize what Conley brings to the lineup on a nightly basis- speed and a player that’s going to lead by example. Conley scored nine goals, three of them being game-winners, and added 10 assists this season. Four of those also came on the power play.

 Most Improved Player: Martin Sundberg

There are several options for this pick. Primeau and Scanlin built off a solid 2019-20 campaign. Nolan Krenzen and Brock Bremer also both made noticeable improvements throughout their first season, along with multiple others. Sundberg scored a career-high six goals this season and was a +7, however, this one goes beyond the numbers. Especially early in the season, the Swede looked like an entirely new player and made up a very effective line with Randl and Nolan Sullivan. Sundberg’s game took a significant step forward.

Most Valuable Player: Isaiah Saville

This pick went back-and-forth between Saville and Primeau multiple times as both have earned it. Although Primeau’s point production and play at center were a big part of the Mavericks success this season, at the end of the day, it comes down to who’s the most valuable to their team. This season Saville showed how important he really is as the Mavericks often relied on his play between the pipes.

The sophomore stopped 661 of the 729 pucks fired his way this season and came up with several timely saves when called upon. When Saville is on his game you could argue he’s one of, if not the top goaltender in the NCHC. Similar to the most improved, there are multiple options to pick from here.

These and all other team awards will be announced at a later date.

21 numbers from the 20-21 season

  • One: The Mavericks were only swept once this season (Feb. 19 and 20 at UND). Albeit a shorter and different schedule, it’s just the second time in program history an Omaha team has made it through the regular season only being swept once. The 2014-15 team was the first.
  • Two: The number of short-handed goals the Mavericks scored against Colorado College on Dec. 9, which tied the program single-game record.
  • Three: The number of Mavericks who had over 20 points this season (Primeau, Ward, Weiss). Primeau and Weiss averaged nearly a point per game.
  • Four: The Mavericks picked up four overtime wins this season. That tied Penn State and Army for the most in the country.
  • Five: Brock Bremer (Feb. 12) and Jason Smallidge (Dec. 3) both tied an Omaha single-game record with five points. Smallidge and Nate Knoepke were both a +5 in that Dec. 3 game, which also tied the program’s single-game record.
  • Six: Six Mavericks set career highs in goals this season (Knoepke, Primeau, Proctor, Randl, Sundberg and Weiss).
  • Seven: The Mavericks played just seven true home games this season. That’s the fewest in program history.
  • Eight: The number of one-goal games the Mavericks won this season. Omaha was 8-2-0 in that department.
  • Nine: Nine of Brandon Scanlin’s 15 assists came on the power play. The defenseman led the Mavericks in power play points.
  • 10: The Mavericks scored 10 goals against Western Michigan on Dec. 3, which was the second-highest single-game goal total in program history.
  • 11: Of their 14 wins this season, the Mavericks scored first in 11 of them.
  • 13: The number of games the Mavericks played against ranked opponents this season (UND 6, UMD 2, Denver 2, SCSU 1, WMU 1, Minnesota 1).
  • 14: The Mavericks recorded their most conference wins (14) since joining the NCHC. It was also the most conference wins since the 2012-13 season.
  • 15: The number of consecutive weeks Omaha has been ranked. Five of those were spent in the top 10.
  • 50: The Omaha penalty kill unit put together a streak of 50 consecutive kills earlier this season. The previous program record was 29 during the 2008-09 season.
  • 63: Joey Abate’s 63 penalty minutes led the NCAA this season. The Mavericks were 2-8-1 this season when Abate took a penalty and 9-2-0 when the sophomore center stayed out of the box. Abate averaged one penalty per game.
  • 4: The Omaha penalty kill unit finished the season at 85.4 percent. That’s second in the NCHC and tenth in the NCAA.
  • 341: The number of shots the Mavericks blocked in the regular season, which led the NCHC. Omaha finished the season with 362 overall.
  • 396: The number of penalty minutes the Mavericks racked up as a team. Of those 396, 63 of them came in the Feb. 20 loss at North Dakota. It’s a team that likes to play aggressively, but there has to be a balance. Cutting down on the minors will be a focus next season.
  • 503: The Mavericks finished 797-786 on faceoffs as a team, which is good for a .503 winning percentage. Nolan Sullivan finished second in the NCHC individually at .588.
  • 09: The duration of the Mavericks penalty kill streak earlier this season. From Ethen Frank’s second-period power play goal on Dec. 3 until Shane Pinto’s power play goal on Jan. 30, the Mavericks went 824:09 between power play goals against.

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