Maverick off-season notebook No. 2

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Ty Mueller scored eight goals in 24 games this season. Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet said Mueller is “a special kid and a special player.” Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

Although the season may be over, it’s still a busy time around college hockey — especially in Omaha. If you missed last week’s off-season notebook, click here. Without further ado, here’s the second.

Comments from the coach

Between exit interviews, recruiting and trying to put together next year’s roster, Mike Gabinet has been a busy man since the season came to an end. But with a month now in the rearview mirror, he’s had a little bit of time to reflect on the 2021-22 season overall.

“I think there were a lot of positives this season,” Gabinet said. “Especially during that stretch at the end against such good opponents, the energy level and the mindset of the group was great, and I think everybody was disappointed to have the season end. We were playing so well and came so close at Western, and I just thought we were playing well.

“But when you reflect after the season’s over, you start looking right away at how do you get better? How do you keep improving? And I think that’s what high performers do. They look at how to improve and how to get better both individually and as a group. As coaches and as a staff (we want) to find ways to keep improving and keep getting better.”

Expanded roles

Although the story of this off-season so far revolves around the 12 players who have left, Gabinet’s squad does return an interesting core group. During the second half you could especially see the trio of Jimmy Glynn, Matt Miller and Jack Randl starting to evolve. It’s no surprise that line earned the trust they did.

Whether they were starting a game to set the tone or thrown out late in key situations, that trio formed Omaha’s most effective line down the stretch. They’ll likely see even more of a role next season too. They, along with several others, will see an expanded role both on and off the ice.

“I’m excited for some of our returners,” Gabinet said. “I think some of our returners are going to have a chance to step up and evolve, especially in a leadership role, and I feel very confident this group is ready for it. And to me, that brings a lot of excitement.

“We have some great young men in the core of this group and I think they’re excited to lead and excited to help the program continue to grow. Obviously we have some holes to fill with losing some key players, but again, we’ve got some good incoming players and there’s different ways in today’s environment to add to your team. So we’re exploring all the different options available to us and ultimately we want to put the best team together possible.”

As of now, Glynn, Randl, Miller, Cameron Berg, Kaden Bohlsen, Brock Bremer, Ty Mueller andNolan Sullivan will return up front, along with Nolan Krenzen, Victor Mancini, Davis Pennington and Kirby Proctor on defense.

Jonny Tychonick will likely be back too, as well as the possibility of Tyler Weiss returning for one more year. But with the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics and the transfer portal, any of that could change.

Omaha adds Pivonka

One day after Chayse Primeau announced he was transferring to Notre Dame, the Mavericks added a Notre Dame center of their own in Jake Pivonka. A 2018 fourth-round pick of the New York Islanders, Pivonka played in 129 games over the last four years at Notre Dame.

He brings experience at the college level, but more importantly, experience as a center. Something the Mavericks desperately needed.

“We are very excited to add someone with Jake’s character and experience to our program,” Gabinet said. “Our coaching staff is looking forward to working with him as he continues his college hockey career.”

This season, Pivonka, a left-shot center, played in 25 games, but he was recovering from an injury and didn’t even debut until Dec. 10. Pivonka netted just one goal this season and added seven assists. The Illinois native has nine goals and 38 points in his career. He’s never been a huge point producer at the college level, but he does bring a reputation of being a dependable two-way center to the Omaha lineup.

The son of a 13-year NHL forward (Michal), Pivonka also served as one of Notre Dame’s captains this season and brings a leadership element with him. He’s the first portal addition of the off-season and the latest transfer to join the Omaha program under Gabinet.

Latkoczy brings big-game experience

With Isaiah Saville and Austin Roden both gone, the Mavericks will have a different look in the crease come next October. Although Omaha will add another goalie out of the transfer portal, there’s a lot of optimism about incoming freshman Simon Latkoczy.

“We’re really excited about Simon coming in,” Gabinet said. “He’s played a lot of hockey over the last little while here, but we’re getting a really quality player and human being. Anytime you talk to his coaches or teammates, they just talk about how good of a person he is and how competitive he is.

“What I’m really looking forward to about Simon is his big-game experience though. He’s played in the World Juniors. He’s won a championship in the USHL. And I think in our league, that’s really important. When you have guys that can draw on big-game experience when you get in those pressure situations, it makes a difference.”

Portal goalie options

The transfer portal has been making headlines across college hockey, but Pivonka remains Omaha’s lone addition. However, the Omaha staff is still searching for a goalie to pair with Latkoczy.

This week in the NCHC alone, CC’s Dominic Basse, who Omaha was never interested in, announced he will transfer to St. Cloud State. Cameron Rowe, a one-time Omaha commit, will play for Western Michigan next season too.

The most appealing option currently in the portal is Jake Kucharski, who will be a junior next fall. A former Lancer, the 6-foot-4 goaltender was 12-7-3 this season with a .910 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average for AIC. He spent parts of two seasons at Providence before transferring to AIC and is once again in the portal.

Dylan St. Cyr (Quinnipiac) and Matt Radomsky (Holy Cross) are two of the other top goalies currently in the portal, but options are starting to thin. Players have until May 1 to enter their name into the portal.

NCHC schedule released

The NCHC released the 2022-23 conference schedule Wednesday afternoon. In an interesting wrinkle to the schedule, Omaha will open and close conference play against North Dakota. The first of those two series will be in Omaha on Nov. 4-5.

The Mavericks will play three of their first five NCHC series away from Baxter Arena, but the schedule balances out after the Christmas break. Omaha will have home-and-home series against Colorado College, Miami, Minnesota Duluth, UND and Western Michigan, while the Mavericks will face both St. Cloud State (home) and Denver (road) just once.

To view Omaha’s complete 24-game conference schedule and the rest of the NCHC calendar, click here.

McKamey Vegas bound

In addition to the players leaving, Omaha’s Director of Hockey Operations, Jake McKamey, has accepted a position in the Vegas Golden Knights organization. McKamey spent three years as Omaha’s Director of Hockey Operations. The position will be posted and filled in the coming weeks.

Mailbag questions

Now for the fun part… A few readers submitted questions to me this week, so let’s get to them.

Would like to hear more from Gabinet about rebuilding the culture of the team. This group seemed close and they talked publicly about being close, but then they scattered in the wind after the season?

This was something I talked to Gabinet about and the culture is actually something he doesn’t seem to be worried about at all. A big part of that is due to the Glynn, Krenzen, Miller, Randl, Sullivan, etc. type players who are returning next season and their character.

Gabinet believes the core will be able to carry over what’s been established in recent years and lead the way next season, which will be crucial with so many new faces on next year’s roster.

But I also think the culture is part of the reason the Omaha staff has moved slower than some may prefer when it comes to adding players out of the portal. They want to make sure a player fits the culture they’ve tried to build and they’re not going to add someone just for the sake of adding them.

Yes, when a dozen players are leaving, fans should rightfully question what’s happening inside Baxter Arena. I don’t blame them one bit. But when you consider the circumstances of each player who has left so far, I don’t know if any of them have been a surprise, besides maybe Roden.

But even with his decision to transfer, as discussed in last week’s notebook, it makes total sense if you really dig into it. Between the fifth-year guys graduating and not being able to return, the pro contracts (which should’ve been expected) and transfer portal, the roster turnover was inevitable.

Gabinet’s response was similar.

“We haven’t to date lost one person, whether it’s graduating, signing a pro contract or the portal that we didn’t expect to lose,” he said. “So to us, it’s kind of been business as usual.”

What are your thoughts on Abate leaving? Is it surprising to you?

To answer the second part of your question first, no it’s not. As I mentioned in last week’s notebook, the Western Michigan playoff series was likely the final nail in the coffin when Abate found himself on the outside looking in both nights. But the last few weeks of the second half were telling as well and the writing was on the wall.

Abate can be a productive player and can especially be a good guy to have in the locker room. However, had he returned next season, he would’ve likely been in the same role — at the bottom of the lineup or a healthy scratch. Not to beat a dead horse, but the penalty minutes made him a liability at times and the reputation he built up didn’t help his case either.

I think a change of scenery will benefit him and he ended up in a good situation in Providence too. From a personal standpoint, Abate was great to cover, always friendly and a good quote. I know he was very well-liked inside the Omaha locker room.

Also, from a long-term perspective, his physical style should translate better at the professional level. So no, it’s not surprising.

Where is the offense going to come from next season?

This is an interesting question and I’m not sure anybody really knows right now. The Mavericks scored 123 goals as a team this season. As it currently stands, 58 of those 123 will not return next season. But even for those who do return, nobody has really proved they’re a consistent scorer yet. Especially in the NCHC.

Five of Omaha’s top seven point-producers for sure won’t return (Ward, McManus, Scanlin, Primeau, Conley) and four members of Omaha’s top power-play unit are gone. Unless one of Omaha’s incoming freshmen catches fire or the Mavericks strike gold on someone out of the transfer portal, balanced scoring is likely going to be the key.

Next year’s group will especially need to play strong defensively and Omaha’s goalies will need to give their team a chance.

However, one guy to keep an eye on next season is Ty Mueller. Still just 19 years old, the freshman showed a lot of promise. Mueller was experiencing some growing pains adjusting to the college game early in the season, and it was evident in practice. But you could see the potential.

At one point it’s believed the Omaha staff even considered sending Mueller back to juniors early in the season when he wasn’t playing. But he debuted on Oct. 30 and went on to score in four of his first six games. Mueller finished the regular season strong too and netted eight goals in just 24 games. I asked Gabinet about Mueller’s growth this season.

“Ty is a prime example of what an elite mindset looks like,” Gabinet said. “He’s a guy that came in here as a young player and admitted to the staff that he didn’t know how big of a jump was going to be. And his response to everything was to just keep working and keep putting the work in. To his credit, he just kept showing up and putting in more work. He grinded away and he was one of our top forwards down the stretch.

“(He) didn’t make excuses, didn’t complain when he was going through the start of the season, and he just kept working. That’s rare in today’s world and he’s a special kid and a special player.”

What is this team’s current biggest need in your eyes? Also, we look thin at center. How will Gabinet and the staff address that?

Patrice Bergeron? Nathan MacKinnon? Maybe Connor McDavid has some eligibility left and Gabinet can use an Edmonton connection to make that happen? But in all seriousness, the center position is an interesting one. Pivonka and Glynn will presumably take two of the four spots and Sullivan will take another for his faceoff ability alone.

Mueller will be in the mix too, but I wouldn’t completely rule out him possibly moving to the wing if needed. It all still depends on if the Omaha staff adds another center out of the portal or if one of the incoming freshmen plays their way into a spot.

As for the biggest need, another goalie. A top-six forward who can score would be nice too, but once again, those don’t grow on trees. Ashton Calder (UND), Ture Linden (RPI) and Robert Mastosimone (BU) are a few of the top forward options in the portal.

If you have any questions or topics you’d like covered in next week’s notebook, feel free to tweet them or DM them to me on Twitter @jordan_mcalpine and I’ll try to incorporate them if I’m not already doing so.

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