When Omaha Senior forward Kevin Conley and Maverick Hockey Head Coach Mike Gabinet opened up the team portion of NCHC Media day Monday morning, it was a sign of what’s to come during the 2020-21 season.
Press conferences have shifted to Zoom, and the early October start date has been pushed back to Dec. 1, when all eight teams in the conference will converge to a centralized location. The conference will attempt to pull off a three-week-long event that is unprecedented at the collegiate level.
Despite all of the changes, there’s one thing that has remained the same. It might be a new year, and a strange one at that, but expectations are still high for the Omaha hockey program and Gabinet, who is going into his fourth year as the head coach.
“Every year you have a high expectation for yourself and the program, so I don’t think that usually changes from year-to-year,” Gabinet said. “We had a big freshmen class last year and they’re all coming back, and another pretty big incoming class this season as well.”
Trust and familiarity will be key this season, as the Mavericks bring back the most letter winners in the NCHC (21) and only lost five players from the 2019-20 roster.
213 of their 285 total points return from last season. Taylor Ward and Kevin Conley lead the way with lines of 16-11-27 and 12-15-27 respectively, with Tyler Weiss 4-18-22, Chayse Primeau 8-12-20 and Joey Abate 9-9-18 right behind.
With having such a young roster, 18 of the 29 being freshmen or sophomores, they feel that will only help them moving forward.
“When you have the same core guys, it makes it a lot easier to mesh,” said Sophomore center Nolan Sullivan. “That whole idea of competing and cooperating I think has been super good for us the past few weeks, but I think it’s going to pay off in the long run. It’s more of a family culture and these are going to be the brothers you depend on for the next three weeks in the pod.”
Sullivan said the big focus this offseason has been on the little details. Penalties and mental mistakes proved costly last season, as seven of Omaha’s losses came by one goal.
Sullivan’s fellow assistant captain echoed the message of their head coach.
“We do have high expectations,” said Junior forward Taylor Ward. “We had those extra couple months to fine-tune everything and make sure we’re ready to go right from the first game. We have high expectations within our locker room, we talk about it every day, and I think we’re gonna take a step in the right direction and continue to grow.”
With those expectations, Ward agrees there is something to be said about bringing so many guys back.
“Whenever a new season rolls around, there’s always some unknown,” Ward said. “But having the core group of guys we do and having the familiarity and trust in our locker room is huge. Especially in trying times like these, and I think it will only help us.”
In addition to the six members of this year’s freshmen class, two of the most interesting additions will be Jonny Tychonick (North Dakota) and Jack Randl (Michigan). They’ll join Kevin Conley (Denver) and Nate Knoepke (Minnesota) as the most recent Mavericks to transfer from other schools and join the Omaha roster.
“We’ve had a lot of success with getting guys from other programs that didn’t necessarily work out,” Gabinet said. “It’s something we pride ourselves on- giving these guys a second opportunity. Some of those other programs are just so deep with talent that it’s hard for these guys to go in and find a way to be contributors there.”
“For them to come in here and get an opportunity to compete for playing time, play a big role, and the good thing about them is they’re earning what they get here,” he said.
Tychonick becomes the highest-drafted NHL prospect on the Omaha roster and one of three total, joining Isaiah Saville (VGK) and Tyler Weiss (COL). Especially with the departure of Dean Stewart and Ryan Jones on the blue line, it’s an opportunity to make an immediate impact.
“He’s a funny kid, but he’s also very serious at the rink,” said Ward, who played with Tychonick in Penticton during juniors. “He works very hard and he gets the things done that he needs to to be successful. I think it’s been a really good fit here, so far and I’m excited to see him play in an Omaha uniform.”
Randl spent the 2019-20 season in Omaha playing for the Lancers (USHL). In his freshman season at Michigan, he skated in 22 games, registering just one assist. Randl netted 12 goals in 50 games with the Lancers.
“I think both those players have a ton of upside and are going to be big players for our program,” Gabinet said.
Ward ready to “rock ‘n’ roll”
After suffering a broken ankle which ended his 2019-20 campaign, the junior forward says he is back and fully healthy.
“I’m back and ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” Ward said. “It feels great and there’s no lingering problems or anything.”
The Kelowna, British Columbia native led the Mavericks in goals last season (16) and was named an honorable mention for the NCHC All-Conference team.
He saw his season cut four games short after suffering the injury in game two of the Colorado College series in late February. Ward spent much of the following weeks in a cast and on crutches.
However, the pandemic did present some challenges in the recovery process. He said it made it tougher to find a physical therapist back home in Canada and presented a few other bumps along the way.
“It was a little bit tricker,” Ward said. “Especially with it happening right before the whole pandemic kind of blew up. It made it very difficult when it was time to take the cast off. There was one point where my dad joked he was just going to have to cut it off in our garage with a saw we had.
“But we got it all worked out. I was in constant contact with the staff here at UNO, and then when I got back down here to Omaha they were great about getting me back to 100%.”
After serving as an assistant in 2019-20, the senior was recently voted as captain by his teammates and coaches. It’s an opportunity he’s very excited about.
“It’s a huge honor and privilege to represent the UNO program in that way,” Conley said. “I’m looking forward to being able to wear that letter this year.”
The senior said his group hasn’t had many limitations and they’ve been able to get a lot of work in with the coaches in what he described as a good offseason.
There’s a lot of chemistry in the group and he expects to see a lot from both the sophomore and freshman class. He specifically noted the progress of freshman forward Matt Miller.
“Obviously there is a lot of uncertainty with this season,” Conley said. “But I think the younger guys have done a really good job of being focused every day at practice, so it’s been good.”
Revamped blue line
Losing Dean Stewart and Ryan Jones won’t be easy spots to fill for the Omaha team. The two combined to make up most minutes for the Mavericks on the blue line last season, and both served as key voices and leaders in the locker room.
Along with adding Tychonick to the fold, the Mavericks will look to see more from Nate Knoepke, Brandon Scanlin, Jason Smallidge and Kirby Proctor, all of whom were regulars in the lineup throughout last season.
Proctor tied for the best +/- rating on the team at +9, while Smallidge and Knoepke also finished in the positive at 5 and 4 respectively. Brandon Scanlin was Omaha’s best offensive threat on defense, scoring three goals and 11 assists. He was also a fixture on the power play.
They’ll all be vying for elevated minutes and a bigger role.
“It’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up and fill those roles,” Gabinet said. “I’m looking forward to them competing and having a good season.”
Between the pipes
It will certainly be an adjustment for all eight schools moving away from the traditional Friday-Saturday series schedule. However, it adds another layer of intrigue to the decision of how to split up the time in the crease.
Isaiah Saville, who once again looks to carry most of the workload, brings back a line of 10-11-4, a .907 save percentage, and a 2.85 GAA. His fellow sophomore Austin Roden finished last season at 4-6-1 also with a .907, and 2.87 GAA.
“I think it’s going to depend on how the games go, and how the individual performances go, and then we’ll make the best decision at the time,” Gabinet said. “I’m fortunate to have Coach Paul Jerrard and Coach Noel-Bernier that have extensive experience at the pro level, and they’ve handled that pretty regularly at the NHL level.
Whether it’s three games in four nights, or back-to-back games, or just a lot of games in a shortened time span, so I’ll definitely lean on those guys as well.”
With the current schedule, Omaha will play 10 games in 20 days. They have two sets of back-to-back games coming on the first and second weekends of the tournament.
Home sweet home
Although there may not be fans in the building and the Mavericks will find themselves living in a hotel for the three weeks, there is a little bit of an added comfort in having the event at Baxter Arena.
“Even though there really might not be a home-ice advantage, I think just being able to play at Baxter is a little bit of an advantage for us,” Conley said. “It’s a great facility, it gives us a great feel on the ice, and we love playing here.”
Along with having that familiarity with the playing surface, there’s also an added advantage of the event being in a town these players know so well.
“I think it’s a huge advantage, even right now just preparing,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have to find a way to pack everything on the bus for three weeks. Whether it’s pillows, blankets, or whatever snack food we’re going to need for the hotel, we’ve been prepping like normal for the last two weeks now and it’s a huge convenience.
“Especially when we get into the last week, it’s not like we’re stranded in a different state, and I think that’s going to pay off big.” At the end of the day it’s going to be a pretty grueling schedule, so whoever handles it the best is going to have the most success.”
Their head coach agrees. It’s also a great opportunity for the city, especially for the area around the arena.
“We know the city obviously,” Gabinet said. “But for me most importantly, it’s exciting for the community. I think Aksarben Village is one of the nicest spots anywhere. There are a lot of restaurants and hotels and everything right there, so it’s great to see those local businesses get an opportunity to host those eight teams here for that three weeks.
“I know it (Baxter Arena) wasn’t built to necessarily house eight teams, but the staff there is doing a great job. They’re trying to accommodate everybody and make it an enjoyable experience for all of the coaching staff and athletes that are going to get a chance to participate in it. For us, it’s just excitement that we’re going to get to play.”
That last line is the sentiment around the locker room, and around the NCHC. For a conference that hasn’t seen game action since March 7, they’re just happy to be back on the ice.
“I’m excited,” Sullivan said. “Some people might be saying ‘oh it’s three weeks in a hotel’ but at the end of the day, we’re playing. You look at the summer and everything that’s happened the last few months, you have no idea what’s going to happen. I think it’s a very cool opportunity and we’re the only conference playing in a pod format.
“Down the road when you look back and talk about covid and 2020, and you get to say you were a part of something like this, it’s going to be a very special memory. So I’m just doing my best not to take it for granted and look at the positives that we’re back playing.”
Adjustments for everyone
There will be adjustments for everyone involved. Playing in front of an empty arena, more games in a shorter period of time, enhanced testing and living in a modified bubble in Aksarben Village. It’s all a part of what will come with the pod.
“Obviously it’s a bit of a bummer playing in an empty building at Baxter,” Ward said. “It’s always exciting and the building allows us to feed off of the crowds’ energy, so it’s something we’re obviously going to miss. But at the same time, it’s just some adversity.
“Ultimately I think we’re prepared to deal with this. And with it being at Baxter there’s a little more comfort being in our home rink, but we’re also on an even playing field with no crowd. So it’s just about feeding off each other, bringing our own energy on the bench, and coming together as a team.”
Gabinet said his group has been fortunate and has remained healthy throughout much of this pandemic. At the same time, the schedule and different lifestyle will present changes throughout the pod.
“Everybody’s probably going to play,” Gabinet said. “My guess is the lines won’t look the same through all 10 games. Whether that’s fatigue, or injuries, or mixing things up, so I think that’s really important our players are aware of that heading into it.
“Your job is to play wherever you are and make the people around you better, because I’m sure there’s going to be some switches that will be made.”
On the ice, the focus is clear. The surroundings might be different, but the captain says they want to take advantage of these games.
“We want to get off to a good start in the pod, and I think our biggest goal is to have one of the best records in the bubble,” Conley said. “With all of the uncertainty after the pod, a lot of guys are looking forward to getting started playing on Dec. 1 and getting right into it and taking advantage of those 10 games.
“A little adversity doesn’t hurt anybody and I think it’s been interesting for every player. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s a challenge that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, so we’ve just got to keep working every day.”
News and Notes
- Jordan Klehr will return to the Omaha lineup in 2020-21. Klehr practiced with the team for most of last season, but hasn’t appeared in a game since Dec. 30, 2017. He’s skated in 70 games over parts of three seasons.
- Gabinet says there are currently four guys out dealing with nagging injuries, but hopes to have them all back before the start of the pod.
- The Mavericks were picked to finish sixth in the NCHC preseason media poll. They also received votes in USCHO’s preseason poll.
- 14 of the Mavericks final 19 games will be against teams who were ranked in the preseason top 5. Omaha is scheduled to play 26 games total this season.
- The NCHC has officially announced no fans or friends and family will be allowed in Baxter Arena during the pod. For a complete list of protocols and testing measures, visit https://www.nchchockey.com/news_article/show/1134147
- The NCHC has also announced new rules for overtime and adjustments to the standings. Teams must play 13 games to be eligible for the conference tournament and 20 games to be eligible to win the Penrose. For more visit https://www.nchchockey.com/overtime-standings.
- Mavericks play-by-play man Donny Baarns will be joined by former Omaha forward David Brisson on select Midco Sports Network broadcasts throughout the NCHC Pod. Ben Holden, Dave Starman, Alex Heinert and Jake Brandt will round out MidcoSN’s team, which will produce all 40 games during the pod.
Tuesday 12/1- Colorado College 3:35 p.m.***
Thursday 12/3 Western Michigan 7:35 p.m.
Saturday 12/5 Miami 4:05 p.m.
Sunday 12/6 SCSU 8:05 p.m.
Wednesday 12/9 Colorado College 7:35 p.m.
Saturday 12/12 Miami 4:05 p.m.
Sunday 12/13 SCSU 4:05 p.m.
Wednesday 12/16 Minnesota-Duluth 3:35 p.m.
Friday 12/18 Western Michigan 3:35 p.m.
Sunday 12/20 Minnesota Duluth 12:05 p.m.
***The NCHC is currently in the process of revising the schedule due to the current situation at Colorado College and COVID-19 protocols. That should be released in the coming days.
As always, follow @jordan_mcalpine on Twitter for news and live game updates, and check out https://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.