Omaha Hockey Year End Recap

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR 

The Mavericks salute their fans after a home win at Baxter Arena. Photo courtesy of OMavs.com.

For a brief look back at the 2019-20 season, news on the cancelation of the playoffs and a few comments from the head coach, click here. Otherwise, you’ll find much more in this story. There’s a lot to cover looking back on this season, several updates on the health and future of Maverick players, some storylines to follow into 20-21 and a look at what’s next for the program. Hopefully most of your questions are covered. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

The Numbers

  • With a (14-17-5) record, the Mavericks surpassed their win total of nine from 2018-19 by five. Six of their 14 wins this season were over ranked opponents.
  • The Mavericks were ranked themselves for a total of five weeks this season. It was their first time back in the top 20 since March 2018.
  • Omaha finished the season with 108 goals, an average of 3.0 per game. That’s tied for 20th nationally, and the fifth most in the NCHC. The Mavericks scored 90 goals (2.5 per game) the year before.
  • After starting the season in the top 10 and clicking at better than 30% over one month into the season, the Mavericks finished the year 26-149 on the power play. That sits 35th in the country at 17.4% and seventh in the NCHC. They were successful on 13.33% of their chances in conference play.
  • On the flip side, Omaha’s penalty kill ends up 126-155, coming up big especially in the second half. At 81.29%, that puts them 4th in NCHC just behind third place Minnesota-Duluth (81.89%). That’s also good for 30th nationally.
  • Taylor Ward and Kevin Conley find themselves in a tie at the top of the Omaha roster for scoring with 27 points, however Ward played in four less games. Ward led Omaha with 16 goals, 10 of those coming within the conference. Conley and Zach Jordan finish second with 12 each. Tyler Weiss led the Mavericks with 18 assists.
  • Omaha had three players finish above the 0.500 mark (minimum 100 attempts) on faceoffs. Nolan Sullivan 283-188 (0.601), Noah Prokop 139-127 (0.523) and Teemu Pulkkinen just barely makes the cut, 169-168 (0.501). Sullivan finished third in the conference and 10th in the country.
  • Kirby Proctor and Martin Sundberg end the season tied for the best +/- rating, both with a +9. Ten of the 23 Mavericks to appear in a game this season found themselves in the negative, this coming one year after every skater finished with a minus.

Award Season

  • Freshman center Joey Abate and defenseman Brandon Scalin were both named to the NCHC’s All-Rookie team. It’s the first time the Mavericks have had two representatives in program history.
  • Freshman center Nolan Sullivan was named one of three finalists for the NCHC Rookie of the Year.
  • Senior winger Zach Jordan was a runner up for the NCHC’s Senior Scholar-Athlete Award. The senior had a 3.71 cumulative grade point average.
  • Taylor Ward was named an honorable mention for NCHC All-Conference.
  • Team awards are yet to be decided on. In the meantime, some predictions …

Outstanding Forward: Kevin Conley

This one may be interchangeable with Taylor Ward, but there was a lot to like about Conley’s game in 2019-20. Tied for the team lead in points, Conley also finished a +1 on the season and played solid on both ends of the ice, being one of the Mavericks more responsible forwards. In addition to that, Conley also skated in all 36 games, led the team in power play points and was an assistant captain this season. Due to injuries around him and changes to the lineup, Conley did find himself bouncing around and playing with several different combinations. However, he was still able to remain a regular presence and impact player atop the Omaha lineup. It will be interesting to see what type of senior year the former DU transfer has next season. 

Outstanding Defenseman: Nate Knoepke.

A regular on the Mavericks’ top pairing for most of the season, Knoepke skated in all 36 games, finishing with a goal and six assists. Knoepke was a +4, one of only three Omaha defensemen without a minus to their name, and for the most part did not find himself in much penalty trouble. Sure, those are all key in addition to positioning, shot blocking and some other things that go beyond the numbers on paper, but what matters most is simply being dependable out on the ice. In some ways, your best defensemen are the ones you notice the least, and Knoepke was one of the Mavs most reliable on the season overall. It could go multiple different directions with this one, so it will be interesting to see who gets the final nod.

Outstanding Goaltender: Isaiah Saville.

Although Austin Roden played very well when called upon, Saville was the guy who carried most of the workload for his team and is the easy option. (10-11-4) with a 2.85 GAA and 0.907 save percentage on the year, including several key saves through the season.

Rookie of the Year: Nolan Sullivan.

For having such a big freshmen class, there are several options to pick from, but Sullivan really stood out. The young center started the year fighting for fourth line minutes, finishing as the No. 1 and No. 2 center with Joey Abate. He finished third in the conference and 10th in the country overall for faceoffs (when he wasn’t getting tossed out of the draw 30 times a night) at a 0.601 clip. Offensively, Sullivan ranked eighth on the team with a 7-10-17 line, and he was also a fixture on the PK.

He’s also one of the best quotes and well-spoken guys on the team, impressive especially for being a freshman, in my opinion. I would not be surprised if there’s some future captain material for number 11.

Most Improved Player: Noah Prokop.

I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one … I know normally you’d look solely at returning players when it comes to most improved, but at the same time, if we’re talking over the course of this season you have to seriously consider Prokop—a guy who was in and out at the bottom of the lineup at the start of the season, a player that was getting quality minutes down the stretch. He was also a stalwart on the penalty kill unit.

Prokop was a healthy scratch as recently as the Arizona State series but took full advantage of the opportunity when Joey Abate was out of the lineup with an injury. For a couple games the Sundberg-Prokop-Brushett line was one of Omaha’s most effective on the season, much in part to their ‘lunch pail attitude’ and gritty play in the opposing zone. Prokop skated in 27 of the 36 games this season, picking up his first goal against Denver, a shorthanded goal early in the third period. As for returners from the year before, Martin Sundberg, Jason Smallidge, Chayse Primeau and Ryan Jones are just a few that have to be near the top of the list off of numbers alone.

MVP: Taylor Ward.

As mentioned above, he’s a little interchangeable with Kevin Conley, but the numbers don’t lie: tied for the team lead in points, led the team in goals and was the only player to appear on the NCHC’s all-conference list. The man they call “Wardo” is more than deserving of the honor. Just look at some of the offensive struggles this team had the last few games after Ward went down, especially at Miami, and you’ll see the impact he made this season.

Seventh Man, Biggest Heart and Top-Student Athlete are a few of the other awards the team will decide on at a later date.

Signing the Dotted Line

Senior defenseman Dean Stewart plans to wait until free agency to sign his first entry-level deal. Stewart was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in the seventh round of the 2016 NHL draft, 188th overall. He’ll be eligible to sign with any organization on Aug. 15.

Fellow senior defenseman Ryan Jones is still weighing out options for the next step of his hockey career. Jones was also taken in the 2016 NHL, 121st overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who still hold his rights. Jones says he’s still working out off the ice on his own. The deadline for NHL picks to sign with their organization is June 1.

In addition, senior forward Teemu Pulkkinen recently agreed to a 2-year contract with Mikkelin Jukurit, a Liiga team in his home country of Finland. The Espoo native put up a 7-11-18 line for the Mavericks this year, finishing with 22-31-53 over his four seasons in Omaha. His deal will start in 2020-21.

Storylines to follow in 20-21

Although there were many signs of improvement and a lot of positive signs heading into year four of head coach Mike Gabinet, there’s still work to be done and some interesting storylines to follow. Let’s dive right into it.

Get Back Healthy

Where to start on this one—at times this season it seemed as if the Mavericks couldn’t catch a break as injuries and illness piled up, especially in the second half. Only six members of the Omaha roster (Brandon Scanlin, Nate Knoepke, Ryan Brushett, Kevin Conley, Chayse Primeau and Ryan Jones) skated in all 36 games. Eleven players (if my search through game notes and lineup cards is correct) on the Omaha roster missed at least one game due to injury or illness, the most significant of those being a season-ending injury to Taylor Ward.

That brings us to one of the biggest questions heading into the offseason: What’s the latest on the Mavericks’ leading goal scorer? Ward, who crashed hard into the endboard just 1:50 into game two against Colorado College, had his season cut short due to a severe lower body injury. The sophomore forward was unable to put any weight on his right leg while being helped off the ice and back to the Omaha locker room.

The forward is still currently wearing a cast around his right foot/ankle area, but he is recovering back home in Kelowna. Gabinet said he is expected back for the start of the 2020-21 season.

How about Isaiah Saville? The freshman goaltender came up big several times this season, stopping 718 of the 792 pucks fired his way. Saville finishes the year tied for seventh in the conference in both save percentage and goals against, 0.904 and 3.06 respectively. However, he was dealing with a lingering injury which limited or even held him out of practice multiple times during the second half.

Saville was held out of a start in Duluth, but the biggest blow came during game one of the North Dakota series, as he was run into and suffered a concussion. He would’ve been unavailable for the Mavericks’ first round series at Denver but has since recovered. There’s no way to predict it or avoid it, but a healthy lineup would go a long way toward a successful 2020-21 season.

Home Ice Advantage

Another key will be figuring out how to get back into the win column at home. The Mavericks have only had two teams put together winning home records since opening Baxter Arena, 2015-16 and 2017-18. This year Omaha posted a (7-8-3) record on home ice overall, but three of those seven came within the first four home games and only three of their conference wins. Away from home, the Mavericks compiled a (7-9-2) record. A drastic improvement from (2-15-1) one season before. Oddly enough with their woes on home ice, Omaha outscored opponents 31-14 at home in the third period this year.

Stay out of the Box!

There’s no way around it. When you spend one-third of a hockey game playing shorthanded, you’re asking for trouble. Following the Wisconsin series earlier this season, the Mavericks were averaging just over 19 minutes per game, which was the most in the country. Granted, that has dropped as the Mavericks finish with 198 penalties for 487 minutes, an average of 5.5 and 13.5 minutes per game, but it’s an area that is sure to be addressed. At the same time, one area they’ll want to carry into next year from that is the success of their penalty kill. That unit came on strong during the second half with some huge kills and timely blocked shots, stringing together a 36/45 run to close out the season. It’s easy to forget, but a big part of the home win over North Dakota was a first period 5-on-3 kill for a full two minutes.

Start Fast, Finish Strong

Five times this season the Mavericks fell behind 1-0 less than two minutes into a game. Although they were able to rally back in several games, they still allowed nine goals within the first two minutes of a period and 12 within the last two, three of those being ENG’s. The split speaks for itself, (9-4-4) when scoring first and (5-12-1) when giving up that momentum-grabbing first goal. As if that isn’t enough, the Mavericks were (1-15-1) when trailing after two periods. Although it’s not the end of the world to fall behind early in a game, it’s still an area that needs to be cleaned up next winter.

Another Tough Schedule Ahead

In addition to the well-known gauntlet of NCHC play, next year’s nonconference slate will have a familiar look, as Omaha will be completing a few home-and-home series. The Mavericks will welcome Maine to Omaha for the first time since 1998, host Alaska Fairbanks and travel to Alabama Huntsville to face the Chargers for a second consecutive season. The Mavericks haven’t played the Chargers on the road since 2011, which took place in Nashville, and haven’t traveled to the Von Braun Center since Omaha’s inaugural season. Omaha swept Alabama-Huntsville at home last October and went (0-1-1) against the Black Bears in Maine.

Along with those two schools wrapping up a home-and-home series, 2020-21 will also feature a fresh face out of the Big Ten – the Michigan Wolverines. The Mavericks haven’t faced Michigan since November 2013, a split at the CenturyLink Center. The Wolverines lead the all-time series (26-8-3). Michigan finished this season (18-14-4), which put them in a tie for second place in the Big Ten. The Mavericks will travel to Duluth and Denver, while hosting Western Michigan, Michigan and North Dakota all in a five-week stretch.

Finally, the Mavericks will also be participating in their first tournament since the 2016 Brice Alaska Goal Rush tournament next season. Omaha, along with Arizona State, Cornell and Air Force will compete in the Desert Hockey Classic over the New Year’s break. While ASU’s brand new, on-campus arena will not be complete, (the site of the tournament is still up in the air), it looks like it will be held at a local community rink. That information will be released at a later date.

To view the full schedule released by Omaha Athletics, click here.

Who’s Next?

First and foremost, the Mavericks will look to fill a couple holes, especially on the blueline with loss of Jones and Stewart. Knoepke, Scanlin, Smallidge and Proctor all will look to see elevated roles and increased ice time next season. Up front, the Mavericks lose Zach Jordan, Tristan Keck and Teemu Pulkkinen, who combined for 25 of the Mavericks’ 108 goals. However, the majority of Omaha’s scoring production will return, and there’s another solid freshman class coming to town this summer to add to it. While the staff is still out on the recruiting trail, several new faces have been confirmed for the fall including a pair of Omaha Lancers in Nolan Krenzen and Jack Randl, along with Matt Miller (Lincoln, USHL), Kaden Bohlsen (Fargo, USHL) and Brock Bremer (Lincoln, USHL) to name a few. It’ll be interesting to see what type of impact the incoming group has, but with the previous class on top of it, it looks to bode well for the future of Omaha hockey. 

From the Keyboard

Six months of hockey, 15+ hours-worth of audio and a lot of typing later, here we are. I wish there would’ve been a playoff series and potentially a weekend at the X to cover, but we have to put people’s health and safety first. That elusive first trip to the Twin Cities for the program in March will have to be put on hold for another year.

Thanks again to everyone who followed along this season and made it a fun first year covering the team. There’s a ton of great people behind the scenes that make showing up to Baxter Arena fun and a lot of great fans who make writing and attending games over the course of a season enjoyable. Stay safe over the next few weeks and hockey will be back sooner rather than later. I look forward to hearing from and seeing many of you in the fall!

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