2012-13 NCAA Independents Season Preview

By DJ Powers

Max Gardiner - Penn State University

Photo: Forward Max Gardiner, shown here playing for the University of Minnesota, has transferred to the fledgling D-1 program at Penn State University (courtesy of Josh Holmberg /Icon SMI)

For the 2012-13 season, the NCAA will feature two independents in Alabama-Huntsville and Penn State. Hockey’s Future takes a closer look at the two programs.

University of Alabama-Huntsville
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Chargers open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 hosting Minnesota State-Mankato.

And they will do so with a new head coach.

Chris Luongo, who had spent the last two seasons at the helm, recently resigned. Kurt Kleinendorst, who comes to Alabama-Huntsville after a stint with the AHL’s Binghamton Senators, inherits a program that finished last season with a 2-28-1 record and has the daunting task of building up a team that lacks elite level players and a conference home.

Alabama-Huntsville came very close to not having a D-1 team this season. Last October, University Chancellor Malcolm Portera announced that the program would be dropped due to financial constraints. But thanks to the efforts of University President Robert Altenkirch and a strong grassroots campaign, the Chargers program was saved from the budget axe. Now, the big question is for how long. Without a conference to call home Alabama-Huntsville still faces the possibility of its program eventually being dropped as a D-1 member.

The uncertainty that surrounded the Chargers program has already resulted in three key players transferring to other programs – defenseman Nicholas Gatt (Michigan State), forward Mac Roy (Robert Morris) and goaltender Clarke Saunders (North Dakota). And their departures will impact this year’s team at the start of the season.

Of the three, the loss of Saunders may be the most significant. The Brockville, ON native actually played better than his 2-21-1 record may indicate. He posted Alabama-Huntsville’s lone wins and tie last season and was stellar in the Chargers’ 2-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth back in January. The task of backstopping the team this season will fall on upperclassmen John Griggs and C.J. Groh and newcomer Gregg Gruehl. Griggs and Groh combined to play just 322:93 minutes in eight games last season.

The Chargers also took significant hits on the blueline, losing top defensemen Tom Durnie to graduation as well as Gatt. Junior Lasse Uusivirta anchors this season’s predominately young Chargers defense. Among the newcomers to watch is Steven Hickey. Hickey, the son of former NHL player Pat Hickey, brings size (6’3”, 185 lbs.) and the ability to play forward, as well.

One area where Alabama-Huntsville will look to vastly improve is their offensive production. The Chargers averaged just 1.19 goals per game last season. The 37 total goals were the fewest in the nation. The good news for the Chargers is that they return nearly all of their top scorers this season, led by sophomore Kyle Lysaght and senior Justin Cseter. Lysaght led the Chargers last season with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 31 games. Cseter led Alabama-Huntsville with eight assists and posted 12 points overall in 30 games. While neither player reached the ten-goal plateau last season, that could change this season.

Among the Chargers’ eight newcomers that can also help boost Alabama-Huntsville’s point totals are Chad Brears and Jack Prince.

Penn State University
Number of NHL prospects: 1

The Nittany Lions will open their inaugural D-1 season on Oct. 12 hosting American International. Penn State will play as an independent this season before moving to the newly formed Big Ten (Hockey) conference next season.

While Penn State will be new to the D-1 ranks, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be competitive. With former Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky at the helm, the Nittany Lions will certainly be a team to watch this season.

“It’s an extremely exciting time for us here at Penn State,” said Gadowsky. “Playing NCAA D-1 for the first time ever is exciting enough as it is. We have 16 players that will be here this year that were on the team last year. I think it was very important for our staff to come in and try to establish building a foundation right from the start. It is a process and there are a lot of things that are going to have to happen, and we know that they won’t happen in just one season.”

Penn State will feature a nice mix of veterans and some excellent newcomers. Where this is particularly evident is upfront. Among the forwards to watch are sophomores Max Gardiner (STL) and Tommy Olcyzk.

Gardiner is the younger sibling of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, Jake Gardiner. Max Gardiner, who transferred from Minnesota, saw limited playing time with the Golden Gophers. But the 6’3”, 190-pound budding power forward will see lots of ice time and could make an immediate impact for the Nittany Lions.

“We’re thrilled about having Max here,” Gadowsky said of Gardiner. “I can tell you that his work ethic has been great. We were all impressed with the type of person he is. Max has the potential to be just a fantastic all-around player, not only at the D-1 level but beyond too. We’re not looking at Max to be just an impact player on the ice, but an impact player for our program, as well.”

Olcyzk is among the returning players that competed with Penn State’s ACHA squad last season. Olcyzk, who will serve as the team’s captain this season, is the son of former NHL player Eddie Olcyzk. The younger Olcyzk was the lone undrafted Nittany Lion to attend a NHL prospects camp this summer, participating in the Carolina Hurricanes’ camp.

Junior defenseman Nate Jensen is one of two Mercyhurst transfers on the Penn State roster this season. The Shorewood, MN native will serve as one of the team’s assistant captains where he’ll anchor what is shaping up to be a very good defensive corps for the Nittany Lions.

One must-see freshman this season is defenseman Luke Juha. The Mississauga, ON native is a former Clarkson recruit that possesses superb vision and puck-moving ability. After being passed over in this past June’s NHL Draft, Juha will be eligible again in 2013.

“Luke has a great hockey IQ, a great offensive mind and he sees the ice really well,” Gadowsky said of Juha. “He’s player that’s really fun to watch. And people that really appreciate hockey will love watching him. I think Luke will be a great college defenseman. He likes to control the play from the back end and he just has the desire and the skill that will help us. So we’ll be relying on Luke a lot from the start.”

Newcomer Matt Skoff will be among the trio of goaltenders that will be vying for the starting job. The McKees Rocks, PA native had originally committed to Ohio State. Skoff is a 6’1”, 186-pound netminder that possesses great athleticism and is technically sound.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter at @DJPowersHF