In the second installment of Hockey’s Future’s 2005 Frozen Four coaches interviews, University of North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol shares his thoughts about the upcoming season, his much younger team and some of the excellent talent that make up the 2005-06 edition of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
HF: Your team suffered some significant losses this offseason, both to graduation as well to the pro ranks. What will be the greatest challenge to you as far as making the necessary adjustments to offset the losses?
DH: Obviously, we’re going to be a young team. At some point in time during the year that could be a strength for because we have some very good, quality returning players that obviously have some good experience coming back into our lineup. The freshman class coming in, as a whole is a talented group. It’s a group that has an awful lot of potential. Overall, the incoming class allows us to upgrade our speed and our skill level. That’s something that we felt that we wanted to try and do with this particular class.
HF: You bring in some pretty gifted offensive players in Jonathan Toews, Andrew Kozek (ATL), T. J. Oshie (STL) and Ryan Duncan. Aside from the offensive skills and abilities, what is the one aspect that you feel each of the players brings to the team that will make the team better?
DH: You can look at the group as a whole and say that not only is there a lot of ability there, but there is also a tremendous amount of character there. The type of a person that that player is coming in here will dictate to a certain degree what kind of success he’s going to have. These guys are all guys that have a real high degree of character. They’re all committed to developing as players and they’re committed to the game. That is what’s going to make their transition a successful one. That’s the one thing that I can say throughout the group of freshmen, not just the four guys that you mentioned there. There’s a real high degree of character and every one of these guys is dedicated to becoming a player. That’s why they’re here. They’re here to mature, grow up and become hockey players.
HF: If there’s one area where your team really suffered some big losses, it was on defense. Matt Jones (PHO), Nick Fuher and Andy Schneider (PIT) have all graduated and of course Matt Greene left early to sign with Edmonton. You also return players such as Matt Smaby (TB), Kyle Radke and Lee Marvin as well as bring in new ones in Brian Lee (OTT), Taylor Chorney (EDM), Joe Finley (WSH) and Zach Jones. How critical is it for both the returning and incoming guys to start filling in the holes right away that the departing players leave?
DH: The core of guys that we lost were a real tough group to play against. They were extremely physical. Each guy had a pretty good nasty streak to him. That’ll be a position where the young guys will really have to step in and play a role right away. We’re going to have to try and develop our young guys. They’re all very good players, so they’ll be able to make the step. A real key is going to be great leadership out of Matt Smaby and the other two guys returning. As I’ve said, the four forwards that we have coming in, they’re all good players as well. They’re all going to have to grow up to a certain degree both in practice and during games. We’re going to be young on the blue line and we’re going to make some mistakes but we’ll learn from them and that’s the way that we’re going to develop these new players this season. It’ll be a lot of fun watching these young guys develop on the back end. There’s a good amount of ability back there.
HF: Do you foresee Matt Smaby as possibly taking over the role that Matt Greene leaves behind?
DH: We look at Matt Smaby as a natural team leader back on the blue line like Matt Greene was. Matt Smaby is naturally a leader. He’s shown that on the teams that he’s played on in the past. As an individual, he’s very composed and he’s very mature. I think he’s ready to step into that role. I think he showed that at the end of last year. He was one of, if not our most effective defenseman, in the last four or five weeks of the season. I think he’s ready to step into that leadership role.
HF: Smaby seems to possess many of the same attributes that Matt Greene does. One thing that was particularly noticeable about Smaby last season was the fact that he’s become such a dominating force on your team.
DH: Matt came in as a true freshman. Making the adjustment to the WCHA as a defenseman is probably the most difficult when talking about the different positions. Matt is very committed to being the best player that he could be. He’s worked extremely hard. I think you’re going see his continued development this year. I expect him to pick up from where he left off last year. He left off last year as, in my mind, certainly one of the top two-way, physical defensemen in the country.
HF: Another aspect about Matt that was also evident was the fact that he displayed a lot of confidence in not only his team but in himself as well. Do you feel that he’ll be able to carry that over to the team this season?
DH: Well, that’s another aspect of his development. It’s development both on and off the ice. I think you’re starting to see that complete development for Matt. It’s a work in progress. He’s done a great job as far as being committed to that. He’s a very quietly confident young man. The way I would sum it up is that he has a definite presence. Whether it’s off the ice or on it. He has an overall presence that I think he’ll carry to the team this season. Leadership is something that comes naturally to him and that’s why I say he’s a natural leader.
HF: In addition to the significant losses on defense, you lost some key players upfront as well, such as Colby Genoway (NYR), Rory McMahon and Quinn Fylling. They not only brought a lot of skill but some tremendous leadership as well. Who do you expect to fulfill their roles this season?
DH: We have a different look this season with only two seniors as opposed to the nine we had last year and were a little older. Our strength last season was in the strong leadership of the core group of guys including the ones that you mentioned. I think that we’re in a very similar situation in that regard this year. For one thing, we won’t be voting on our team captains for another few weeks. I think we start out immediately with a very strong core of guys that understands how committed you have to be, how hard you have to work and what it takes to be able to play at a level that’s going to give us a chance to win. I think we’ve got a good core of guys. You can include a couple of guys like Mike Prpich, Drew Stafford, Chris Porter, Matt Smaby and even a younger player like Travis Zajac in that group. As a freshman Travis became a very quiet leader for us. I don’t think we’re going to replace our leadership with one guy. We’ll replace it by having a good, strong core of players that know what it takes.
HF: Do you feel that with the strong leadership that your team had was one of the keys to the success of the team last season?
DH: No question. We had an awful lot of changes last year. We had a coaching change. We had to deal with the losses of two players who potentially could’ve been the two best players in the country. It happens. We had some adversity that we had to deal with last year. We had our ups and downs but the one thing that I said throughout the year, whether things were going good or bad, was that this group of players had one constant and that was hard work. We worked extremely hard throughout the year and that’s a credit to your team leadership. They continued to believe in themselves. When things did start to bounce our way a little bit that momentum just built, because they had that belief in themselves.
HF: Do you see this team, despite all of the losses, being in more of a retooling mode rather than a rebuilding mode?
DH: I hate to use the word rebuilding. It’s just a different situation this year. We may have had some limitations skill-wise last season but we became a great team. Now we have a similar challenge this season of building the team atmosphere. With some of our incoming players as well as our younger returning players, I think our skill level is going to be higher but the challenge is still like it is every year. You’re wondering if that chemistry is going to be there. Right from day one you’re working to build that team chemistry. You have to improve and build as a team throughout the year. If everything works out, you’ll be playing your best hockey again down the stretch and obviously that’s what our goal is.
HF: Travis Zajac (NJ) was a fun player to watch last season. The two most impressive things about Travis was his ability to effectively combine the many attributes that he possesses and apply them into each game as well as his ability to really step up his play at key times, particularly in post-season play. Do you feel that Travis will be one of, if not your team’s main go-to guy this season?
DH: Definitely. He was one of our go-to guys last season. He was a guy who played in all situations from special teams to five-on-five. Travis is a complete player. He’s quiet and unassuming off the ice. He’s very humble about his abilities but don’t let that fool you. His own expectations of himself and the competitiveness that he has, is the main reason why he is not only gifted offensively but that’s why he’s our best defensive centerman. It’s that inner competitiveness that he has. So absolutely, I see him as one of our go-to guys. I’m sure that he has the same expectations of himself as well.
HF: What areas would you like to see Travis improve this season?
DH: Well, he does so many of the little things well already. I think it’s just a matter of him continuing to physically develop and get a little bit stronger. He’s worked so hard on his skating. To be a great player, not only at our level, but at the next level you have to be at least a good, efficient skater. He needs to continue working on that. He also needs to continue to develop his overall game and his overall maturity as a player. I think that he’s continuing to show that and he’s continuing to improve.
HF: Do you feel that Travis’ skating is the weakest part of his game?
DH: I think that’s one of the areas where a lot of people seem to think that it’s a drawback for him. I’ll be honest with you, style-wise he’s may not be the most fluid skater but he doesn’t lose many races to pucks either and he gets the job done. As with every young player, skating is one part of the game that you have to improve and work on and he’s no different. I don’t think it’s a deficiency for him. I just think that it’s something that he can simply improve. I use the term “complete” with Travis because he is a complete player. There are not a lot of guys that are that way. Travis takes just as much pride in his defensive play down low in his own zone as he does at the other end scoring a goal. That’s a pretty unique quality.
HF: Drew Stafford (BUF) was one player on your team that took on a more significant role last season. That was particularly evident when Brady Murray (LA) had gone down with an injury. Are you looking to Drew to be not only one of the leaders but also a stabilizing presence on your team this season?
DH: Yes. For Drew it’s just continuing to take small steps forward. He‘s done that. When he came here to North Dakota, he was a 17-year-old. He came here as a young kid and he’s growing up. He’s making strides towards becoming a complete player. One of the things that a lot of young players battle is overall consistency. In my mind, that was one of the biggest improvements that Drew made last year. He was a consistent player, especially down the stretch for us. He brought a high level to the ice every night and I think it showed. He was consistently producing offensively, which he has to do. He’s an offensive-type of player. But he was also giving us a pretty good effort and great performances in all three zones. That was the biggest area that I saw him make strides in, was in his overall consistency. His potential is sky high but he has to keep taking those strides.
HF: Where would like to see Stafford improve this year?
DH: Just have him keep taking those strides towards being that consistent force every night. There are certain nights and certain shifts where he’s unstoppable. It’s a challenge of a young developing player to keep that up on a consistent basis. If he can build off of his last five or six weeks of the season last year and continue that development forward, then he’ll become one of the top players in the country. I’d like to see Drew using on a consistent basis his overall size and strength. I’d also like to see him drive to the net consistently as well. It is basically all of the little things that make players successful not only at this level but consistently doing the things he’s going to have to do at the next level.
HF: Let’s take a look at your goaltenders. You return both Jordan Parise and Philippe Lamoureux. Jordan was outstanding, especially in post-season play. Do you anticipate Jordan as being your starter this season or do you plan to rotate your goaltenders?
DH: I think they’ll be a goaltending team. Both of them are very good goaltenders. They’re both extremely competitive. There’s a great balance between them. They’re competitive yet they’re great teammates. I think that those two right there, when you take a look at the make up of our team, are going to be leaders for us. They’ll be a stabilizing force. Night in and night out they have to be stabilizing factors. I think that they’re both capable of doing that and I certainly see both of them getting plenty of playing time throughout the year. Both Jordan and Phil have the capability to give an injection of confidence to our team as a whole with that one or two crucial saves. They’ll give us a real strong combination. Both have good ability and they both spent their summers improving. I think they’ll immediately come out solid and gives us that night in and night out.
HF: Joe Finley (WSH) was a late addition to your incoming freshman class. Did you originally intend to have him coming in next fall or was it your intent all along to bring him in this year?
DH: Matt Greene’s early departure had something to do with it, but I also think that Joe is ready to make the step to this level. When you make a decision on the timing of any player coming in, that has to be what it’s based upon. You have to ask yourself, is he ready to come in, step in, play and continue developing at this level? I think Joe is. The defenseman position is a tough position to have to make the step at. But to be as big as Joe is maybe makes that step to be a little bit more challenging. We’ve had a lot of guys in the past like Matt Greene and Matt Smaby go through it and be successful. I think Joe is in that mold. He’s a very big guy. He has extremely good feet and moves very well. He also has very solid puck skills and thinks the game well. I think he’s ready to make that step.
HF: Were you at all surprised that the Washington Capitals move up to take him in the first round of the recent draft?
DH: No. Here’s a young man who is 6’7 and whose basic skills and abilities are all very solid. That makes him a high-end prospect for the NHL. Now his job and what our role is here is to work on developing him, not only as a person but also as a player. He feels comfortable that he’ll be able to do that here and I think that’s why he chose to come here.
HF: What type of defenseman do you see him developing into?
DH: He needs to be a physical presence. Joe has the ability to do a lot more than that. Early on, he just needs to concentrate on the basics. That’s taking care of his own end, playing physically and moving the puck. I think from there, you take it one step at a time. I think there are other things that he can add to his game. He has a little bit of offensive instinct to him. He shoots the puck a ton. So he has some good abilities. But the first thing on our mind and I think on his mind, is to just become a good, solid every day player.
HF: Obviously making the transition from the USHL game to the collegiate game isn’t exactly a simple task either.
DH: Yeah, there’s an adjustment to make there. Mostly speed and timing is going to be the adjustment that Joe is going to have to make.
HF: It sounds like he has the potential to become a very good two-way defenseman.
DH: I think so. I think he can develop into the mold of a Matt Greene or a Matt Smaby.
HF: How is Robbie Bina doing? Is there any chance that he may be joining the team at some point this season?
DH: Robbie is doing real well. He will not be playing this season. He’ll take a medical redshirt this year and then we’ll just take it one step at a time. We’re hopeful that he’ll be back and hopefully playing again a year from now.
HF: Do you feel that some in the media have been underestimated your team with all of the changes that your team went through in the offseason?
DH: I don’t know. I know from my standpoint that it’s going to be a real challenge given as young as we are. But at the same time, we have got an awful lot of good hockey players in that locker room. To be honest with you, regardless of what the predictions are, I’m excited about the year because it’s a much different challenge than last year but an exciting one. We’ve got a bunch of good players that are good people. We’re going to start from square one and we’re going to get better every day and I believe that by the end of the year, we could be a darn good team.
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