2005 Frozen Four Coaches Interviews: George Gwozdecky

By DJ Powers

In the fourth and final installment of Hockey’s Future’s 2005 Frozen Four Coaches Interviews, University of Denver head coach George Gwozdecky shared his thoughts with Hockey’s Future just prior to the start of the season about the talented group of players that will make up the 2005-06 edition of the Denver Pioneers.

HF: Do you feel that the expectations this season are even higher than they were last season?

GG: Well, I guess it all depends on where those expectations are coming from. I think the media have thrown that out as something that is kind of unique and intriguing. It has definitely caught on with a lot of the publications. It’s something that I think the media has created. In fact, it was there two days after our arrival back from Columbus. It was already in the local (Denver) media that was pushing it. Perhaps expectations are developed through that, being the initial starting point of where those expectations have. I will tell you that within our program and within our locker room our expectations are much different. As a result, we’ve never talked about winning a national championship or winning any championship. When you start focusing on the end results, focusing on the outcome, the process gets really messed up and usually you’re setting yourself up for failure. You can use the term one day at a time or one game at a time, but basically our attention is on where we, as a team need to go from at this point in time. We’ve got a number of areas that we’ve got to improve on from the team we had last year, especially considering that we lost eight regulars. There’s a lot of work to do and an awful lot of things to have happen. It certainly is not even a thought of ours, although we hear it enough, so I’m sure that a lot of people are going to be talking about it.

HF: What do you feel is the greatest challenge to your team coming into this season?

GG: There’s no question that replacing eight regulars is a challenge. We had seven seniors, who all graduated. That senior class won more games in the Pioneers jersey than any other senior class in the history of our program, which is an incredible feat for those guys. When you have to replace that kind of class, that kind of leadership and that kind of character, it’s very difficult. I think that’s our biggest challenge.

HF: Let’s talk about some of those players that you did lose, specifically on defense. You lost Matt Laatsch, Nick Larson, Jussi Halme and of course, Brett Skinner. How do you anticipate trying to compensate for those losses?

GG: At this time, I don’t know. We have two regulars returning to our lineup on the blue line. Freshman Andy Thomas (WSH) who played an awful lot for us, he’s going to have to be our defensive rock, so to speak. Then you have All-American Matt Carle (SJ), who is going into his junior year. Matt played extremely well for us last year and we are going to have to ask him to play even more minutes at least early in the year because of our inexperience back at that position. Other than those two guys, we don’t have anybody that really has had a lot of playing time. We’ve got a couple of returning players who played just a handful of games at most. For the most part, we’re going to have to rely on a very talented but very inexperienced freshman class of defensemen – Chris Butler (BUF), T. J. Fast (LA), Julian Marcuzzi and J. P. Testwuide. They’ll all be vying for the positions on the blue line on a regular basis. As I said before, although they are all talented young guys with great potential, they are very inexperienced. As those guys develop and make the transition, we will hopefully move along. If you look at our early schedule and how challenging it is with some of the teams we face, these guys are going to be tested to the max. We’re going to have to rely on some of these other experienced players, not only on the blue line but also in goal and up front to take the heat off some of our freshmen so that they can make that transition comfortably.

HF: With the loss of Brett Skinner and the other defensemen, the responsibility of leading your defensive corps this season looks to fall upon Matt Carle even more. Do you have any concerns about Matt not being able to handle the added responsibility?

GG: Well, I think Matt will be able to handle any responsibility that we throw at him. If you consider the fact that as a freshman and the number of minutes he played and the responsibility that we threw on his shoulders as a freshman, I think that was so unique in college hockey to have a freshman handle those responsibilities and handle them so well. It wasn’t too long ago that we were playing in a national championship game in April, 2004 against the University of Maine and with 78 seconds left in the game, they have a six-on-three power play, we’re trying to hold on to a 1-0 lead, we have senior Adam Berkhoel in goal, we’ve got senior captain Ryan Caldwell out there, senior Max Bull out there and freshman Matt Carle out there. So it tells you a little bit about how we felt about Matt and where he fit into our lineup even as a freshman. Now he’s a junior and the amount of load that he can handle, I think we’re very comfortable with it and I think he’s very comfortable with it. He is a co-captain of our team this year and rightly so. He’s a returning All-American and an All-American as a sophomore. So I don’t think that it’s going to phase him one bit to have to shoulder the load that he’s going to have and to be able to handle it in a first class manner.

HF: In what area(s) do you see Matt’s role changing and/or expanding?

GG: I don’t see his role expanding or changing very much. There’s not much more we can give him. He’s done everything. He’s been in every situation for the most part since day one, since he joined us, whether it’s even strength, special teams or killing off a six-on-three in the last 80 seconds in a national championship game. There’s not much that he hasn’t done. I think the only additional responsibility that we’ve given him is he’s wearing a “C” now. As one of the two co-captains, that’s probably a little bit more responsibility as far as what happens off the ice. Matt is a very mature young man. He understands the direction that he needs to go. He understands the leadership that he needs to provide and lead by example and by effort. We’re very comfortable and very confident that he’ll be able to continue the way he has been over the last two plus years with us.

HF: In what area(s) would you like to see Matt improve this year?

GG: I’m not sure if improve is the right word. Anytime you put someone who is new into a position of leadership, someone who is new to being a captain, there is always that unknown, there’s that mystery and learning curve by that person as to how they fit and to make sure that they stay the same person. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge that Matt’s going to have this year. His on-ice skills, work habits, commitment, determination and his team efforts are all there. There’s a reason why he was an All-American as a sophomore. I don’t think that there’s a lot to critique about his on-ice play. I think the unknown and the lack of experience of wearing a “C” is probably one of the bigger challenges that he’ll face this year. We’re very confident that he’ll be extremely good in that.

HF: Let’s go back to Brett Skinner for a moment. We’re you surprised when he decided to forego his senior season to sign with Vancouver?

GG: I don’t know if surprised is the right word. In this day and age, there’s a point where you can make an offer that people can’t refuse. I think that Vancouver got to that point with Brett. I think up to that point, Brett was very confident that he was returning to Denver, but then Vancouver got to the point where it almost became inevitable that he was going to leave because of the financial security that they were giving him. Nobody in their right mind, myself included, could advise him differently. We had mixed feelings. We were happy for him and we knew that that was the right direction to go, but obviously he was coming into the best year of his development as a college athlete and we were looking forward to his play and his leadership. That’s something that every successful college hockey program has to deal with, the young, terrific players leaving and foregoing the remainder of their eligibility to pursue a professional career. That’s the nature of the beast. We deal with it and move on.

HF: One defenseman who was very impressive last season was Andrew Thomas. With the losses on defense, do you see him having to shoulder more of the responsibility of not only leading the team but also contributing more in such areas as the power play?

GG: I don’t necessarily think so. I think Andy is a great defensive player, a great stay-at-home defenseman. He’s got good offensive skills but he was never recruited to come in here and run the power play. His confidence has gotten better. He can score and he’s got a good shot. I think that you have to be able to fit a person into a role where you use his strengths. Andy’s strengths are he’s a great penalty killer, he’s a rock defensively and he can really break up attacks. He’s great in transition. He’s very difficult to play against and he’s a big, tough kid. His role is going to stay the same. The only thing that’s going to change is probably his ice time. He’s going to be getting more ice time. That’s not to say that he’s never going to be on the power play because he’s only a sophomore and he will continue to develop his offensive skills as time goes on. Right now, his role is going to be as it was last year with the addition of probably more playing time, at least early in the year until the younger, more inexperienced players can catch up and make the transition.

I think the idea of just maintaining the role that he was recruited to play and the role that he was so outstanding for us last year in and the role that really allowed him to be looked upon in the NHL Draft as a future prospect is the expectation that we have. The reason why the Washington Capitals selected him in the Entry Draft was because of him and what he can do right now, not so much because they’d like him to play in different roles. He’s an outstanding defensive defenseman, who can transition the puck quickly. He’s a good outlet passer. We just think that he’s going to continue to establish that role and become stronger and stronger in that role that he plays in with us.

HF: This season you bring in four excellent defensemen in T. J. Fast, Chris Butler, Julian Marcuzzi and J.P. Testwuide. With the skills and attributes the each one possesses, do you feel confident that all four will be able to step right in and gradually fill the roles that departed players leave behind?

GG: Without a doubt. These guys are terrific, young talented players. They have great character. They understand the team concept and they excel in that kind of framework. We need to get a little bit of playing time for them so that they can get accustomed to the speed, quickness and strength at this level, so they can make a quick transition and very soon become very dependable regulars for us and play the valuable roles that they are going to play.

HF: Do you envision T.J. Fast eventually filling the role that Brett Skinner had on your team?

GG: That’s a good question. I don’t know. The projection is such, but we have three pretty good defensemen that we’ve brought in that we feel that can progress and play very important offensive roles given time, whether that be T. J. or Chris or Julian. I don’t know right now if I can suggest to you which guy is going to play what role. All three guys have great potential and are going to play valuable roles once they make the transition. I don’t think that it’s worthwhile to determine or project what’s going to happen because I need a little bit more time to be able to see where these guys are. There’s no question that one of the reasons they were recruited was to be able to replace some of our very talented players who were going to be moving on. These guys definitely have that kind of potential.

HF: What is the one thing about T.J. that just really stands out to you right now?

GG: T.J. is a terrific skater. He’s strong and he’s got a great attitude. He’s also got good puck skills. Those are all attributes that will continue to allow him to continue to be successful and get playing time. Obviously his idea of being able to play, the attitude and character that he has, he’s going to be a terrific player for us down the road.

HF: Chris Butler is another newcomer who brings a lot to the table. How do you plan to utilize his talent and skill and where do you see him fitting into the team picture?

GG: It’s very difficult right now to say where he’s going to fit in, but there’s no question that he’s got tremendous skating skills. He’s a big, strong, guy. He’s got good stick skills. He’s got a pretty good mean streak. We’re going to try and utilize him in almost every situation that we possibly can, whether it’s in offensive type of situations like on the power play or like defensive situations such as penalty kill. Obviously, he’s going to be required to play a lot of even strength as well. We’ll best understand what fits best and what his strengths fit the best once we get a chance to see him in a couple of games. Going into the season, all of our freshmen are pretty much wide open. There are certain guys, especially up front who probably aren’t going to kill penalties right off the bat. We’re almost in a position right now with our freshmen defensemen who are going to have to do almost everything because we really don’t have an awful lot of other alternatives as far as specialty plays are concerned.

HF: Because of the youthfulness and relative inexperience of much of your defense coming into this season, goaltending as it usually is, is a very big part of the team defense and of course, they’re going to become a vital part in helping to stabilize your defense. You return the great tandem of Peter Mannino and Glenn Fisher (EDM). Do you feel that both goaltenders will have little trouble adjusting to the suddenly less experienced defensive corps in front of them?

GG: I think the experience that both Peter and Glenn gained last year is going to be to put to a little bit of a test probably early considering the inexperience we have in front of them. I wouldn’t rest it all on Peter and Glenn’s shoulders because obviously the way we play as a team, our philosophy and our system is that when we don’t have the puck and when we are facing an attack, wherever it is on the ice, all five skaters have a specific responsibility. I think we play a very high pressure checking game where we want to be able to get the puck and start to transition as quickly as possible to offense. When we do breakdown, as every team does no matter whether you have experience or inexperience on the ice, it’s paramount that your goaltenders are able to make the regular saves and on occasion, the game breaking save or the game saving save. I think Peter and Glenn both proved last year that as they developed through the year that we could count on them to be those kinds of goaltenders. If the team was playing well, give us consistent play and if the team was not playing well, steal a period or steal a game for us, which both of them did at times. I think it’s a great situation for us and we’re very fortunate to have two quality goaltenders. We’re going to maintain our platooning of both Glenn and Peter, which gave us so much success last year. We’re going to continue that this year.

HF: Let’s move on to your forwards. Like your defense, you lost some key leaders and character guys like Jon Foster, Luke Fulghum, Jeff Drummond and Kevin Ulanski. Do you feel that the group of players that you have both coming in as well as returning will have little difficulty being able to adjust to not having these players there?

GG: Well you know, every year there’s an adjustment period. I think we’re typical of most college teams who’ve had success in that we lost a very talented senior class and we lost one non-senior to the pros as well. Every year you are expecting you’re returning players to move into more primary roles of responsibility from their perhaps supplemental roles that they had played previously. We’ve got a number of terrific players coming back. Gabe Gauthier and Paul Stastny (COL) up front are two of the top players in our league. I think that the guys that we have in addition to those guys, like J. D. Corbin (COL), Ryan Dingle, Mike Handza and Adrian Veideman all really compliment Gabe and Paul. We’ve got two very talented freshmen also in the mix. There are a number of things that I think you’re going to see different in our lineup up front. As is true every year, you expect certain guys to continue and take the next step in their development and hopefully the freshmen can make the adjustment as soon as possible so they can start to contribute. I like what I see so far. There’s no question that we’re pleased by what we’ve seen so far as far as the talent up front is concerned. I think we’re going to have a team that’s going to have again very good depth up front and we’re going to be required to count on all four lines to create opportunities or take away opportunities at the other end of the ice.

HF: The thing that I, personally was most impressed with about your team last season was the fact that the forwards do such a great job in really understanding and applying the defensive responsibilities on the ice regardless of the situation.

GG: Well there’s no question that they all understand the responsibilities that they have. Understanding is the first step. The commitment and willingness to do these things is the major step. I think it’s all a testament to the kind of character individuals we have that are willing to do that and work as hard as they can both ways in order to be successful. Again, I think that’s a testament to the kind of young guys that we have on our roster.

HF: Last season Gabe Gauthier had an outstanding season. This year, you have tabbed him as one of your co-captains. What is about Gabe aside from his offensive abilities that will make him a great leader for your team?

GG: I think that Gabe’s experience here is really going to allow him to be a successful leader. When he first came here, he had a little bit of a challenging adjustment to college hockey, not only on the ice but the academic side of it as well. He had been out of high school for a year and had graduated a year before he came here. I think it was a little bit of a challenge for him to get back into the swing of things. The difference between his freshman and sophomore year for him was remarkable in his performance, output and success both in the classroom and on the ice. I think that those things are invaluable when you get to the point that you are looked upon as a leader and you’re asked to be a leader. He is able to share some of his advice and suggestions as to what needs to be done and what has to be avoided. He can obviously continue with the things that he knows are the right things to do to set the standard and example for the rest of the team. Gabe is the kind of young man that is a very sincere guy who is also a great team guy. He will take those things into consideration very much so as he steps into his role as one of our captains for this year’s team.

HF: Paul Stastny (COL) had an unbelievable season for your team last year. Is there any one thing that you’d like to see him improve this year?

GG: I think there are always areas that you can improve. With Paul, I look at perhaps increasing his winning percentage on faceoffs as being an area that I think he can probably improve on this year. He’s gotten stronger over the summer and he’s gotten into even better condition. He knows that he’s going to be able to log a lot of ice time because of that. He’s going to receive a lot of ice time. He’s not a finished product ready to take it to the next level but he’s closing in on it that’s for sure.

HF: Another excellent forward that you return is Geoff Paukovich (EDM). What are you expecting to see out of Geoff this season?

GG: Geoff had a terrific freshman season for us last year. He gave us a physical characteristic that perhaps we were missing from our lineup in previous years. He did some things just tremendously well for us, whether it was in the checking sense or the offense sense. It was really unfortunate with the incident that occurred in the WCHA Final Five where he checked Robbie Bina and the result of that. Geoff is a conscientious young man and was really affected by that. I know that Geoff was not the same kind of player from that point on through the rest of the season. It was my hope that given time and given the good results that we’ve heard from the prognosis for Robbie that Geoff would start to be able to come back into his own and play the style of game that has given him success and that was so important to our team last year. I think Geoff has been able to do that. Obviously, he’s going to be a real anchor there in our lineup and will be a solidifying force in a lot of areas on the ice. We’re definitely very pleased to have him coming back. I was very pleased with the development that he made last year. I think you’re going to see an even more effective Geoff Paukovich in our lineup this year.

HF: With everything that your team accomplished last season, what is the one thing that you would like to see change and/or improve this year that your team was not able to do last year?

GG: We did a lot of very good things last year. We led our league in goals scored per game, and we were one of the top scoring teams in the country. At times we were a little bit deficient defensively. When I look back on last year, probably the one concern that we had throughout a good part of the year was how our efforts were different from the Friday night of the series to the Saturday night of the series. I think the consistency of effort between one night and the next is imperative if you’re going to be successful in the long run in college hockey, especially in the WCHA. I think we were able to get over that challenge and improve in that area. That’s one area where you have to be good at, where you’re playing with that same emotion and that same intensity level, whether it’s the beginning of a series or the end of a series. That’s always the biggest challenge for every team because there’s no question that playing in this conference there’s such a fine edge between success and failure. Usually it’s that mental preparation that each team has prior to a game that’s going to determine a lot of times the outcome of the game. Other than that, I don’t know if there’s much that we need to improve on. Obviously, you always want to see if you can improve on special teams production or improve goals for versus goals against and things like that, which are normal things that you are striving for on a week-to- week basis.

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