UND has offseason reconstruction project ahead
The Fighting Hawks will have to rebuild their back end for the 2023-24 season.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — UND's season ended Friday night in Xcel Energy Center with a 3-2 overtime loss to St. Cloud State in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff semifinals.
The coaching staff won't have much time for reflection.
A busy offseason is ahead and the Fighting Hawks will have a lot of work to do to reconstruct a roster that will look significantly different next season — especially on the back end.
Six players are out of college eligibility — forward Mark Senden, forward Gavin Hain, defenseman Chris Jandric, defenseman Ryan Sidorski, defenseman Ty Farmer and goaltender Drew DeRidder.
At least four others will get NHL offers.
Defenseman Tyler Kleven is expected to sign with the Ottawa Senators.
Three others will have decisions to make.
Forward Judd Caulfield will likely get an offer from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2019. Forward Riese Gaber, an undrafted free agent, will field offers from a handful of NHL teams. Defenseman Ethan Frisch, also an undrafted free agent, is expected to get at least one NHL offer.
Considering UND healthy scratched several NHL draft picks this season, the Fighting Hawks could lose others to the NCAA transfer portal.
"Instead of just leaving it to chance and guessing what's going to happen, we've already laid the groundwork with communication and talking," UND coach Brad Berry said after Friday's game. "We have a pretty good idea of what some guys are going to have the opportunity to do, and they'll do that. At the end of the day, it will be going back home, having those conversations and then figuring it out from there. It just doesn't happen right now, figuring it out. We've done that weeks beforehand as far as getting an indication."
It would be a big boost for UND if Gaber opts to return for his senior season or if Frisch or Caulfield opt to use their COVID year to come back for a fifth season.
"I think it comes down to their heart and what they want to do," Berry said. "I think a lot of those guys have opportunities to play pro hockey and that's a great thing. But I remember last year and those conversations we had earlier, and they mulled it around a little bit. When you take a hard loss like this (Friday), it really kind of makes you look at yourself a little bit — you want to come back and do it again kind of thing. I'm not saying they will. But at the end of the day, I think they give a hard look and say, 'Man, I'm not ready to give this up. I want to keep wearing that North Dakota jersey.'"
Senden, who opted to return in 2022-23 for his fifth season, spoke to the players in the locker room after the loss to St. Cloud State.
"I love what Mark Senden said in the locker room after," Berry said. "He said, 'Guys, don't take it for granted. Don't take any day for granted about putting on that game jersey, the practice jersey. It's a privilege to do that.'
"I firmly believe that some of these guys that have opportunities with eligibility, it will resonate with them. It might not have a month ago or two months ago, but after you lose your last game of playing college hockey, it resonates."
Once UND learns who is leaving and who is returning, it will have to fill in the voids with freshmen and transfers.
The NCAA transfer portal already has more than 70 graduating players in it. Non-graduates can enter beginning Monday and college hockey teams will immediately begin recruiting them.
Here's a position-by-position look at UND as it heads into the offseason.
UND loses DeRidder, who got off to a slow start in 2022-23, but had a strong finish.
That leaves Jakob Hellsten and Kaleb Johnson on the roster.
The Fighting Hawks have one committed goalie recruit right now — Hobie Hedquist of the British Columbia Hockey League's Alberni Valley Bulldogs.
It's improbable that UND heads into next season with a goalie tandem as unproven as Hellsten (.875 save percentage in 2022-23) and Hedquist (.911 in the BCHL), which means the Fighting Hawks will grab a goalie out of the transfer portal for a third-straight season.
The prospect of being a backup for a third year also leaves Hellsten's return in question.
If Hellsten returns, Hedquist still has another year of junior eligibility left and could play one more. If Hellsten leaves, that increases the likelihood of Hedquist coming to Grand Forks in the fall along with the transfer.
UND's major reconstruction project will be on the back end.
Half of the blue line will be gone. Jandric, Sidorski and Farmer are out of eligibility. Kleven is expected to turn pro.
Even more could follow. Frisch will have an opportunity to go. And any time players are getting scratched this day and age, they are portal risks. Brent Johnson, a third-round pick of the Washington Capitals, didn't play once after Dec. 3.
Either way, a big freshman class is set to come.
Vegas Golden Knights draft pick Abram Wiebe is the headliner of the group. At 6-foot-3, Wiebe will give UND some size on the back end. His return to the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League this season has been an excellent one for his development. He's the No. 2 defenseman scorer in the league, averaging nearly a point per game.
Offense won't be the hallmark of his game early in his college career. But he should be able to defend early and develop offense as time goes along.
Draft-eligible defensemen Jake Livanavage and Andrew Strathmann appear likely to come in as true freshmen.
They bring more of an offensive element. They're both 5-foot-10 left-handers. Livanavage generates offense through his skating. Strathmann has the highest skill level of any of UND's incoming defensemen. He's a great skater, sees the ice well and can get into scoring areas. But he will need to round out his defensive game in order to secure important minutes.
Minnesota Wild draft pick Nate Benoit and Alberta Junior Hockey League defender Tanner Komzak are big, steady defenders, who figure to battle for lineup spots. Komzak is a right-hander — something UND will lack if Frisch leaves.
The incoming blue liners are promising, but it's difficult to ask freshmen to play big minutes on defense in the NCHC.
UND will need to supplement the freshmen with at least one older transfer. If Frisch signs, it will probably need two.
The Fighting Hawks will have an enticing carrot to dangle for potential portal defensemen — an opportunity to compete for a spot on the top of UND's prolific first power-play unit. That job is up for grabs with Jandric's graduation.
If Gaber and Caulfield opt to return, UND's forward group could be elite next season.
If they don't, the Fighting Hawks will be very young but skilled.
Jackson Blake is the most dynamic player in the NCHC and UND is adding another player who plays very similar in Jayden Perron of the United States Hockey League's Chicago Steel.
Perron might not have Blake's tenacity in the corners and hard areas, but the Winnipeg native has an elite skill level, can create his own space, is an excellent setup man and an underrated finisher.
Some of UND's other young players are due for progressions, including NHL draft picks Dylan James, Owen McLaughlin, Ben Strinden and Jackson Kunz.
UND has one other forward recruit who is guaranteed to come in — 6-foot-1 winger Michael Emerson of the Chicago Steel. Emerson plays a direct game and goes to the net every chance he gets. He's been a big scorer in the USHL this season. He's third in goals (29) and sixth in points (56). Most of his goals come from the top of the paint.
One area UND will be lacking, especially if Caulfield leaves, is size and strength. With the departures of Senden and Hain, UND is losing a lot of physicality up front. Those two played a lot of UND's toughest minutes in recent years.
This is where UND could look to add a player out of the transfer portal — a big, strong veteran to complement the younger, smaller skill guys like Blake, McLaughlin and Perron. If that player can play center, it would be ideal.
With the season now over, offseason movement is imminent.