After Bill Callahan's first losing season at Nebraska, several players departed the football team when they sensed that their skills weren't a match with the new direction of the program. A similar thing seems to be happening with the UNO hockey program with two very notable distinctions: (1) the departures are less contentious and (2) Blais, unlike Callahan, has a strong record of success (Two NCAA national championships plus a World Championship, vs. "Dumbest Team in America")
This offseason, UNO has seen John Kemp, Mike Phillipi, and Ryan Kretzer depart the team for various reasons. In my mind, it's not a huge surprise as these players were recruited by a defensive-minded coach, and aren't necessarily a good fit with a run-and-gun offensive mindset. In fact, I was surprised some of these departures didn't happen sooner, though the changes of last summer were so sudden that it didn't leave players much time to reconsider their plans.
Today's World-Herald featured several highly regarded USHL players that will be joining UNO next season. Three were among the top twelve scorers last season: Brock Montpetit, Ryan Walters, and Matt White. A fourth, defenseman Bryce Aneloski who led defensemen in scoring last season in the USHL. See that offensive focus starting to take hold in Omaha? All in all, 11 new players could be on the UNO roster by this fall.
This is a good news, bad news situation for UNO. First the bad news: these guys are inexperienced, and will need time to not only adjust to this level of competition, but also to the endurance level that Blais demands of his team. In some respects, this might be the 2009-10 season all over again trying to up their game to the level that Blais expects.
That's a short tern negative. The good news is that we saw last year how Blais can get his team ready to play late in the season as UNO made their playoff run. The key for UNO this season is to avoid that midseason slump that afflicted the Mavs in December and early January. UNO dug themselves quite a hole last season, and it took quite a run in February to get back into position.
With such change in the lineup, it's going to be even more important for those returning juniors and seniors to set the tone early on; they now know what Blais expects. Will it be Rich Purslow, Alex Hudson, or maybe Matt Ambroz? Or maybe someone else. Somebody will need to step it up this year, because going into unfamiliar territory in the WCHA, leadership could be the x-factor.