Evan Kornacki, LSSULakers.com
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.—With the 2017-18 hockey season in the rear view mirror, we sat down with head coach Damon Whitten to recap the season and look ahead to the 2018-19 season.
Q: With the 2017-18 season behind us, give us your review of the season from start to finish.
Whitten:I think we got off to a pretty good start with great competition. We played some of the top teams in the WCHA, No.1-ranked Denver and had a big tie against them. We split with Northern Michigan at home, tied and lost to Tech as well, the top two teams in WCHA. We hit the rails a little bit when we lost our two of our top defenseman at Denver. Some key injuries hurt an already young and inexperienced D-core and it took a lot to recover from that. We struggled for a little bit through the injuries and lacked some depth, a little bit, we just played some young guys. When those guys returned and (Steven) Ruggiero got eligible, that solidified our back end and made life easier for our goaltenders as well. With a late season run, our goals against average improved drastically down the stretch run with a couple road sweeps to put ourselves into position to make the playoffs. It was just too little too late with the midseason struggles, injuries and missing some of those key guys.
Q: Heading into the offseason, what are the primary goals for the team. What does the offseason training schedule look like? Any specific things you're focusing on?
Whitten: Always looking at everything to get better. The little ways and the big ways. It's always an evaluation process hitting on things. I think this is the first time, for our staff, that a lot of our upperclassmen play key roles. That's been a challenge in the past couple years. Some of our more experienced players didn't play a bigger role in the team. Even some of our leadership group weren't key guys in key situations. I think that will be a big key working with our senior class and upperclassmen, Diego Cugglietta, Gage Torrel, Anthony Nellis, Nick Kossoff are all really experienced guys. When you look at those three forwards in particular, since they've stepped on campus three years ago, they have been key guys for us. Diego and Gage have played in every situation for us the past couple years matching against upperclassman, just a real big piece of what we have done here. Anthony Nellis's role he played in all situations, his penalty kill role grew this year. I think we are really excited for the first time to have our core guys, our leadership core, be guys that play in all situations, they will be in the lineup every night. That will be important for us. One of our big focuses will be working with those guys to grow as leaders and take the reign of this team early on. One of the things we will do for the first time, is name captains our before we leave for the summer. You can imagine those guys we just talked about will be in the mix. Also, getting into the weight room, rebuilding our strength base from a long season will all be a priority. The guys have done a good job getting back in there with a positive attitude, it has been a real healthy attitude around the team as well. I think our group right now is focused on the right things on and off the ice. There is good leadership and good energy in the program.
Q: You had a couple seniors (J.T. Henke & Kyle Chatham) get their first shot at professional hockey after the season concluded. What is it like, as a coach, to see your guys pursuing those professional hockey dreams?
Whitten: It's always one of the more exciting things. Our sport is a little bit unique where guys will head off and play a little bit and come back and graduate. That is a thrill, you are more proud that they will all get to graduate. It was a tough travel schedule, it was a big commitment to athletics and these guys did a great job in the classroom and that's going to be their foundation moving forward. It will be exciting to see J.T. and Chatham going off to play. I had a chance to talk to Kyle a little bit since he has been back. It is a good experience to get a taste of that what it's going to take for them to pursue professional hockey down the road and it's a big advantage over some guys that don't get the do that. So it's a really rewarding thing to see, from four or five years ago, those guys getting recruited to play college hockey, now that has evolved into pro hockey. It's really unique opportunity for those guys to get some experience.
Q: With signing day coming up next week, give us brief overview of the class coming in next season. What do they bring to the table and how do you see them meshing with the guys?
Whitten: I think as always; we are hitting different areas. The one area we won't have any additions is in goaltending, those guys will all return. That will be a strength in our team next year. On the D-core, we didn't lose a lot of our playing group, we have three senior defensemen. Kyle Chatham was really the main guy that will step out from a top-6 D-man and a critical D-man. We will have a couple guys coming in to compete for that open spot. I think most of the guys that are supposed to come in right now have good skill sets, one guy is a really good power play specialist, brings a unique attribute that way. The other guy a real skill player, we have to make sure we are good there. We were a young group overall, we played 3 freshmen nearly every single night last year beyond the injury to Lukas Kaelble. Two sophomore defenseman, when Steven Ruggiero became eligible around Christmas from his transfer. Collin Saccoman missed about two months of the season with a lower body injury, but five of our main defenseman were underclassmen. I think they will be the best competition and the best depth we've had in my time here. It will be a really exciting and challenging battle with guys like Saccoman, Kaelble. Ruggiero was really critical to us. Will Riedell and Tyler Anderson have made huge strides as freshman defensemen and I think we have a chance to really have an elite D-core. That will be really good for our program. Up front, a little bit different group than we have had in the past. We never have been able to bring guys in and spot them with upperclassmen. I think for the first time we are going to bring in these new recruits and put them in with seniors and juniors, instead of putting them out there with freshman, sophomores. They'll play key roles and help us match up in critical situations. I think it will be really healthy for guys coming in and add depth and competition to our lineup. We have a couple guys coming in that are really high end elite goal scorers from where they are coming from.
Q: Yuki Miura got some national attention this year and played well for you in the few games he got in down the stretch. He recently got an invitation to train and compete with the Japan Ice Hockey Federation for the upcoming World Championships. What does that mean for him individually and for this program?
Whitten: It's a pretty unique situation. You don't hear a whole lot about Japanese players coming to play Division 1 hockey. Yuki played in Waterloo in the USHL before he came to Lake State, so he has some assimilations of the US culture, diet, and style of play. I definitely think that helped Yuki in his adjustment to Lake State and to the US. I think his year would've turned out stronger if he didn't miss a significant amount of the season with a broken leg. It was nice to get Yuki healthy and playing and had a big impact on the team when he came back. He added some publicity to the program because of his unique background and that was nice to see. It was a real unique opportunity for him to represent his native country Japan in the world championships. I think most college guys when you look at that will be a U18 type of environment, this is a men's world championship and he will be playing against seasoned veterans, seasoned pros, guys that are 30 years old or even older. I think that will really help Yuki continue to develop and comeback more ready to play college hockey and have a big impact at Lake State.
Q: Heading into next season, what is your outlook/expectations for the forward rotation?
Whitten: I think it will be our best depth since we have been here. J.T. Henke was the only senior forward on this team and he obviously had a good year, he was a real offensive catalyst, but the majority of our forward groups remains intact. I think late in the year, the line with Anthony Nellis, Hampus Erikkson, and Gage Torrel was dynamite. Every night it was really good. Same thing with Max Humitz, Diego Cugglietta, and Yuki Miura they got the task to match up against the other team's top lines and they still had an offensive impact. Brayden Gelsinger is another guy that has some highlights his first two years and will take a big step this year. We return a lot of our top forwards. We got guys like Bryan Basilico that gave solid contributions, Chase Gamelin, Brendan McKay, Ian Johnston, so we returned a lot of our crew. As we mentioned earlier, some of these offensive forwards coming in are really going to fight and push for a spot. I think we have a chance to return one of the deepest offensive groups in the country and that will be important as our offense has to improve.
Q: Heading into next season, what is your outlook/expectations for the defensive unit?
Whitten: I think we have a chance to be special as a D-core. We have a real unique makeup. Our focus in our recruiting has been to improve puck skills and improve skating ability. I think we worked hard to get it and think we were fortunate to get it in guys like Steven Ruggiero who is 6'3", Will Riedell who is 6'2", Tyler Anderson who is 6'4", Kaelble and Saccoman who are both over 6 foot. So we got our unbelievable attributes back there in terms of skating ability, puck skills, and size. These guys got valuable experience this year, and I think we can be a very dominant group.
Q: Heading into next season, what is your outlook/expectations for the goaltending group?
Whitten: I think that the goaltending has a chance to be very good in the WCHA and nationally. I thought that was an area that we were inconsistent at times last year, not just at the position but as a team. As you are playing five underclassmen in front of them in critical situations that's going to reflect everywhere. Key defense as a whole unit has to improve. Mareks and Nick had great finishes to the season and showed that they can play. We will need that consistently from them next year. Roman Bengert was on our team all year, due to some NCAA issues he wasn't able to play, but now Roman is eligible. He has practiced with the team for the whole year, so he knows what it is all about as well. I think this has been the most depth we've had in my time here and that should be a strength of our team as well with a really competitive deep goalie rotation.
Q: Looking ahead to next November, we see U-of-M coming in to Taffy Abel on Great Lakes State Weekend. Obviously a big game with them making it to the Frozen Four this year and also the return of an old CCHA rivalry. Talk about what it means for the school/program to have them coming back into town?
Whitten: They are a national brand and obviously well known throughout our state as a Big Ten School. It re-lives the rivalry days from the CCHA. For a lot of years Lake State and Michigan were right on top and had epic battles and a lot of those games were for CCHA championships and NCAA tournament berths. It's a really well known rivalry and historical matchup between two historic programs in college hockey. It's going to be really nice to have them up for Great Lake State Weekend, which has always been a big weekend for Lake State. It will be a good matchup, they are a strong team and had a great run to finish up the year going to the Frozen Four. That will be a big weekend for us to set the tone for our season and we are really looking forward to it.
Q: Taking an early look the WCHA competition for next season, where do you see this team staking up against some of the top programs over the last few years?
Whitten: I think we have made strides from a year or two ago, where we have never beat Mankato in school history. Now we have won two or three of the last six or eight. It's been 11 years since we won a game at Ferris. We got that done, so we have made some strides in some areas. Not as quickly as we would like. We know what it takes to play in this league to be successful and I don't think there is any question that our playing group or staff understands the importance of having a strong year. Our goal is to get home ice next year, we will be a home ice team, that means 1st place to 4th place. We want to host next year; it will be critical that we are consistent to ready to go from day one.
Hockey Q&A: Damon Whitten
Evan Kornacki, LSSULakers.com