The rebuilding project that began last year with the University of Wisconsin-Superior men’s hockey team is now in its second phase.
Second-year head coach Rich McKenna pretty much cleaned house after last season, which ended with an overall record of 8-19-2 and in last place in the WIAC at 1-6-1.
The Yellowjackets’ 2017-18 roster includes 11 returning letterwinners, but just three seniors, three juniors and 22 sophomores and freshmen.
“Obviously last year was a rebuild year and this year is a continuation of that and probably even the following year will be the same,” UWS coach Rich McKenna said. “Naturally it takes five years to get all of your own guys in the program, but we sped up that process a little bit, but we needed to.”
The returning seniors are forwards Ian Ecklund (Twig, Minn.) and Dylan Nelson (Clearwater, Minn.) and goaltender Kyle Miller (Prior Lake, Minn.).
Ecklund, All-WIAC last year, ranked fourth on the team with 17 points with two goals and 15 assists, which were second on the squad.
One of three returning juniors is former Superior Spartan Daniel Litchke (honorable mention all-conference), who was second last season with 15 goals and third with 20 points.
Other notable returning players include sophomore forwards Bruno Birzitis (Riga, Latvia) and Jake Hamilton (Decatur, Ill.); and sophomore defenseman Jerry Miettunen (Tuusula, Finland).
“We expect Ian, Daniel and Bruno to have big years, but need everybody to get better,” McKenna said. “My goal for this team and the program is to not just be a one- or two-man team, I want four lines and six ‘D’ and I want a goalie that we can put up against any team in the country and have a chance or an advantage.”
Battling Miller for playing time in goal are sophomore Cole Skinner (Lunenberg, Nova Scotia), and freshman Oscar Svensson (Sodertalje, Sweden).
“We have plenty of competition in net,” McKenna said. “Miller was a good piece to the puzzle last year, he took over and played in 16 games. Skinner was injured at the beginning of last season and saw his first game action in our scrimmage at St. Scholastica, so he’s still in process of coming back off injury. And we also have Svensson in the mix, so if there’s still competition for playing time to be had, it’s definitely in net.”
The sophomore class includes forwards Tanner Skaja (St. Cloud), Liam Blais (Uxbridge, Ont.) and Andrew Durham; and defensemen Aiden Salerno (Long Beach, N.Y.), Colton Nelson (Hershey, Penn.) and Tony DeVito (Bloomington, Ill.).
Freshmen include defensemen Connor Hamonic (Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Ryan Carlson (Hermantown); and forwards Alec Mackenzie (Orleans, Ontario), Pavel Mikhasenak (Yekaerinburg, Russia), Evgeny Yakovlev (Belgorod, Russia), Jason Cohan (Vancouver B.C.), Brandon Barillaro (Alexandria, Ontario), Austin Thompson (Leamington, Ontario) and Nicholas Klishko (San Diego).
UWS tuned up for the season with a scrimmage at St. Scholastica. The two teams will also renew their rivalry on Saturday, Nov. 25 at Wessman Arena.
The ’Jackets and Saints haven’t played since a UWS 3-2 win on Nov. 23, 2013 at Mars Lakeview Arena.
“It’s great to have them back on our schedule,” McKenna said. “It was also a fun scrimmage, they’re a good team, well coached and deserve to be picked No. 3 in their conference this year.”
UWS was picked to finish last in the WIAC according to the preseason coaches’ poll.
UW-Eau Claire was picked to finish first, followed by 2017 regular-season champion UW-Stevens Point, UW-River Falls and UW-Stout.
“It’s a poll for the fans, that’s all it is,” McKenna said. “We don’t deserve to be voted any higher because we didn’t accomplish much (last year), but it’s also not the same team and maybe we’ll use that as fuel.
“One thing I do know is that everybody’s good in our conference.”
UWS kicked off the 2017-18 season with a pair of 4-2 losses — Friday at Forest Lake and Saturday at Concordia (Mequon).
“We have our work cut out for us,” McKenna said. “Everything is different this year. All of our systems are different and all of our schemes are different.
“We want to be more aggressive this year without the puck and we want to more efficient with the puck. I think we have better players to be able to play that game and build more on top of that.
“But this year is very much a teaching year, with 22 sophomores and freshman we have to show the guys what it means to be a Yellowjacket. We’re going to win games just because we’re better than what we were, but it’s a new era now.”
’JACKET JOTTINGS: After only eight home games last season, UWS will play 14 games at home in 2017-18 including when it hosts the four-team Superior Showdown Dec. 29 and 30. Semifinal games are UWS vs. Concordia-Moorhead and Marian vs. Milwaukee School of Engineering. The winners and losers will play each other the following day. … UW-Eau Claire returns 19 players. … UW-River Falls coach Steve Freeman has a 22-year record of 268-192-48. Among the Falcons’ returning players is junior defenseman Ryan Gotelaere (Lake Nebagamon). Gone is Mitch Kontny, who had four goals and nine assists last year as a senior. … UW-Stevens Point returns three all-conference players, including junior defenseman Ryan Bittner (first team), and senior goalie Max Milosek (honorable mention). … Stout’s roster includes sophomores Trent Olson, a defenseman from Superior, and Jack Forbert, Conner Valesano and Alex Toscano, all former Duluth East Greyhounds.
2017-18 WIAC Preseason Poll
1 UW-Eau Claire (18-7-3)..................... 5-3-0
2 UW-Stevens Point (21-5-3)............... 7-1-0
3 UW-River Falls (12-13-2).................. 3-4-1
4 UW-Stout (12-13-2)........................... 3-5-0
5 UW-Superior (8-19-2) 1-6-1