ST. PAUL, Minn. — Much has been made of the bevy of talented rookies on the Minnesota Duluth roster.
Five of the six starting defensemen for the Bulldogs are freshmen, including leading scorer Scott Perunovich (36 points). Three (Perunovich, Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg) played for Team USA in the World Junior Championship.
But no matter how skilled, a large batch of rookies presents challenges to coaches as well as veteran players, who play a huge role in making sure the newcomers develop and fit in with the team’s culture and mission.
Senior captain Karson Kuhlman, junior alternate captain Parker Mackay and the rest of the upperclassmen have worked hard to help develop the freshmen, and they’re proud of what they have achieved.
“They’re eager to learn,” said senior Blake Young. “They’re eager to listen.
“You saw the way they played [against Ohio State in the semifinals]. They don’t play like freshmen.”
Things got off to a rocky start for the Bulldogs, but the seniors provided a steady hand.
“As a team, we struggled early on,” said senior Avery Peterson. “It was just because we had so many young guys. The role for the older guys was to be there for them, show them the ropes and let them adjust to the new game and the new level. Once the guys did that, the team really took off.”
Mackay echoed Peterson’s remarks.
“It was tough early, especially [compared to] the group we had last year,” he said. “There were no downs last year, where this year has been kind of a roller coaster ride. And you kind of figured that with the young guys.
“But you had to stick with them. The maturity late in the season has been incredible and I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”
It wasn’t just the freshmen who had a lot to learn, according to Kuhlman.
“As much as it was a learning year for our younger guys, especially our freshmen, I think it was a learning year for me as well,” he said. “I learned a lot of things about how to push some buttons and motivate guys in different ways. And I couldn’t be prouder about that freshman class, just watching them grow throughout the year and obviously stepping up into big roles.”
The current group of upperclassmen pointed to the players that had brought them along as rookies.
“We were taught from the older guys how the ropes were, what was Bulldog hockey,” said Young. “You know it’s your responsibility to carry on what Bulldog hockey is, and teach the younger guys how to play it.”
“Our group was really lucky to have great upperclassmen, guys like Andy Welinski,” said Peterson. “The way was kind of paved for us.”
Coach Scott Sandelin had nothing but positive things to say about his veteran leadership, especially Kuhlman and Mackay.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have some really good captains and leaders on our team for a lot of years,” he said. “But this was a little bit more challenging, I think, for them, for the coaching staff, how everything’s going to come together, when it’s going to come together, how to handle some of those situations.”
Sandelin agreed that it wasn’t just his rookies that have come a long way this season.
“[Kuhlman and Mackay] have become tremendous leaders for us,” he said. “I think they’ve done a great job. And for us as coaches we’ve learned, too, along the way. But last year was totally different, it was with an older team.
“But those guys have done a great job. And they’ve played well. Those two guys — Karson and Parker have played outstanding for us.”