That simple summation by Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik at the start of the 2020-21 season isn’t an understatement as much as it is a primer for what may or may not come next.
Everything has changed. No one knows what’s coming. Hockey is beginning all the same.
“Flexibility’s been the big word around here,” said Rohlik. “You have to be flexible because of this fluid situation. We’ve adjusted with our schedule – on ice, off ice and doing what we can do with our guys to try to keep everybody safe while we’re doing this. It’s been a learning process.”
Hockey and COVID-19
There’s no getting around the “this” of this, the COVID-19 pandemic with cases surging in the United States just as Big Ten hockey begins and with college campuses particularly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.
Two weeks before fall semester was set to start, Michigan State told 10,000 undergraduate students who’d planned to live in residence halls to remain home and attend classes remotely because of spikes in the virus in East Lansing in August.
In October, Washtenaw County – home to the University of Michigan – issued a stay-in-place order until Nov. 3 for all U of M students to help stem the growing number of local coronavirus cases and on Nov. 6 announced that undergraduate offerings will be online only for winter semester.
Ohio State’s Office of Student Life issued a plea to students Nov. 13 to adhere to recommended coronavirus protocols as the number of reported cases quadrupled on the campus in the first two weeks of November.
“The teams that can navigate it the best are going to be put in the best spot,” said Minnesota’s Bob Motzko, who said that B1G schools have had the advantage of learning from how their football programs have handled it. “You’ve got to make hay when you’re healthy. It’ll probably bump into all of us, but I think hockey’s got a very good chance to be successful.”
The strict protocols enacted by the Big Ten to help keep student-athletes and staff healthy affects how every team interacts.
“Logistically, the older guys and leaders had to make sure guys were on the same page,” said Michigan State coach Danton Cole. “They had a certain window for each locker room to be on the ice. They had to come in at certain times and leave at certain times. We can set that part of the schedule up, but a lot of that is on the guys to patrol themselves.”
Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky said that building chemistry with newcomers is challenging: “The freshmen, unfortunately, have had very little interaction with the team that way.”
Even team meetings have changed, said Gadowsky.
“When we communicate with the group, it’s through Zoom, and that’s how we have to do things,” Gadowsky said.
There were no exhibition games to prepare teams for the season. Time between series is significantly shortened for the immediate future, changing approaches to nutrition and strength training.
And, of course, the teams will play to empty – or near-empty – arenas.
“Everything’s still pending in a lot of ways because we’re not only dealing with the university’s protocols, but we’re also dealing with the state of Indiana,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson. “It’s not going to be the same environment. You have to create your own mindset as far as how to approach the game.”
Motzko, the eternal optimist, thinks that an entire season can be played if everyone goes about things safely.
“We’re all talking to other coaches. We’re all talking around the country. Our players are. I think there’s a path for us to get this thing in.”
To the actual hockey
With all of the talk – and rightfully so – surrounding COVID-19 and the attempt to safely return to playing games, the actual games can get lost in the shuffle.
Without the normal early season exhibition games and without nonconference play in November, Big Ten teams are diving in from the deep end.
Minnesota was picked by the coaches to finish first in the Big Ten’s preseason poll. The Gophers, a young team that found traction during the second half of the season last year, are the most experienced team in the league this year, welcoming back essentially all of their key players.
“This is November, and we haven’t played a game yet,” Motzko said of the preseason poll. “I’ve always thought that coaches’ polls are silly, but I know it’s tradition and I know it’s for fans. It really comes from the fact that we had a strong second half last year and were right knocking on the door and we’ve got a lot of returning players.”
Michigan was picked to challenge the Gophers. The Wolverines welcome a talented freshman class to campus to join a solid returning cast.
“I like our team, I don’t how good we are, but we’ll find out here pretty soon,” Pearson said. “Each and every freshman has proved to our staff that they should play, that they’re not out of place. That’s a really good thing and they’ve looked really good as a group.”
The freshmen may take a bit to get acclimated to the college game, but that may not be a problem for Michigan as it possesses one of the better goaltenders in the nation in Strauss Mann.
“Strauss Mann’s coming off of a great year and he’ll make up for a lot of the mistakes we make,” Pearson said. “Hopefully, we don’t have many, but until we can get our feet under us.”
Rohlik also has a pretty good goalie in Tommy Nappier, who the Buckeyes will lean on as they sort out some roster turnover.
“For me, I want to build it from the net out,” Rohlik said. “When you’ve got a guy like Tommy Nappier coming back, we’re going to rely on him.”
Not playing competitive games until mid-November after practicing for months isn’t something that’s been done before, so the product we see on the ice remains to be seen.
“It could be entertaining, let’s put it that way,” Jackson said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of mistakes to be made, it’ll take probably a little time to acclimated to playing serious hockey again.”
Big Ten teams will also play a schedule this season that includes NCAA Division I independent Arizona State.
BIG TEN TEAM CAPSULES
Head coach: Mel Pearson, entering his fourth season at Michigan
2019-20 overall record: 18-14-4 (11-10-3-2 Big Ten, tied for second)
Key returning players: Goaltender Strauss Mann (18-13-4, 1.85 GAA, .939 SV%), sophomore defenseman Cam York (5-11—16), sophomore forward Johnny Beecher (9-7—16), senior forward Jack Becker (8-4—12)
Key losses: Forwards Jake Laker (14-17—31), Will Lockwood (9-14—23) and Nick Pastujov (9-9—18), defenseman Luke Martin
Key additions: Defenseman Owen Power (Chicago, USHL), forwards Matthew Beniers (USNTDP), Thomas Bordeleau (USNTDP), Brendan Brisson (Chicago, USHL) and Kent Johnson (Trail, BCHL)
2020-21 prediction: Picked to finish second in the Big Ten preseason coaches’ poll, the Wolverines were rolling in the second half of 2019-20 before the season ended so abruptly. After starting B1G play 1-7-1, Michigan picked up 10 conference wins in the second half and swept Michigan State with two shutout wins in the first round of the conference playoffs. A lot of that second-half success can be attributed to the play of goaltender Strauss Mann, who improved significantly as the season progressed. The defensive unit in front of him did, too, ending the season sixth-best in the country. Mann returns, but the Wolverines welcome 10 freshmen, nine of which are skaters, including three defenders. It’s a highly-touted rookie class, but even veteran Michigan teams seem to take a while to gel. If Mann returns in form, the chemistry doesn’t take too long and the Wolverines can find consistent scoring, Michigan will contend for the conference title.
Drew’s prediction: Second
Paula’s prediction: First
Head coach: Danton Cole, entering his fourth season at Michigan State
2019-20 overall record: 15-19-2 (11-11-2-0 Big Ten, sixth)
Key returning players: Senior forward Tommy Apap (7-5—12), senior forward Mitchell Lewandowski (8-12—20), junior defenseman Dennis Cesana (7-15—22), senior defenseman Tommy Miller (2-7—9), junior goaltender Drew DeRidder (0-4-0, 2.80 GAA, .901 SV%)
Key losses: Forwards Patrick Khodorenko (16-17—33) and Sam Saliba (7-10—17), defenseman Jerad Rosburg (4-13—17), goaltender John Lethemon (15-15-2, 2.13 GAA, .935 SV%)
Key additions: Graduate transfer forward Charlie Combs (Bemidji State), forwards A.J. Hodges (Sioux City, USHL) and Kristof Papp (Des Moines, USHL), defensemen Aiden Gallacher (Youngstown, USHL) and Nash Neinhuis (Omaha, USHL), goaltender Pierce Charleson (Brooks, AJHL)
2020-21 prediction: Under Cole’s leadership, the Spartans have steadily improved in key areas of their game. Last season, Michigan State played more consistent hockey, defended the net better, and added depth to several lines. This season, after finishing 2019-20 with the 50th-best offense nationally, the Spartans need to add scoring to their list of improved skills. One new player who may help is Charlie Combs, who has transferred to Michigan State as a grad student. Combs netted 36 goals in three seasons for the Beavers, and the Spartans think he’ll also contribute some veteran savvy to a team that’s also bringing in nine rookies. Picked by the B1G coaches to finish this season exactly where they did last year, sixth, the Spartans can continue their journey of steady improvement only if this year’s freshman class helps to elevate the team’s overall game, from net out.
Drew’s prediction: Fifth
Paula’s prediction: Sixth
Head coach: Bob Motzko, entering his third season at Minnesota
2019-20 overall record: 16-14-7 (7-8-7-4 B1G, tied for second)
Key returning players: Junior forward Sammy Walker (11-19-30), senior forward Brannon McManus (9-18-27), sophomore forward Ben Meyers (10-16-26), junior forward Blake McLaughlin (8-16-24), senior forward Scott Reedy (15-8-23), junior forward Sampo Ranta (12-8-20), senior goaltender Jack LaFontaine (9-9-6, 2.55 GAA)
Key losses: Defenseman Tyler Nanne (4-10-14)
Key additions: Defenseman Brock Faber (USNTDP), defenseman Mike Koster (Tri-City, USHL)
2020-21 prediction: Compare the “Key losses” list to the “Key returning players” one and it’s pretty easy to see why the Gophers are predicted to pace the conference this season. The young-team narrative that followed the Gophers around for Motzko’s first two years behind the bench has been lifted and Minnesota earned this season’s hype with the way it was playing before everything shut down in March. With a shortened season, the Gophers will need to lean on that experience and get off to a fast start this year.
Drew’s prediction: First
Paula’s prediction: Second
Head coach: Jeff Jackson, entering his 16th season at Notre Dame
2019-20 overall record: 15-15-7 (9-9-6-4 B1G, fifth)
Key returning players: Junior forward Alex Steeves (11-17-28), senior forward Colin Theisen (8-12-20), junior forward Michael Graham (4-16-20), junior defenseman Spencer Stastney (3-17-20), junior defenseman Nate Clurman (0-9-9)
Key losses: Goaltender Cale Morris (12-14-7, 2.42 GAA), forward Cam Morrison (13-14-27), forward Mike O’Leary (9-14-23), forward Cal Burke (7-14-21)
Key additions: Forward Grant Silianoff (Cedar Rapids, USHL), forward Ryder Rolston (Waterloo, USHL)
2020-21 prediction: After getting bounced in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last season, Notre Dame will have to rebuild without the goaltender it leaned on for the past three years. The Irish were tasked with replacing a lot of scoring going into last season and will bank on a group of mostly sophomores and juniors to take the next step in their development this year.
Drew’s prediction: Sixth
Paula’s prediction: Fifth
Head coach: Steve Rohlik, entering his eighth season at Ohio State
2019-20 overall record: 20-11-5 (11-9-4-1 Big Ten, tied for second)
Key returning players: Senior goaltender Tommy Nappier (17-10-4, 2.04 GAA, .932 SV%), junior forward Quinn Preston (15-11—26), junior forward Gustaf Westlund (12-14—26), senior forward Austin Pooley (3-9—12), sophomore defenseman Layton Ahac, redshirt freshman Michael Gildon (1-2—3)
Key losses: Forwards Tanner Laczynski (11-23—34) and Carson Meyer (17-14—31), defensemen Gordi Meyer (5-9—14), Matt Miller (5-12—17) and Wyatt Ege (4-8—12)
Key additions: Transfer senior forward Timothy Doherty (Maine), forwards Patrick Guzzo (Waterloo, USHL) and Travis Trealor (Lincoln, USHL), defenseman Ryan Dickinson (Shreveport, NAHL)
2020-21 prediction: Last year should have been Ohio State’s season. The Buckeyes had a healthy, veteran team in front of one of the most solid goalies in college hockey, Tommy Nappier, but Ohio State struggled in the second half of the season, winning five league games down the stretch and missing an opportunity to overtake first-place Penn State in the final weekend of play. The Buckeyes’ offensive and defensive numbers last season were nearly identical to those of the year before, so that growth spurt that can come from returning talented players never materialized. Picked tied for third by the Big Ten coaches in preseason, Ohio State will need to find better ways to support Nappier in net – with goal scoring and better overall team defense. One player who may help with that is redshirt freshman Michael Gildon, a veteran of the U.S. National Development program whose rookie season was cut short by an injury.
Drew’s prediction: Third
Paula’s prediction: Third
Head coach: Guy Gadowsky, entering his ninth season at Penn State
2019-20 overall record: 20-10-4 (12-8-4-1 Big Ten, first)
Key returning players: Senior forward Alex Limoges (11-21—32), senior forward Sam Sternschein (12-5—17), junior forward Aarne Talvitie (6-13—29), senior defenseman Clayton Phillips (2-7—9), junior goaltender Oskar Autio (2-1-1, 1.87 GAA, .930 SV%)
Key losses: Forwards Evan Barratt (12-22—34), Nate Sucese (11-27—38), Liam Folkes (11-14—25), Brandon Biro (10-15—25) and Dennis Smirnov (8-11—19), defenseman Cole Hults (8-22—30), goaltender Peyton Jones (18-9-3, 2.56 GAA, .919 SV%)
Key additions: Forwards Jared Westcott (Sioux Falls, USHL), Xander Lamppa (Waterloo, USHL), Christian Berger (Omaha, USHL) and Chase McLane (Tri-City, USHL), defenseman Jimmy Dowd (Chicago, USHL), goaltender Liam Souliere (Victoria, BCHL)
2020-21 prediction: Talk about a reversal of fortune – or at least of expected fortune. At the start of the 2019-20 season, the Big Ten coaches picked Penn State to finish first in the league, which is exactly what the Nittany Lions did. Penn State relied on a high-flying offense that averaged more than 3.5 goals per game and the steady-but-not-spectacular netminding of Peyton Jones. After losing a slew of talent to graduation and early departure, though, the coaches have picked Penn State to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. With 12 players gone and nine new faces, there are a lot of questions about the Nittany Lions and too few clues for answers. Senior forward Alex Limoges, a first-team preseason coaches’ pick, returns to captain the team, and junior goaltender Oskar Autio is capable in net. If the Nittany Lions are to finish higher than last place, they’ll need to come together quickly and learn Penn State’s hallmark transition game.
Drew’s prediction: Seventh
Paula’s prediction: Seventh
Head coach: Tony Granato, entering his fifth season at Wisconsin
2019-20 overall record: 14-20-2 (7-15-2-2 B1G, seventh)
Key returning players: Sophomore forward Cole Caufield (19-17-36), junior forward Roman Ahcan (14-11-25), senior forward Ty Pelton-Byce (9-15-24), senior forward Linus Weissbach
Key losses: Defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk (7-21-28), forward Alex Turcotte (9-17-26), defenseman K’Andre Miller (7-11-18)
Key additions: Goaltender Cameron Rowe (Des Moines, USHL), graduate transfer goalie Robbie Beydoun (Michigan Tech)
2020-21 prediction: Two of the top three scorers from last season are gone, but Cole Caufield choosing a sophomore season over signing with Montreal will be key for Wisconsin’s chances this season. The question, once again, is what kind of goaltending is Wisconsin going to get? The 3.75 goals per contest allowed by the Badgers last season was third worst in the country. That number will have to be vastly improved to climb out of the Big Ten’s basement.
Drew’s prediction: Fourth
Paula’s prediction: Fourth
Head coach: Greg Powers, entering his fourth year coaching ASU at the Division I level
2019-20 overall record: 22-11-3
Key returning players: Senior forward Johnny Walker (20-18-38), senior forward James Sanchez (10-30-40), senior forward William Knierim (15-9-24), junior forward PJ Marrocco (13-8-21
Key losses: Defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk (11-26-37), defenseman Joshua Maniscalco (11-21-32), forward Tyler Busch (3-18-21)
Key additions: Forward Sean Dhooghe (Wisconsin), goaltender Cole Brady (Fargo, USHL), forward Benji Eckerle (Tri-City, USHL), forward Michael Mancinelli (Des Moines, USHL)
2020-21 prediction: I am confident that Arizona State won’t win the Big Ten, mostly because it isn’t eligible to do so. Nonetheless, if the Sun Devils can post a solid record while playing an all-road schedule against a solid conference, that should go a long way in the eyes of the selection committee and whatever way they decided to pick this year’s NCAA Tournament teams. A solid recruiting class along with Walker and Sanchez returning should put ASU in a solid position. A drafted goaltender coming in to either push or platoon with junior Evan DeBrouwer doesn’t hurt, either.