Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Where Will Gabinet & Co. Focus Recruiting in the Future?

Collegiate hockey programs mine talent from a variety of places. 

You’ll see players from U.S. and Canadian junior leagues, guys from target-rich high schools in hockey hotbeds, and players plucked from Europe. 

The mix and concentration ultimately depends on the particular program. 

Let me give you some examples.

In the 1999-00 season, UNO’s roster was comprised of 12 players from the United States, 14 players from Canada, and 1 player from Sweden. 

In the 2014-15 season, UNO’s roster featured 19 players from the United States and 7 players from Canada. 

You’ll have a heavy concentration of recruits coming out of junior leagues like the USHL, NAHL, BCHL, AJHL, OPJHL, and the SJHL. You’ll also see players direct from high schools like Shattuck St. Mary’s and Hill-Murray in Minnesota. 

When Mike Gabinet became UNO Hockey’s third head coach in 2017, fans were curious to see the direction recruiting might take during his tenure. 

First off, Gabinet hasn’t been at the helm long enough to get a definitive picture of what his prototype is for a competitive hockey team. A couple of the recruits slated to join the Mavs jumped ship when UNO assistant Peter Mannino left for Miami (OH) this past spring. 

Thus far, if you look at UNO’s targets listed on recruiting websites, you’ll see a fairly familiar mix of player types — recruits who are the property of junior clubs, and high school hockey players from around the United States. 

For better or worse, these recruits aren’t a “sure thing” until they sign National Letters of Intent (NLIs). 

When you consider that college hockey programs are already getting commitments for 2021 and 2022, the entire enterprise takes on even more doubt. There is a lot of time for those recruits to change their mind. 

NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton addressed future NCAA legislation regarding hockey recruiting practices in his “state of the conference” address last week — in particular, how NLIs should be handled with delayed enrollment (since many hockey players participate in junior hockey prior to joining a collegiate program).

Fenton believes (and many coaches agree) that the process needs to be tweaked by the NCAA. 

The UNO Hockey program is in a constant “tug of war” with programs in geographic areas with rich recruiting bases. 

The UNO program had success in its early years with rosters heavy on talent from the junior leagues in Canada. 

Former players like Jeff Hoggan, Kendall Sidoruk, David Brisson, Dave Noel-Bernier, and Allan Carr are among my favorite former Mavericks. All hail from Canada, and all currently reside in Omaha. 

It is interesting to note that Gabinet and his two assistants — Dave Noel-Bernier and Paul Jerrard — are natives of Canada.

While each has coached with various clubs around North America, you wonder if they’ll put together a pipeline from the Canadian junior ranks — targeting more players north of the border. 

That strategy would offer certain advantages for the program. Geographic loyalties are less a factor when a program recruits players out of Canada — something that is beneficial for a program like Omaha. 

(That said, I do recall losing a particular Canadian recruit because the competing school’s locale was a direct flight for the athlete’s parents). 

Years ago, when Jeff Hoggan (who was from Hope, British Columbia) was playing for Omaha, I asked if there were any teams he was excited to play. 

He said, “I don’t know half of them... I just want to beat them all.” 

Hoggan has become a friend in the intervening years. It’s fantastic that he has planted roots in Omaha — something common among his Canadian compatriots from those early years.

Coach Gabinet is one of the Canadian players who landed in Omaha during the program’s early years. It’s good to have a former player at the helm. 

As he tries to write a recipe for success at UNO, you have to wonder if his plan involves recruiting more players out of the Canadian ranks. 

Within the last few days, defenseman Brandon Scanlin from the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) committed to UNO. (He looks to be a terrific “offensive defenseman” in the Alberta league.)

At the UNO ticket pickup event at Baxter Arena last week, we had the opportunity to meet a forward named Zach Goberis — a new recruit from Arvada, Colo., who played two games in the WHL (major junior hockey in Canada, which is something akin to minor league hockey). UNO is appealing to the NCAA to reinstate his eligibility (according to sources, he’ll sit out this season and two games next season). 

This isn’t the first time UNO has had “major junior” players on the roster. Forward Allan Carr and goalie Kendall Sidoruk both played “major junior” hockey in Canada, regained NCAA eligibility, and became key cogs in UNO’s run to the CCHA Championship game in 2000. 

Goberis was very successful in the 2017-18 campaign with the Estevan Bruins of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) — amassing 34 goals and 44 assists last season. 

It’s important to keep making inroads into the talent-rich Minnesota high school hockey ranks. Some have argued that UNO can’t be successful in a conference like the NCHC without top talent from the Minnesota high school hockey pool. 

If you look at UNO during the Dean Blais era, Minnesota standouts became the “marquee players” for the team, played key roles on special teams, and led the program to its first Frozen Four in 2015. 

When you look at the UNO roster this season, you don’t see as many high-round draft picks as you did in recent years. Gabinet’s success the next few seasons will be on the shoulders of “lunch pail” players who buy into his philosophy. 

In order to compete in the NCHC, UNO will need production from all four lines.

At today’s pre-season media day at Baxter Arena, UNO senior Ryan Galt said, “We don’t have the superstars. We don’t have the one-timer from Pope on the power play, but coach has done a good job of reiterating that we have a different mentality this year, and we’ll utilize that.” 

It sounds like “role players” will be the name of the game the next couple of seasons for the Mavericks. 

Time will tell what direction Mike Gabinet takes the program as it regards recruiting. 

But it’s possible key role players in the future will be plucked out of those Canadian junior ranks — potentially giving the team a different flavor in the future. 

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