ADRIAN, Mich.--When the puck drops on the 2015-16 season this weekend in Milwaukee, Wis., the Adrian College men's hockey team knows it will have the bulls-eye on its collective back from opponents. That's because Adrian is the defending Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) regular-season and Harris Cup champion and nationally ranked No. 3 in the both preseason polls by D3hockey.com and USCHO.com.
But the Bulldogs, who have a mix of 15 returning lettermen and a talented recruiting class of 12 newcomers, also know they'll be taking it one shift at a time, one game at a time to accomplish a progression of goals that resembles like stepping up a ladder.
"Expectations are high here at Adrian and our goals remain the same every year," says second-year head coach Adam Krug '12, who piloted the Bulldogs to a 24-4-3 record, 16-1-1 NCHA mark and NCAA Semifinals appearance while earning conference coach of the year honors as a rookie in 2014-15. "Win the next game. Win a conference regular season championship. Win a conference playoff championship. Win an NCAA championship.
"We'll definitely have a target on our back considering we're the defending conference champions but that's nothing new," Krug added. "From Day 1, we've had a target. Anyone can win on any night in this league and we'll have to be up to the challenge every night."
And the first of many challenges that Adrian will face in its ninth year as a program begins tonight. The Bulldogs will play a two-game series at Milwaukee School of Engineering in a key early NCHA battle between the favorite and No. 3 team according to the conference coaches' preseason poll.
Despite losing two all-Americans (Josh Ranalli, First Team; Ryan Gieseler, Second Team) among a group of 12 lettermen, Adrian still has some firepower in the cupboard. Left winger Kyle Brothers headlines that list as he earned first-team All-America and NCHA Freshman of the Year accolades while racking up 24 goals and 25 assists to pace AC in scoring with 49 total points. Classmate Mathew Thompson, who centers a line with Brothers, added scoring totals of 23+20=43 with a 24-plus rating to earn a place on the conference's all-freshmen team, giving the Bulldogs the most potent duo in NCAA Division III.
"Kyle and Mat were the most electrifying players in the country last year," Krug said. "Kyle was first nationally in scoring and Mat wasn't far behind. They both can make plays and score goals. It's a nice feeling to have them for another three years. We're looking for them to lead the way again up front."
Other returning Bulldogs who scored in double figures a season ago include junior forward Jeremy Olinyk (11+17=28), senior defenseman Chris Leone (6+12=18, +15) and sophomore right wing Taylor McCloy (4+14=18). The leadership group includes team captain Adam Davies (1+8=9, +13) on the blue line and assistant captains junior left wing Daniel Lisi (4+1=5), Leone and Thompson.
That experience helps tempers the loss of key losses such as team captain and 2014 All-America forward Duston Hebebrand (13+15=28, 6 PPG), forward Ryan Lowe (10+15=25, +13), defenseman Gieseler (3+19=22), forward Ranalli (17+28=45) and goalie Scott Shackell (18-2-3, 2.12 GAA, .926 Save%).
"We will miss our ten graduates from last year. That group played in the NCAA tournament three times and got to the frozen four once," said Krug. "I think the class of 2015 showed our returners how to get there and now that experience can help us get over the top. We have 60 goals to replace and 23 wins between the pipes from that group. It will be hard to replace them but we're confident in the kids we brought in."
Some of the top newcomers to the team include freshman center Connor Armour (Bowmanville, Ontario/Cobourg Cougars, OJHL), freshman left wing Trevor Boyd (Muskegon/Austin Bruins, NAHL), junior goalie Tyler Parks (St. Louis, Mo. /St. Lawrence, NCAA D-I ECAC) and freshman goalie Kevin Entmaa (Milton, Ontario/Caledonia Corvairs, GOJHL).
One of the unknowns for the Bulldogs is the goaltending situation, which includes four on the 27-man roster. Sophomore Dillon Kelley has the most experience on the team after posting a 2-0 record, 2.00 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in 2014-15. Parks joins fellow D-I transfer Peter Megariotis, of Anaheim, Calif., who previously skated for Lake Superior State and Ohio State.
"I've never been 'a goalie guy' and I couldn't tell you which of our four guys is the most sound technically or going to win the job on opening night," explains Krug. "I do know we have four guys that can all stop the puck. I'm as fair as they come regarding which goalie is playing, just ask (departed senior tandem) Scott Shackell and Jimmy Hamby. Whoever showed the best in the preseason is going to get the start in Milwaukee on (Friday), and then we'll go from there. We're in the business of winning hockey games and the guy that gives us the best chance is going to play."
So what will change in Year 2 of the Krug coaching era, which began with a school-record three All-America selections in one season and swept conference titles for the sixth time since the program was founded for the 2007-08 campaign?
"Obviously, 12 new players. When you have the type of turnover that we had this off-season, we'll have to re-teach just about everything," Krug stated. "We'll tweak some things to cater to the different lineup but I don't foresee any major changes. We'll be a strong transition team again and hopefully our offense doesn't dissipate. I want to really focus on our D-zone this year so we can rely on that when we don't score 5 or 6 goals in a game. That seemed to be a big part as to why we came up short in the NCAA tournament last year. Offense dries up from time to time but sound defense is a mentality and that can be sustained."