UND weekend rewind: Griffin Ness and the difficult decisions that lie ahead for UND's coaches
The Fighting Hawks junior forward made a convincing case to stay in the lineup during Saturday's exhibition game against Manitoba.
GRAND FORKS — UND forwards Carson Albrecht and Jackson Kunz were ill Saturday night and did not play in the Fighting Hawks' 5-1 exhibition win over the University of Manitoba.
They'll be healthy this week and there's no doubt the UND coaching staff will want to get them in the lineup Friday night against Holy Cross.
Albrecht came alive in the second half of last season, helping to drive possession and create scoring chances on UND's fourth line. In the NCAA tournament game against Notre Dame, he was one of UND's best players.
Kunz, a fourth-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks, is a 6-foot-3 power forward who is targeting a development curve similar to that of Chris VandeVelde, Brad Malone and Jasper Weatherby. All of those power forwards had modest numbers as rookies like Kunz — the Grand Forks native had three goals and six points — but were high-end producers as upperclassmen. The production will come for Kunz, too.
But there's one big issue for the coaching staff: Who comes out of the lineup to make way?
The 13th and final forward on the line chart Saturday night was junior Griffin Ness, who made a convincing case to stay.
The former Wayzata High skater only played 7 minutes, 33 seconds — less than anyone else on the team — but was extremely effective in his sporadic shifts.
He scored UND's first goal of the game from the top of the crease, had two other chances from in tight, registered a plus-2 rating and earned the hard hat from his teammates after the game.
"When you go in and see the linechart and see you're the extra forward, sometimes that can go one of two ways," UND coach Brad Berry said. "Either you feel sorry for yourself and know you're only going to get a handful of shifts, especially early, or you're going to dig in and go, 'You know what? I'm better than that and I can prove that I can be on a line.' He did that right away. He didn't play the first couple shifts until the rotation came around, then he made the most of it right away.
"My hat's off to Griffin Ness. He's loved in the locker room. Guys love him. He got the hard hat tonight. There's a number of guys who could have gotten it. He got it and that tells you what the locker room says about him."
Ness played 36 of 39 games last season, tallying two goals and six points. But with the addition of four NHL Draft picks up front, and the loss of just two every-day forwards, lineup spots will be tougher to come by this season.
"It's a competition every day," Ness said. "But at the end of the day, you just try your best, work your hardest. You try to help your team win. If that means you're on the first line, you're on the first line. If that means you're the extra skater and not playing, that's what it means. You've just got to be a team-first player and try your hardest and do whatever you can to help your team win."
In the preseason exhibition, Ness did exactly that.
"It's going to be really tough to put line combinations together," Berry said after the game. "We always talk about earning it, right? There's some guys who earned it tonight. At the end of the day, that puts pressure on other guys coming into our group for practice to be good.
"Here at North Dakota, we play the guys that earn it each and every day. It doesn't matter if you're a draft pick or a free agent. If you're bringing it, you're going to earn it and you're going to play it."
A first look at the power play
UND's power-play units have a little bit of a new look, and at first glance, they look more dangerous than last year's.
On Saturday, the top unit featured defenseman Chris Jandric at the top, forward Riese Gaber on the right flank, forward Jackson Blake at the left flank, forward Matteo Costantini between the dots and forward Jake Schmaltz on the goal line/net front.
Here are our other stories from Saturday night's exhibition..
UND's go-to play on this unit last year was a dish from the top to Gaber, who came downhill on the right side and snapped a shot on net. Teams eventually caught on to it and started trying to deny the play. The Fighting Hawks countered by putting right-handed defenseman Ethan Frisch in the left circle to open up one-timer possibilities on the other side.
Blake has potential to be a game-changer on this unit.
He's a righty, so he can one-time passes from anywhere on the ice like Frisch. He did that once on a setup by Jandric.
He's also an elite passer with a number of options. Power play coach Karl Goehring put a left-hander, Costantini, in the slot, so he can one-time passes from Blake. UND executed that play once against the Bisons. Jandric and Schmaltz also are lefties and can one-time passes from Blake.
"I think Blakey is awesome for us on that half wall," Jandric said. "He sucks guys in toward him and allows me to have an open lane (to shoot) or to pass it over to Gaber. I think he does a good job on the half wall making those plays for us to get open."
Schmaltz is a key piece on that unit to win faceoffs and get possession right away. Net front may seem like an odd spot for him, but that's the exact spot he played in junior hockey at Green Bay.
The second unit Saturday featured defenseman Brent Johnson at the top, forward Owen McLaughlin on the right flank, Frisch on the left flank, forward Judd Caulfield between the circles and forward Gavin Hain at net front.
This unit will likely be run through the top and McLaughlin, who is an excellent setup man. Knowing that, Goehring made sure to put a righty, Caulfield, between the dots so he can one-time passes from McLaughlin's side of the ice.
One potential change to the power play for the Holy Cross series is the addition of defenseman Cooper Moore. Last season, Moore played quite a bit on the second unit and had success there. He missed the exhibition due to illness.
Who will take key draws?
UND has been one of the country's best faceoff teams over the last decade and has had plenty of options to use for important draws at the end of games and on special teams.
From Connor Ford to Jasper Weatherby to Shane Pinto to Rhett Gardner to Nick Jones to Tyson Jost, it has been one after another for the Fighting Hawks.
Who will be that guy this season?
Against the Bisons, Schmaltz took 22 draws (12-10), followed by McLaughlin's 14 (8-6), Louis Jamernik V's 12 (8-4) and Ben Strinden's eight (5-3).
"I think it's going to be by committee," Berry said. "Schmaltzy, you can tell he's gotten a little stronger. His pace has gotten a little quicker. His body looks stronger. He looks like he's taken a step. Jammer is a strong body, a righty in the dot. Even Ben Strinden as a freshman did a good job (Saturday). We were at 58 percent in the dot as a team. I think it's a situation where everybody is going to get a piece of that going forward."
Volunteer assistant coach Jason Ulmer works with the players on draws.
"Ulms does a great job of building our group and growing them as far as technique and form and pre-scouting the other team, too," Berry said.
New rule comes into play
There's a new rule this season that allows referees to call five minute majors for checking from behind without a game misconduct attached to it.
It came into play during Saturday's exhibition.
Jamernik V was assessed a major for checking from behind in the third period, but officials Bobby Lukkason and Brady Johnson did not eject him from the game or tag him with a game misconduct (three game misconducts in a season results in an automatic one-game suspension).
The hit was a good example of why the rule was changed. It was definitely a check from behind into the boards, but not egregious enough for a game misconduct.
- Johnson, a sophomore defenseman whose ice time gradually increased last season, led all UND skaters in ice time Saturday night. He played 25:33 and led the team with 11 takeaways.
- With only five available defensemen, UND moved captain Mark Senden back to defense in the third period to give some blue liners a rest. "The 'D' were gasping for air there, that's why we put Senden back there," Berry said. "I thought he did a good job."
- Junior defenseman Tyler Kleven had a highlight-reel goal, roofing a shot from in tight. He also registered a game-high eight shots on goal to show his game is more than just big hits.
- Speaking of hits, Strinden led UND with five hits. Gaber and Kleven had three each.