HOUGHTON - Fresh off their most successful season by most measures in two decades, the Michigan Tech hockey team seems set take another step up in its revival with the vast majority of the ice time and production from last year returning.
The top five scorers from last season were freshmen and sophomores - in order, Alex Petan, David Johnstone, Jujhar Khaira, Blake Pietila and Tanner Kero - and with the exception of Khaira's departure for professional waters, the Huskies return 78 percent of their scoring overall. Defensively, there will be a host of candidates vying to replace the two blueliners lost with Steven Seigo and Carl Nielsen departed, and in net sophomores Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips combined to make 27 of the 37 starts in their inaugural college campaigns.
Of course, that doesn't mean to say there aren't questions, even with little roster turnover.
Michigan Tech goaltender Jamie Phillips covers a puck during Saturday’s exhibition against Laurentian at MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
To start, who starts between the pipes?
Copley led the Huskies last season with 23 starts to Phillips' four - departed senior Kevin Genoe accounted for the other 10 - but Copley also posted worse goals allowed and save percentage numbers.
Both saw significant ice time in the exhibition win over Laurentian last Saturday, but it was Copley who got the start.
With four non-conference road games to open the season (at Minnesota-Duluth this weekend, followed by a trip to Notre Dame) Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson is keeping his options open.
"Boy they have both been good," Pearson said. "Both had really good off-seasons. So you could say it is still up in the air. During the early part I would like to get them both some games."
It will be a pressure-packed couple of games for the goalies before WCHA play starts Oct. 25 at Northern Michigan, as Pearson would prefer to have his No. 1 picked by then.
Ideally, the coach would like to avoid some of the rotation that went along last year - provided one goaltender proves he deserves the spot night after night.
"If one guy establishes himself as a true No. 1, you stick with him, because I don't think we play enough games to rotate. One game a week is not a lot for a goaltender," Pearson said.
For the young netminder's parts, the competition just comes with the territory.
Pearson said the two have built a strong friendship while simultaneously vying for the other's position.
The lesson as always -goaltenders are a different breed.
"As a goaltender, someone is always trying to take your job," Copley said. "It doesn't matter what level of hockey, you are always competing with someone. Jamie and I get along great. He is a great goalie and we are both doing whatever we can to get wins for the team."
In Pearson's mind, each of them as separate qualities they need to prove to handle the No. 1 responsibility.
For Copley it comes down to consistency. The sophomore thrived at the GLI last season - posting back-to-back shutouts to help Tech take home the trophy for the first time in 32 years - but cratered in other games, giving up soft goals that put Tech behind early.
For Phillips' part, Pearson said he needs to prove that the excellent work habits he displayed over the summer carry over into the season through adversity.
"Competition is good. They push each other, and you need that at every position," Pearson said. "Even with goaltenders, you want to show confidence in their guys but at the same time they need something pushing them."
For the rest of the squad, answers to smaller questions have been taking shape since practice opened.
A big one - who will replace Seigo on the power play? - has been firmly decided in Pearson's mind.
"Walker Hyland has looked great in that role," Pearson said. "He really came on strong at the end of last season, he had a great series against North Dakota, and I expect he will put up a lot of numbers this year."
The role of the freshman are also starting to take shape.
Pearson highlighted four newcomers - forwards Brent Baltus and Mike Neville and defensemen Shane Hanna and Cliff Watson - who should make an impact early.
"Those four have kind of separated themselves from the rest," Pearson said. "They are not playing like freshmen right now."