New faces, top talent set to crack ice
By Rob LaPlante
The Buffalo boys' hockey team has a dozen reasons to expect the unexpected heading into the 2017-18 season.
With the loss of 12 departed seniors – all of whom played significant roles a year ago – this year's squad will search for a new group of leaders, and rely heavily on an inexperienced, yet talented sophomore class.
Among the key departures are last year's top-five scoring leaders, including leading scorer Blake Habisch, who led the team with 18 goals and 38 points.
"There may be some growing pains this season – especially early in the year," said Aaron Johnson, who begins his 11th season as head coach, the past five with Buffalo, the previous six at Orono. "This by far is the biggest turnover I've ever had. We only have two seniors in our program this year. It's going to be a unique year. There's going to be a lot of teachable moments, and a lot of growing, but it's exciting because we have kids that love hockey."
With a lot of positions to be filled, goaltending is not one of them. The Bison return junior Nathan Mueller, who started all 26 games a year ago and ranked among the state leaders with 1,317:21 minutes, 583 saves, 2.17 goals against average, 91-percent save percentage, and five shutouts.
Outside of 17 minutes junior backup goalie River Goodmanson appeared in, Mueller played every minute of every game for Buffalo.
Knowing that offense will be an early question mark, Buffalo's strength will start from the back end.
"Early in the season we want to be really strong defensively and kind of build around Nathan in goal," Johnson said.
The Bison graduated four of their top-five defensemen in Nick Mueller, Jon Pearson, Nick Hanson and Jack Stevens. They do return three blueliners with some varsity experience, led by junior Joe McNamara, who will shoulder most the minutes this season.
McNamara was named team captain the opening week of practice, and returns as the leading point scorer from last season with 14. Playing with a larger than normal senior class a year ago gives him the confidence to mentor this year's inexperienced squad.
"Playing with all those seniors last year, I learned that anyone can be a leader," McNamara said. "Coming back, I think we have a lot of really good young guys with great potential. If they figure out how to play varsity hockey, I think we'll be a really good team."
Also returning on defense is senior Ben Lindvall, who registered two goals and three assists in 24 games a year ago. Junior Cal James scored his first career goal a year ago as a forward, but will be a top-4 defender this year on the blueline.
Others vying for spots on defense include: freshman Noah Mueller, and sophomores Ben Symanietz, Joe Carothers, and Carter Jerde.
With eight forwards lost to graduation, the Bison not only lose the experience, but a ton of offense, including five members from their top-two scoring lines.
The only two players returning that saw significant ice time are juniors Ben Klein and Treyton Welch. Welch returns as the team's leading returning goal scorer with five.
"Treyton and Ben are our leading returning forwards," Johnson said. "With such a young team, scoring goals will be the hardest piece. There's potential there, we just don't have a proven track record and that's the hardest thing to find is goal scoring."
Among that potential are twin brothers, Tyler and Jake Braccini, who come in as prized sophomores with a ton of scoring ability.
Both players tore up the youth level. Jake registered 78 goals and 140 points on Buffalo's Bantam AA squad a year ago. His efforts landed him the Bantam Player of the Year Award. Jake recently committed to play college hockey at the University of Minnesota.
Tyler is no slouch either. He finished second on the Bantam AA team with 117 points and led the team with 75 assists.
With offense a huge question mark coming in, Johnson will not shy away from giving the Braccinis a ton of ice time.
"It's going to start with them in the offensive zone," Johnson said. "They play off each other so well and have a high level of skill with a high hockey IQ. We've been skilled before, but I don't think we'll be as skilled as what we're going to see over the next couple years. Those guys will show some things with the puck on their sticks that maybe people haven't seen from players here in the past."
Having that "Gopher label" on him, Jake knows he will be a marked man, something he's become used to playing on past teams.
"Last year, a lot of the bantam guys started to shadow me after a couple shifts," Braccini said. "It kind of got to my head a little bit, but I've kind of learned to deal with that. That's probably one of my goals this season is to overcome that feeling of adversity, and guys maybe wanting to take my head off or something."
There are no guarantees who will play alongside the Braccinis, but sophomore Devin Huebner registered 40 goals and 67 points a year ago as their linemate on the bantam squad.
"Tyler, Devin and I work pretty well together and built some chemistry playing on bantams," Braccini said. "We have a lot of potential and every guy is going to buy into this season. I think it will be a good year for us."
Besides the high-end skill level both Braccinis bring to the table, it's the team-first attitude that excites most teammates.
On a team that hasn't produced a Division-I player since David Marshall (Quinnipiac) in the early 2000s, Bison junior Joe McNamara is just as excited as anyone to play alongside a future Gopher.
"It just makes it more fun to play with a guy like Jake out there," McNamara said. "He has so much skill, but the biggest thing is he wants to win. He's a team-first guy and not selfish with the puck. He wants to do what's best for the team. If he plays down a line, that's okay with him. He just wants to win games."
Senior forward Tyler Marr joins Lindvall as the only seniors on this year's roster. Other forwards vying for spots include: juniors Ryan Nelson, Brett Hanson, Nate Persson, and freshman Alex Beckman.
Buffalo's season gets underway with a 7 p.m. road game Thursday, Nov. 30 at Lakeville South. The home opener is a 3 p.m. start on Saturday, Dec. 2 against last year's Class AA state runner-up Moorhead Spuds, who are a heavy favorite to win this year's state title.
Other notable non-conference matchups include showdowns with perennial powers Breck, Blake, Delano, and Wayzata.
"Our schedule has been tough the last couple years," Johnson said. "We can't hide from being a Class AA hockey program. We're trying to build this thing and you do that by playing quality opponents every night and it forces the kids to grow and get better and hopefully by the end of the year you're playing your best hockey.
"Last year I thought we were able to do that and we had a great game in the section playoffs at Roseau (a 6-5 double OT loss)," Johnson continued. "We're trying to continue to build where we're winning those games instead of losing those close ones."
Overall: 14-12-0 overall
Mississippi 8: 8-3-0, 24 points (2nd place)
Sec 8-4A: L - 6-5 (2 OT) at Roseau (1st rd)
Head Coach: Aaron Johnson
Assistant Coaches: Thomas Johnson, Bruce Johnson, Bill Manuel, Scott Goodmanson, Dave Carothers