With the graduation of Gunnar Goodmanson, Jerame Schuetzle and Jake Ramsey, the Bison are looking to replace nearly half of its offensive production. The line accounted for 124 of the team’s 272 total points and 60 of the team’s 106 goals.
Goodmanson’s 50 points (23 goals, 27 assists) were team leading. Schuetzle also posted career highs (22-20—42). Ramsey finished with (15-17—32).
“When you have a guy like Gunnar, you don’t just replace him with one guy,” Johnson said. “He was our leader and our top player the past couple years who scored big goals for us. We’re going to miss him, but I think the group that we have is more than capable of filling his shoes and leading us to some good things this year.”
Injuries and suspensions forced the top line to miss a combined total of 12 games. It also forced a number of younger players to expand their roles to help fill in the gaps.
Senior Kevin Kemp was one of the players who excelled with increased playing time. Kemp came into his junior year having just two assists in 26 career varsity games. Last year he tallied career highs in goals (10), assists (13), and finished fourth on the team with 23 points, which leads all returning scorers this season.
Junior forwards Cade Stensby (8-10—18) and Tom Rooney (9-4—13) also were asked to step up as first-year varsity sophomores.
“The injuries and what not gave our group of sophomore forwards a chance to play a lot last year,” Johnson said. “It also gave our junior forwards like Kemp and Brady Hartman to play bigger roles than they might not have had. Now as seniors, those guys, along with Rooney, Stensby, and junior Blake Habisch, I think are ready to carry that scoring load.”
The injury bug hit Habisch hard last season as he was limited to just two games. Skill wise, Habisch may have the most. His speed and skating ability stands out in practices. But missing an entire year of skating may limit him early in the season.
“Not having him last year, we’re hoping it doesn’t take him too long to get adjusted to the high school game,” Johnson said. “I think he can fill part of that skill that we’ll be missing. But I think they key this season will be our depth. We have a lot of options with our forwards. There are 13-14 forwards who we’re still trying to figure out who will be our top 12.”
Line combinations in the annual scrimmage fest held Nov. 13-14 at Buffalo Civic Center included a top line of Stensby and Kemp on wings, with Hartman at center.
Hartman scored 12 points last year and posted a career-high three assists in a 17-1 road win Jan. 31 at North Branch. Three other assists came in the first four games of the season, when the Bison were playing without Goodmanson.
Although scores and statistics were not kept, Johnson was particularly happy with his new first line in scrimmages against Hopkins, Andover, White Bear Lake and Elk River.
“Those guys have good chemistry. They want to play together,” Johnson said. Every time they were on the ice during scrimmage fest, they were in control of play and created scoring chances.”
While scoring wasn’t an issue last season, Hartman said all the shuffled lineups due to players in and out of the lineup became a challenge. Buffalo started the year losing four of its first six games.
“Last year was really frustrating,” Hartman said. “We were moving around so many different lines trying to find some chemistry. At the same time, some of those young guys filled in roles that typically the older guys would fill. It’s nice to have them have that experience coming into this year.”
With a healthier lineup in the second half of the season, the Bison challenged for another Mississippi 8 title before losing a pivotal 6-0 road game Feb. 12 at St. Michael-Albertville in a conference title showdown.
That game still lies in the back of the players’ heads coming into a new year where conference is still the main goal.
“We really want to take conference again this year,” said Hartman, who is one of five captains on this year’s squad. “We need to come to the rink every game with a competitive attitude and to push everybody to get better.”
While Buffalo’s top line has the experience, its second line of Rooney, centering Habisch (1-0—1) and senior Gavin Welch (4-3—7), may be the most explosive.
“Blake and Tom like playing together,” Johnson said. “Those guys have been playing together since they were little guys. They have good chemistry. Gavin provides a big body that can provide the same speed as them.”
Along with Hartman, Kemp and senior defenseman Mike Sawdey all are wearing the captain-C on their jerseys. Rooney and junior defenseman Nick Mueller will wear the assistant-A on theirs.
Sawdey (1-3—4) returns as the most experienced blueliner. He played in nine games as a freshman, 23 as a sophomore and 22 as a junior. A stay-at-home defender, Sawdey said he is hoping for big things for both himself and the team.
He credits last year’s senior captain, Reed Morehouse, for helping develop into a leader he is today.
“He taught me almost everything he knows,” Sawdey said. “He was a great hockey player and a great person. With him teaching me that stuff, it’s really easy not to put a lot of pressure on myself this year. We have a really good D-core, so there’s not too much pressure on me coming back.”
Joining Sawdey on the blueline is Mueller (2-12—14), who leads all returning defensemen in scoring. Senior Noah VanderKooi (1-3—4) played in 24 games as a junior. Junior Nick Hanson (0-3—3) played in 12 games as a sophomore.
Senior Ben Zitur solidifies the defense returning for his second-year as the Bison’s starting goaltender.
Zitur posted a 12-10-0 record a year ago with three shutouts. Although, Buffalo posted a 15-11-0 overall record a year ago, late-season losses to STMA and a first-round 5-2 home playoff loss to Brainerd didn’t sit well over the summer.
“That playoff loss was hard to sit on,” Sawdey said. “We learned to have a short memory in the off-season. But coming into this season, we need to use that as fuel to maybe make a run for a section championship.”
Buffalo’s season gets underway for real with a 3 p.m. home game against Osseo.