Here's what the UND hockey offseason could look like

Apr. 1—GRAND FORKS — There won't be much time to deconstruct the 2023-24 hockey season for UND's coaching staff.

On Sunday morning, the

transfer portal

opened to non-graduating students. Once compliance staffs enter the office Monday, expect a flood of players to hit the portal.

UND will need to, as quickly as possible, identify which players are coming back, what roles the incoming freshmen could fill and what areas it needs to address with transfers.

UND has four players with expiring eligibility — forward Hunter Johannes and defensemen Garrett Pyke, Keaton Pehrson and Logan Britt.

Senior forward and captain Riese Gaber

has made it clear he plans to sign

a pro deal.

Senior forwards Griffin Ness and Carson Albrecht have a year of eligibility remaining due to the COVID-free season though it's unclear if they'll be back.

Senior forward Louis Jamernik V will return

as part of the plan when he arrived midseason


The biggest offseason question is whether star sophomore forward Jackson Blake will return for a junior season or if he'll sign with the Carolina Hurricanes, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2021 NHL Draft.

There is little doubt the Hurricanes will make a big push to sign Blake.

This is not only due to his big season — he tallied 60 points and is a Hobey Baker Award finalist — but if Blake returns to college for one more season, he has the power to become a free agent next summer. Players have that option four years after their draft year. Because Blake played a year of junior hockey after his draft year, that option comes to him after Year 3 at UND.

It's unlikely Carolina will want Blake to have that option. NHL teams don't want to potentially lose assets for nothing.

If the Hurricanes sign Blake, they essentially have him under team control for the next six years, as Blake cannot become an unrestricted free agent until age 27.

So, don't be surprised if Carolina offers to put Blake in the NHL for a couple games this season just to get him under contract. It's the same thing the Hurricanes did with former Minnesota goalie Jack Lafontaine, when they grabbed him midseason from the Gophers.

But if Blake assesses he could spend next season in the American Hockey League, he may opt to return to UND to build strength he'll need to play in the NHL, wear a captain's letter, chase a Hobey Baker Award and an NCAA national championship.

The new 1883 Collective,

which was formed earlier this month

to benefit UND athletes, could come into play here, too.

The other two candidates to sign pro deals are junior forward Cameron Berg, a New York Islanders draft pick, and senior goaltender Ludvig Persson, a free agent.

Last year, UND lost six players in the transfer portal — all of whom were scratched for at least one game in the playoffs.

This year, UND already lost one seldom-used player in freshman forward Michael Emerson, who left to go play junior hockey at semester break.

UND's other skaters who played fewer than 20 games this season and were scratched during the playoffs: forward Dane Montgomery and rookie defensemen Nate Benoit and Tanner Komzak.

There are three forwards and three defensemen who seem to be locks to come.

Up front, it's Sacha Boisvert, Mac Swanson and Cody Croal.

Boisvert, a 6-foot-2 center, is fourth in the United States Hockey League in goals and could be selected as high as the first round of the 2024 NHL Draft.

Swanson, a 5-foot-8 forward, recently set the Fargo Force single-season scoring record. He has 73 points this season, which ranks second in the USHL. Swanson has been playing center for the Force but likely projects as a winger at UND.

Croal, a 5-foot-10 forward, ages out of the USHL and has to come to campus. He projects as a Swiss Army Knife-type of player who can move up and down the lineup and play both wing and center. He has 54 points in 54 games this season for Muskegon in the USHL.

Forward commits David Klee (San Jose Sharks seventh-round pick) and Cade Littler (Calgary Flames seventh-round pick) also are candidates to come.

On the back end, it's E.J. Emery, Andrew Strathmann and Jayden Jubenvill.

Emery, a 6-foot-3 right-shot defender, could go in the first or second round of the 2024 NHL Draft. Emery is an elite skater and uses that to eliminate opposing rushes, much like former UND defender Derek Forbort.

Strathmann, a 5-foot-10 left-shot defender, was selected in the fourth round by the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer. He has major talents on the offensive side. Strathmann has seven goals and 35 points in 44 games. He returned to the USHL this season to try to round out the defensive side of the game. Despite his smaller stature, he plays with an edge and will make big hits. He's been suspended by the USHL five times this season, though, and will need to eliminate that play at the college level.

Jubenvill, a 5-foot-10 left-shot defender, ages out of juniors, so he's guaranteed to come, too. He has 25 points in 62 games for Dubuque in the USHL and might be an under-the-radar pickup. He's not overly dynamic but is a Colton Poolman-style defender whose points generally come from shutting down rushes and turning pucks up ice.

UND won't be grabbing as many players out of the transfer portal as last season.

But the Fighting Hawks will almost certainly be looking to give their team a boost through the portal as they'll have championship aspirations next season.

First, UND will have to decide whether to pencil Owen McLaughlin in as a center or a winger next season.

McLaughlin is one of UND's most dynamic players. He tallied 39 points as a sophomore and is 46 away from hitting 100 as a junior — something that's fairly uncommon.

But his inability to win faceoffs became a problem at the end of the season. He finished at just 43.2 percent. He was at 33.1 percent over the last two months. He went 3-for-13 against Michigan in the regional. UND was unable to use him in defensive zone draws and it hurt UND's possession numbers.

As a team, UND finished 29th nationally in draws — much lower than usual.

It might not be a coincidence that the NCHC's two best faceoff teams — Colorado College and Omaha — were the two teams who gave UND the most trouble this season.

UND played six teams who were worse in the faceoff dot than itself — St. Cloud State, Denver, Minnesota, Bemidji State, Miami and Minnesota Duluth. The Fighting Hawks were 14-2-2 against those teams. They were 12-10 against teams who were better in the dot.

Berg finished at 56 percent, a very good clip, but UND's second-line center needs to be much higher than 43.2 percent.

Options at second-line center include Boisvert and/or picking up a transfer.

There will be a flood of players entering the portal this week, but there are already two strong centermen in there — RIT's leading scorer Carter Wilkie, who took more faceoffs than anyone in college hockey this season (1,044), and Alaska forward

Harrison Israels, who won at a 58 percent clip

while scoring 20 goals.

The list is guaranteed to grow as the week goes on.

UND also may look to add size up front.

Several of its top forwards are small — Blake (if he returns), McLaughlin, Swanson and Jayden Perron. It loses some size with Johannes leaving.

So, if UND picks up a forward in the portal, expect him to have some size.

UND has a very promising defensive corps, but it is young and the Fighting Hawks may look to bolster their depth there as they aim to make a run next season.

Pyke was unable to play in UND's NCAA tournament game Friday against Michigan, and the Fighting Hawks essentially played just five defensemen. Benoit, the sixth defenseman, played just 3:15. In the third period, it appeared to catch up to UND.

UND might want to add a veteran on the back end. It can't afford to have an injury potentially cost a championship when the Fighting Hawks appear to be loaded.

In goal, it all depends on whether Persson stays or signs.

If he stays, UND should be set with Persson, Hobie Hedquist and Kaleb Johnson.

If he goes, the Fighting Hawks will have to get a transfer because their only goalie commit, Caleb Heil, is still a junior in high school and isn't ready to come to campus yet.

Whether Persson returns or UND brings in a transfer, Hedquist figures to have an increased workload after a solid freshman season.