Despite Thursday night’s devastating loss to Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinals, North Dakota hockey fans have much to be thankful for. This year’s version of the Green and White won 25 games, gave the UND faithful plenty of thrilling moments, and pushed the nation’s #1 team to the absolute limit in Philadelphia.

And next year should be even better.

One look at the roster could tell even a casual observer that head coach Dave Hakstol will have plenty more to work with in 2014-15. There are only four seniors listed, with a minimum amount of “flight risk” from underclassmen. But the cupboard is even more full than that. And here’s why:

North Dakota’s three senior skaters (Mitch MacMillan, Derek Rodwell, and Dillon Simpson) appeared in 94 games this season, scoring 13 goals and adding 23 assists for a scoring average of .3830 points per game.

It’s the other three classes that carried the load:

Juniors (6 forwards, 1 defenseman): 53 goals and 84 assists in 290 games (.4724 points/game)

Sophomores (4 forwards, 1 defenseman): 38 goals and 59 assists in 165 games (.5879 points/game)

Freshmen (2 forwards, 4 defensemen): 21 goals and 46 assists in 191 games (.3508 points/game)

And with only Derek Rodwell graduating from Thursday night’s group of 12 forwards, three of the four forward lines can remain intact, at least early in the season:

Drake Caggiula – Mark MacMillan – Michael Parks
Stephane Pattyn – Rocco Grimaldi – Luke Johnson
Bryn Chyzyk – Colten St. Clair – Andrew Panzarella

Either Coltyn Sanderson (five career games over two seasons) or Wade Murphy (19 games as a freshman) can step right into the lineup in October. And that’s not counting UND’s incoming recruits, which we’ll get to in tomorrow’s article.

Before we look at the blue line, I’ll remind the reader that in the previous off-season, Dave Hakstol had to find a way to replace 63 goals and 113 assists (176 points of offense). This time around, North Dakota loses 13 goals and 23 assists (36 points).

As for the senior class, forward Mitch MacMillan only appeared in 19 games this season (and only nine games since December 7th), registering one goal and two assists. He wasn’t in the lineup for the Frozen Four semifinal matchup against Minnesota.

Forward Derek Rodwell brought size and grit to the ice, and his effort earned him a spot in the lineup every night. Even so, it won’t be difficult to replace his offensive production – he scored 13 goals and added 11 assists in 123 career games.

Coming into this season, UND returned three defensemen (senior Dillon Simpson, junior Nick Mattson, and sophomore Jordan Schmaltz) who had played a combined 236 games on defense.

UND would not have been in the NCAA tournament without contributions from their four freshmen blueliners. Paul LaDue (41 games played, 6g-15a) and Troy Stecher (42 games, 2g-9a) were absolute warriors, while fellow rookie defensemen Keaton Thompson (26 games, 3g-5a) and Gage Ausmus (21 games, 2g-1a) were rotated in effectively as the sixth D.

North Dakota will lose Dillon Simpson to graduation, and there is no doubt that his absence will leave a definite void. The senior captain appeared in 156 games in the North Dakota sweater, potting 16 goals and notching 59 assists. He led the nation in blocked shots this season (109 in 42 games) and was recently named to the All-College Hockey News first team. There is no way that UND can replace that type of leadership with just one player.

However, next year’s top six defensemen will return with a combined 333 games of experience on the back end. I would expect that two of the defensive pairings will remain intact, with Ausmus stepping into Simpson’s spot alongside Jordan Schmaltz:

Jordan Schmaltz – Gage Ausmus
Nick Mattson– Paul LaDue
Keaton Thompson – Troy Stecher

This is a far different situation than the one Dave Hakstol faced coming into the 2013-14 season, and North Dakota will definitely improve on the 2.43 goals/game they allowed over the course of this previous campaign. It is also worth noting that as a team, UND only allowed 2.00 goals/game over the final 29 games of the season (beginning on November 30th), a far better measure of the results we should expect next year.

Over that stretch of 29 games, North Dakota only allowed more than two goals seven times (and more than three goals just once).

Dave Hakstol’s crew appears to have the goaltending picture solidified for the foreseeable future. Zane Gothberg (20-10-3, 1.99 GAA, .926 SV%, 3 SO) will be a junior next season, and incoming recruit Cameron Johnson (Fargo/USHL) will compete with Matt Hrynkiw for backup duties while Johnson adjusts to the college game. Fans should also remember that Hrynkiw was named Canada’s 2012-13 national Junior A Goaltender of the Year and SJHL Goaltender of the Year after going 27-11-2 and leading the league in goals against average (1.83), save percentage (.939) and shutouts (six).

North Dakota will lose goaltender Clarke Saunders to graduation, but the transfer from Alabama-Huntsville struggled in his senior season (5-4-0, 3.22 GAA, .905 SV%) after posting much better numbers at UND in 2012-13 (13-9-4, 2.30 GAA, .917 SV%, 3 SO). Even though Saunders lost the starting job to Zane Gothberg, he was a more than capable backup, a great teammate, and an insurance policy for the coaching staff.

The only early departure risks that I see with this group are sophomore forward Rocco Grimaldi (17-22-39 in 42 games played this season) and sophomore defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (6-18-24 in 41 games). I would put both at under a ten percent chance of leaving before next season, as both would definitely benefit from another year at the college level.

North Dakota should be considered one of the top five teams in the country going into next year, along with Boston College, Miami, Michigan and Minnesota. Regardless of last night’s bitter loss, the University of North Dakota hockey program has quite a bit to be proud of and even more to look forward to. Keeping in mind that UND is hosting the NCAA West Regional next season (at Scheels Arena in Fargo, North Dakota), it would not surprise me one bit to see the Green and White in Boston, Massachusetts for the 2015 Frozen Four.

Click here for the inside scoop on North Dakota’s incoming freshmen for 2014-15.

As always, thank you for reading. I encourage you to leave your comments below and follow me on Twitter (@DBergerHockey) for more information and analysis.