Lehman: UM-Dearborn’s window of opportunity open with changing of guard in ACHA Division-I

Ryan Kelly skates down the ice during UM-Dearborn's game vs. Oakland in late January 2015. Kelly figures to be a big part of the 2016 Wolverines. (Ricky Lindsay/MJ)
Ryan Kelly skates down the ice during UM-Dearborn’s game vs. Oakland in late January 2015. Kelly figures to be a big part of the 2016 Wolverines. (Ricky Lindsay/MJ)

By ERICK LEHMAN, Staff Columnist

Erick LehmanThe 2016 ACHA Nationals might have a completely different outlook.

There will be a changing of the guard, if you will, following the 2015 tournament.

Division-I powerhouse Arizona State University will depart for a rare and unprecedented jump to NCAA D-1. The Sun Devils are second team to do so, with Penn State University making the jump before the 2012-13 season.

Arizona State held the top spot in the weekly ACHA rankings every single week this season, and that empty spot at the top next season could be many different teams.

University of Michigan-Dearborn rival Adrian College could very well fill that void, as it has been a perennial power in the state of Michigan for years now. If you remember, the Wolverines defeated the Bulldogs early in the season, handing them their first loss of the year and competed heavily in the other three competitions.

The Wolverines went through a tough stretch in October and early November with a record of 2-10; one of those two victories coming over then undefeated Adrian.

But the 10 losses are what everyone looks at.

Of the 10 games the Wolverines lost, only two of which you could say they were out of. That was a 9-0 loss to Iowa State, in which the Wolverines were without some of their top talent and also a 6-1 loss to Adrian.

But the night before the painful loss to Iowa State, the Wolverines lost by only two goals, and the night following the big loss to Adrian, upset the Bulldogs in overtime.

The teams the 10 losses came from — Adrian (8th), Illinois (13th), Iowa State (10th), and Robert Morris (4th) — all are appeared in the ACHA national tournament and all received high seeding.

The Wolverines received two losses from Davenport (14th) and two from Buffalo (17th) on the season, who are also making appearances in the big show.

So in total, UM-Dearborn lost 13 games to teams who played for the chance to hoist the ACHA division one championship trophy; only Iowa State and Robert Morris advanced past the second round of the tournament.

And of the 13 losses, 11 were winnable games. Especially the last four against Davenport and Buffalo, in which the Wolverines were missing some of their biggest goal scoring threats and strong defensive presence.

What does all of the losing talk mean?

It means — that with all the returning talent the Wolverines have next season — there is a very good chance that empty seat at the top that Arizona State is leaving behind will be warmed by them.

The Wolverines have some big losses with senior captain Jase Paciocco leaving, as well as fellow seniors James Marchese, Cody Longuski, Ryan Arndt and Jeremy Klotz.

But, they return freshman Jeff McFarland, who was putting together a sparkling season offensively before suffering a season ending knee injury in the Clark Park game against Oakland.

As well as returning McFarland, the Wolverines will skate with a bevy of offensive skill players including Gino Darin, Ryan Kelly, Andrei Novikov, as well as defenseman Ryan Urso.

On top of all the returning offensive power, the Wolverines are going to have the hockey version of a quarterback controversy.

Nate Ferris started mostly all season in net for the Wolverines and at one point, had the most minutes logged out of all ACHA goaltenders. But backup Dave Bryant played outstanding the final few weeks of the season, putting some pressure on Ferris for next season.

The play against ranked teams this season was a hiccup in the eyes of most, but it told a tale for the future of UM-Dearborn hockey.

It showed that this team is in fact ready to compete nationally, and with that one massive obstacle that sat atop the rankings for 18 weeks this season gone to bigger and better things, the window of opportunity has risen.

The window is not an open crack, nor does it have a huge hole from a hockey puck going through it.

It is a sliding glass door; it is wide open in the UM-Dearborn Fieldhouse, and everyone in it knows it.