Bowling Green’s first-year players have plenty to offer this season.
The recruiting class consists of four forwards, three defensemen and one goalie.
The eight are forwards Lukas Craggs, Frederic Letourneau, Casey Linkenheld and Matt Meier; defensemen Jacob Dalton, Alec Rauhauser and Niko Coffman; and goalie Ryan Bednard.
Meier is a transfer from Air Force and has three seasons of eligibility with the Falcons.
The group has a good mix of size and strength, and speed and skill. It also will enhance the Falcons’ depth and address specific needs, and Bednard, Rauhauser and Letourneau have the potential to be all-league players.
“I like the way the kids are wired,” said Falcon coach Chris Bergeron, who is starting his seventh season. “There’s a willingness there. In September, there’s going to be a lot of you don’t know what you don’t know, like every other freshmen class, but there’s willingness there. I believe they’re preparing as hard as they can to come in ready.”
The Falcons finished last season with five seniors — forwards Mark Cooper, Ben Murphy and Brent Tate; defenseman Jose Delgadillo; and goalie Tommy Burke. Cooper was BG’s leading scorer, totaling 32 points in 42 games, including a team-best 16 goals. In addition, defenseman Jordan Ernst decided not to return to school. He has since signed to play major junior with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
BG finished 22-14-6 overall and 16-7-5 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Falcons were third in the league, finishing two points behind co-champions Michigan Tech and Minnesota State after splitting at last-place Alabama-Huntsville during the final weekend of the regular season.
“There’s competition there in terms of guys willing to compete for spots, and that’s what they’re going to have to do,” Bergeron said.
“Our freshmen, no matter who they are or what the position, hopefully, are going to follow the good lead of the upperclassmen on a daily basis. The impact they make will be based on the readiness they have to make an impact and the type of opportunity they’re going to have.”
With the improvement of the Falcon program during the last six seasons, the first-year players no longer have to be dominant players from the start for BG to be successful.
Cam Wojtala and Ryan Carpenter were two of those players who had be good from Day 1 at BG, if the team was going to have a chance to win. Wojtala was Bergeron’s first recruit at BG, and Carpenter was a member of Bergeron’s first recruiting class the following year.
“Those were guys we needed to come in and make a major impact right away, that’s not the case anymore,” Bergeron said. “The program is different. The program has changed for a positive. We don’t need anyone to come in and take this team on their shoulders.
“We’re hoping the leadership is where it needs to be, so this group can learn from people, this is the way we operate at BG. You came in here to focus on the daily process, and be willing to come out of your comfort zone and push harder than you’ve ever pushed before.”
Bednard, a seventh-round draft pick of the NHL’s Florida Panthers in 2015, could challenge junior Chris Nell for the No. 1 position in goal.
The 6-foot-5, 192-pounder had a 2.38 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 39 games last season for the United States (Junior) Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms. He’s the brother of Shane Bednard, who will be a sophomore forward at BG this season.
Nell is coming off an outstanding season. He had a 1.91 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 37 games last season. He led the nation in both statistics at one point last season.
“I don’t know,” Bergeron said when asked about how much he expects Ryan Bednard to start this season. “He’s got all the makings to make an impact, but we’ve got a first-team all-league goalie returning.
Rauhauser had five goals and 32 assists in 58 games for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL last season. Twelve of his 37 points came on the power play, including 11 assists.
His offensive skills also could help the Falcon power play, which scored at just 18.6 percent overall last season. The power play scored at just 17.1 percent in league play.
“You look at his body of work in junior hockey, and you look at our need for a left-shot (defenseman) on the power play, he kind of fits what we’re looking for,” Bergeron said. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to make a major impact. That’s going to be on him. He’s going to have to come in prepared, and he’s going to earn what he gets.”
Letourneau played for the Whitecourt Wolverines in the Alberta Junior (Hockey) League last season, totaling 20 goals and 21 assists in 61 games.
“He has all the tools in the world,” Bergeron said. “Is he going to be ready to put it all together? His résumé in juniors is not quite as long as those other two (Bednard and Rauhauser), especially a kid like Rauhauser. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to be ready.
“You just have to wait and see. The good part about this for us is none of these guys have to take the weight of the team on the shoulders. This is about our returning guys leading the way.”
Bergeron said he’s “not expecting to add anyone” else for this season, but the Falcons still could have a player leave school early to turn pro. Nolan Valleau left BG in August last year to sign with the NHL’s Chicago Blachkawks.
Five Falcons attended NHL prospect camps this summer — Nell, Ryan Bednard, junior defenseman Mark Friedman, sophomore forward Stephen Baylis and sophomore defenseman Adam Smith.
Bednard went to the Panthers’ camp, Friedman to the Philadelphia Flyers’ camp, Smith to the Nashville Predators’ camp, and Baylis and Nell attended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ camp.
Bednard, Friedman and Smith are draft picks of their respective teams. Nell and Baylis are attending as undrafted free agent invitees.
“Does that mean someone else is going to go to a camp and sign coming out camp? It doesn’t mean that, but I’m not going to be naive that it couldn’t happen,” Bergeron said. “We’ve got guys going to juniors who could potentially come, but right now our roster is pretty much set for the fall.”
Nell received heavy interest from the NHL last season.
“With all of the free agent goalie signings, Chris said he’s staying,” Bergeron said. “He’s committed to staying. I don’t think anybody else had as much interest as Chris did to leave, but that didn’t mean people were presented with an opportunity. I don’t see anybody singing professional at this point, but nothing would surprise me.”
Nine underclass goalies have left school to sign pro contracts since the end of last season. Ten seniors also signed NHL contracts.
TEAM USA: Falcon recruit Evan Dougherty, a forward, has been selected to play for the United States in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. The tournament is held annually in August for national U18 teams and is named one of the Czech hockey stars.
In addition to the U.S. and the Czech Republic, the other nations in the tournament are Canada, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland. The tournament is Aug. 8-13.
Dougherty, who is expected to join the Falcons for the 2018-19 season, had 19 goals and 11 assists in 35 games last season for the Fox Motors U16 Team. He also played in four USHL games, two with the Fargo Force and two with the U.S. U18 Team.