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2018 UND College Hockey Preview: Stronger up the middle

UND's Nick Jones and Bemidji State captain Kyle Bauman face off for the puck in the second period of Saturday's hockey game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Heading into last offseason, UND had penciled in its top three centerman.

It was looking rosy for coach Brad Berry and his staff.

Its top-line center was supposed to be Tyson Jost, a first-round draft pick who may have been the best first-line center in the nation.

Its second-line center was to be Rhett Gardner, playing a role he handled on an NCAA national championship team two years earlier.

Its third-line center was to be Nick Jones, who likely would have been the best third-line center in the country.

But that didn't happen.

Jost signed with the Colorado Avalanche, becoming the first UND player to sign an NHL deal after just one season since Ed Belfour in 1987.

Then, Gardner and Jones both got hurt in January. Their absences even overlapped a couple games.

All of the sudden, Ludvig Hoff, who was penciled in as a possible fourth-line center just months earlier, was playing first-line center against defending national champion Denver.

It didn't go as planned for the Fighting Hawks.

They played seven games without Gardner last season. They didn't win a single one.

That stretch was critical in keeping UND out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

Berry doesn't think the same will happen this season.

Center appears to be perhaps UND's strongest position entering the season.

The Fighting Hawks will start with two senior centerman: Rhett Gardner and Nick Jones.

Gardner opted against signing with the Dallas Stars to return for his senior season, while Jones declined to pursue any free-agent deals after a breakout season.

"That was huge," Berry said of getting his top centers back. "Any time you can get a senior back with experience, especially with the capabilities of Rhett and Nick Jones, it's huge. They are the two front-runners to lead us in the forward position there."

Gardner was named the NCHC's defensive forward of the year last season. Jones also excels at the defensive end of the rink.

They had two of the best faceoff years since UND started keeping the stat in 2003-04. Jones's mark of 59.3 percent ranks third, just behind Tyson Jost and Corban Knight. Gardner's 58.6 percent ranks tied for seventh.

While the top two centers are locks, the Fighting Hawks have given a number of players a look at third- and fourth-line center during fall skates.

Among the players in the mix to play there are rookie Jasper Weatherby, junior Dixon Bowen, junior Ludvig Hoff, rookie Mark Senden and rookie Gavin Hain.

Weatherby may be the frontrunner for the third-line center spot. He played that role for BCHL champion Wenatchee last season.

"When we try to recruit forwards, it's great if they have experience playing center," Berry said. "If you can play center, you can play wing as well. It's tougher to play center if you're a winger.

"When you look at our roster of forwards, there's a lot of depth with guys who can play up the middle—Weatherby, Senden, Bowen, Hain. . . there are a number of guys who can play the center position.

"That's key so we don't get in a situation like we did last year when both Rhett and Jones were out of our lineup."

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016 and 2018, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He also was the NCHC's inaugural Media Excellence Award winner in 2018. Schlossman has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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