ST. CLOUD, Minn. — In a year of oddities, the St. Cloud State men's hockey team will have nearly all of its roster back for the 2021-22 season with the hopes of returning to an NCAA Division I championship game.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA granted all college athletes another year of eligibility for those who were on rosters for the 2020-21 school year. For the Huskies, that means some key seniors have the opportunity to return and at least four of them will.
Senior defensemen Seamus Donohue and Luke Jaycox and senior forwards Easton Brodzinski and Kevin Fitzgerald have confirmed that they plan to return to the Huskies. Each one of those players are undrafted free agents. Senior goalie David Hrenak, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick, is still in the process of deciding if he will return.
"It was in the back of all of our minds when we heard that we could get another year," said Jaycox, one of the team's assistant captains. "We were focused on this year because we had a special group.
"When the season ended, us as a class, we all talked about how we each were feeling. It wasn't really a focus until the end of the year because we know that there's recruits coming in who are aging out of juniors. It wasn't 100% our decision. We had to see what the coaching staff would want from us. We all kind of met with (coach Brett Larson) on our own separately.
"It's not that Lars didn't want guys to come back because he loved our group and would love to see us all come back. The guys who aren't coming back decided that it was time to move on and it wasn't anything to do with the staff not wanting them back."
Senior defenseman Tyler Anderson, who played 15 games this season and 39 in his career, is planning on graduating and going to medical school. Senior wing Jared Cockrell, a graduate transfer from Colgate, signed a pro contract Tuesday with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. Senior forward Will Hammer has accepted an internship and will not return for a fifth year. Defenseman Trevor Zins, a sophomore from St. Michael who has not played in a regular season game, has entered into the transfer portal.
Junior defenseman Nick Perbix, an All-NCHC Second Team selection in 2020-21, also confirmed that he will be coming back for another season. Perbix was drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Junior forward Sam Hentges will also be returning, according to Larson. Hentges, a 21-year-old from New Brighton and seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2018, had 17 points, 14 penalty minutes, 76 shots on goal and won 56.3% of his faceoffs in 29 games in 2020-21. In 94 career games, he has 25 goals, 61 points, 58 penalty minutes and is a plus-4.
With Perbix and Hentges returning, the Huskies should have their top 11 scorers and six of their top seven defensemen back from a team that went 20-11-0, took second in the NCHC during the regular season and in the conference tournament.
"I'm just really excited that they're back," Larson said. "It's a great group. They got a taste of getting that close to their ultimate goal and I think a lot of them are coming back to make another run."
A look at some returners and their decisions
Brodzinski, who led the team in goals each of the last two seasons, is recovering from a broken femur that he suffered in the Northeast Regional championship game. He said he will be on crutches for "another 3-4 weeks" as he looks to come back from the injury.
"I'll be wearing the old cardinal red and black again," said Brodzinski, a 24-year-old from Blaine. "Obviously, there were a few things that went into (the decision). One of the biggest things is that it's a family here and I know that this family is going to take good care of me with the situation I was dealt with my leg.
"It was the right path that I needed to take at this point. I know I have a group of guys supporting me through the whole thing."
Brodzinski led the team in goals (13), shots on goal (85), penalty minutes (46) and tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (3). Two of his goals, including the game-winner, came in St. Cloud State's 6-2 win over Boston University in the regional semifinals.
He got injured after being checked in the next game against Boston College and had to have surgery to repair the damage. But he was able to make the trip out to Pittsburgh to watch his teammates play in the Frozen Four.
"This was probably the closest group I've had playing in my career here," Brodzinski said. "But we're all on a mission. We got close this year, but we've all got a chip on our shoulder, wanting to get back.
"It was a lot of different emotions (in Pittsburgh). I was more just happy and getting to experience it with them, too. It was something that I've never experienced before and it was cool to be a part of that. I was happy that we made it that far. Obviously, I wish it was under different circumstances."
In his college career, Brodzinski has 55 goals (13th in program's Division I era), 12 game-winning goals (tied for 4th), 21 power-play goals (tied for 10th) and 98 points in 140 games. He will work on finishing his undergraduate degree in health.
Donohue, who is a graduate transfer from Michigan Tech, ended up being on the Huskies' top defensive pairing all season with Perbix. Donohue led the team in plus/minus (plus-14), blocked shots (45) and penalties (16) and had nine points in 31 games.
"Going into this (2020-21) season, I always thought that four years of college would be enough for me and I'd be ready to move on and try my hand at pro hockey," said Donohue, 24, who was an assistant captain. "But every day of practice that went by and every off day with the boys — and especially every game day — I just more and more saw myself staying in St. Cloud.
"With the coaches and the boys getting closer on and off the ice, it's just been such a great fit for me. I couldn't turn down one more year."
Donohue, who has an undergraduate degree in finance, has one more year of classes left to get his master's degree in sports management.
"Having the opportunity to finish that (degree) is huge," he said.
After playing in one NCAA tournament game in first three years at Michigan Tech, Donohue said that getting to the championship game has left him wanting more.
"We got a taste of it, but we didn't get to take a bite," Donohue said. "We're definitely still hungry and not satisfied with the way it ended at all."
Fitzgerald, who is from Hinsdale, Ill., had three options to consider: 1. Sign a pro contract, 2. Take a job working for KPMG International Limited in accounting, 3. Return to the Huskies for another season. Fitzgerald, 24, another assistant captain, chose the third option.
"I talked to coach (Larson on Monday) and I decided that I'm coming back," he said. "With the team we have coming back, I just love St. Cloud, I figured, 'what's one more year?' I'll be one of the oldest college hockey players, but that's all right. I'm very much looking forward to coming back."
Fitzgerald, who was a walk-on to the program in 2017, also admits that he enjoyed the intense recruiting he received to return.
"I took a week to talk to my family and talk to some people and there were some alumni who were pulling some recruiting strings on me," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "I told Lars that when I first decided to come to St. Cloud before my freshman year, it was, 'Yeah, you can come if you want.'
"This was the first time I've ever been recruited. I just decided that this is way too good of a spot to pass up. I know that, looking down the line 10-20 years from now, I'd definitely be regretting it if I didn't take the opportunity to come back.
"Once Seamus made his decision, I told him he'd have to work for it, that he'd really have to put the recruiting moves on me. He wasn't too happy after because I told him I was coming back the whole time."
Fitzgerald, who has a cumulative grade-point average of 3.42, will graduate with a degree in accounting this spring. He said that he has applied to get into the master of business administration program for next year. And KPMG has deferred its job offer for one year, so it will still be there for him after the next school year.
"They were awesome," he said of KPMG, with whom he had an internship with last summer. "I first called them probably two months before the season ended and said, 'Hey, this is a dream job of mine and I'd really want to keep it. But I have an opportunity to maybe play (pro) hockey or stay at St. Cloud.' They were like, 'We can defer it one year, no problem.'
"I felt like it's only beneficial to come back, play another year, get a crack at a national championship and try to get my MBA and my CPA done."
He is two-time recipient of St. Cloud State's Herberger Business School Scholarship and the Presidential Scholarship and earned the Elloyd A. Hauser Scholarship for the Herberger School of Business. In 2020-21, he led the Huskies in faceoff win percentage (.571), tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (3) and had 18 points in 31 games, playing mostly center.
In 126 college games, Fitzgerald has 29 goals, 67 points, 75 penalty minutes and is a plus-4. He received the NCHC Sportsmanship Award and was a top 10 finalist for the Senior CLASS Award. To be eligible for the CLASS, a player must be a senior with notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.
Jaycox, a 23-year-old from Warroad, will graduate this spring with a degree in finance. He will work on a real estate major and could finish that in the next school year.
"We had a good team this year and it was a heartbreaker to fall short," he said of losing in the national championship game. "We all talk so highly of the staff we have here in Lars, (assistants) Shicker (Dave Shyiak) and Ollie (Nick Oliver) — they're amazing people and amazing coaches.
"You hear about guys who played college hockey and they talk about how it was the best four years of their life. I'm lucky enough to get a fifth year for free. So I might as well take it and I'm really looking forward to one more year as a Husky."
Jaycox, who had offseason surgery on both hips, has played in 143 consecutive games. He had career-bests of seven assists and eight points and had 37 blocked shots, eight penalty minutes in 31 games in 2020-21. In his college career, he has 20 points, 32 penalty minutes, 138 blocked shots and is a plus-8.
Perbix said he spoke with representatives from the Lightning, his family advisor, St. Cloud State alumni and his family before making his decision.
"There was a lot to think about," said Perbix, who had career-bests in goals (7), assists (16), points (23), shots (84) and was second on the team in blocked shots (44) and third in plus/minus (plus-8). "Ultimately, getting a degree has been a big part of my family with my mom being a teacher.
"With how the year ended, it adds a little fuel to the fire and there's a little unfinished business."
Perbix is a three-time All-NCHC Academic Team selection and is on track to graduate with a degree in finance in the spring of 2022.
"I kind of got pros and cons to staying and leaving and I really thought about it a lot," said Perbix, who is from Elk River. "It was a pretty stressful week. Tampa gave me some time to decide and they didn't really force anything.
"It's super exciting to know that we have a lot of guys (back) who know how to make a run. Ultimately, we want to get over that hump that we weren't able to this year.
"Coach is going to have to tell us to get away from the rink for a while so we don't get burnt out."
Perbix was named to the All-NCHC Rookie Team as a freshman. He has played in 104 consecutive games and has 16 goals, 42 assists, five game-winning goals, 151 blocked shots, 57 penalty minutes and is a plus-20.
Another transfer coming in?
The Huskies have three players signed to National Letters of Intent to play for them in the fall in forward Mason Salquist and defensemen Jack Peart and Josh Luedtke.
Salquist and Peart are currently junior teammates with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League.
Salquist battled an injury for almost two months at the start of 2021, but has nine goals (three game-winners), 19 points and six penalty minutes in 32 games this season and is an assistant captain. A 21-year-old from Grand Forks, N.D., Salquist has 25 goals, 50 points, 36 penalty minutes and is a plus-7 in 90 career USHL games.
Peart is a 17-year-old from Grand Rapids, Minn., and has had a big season. When he has played for the Force, he has 13 assists, 14 points, 10 penalty minutes, 40 shots on goal and is a plus-5 in 22 games playing on the team's top defensive pairing.
When the high school season started, he left the Force to play for Grand Rapids High School and led the Thunderhawks in assists (24), points (35), power-play goals (5) and power-play assists (7) in 18 games as the team's captain. Peart was named Mr. Hockey and the winner of the Reed Larson Award, which is given to the state's top defenseman.
Luedtke, a 20-year-old from Minnetonka, is the captain of the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL. He has 17 assists, 20 points, 57 penalty minutes in 46 games. Among defensemen in the USHL, he is tied for 14th in plus/minus (plus-13) and is 14th in shots on goal (74).
There may be one more new player coming in for the Huskies in the fall. With the graduation of Hammer and Cockrell signing, there is room for one more forward to be added.
"We've got two slots to fill and we feel good with one of them with Salquist," Larson said. "Now we're going to be patient and figure out how we're going to fill out that last spot.
"We'll obviously look in the (transfer) portal and be patient making a decision. We also like that it gives our other recruits more time to keep developing in junior hockey."
Regardless of whether or not the Huskies bring in another player, there is likely to be fierce competition for playing time on defense. St. Cloud State will have nine defensemen, including their top six — Perbix, Donohue, Spencer Meier, Brendan Bushy, Jaycox and Ondrej Trejbal — on the roster. The top six listed does not include Brady Ziemer, who played 18 games this season.
"It's going to be really good competition this year, which I think will push that whole group to keep getting better," Larson said of the defensemen.
St. Cloud State typically dresses seven defensemen for games.