The Bemidji State Beavers took a slight step back in 2017-18 as goaltender Michael Bitzer saw his numbers come down to earth following the team’s WCHA-winning campaign in 2016-17.
In 2016-17, Bitzer backstopped the Beavers to the conference title with a 22-14-3 record supported by a 1.71 GAA and .932 save percentage. The junior was named the WCHA Player of the Year, WCHA Goaltending Champion, and a Hobey Baker finalist.
In his fourth season as a starter, the senior went 16-13-8 with a 2.24 GAA and .909 SV%, his lowest numbers during his time at Bemidji. The loss of Bitzer will be trying for the Beavers in 2018-19, as the next in line played in just two games last season.
“Next year’s going to be interesting,” head coach Tom Serratore told Austin Monteith of The Bemidji Pioneer, following the season. “I mean, hey, we’re going to lose Bitzer. And [Bitzer] has played 138 games over four years. We’re going to have somebody in goal who’s inexperienced… it’s going to be interesting to see what our pace is going to be like next year.”
That inexperience role likely belongs to Jack Burgart, a sophomore in 2017-18, who earned a 0-1 record with a 3.49 GAA and .896 SV% in just two appearances. Now, the junior will be the starter, as sophomore Henry Johnson, who faced just one shot last season in a single period of play, takes on the backup role.
While any great team relies on the consistency and overall play of its goaltender, the Beavers will be dependent on the returning cast of the blue line.
The defense will be key to the Beavers hitting or exceeding the .500 mark for the third consecutive season after a 16-14-8 campaign. Carter Struthers and Zach Whitecloud mark the defensive losses, via graduation and an entry-level contract, respectively.
Whitecloud signed with the Vegas Golden Knights, forgoing his junior and senior seasons. He recorded 19 points (4 G, 15 A) in 36 games last season after a 17-point (3 G, 14 A) freshman campaign through 41 games the year prior.
Even with the leadership and puck-moving losses, the focus should turn to who will be there. Seven other defensemen return, led by Justin Baudry and Dan Billett, with familiarity with the system and teammates, as the youth looks to take a step forward.
Entering his 18th season (282-270-78), Serratore’s tenure speaks volumes to his coaching ability and resilience in the face of adversity. An aforementioned focus on the defensive side of the game will naturally allow the remaining forward depth to capitalize on offensive chances.
Leading scorer Kyle Bauman (9-21–30) and third-leading scorer Gerry Fitzgerald (7-18–25) mark the biggest losses. Jordan Heller and Fitzgerald’s brothers, Myles and Leo, make up another three losses up front as a total of eight players move on form the Beavers over the summer.
It will open up the ice for senior Jay Dickman and sophomore Charlie Combs. Dickman led the team with 15 goals as the 6-foot-6 forward broke out for 23 points. Combs finished second with 13 goals and 20 total points as a freshman and will be a go-to forward for Serratore next season.
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