Last April, Todd Woodcroft made a big jump from Winnipeg Jets assistant coach to leading the University of Vermont hockey program.
Eight months later, his Catamounts team finally began a COVID-plagued season that ended with a 1-10-2 record and a last-place finish in the Hockey East conference.
It wasn’t a season that screamed success, but it was the starting point of a new era for a program that Woodcroft stresses will do anything—even the unconventional—to win. So far, that’s included recruiting players from countries where prospects typically don’t come to play NCAA hockey. In 2021-22, Woodcroft’s roster will include skaters from Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Finland, Russia, Germany, and Sweden—including Edmonton Oilers 2021 pick Luca Münzenberger and Nashville Predators 2019 pick Isak Walther.
“I don’t believe that you have to have one area where you recruit players from,” said Woodcroft. “You need to find the best players. If you’re recruiting ten players in a draft class and they’re all from South Africa, then that’s where the ten best players are...If you can remove emotion and just find the best players that are going to help your team, I think your team has a better chance of success.”
The Catamounts’ coach admitted that some of his recruits may come from non-traditional places, but he credits his staff for helping piece their roster together: “We’re lucky enough that our staff is pretty well connected across the world, and we’ve found some real good players in some unconventional places...but unconventional in the sense that they’re coming up.”
When it comes to Isak Walther, Woodcroft has a special connection to the Predators’ 2019 sixth-round pick.
“Coincidentally, the town he’s from, I lived there personally,” admitted Woodcroft. “I lived in the house of the general manager, Mikael Samuelsson, of Södertälje, where Isak is from. So when you have those connections, and a network where you have people that you can trust and people that trust you, I think you’re able to find players and build your team that way.”
Walther is relatively unknown in Nashville’s pipeline. At the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the organization was forced to take a timeout as his name wasn’t in the league’s central registry, and since then, he’s played two seasons for Södertälje at the U20 level. In 2020-21, before the J20 Nationell season was canceled due to COVID-19, the 6’3” winger recorded eight goals and 17 points in 18 games. Now, he’s off to Burlington, Vermont for the upcoming year.
When asked about recruiting Walther, Woodcroft noted that he was a player brought to him, not the other way around.
“We have an assistant coach named Stephen Wiedler, and he has a billion connections in Sweden—he’s very dialed in over there,” said Woodcroft. “They brought the name of Isak Walther to Stephen and he brought him to me... It just turned out that Isak being from Södertälje and my having been there and knowing the people in management there...that was the first step.”
It was then Woodcroft’s NHL resume, which includes Minnesota, Washington, Los Angeles, Calgary, and Winnipeg, that helped with the rest:
“I’m very good friends with Lucas Bergman, who is one of the Swedish scouts for the Predators. It’s just like, ‘Hey, Lucas, between friends here, I need some help: tell me about this player.’”
Woodcroft added that those relationships came in handy this season during the ongoing pandemic.
“The hardest challenge for us this year was you couldn’t watch players live, so we had to do most of our stuff watching players on video,” said the coach. “That’s great, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story. So when someone like Lucas Bergman can give us hard intelligence on a player, it’s very good for our team to be able to rely on that.”
Walther, according to Woodcroft, was being recruited heavily by many NCAA programs: “We were able to sell him on our vision—that he would be coming into a team that had a really good chance for success. He knows it’s not going to be easy; Hockey East is the hardest of all the NCAA conferences. Isak is now going to challenge himself to play against these men, which was part of the selling process to him.”
“I think it says a lot about Isak that he wanted to play against the best, he wanted to practice with men and be basically driven to be a professional amongst other teammates who have that goal,” added Woodcroft.
When it comes to his NHL future, Woodcroft didn’t hesitate to lay out a vision for his role in Walther’s development.
“I, fortunately, have been friends with Scott Nichol for a long time; John Hynes is someone I consider a friend too,” said the coach. “I want to make sure that the player we have, that was drafted by the Predators...I hand that player off to his next coach a little more prepared. So, when he gets to Nashville, he’s going to understand what it takes to be a professional: how we train, how we eat, how we sleep, how they dress, how they treat the people that work in the arena, how they are diligent in their studies...”
“All these things that we want to have help shape this player, so he’s not just a good hockey player, he’s also going to be a good citizen in the community of Nashville.”
When talking about his relationship with Nashville and dealing with organizations and their drafted prospects, Woodcroft focused on the word “conversation.” To him, that means a two-way street, and you could sense his confidence in how he’ll help refine the player Nashville wants in Isak Walther. Woodcroft also credited Scott Nichol, the Milwaukee Admirals’ general manager, for being the epitome of the type of professional Nashville likes: “When Scott can be involved in those conversations with this coaching staff about Isak, I think the player that’s going to come out of it, he’s going to be a much better hockey player, a much better person, and someone that the Predators are going to want to have in the organization.”
To wrap up our chat, I asked Woodcroft to evaluate Walther’s game and the freshman season he has before him.
“The player that we saw is a really tall, smooth-skating, fluid, skilled player who can score,” said Woodcroft. “Isak was the assistant captain of his team, one of the leading point-getters, was a great offensive player, and he can really skate. That’s a great basis to have to bring a player in.”
Despite Walther’s breakout in 2020-21, his new head coach was definitive in his expectations:
“I’m really happy with the game that we saw; I’m really happy with the direction that he’s taking. I’d like to see him physically stronger and know that grind of being a professional.”
“What we want Isak to understand is just because he has this scholarship to come and play here doesn’t mean he’s going to play every night,” declared Woodcroft. “You have to earn the right to wear a UVM jersey, and it’s a battle. It doesn’t matter what you did on Friday night, you’ve got to do it again on Saturday night. Then you’ve got to do it all week through practice, and then you’ve got to earn it again on that Friday night and the next Saturday night.”
Woodcroft resorted to three words to describe that rigorous NHL environment that he wants to mimic at Vermont: hard, repetitive, and uncomfortable.
“When Isak gets to the NHL, I’m pretty sure those players that are wearing the Predators jersey don’t want to give [him] a job,” noted Woodcroft. “So he’s going to have to learn how to take that job, and you take that job by how hard you work in every practice, every development camp, and with all the decisions you make...”
If it sounds like a lot of tough love from Woodcroft, it’s all for the sake of Walther’s development: “Just because he’s an NHL draft pick...that’s awesome...It doesn’t mean that he’s going to be in the starting lineup for game one. And if he is in the starting lineup, how’s he going to be there for game two? That’s really the way these players are going to continue their career is battling through all that adversity and being uncomfortable.”