UMD’s lineup will be missing a key piece this weekend, as freshman forward Joey Anderson is in Buffalo trying out for the U.S. World Junior team. He’s played very well for UMD, has been good on national teams in the past, and has earned this opportunity. A player Scott Sandelin has praised up and down for his consistency will certainly be missed against an opponent the caliber of Bemidji State, but needless to say we’re hoping he makes the team and plays in the prestigious World Junior Championships.

The timing probably couldn’t be better for Omaha transfer and Grand Rapids native Avery Peterson. After a long year, Peterson finally suits up for UMD for the first time Saturday night as this home-and-home series concludes at Sanford Center in Bemidji.

“Losing Joey (for the weekend), it gives him an opportunity to play,” Sandelin said. “That means someone’s got to come out. Right now, we’ll find a spot for him. Like a lot of players, he’ll start here and have to work his way up.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” Peterson said this week. “Not just for me but for my family.” Asked to rate his level of excitement on a scale of one to ten, Peterson didn’t hesitate to say “ten”.

Peterson estimates there could be close to 80 family and friends at Saturday’s game, along with a host of Grand Rapids folks who have followed Peterson’s career. Considering how close-knit Grand Rapids is as a community, this shouldn’t serve as a surprise.

“It’s been a long year, but to see that light at the end of the tunnel is definitely a good thing.”

After a solid 11-goal, 21-point freshman season at Omaha (the Mavericks made the Frozen Four for the first time), Peterson’s offense disappeared in the first half of last season, with just one assist in 14 games before he decided to transfer. Once UNO coach Dean Blais released Peterson, he quickly figured out that UMD was the place for him.

“I had a good freshman year, put up some points, and we had a good team,” Peterson said. “Sophomore year, I knew I just wasn’t in the right place, and I knew I had to make a change.

“The two programs are a night and day difference,” he said of UMD and UNO. “Nothing against Omaha, but the coaching staff here does such a tremendous job with skill development, the vibe in the locker room, just the overall feeling here is so positive.”

Peterson talked about having junior Jared Thomas, a good friend, show him around town after he was contacted by UMD. It didn’t take long for him to commit to UMD after that, and next thing you knew, he was practicing with the team.

Sandelin said Peterson will likely not play center right away, and instead will slot at wing. UMD is blessed with four solid centers in senior captain Dominic Toninato, sophomore Adam Johnson, and juniors Thomas and Sammy Spurrell, and even with Anderson out this weekend, there won’t be any change in that.

Johnson moved to center this year and has acquitted himself well.

“Overall, they’re all veteran guys,” Sandelin said of his centers. “You’ve got experience through the middle. For the most part, they’ve done a good job.

“We threw Adam in a spot he hasn’t played in a while, he’s done admirably well. I still don’t like our faceoffs. I thought we were making progress, but we weren’t very good last weekend.”

(UMD’s faceoff percentage on the season is .460, ranking 54th out of 60 Division I teams and last among NCHC teams.)

Eventually, Peterson could add to that depth down the middle. For now, he played the role of diplomat very well, saying he doesn’t care if he plays wing or center. After a year sitting on the sideline, Peterson is just thrilled to be able to play once again.

Over the course of a year, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a player’s game when he isn’t getting into games. Look at the rust Jordy Nelson of the Packers showed coming off a torn ACL suffered last August. And he’s a finely-tuned, experienced professional athlete who’s competed and produced at a high level for a long time.

Peterson said he tried to use the down time wisely.

“I worked a lot on my skating,” Peterson said, lauding UMD’s power skating coach, Bronwynn Pichetti of Duluth. “She was able to spend a lot of time with me. I’m very appreciative of the time she spent. She came here a lot, especially during the summer.”

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s the same thing defenseman Brenden Kotyk, now a senior, said about his down time after he transferred to UMD from St. Scholastica.

“When you look at it,” Sandelin noted, “it’s exciting because you get a real good player with experience who can bring more depth to our team.”

Ultimately, Peterson’s fit will be determined over time. It’s probably a good thing that he gets a game in this weekend before the holiday break. It’s another long layoff, and it will give the coaches a chance to take time and figure out where Peterson best fits come January. It also gives the coaches a chance to make sure the right player comes out of the lineup to make room for Peterson. UMD will have 14 available forwards for the second half (15 for practices thanks to Alaska-Fairbanks transfer Peter Krieger, sitting out this season). As Sandelin said, “hopefully this creates some healthy competition” for playing time.

As I said many times in September and October, if this was an easy call for the UMD staff, that was probably a bad thing. It would have meant a significant injury to someone and perhaps a bad start to the season. Instead, the Bulldogs are pretty healthy and off to a great start. It means a challenge when finding the right fit for Peterson, and it means the best-case scenario. There’s competition for playing time on a really good team.