Like a lot of Seawolves, Derek Docken's belief in himself by the late stages of last season trended lower and lower.
In a 4-25-7 campaign that closed with nine consecutive losses, Docken's plus-minus rating of minus-18 proved unsightly. He went minus-12 in that final nine-game spiral as a sophomore, and all those minuses weighed on a guy with a strong plus-minus history. His minus-5 rating as a freshman tied for best among UAA regulars two seasons ago, and his plus-23 in 2010-11 for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the U.S. Hockey League led that club and ranked sixth on the circuit.
"It's always been something I took pride in, being good in my own zone, taking care of things,'' Docken said. "It was a tough season.''
To get past the negatives, Docken approached the offseason proactively and positively. He jumped into summer training and he used an invitation to the Boston Bruins' developmental camp as positive reinforcement.
"I came out of last season and my confidence was completely low,'' Docken said. "I knew I had to have a good summer. I got home and started hitting the weights and then skating right away. I really didn't take any time off.
"Then I got the call from Boston. It was a really great honor, and cool to go there and experience it.''
Docken last weekend signaled he is turning his game around. By first-year coach Matt Thomas' evaluation, Docken proved the Seawolves' top defenseman in beating Quinnipiac, 3-1, and Air Force, 4-2, to win a third straight Kendall Hockey Classic.
Docken went a team-best, plus-3 and was not on the ice for an opposing goal all weekend. He teamed with Chris Williams to provide a strong pairing at even strength and a particularly stingy pairing on the penalty kill, helping UAA stop all nine opposing power plays.
"He's the smoothest, the most poised, has the best stick defensively,'' Thomas said of Docken. "He's a details guy. He's just going to get better with more responsibility.''
Docken said the arrival of Thomas -- who replaced Dave Shyiak, who was fired after eight seasons -- allowed him and his teammates to put last season in the rearview mirror and start from scratch. He said he got excited when he called a friend, Matt Bergland, who played last season for Thomas at ECHL Stockton, and listened to Bergland praise Thomas' intensity, knowledge and attention to detail.
"We all had a clean slate,'' Docken said. "Everyone's pushing everyone. No spots are guaranteed. We want to set a new tone, a new standard.''
Attending that week-long developmental camp in Boston helped the undrafted Docken begin rebuilding his confidence. Sharing daily skill-development sessions and practices primarily with drafted players -- Docken and Penn State forward Casey Bailey of Anchorage were among the undrafted players invited -- assured Docken he is better than his sophomore season.
As UAA prepares to play Western Michigan and Denver in this weekend's Brice Alaska Goal Rush tournament in Fairbanks, Docken said the Seawolves need to keep looking ahead after winning their own tournament.
"It's just baby steps,'' he said. "We can feel good about ourselves, but we're on to the next test, which is Western Michigan. It comes back to playing with pride, with a chip on your shoulder, and competing.
"We're sick and tired of getting kicked around.''
Hubbs is a hammer
The first clue rookie winger Dylan Hubbs is not a gentle soul came courtesy of the 261 penalty minutes he racked two seasons ago with the Olds Grizzlys, which placed him second in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The next clue: Hubbs' league-leading 255 PIMs for the Grizzlys last season.
Hubbs, all of 5-foot-9, 159 pounds, furnished the latest clues in his first two college games last weekend when he delivered some big-time banging. Particularly noteworthy was his open-ice, neutral-demolition of Quinnipiac winger Kellen Jones on opening night.
"He's physical, a guy who's just involved,'' Thomas said. "Even if he's fighting the puck, he's going to be doing something for you.''
And Hubbs only took one minor penalty last weekend -- a cross-check.
Tinkering the power play
UAA went 3 for 13 on the opening weekend, good for 23.1 percent efficiency, forging a third-period insurance goal against Quinnipiac and a third-period, game-tying goal against Air Force.
Still, several of those man-advantage opportunities amounted to two minutes of nothing from the Seawolves. Thomas continues tinkering with personnel -- he used four forwards a few times instead of the usual three forwards and two defensemen -- and power-play groupings, and he has considered loading up one power-play unit and giving it the majority of minutes. Or not. Remember, he's still only seen these guys play two meaningful games.
"The thing for us is, we're working on a bunch of different stuff,'' Thomas said. "Like (Monday), we practiced with three power-play units. We're going to work on things, look at options. We're going to do a lot of this stuff early.''
Senior Rob Gunderson stopped 24 of 25 shots against Quinnipiac and redshirt freshman Michael Matyas made his college debut by turning back 25 of 27 shots against Air Force.
That leaves senior Chris Kamal as the only Seawolves goaltender yet to play. He won't start Friday -- that gig will go to either Gunderson or Matyas -- but Thomas said Kamal's time will come.
"It's nothing he's done,'' Thomas said. "He'll get his chance. He just needs to be patient.''
The Seawolves have gained yet another commitment from a guy who plays for the Penticton Vees, giving them three recruits off the British Columbia Hockey League team.
The latest to commit, according to the Vees and multiple recruiting websites, is forward Cam Amantea, a 5-10, 171-pounder from Victoria, B.C. Amantea, 19, owns 3-4--7 totals in eight games. He plays on Penticton's "Trench Line,'' which usually is matched against the opponent's top line. Amantea will join UAA either next fall or in 2015.
UAA previously received commitments from Vees goalie Olivier Mantha (4-2-0, 1.67 goals-against average, .934 save percentage, two shutouts) and forward Anthony Conti (2-5--7 totals in 11 games).
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY