I know what you're probably thinking. It's September 8th and you're already releasing your season preview? Let's just say I'm more than a little excited for the upcoming hockey season. In one week coaches can start working with players on ice in small groups, and October 1st marks the first day of official practice. Ten out of Twelve WCHA teams will play exhibition games against Canadian CIS teams the first few days of October with Wisconsin and St. Cloud State being the only two WCHA schools who will use the weekend for practice.
The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs brought the NCAA National Championship back to the WCHA last spring after defeating Michigan in overtime in the title game. Minnesota-Duluth is the first WCHA team to win the title since Wisconsin took home the hardware in 2006. Despite the four year drought from 2007 to 2010, the WCHA has still won six out of the last ten titles, including a run of five in a row from 2002-2006.
Although they won the NCAA Championship, Minnesota-Duluth finished in fourth place in the ultra-competitive WCHA last season. The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux virtually held the top spot in the league standings all season as they cruised to the MacNaughton Cup, winning the league by six points over second place Denver. Shortly after wrapping up the regular season, the Fighting Sioux and Pioneers would meet to compete for another piece of hardware, the Broadmoor Trophy, given to the WCHA playoff champion. In what would go down as one of the best WCHA Championship games ever, North Dakota beat Denver 3-2 in overtime, capturing both league trophies.
North Dakota Matt Frattin was honored by the league as it's player of the year, Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz the defensive player of the year, and Denver forward Jason Zucker the leagues top rookie. Additionally Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais was named coach of the year and North Dakota defenseman Chay Genoway the student-athlete of the year.
This is a new season, and there are new faces, and new favorites. No longer around are players like Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine from Minnesota-Duluth, Garrett Roe from St. Cloud State, or Matt Read from Bemidji State. Fresh faces like North Dakota's Rocco Grimaldi and Denver's Scott Mayfield are ready to make their mark on the WCHA.
2011-2012 WCHA Team Finish Predictions:
Despite being loaded last season the Pioneers weren't devastated in off-season defections like other schools. Their biggest losses up front include Anthony Maiani, and Kyle Ostrow. Arguably the biggest loss Denver suffered this offseason was defenseman Matt Donovan signing a pro contract with the New York Islanders. Donnovan was used in all phases for George Gwozdecky's crew and will be missed.
Denver was picked first for a reason and it's the talent that they return. Last seasons WCHA rookie of the year Jason Zucker returns and is poised for to lead the Pioneer offense along with last years team leader in scoring, Drew Shore. Expect sophomore Beau Bennett, who was a star in junior hockey but had a relatively quiet freshman campaign to bust out for the Pioneers this year.
In addition to the load of talent already on the roster, Denver brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. Second round NHL Draft pick Scott Mayfield and BCHL defenseman Joey Laleggia could make Denver's blueline even better then it was last year. Up front Zac Larraza from the NTDP should add to their scoring punch.
Denver's success this season is going to ride on what happens between the pipes. Sam Brittain had an outstanding freshman season but suffered a knee injury at the end of the year and is not scheduled to return to the lineup until the second half of the season. In the meantime Adam Murray, a once heralded recruit who has struggled in his time in the WCHA will get a shot to live up to the initial hype he once had.
2. North Dakota
Last seasons WCHA Champions were absolutely LOADED. Unfortunately, they lost a ton of that talent. Gone are senior forwards Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp, and Brad Malone as are underclassmen Brett Hextall and Jason Gregoire. Defensively the Fighting Sioux lose three of their top six defensemen to graduation in Chay Genoway, Derrick LaPoint, and Jake Marto.
If there is any team that can come back from those losses and win the league this year, it's UND. It's amazing that they can lose that much talent but still return skilled forwards like Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, and Brock Nelson. Defensively they might not come any better in their own end then Ben Blood and look for bust out candidate Dillon Simpson to make a name for himself in Grand Forks this season.
The biggest surprise for UND last season was between the pipes with Aaron Dell who helped carry North Dakota to the Frozen Four semi-finals. The All-WCHA first teamer will be challenged by backup Brad Eidsness who has 89 career starts under his belt. There isn't a team in the nation that boasts this kind of depth between the pipes.
Dave Hakstol continues to bring in some of the best freshmen classes in the nation and this year is no different. The Fighting Sioux boast my pick for WCHA freshman of the year at forward with Rocco Grimaldi and also will feature BCHL forward Mark MacMillan. Don't forget former NTDP blueliner Nick Mattson who was a USHL first team performer last year.
3. Colorado College
Colorado College third may be a surprise to some but the Tigers could be very dangerous this season. Sure, they lose senior forwards Stephen Schultz and Tyler Johnson as well as defenseman Ryan Lowery but they return a boatload of skill.
Brothers Jaden and Rylan Schwartz will once again lead the offense in Colorado Springs and Gabe Guentzel will lead the charge from the blueline. One of the most underrated players in the league, goaltender Joe Howe returns for another season between the pipes for the Tigers and is my breakout pick this season.
Scotty Owens brings in another solid class with Peter Stoykewych and Aaron Harstad looking to make immediate contributions defensively.
It's rare that the defending National Champions are picked fourth the next year in their own league but the WCHA is going to be outstanding this season. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, high end forwards Justin Fontaine (graduation), and Mike Connolly (pro contract) have departed. That pair combined for well over 100 points last season. Thankfully they bring back Jack Connolly, who is in line to have another monster year on Lake Superior. Sophomore JT Brown really made a name for himself nationally with his play in the Frozen Four but WCHA opponents knew his talent all season. Brown is my breakout candidate for the Bulldogs, and could very easily play his way into All-WCHA contention this year.
Unfortunately on the blueline the Bulldogs took some major blows as well. Many don't remember but UMD lost first round NHL Draft pick Dylan Olsen at mid-season when he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks because it didn't look like he would be academically eligible for second semester. Additionally they lose Justin Faulk, the ultra talented freshman who was dynamic on the power play as he signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Senior Mike Montgomery will also be missed.
The Bulldogs return both their goaltenders, senior Kenny Reiter and sophomore Aaron Crandall. Reiter is the man but Crandall will certainly see his opportunites this season. Neither one has been overly consistent in their careers so far but Reiter found a way to put together his best four games of the season last year en route to a championship.
The Bulldogs bring in an older, junior experienced recruiting class this year led by Sioux City forward Caleb Herbert who averaged just under a point per game in the USHL last season.
5. St. Cloud State
The Huskies were one of the toughest teams to place for me this year. Last year the general consensus was that they would be one of the top two or three teams in the league. They finished 9th. Things just never clicked for the Huskies last season and it mostly had to do with a defensive core that seemed to get pushed around. The Huskies lose leaders Garrett Roe and Aaron Marvin, two big time four year contributors but also dropped some dead weight from the program as well.
The Huskies sure aren't short on skill up front for the 2011-2012 season. Captains Ben Hanowski and Drew LeBlanc return for another season as well as senior Jared Festler. Additionally, you can expect more big things from Nic Dowd and Cam Reid who busted out as freshmen. Don't forget junior forward David Eddy. Last season he missed the first half of the season due to grades but recorded 17 points in 18 games for the Huskies in the second half. Eddy is still flying under the radar and could be the straw that stirs the drink for SCSU.
Defensively the Huskies lose Oliver Lauridsen who signed a pro deal with the Flyers as well as Chris Hepp and Brett Barta. But the story on the Huskies blueline is who they return. Nick Jensen is an outstanding player and will make the All-WCHA team this season. Additionally, junior Taylor Johnson and Sophomore Kevin Gravel should take big steps for St. Cloud.
Mike Lee returns for another year between the pipes and is ready for the spotlight after sharing the load with Dan Dunn the past two seasons. I have Lee rated as one of the top three tenders in the league and with the growth of Gravel, Johnson, and Jensen, shouldn't have to carry as much of the load in his own zone this season.
The Huskies will fill in holes with incoming freshmen like Nick Oliver, Garret Millan and Joey Holka up front. Defensively they boast one of the more intriguing freshmen in the league with Jared Rabey, who has exceeded my expectations as a player and will battle for minutes on the blueline as a 240 pound freshman.
One of the best stories in the league last year was the success of newcomer Nebraska-Omaha in their first season in the WCHA. The Mavericks played their way to a third place WCHA finish, turning many heads along the way. Many pinned the success on head coach Dean Blais but the talented roster deserves more credit. The Mavs do lose a talented trio of senior forwards in Matt Ambroz, Rich Purslow and Joey Martin but the well isn't dry. Terry Broadhurst is my breakout pick for the Mavericks and Alex Hudson can be lethal with the puck. Sophomores Brock Montpetit, Matt White and Ryan Walters are on the verge of becoming household names in the WCHA.
The Mavs also lost talented blueliner Eric Olimb who many league writers had on their All-WCHA ballots but still return a ton of experience on the back end. Additionally, third team All-WCHA goaltender John Faulkner returns for another season.
Faulner, despite his credentials will still be in a battle for playing time this season as Dean Blais is bringing in a goalie to compete in Ryan Massa from the Fargo Force (USHL). The big name to remember with UNO's recruiting class is a forward by the name of Jayson Megna who was a point per game player in the USHL last year and should step right into the Mavericks lineup.
Last year was an underachieving year for the Badgers after making it to the NCAA title game the year before. The Badgers finished 7th in the league last year, barely missing out on home ice and were sent home for the season after losing a heartbreaking WCHA first round series at Colorado College. The losses for the Badgers were in quality and quantity. The Badgers lost senior forwrads Patrick Johnson, Podge Turnbull and captain Sean Dolan along with underclassmen Craig Smith and Jordy Murray. Defenseman Jake Gardiner also signed a pro contract with Toronto.
Up front Mike Eaves is going to have to lean on a talented trio of sophomores with Mark Zengerle, Michael Mersch, and Tyler Barnes to lead the charge for the Badgers. Junior Derek Lee is my breakout candidate for the Badgers and has 30 point potential.
The man that could make the Badgers an interesting sleeper pick this year is All-American Justin Schultz. Schultz had a huge year as a sophomore leading the Badgers in scoring. If the Badgers are going to make some noise this season it's most likely going to be led by this Hobey Baker candidate. The strength of the Badgers is certainly on the back end as they also return John Ramage and Frankie Simonelli.
The goaltender situation is almost unheard of at Wisconsin as the Badgers graduated two senior goalies and are giving the reigns to freshman Joel Rumpel out of the gates. Rumpel had success in the BCHL but will need to be helped by his talented defensemen as he's getting his feet wet this year. He'll be challenged by Landon Peterson and Mitch Thompson for playing time.
The Badgers should have some immediate contributors in their freshman class. Forwards Joseph LaBate and Brad Navin are both coming in straight out of high school but both are big time scorers and could give the Badgers an extra punch up front. Defensively Jake McCabe should be an immediate contributor as well as the previously mentioned Joel Rumpel in goal.
It's truly amazing that the league is this deep. No, I didn't place the Gophers this low out of spite. In fact, I really like a lot of what the Gophers might be able to bring to the table this season. Unfortunately there are going to be a lot of really good teams in the WCHA this year. Minnesota loses seniors Jacob Cepis, Jay Barriball, and Mike Hoeffel, the latter two who have seemingly been around forever. Underachieving former first round pick Patrick White is also gone as is Max Gardiner who decided to transfer.
The Gophers should still have plenty of skill up front. Nick Bjugstad has all-league potential this season with a full, healthy year ahead of him. Last year he battled mono but really came on as the season wore on. Finnish forward Erik Haula also showed flashes of why he was such a heralded recruit.
Minnesota lost a trio of defensemen in Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs and Aaron Ness who decided to sign a pro contract with the Islanders. The Gophers blueline has been a consistent problem since former assistant coach Mike Guentzel left the program a few years ago. Well Guentzel is back, and Minnesota fans are hoping so is the magic.
In goal the Gophers will return one of the more steady performers in the league with Kent Patterson. While Alex Kangas was injured last year Patterson stepped up and made many question why he wasn't getting more opportunities before. Kangas is officially gone and Patterson will be the man and will certainly be one of, if not the biggest key for Minnesota this season.
As always the Gophers bring in a talented freshman class. Kyle Rau, Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz are the headliners up front and Ben Marshall is a guy to keep an eye on from the blueline. Marshall is small but has talent and isn't afraid to make things happen with the puck.
The Seawolves shocked many last year when they went into Mariucci Arena and knocked out the Gophers in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Alaska-Anchorage is looking to build upon their trip to the Final Five last season and make some noise in the WCHA once again. Up front the Seawolves lose Tommy Grant who was their biggest offensive threat as well as Craig Parkinson, Sean Wiles, and Nick Haddad.
The cupboard isn't bare for UAA though as freshman Jordan Kwas really had a bust out year for the Seawolves and should be the biggest source for points this year. Sophomore Matt Bailey also put up a 20 point freshman season and will be relied on heavily for minutes along with Mitch Bruijsten.
Defensively the Seawolves return everyone with the exception of Luka Vidmar which is outstanding news for goaltenders Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal who both should take big steps in their second years in the WCHA.
UAA brings in a huge freshman class led by BCHL forward Sam Mellor who recorded 130 points cumulative the past two seasons. Kory Roy, a local boy who averaged over a point per game in the AJHL last season could also be a player to watch.
10. Bemidji State
Bemidji went on a run last season in the WCHA playoffs all the way to the leagues semi-finals before they were finally eliminated by Denver. That run included sweeping Nebraska-Omaha on the road in the first round and taking out Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the Final Five shortly before the Bulldogs would go on a run to win the National Championship. The Beavers will lose big time scorer Matt Read who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason as well as Ian Lowe, Ryan Cramer and Emil Billberg.
Bemidji should still be able to put a scare into many teams as they return one of the more exciting players in the league Jordan George. Passed over by many teams because of his size, George actually led the Beavers in scoring last year as a Sophomore. With Read gone teams will be keying in on George more so it's vital for players like Shea Walters to pick up the scoring slack.
Defensively the Beavers bring back everyone with the exception of Ryan Adams and should have a talented group. Brad Hunt and Sam Rendle showed flashes of greatness last season and both should take steps forward again this year. In goal Dan Bakala had a huge year for the Beavers and if he played on a better team probably would be an All-WCHA candidate every year.
Tyler Tosunian is also a name to keep an eye on. He's a freshman out of Canada and while admittedly playing in a weak league, Tosunian put up 117 points LAST YEAR finishing second in the leagues scoring race. Once a North Dakota recruit, Danny Mattson should also make an impact for Bemidji.
11. Michigan Tech
New coach, new philosophy. The Huskies have hired long time Michigan assistant Mel Pearson to take over the program and expect big things with a fresh start. Tech was to put it bluntly, terrible last season so there is only one place to go and that's up. Offensively the Huskies lost virtually nothing and return exciting players like Brett Olson, Milos Gordic, and Ryan Furne.
On the blueline is where the Huskies took their biggest hit losing senior Deron Cousens who had a 20 point season for the Huskies. Steven Siego has a ton of talent and will be relied upon to carry the reigns for the Husky blueline.
Kevin Genoe and Josh Robinson are expected to spit time between the pipes once again. Neither has been outstanding in their WCHA careers but to be fair they haven't been given much help.
The Huskies do bring in some talent and Tanner Kero is expected to contribute right away offensively as is Blake Pietila from the NTDP.
12. Minnesota State
Worst part about doing things like this is that you have to pick someone to finish last. Unfortunately for Mavericks fans, Minnesota State fills that role for me this year. Gone are talented forwards Andrew Sacrison and Rylan Galiardi as well as defensemen Ben Youds and Kurt Davis, two players who I have the utmost respect for with their on ice play.
The Mavericks will bring back Gopher transfer Michael Dorr as well as Eriah Hayes and Chase Grant up front. My breakout candidate for the Mavericks is Eli Zuck who put 18 points last year but could really take that next step in his junior year into becoming someone the Mavericks can really rely upon.
With the losses of Davis and Youds as well as Channing Boe, there is going to be plenty of playing time to go around at Minnesota State. Evan Mosey, Cameron Cooper and Tyler Elbrecht return the most experience for the Mavericks.
In goal MSU will return two experienced netminders with Phil Cook and Austin Lee. I though Cook was in the upper half of WCHA goaltenders in my viewings last season but Lee acutally put up better numbers last year. Take that for what it's worth.
Zach Palmquist is a recruit who will step in immediately on the blueline and should contribute and the Mavericks boast two forwards to get excited about with J.P. LaFontaine from the Green Bay Gamblers and Max Gaede from the Sioux City Musketeers.
2011-2012 WCHA All Conference Predictions:
F-Jaden Schwartz-Colorado College
F-Jack Connolly-Minnesota Duluth
D-Ben Blood-North Dakota
G-Aaron Dell-North Dakota
F-Corban Knight-North Dakota
D-Nick Jensen-St. Cloud State
G-Mike Lee-St. Cloud State
F-Drew LeBlanc-St. Cloud State
F-Terry Broadhurst-Nebraska Omaha
D-Gabe Guentzel-Colorado College
G-Joe Howe-Colorado College
F-Rocco Grimaldi-North Dakota
F-Jayson Megna-Nebraska Omaha
WCHA Player of the Year: Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
WCHA Defenseman of the Year: Justin Schultz, University of Wisconsin
WCHA Rookie of the Year: Rocco Grimaldi: University of North Dakota
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