2013 Big Ten hockey preview: Wisconsin the favorite in new era

The Badgers are our pick to win the inaugural Big Ten hockey championship and dominate the all-conference teams.

A new hockey season officially starts up this week, which means it's time for the annual conference preview. Obviously this season things are a bit different, as Wisconsin joins Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State in the new Big Ten hockey conference.

While it's sad to transition out of the WCHA, there is much to look forward to. The Big Ten Network will play a big role in the transition, showing more than double the amount of games from last season.

Wisconsin was picked by league coaches to win the inaugural Big Ten regular season crown, and that's our pick as well.

1. Wisconsin

Key Losses:

F Derek Lee (Sr.): 3g, 18a, 21 points
F Ryan Little (Sr.): 5g, 6a, 11 points
F Brendan Woods (So.): 5g, 7a, 12 points
D John Ramage (Sr.): 8g, 12a, 20 points

Impact Recruits:

Grant Besse, Benilde St. Margaret's HS (Minn.)
Jedd Soleway, Penticton Vees (BCHL)
D Tim Davison, Chicago Steel (USHL)

Team MVP: G Joel Rumpel
Breakout Player: F Morgan Zulinick

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise we have the Badgers at the top spot given what they return. Wisconsin brings back 18 skaters from last season, including nine seniors. The Badgers also return both goaltenders that saw extended action last season.

Overall, Wisconsin will return 81.25 percent of its scoring from last season. The 2013-14 season will mark the second year in a row the Badgers have returned over 80 percent of their scoring. Looking at Wisconsin's returning output compared to its Big Ten competition, the Badgers' lineup returns the most points (239) and goals (91) in the league.

Up front, Michael Mersch, Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle all appear poised for All-Big Ten caliber seasons. A healthy Zengerle looks to return to the way he played as a sophomore, when he reached the 50-point plateau. Mersch was fourth in the country in goals scored last season, and Kerdiles was one of just two freshmen in the nation to average over a point per game one year ago.

Freshmen expected to make an impact include Grant Besse coming in from Minnesota high school hockey and Jedd Soleway from Penticton in the BCHL. Besse brings in a big shot while Soleway will be a force out in front of the net and in the corners with his brute strength.

Our pick for breakout player on this squad is Morgan Zulinick, who played just seven games last season for the Badgers before suffering a season-ending thigh injury in a collision during practice. Zulinick has next-level hands and was an offensive playmaker his last juniors season in the BCHL.

The back end is led by senior captain Frankie Simonelli and junior Jake McCabe. The pair figures to be one of the top units in the entire country. McCabe has generated significant preseason buzz as one of the top defensemen in the league.

Between the pipes, the Badgers have two outstanding goaltenders in Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson. Out of all the goalies returning to college hockey this season that played in at least 60 percent of their teams games last year, only Providence's Jon Gillies had a better save percentage than Rumpel.

Quotable: "I think history tells us that teams that are successful, they need a group or one or two freshmen to step up and be a factor after Christmas and be a contributing factor, and we're no different this year." -- head coach Mike Eaves

2. Minnesota

Key Losses:

F Erik Haula (Jr.): 16g, 35a, 51 points
F Nick Bjugstad (Jr.): 21g, 15a, 36 points
F Zach Budish (RS Jr.): 14g, 22a, 36 points
Nate Schmidt (Jr.): 9g, 23a, 32 points
Mark Alt (Jr.): 0g, 7a, 7 points
Seth Helgeson (Sr.): 0g, 5a, 5 points

Impact Recruits:

Taylor Cammarata, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
F Justin Kloos, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Hudson Fasching, U.S. NTDP U-18
F Vinni Lettieri, Lincoln Stars (USHL)
D Michael Brodzinski, Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL)

Team MVP: F Kyle Rau
Breakout Player: D Mikey Reilly

The Gophers lost a lot of talent, but did a phenomenal job replacing it with some extremely skilled hockey players. Gone up front are Bjugstad, Haula and Budish, who were all 35-plus-point guys last season. Minnesota also loses uber skilled offensive defenseman Nate Schmidt and physical blueliners Mark Alt and Seth Helgeson.

While it would appear the biggest question is how to replace their top two centers, the Gophers have a few different options to fill the void. It appears junior Kyle Rau will make the transition to the middle on Minnesota's top line, with Nate Condon the pivot on the second unit. Talented freshman Justin Kloos can also play the middle on one of the top two lines.

Speaking of freshmen, the Gophers have some very skilled players coming in up front. The frontrunner for rookie of the year in the Big Ten is Taylor Cammarata from the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL. He should make an immediate impact in the top six for the Gophers. Vinni Lettieri, grandson of the famous Lou Nanne, is also a candidate for minutes right off the bat. You also can't forget about Hudson Fasching, who can play a physical game while providing offense from the wing.

One player that has been getting overlooked in the preseason talk is forward Connor Reilly, who missed the entire season a year ago as a freshman when he tore up his knee. Reilly had a huge year for the Penticton his final season of junior hockey, registering 86 points in 54 games for the Vees.

Our breakout pick for the Gophers is defenseman Mikey Reilly, who looks primed to take the next step in his development. Reilly was solid as a freshman last season, picking up 14 points along the way, but he has elite puck skills and is very mobile.

Another big-time offensive defenseman poised for a big year is Ben Marshall. He was a 19-point player as a sophomore, but should step up in a bigger role on the power play this season. I'd expect a large jump in quality and production this season from sophomore Brady Skjei, as well.

Between the pipes, the Gophers are as solid as any team in the league with sophomore Adam Wilcox. He was the question mark heading into last season, but quieted the skeptics early and looks to expand on a fine rookie season.

Quotable: "We'll be young this year. We'll have seven incoming freshmen that we're going to ask to play a pretty significant role. But, like every team, it's your veterans that are going to have to lead the way." -- head coach Don Lucia

3. Michigan

Key Losses:

F A.J. Treais (Sr.): 12g, 19a, 31 points
F Kevin Lynch (Sr.): 10g, 17a, 27 points
F Lindsay Sparks (Sr.): 3g, 10a, 13 points
Jacob Trouba (Fr.): 12g, 17a, 29 points
D Jon Merrill (Jr.): 2g, 11a, 13 points
D Lee Moffie (Sr.): 3g, 10a, 13 points

Impact Recruits:

F J.T. Compher: U.S. NTDP U-18
Tyler Motte: U.S. NTDP U-18
F Evan Allen: U.S. NTDP U-18
Michael Downing: Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL)
D Nolan DeJong: Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL)

Team MVP: D Mac Bennett
Breakout player: F Boo Nieves

For the first time in 22 years, the Michigan Wolverines missed the NCAA tournament last season. For those of you scoring at home, 22 years is a long time. Michigan will be improved this season, especially on the offensive end of things.

Alex Guptill led the Wolverines in scoring a season ago and looks to improve on his 16 goals and 36 points. He'll get help from returners Phil Di Giuseppe and Andrew Copp, who both reached 20 points last season.

Our pick to break out this season is sophomore forward Boo Nieves. "Break out" is a relative term here, because Nieves recorded 29 points in his freshman campaign, but Nieves has the look of a special player and could challenge 40-45 points with the right line mates this year.

Head coach Red Berenson also added three talented freshmen forwards from the U.S. National Team Development program in J.T. Compher, Tyler Motte and Evan Allen. Compher should challenge for the Big Ten rookie of the year, and Motte was arguably Team USA's top forward at the U-18 World Championships last spring.

Michigan's biggest losses come on the defensive side, with Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba both leaving for the NHL. Merrill signed with the New Jersey Devils, and Trouba is playing with the Winnipeg Jets after just one season of college hockey.

Look for senior captain Mac Bennett to play major minutes for Michigan while it attempts to break in some young defensemen. Two freshmen expected to be thrust into big roles immediately are Michael Downing from the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL and Nolan DeJong from the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL.

Steven Racine will be the starter between the pipes, according to Berenson, after going 12-6-3 with a .899 save percentage as a freshman. Jared Rutledge transferred out of the program and is playing with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL after a shaky rookie season in Ann Arbor.

Quotable: "We did lose arguably two of our best defensemen last year to the pros, and we have to replace those guys with upcoming seniors. Mac Bennett and Kevin Clare will hopefully carry that load, but also the incoming freshmen." -- Berenson

4. Ohio State

Key Losses:

G Brady Hjelle (Sr.): 14-14-6, .935 Sv. %, 2.00 GAA
F Chris Crane (Jr.): 6g, 3a, 9 points
D Devon Krogh (Sr.): 2g, 7a, 9 points
F Zach Stepan (incoming recruit): 35g, 47a, 82 points in USHL

Impact Recruits:

F Nicholas Schilkey, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
F Dave Gust, Fargo Force (USHL)
D Josh Healey, Sherwood Park (AJHL)
G Matt Tomkins, Sherwood Park (AJHL)

Team MVP: F Ryan Dzingel
Breakout player: D Josh Healey

The big news in the offseason was the firing of head coach Mark Osiecki, which came as a surprise to many. Osiecki, a former player and assistant coach at Wisconsin, had assembled some solid talent in Columbus and had a quality recruiting class lined up for this fall. OSU decided to go in another direction, and assistant coach Steve Rohlik has taken over.

After Osiecki was fired, the Buckeyes lost a number of recruits, including Zach Stepan, who was projected to step into the lineup immediately and make a difference offensively. Stepan, the cousin of former Badger Derek, is now at Minnesota State.

Ohio State does have the advantage of returning over 90 percent of its scoring from last season. It's led up front by the line featuring Ryan Dzingel, Tanner Fritz and Max McCormick. Those three were the Buckeyes' top three scorers last season, and they are only going to get better. Unfortunately, there isn't a ton of returning firepower after that line.

Nicholas Schilkey from the Green Bay Gamblers and David Gust of the Fargo Force will be given early opportunities to come in as freshmen and play. Schilkey was one of the leading scorers in the USHL last season and should be able to put up points immediately.

The Buckeyes also bring in Josh Healey, a defenseman from Sherwood Park in the AJHL. Healey is a difference-making defenseman and was named the AJHL defenseman of the year last season. Senior captain Curtis Gedig will also see a lot of minutes on the back end.

Between the pipes, OSU lost All-American goaltender Brady Hjelle, who was phenomenal for the Buckeyes last season. Despite a record of 14-14-6, Hjelle carried one of the top save percentages in the country at .935 last season.

Pegged to replace Hjelle is sophomore Collin Olson, who came to the Buckeyes last season from the U.S. U-18 team, and incoming freshman Matt Tompkins who played with Josh Healey in the AJHL last year.

Quotable: We've got a great group of kids back with our leading scorers, with Ryan Dzingel, Tanner Fritz and Max McCormick back up front. Certainly going to have to lean on them. The biggest question we'll have is replacing our All-American goaltender, Brady Hjelle. -- Rohlik

5. Michigan State

Key Losses:

F Kevin Walrod (Sr.): 4g, 11a, 15 points
F Chris Forfar (Sr.): 4g, 8a, 12 points
F Anthony Hayes (Sr.): 5g, 3a, 8 points
D Matt Grassi (Sr.): 1g, 2a, 3 points

Impact Recruits:

F Thomas Ebbing: Chicago Steel (USHL)
F Mackenzie MacEachern: Chicago Steel (USHL)
F Joe Cox: Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL)
F J.T. Stenglein: Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)

MVP: F Matt Berry
Breakout player: F Joe Cox

There's no way around it: Michigan State was not a good hockey team last season. The Spartans were very young and lacked scoring punch. Head coach Tom Anastos looks to turn that around in his third year at the helm in East Lansing.

To make matters worse for the Spartans, they will be without their top forward, Matt Berry, and defenseman, John Draeger, for at least the first month of the season due to off-season surgeries. The good news for MSU is that the Big Ten schedule is backloaded, so both players should be available for the majority of the conference slate.

Including Berry, the Spartans return four players that registered at least 10 goals last season in Tanner Sorenson, Matt DeBlouw and Brent Darnell. Greg Wolff looks to build upon his nine-goal, 21-point output from a season ago, as well.

MSU does bring in some talented freshmen forwards that should be thrust into action immediately. Thomas Ebbing and Mackenzie MacEachern were teammates last season with the Chicago Steel and in high school at Brother Rice in Michigan. Both have nice offensive upside and will look to carry that chemistry over to the Big Ten.

Our breakout pick is freshman forward Joe Cox, who was superb last season in the USHL with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. Cox racked up 20 goals and 20 assists, and should make an immediate impact.

Defensively, the Spartans don't have many stars. Draeger has the most upside and will play major minutes once he returns from his injury. Jake Chelios chipped in 14 points as a freshman and is looking for a big senior season.

The biggest strength for Michigan State is between the pipes, where it returns sophomore Jake Hildebrand. While his record wasn't very impressive at 9-17-2, he was excellent with a .928 save percentage and 2.35 goals against. The problem was the fact he got no goal support last season, leading to the terrible record. I'd expect that to improve this season.

Quotable: I think we have 17 freshmen and sophomores who, many of which will be playing regularly on our team this year. But I think we did a lot of growing up last year. We still have a lot of growing up to do. We have very strong goaltending coming into the season, which is a good position to be good at. So, I think we have a lot to build on." --Anastos

6. Penn State

Key Losses:

None

Impact Recruits:

F David Goodwin, Cedar Rapids Rough Riders (USHL)
F Eric Scheid, Lincoln Stars (USHL)
F Dylan Richard, Spruce Grove Saints (AJHL)
Eamon McAdam, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)

Team MVP:Max Gardiner
Breakout player: F Eric Scheid

Penn State is a bit of a wild card right now, which is why virtually everyone has picked the Nittany Lions last to start the season. That's not to say they won't be competitive, however, as we saw in Madison last season they have the ability to steal a game at any time. Remember, Penn State also won games against Ohio State and Michigan State last season, as well.

Head coach Guy Gadowsky has done a nice job piecing together a roster so far, and that group is led up front by Casey Bailey, David Glen and Minnesota transfer Max Gardiner. Both Bailey and Glen hit the 10-goal plateau last season, and Gardiner is an NHL draft pick of the St. Louis Blues.

Matthew Skoff was impressive as a freshman, but look for incoming recruit Eamon McAdam from the Waterloo Black Hawks to get thrown between the pipes early and often. Either way, the Nittany Lions look solid in the nets in year two.

Speaking of recruits, forwards David Goodwin, Dylan Richard and Alaska Anchorage transfer Eric Scheid should all be candidates for immediate playing time.

Scheid is our pick for breakout player, as he has experience playing at this level having played in Anchorage, and was a very dominant player playing for Lincoln in the USHL during the year he had to sit out to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

PSU doesn't have any studs defensively, but it does have some experience with eight defensemen on the roster that played in at least 10 games last season. That should give Gadowsky a better idea of who he wants to put on the ice when the Nittany Lions are at full strength.

Quotable: "It's a new conference. We're new. We've never been in a conference. So, very difficult for me to say this is what you're going to get. We don't know. That is part of the excitement about it." -- Gadowsky

All-Big Ten First Team

F Kyle Rau, Minnesota
F Nic Kerdiles, Wisconsin
F Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
D Mac Bennett, Michigan
D Jake McCabe, Wisconsin
G Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin

All-Big Ten Second Team

F Ryan Dzingel, Ohio State
F Michael Mersch, Wisconsin
F Nate Condon, Minnesota
D Ben Marshall, Minnesota
D Mike Reilly, Minnesota
G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota

All-Big Ten Third Team

F Matt Berry, Michigan State
F Alex Guptill, Michigan
F Max Gardiner, Penn State
F Tanner Fritz, Ohio State
D John Draeger, Michigan State
D Frankie Simonelli, Wisconsin
G Jake Hilldebrand, Michigan State

Big Ten All-Rookie Team

F Taylor Cammarata, Minnesota
F JT Compher, Michigan
F Morgan Zulinick, Wisconsin
D Michael Downing, Michigan
D Michael Brodzinski, Minnesota
G Eamon McAdam, Penn State

Rookie of the year: Taylor Cammarata, Minnesota
Player of the year: Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin

For more hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter --
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)

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