My WCHA preseason picks
September 23, 2012 5 Comments
The parity of the WCHA is best exemplified by the bottom three. All three will be quite tough at home when they can set up their best individual matchups against the visitors. Each will get at least one home win (two is likely) over a ranked opponent that will shake up the league standings.
12. Alaska-Anchorage – Three of the top four scorers are no longer with the Seawolves. That and the usual toll travel takes will wear down UAA, but not before knocking off a couple ranked visitors.
11. Bemidji State – Always a tough opponent, the Beavers will need more balanced scoring to complement returning leading scorer Jordan George and Ben Kinne; replacing graduated goalie Dan Bakala will be a tough task.
10. MSU-Mankato – New coach Mike Hastings will revitalize the program and could push the purple Mavs into home-ice contention for a while until depth becomes an issue. This program, like Bemidji State, will be a contender year in and year out in the new-look WCHA starting with the 2013-14 season.
Spots 4-9 should be pretty fluid throughout the season. I would not be shocked to see this portion of the list flipped depending on injuries and which teams see the most improvement from key players. Here is my best guess:
9. St. Cloud State – Seniors Ben Hanowski and Drew LeBlanc and junior Nic Dowd and Nick Jensen combine to lead a heralded group of underclassmen including Joe Benik. Opening at New Hampshire is a tough opener but home series against Alabama-Huntsville and Mankato should help the underclassmen get their feet under them. Depth may be an issue.
8. Minnesota-Duluth – The Bulldogs have some key contributors back from last season but replacing Hobey winner Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk, J.T. Brown and Brady Lamb’s 131 combined points will be a huge challenge. It feels wrong putting UMD so low, but a slow start with games against Ohio State (home), at Notre Dame, Wisconsin (home), at Nebraska Omaha and then at North Dakota is possible.
7. Nebraska Omaha – Too much offseason tumult with two top scorers leaving early for the pros and a heralded recruit heading to Canada instead. If freshman goalie Anthony Stolarz is the real deal, then UNO could garner home ice. Goalie John Faulkner could ride to the rescue if Stolarz stumbles.
6. Michigan Tech – Mel Pearson turned the program around quickly. Now with good returning talent and more of his recruits in the mix, the Huskies should contend for home ice and flirt with the top 20 especially with a strong start against area rival Lake Superior State and a home series against Minnesota (keep an eye on this series).
5. Colorado College – The Tigers have some good freshmen forwards coming in; Cody Bradley and Hunter Fejes spring to mind. Jared Hanson looks strong. With solid goaltending and more offensive production from a larger defensive corps, this team should grind out a winning record and home ice. How well the underclassmen and some key seniors perform will make a big difference in whether the Tigers finish in ninth or third place or somewhere in between.
4. Wisconsin – The Badgers have to replace Justin Schultz, but with 15 of 16 top scorers back including Mark Zengerle and some defensive improvement, UW could contend for the league title and an NCAA berth.
The top three have a slight edge over the teams designated 4-9 because of more returning talent and balance. The known positives carry a lot of weight in my mind.
3. Denver – This team has enough remaining offensive talent (Joey LaLeggia, Nick Shore, Shawn Ostrow, Ty Loney), physical defenders and impressive goalie depth (Sam Brittain, Adam Murray, Juro Olkinuora) to overcome having only three seniors (captain Chris Knowlton, Murray and practice goalie Zack Hope) on the roster. Freshman Quentin Shore should be a big help.
2. North Dakota – Remember Rocco Grimaldi? I do and with him back healthy, UND has the playmaker it needs to challenge for the league championship. Corban Knight, Danny Kristo and Carter Rowney can produce points early if Grimaldi is slow to get back into form. Freshman Zane Gothberg and Huntsville transfer Clarke Saunders give UND good goaltending behind a solid defenseman corps (Nick Mattson, Dillon Simpson). The nonconference opener against Alaska-Anchorage just got a whole lot tougher because of those one-game suspensions. An early home series against Boston University will be a good measuring stick
1. Minnesota – Is any team more loaded with offensive talent with Erik Haula, Kyle Rau, Zach Budish, and Nick Bjugstad back? The only possible hiccup is the unproven goaltending. I think former CC short-term backup Michael Shibrowski can take the step up into a starting role. I predict a fair number of 5-2 wins.
My preseason honorees:
F – Erik Haula, Minnesota
F – Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
F – Rylan Schwartz, CC
D – Joey LaLeggia, Denver
D – Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
G – Josh Thorimbert, Colorado College
ROY – Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota
POY – Erik Haula, Minnesota
COY – Don Lucia, Minnesota