by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The WCHA boasts 35 national champions in its 53 seasons, including the last four. And with Minnesota and Denver atop the polls — and Colorado College, Wisconsin and North Dakota not far behind — odds are it will happen again.
That dominance was punctuated last spring when the WCHA sent four teams to the Frozen Four. The league then proceeded to bring in a crop of freshman almost unprecedented in its array of abilities. Minnesota alone brought in three guys already picked in the top 38 picks in the last two drafts, and another who might go No. 1 overall in June 2006.
The replay system experimented with in Denver and Colorado College last season was a success, allowing referees to call for review during the course of the season, not just the NCAA tournament. The NCAA has since approved its usage for all arenas, and the WCHA is taking advantage.
"Video will start the last weekend in October," said Greg Shepherd, promoted to the full-time Director of Officials for the WCHA. "There's a replay person in every rink. All they do is bring down the replay the referee wants. It's the referee's decision."
Meanwhile, if you want some video, there should be plenty of highlights this season:
MINNESOTA (Coach: Don Lucia)
Minnesota's expectations are through the roof, with an incoming class as good as there has ever been in college hockey. It includes the fifth overall NHL pick in 2004 (Blake Wheeler), two high second rounders in the 2005 draft (Ryan Stoa and Jeff Frazee), and Phil Kessel, who is merely the projected No. 1 overall pick in 2006.
But though the Gophers top the list, they are not alone in bringing in big talent.
"It's as good a freshman class coming into the WCHA as there's been in a long time," said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. "But a lot of the top players in the North America are from this region. That has a lot to do with it. If the top players are on the East Coast, it's going to be hard for the WCHA to attract them. ... But the facilities built in recent years, and the success in the NCAAs, that certainly helps to attract them."
The question is whether the freshmen can be integrated quickly. No matter how good you are, there is usually a transition period. That's why Minnesota will look to some key upperclassmen to become leaders.
"(Defenseman) Chris (Harrington) had a good year last year. This year, we need Chris to have a better year," Lucia said. "He's bigger and stronger, and I like the attitude I've seen from him. I think he's ready for that next step."
Other upperclassmen include dynamic forwards Gino Guyer, Ryan Potulny and Tyler Hirsch. Guyer, Potulny and Kessel are the Gophers' top three centers. It's almost an embarassment of riches. But Lucia wishes his team wasn't picked on top. He picked Colorado College.
"I want to know how a team that finished first last year, has the Hobey winner back, most of its forwards, four of its top 6 'D', and one of the goalies that split time last year, didn't get picked first," Lucia said. "Scott's (CC coach Owens) got everybody buffaloed."
WISCONSIN (Coach: Mike Eaves)
When Mike Eaves came in as head coach four years ago, he immediately started landing blue-chip talent again in Madison, aided in large part by his association with the National program. But that talent was largely raw.
Now, those guys have grown up. And even though Madsion native Phil Kessel is the recruit that got away, optimism is high for the Badgers.
"It's the first time in our tenure here that we're an upperclassmen team. That's a good sign," Eaves said.
"Kids grow so much over the course of a summer, physically, mentally and emotionally, that's a big difference. So you never know what you have until you get back on the ice."
Up front, Joe Pavelski had a tremendous season as a freshman last year, and Robbie Earl showed his flashes of brilliance a little more regularly. Those two will play with senior Adam Burish, a whirling dirvish of non-stop energy.
"We probably have as much (forward) depth as we've had in our four years here," said Eaves. "That's a good problem to have. ... Hopefully we'll have a few more people that can do things you can't teach, and that's finish."
In goal, Bernd Bruckler as graduated, but the Badgers have confidence in his understudy, Brian Elliott. The defense gets a boost with high-first rounder Jack Skille, who, unlike Kessel, is a Madison native that didn't get away.
Something else to look forward to is the Frozen Tundra Classic, an outdoor game at Green Bay's famed Lambeau Field in Februrary against Ohio State. Though Eaves said, "The reality is, when we get up there, we're going to freeze our fannies off."
DENVER (Coach: George Gwozdecky)
Though not quite the "characters" that departed from the 2004 championship team, last year's senior group was certainly filled with character. They will be sorely missed. But no one is crying a river for the back-to-back champs, who are stocked, loaded, and ready for more.
"We don't talk about this (three-peat) idea," said coach George Gwozdecky. "We don't talk about the end results for what we want. I think everybody is aware of it. But we are aware of what works and what to avoid. And one of the things we want to work on is how to stay prepared for what's in the moment."
Gabe Gauthier, the team's leading scorer a season ago, may be the best overall player in the nation. He's aided by sophomore Paul Stastny and junior defenseman Matt Carle, who were 2-3. Talented young forwards like Ryan Dingle, Geoff Paukovich and Tom May will get their chance to shine this year.
The freshman class is led by right wing Patrick Mullen, whose father is former NHL star Joe Mullen.
"I don't know if any team can predict how good they'll be offensively, because I think your strength begins on the blue line," Gwozdecky said.
Back there, things get thin. The departure of Brett Skinner for Vancouver just before his senior year, has left a hole. There are no senior defensemen. Carle is the only junior who saw significant time last season, and Andrew Thomas is the only sophomore that played a lot.
Luckily for the Pioneers, protecting them will be goaltender Peter Mannino, who will probably rotate with Glenn Fisher again, but clearly emerged as the No. 1 guy when he started both Frozen Four games.
"One of the great strengths we have, maybe a hidden strength we have, we've kept our coaching staff intact," said Gwozdecky. "That's a great plus for me and the players."
COLORADO COLLEGE (Coach: Scott Owens)
Goals should not be a problem for the Tigers. Their top eight scorers return, including seniors Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling, who were both Hobey finalists last year (it went to Sertich). Joey Crabb, Trevor Frischmon and Aaron Slattengren are also seniors in that group.
A key is finding balance.
"Sometimes I'd like to split them up on the road, with some of the checking lines and defenses they run into," said coach Scott Owens of his dynamic duo, Sterling and Sertich. "But we will keep them together. Last year, we rotated (three guys) on the right side, and we may do the same thing this year.
"Marty is unbelieveably unselfish. He is so selfish and down to Earth, it's unbelieveable. He's almost embarassed by it.
"He hasn't gotten much taller, but he is stronger. He's very deceptive and smart and can stay away from the beatings other players take."
The defense took a bit hit, on the other hand, with the loss of seniors-to-be Mark Stuart and Brady Greco to the pros.
"We just need a month to sort through things," said Owens. "We do have six returning defenseman, but I think that's something that will be a challenge for us."
Matt Zaba has been a very good understudy to Curtis McElhinney the last two seasons, and now the job is his.
NORTH DAKOTA (Coach: Dave Hakstol)
Dave Hakstol went to the final game last season in his first year as coach. This season, he'll have the challenge of replacing a lot of players lost to graduation, and the loss of Brady Murray and Matt Greene to the pros.
But the cupboard is certainly not bare. Nos. 2-3-4 in scoring last season were Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford and Rusty Spirko, three immensely talented players and high NHL Draft picks. They all return and will blend with 13 freshmen.
"We feel like we have some good quality returning veterans, guys that should have the ability to be very good leaders on the ice, and perhaps most importantly off the ice, to show the large freshman class to right direction," Hakstol said.
The top three defensemen are gone, and No. 4, Robbie Bina, is out for the season with a medical redshirt. That leaves Matt Smaby as next in line. He'll have to guide a lot of freshmen alongside him, which could be a learning process.
"Five or six freshman (forwards) will be in the lineup each night, but that doesn't worry me as much in that position," said Hakstol. "The young guys coming in are talented and good players, and hopefully can provide something reasonably consistent right away."
MINNESOTA-DULUTH (Coach: Scott Sandelin)
Minnesota-Duluth was picked first in the preseason polls last year, coming off a Frozen Four campaign. And even though it lost Hobey winner Junior Lessard, with 11 returning seniors, the Bulldogs thought they were in good shape.
But early-season setbacks were never turned around, and UMD spent the year mired in the middle of the WCHA pack.
This season, those seniors are gone, replaced by 13 new faces.
Goaltending is the most experienced position, with senior Isaac Reichmuth and junior Josh Johnson in the rotation.
"The attitude's been very good throughout the summer," said Sandelin of his young team. "(The freshmen) have a lot of energy and enthusiasm that's rubbed off on our returning guys. It's a matter of how fast we adapt."
MINNESOTA STATE (Coach: Troy Jutting)
Minnesota State took some steps back after its NCAA appearance in 2003, but after re-tooling, has a number of talented players back, who are now upperclassmen.
"Our team will be more experienced than we were the last couple years," said Jutting.
Juniors David Backes and Travis Morin were 1-2 on the team last season in scoring. And Ryan Carter scored 15 goals as a freshman. All are capable of more, said Jutting.
"Morin and Backes will be together," he said. "They had a good year last year. By the end of the season, they started to know each other's games and know where each other are."
Defenseman Kyle Peto, Chad Brownlee and Steve Wagner are all young, and talented.
"It's time for all these guys to take the next step," said Jutting.
Mike Zacharias and Dan Tormey are highly-touted freshman goalies from the USHL, and will compete in net.
MICHIGAN TECH (Coach: Jamie Russell)
Michigan Tech played .500 hockey in the second half last season, after a dreadful start under first-year coach Jamie Russell. The Huskies have some tools, including a top power-play unit that returns four of the five players. Missing, though, is Colin Murphy, who led the nation in assists last year.
The top returning scorer is junior defenseman Lars Helminen, who had 32. Russell said the team now needs to find ways to score 5-on-5.
Two freshman goalies will take over for Cam Ellsworth — Michael Teslak and Rob Nolan. It will be a challenge for them facing WCHA-caliber talent every night.
"I played in the WCHA, so I knew the quality of the programs," said Russell about his arrival to the league last year after a stint as assistant coach at Cornell. "The biggest change for me is, I didn't know where I was going when I got off the bus; everything was brand new. The buildings in the WCHA are very impressive."
Senior Chris Conner tailed off to 14 goals last year from 25, and junior Taggart Desmet went from 14 to 2. Both will be expected to return to form. The offense also gets a boost from the return of sophomore Jordan Foote, a Rangers draft pick who only played 13 games last season before an injury cut his year short.
"He's the prototypical power forward," said Russell. "Pretty good hands, knows when to finish, but he'll run up and down the wing and hit people."
ST. CLOUD STATE (Coach: Bob Motzko)
Bob Motzko starts the season as technically the interim head coach, but there hasn't been any doubt who the next coach would be since former coach Craig Dahl asked him to join the Huskies last season.
"There isn't turmoil up here," said Motzko. "Craig handled everything with great dignity, and he's always popping in the office here. So everything has been smooth."
Bobby Goepfert is eligible now after transferring from Providence, and should provide help in goal.
The problem will be the goal scoring, which has tailed off in recent years as the recruiting well dried up.
"Goal scoring is a problem," said Motzko. "We have 72 returning goals from a year ago. We're going to have to keep people positive, to get better as we go along, take an underdog role. ... We're a lot better than people think, and we've only been on the ice four practices.
"These guys are fired up to prove some people wrong. Our goal is to find out how good this group can be."
ALASKA-ANCHORAGE (Coach: Dave Shyiak)
Dave Shyiak replaced John Hill, who left to become the top assistant at Minnesota. He faces the same challenge every Alaska coach faces, getting top recruits to come there, and getting enough homegrown talent to stay.
"I think there's a lot of good Alaska kids here right in our own backyard," said Shyiak. "And if we can keep the best kids here, it will help us be competitive in the WCHA. ... A lot of kids in Western Canada and the USHL hear about (the WCHA), and no matter what team you are and where you're located, you can probably sell it to a kid."
UAA had some disciplinary issues the last couple years, but that seems to be behind it.
"Everything's new here," Shyiak said. "The attitude's been great with the guys. The leadership's been super. Everyone has come back in shape."
The goaltending, with Nathan Lawson the No. 1, is strong. Finding goals will be the issue.
"We're not a team that's probably going to score a whole lot of goals," said Shyiak. "We're going to have to tighten up and win those closs games."
"Shea Hamilton can score some goals. Ales Parez is a name that's been brought to my attention that can possibly help out."