Things To Watch, Part I
by Avash Kalra, Matt Conyers and Matt Taylor/CHN Writers
Today is Part I of a look at things to watch for in this 2006-07 college hockey season, which starts Friday.
1. Will North Dakota and Michigan State suffer sophomore slumps?
Let's put it this way — if either team suffers a slump from last year, it won't be because of their current sophomore classes. Both teams lost their leading scorers (Drew Stafford for the Sioux, Drew Miller for the Spartans) to the NHL ranks during the offseason. But last year's freshmen for these teams were among the best in the nation.
For North Dakota, rookies T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Duncan, and Brian Lee were four of the top seven scorers on the team. Oshie, in particular, was especially outstanding, leading the nation with nine game-winning goals. With a year of experience — including a Frozen Four appearance — under their collective belt, the now-sophomore class may be even better this season. And after losing five underclassmen to the pros over the summer, they may have to be.
For Michigan State, freshman forwards Tim Crowder and Justin Abdelkader combined for 52 points last season, and rookie goaltender Jeff Lerg emerged not only as the starter but, with a 1.96 goals against average and a .928 save percentage, as one of the elite goaltenders in the country as well.
Said Spartan head coach Rick Comley, "[Last season], I think our freshman class wasn't as heralded starting the year, but by the end of the year, everybody was talking about them. So you would hope that, with a year's experience under their belt, they'll be even better."
And after falling just shy of the Frozen Four, losing a heartbreaker to Maine in the East Regional final, the Spartan sophomores should be even hungrier as well.
2. Will the WCHA dominance continue?
Not since Boston College beat North Dakota in overtime in 2001 has a non-WCHA team won the national championship, meaning the WCHA has produced the national champion five straight years. However, the playing field — or ice surface, rather - may have been leveled during the offseason, as an unprecedented amount of western college hockey players left their respective schools early for the promise of NHL careers.
In all, almost 20 WCHA underclassmen bolted, including Minnesota's Danny Irmen and Ryan Potulny, Wisconsin's Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski, and Denver's Matt Carle — last year's Hobey winner. And although the usual suspects — Minnesota, Denver, North Dakota, Wisconsin — promise to be among the top teams in the country yet again, there are plenty of teams in other conferences (among them, Boston College, Michigan, and Harvard) who were not hit as hard as the WCHA with early departures and who may be poised to make a run at the national championship.
3. What will the officials be focusing on this season?
The officials will likely continue to emphasize calling minor penalties for obstruction and interference — just as they did last year. The early part of the season should once again feature plenty of interference-related infractions, but although the misconception is that many of them are undeserved, the reality is that many players, especially freshmen, need a few games to get used to playing at full game speed again.
"A lot of people think there are new rules," said St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh. "But it's just the enforcement. Players and coaches have to re-learn these things. A defenseman taking one hand off his stick — he's halfway into the penalty box already."
In addition, the NCAA appears to be focusing on two additional areas this year - checking from behind and crease violations. The latter is surely emphasized to lessen the amount of goaltender interference. Additionally, the anticipated crackdown on checks from behind should minimize one of the most dangerous plays in the game, but hopefully, the officials will be able to distinguish between a dangerous check from behind and a solid, legal check against the boards.
4. Kirk MacDonald's inspiring return
In April 2005, forward Kirk MacDonald, Rensselaer's leading scorer at the time, was stunned to discover he had testicular cancer. By October, the Victoria, B.C. native had undergone several debilitating rounds of chemotherapy, four surgeries, and had suffered many complications from those surgeries. He rapidly went from a healthy 210 pound hockey player to a weak 137 pound cancer patient forced to miss the entire 2005-06 season.
But what a difference a year makes.
"He feels he's quicker now," said new Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert of MacDonald's transformation. "His first step is more explosive, and he's in phenomenal hockey shape. His excitement level to play the game is obviously high. We definitely see him as a potential all-league type player."
Now cured and healthy — and surely as mentally strong as ever — Macdonald will return as the team captain for the Engineers this season and is set to hit the ice on October 14, when Rensselaer hosts Boston University in its season opener. Macdonald, who will surely receive a thunderous ovation from the crowd at Houston Fieldhouse, will look to lead the Engineers to a successful season as they begin a new era under Appert. Earlier this month, a thankful Macdonald told ESPN.com's Ken Schott, "I'm really excited to get back here, and be back and just get it going. It's been a long ways to get back to this point." Indeed - and welcome back.
5. Who will win the Hobey?
The preseason discussion will likely start and end with Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott, the only member of last year's Hat Trick returning. Many thought he should have won it last year, and he might have, if not for an injury which cost him some time. Elliott led the nation in GAA (1.55) and save percentage (.938).
He won't be the only goalie getting mentioned as a possible winner. Cory Schneider of Boston College tied with Elliott for the lead in shutouts last season with eight and was third in save percentage while leading the nation in minutes played.
Up front, the only member of last year's 10 finalists besides Elliott to return is Nebraska-Omaha's Scott Parse. Parse scored 20 goals and added 41 assists last year, his 61 point total good enough for third in the nation for a team that cracked the NCAAs for the first time. The big question for Parse if he can put up similar numbers without his linemate Bill Thomas, who left early for the NHL.
The same could be said of Brian Boyle. BC's Boyle was a top-10 national scorer from last year (22 goals and 30 assists)), but he loses both linemates in Chris Collins, a Hobey finalist from a season ago, and Stephen Gionta.
A duo of players who share a first name could easily garner attention if they put up numbers they are capable of. North Dakota's T.J. Oshie and Michigan's T.J. Hensick can both find the net and set up their teammates. Oshie, a freshman last year, put up huge numbers (21 goals, 24 assists) which got lost in the hype of fellow freshman and now Boston Bruin Phil Kessel with Minnesota. Meanwhile, Hensick was sixth in the nation with 35 assists to go along with 17 goals, including six on the power play for a Michigan team that showed spots of brilliance last year.
6. The surprises
Often, surprise teams are ones that have been making steady progress for seasons and are finally ready to make a jump into Frozen Four contention. Last year, Miami was that team, easily taking the CCHA regular season title and falling a goal short of the postseason title as well.
Another CCHA team that could make a splash this year is Northern Michigan. They lost forwards Dirk Southern and Andrew Contois along with steady defenseman Nathan Oystrick but return the bulk of an improving young team. The play of junior goalie Bill Zaniboni will be key, and if he can be solid and Darin Oliver and Mike Santorelli score like they did last year, this team could be a force.
St. Cloud State also showed improvement last season, recording the program's first 20-win season since 2001-02 under first year head coach Bob Motzko. Leading scorer Andrew Gordon returns, as does a multitude of double-digit point scorers. The defense remains largely intact, and goalie Bobby Goepfert returns for his senior season after posting a 2.20 GAA last year. With a lot of players moving on from other WCHA teams, the Huskies could make a leap.
After down years, both Minnesota-Duluth and Northeastern should improve on their records from last season. Both teams bring in a wealth of talented freshmen to go along with players hungry to erase the memory of a 2005-06 season gone bad.