The Big Loss of Talented Underclassmen Affected the WCHA, and All of College Hockey ... We Need to Get Used To It
by Tom Reale/CHN Reporter
With Wisconsin's national championship victory last April, the WCHA has won six of the last seven national titles between four teams, and has placed at least one team in the Frozen Four in each of the last seven years.
The league's success is due in no small part to the high caliber of talent being recruited — talent that is becoming increasingly valued by the professional leagues.
"Exodus" is an appropriate term for the experience of the past six months.
There were nine underclassmen in the Top 10 scoring leaders in WCHA play. Only one is returning to his team this season.
Of the 24 NCAA underclassmen who signed NHL contracts during the off-season, 15 of them come from the WCHA, and nearly all of them were heavy hitters who will be missed by their teams. In today's game, losing talented underclassmen is almost a basic expectation, but half of the teams of the WCHA lost multiple top talents early during the summer. Minnesota and North Dakota both lost four top players to the NHL, while the Sioux had a fifth leave for the pro ranks in Europe. Minnesota State lost three of their top underclassmen; Denver and Wisconsin each lost two quality players to the pros.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Denver's George Gwozdecky. "You want to be able to have and recruit great players who develop and become terrific prospects at the next level. Obviously, you'd like to be able to hang onto them a little longer, but that's the nature of college hockey right now."
"It hurts in the short-term for the program," said Troy Jutting, head coach at Minnesota State. "You'd like to have those kids for four years, but on the other hand you have to be happy for them because they get the chance to realize something that they've been working awfully hard at for a long time."
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said it goes with the territory.
"Development is part of our job," Hakstol said. "It's about winning games on the ice and having success as a program, but within that is the development as players and development as people. We're proud of those guys."
Said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, whose team avoided mass departures, "It's part of the new culture of the game. You start to understand that you won't have good players for all four years."
So without worrying about who's not here, which players are going to be the ones causing the most worry for their opponents?
Denver's Ryan Dingle is the most prolific scorer returning to the WCHA this season. Fifth in the nation in goals per game last season, Dingle scored 27 times last year, but was overshadowed by Ryan Potulny's 38- and Brett Sterling's 31-goal seasons. Not this year — Dingle's 27 goals are the highest among any returning player in the country, and he was named CHN Second Team Preseason All-America.
Minnesota State's Travis Morin is the league's second highest returning scorer, but unlike Dingle, he's likely to draw more attention from opposing defenses. While Dingle has several other scoring threats around him, Morin is very clearly the top scoring threat for the Mavericks. Can he rise to the occasion?
T.J. Oshie, entering his sophomore season at North Dakota, notched the game-winner for the Sioux on nine separate occasions — leading the country — as a big part of UND's Broadmoor Trophy season, and classmate Jonathan Toews kicked in 22 goals of his own. Both will be leading UND to great things this year.
St. Cloud State's Andrew Gordon came from out of almost nowhere to lead the Huskies in scoring last season, tallying 20 goals and 20 assists to give SCSU a much needed boost. St. Cloud will be expecting more of the same this year.
Gopher blueliner Alex Goligoski is the highest returning scorer for Minnesota this season. Calm and collected at the point, Goligoski is likely to be the top quarterback of the Gopher power play this season, adding to his 11-goal/28-assist output from last season with a whole host of new faces to work with.
And let's not forget about the talent between the pipes. Wisconsin's Brian Elliott was unquestionably the best goaltender in the country last season, and he returns for his senior year hoping for an encore of last year's national championship run — he still lacks WCHA hardware.
Bobby Goepfert got his college career back on track in his first season with St. Cloud State last year. His outstanding play propelled the Huskies to an unexpected appearance in the WCHA Championship game. He figures to play a key role in determining SCSU's fortunes in his senior campaign.
Then there are the duos. Minnesota boasts two excellent talents in senior Kellen Briggs and sophomore Jeff Frazee, while Denver pairs senior Glenn Fisher with junior Peter Mannino, giving both squads a solid option in net whenever they hit the ice.