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October 5, 2006 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Preview

by Tom Reale/CHN Reporter

College Hockey News breaks down the 2006-07 WCHA season.

Minnesota

Coach: Don Lucia
2005-06 Record: 27-9-5
League finish: 1st (lost to St. Cloud State in WCHA Semifinal)
NCAAs: Lost to Holy Cross, Western semifinal
Changes: Changes for the Golden Gophers are plentiful. Between Ryan Potulny, Phil Kessel, Danny Irmen and Chris Harrington, Minnesota loses four of its top five scorers. But the incoming freshman class may help the Gopher faithful forget about it rather quickly. The class — almost as highly touted as last year's superstar class — includes three players drafted in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, including Erik Johnson, the first overall selection. In addition, senior Tyler Hirsch (11-33—44 in 2004-05) returns to the team after a medical redshirt last season.
Strength: Scoring. Despite the early departures, Minnesota returns several solid goal scorers who were partially overshadowed by the larger numbers put up by Potulny, Kessel and Irmen. Juniors Mike Howe and Ben Gordon scored 13 and 12 goals, respectively, and sophomore Ryan Stoa tallied nine during his inaugural campaign. Adding the talents of Johnson and Fischer on the blue line to complement junior Alex Goligoski (11-28-39), and adding Okposo, Carman and Hirsch — who led the Gophers in scoring during his junior year — to the attack should bolster the Golden Gophers' scoring ability even further.
Weakness: Many of Minnesota's top talents are still young. Most of the players expected to be among the leading performers, especially at center, are in their freshman and sophomore years. While North Dakota proved over the last two seasons that teams led by their younger players are not instant recipes for disaster, there's always a little trepidation when hitting the ice with an experience gap, especially in a league like the WCHA. Captain Mike Vannelli (7-10—17), Hirsch and senior goaltender Kellen Briggs (2.55, .904) need to be the rocks for the younger guys to look up to.
Outlook: With nine players on the roster drafted in the first three rounds of the NHL Entry Draft over the past few years, the Gophers continue to display the most solid raw talent base in the league. Based on talent alone, this team has the ability to go as far as it wants. They need to shake the demons of last season, which saw three straight losses to end what had been a promising year, but there are few other teams who can lose so much talent only to gain as much or more the very next season.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 1st

North Dakota

T.J. Oshie returns as one of the top players in the nation as just a sophomore. (photo: Gregg Huber)

T.J. Oshie returns as one of the top players in the nation as just a sophomore. (photo: Gregg Huber)

Coach: Dave Hakstol
2005-06 Record: 6-27-3
League finish: T-4th (won WCHA Championship)
NCAAs: Lost to Boston College, National Semifinal
Changes: The Fighting Sioux found success last season as a young team, graduating only two seniors, only one of which (Mike Prpich, 7-5—12) was a regular part of the UND lineup. With all of their underclassmen back, the Sioux would have likely been a prohibitive favorite for the MacNaughton Cup and the national championship, but Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac and Rastislav Spirko were among the team's top scorers, and all left for the pros. And perhaps the biggest loss of all was in net when Jordan Parise followed his brother Zach's lead and left Grand Forks early. G Anthony Grieco should be a solid addition in net for the Sioux over time, and expect Michael Forney and Chris Van de Velde to be good contributors up front.
Strength: Despite the early departures, scoring goals should still be among UND's best facets. A trio of sophomores are now the top returning scorers — T.J. Oshie (24-21—45), Jonathan Toews (22-17—39), and Ryan Duncan (16-20—36). The Sioux boast excellent passing abilities at the blue line, especially with the contributions of sophomores Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney, and junior Robbie Bina.
Weakness: Parise was the clear top choice in net for the past two seasons, but his departure leaves a bit of a void which will likely be filled by junior Phillipe Lamoureux (5-7-0, 2.61, .911). While Lamoureux's GAA and save percentage have been solid, he has a total win-loss record of 12-15-2 in 32 career appearances. For his part, Hakstol is confident in Lamoureux's ability to become the number one netminder.
Outlook: Like the Gophers, North Dakota has lost a significant amount, and yet they remain one of the best teams in the country. By the end of the season, much like the last two seasons powered by young players, UND may be primed for a run and we may "see Sioux in St. Louis."
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 2nd

Wisconsin

Coach: Mike Eaves
2005-06 Record: 30-10-3
League finish: T-2nd (lost to North Dakota in WCHA Semifinal)
NCAAs: Defeated Boston College in National Championship game
Changes: F Joe Pavelski (23-33—56) and F Robbie Earl (24-26—50) left for the pros. Character seniors like Adam Burish, Tom Gilbert and Ryan MacMurchy are also gone from the national championship team.
Strength: That senior goaltender Brian Elliott (1.55, .938) did not join the mass exodus of top talent to the pros. The national leader in wins, GAA, save percentage, and shutouts last year, the Badgers were a different team altogether during mid-season stretch in which Elliott was out with an injury sustained in practice. Without him, Wisconsin was 3-5-0. "Without Brian, we'd be in a much worse position to be competitive," says Eaves. In addition, Elliott will have plenty of experience in front of him, with five juniors and seniors among the defensive corps.
Weakness: Replacing the kind of heart and talent that departed during the offseason is never easy. "If we can do this by committee, it will be easier on everybody," said Eaves. The Badgers still return senior Ross Carlson (11-12—23) and sophomores Jack Skille (13-8—21) and Ben Street (10-5—15), each of whom played a major role last season and will be expected to step up and lead the team this year.
Outlook: With the exception of Gilbert, last year's No. 1 defense in the nation (1.84 GAA) came out of the championship season completely unscathed. D Kyle Klubertanz is a First Team CHN Preseason All-America, and senior D Jeff Likens could have been. If they can find scoring in new places this year and continue their sensational penalty kill — second in the nation last season, killing almost 9 of every 10 penalties — Wisconsin could be right back in the hunt for hardware.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 3rd

Denver

Coach: George Gwozdecky
2005-06 Record: 21-15-3
League finish: T-2nd (lost to Minnesota-Duluth in first round)
NCAAs: none
Changes: Matt Carle, Peter Stastny and Gabe Gauthier are high caliber players who will be sorely missed. All three gave Denver flexibility on the attack that will be difficult to replace. In their place, however, comes a rather talented set of freshmen. D Keith Seabrook was a key element of the 2006 Royal Bank Cup Champion Burnaby Express and was the top player drafted out of Canada's Junior A, taken in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Rhett Rahkshani and Tyler Ruegsegger are a bit young but both are quality scoring talents.
Strength: Power play. The Denver power play last season was led by Junior Ryan Dingle (27-16—43), whose 15 power-play goals were tops in the nation. Stastny and Gauthier each kicked in nine, however, so it remains to be seen what effect their absence will have. The Pioneers were tops in the WCHA, converting over a quarter of their opportunities.
Weakness: The Pioneers failed to reach the NCAA tournament last season despite a second-place finish in the WCHA, largely due to their unimpressive out-of-conference schedule. "We played with a certain amount of inconsistency throughout the year," said Gwozdecky. "That really affected where we were positioned for the national tournament." Denver will have an opportunity to rectify this shortcoming relatively quickly, playing in the Icebreaker tournament and hosting Rensselaer in the first three weeks of the regular season.
Outlook: Junior Peter Mannino (2.71, .904) and senior Glenn Fisher (2.72, .898) make up perhaps the best goaltending duo in the nation. This team has the capacity to return to greatness, but it must come out firing on all cylinders right away.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 4th

St. Cloud State

Coach: Bob Motzko
2005-06 Record: 22-16-4
League finish: 6th (lost to North Dakota in WCHA Championship)
NCAAs: N/A
Changes: Joe Jensen, Billy Hengen, Konrad Reeder and Brock Hooton ranked second through fifth for the Huskies in scoring last season. But the Huskies were able to emerge from the off-season with their returning classes largely intact. St. Cloud State has one of the better incoming classes as viewed from a national level, but is mostly average compared to other WCHA teams.
Strength: Goaltending. Bobby Goepfert (2.09, .926) had a solid season between the pipes in his first season with St. Cloud. Easily the team's most valuable player, the Huskies rode his strong play to greater-than-expected heights last season. Joe Weslosky is Goepfert's understudy this season, arriving in St. Cloud a year earlier than originally expected after Tim Boron decided to forgo his senior year.
Weakness: The Huskies ranked seventh in the WCHA in goals scored last season, and although last year's scoring leader Andrew Gordon (20-20—40) returns for his junior season, the next four scorers have all graduated. Senior Dan Kronick (11-12—23) and junior Matt Hartman (10-4—14) are the most likely to need to take the reins.
Outlook: Discipline was a key to success for SCSU last season, averaging only 13.1 penalty minutes per game, lowest in the nation, in addition to a penalty kill which was second-best in the WCHA. If the Huskies can maintain that discipline, get similar results from Goepfert as were seen last year, and find the net just a bit more frequently, this team could turn heads around the nation.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 5th

Minnesota-Duluth

Coach: Scott Sandelin
2005-06 Record: 11-25-4
League finish: 9th (lost to St. Cloud State in WCHA Play-In)
NCAAs: N/A
Changes: Like Alaska-Anchorage, the Bulldogs had a young team last season. The sizable freshman class became the power-plant for Duluth's season. Tim Stapleton and Justin Williams are the only scoring losses, and Steve Czech, last year's captain, the only defenseman lost. Issac Reichmuth, who struggled last season, is replaced on the roster by one of the top goaltender prospects coming into Division I, Alex Stalock, the reigning Goaltender of the Year in the USHL, who will get an opportunity to compete for the starting job.
Strength: The Bulldogs return nearly all of their top scorers from last season, many of whom were freshmen still getting a feel for the WCHA. Mason Raymond (11-17—28), Andrew Carroll (13-10—23), Michael Gergen (14-8—22), MacGregor Sharp (6-8—14) and defenseman Matt Niskanen (1-13—14) will be working to avoid the sophomore slump.
Weakness: Minnesota-Duluth has three good choices in net, but none of them are what would be considered solidly proven — yet. Senior Josh Johnson (4.19, .848) has the most experience with 33 career appearances, but junior Nate Ziegelmann (3.32, .892) was one of the big heroes of the Bulldogs' late season run, and then Stalock's addition also adds a bit of intrigue. "Ultimately, the decision is up to them," said Sandelin, intimating that all three will have a shot to win the starting role.
Outlook: Though last season was largely a disappointment, the Bulldogs upset Denver in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. "It's a great springboard from disappointment to expectation," said Sandelin. "We have good speed and grit, and all of the guys bring a very strong work ethic. They're ready to take the next step."
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 6th

Colorado College

Coach: Scott Owens
2005-06 Record: 24-16-2
League finish: T-4th (lost to St. Cloud State in first round)
NCAAs: Lost to Cornell, Midwest Semifinal
Changes: The loss of Brian Salcido is a bit of a kick to the gut for the Tigers, who were already dropping bonafide stars in Brett Sterling (31-24—55) and former Hobey Baker winner Marty Sertich (14-36—50), and losing a solid, hard-nosed scorer in Crabb. Together, the four players alone represented 71 of 143 goals scored by Colorado College last season — just about half of the Tiger scoring touch. Billy Sweatt, brother of senior defenseman Lee, is one of the most highly anticipated forwards of the incoming freshmen class, and Kris Fredheim is one of the more eagerly awaited defensemen of the class.
Strength: Defense. Matt Zaba (2.52, .909) returns for his senior season and was a rock in net for the Tigers last year. Five defensemen including Lee Sweatt (5-16—21) and Jack Hillen (4-9—13) return in front of Zaba, and Fredheim's addition should only bolster the CC defense unit. There may be questions elsewhere, but if anything else, the Tigers should at least be difficult to score on.
Weakness: Chad Rau (13-17—30) is not going to be able to carry this team to greatness on his back alone. Colorado College needs to replace the 89 goals from players who are no longer with the team. While Rau should likely turn in another good season, forwards like Jimmy Kilpatrick (7-14—21), and Derek Patrosso (7-8—15) will need to kick their game up a notch this year if the Tigers are to be successful. There's plenty of firepower left, but with so much scoring gone, this facet of the game has to be treated as a question mark.
Outlook: CC will be competitive again with most of the names appearing on this year's roster, but may take a step back in the national picture. Unless the Tigers can fully replace what was lost largely to graduation, they risk getting lost in the murky morass.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 7th

Minnesota State

Coach: Troy Jutting
2005-06 Record: 17-18-4
League finish: 7th (lost to North Dakota in first round)
NCAAs: N/A
Changes: The departures of David Backes, Ryan Carter and Kyle Peto to the pros are devastating. Along with Travis Morin (20-22—42), they represented the very heart of the Minnesota State attack. The Mavericks will try to move on by adding F Geoff Irwin, who was the top scorer on the Royal Bank Cup winning Burnaby squad last season, and F Karel Mouillierat, who led Drayton Valley in scoring two years straight.
Strength: The Mavericks got a solid season last year from Dan Tormey (2.83, .902) in net. In addition, the team has five returning defensemen. If that experience can keep games close, the Mavericks will have the opportunity to steal games here and there.
Weakness: Morin is undoubtedly going to be the center of attention while he's in the attacking zone. While he's certainly talented enough to continue to lead the team in scoring in such an atmosphere, the Mavericks will require better showings from guys like Kurtis Kisio (8-8—16), Joel Hanson (4-16—20) and Austin Sutter (7-4-11) if they are going to compete.
Outlook: The key is going to be ensuring low-scoring games. That isn't easy in this league. While the Mavericks aren't going to be pushovers, they do appear to be heading for a middling season as they try to find their way against a league that has largely passed them by.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 8th

Alaska-Anchorage

Coach: Dave Shyiak
2005-06 Record: 6-27-3
League finish: 10th (lost to Minnesota in first round)
NCAAs: N/A
Changes: The Seawolves had a young team last season, and it showed on the ice. Ales Parez is the only loss among the top 10 scorers on the team, a rank that included six freshmen and sophomores. Kevin Clark and Ken Selby enter with solid scoring credentials in the junior ranks last season. If they can successfully make the transition to college play, they'll likely give Alaska-Anchorage some bite on the attack. As the penultimate selection of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Nils Backstrom becomes the second player on the Seawolves blue line to be drafted by a pro team, but he will need to adapt to the North American game before he can become productive. The Olympic ice surface at Sullivan Arena should assist in that regard. The Seawolves also had a number of players transfer.
Strength: Experience. Players like junior Chris Tarkir (8-6—14) and seniors Justin Bourne (5-8—13) and Charlie Kronschnabel (4-9—13) will be expected to lead the Seawolves offensively this season, and all have experienced the WCHA enough to know what will be expected of them in order to find success. Bourne and Kronschnabel arguably had better seasons as sophomores than as juniors, and will need to draw on their experience to boost UAA. Experience will matter in net too, as Nathan Lawson (3.44, .908) returns as the No. 1 goaltender in Anchorage. An injury kept him out of the stretch run last season, but if he plays well, he will be able to keep Alaska-Anchorage in close games.
Weakness: Even with experience, the Seawolves must find the net more often. Only Merrimack scored fewer points per game than Anchorage. Other than the three returning forwards mentioned above, UAA will also need solid output from senior defenseman Mark Smith (6-9—15), who tied for the team lead in overall scoring last year. Shane Lovdahl (4-9-13) and Jay Beagle (4-6-10) showed promise in extensive duty last year as freshmen.
Outlook: After a difficult season last year, the Seawolves are taking steps to move toward respectability. It will not be an easy or a quick journey, but the foundation has been laid — Shyiak can begin working with some of his own recruits this season, and has his own staff with him behind the bench in new assistant coaches Damon Whitten and Campbell Blair. It will be important to set the tone early — the results of the Nye Classic (vs. Merrimack and Nebraska-Omaha) and the first round of the Governor's Cup in Fairbanks the following week will be important for UAA in order to build the confidence it will need during the WCHA season.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 9th

Michigan Tech

Coach: Jamie Russell
2005-06 Record: 7-25-6
League finish: 8th (lost to Wisconsin in first round)
NCAAs: none
Changes: The Huskies may have lost more by scale than any other team this offseason. The senior class combined for 46 of MTU's 74 goals, especially coming from Chris Conner and Brandon Schwartz. D Eli Vlaisavljevich is a decent scoring threat that will bolster the Tech power play. F Philip Axtell and F Ryan Bunger are likely the best incoming scoring options coming in for the Huskies, but both will need to improve significantly to approach the level that MTU needs. Axtell amassed 192 penalty minutes for Cedar Rapids (USHL) last season.
Strength: Lars Helminen (2-17—19) may be one of the better two-way players in the league, but unfortunately the Huskies don't have an awful lot to work with and his determination is sometimes overlooked. Helminen and co-captain Mike Batovanja (3-6—9) will need to parlay their senior leadership into positive results for a team that has a lot of issues in a lot of other places. Leadership is also found behind the bench, as Russell has proven himself to be a more than capable coach, if given the talent to work with.
Weakness: With the departure of Conner and Schwartz, especially, the scoring touch has been ripped out of a team which finished 57th out of 59 Division I programs in goals per game last season. Tyler Shelast (9-9—18) is Tech's highest returning scorer. Forward Jordan Foote (2-0—2), the only NHL draftee on the roster, has only three goals in 44 games over two seasons for the Huskies.
Outlook: It doesn't look good for the Huskies this season. Although they finished above the bottom two for the first time since 2001 last year, they ranked dead last nationally in goal differential. The Huskies are going to need drastically different seasons from sophomore goaltenders Michael-Lee Teslak (3.68, .902) and Rob Nolan (4.06, .888) in order to win games.
CHN's Predicted Order of Finish: 10th

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