WCHA Season Preview, Part II
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
The second of a two-part series looking into the WCHA.
Coach: Dave Shyiak
Last season: 7-21-8 overall, 3-19-6 WCHA
How they finished: Alaska-Anchorage started hot last season, going unbeaten in its first five games (3-0-2), including a sweep of intrastate rival Alaska. Before Christmas, the Seawolves also logged road wins over Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth. But UAA was miserable down the stretch, winning just one game after the first of the year. In that span, the Seawolves scored more than two goals in a game just twice. Despite entering the playoffs winless in their final nine games, the Seawolves (the No. 10 seed) brought No. 1 seed Colorado College to overtime in game two before dropping a 3-2 decision and losing the series 2-0.
Changes: Following the departure of assistant coach Damon Whitten, the Seawolves brought in former UAA player Reggie Simon to take his place on the bench. Simon played for the Seawolves from 1996-2001, tallying 12 goals and 21 assists in 133 career games. He also served as a team captain his final two seasons in Anchorage.
Strengths: The Seawolves also have a nice core of junior forwards returning, including Josh Lunden (14-17—27), Kevin Clark (7-16—23) and Paul Crowder (7-16—23)
Weaknesses: Alaska-Anchorage doesn’t have much depth, either at forward or at defense. Beyond Lunden, Clark and Crowder, UAA returns only three other forwards that scored double-digit points — none scored more than 16 points. UAA also has not reached the Final Five since 2004 and have not won more than 13 games in a season since.
Outlook: "As a team, I think we compete well and we limit our opponent’s scoring opportunities," said Seawolves coach Dave Shyiak. "We were the youngest team in the conference last season with 18 freshmen and sophomores. Those guys are more experienced now and that should make us a better team this year."
Projected Finish: 10th
Coach: Scott Sandelin
Last season: 13-17-6 overall, 9-14-5 WCHA
How they finished: Minnesota Duluth — the No. 8 seed in the WCHA playoffs — had No. 3 Denver on the ropes last season. But after winning game one in Denver, the Pioneers won two straight to take the series, including a 1-0 win in game three. The length of the series was a bit of a surprise, considering the Bulldogs had lost their final five games of the regular season by a combined score of 15-2. The stretch dropped UMD from the middle of the WCHA pack and a possible berth in the NCAA tournament to a team on the outside looking in.
Changes: Not many. The Bulldogs lost only two significant contributors from a year ago, including defenseman Jason Garrison, who signed with the Florida Panthers. UMD also lost forward Matt McKnight to graduation. McKnight was second on the team in scoring, but scored only six goals and 16 points in 33 games a year ago.
Strengths: In goal, junior Alex Stalock possesses a ton of experience (59 career games) and was solid a season ago — finishing the year with a goals against of 2.31 and a save percentage better than 91 percent.
Weaknesses: Offense. UMD’s leading scorer from last season was junior MacGregor Sharp and his seven goals and 10 assists. Over their final eight games a year ago, the Bulldogs were shut out four times and scored only one goal twice.
Outlook: The Bulldogs lost two of their top players and didn’t sign any major recruits to come in and replace them. Thanks to Alaska-Anchorage and Michigan Tech, Minnesota Duluth will likely stay out of the cellar. Despite that, it may be a long season on the north shore.
Projected Finish: 8th
Coach: Mike Eaves
Last season: 16-17-7 overall, 11-12-5 WCHA
How they finished: Wisconsin won only two of its final eight games before becoming the first sub-.500 to ever earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. Once there, the Badgers were rewarded with a "home" series, and after beating Denver in the first round, Wisconsin blew a two-goal third period lead against North Dakota with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.
Changes: UW lost its best player in Kyle Turris to the NHL. His contributions will be filled by a committee of players, among those are incoming freshmen Derek Stepan, Jordy Murray and Chris Hickey. Sophomore Patrick Johnson, junior Blake Geoffrion and senior Ben Street will also be counted to step up their game.
Strengths: As always, Wisconsin has a number of high-end defensemen. Jamie McBain and Ryan McDonagh are both No. 1 defenders, Cody Golubef and Brendan Smith are up-and-coming and freshman Jake Gardiner could be a future star.
Weaknesses: Consistency in net and up front has been a problem for Wisconsin since they won the national championship three years ago. One night, Shane Connelly looks like one of the top goaltenders in the conference. The next night, he may look only average. Turris was solid last season, but Wisconsin still struggled to score enough goals to win a majority of its games.
Outlook: "With most hockey teams, it starts in net, and we've got a senior who has been through a lot and we think he's going to be pretty good for us," Badgers head coach Mike Eaves said. "We have some mobile defensemen who give us a lot of good offensive looks on rushes. We were fourth in the country (last season) in points by a defensive corps, so hopefully we can continue that trend. Up front, we have some pretty good depth among our forwards, and I think we'll be able to score a lot more by committee this season instead of relying solely on one guy."
Projected Finish: 7th
Minnesota State Mavericks
Coach: Troy Jutting
Last season: 19-16-4 overall, 12-12-4 WCHA
How they finished: Following Minnesota State’s win at Wisconsin Feb. 15, the Mavericks had won seven straight games — all against conference opponents. That was the high point of their season. The Mavericks lost their next three games and won only three times in their final nine games. A win in any one of those losses would have put the Mavericks in the NCAA tournament. Instead, they missed out by a fraction of a point in the Pairwise.
Changes: MSU lost a pair of solid role players in forwards Joel Hanson and Jon Kalinski. But they replaced them with one of Jutting’s most complete recruiting classes since he became head coach nine years ago. Perhaps the best of the class is Justin Jokinen, a forward from Cloquet High School. At 6-foot-3, Jokinen has the size and ability to be very special.
Strengths: The Mavericks have one of the conference's top goaltenders in senior Mike Zacharias. As a junior last season, Zacharias allowed just over two goals per game and stopped almost 93 percent of shots faced. MSU also returns a number of quality junior forwards, including leading scorer Trevor Bruess (9-21—30), Kael Mouillierat (11-11—22), Geoff Irwin (9-12—21), Zach Harrison (6-13—19) and Jason Wiley (11-7—18).
Weaknesses: Minnesota State has a big-time goalie. They have defensive depth. They have offensive depth. They have a two-time winner of the WCHA Coach of the Year award. The one thing they lack is a top-end sniper who will score 20-25 goals in a season. But they lacked that last season, and MSU finished fourth.
Outlook: "The kids had a really good spring and summer and have come back ready to go," said Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting, whose MSU teams in recent years have been traditional slow starters. "We need to come out and consistently play the way we are capable of playing from the start, and not just from Christmas time on. I think a lot of that in the past has had to do with a lack of experience — we've been a really young hockey team. While we have nine freshmen, which is a lot, but we have a lot of guys with experience; especially that junior class which has played a bunch of games and a ton of minutes."
Projected Finish: 3rd
North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Coach: Dave Hakstol
Last season: 28-11-4 overall, 18-7-3 WCHA
How they finished: North Dakota won the Midwest Regional and lost to eventual national champion Boston College in the national semifinals. UND was one of the nation’s top teams down the stretch, going unbeaten during an 18-game stretch from the beginning of January through mid-March, which has been a trend in recent years.
Changes: North Dakota lost two of their best players early to the NHL in forward T.J. Oshie and defenseman Taylor Chorney. Oshie and Chorney were arguably the two best players in the entire WCHA. They also lost senior goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux to graduation and will try to replace him with any number of untested options.
Strengths: Despite losing quality talent in all areas, North Dakota will bring in a number of blue-chip recruits to replace them. Chorney will be a tough loss, but the Sioux have a ton of talent at defense, which will be led by Joe Finley — a towering force who stands at 6-foot-7. Chay Genoway is one of the conference’s most underrated talents. Freshmen Ben Blood and Corey Fienhage should step in and contribute immediately.
Weaknesses: Who is going to start in net? The favorite seems to be senior Aaron Walski — who despite his advanced age, has played in only three games. Freshman Brad Eidsness and Graeme Harrington will also see plenty of time in net. The battle for the No. 1 job has not been decided. Is it because all three are playing well? Or is it because none of the three have stepped up? Only Hakstol knows the answer to that.
Outlook: Unlike years past, one can imagine North Dakota not finishing among the top two or three in the WCHA. They still might — plenty of talent returns to the fold in Grand Forks, including oft-forgotten former Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan. But UND has no proven goaltender and in a conference like the WCHA, that could be a problem. Of course, they said the same thing about Colorado College last season.
Projected Finish: 4th