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October 15, 2009 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Preview 2009-10

Expect Another Dogfight Between Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota, St. Cloud and More

by Dan Myers and Josh Berhow/CHN Reporter

Capsule previews of all WCHA teams, in alphabetical order.

ALASKA-ANCHORAGE SEAWOLVES

Head Coach: Dave Shyiak
2008-09 record: 14-17-5 (9-14-5 WCHA); WCHA 9th Place
Key Returnees: Nils Backstrom D SR., Bryce Christianson G JR., Kevin Clark F SR., Tommy Grant F JR., Kane Lafranchise D JR., Curtis Leinweber D SO., Josh Lunden F SR., Jon Olthuis G SR., Jared Tuton F SR., Luka Vidmar D JR.
Key Losses: Paul Crowder (underclassman), Shane Lovdahl, Mat Robinson

When you’re Alaska-Anchorage, being competitive in the Ziplock-tight WCHA often depends on getting as many of your horses back on a year-to-year basis.

Despite losing Paul Crowder a year early, the Seawolves appear to have the pieces in place to build on their 2008-09 campaign, one which saw UAA get close to the .500 mark and threaten to reach the top-8 in the standings.

The Seawolves won four straight games heading into the WCHA playoffs a year ago, then lost a pair of one goal games to the No. 2 seed Denver Pioneers in the first round of the playoffs. Most of that damage was done while UAA’s best player, sophomore Tommy Grant, was struggling with an injury.

“We talked about that at the end of the year last year, and bringing that intensity every night,” said Seawolves head coach Dave Shyiak. "We finished seven or eight points out of home-ice last year and that’s our goal and an expectation this season.”

Grant is back for his junior campaign following a season where he finished 10th in the league with 15 goals. Most of those came during the first half of the season. This year, Grant looks poised to carry out that pace over an entire season.

“He grew up as a person and put the time in the weight room over the summer,” Shyiak said. “We need him to score some goals for us again this season. “

Shyiak says Grant will start the year on a line with senior forward Kevin Clark as well as Nick Haddad – who will replace Crowder as Grant’s center. Also returning up front are seniors Josh Lunden and Jared Tuton.

Senior Nils Backtrom and juniors Kane Lafranchise and Luka Vidmar provide UAA with experience on the blueline to complement a pair of veteran goaltenders – junior Bryce Christianson and senior Jon Olthuis. The Seawolves played with a rotation all of last season and Shyiak says that’s how 2009-10 will begin.

“At times, I think they both proved they could play like No. 1 goaltenders in this league,” Shyiak said. “Somebody has to take the ball and solidify that and get some consistency and once we get that, maybe one guy can roll with it.”

COLORADO COLLEGE TIGERS

Head Coach: Scott Owens
2008-09 record: 16-12-10 (12-9-7); WCHA 4th place
Key Returnees: Bill Sweatt F SR., Gabe Guentzel D SO., Stephen Schultz F JR., Mike Testwuide F SR., Andreas Vlassopoulos F SR.
Key Losses: Chad Rau, Eric Walsky, Brian Connelly, Richard Bachman (underclassman), Scott McCulloch.

The Tigers haven’t been used to seeing their name so far down on preseason rankings, but with what they lost from last season it’s not difficult to imagine. The Tigers lost their top three offensive weapons to graduation and the NHL, and lost all-world goalie Richard Bachman to the NHL as well.

Tyler O’Brien looks to be the new starter in net, and will have plenty of inexperience in front of him. Fifteen freshmen and sophomores make up this year’s roster, six of them defensemen. The Tigers do have nine seniors but none of them have made huge contributions yet. Bill Sweatt is probably the team’s most threatening player, and possibly the WCHA’s fastest. Sweatt’s averaged 25 points a season during his first three, but needs his numbers to make a big jump to lessen the load on the rest of the roster. CC will find some scoring, but it will be more spread out this year than in the past. Sweatt’s the top returning goal scorer from last year with 12, and junior Stephen Schultz is the only other returnee with double-digit goals (10).

Defenseman Gabe Guentzel had a solid rookie season with 17 points (14 assists), and Nate Prosser, Kris Fredheim and Ryan Lowery will all find homes on the blue line again.

The Tigers are rebuilding, and it didn’t help their rebuilding effort when incoming recruit John Moore signed an NHL contract this summer after getting drafted 21st overall by Columbus. Moore, a defenseman, will play junior hockey this year instead of being one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the nation.

The Tigers need work offensively, defensively and in net after some big-time players left. Every team has its rebuilding years, and this is CC’s.

“It’s a little different for us than the last few years but I think if everyone stays patient out here it should be a real fun year,” said coach Scott Owens.

DENVER PIONEERS

Head Coach: George Gwozdecky
2008-09 record: 23-12-5 (16-8-4), WCHA 2nd place
NCAA: Lost in First Round
Key Returnees: Tyler Ruegsegger F SR., Anthony Maiani F JR., Rhett Rakhshani F SR., Patrick Wiercioch D SO., Joe Colborne F SO., Luke Salazer F SO., Kyle Ostrow F JR., Jesse Martin F JR., Marc Cheverie G JR.
Key Losses: J.P. Testwuide, Patrick Mullen, Tyler Bozak.

The Pioneers had eight players who reached or surpassed the 10-goal mark last season — and every one of them is back this year. Throw in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes and second-year starter Marc Cheverie in goal, and there shouldn’t be many arguments against Denver’s 2008-09 expectations.

The Pioneers won’t have a problem scoring, especially with the group of forwards they have. Add incoming freshman forward Drew Shore to the group and coach George Gwozdecky has plenty of players to choose from when setting up what should be two of the WCHA’s most productive top lines.

Seniors Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger lead the offense, and both chose to return to Denver instead of moving on to the NHL. Anthony Maiani, a junior, gave the Pioneers a big boost last season with 41 points (30 assists) after a 15-point rookie season. Maiani, however, will miss the first two games of the season due to a suspension.

Junior forward Dustin Jackson will also miss the season for Denver. Jackson suffered a broken leg a couple of weeks ago in practice but will be redshirted this season.

What might separate the Pioneers even more from their opponents are their defensemen. Most of them can not only help keep the puck out of the net, but are outstanding offensively and move the puck well. Sophomore Patrick Wiercioch is the best at both on the Pioneers and anchors the defense. Freshman Matt Donovan is another puck-moving expert on the blue line, and was highly recruited out of the USHL, as was fellow freshman William Wrenn. This past weekend showed, however, they still have things to learn in their own end.

“It’s a good class,” said Gwozdecky of the freshmen, which includes goaltender Adam Murray. “It’s a class we’re going to have to rely on as the season goes along as they make the transition to this level, and we’re looking forward to watching them develop.”

On paper, it looks as if the Pioneers’ talent is unmatched around the conference, offensively and defensively. They lost arguably the WCHA’s most dynamic offensive weapon in Tyler Bozak but it doesn’t even matter. The talent level is high on the Pioneers, and expectations are too.

MICHIGAN TECH HUSKIES

Head Coach: Jamie Russell
2008-09 record: 6-25-7 (2-19-7); WCHA 10th place
Key Returnees: Jordan Baker F JR., Brett Olson F SO., Drew Dobson D SR., Deron Cousens D JR., Alex MacLeod F SO., Josh Robinson G SO, Malcolm Gwilliam F SR.
Key Losses: Geoff Kinrade, Alex Gagne, Rob Nolan.

It’s been a long road for Michigan Tech’s Malcolm Gwilliam. Gwilliam suffered a stroke in November before a game with the Gophers and was granted a sixth season of eligibility after already missing the 2005-06 season with an injury. The winger was unanimously voted team captain prior to this season.

“We’re very happy for him,” said Tech coach Jamie Russell. “He went through an awful lot and we expect him to have a big impact with our team this year.”

Russell started Gwilliam’s line in Tech’s exhibition game against Ryerson and the sixth-year senior scored 19 seconds into the game, his first shift back since suffering a stroke.

Tech returns four of its top five scorers from last year, including junior forward Jordan Baker. The Huskies have 17 underclassmen, and hope that group can help put the puck in the net more frequently than the team did last season. The Huskies had only two players with double-digit goals in Baker (16) and Brett Olson (10). Tech averaged just 1.63 goals per game last season.

Josh Robinson takes over in net for the graduated Rob Nolan, although the two split time last year. With so much inexperience on the roster the Huskies might have another couple of tough years before they have a chance to bump the trend.

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Head Coach: Don Lucia
2008-09 record: 17-13-7 (12-11-5 WCHA); WCHA 5th Place
Key Returnees: Jay Barriball F SR., Mike Carman F SR., Cade Fairchild D JR., David Fischer D SR., Ryan Flynn F SR., Mike Hoeffel F JR., Alex Kangas G JR., Tony Lucia F SR., Aaron Ness D SO., Jordan Schroeder F SO.
Key Losses: R.J. Anderson, Justin Bostrom, Ryan Stoa (underclassman)

Over the last two seasons, Minnesota goaltender Alex Kangas has shown he can be among the best goaltenders in the nation. After single handedly carrying Minnesota to a series win over Minnesota State two years ago, as well as a run to the WCHA Final Five championship game and a berth in the NCAA tournament, the goaltender position seemed in safe hands heading into 2008-09.

Despite winning more games as a sophomore, Kangas saw his goals against average go up by almost a goal per game, and his inconsistency was a major factor in a brutal month long stretch in January and February where the Gophers went 1-6-2. A couple more wins there and Minnesota’s season, which ended without an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time in Don Lucia’s tenure as head coach, may have been completely different.

Kangas is back for his junior season, and is indeed the key for a veteran Gopher squad poised to make a return trip to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2004-05.

“We’re going to have some seniors who have some experience,” Lucia said. “The kids are pretty motivated after missing the NCAA tournament a year ago.”

Minnesota returns 20 letter winners from last year, including 81 percent of its offense. Both numbers include the league’s preseason Player of the Year sophomore Jordan Schroeder, who led all WCHA freshmen in scoring last year with 45 points. Many of Schroeder’s 32 assists went to junior Ryan Stoa, who signed a professional contract following last season. That will give Schroeder a chance to shoot more, something Lucia and the Gopher coaching staff have told Schroeder he must do this season to help the Gophers get where they want to go.

Also back up front are seniors Jay Barriball, Mike Carman and Tony Lucia as well as juniors Mike Hoeffel and Patrick White, who along with freshman Zach Budish, will provide the Gophers with a couple of power options down low.

Minnesota also returns a boatload of talent on defense, where the Gophers have as much depth as anybody in the league. Led by junior Cade Fairchild, who received All-American consideration last year, Minnesota also returns senior David Fischer and sophomores Aaron Ness and Sam Lofquist. Freshmen Nick Leddy, a first round NHL pick, and the towering 6-foot-5, 220-pound Seth Helgason, will provide the Gophers with plenty of options in terms of pairings.

“[Leddy and Helgason] will complement each other well,” Lucia said. “One is a puck mover and one is a stay at home defenseman with some size, something we needed on our blueline.”

MINNESOTA-DULUTH BULLDOGS

Head Coach: Scott Sandelin
2008-09 record: 22-13-8 (10-11-7 WCHA); WCHA 7th Place, WCHA Playoff Champions
NCAA: Lost West Regional Final
Key Returnees: Drew Akins F SR., Mike Connolly F SO., Jack Connolly F SO., Justin Fontaine F JR., Jordan Fulton F SR., Chad Huttel D JR., Mike Montgomery D JR., Trent Palm D SR.
Key Losses: Andrew Carroll, Michael Gergen, Matt Greer, Nick Kemp, Josh Meyers, Evan Oberg (underclassman), MacGregor Sharp, Alex Stalock (underclassman)

Minnesota-Duluth’s magical run through the WCHA Playoffs last season is something dreams – and programs – are made of.

Beginning with the first game of the WCHA playoffs at Colorado College, the Bulldogs – the league’s No. 7 seed – reeled off five straight wins en route to becoming the first team in league history to win three games at the Final Five.

But the fact they won those games really wasn’t as important as how they won them. Led by junior goaltender Alex Stalock, UMD allowed just three goals in that five game stretch, including back-to-back shutouts to secure the Broodmoor Trophy.

After allowing four goals in a NCAA First Round game at Mariucci Arena, one where the Bulldogs staged a dramatic final minute comeback to pull off a win over Princeton, Stalock allowed just two goals to Miami in the West Region final in a 2-1 loss.

Not bad for a team whose season was supposed to have been dead for over two weeks.

“It was a great experience for our guys to get to win the Final Five and get to the tournament,” Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said. "It’s always great to win a championship but with the way the season ended, I think it certainly left our guys motivated.”

A similar run this season will be markedly more difficult for the Bulldogs, as they try and replace Stalock, who signed a pro deal. Also gone are Evan Oberg – another early departure – as well as Andrew Carroll, MacGregor Sharp and Nick Kemp. All played crucial minutes in UMD’s run to the region final.

The cupboard isn’t empty on the North Shore, however. Back are Mike and Jack Connolly (no, they’re not related), as well as junior Justin Fontaine and seniors Jordan Fulton and Drew Akins. On the blueline, the Dogs have a bunch of veterans, including Mike Montgomery, Chad Huttel and Trent Palm.

Incoming freshman Dylan Olsen will also provide Minnesota-Duluth with another option on the blueline. The 6-3 Olsen provides the Bulldogs with perhaps the league’s most dynamic freshman skater and someone who will jump in and play big minutes right away.

“He’s big, he’s strong and he can shoot,” Sandelin said.

In goal, Brady Hjelle has the early edge and Sandelin says he is confident he can do the job.

MINNESOTA STATE MAVERICKS

Head Coach: Troy Jutting
2008-09 record: 15-17-6 (11-13-4); WCHA 8th place
Key Returnees: Kael Mouillierat F SR., Geoff Irwin F SR., Rylan Galiardi F JR., Zach Harrison F SR., Kurt Davis D JR., Mike Louwerse F SO., Jerad Stewart F SR., Channing Boe F JR.
Key Losses: Trevor Bruess, Mick Berge, Blake Friesen, Brian Kilburg, Mike Zacharias.

The Mavericks, who’ve annually been a sixth-to-eighth place finishing team for a while now, might be a goaltender away from moving into the top half of the conference; and whichever one coach Troy Jutting chooses will have no prior college experience. Austin Lee, a redshirt sophomore, and incoming freshmen Phil Cook and Kevin Murdock will all battle for the vacated spot. Lee’s waited patiently for two years until Mike Zacharias and Dan Tormey left town, and though he might be the early front-runner, he doesn’t necessarily have the job yet.

Murdock led the USHL in goals against (2.24) and save percentage (.920) last season, besting St. Cloud State incoming netminder Mike Lee — who was drafted in the third round this summer and picked as the league’s top rookie — in both categories.

If the Mavericks find a consistent goalie they should be OK. Their big recruiting class of 2005-06 are all experienced seniors now, and the team only lost Trevor Bruess and Mick Berge from the forward position. Forward Kael Mouillierat could have a big year if he stays healthy. The senior missed some time last season but scored 17 goals in 30 games and plays strong defensively as well.

“Kael’s a goal scorer and I think he has the ability to go past that this year,” Jutting said. “He has the ability to be one of those kids who not only can score goals for us, but be one of the big-time goal scorers in the league.”

It’s also a big year for Geoff Irwin — the team’s captain — who is as offensively talented as anyone on the roster and has gradually improved his goal and point totals in each of his first three seasons. Early reviews on MSU’s top forward recruit, Tyler Pitlick, have been good as well.

Kurt Davis remains the lone offensive threat on the blue line, but the Mavericks shouldn’t need tons of offense from the defensemen anyway, and with an inexperienced goaltender the focus should be on keeping his life easier. Channing Boe’s also played a pivotal role on the Mavericks’ blue line but is coming off a season-ending leg injury from last year, but Jutting said Boe’s “100 percent healthy” entering the season.

And if for some reason the Mavericks need a spark in the second half, Michael Dorr, who transferred from the Gophers to Mankato midseason last year, will be eligible to play second semester.

NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol
2008-09 record: 24-15-4 (17-7-4 WCHA); WCHA Regular Season champions
NCAA: Lost First Round
Key Returnees: Brad Eidsness G SO., Chay Genoway D SR., Jason Gregoire F SO, Evan Trupp F JR., Chris VandeVelde F SR., Darcy Zajac F SR.
Key Losses: Ryan Duncan, Joe Finley, Matt Frattin (underclassman), Andrew Kozek, Matt Watkins

Before last season, North Dakota had never missed the Frozen Four under the guidance of Hakstol. Through 40 minutes of a first-round contest against New Hampshire, it appeared UND was on track for a return trip. Leading 5-3 halfway through the third period, it all fell apart. The Wildcats scored at the 11 minute mark to make it 5-4 before tying the score with an improbable goal with under a second to play in regulation. UNH capped the comeback with the game-winner just 45 seconds into overtime to knock North Dakota from the NCAA tournament.

That type of finish to their season – unprecedented under Hakstol – has left the Sioux with a chip on their shoulders heading into 2009-10.

“For our veteran returning players, I hope there is a lesson to be learned there,” Hakstol said. “Most importantly for those guys, hopefully there was a motivation for them in their training over the summer.”

Included among those veterans is senior defenseman Chay Genoway – arguably the league’s best defenseman – and a number of quality forwards, including fellow seniors Chris VandeVelde and Darcy Zajac, as well as junior Evan Trupp and sophomore Jason Gregoire, whose 29 points last season was sixth among league freshmen. VandeVelde, who has increased his scoring totals in each of his three seasons, set a career high in goals (18) and points (35) a year ago, and seems primed to break out as one of the conference’s best forwards.

Also back is sophomore goaltender Brad Eidsness. Only now-departed UMD goalie Alex Stalock played more minutes than Eidsness did as a freshman a year ago, and Eidsness responded, finishing with a .906 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average.

“We have some players returning who we know will do a good job for us,” Hakstol said. “But we also have a lot of questions marks we need to answer.”

Those questions surround the team’s youth. While the Sioux return a number of quality players with experience, UND’s fortunes will likely come down to how well its freshmen can adapt to the college game. Among those coming to Grand Forks who could see immediate playing time are Corban Knight and Danny Kristo, a nifty forward from Eden Prairie, Minn.

“We have a lot of guys who look like have come to campus ready to compete for jobs,” Hakstol said. “Now it’s a matter of us sorting out what roles those players are capable of playing at.”

ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES

Head Coach: Bob Motzko
2008-09 record: 18-17-3 (13-13-2); WCHA 6th place
Key Returnees: Garrett Roe F JR., Ryan Lasch F SR., Garrett Raboin D SR., Aaron Marvin F JR., Jared Festler F SO., Drew LeBlanc F SO., Travis Novak F SO., Nick Oslund F JR., Dan Dunn G JR.
Key Losses: Jase Weslosky, John Swanson, Michael Olson.

Of all the years to lose a goaltender, St. Cloud State got pretty lucky. Jase Weslosky was ruled academically ineligible for his senior season, but as he leaves, freshman Mike Lee enters. Rookie goalies have had big impacts in the WCHA in the last couple of years. Colorado College’s Richard Bachman was the conference’s Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year two years ago, and North Dakota netminder Brad Eidsness was last season’s Rookie of the Year. Lee has as good of a chance as anyone to take the award this season.

Led by forwards Garrett Roe and Ryan Lasch the Huskies, again, shouldn’t have much of a problem scoring goals. Aaron Marvin added a 27-point season during his sophomore year, and Huskies coach Bob Motzko had four freshmen score at least 15 points in Jared Festler (17), Drew LeBlanc (15), Jordy Christian (15) and Travis Novak (15).

“We know we’ve got a small handful of guys that are very established in the WCHA,” Motzko said. “Our goal is to finish in the top five and get back to that NCAA tournament and if that’s going to happen we need a core of guys to join that group”

The Huskies also added a couple of nice freshmen forwards to the roster in Ben Hanowski and David Eddy. Hanowski might follow Roe and Lasch in being the Huskies next freshman with a break-out first year. Eddy will miss the season’s first month or two with an injury.

Defense, like last season, is where the Huskies could struggle. For the second straight year senior captain Garrett Raboin is basically the only player with a solidified spot, and is one of the better all-around blue-liners in the conference. Junior Chris Hepp, who lacks the offensive game Raboin has, didn’t miss a game last season, and Oliver Lauridsen, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound sophomore defenseman, has the body to make an impact but like all of the other SCSU defensemen not named Raboin, it’s anyone’s guess how much they’ll help this year.

If Lee — or Dan Dunn — can find success early, they’ll make the Huskies’ defense look much better than they might be. If the Huskies can find a couple of sturdy defensive pairings they should have no problem being a top three team.

WISCONSIN BADGERS

Head Coach: Mike Eaves
2008-09 record: 20-16-4 (14-11-3 WCHA); WCHA 3rd Place
Key Returnees: Michael Davies F SR., Jake Gardiner D SO., Blake Geoffrion F SR, Ryan McDonagh D JR., Jordy Murray F SO., Brendan Smith D JR., Derek Stepan F SO., Ben Street F SR.,
Key Losses: Shane Connelly, Tom Gorowsky

If not for an 0-6-1 start to the 2008-09 season, the Wisconsin Badgers would have been a force to be reckoned with at the NCAA tournament. As it was, that start to the season is what doomed the Badgers as they missed the NCAAs for the second time in three years since winning a national championship in 2006.

Wisconsin also struggled down the stretch, finishing 1-4-1 over its final three WCHA regular season series. After downing Minnesota State in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs – an especially dominating performance considering the direction of both teams at the time – the Badgers went to St. Paul needing to win a pair of games to gain an NCAA berth. Following a loss to Denver in the first game Friday, their hopes of continuing the season were dashed.

UW lost just two critical members of that team to graduation in goaltender Shane Connelly and gritty forward Tom Gorowsky. Back are a bunch of high-end NHL draft picks on the blue line as well a number of top-end forwards capable of providing the Badgers with their most potent offensive attack since that national title team. For the first time since 2005-06, Wisconsin has more upperclassmen than underclassmen.

“It’s kind of new and different for the coaching staff, going on the ice with an older group of guys,” said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves. “You can almost see their veteran experience on the ice in practice. You can be competitive in every situation.”

Five of Wisconsin’s defensemen were selected in either the first or second round of the NHL Entry Draft, led by junior captain Ryan McDonagh, whose job it will be to replace reigning league Player of the Year Jamie McBain. McDonagh will have help in that category, as juniors Brendan Smith and Cody Goloubef, as well as sophomore Jake Gardiner and freshman John Ramage are all blue-chip prospects.

Up front, the Badgers are buoyed by the return of senior captain Ben Street, back from a knee injury which sidelined him all of last season. Also back up front is fellow senior captain Blake Geoffrion, who provides the Badgers with a physical presence.

Major question marks surround the Badgers in goal after the departure of Connelly. Junior Scott Gudmandson, Connelly’s back-up for the last two years, as well as junior transfer Brett Bennett – who posted a 16-10-3 record at Boston University two years ago – will vie for minutes.
 

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