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October 12, 2010 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Preview 2010-11

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

Entering its 59th season, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association looks as competitive as ever. With two new teams in the fold — one an NCAA Tournament regular and the other led by a national championship winning coach — the WCHA is as unpredictable and as talented as any league in the country.

Last season, Denver took home the MacNaughton Cup as the regular season champion while North Dakota won the Broadmoor Trophy as the league's playoff champ. Each team then lost in the first round of the NCAAs, so there's still plenty to prove.

Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves

Head Coach: Dave Shyiak

2009-10 Record: 11-23-2 overall, 9-17-2 WCHA, (9th)

Who's Back: Sr. F Tommy Grant (9-17—26), Sr. F Sean Wiles (9-8—17), So. F Daniel Naslund (3-10—13), Jr. F/D Curtis Leinweber (4-8—12), Sr. D Kane Lafranchise (3-12—15), Sr. D Luka Vidmar (2-10—12).

2010-11 Outlook: Any time a team loses its leading scorer, it's a tough blow. When that team is Alaska-Anchorage, it makes it that much tougher. Kevin Clark scored 23 goals last season for UAA, and he was the only goal scorer to reach double digits. His 37 points were 11 better than the next best man, Tommy Grant. Grant has increased his point totals each year, although he'll need to pick up the goal-scoring slack left by Clark's departure. Sean Wiles, Daniel Naslund and Curtis Leinweber must find a way to get 20 points apiece this season.

That production, combined with a total of 40 minutes of experience returning in goal could be a recipe for disaster. Dusan Sidor played mop-up time in one game last season, allowing four goals on 26 shots, to give UAA its only experience in the crease this season. Unfortunately for him, freshmen Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson will likely battle for the right to start every night — although a rotation is the most likely outcome. Kane Lafranchise and Luka Vidmar return on the blueline, but UAA lost Lee Baldwin early to the NHL, meaning a youngster must step up there to eat additional minutes. Quinn Sproule scored 21 goals and added 57 points in 118 career games with Okotoks of the AJHL, and has a chance to be a solid puck mover for the Seawolves.

"The theme really this year is youth," said Seawolves head coach Dave Shyiak. "We have ten new freshmen and 17 or 18 underclassmen. We are young, so I think it could take a little time to sort things out."

Prediction: After a couple of competitive seasons for UAA, the Seawolves will likely take a step or two backwards, and will battle Michigan Tech for 11th place all season.

Bemidji State Beavers

Head Coach: Tom Serratore

2009-10 Record: 23-10-4 overall, 14-3-1 CHA*, (1st)

Who's Back: Sr. F Matt Read (19-22—41), So. F Jordan George (13-21—34), Jr. D Brad Hunt (7-26—33), Sr. F Ian Lowe (21-10—31), Jr. G Dan Bakala (19-8-3, 2.32, .917)

2010-11 Outlook: And so here they are. ... One of the WCHA's new teams is no stranger to teams in the league. For years, the Beavers have played regular series against North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State. The Beavers advanced to the Frozen Four two years ago, and last season made it to another NCAA Tournament — where they have become a regular. Getting back this year may be a bigger challenge, but the Beavers will have a shot. BSU lost just two of its top 11 scorers from a year ago, and return all of their top five (Note: junior Ben Kinne suffered a stoke in July and his status has not been made public yet). Despite numerous offers to sign an NHL contract, All-American forward Matt Read made his intentions known early that he would be back. Sophomore Jordan George scored 13 goals among 34 points and Junior defenseman Brad Hunt added 7 goals and 33 points, but both will find it tougher sledding in the WCHA. Dan Bakala was outstanding in 2009-10, winning 19 games and posting a goals against in the low 2s and a save percentage at nearly 92 percent. He also scored a big win over Miami and spearheaded a sweep against Minnesota Duluth.

"The six guys in our senior class are definitely the key of our hockey team," said Beavers coach Tom Serratore. "We've got experience and depth there and just a good core of both defensemen and forwards."

Prediction: Finding defensemen to play with Hunt will be the key. Bemidji will score enough goals to compete and Bakala should be fine in goal. Anton Racklin, Sam Rendle and Kyle Brodie are all talented players, but they're all incoming freshmen. If they can grow up quickly, a top-6 finish in the league is possible, which would be a great accomplishment in Year 1 in the WCHA.

Colorado College Tigers

Head Coach: Scott Owens

2009-10 Record: 19-17-3 overall, 12-13-3 WCHA, (6th)

Who's Back: So. F Rylan Schwartz (6-22—28), Sr. F Tyler Johnson (14-9—23), Jr. D Gabe Guentzel (3-20—23), Sr. F Stephen Schultz (5-15—20), Sr. D Ryan Lowery (4-14—18), So. G Joe Howe (17-15-3, 2.80, .907).

2010-11 Outlook: The Tigers started last season as one of he best in the WCHA before stumbling down the stretch — CC lost five of its final six regular season games when it was in the thick of the home-ice race. That team had a solid mix of veterans and youth, where the one that hits the ice this season will be considerably younger. Gone are leading scorers Bill Sweatt and Mike Testwuide as well as top defenseman Nate Prosser. Sophomore Rylan Schwartz put up great assist numbers a year ago but will need to score more than six goals. He'll be joined on campus by his younger brother Jaden, the reigning USHL Forward of the Year after winning the league's scoring title (33-50—83). Gabe Guentzel should be able to slide into the role left behind by Prosser, and could approach 30 points this season. Tyler Johnson was one of three players on the team a year ago to reach double digit goals, and is the only one returning this season. He'll need to net 15-20 markers in 2010-11. The Tigers also return their starting goaltender from a year ago, Joe Howe. The All-Rookie team honoree from a year ago will need to take the next step this season and be more reliable down the stretch than he was in 2009-10.

"We have some unknowns, uncertainties," said Tigers head coach Scott Owens. "We've got 16 freshmen and sophomores, we're going to try and integrate them into our rotation pretty regularly. There's some freshness, some youthfulness, but with that, there comes a lack of experience. With that, we could have some troubles, especially early on the road."

Prediction: Every time one predicts gloom and doom for the Tigers, Scott Owens seems to get his team to play a level or two higher than where they should. That said, this team might be a year away from being really good again. Look for a lower division finish and an early playoff exit.

Denver Pioneers

Head Coach: George Gwozdecky

2009-10 Record: 27-10-4 overall, 19-5-4 WCHA, (1st)

Who's Back: Sr. F Anthony Maiani (8-26—34), Sr. F Kyle Ostrow (16-10—26), Sr. F Jesse Martin (14-8—22), So. D Matt Donovan (7-14—21), So. F Drew Shore (5-14—19), Jr. D John Lee (2-10—12), So. G Adam Murray (3-4-1, 3.79, .874).

2010-11 Outlook: Flip a coin between Wisconsin and Denver on who was hit harder by early departures this offseason. The Pioneers were set to return goalie Marc Cheverie, forward Joe Colborne and defenseman Patrick Wiercioch — three of the best players at their positions in the WCHA. All three signed NHL contracts, which combined with graduation losses Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger, are crushing losses for most teams. And while winning another MacNaughton Cup will likely be a challenge, perhaps no team reloads better than DU will this season. Anthony Maiani, Kyle Ostrow and Jesse Martin are three veterans who should be able to carry the scoring load, especially if sophomore sensation Drew Shore progresses. George Gwozdecky also went west, a place he's had some recruiting success (see: Rakhshani, Rhett), to find another dandy in Beau Bennett — his 120 points in 56 games led the BCHL last season. Matt Donovan was outstanding as a freshman, and should be fine moving into a Wiercioch-like role. After that, the Pioneers have a stable of veterans who are solid WCHA players, including John Lee, Jon Ryder, William Wrenn and Chris Nutini. Adam Murray has good pedigree as a former NTDP goaltender, but was average at best in limited action last season He'll be pushed immediately by freshman Sam Brittain. That competition should make both better.

Perhaps the most interesting news of the offseason was Gwozdecky's name surfacing among those interested in the Ohio State coaching opening. He ultimately stayed, but it's something worth watching.

"We are a different team than we were at this time last year," Gwozdecky said. "We have a few question marks up front and perhaps our biggest question mark will be in goal. Our strength is going to have to be our defensive core. They have experience and will be the foundation of our team this year."

Prediction: How quickly guys like Bennett and Brittain make impacts will affect how high Denver will finish. Because teams like North Dakota and St. Cloud State return a ton of talent, defending their MacNaughton Cup title will be no easy task. But considering who is coming back combined with who is coming in, there is no reason why the Pioneers shouldn't be a home ice team. They could be a sleeper bunch come NCAA Tournament time too.

Michigan Tech Huskies

Head Coach: Jamie Russell

2009-10 Record: 5-30-1 overall, 4-24-0 WCHA, (10th)

Who's Back: Jr. F Brett Olson (18-12—30), So. D Steven Seigo (4-15—19), Sr. F Jordan Baker (9-9—18), Sr. F Bennett Royer (4-6—10), Sr. F Eric Kattelus (2-8—10), Sr. D Deron Cousens (1-7—8), So. G Kevin Genoe (4-18-1, 3.54, .904).

2010-11 Outlook: Michigan Tech had a rough go of it in 2009-10. After starting the season with a victory, the Huskies won only four more games the rest of the season, and never won more than one game in a row. A 3-6 start combined with a two-month stretch between mid-November and the end of January without a single win (0-14-1) doomed the Huskies to a last-place finish. With 12 teams in the league this season, a 10th-place finish would seem like progress, but that will be a challenge. There are three reasons for optimism in Houghton though: Brett Olson, Steven Seigo and Kevin Genoe. Olson, a junior forward, should approach 20 goals this season (he had 18 a year ago). Seigo, combined with freshman Dan Sova, should give the Huskies a pair of nice defensemen for a putrid power play. And Genoe, who posted a save percentage north of 90 despite facing a barrage of shots in most games a year ago.

Prediction: Winning this season will be difficult, but the Huskies should be better than last year. Provided everyone sticks around, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that Michigan Tech could challenge for eighth or ninth in 2011-12. At least it's progress.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Head Coach: Don Lucia

2009-10 Record: 18-19-2 overall, 12-14-2 WCHA, (7th)

Who's Back: Sr. F Mike Hoeffel (14-10—24), Sr. D Cade Fairchild (4-17—21), Sr. F Jacob Cepis (7-12—19), Sr. F Patrick White (9-8—17), So. F Zach Budish (7-10—17), Jr. D Aaron Ness (2-10—12), Sr. G Alex Kangas (16-15-1, 2.60, .911).

2010-11 Outlook: Minnesota is loaded up with solid players with experience but lack a true superstar in the bunch. Mike Hoeffel is the top returning scorer but had just 24 points last season as a junior. Jacob Cepis provided the team with a nice spark, scoring 19 points in 21 games after joining the line up at Christmas. Zach Budish is a bull down low and put up 17 points as a freshman. But nowhere in the bunch is a legitimate star to replace the early departed Jordan Schroeder, who left following his sophomore season. The guy who might have a chance is Nick Bjugstad, a freshman built like Budish who has the skill and hands of the more skilled Schroeder. Drafted 19th overall in this summer's NHL Entry Draft, the Gophers need Bjugstad to come in right away and make a major impact. If he doesn't, Minnesota will need increased production from guys like Patrick White and Jake Hansen — guys that came to the U with high expectations but have so far not lived up to the hype. Cade Fairchild and Aaron Ness are another pair of highly touted defensemen that need to pick their game up. Especially with the loss of Nick Leddy, who also left early for the NHL. Alex Kangas quietly put together a solid year last season and will need to do it again for Minnesota to have a chance.

Prediction: The seat has grown increasingly warm under the backside of Don Lucia, and should the Gophers finish out of home ice and out of the NCAA Tournament again this season, it might be the end of the line for him in Minneapolis, despite his two national titles. The Gophers host the Frozen Four in St. Paul at the end of the year, at the same place they won a national championship back in 2002. And while Minnesota would like to get back there, everything in the world would have to go right for the Gophers this season. And they haven't had everything go right for a few years now.

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