CCHA Preview: Part I, 2010-11
Miami and Michigan Appear Set to Battle it Out Again
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The coaches and media could not agree on the preseason CCHA favorite. The coaches picked Michigan, while the media stuck with Miami. The Wolverines are the reigning CCHA tournament champions, while the RedHawks are the reigning regular season champs and are looking for their third consecutive Frozen Four.
And although these new-age rivals appear to be the class of the league — at least on paper — there are still 10 other teams vying for the top spot. Three (Ohio State, Bowling Green, Western Michigan) welcome new head coaches this year.
Here is a preview of all 12 CCHA teams, in the coaches' order of predicted finish.
Head Coach: Red Berenson
2009-10 Record: 26-18-1 (14-13-1); Finished 7th in the CCHA standings, won CCHA tournament, advanced to NCAA quarterfinals
Key Returnees: Carl Hagelin (F), Louie Caporusso (F), Matt Rust (F)
Key Losses: Chris Summers (D), Steven Kampfer (D)
On June 11, Michigan head coach Red Berenson signed a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the Wolverines bench through 2012-13. Last weekend, he reached win No. 700 as a coach — a milestone that has been met by only five coaches in college hockey history.
Perhaps more meaningful to Berenson, though, is the fact that his superstar trio of senior forwards — co-captain Carl Hagelin and alternate captains Louie Caporusso and Matt Rust — all chose to return to Ann Arbor for their senior seasons. Last year, the trio was responsible for a dramatic playoff run, leading the 7th-place Wolverines to a CCHA tournament championship and its associated automatic NCAA berth.
All three scored over 40 points last season, playing in all 45 of Michigan's games.
"I've always judged our teams by how good our seniors are," said Berenson. "We should have good leadership. I wasn't surprised [that they returned]. I think all three of these kids have their heads screwed on straight. Why give up your senior year when it could be your best year?"
In all, the Wolverines welcome back 12 forwards, including each of its top five point producers, as well as five defensemen. In addition, both senior starting goaltenders return. Shawn Hunwick, who memorably took over the starting role in last year's playoffs, and Bryan Hogan will alternate time in the Maize and Blue crease to start the season.
Rotating netminders is not typical of a Berenson team, but Hunwick's performance last season in the playoffs created this "problem" for Michigan. After Hogan was injured in a game late in the season, the 5-foot-7 Hunwick stepped in and looked tall, posting a 7-1 record in the CCHA playoffs and a sparkling 1.50 goals-against average.
Said Berenson, "We see ourselves as a team with two starting goalies, and we'll just see how they play. The competition will be good for them."
In last week's season-opening game for Michigan, Hunwick earned the start against Mercyhurst and made a career-high 33 saves in a 4-4 draw. The next night, Hogan made 27 saves in a 4-2 exhibition win against Western Ontario.
A point of emphasis for Michigan this year will be its play on the road. Its 8-10 mark away from Yost Ice Arena last season played a large part in the Wolverines' seventh place regular season finish in the CCHA. This season, marquee road games include visits to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire.
But it's a "home" game in December that is generating much of the preseason attention for Michigan. On December 11, the Wolverines will take on their archrival Michigan State at "The Big Chill at the Big House" event.
Playing in front of 100,000 fans at the University of Michigan's football stadium, the Wolverines and Spartans will play in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a hockey game.
"It'll be great for college hockey," said Berenson. "It'll be a memorable experience for every player, every fan, and every coach. We're looking forward to it."
Hagelin, in particular, has proven that he's already comfortable in the Big House. Berenson describes his Swedish star forward, who had 50 points last season, as being "as quick off the mark as anyone" he's ever seen. Several times each year, the players condition in the Big House by sprinting up the stadium steps.
"Carl's never lost a sprint up the stadium steps," said Berenson. "60 races, and he's never lost one."
Head Coach: Enrico Blasi
2009-10 Record: 29-8-7 (21-2-5); Finished 1st in the CCHA standings, runner-up in CCHA tournament, advanced to NCAA Frozen Four
Key Returnees: Andy Miele (F), Carter Camper (F), Connor Knapp (G), Cody Reichard (G)
Key Losses: Jarod Palmer (F), Tommy Wingels (F)
The numbers are simply staggering.
Since 2005-06, Miami has the best winning percentage among Division I college hockey teams, winning over 70 percent of its games and compiling 20 wins in each of the last five seasons.
Now, the rest of the CCHA best beware, as the Redhawks return nearly their entire team from last season's CCHA regular-season championship and NCAA Frozen Four squad. In all, 17 letterwinners return, including eight forwards and a pair of 40-point scorers in Andy Miele and captain Carter Camper.
Camper ranks second in the nation among active players in career points (126), trailing only St. Cloud State's Garrett Roe (142). And if the Redhawks reach the 25-win mark this season, the current senior class — led by Camper and Miele, alongside Pat Cannone, Vincent LoVerde, and Justin Vaive — will become the winningest senior class in Miami program history.
"We have a very veteran team, which should help us on the road," said Enrico Blasi, the reigning CCHA Coach of the Year. "Since we are a veteran team, I think we can spend a little bit more time on special teams and skill development, which will hopefully help us in producing some more wins and maybe the big win at the end."
Miami led the nation in scoring defense a year ago, giving up just 1.95 goals per game. Led by CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman Will Weber, all seven defensemen return to Oxford, Ohio, this year.
So do both junior goaltenders in Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp. Reichard, who led the nation with a 1.87 goals-against average, was the 2009-10 CCHA Player of the Year, and Knapp was the 2010 NCAA Midwest Regional Most Outstanding Player.
"Both Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard are tremendous young men," said Blasi, who enters his 12th season behind the RedHawk bench. "They work extremely hard. They've had a great summer. Both of them are going to play. I'm not sure what the rotation is going to be like, but expect to see both of them."
Again, the numbers — the wins, the defense, the goal-scoring — are staggering. Of course, whether they add up to a third consecutive Frozen Four appearance for Blasi remains to be seen.
Last April, the Redhawks fell by a shocking 7-1 score to Boston College in the Frozen Four.
Said Blasi, "Losing in the final to BU two years ago, everyone had the same question. What would Miami come back to and how would it affect us? I can tell you that our team is affected in a positive way. Our team worked extremely hard over the summer. They know what it takes to play at a high level, to play every day, to not only play in a tough league but be successful in a tough league."
The RedHawks begin their season with a pair of two-game series, one against New Hampshire at home and one on the road at St. Cloud State.
The start to this season mirrors that of a year ago, when Miami went 3-1 against the same opponents to begin its year.
3. Michigan State
Head Coach: Rick Comley
2009-10 Record: 19-13-6 (14-18-6); Finished 2nd in the CCHA standings, runner-up in CCHA tournament, advanced to NCAA Frozen Four
Key Returnees: Derek Grant (F), Drew Palmisano (G)
Key Losses: Corey Tropp (F), Jeff Petry (D), Andrew Rowe (F)
Michigan State plays 8 of its first 10 games at home, and the Spartans will likely enjoy the time in East Lansing as they continue to adjust to three offseason early departures. Forwards Corey Tropp and Andrew Rowe and defenseman Jeff Petry all signed pro contracts over the summer, meaning the team lost three of its top four scorers from a year ago.
"We've lost, I think, 14 kids early over my eight years here," said coach Rick Comley. "It disrupts everything. You can't always plan for it."
Tropp was the team MVP a season ago and scored 42 points in 37 games before signing with the Buffalo Sabres organization.
Comley, meanwhile, is getting used to this routine in the new landscape of college hockey. Now in his 38th season overall, Comley has won NCAA titles at two different institutions and ranks among the top five coaches all-time in collegiate victories. He has also coached 10 Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalists, 15 All-Americans, four league players of the year, 26 first team all-league selections, and 85 academic all-league selections.
Said the veteran coach, "We recruit good players. College coaches get very little respect from the professional level as far as how good a job they do and how well they develop these kids, almost to our detriment. It's almost an insult to the times, that they're in a hurry to get these kids out of here and put them in minor league hockey. I'd love to see something like a three-year rule. Right now, we have a chaotic system that hurts college hockey tremendously."
The Spartans return 19 players from a season ago, including Second Team All-CCHA selection Drew Palmisano, who figures to be Michigan State's starting goaltender as the season gets underway. In all, 17 letterwinners return to the Spartan roster this fall, and of the 26 players on the roster, 19 are sophomores or juniors.
So, despite the departures, Comley sees this season as an opportunity for his other players to step up.
"We're all dealing with losing players now and thrusting other players into roles they have to be ready for," said Comley. "When you look at college hockey, almost everyone can play and everybody can compete and has the ability to get the puck in the net.
"The window of opportunity is open."
Head Coach: Dallas Ferguson
2009-10 Record: 18-12-9 (11-9-8); Finished 5th in the CCHA standings, lost in CCHA quarterfinals, advanced to NCAA first round
Key Returnees: Andy Taranto (F), Dustin Sather (F), Scott Greenham (G)
Key Losses: Dion Knelsen (F)
Alaska's preseason rankings — third in the media poll, fourth in the CCHA coaches poll, and 12th nationally — represent the program's highest expectations entering a season since the Nanooks joined the CCHA in 1994.
The reason for their elevated expectations is simple. Alaska welcomes back 18 players from a team that qualified for the NCAA tournament last season, including nine of its top 11 scorers.
"Obviously, going through the end of last season and making it into the tournament, there was a lot of excitement in the program and in the community," said head coach Dallas Ferguson. "We've talked about keeping a level head about last season. Once the dust settled, we wanted to learn from the experience and realized that that's where we want to get back to this season."
Ferguson is stressing a high level of consistency this season. The Nanooks will look to be led offensively by the reigning CCHA Rookie of the Year Andy Taranto, who set the Alaska program record for points by a freshman with 42.
The question, though, is who will play alongside the talented sophomore from Woodridge, Ill. Last season's leading scorer — and Taranto's regular linemate — Dion Knelsen graduated, leaving an opening at the center position. Dustin Sather, who developed some chemistry playing on the opposite wing from Taranto a year ago, returns, but Ferguson is looking at junior Carlo Finucci, sophomore Jarrett Granberg, and senior captain Kevin Peteovello as candidates to join Taranto's line.
Fergson calls it a "committee approach."
Said the third-year coach, "It seems like we've got some good depth at all positions. We have some tough decisions to make as far as who's going to be in the lineup every night, and I feel that's something that's going to be a good thing for us.
"Right now, we're just mixing things up and trying to find some chemistry in there."
5. Notre Dame
Head Coach: Jeff Jackson
2009-10 Record: 13-17-8 (9-12-7); Finished 9th in the CCHA standings, lost in CCHA first round
Key Returnees: Calle Ridderwall (F), Ben Ryan (F), Riley Sheahan (F)
Key Losses: Ryan Thang (F), Kyle Lawson (D), Ian Cole (D)
Twelve newcomers join a Notre Dame team looking to quickly forget about last season. After winning 31 games in 2008-09, the Irish managed just 13 victories in 2009-10 — a significant step down from the standard that coach Jeff Jackson has set during his time in South Bend.
"The freshmen have really integrated well into the team," said Jackson. "Obviously, things change as you start playing games. It's going to be a matter of which guys are going to be able to step in and become a factor of our team. That's probably what we're going to discover over the next month."
Despite the young nature of their team, Jackson and his coaching staff planned ahead for this situation with some strategy. Jackson had similar success with a young team over 15 years ago, when he was busy winning national titles at Lake Superior State.
Explained Jackson, "We only have a few freshmen who are true freshmen right out of high school. There was an intention for us to bring in freshmen who are a little bit older, who have played a couple years of junior hockey. They are a little bit older and a little bit more mature, mentally and physically."
Still, Jackson will rely on four seniors to lead the way for the dozen freshmen. Senior Calle Ridderwall returns after leading the CCHA with 11 power-play goals last season. In addition, senior center Ben Ryan, who missed several games last season due to injury, defenseman Joe Lavin, the lone senior on the Irish blue line, and alternate captain Ryan Guentzel round out the 2009-10 Irish senior class.
Plus, there will be a brighter spotlight on returning sophomore Riley Sheahan, who over the summer was selected in the first round of the NHL draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
Said Jackson of Sheahan, "He did a great job from a defensive perspective last year, but there's a lot more there, from the offensive side of the puck and playmaking ability."
The first two months of the season includes games against North Dakota, Boston College, and last weekend's loss to Boston University at the season-opening Ice Breaker event.
"We're going to get experience under fire," said Jackson. "And that's fine, as long as we finish the season stronger than we start."