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October 10, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

2011-12 WCHA Preview, Part I

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

The race to win the regular season championship in the WCHA has become as competitive as ever. Last season, it was North Dakota taking home both the MacNaughton Cup (regular season) and Broadmoor Trophy (playoff) championships. Ultimately, however, it was conference rival Minnesota-Duluth winning the ultimate prize en route to the Bulldogs' first national championship.

This season promises to be no different, despite the tumultuous summer and an impending breakup in two years. Almost every coach in the league has hinted its youth may be an early season factor. But barring a major course shift from the last decade, chances are the WCHA race will come down to the final weekend. Again. And there's a good chance one or two of these teams will battle it out in Tampa in early April at the Frozen Four.

Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves

Head Coach: Dave Shyiak

2010-11 Record: 16-18-3 overall, 12-14-2 WCHA, (T-8th)

Who's Back: So. F Jordan Kwas (4-20—24), So. F Matt Bailey (10-10—20), Jr. F Mitch Bruijsten (9-8—17), Sr. F/D Curtis Leinweber (4-6—10), So. F Brett Cameron (4-8—12), Sr. F Jade Portwood (2-9—11).

2011-12 Outlook: The Seawolves were a young team last year, playing as many as 10 freshmen on a given night. By the end of the season, UAA was a team nobody wanted to play. The Seawolves went on a five-game winning streak toward the end of the year, including a week-long stretch they spent in Minnesota — first sweeping Minnesota State to wrap up the regular season before heading to Minneapolis and sweeping Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. The trip to the Final Five was just the second in school history and gives the young Seawolves some playoff chops heading into 2011-12.

Losing Tommy Grant will be a big blow for UAA's offense, which will need sophomores Jordan Kwas and Matt Bailey to help pick up the slack. Kwas was an assist machine last year, dishing out 20 helpers as a freshman. Bailey potted 10 goals and 10 assists. Their games complement each other well, and if UAA can get junior Mitch Bruijsten to make a similar point jump this season as he did from his freshman to his sophomore campaigns (five points in 2009-10 to 17 points a year ago), the Seawolves should have adequate offense. Chris Kamal, who won all five games during UAA's winning streak at the end of the year is back with Rob Gunderson. Both are just sophomores.

"It's going to take some time for us to find ourselves," Shyiak said. "Our five seniors last year played a lot of the hard minutes for us, so it may take some time for the young guys to see who's going to step up and fill those roles. Along the way, our job is to try and get some points through the ups and downs. A good way for us to do that will be with our two goaltenders who did a good job for us, especially in the second half."

Prediction: With just three seniors on the roster this season, the Seawolves will need leadership and productivity from their massive junior class. If Kamal and Gunderson can provide UAA with consistent goaltending, the Seawolves could find themselves in the home-ice race in the WCHA — something the program has never accomplished.

Bemidji State Beavers

Head Coach: Tom Serratore

2010-11 Record: 15-18-5 overall, 8-15-5, (10th)

Who's Back: Jr. F Jordan George (17-19—36), Sr. D Brad Hunt (3-18—21), Sr. F Shea Walters (1-13—14), Sr. F Jamie MacQueen (7-4—11), Sr. G Dan Bakala (14-13-4, 2.47, .919)

2011-12 Outlook: It wasn't a great first year for Bemidji State in the WCHA, especially when you consider their conference record against everyone other than Nebraska-Omaha was just 5-15-4. Indeed it was the mastery of their fellow league newcomer which was the storyline for the Beavers in 2010-11, including a sweep of the red Mavericks in Omaha to open the playoffs, which earned Bemidji a trip to the Final Five in their maiden WCHA voyage.

Year two will provide BSU with a new set of challenges after the Beavers lost two of their top three scorers in Matt Read and Ian Lowe. But that's not to say the cupboard is bare. Although Read led the Beavers in goals (22) and headlines (he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers following the season and made the Flyers out of camp), it was actually George who led the team in scoring. On the blue line, Hunt is considered one of the top defensemen in the league and in goal, BSU returns Bakala, who is as seasoned a netminder as their is in the league.

If you're looking for a breakout candidate, look no further than sophomore forward Radoslav Illo. A goal scorer in the USHL and the only NHL drafted player on the Beavers' roster, Illo scored just four goals and six points last season. At 6-feet and 190 pounds, Illo definitely has the size to go along with his pedigree. Now, the Beavers just need him to put it all together.

"Eight of our first 10 games are on the road, so a lot is going to be said about our team in that first month," Serratore said. "It's going to be interesting to see who picks up the slack in scoring. We lost Matt Read and Ian Lowe, both of those guys were instrumental in our offense last year. Hopefully we can manufacture some offense and get some scoring by committee."

Prediction: Is there enough offense? Bakala and Hunt should help lock down the back-end and BSU's location and building make it a difficult trip for most teams in the league. Whether that makes the Beavers a home-ice contender or a home-ice spoiler remains to be seen. For now, count on the latter.

Colorado College Tigers

Head Coach: Scott Owens

2010-11 Record: 23-19-3 overall, 13-13-2 WCHA, (6th)

Who's Back: So. F Jaden Schwartz (17-30—47), Jr. F Rylan Schwartz (10-28—38), Sr. D Gabe Guentzel (6-22—28), Sr. F Nick Dineen (13-11—24), Jr. F William Rapuzzi (12-10—22), Jr. G Joe Howe (18-15-2, 2.94, .903).

2011-12 Outlook: Colorado College has been remarkably consistent over the last two seasons. Their conference record over that span is almost identical (one more win, one less tie in 2010-11) and they've finished sixth both years. CC played a bunch of underclassmen last season, and it could pay huge dividends in 2011-12, as the Tigers are considered a league favorite by many. Sophomore Jaden Schwartz is perhaps the best player in the league, finishing among the league leaders in points last season despite missing more than a dozen games because of injury. Brother Rylan is also back, and both players could score 50 points this season. Gabe Guentzel is a top-end defenseman and the Tigers have depth both up front and on the blue line.

Forwards Archie Skalbeck and Dakota Eveland may not be household names yet, but both are primed for breakout seasons in 2011-12. Skalbeck had nine goals and 18 points and Eveland had 14 assists as freshmen last season. Adding these two to the likes of the Schwartz brothers, Nick Dineen and William Rapuzzi will make CC even more dangerous come March.

"This year, we are not a real, real young team," Owens said. "We have a nice crew of six seniors and seven juniors which has already proven to be a little bit of a luxury in terms of putting systems in and some of the leadership pieces. I think we're blessed with really good leadership this year with Nick Dineen and Gabe Guentzel leading the way for us. Those two are natural leaders."

Prediction: The main question for CC is in goal, where the junior Howe has played a ton of minutes but digressed slightly as a sophomore. The Tigers will be good even if Howe plays at the same level as last season. If he improves, there is no reason why CC shouldn't contend for a MacNaughton Cup, a Broadmoor Trophy and a national championship this season.

Denver Pioneers

Head Coach: George Gwozdecky

2010-11 Record: 25-12-5 overall, 17-8-3 WCHA, (2nd)

Who's Back: Jr. F Drew Shore (23-23—46), So. F Jason Zucker (23-22—45), So. D David Makowski (6-24—30), Sr. F Luke Salazar (17-11—28), So. F Beau Bennett (9-16—25), Sr. D John Lee (3-9—12), Jr. G Adam Murray (6-3-0, 3.46, .879).

2011-12 Outlook: As if losing Anthony Maiani and Kyle Ostrow to graduation and Matt Donovan early to the NHL wasn't enough, the Pioneers suffered another setback during the offseason when DU learned it would be without the services of sophomore goaltender Sam Brittain indefinitely due to a knee injury.

That's not to say things look bad in the Mile High City — quite the contrary in fact. Perhaps no team in the league possesses as much depth up front, including the junior Drew Shore and the sophomore Jason Zucker. Those two combined for over 90 points last season and the sky is the limit in 2010-11. Salazar, Bennett and sophomore Nick Shore can also fill the net, giving Denver two dangerous and experienced lines. On the blue line, David Makowski doesn't possess the name value of a Justin Schultz or a Ben Blood, but could easily end up in the mix for a spot on the WCHA First Team by year's end.

Whether or not the Pioneers challenge for supremacy in March and April could come down to who's in net. It's possible Brittain will be back by year's end, but if he does return, how long will it take for him to round into form? In the meantime, can Murray finally show the ability that made him one of the highest recruited goaltenders in the country a couple of years ago? In 19 games over two seasons, Murray has a goals against closer to 4 than to 3 and a save percentage in the 87 percent range. That won't get it done anywhere, let alone the ultra-competitive WCHA.

"To a man, coaches in this league are saying how young their teams are, and we're in the same boat," Gwozdecky said. "If you have the luxury of having a big senior class, you have an advantage. If you have a fifth-year senior, that's even more of an advantage. I look at what we have here, Dustin Jackson and John Ryder both return for their fifth year. With their leadership and experience, it certainly gives our locker room an advantage when you consider the youth and majority we may have otherwise."

Prediction: Denver will score and they have talent at defense. You know they're going to be well coached. The only real question surrounding the Pioneers is in goal. Had Brittain not gotten injured, DU would probably be one of the favorites to win the national championship. Regardless, Denver will be at or near the top of the league. They'll probably be at the Final Five in St. Paul. They'll likely be an NCAA Tournament team, and as Minnesota-Duluth proved last season, anything can happen when you reach the field of 16.

Michigan Tech Huskies

Head Coach: Mel Pearson

2010-11 Record: 4-30-4 overall, 2-24-2 WCHA, (12th)

Who's Back: So. F Milos Gordic (15-6—21), So. F Ryan Furne (12-9—21), So. F Jacob Johnstone (4-15—19), Jr. D Steven Seigo (4-13—17), Sr. F Brett Olson (4-6—10), So. D Dan Sova (0-9—9), Jr. G Kevin Genoe (3-17-2, 4.03, .883).

2011-12 Outlook: Having hit rock bottom last season, the Huskies decided a change was needed behind the bench, letting go of Jamie Russell and bringing in former Michigan assistant and Michigan Tech grad Mel Pearson. For more than two decades, Pearson has been the right hand man for Michigan legend Red Berenson, so it's probably fair to say Pearson is ready for this opportunity. And, although the Huskies were one of the worst teams in Division I last season, the cupboard isn't completely bare. Sophomore forwards Milos Gordic and Ryan Furne both scored double digit goals as freshmen last season and the fellow sophomore Jacob Johnstone dished out 15 assists. Brett Olson can be an explosive scorer but he played in just 18 games a year ago because of injuries. On the back end, Steven Seigo is an offensive-minded defenseman who could approach 25 points this season. Dan Sova, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, is a towering force in the defensive end. New goaltending coach Steve Shields would like to find a veteran to lean on, but has said he's willing to go with a rotation. Kevin Genoe, a junior, saw more playing time last season, but senior Josh Robinson saw action in 19 games. Neither has shown an ability yet to carry a team.

It'll be a family affair for the Huskies this season as the Tech roster boasts a trio of Pietilas. The one with the biggest upside is freshman forward Blake, who scored 14 goals and 23 points for the National Development Team in Ann Arbor last season. He is the first USNTDP player to play at Tech in a decade. His brother Chad, a junior, is a transfer from Northern Michigan and his cousin Aaron, also a junior, scored three goals for MTU last season. Chad played a handful of games for the Wildcats last season, all at the beginning of the season, so he won't be eligible to play games until the Great Lakes Invitational Dec. 29 and 30.

"It's going to take us some time," Pearson said. "My goal for this season is to be competitive every night. To do that, we're going to need every player. We're not a team loaded with superstars, but we do have a good core of hard working players that will need to play every night for us to have success."

Prediction: Pearson will bring a more aggressive style of play to Houghton, which could actually help them at the beginning of the season. Eight of Tech's first 10 games are at home, and if the Huskies can get off to a solid start, they could challenge for ninth or 10th in the WCHA. In all likelihood though, it'll probably be another season at the bottom before Tech makes some noise — which could happen as soon as 2012-13.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Head Coach: Don Lucia

2010-11 Record: 16-14-6 overall, 13-10-5 WCHA, (5th)

Who's Back: So. F Erik Haula (6-18—24), Sr. F Jake Hansen (11-9—20), So. F Nick Bjugstad (8-12—20), So. F Nate Condon (8-9—17), So. F Zach Budish (2-4—6), So. D Mark Alt (2-8—10), Sr. G Kent Patterson (14-9-6, 2.54, .919).

2011-12 Outlook: Unlike last season, where Minnesota was a veteran team looking to finally realize it's potential, this year's version of the Gophers is loaded with youth. Gone are Mike Hoeffel, Jay Barriball and Jacob Cepis to carry the scoring load. Gone are Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs and Aaron Ness to eat minutes on the blue line. Gone is Alex Kangas, who peaked as a freshman but could never regain that form.

Minnesota's returning scorer from last season? Sophomore Erik Haula, who scored just six goals among his 24 points. As a team, the Gophers finished in the bottom half of the league in goal scoring and combined special teams, two things that must change if Minnesota is going to get back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. Expect Nick Bjugstad and fellow sophomore Zach Budish, returning from another serious knee injury, to have big jumps in points. Kent Patterson should be fine in goal, but the towering Alt will need help from junior Seth Helgeson and sophomore Nate Schmidt on the blue line if Minnesota hopes to hang onto home ice.

Meanwhile, Patterson will see a vast majority of the minutes in goal. The All-WCHA second teamer from last season finished among the top six in the league in both save percentage and goals against. With Kangas out of the picture and Joel Vienneau, the future of the position still a year away, there isn't much Lucia can count on behind Patterson. Jake Kremer has been a third string guy for three years while sophomore Michael Shiborowski is already on his second WCHA team. One will need to step up at some point or Patterson is in danger of wearing out.

"It does start in goal with Kent Patterson back as an all-league goaltender," Lucia said. "He's looked sharp in practice so far, and we all know how important that position is. We have a lot of young defensemen, but they got a lot of playing time last year and I think some of them are ready to take the next step."

Prediction: It seems like forever since the last time we saw Minnesota in an NCAA Tournament — a shocking reminder that Lucia needs to win this year or else it's probably his job. As always, the Gophers have a rock solid recruiting class coming in, but Lucia will need freshmen Seth Ambroz and Kyle Rau to put the puck in the net from day one. If they can't, Minnesota will struggle again to score goals and Patterson will need to stand on his head each and every night to keep the Gophers in it. Look for the kids to answer the bell, and for Minnesota to compete for — and eventually win — a home ice spot.
 

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