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October 10, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Preview, Part II

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

Part II of this year's look inside the WCHA.

Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

Head Coach: Scott Sandelin

2010-11 Record: 26-10-6 overall, 15-8-5 WCHA, (4th)

Who's Back: Sr. F Jack Connolly (18-41—59), So. F J.T. Brown (16-21—37), Sr. F Travis Oleksuk (14-19—33), Jr. F Mike Seidel (8-6—14), Sr. D Brady Lamb (1-9—10), Sr. G Kenny Reiter (16-7-5, 2.30, .914).

2011-12 Outlook: What a year for the Bulldogs. The team opens its new arena last Dec. 30, sweeps its first round playoff series to reach the Final Five, makes the NCAA Tournament, advances to the Frozen Four and wins the whole thing.

While UMD will hang a banner this season and add some hardware to the trophy case, repeating as champion will be a very difficult task. They lost their top goal scorer from a year ago in Mike Connolly to early departure, second leading scorer Justin Fontaine to graduation and Justin Faulk — probably the team's best defenseman — who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Also gone are solid role players Mike Montgomery and Kyle Schmidt, the hero of the national championship game.

But all is not lost along the North Shore. Leading scorer Jack Connolly is back for his senior season. His 59 points was among the best in the country. Joining him on the top line will be sophomore J.T. Brown, who was the Frozen Four's most outstanding player and senior center Travis Oleksuk, who quietly scored 33 points a year ago. Oleksuk and Brown played together for much of last season, so they have some chemistry. Adding Connolly to the mix shouldn't be too much of a challenge.

Where UMD might run into problems is on the back end. While Reiter proved in the playoffs that he can carry the load when counted on, the Bulldogs enter the season without a single major difference maker on the blue line. Faulk was an emerging superstar last season and Montgomery was steady and solid. Brady Lamb won't score lots of points, but he's probably the best of the bunch and has plenty of experience. Wade Bergman and Drew Olson can help eat minutes and freshman Chris Casto has played in plenty of big games at the high school level.

"We're going to be a little bit of a work in progress," Sandelin said. "Last year, we knew had that big line with Jack (Connolly), Mike Connolly and Fontaine going into the year. Right now, we really don't have that. We maybe have two-thirds of a top line and still trying to find what will work. But we're excited. We really like this group."

Prediction: The Bulldogs lost a lot from last season but still possess one of college hockey's best players (Connolly) and of the WCHA's emerging superstars (Brown). If Oleksuk can make another jump this season and reach 40 points and the Bulldogs can get a consistent, playoff-like effort from Reiter in goal, it could help shore up any potential weaknesses on the blue line. UMD should be in both the home ice and NCAA tournament mix.

Minnesota State Mavericks

Head Coach: Troy Jutting

2010-11 Record: 14-18-6 overall, 8-16-4 WCHA, (11th)

Who's Back: Sr. F Michael Dorr (12-14-26), Jr. F Eriah Hayes (11-11—22), So. F Chase Grant (8-12—20), Jr. F Eli Zuck (5-13—18), Sr. F Justin Jokinen (9-8—17), Jr. D Tyler Elbrecht (1-7—8), Jr. G Phil Cook (10-13-4, 3.01, .903).

2011-12 Outlook: MSU finished 11th last season, losing 16 games in conference play. Half those losses, however, were by one goal. The Mavericks trailed DU in their first round playoff matchup for fewer than three minutes total, yet were swept at Magness Arena.

So, are the Mavericks close? Or was last year just a sign of more things to come?

Four of Minnesota State's top seven scorers are gone, including defensemen Kurt Davis and Ben Youds — two of the league's most under appreciated players the last couple of seasons. Davis and Youds will be tough to replace, but Rylan Galiardi and Andy Sackrison, who both scored 19 points are quite replaceable. Dorr, a former Gopher, and Hayes both improved last season from their first go-rounds in the Key City and Grant posted 20 points and played big minutes as a freshman a year ago. MSU can surprise some people if they get more from guys like Justin Jokinen, who started hot last year and faded down the stretch, and Mike Louwerse, a senior who has been a disappointment the last two years.

Sophomores Corey Leivermann and Zach Lehrke have scored at every level they've ever played at and will see more minutes this season. Freshman Max Gaede is the power forward the Mavs were sorely missing a year ago. And keep your eye on Matt Leitner, a freshman back with the team after dealing with off-ice issues last season. He scored 25 goals and 66 points in 54 games with Fargo of the USHL two years ago.

MSU will need to find guys to step into roles on the back end. Without Davis and Youds — both superior puck movers, Jutting will need to find offensive-minded defensemen who can make the initial breakout pass. Junior Evan Mosey has shown glimpses over his two years, but has been inconsistent. Freshman Zach Palmquist could also help fill that role. Elbrecht should fill the skates of the departed Channing Boe nicely. Phil Cook and Austin Lee give MSU a pair of experienced goaltenders. Now one of them needs to show he can carry the mail.

"Losing Ben Youds, Kurt Davis and Channing Boe — guys that played a ton of games and a ton of minutes for us over their careers, that's the big question mark for us," Jutting said. "We'll be young back there and inexperienced, so it may take a little time and we'll have to learn a little bit on the go with those kids."

Prediction: It's all about the youngsters for Minnesota State. There is a lot of talent in the freshman and sophomore classes, but can they play a year or two older than they actually are? If they do that and Jutting can find someone on the blueline to eat quality minutes, MSU could challenge for the final home ice spot. If not, the Mavericks will be among the bottom five all season long.

Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks

Head Coach: Dean Blais

2010-11 Record: 21-16-6 overall, 17-9-2 WCHA, (3rd)

Who's Back: Sr. F Alex Hudson (13-18—31), Jr. F Terry Broadhurst (11-19—30), So. F Matt White (14-11—25), So. F Ryan Walters (11-12—23), So. F Brock Montpetit (11-10—21), Jr. D Bryce Aneloski (2-17—19), Sr. G John Faulkner (20-15-2, 2.56, .908).

2011-12 Outlook: UNO's first season in the WCHA can only be qualified as a success. Predicted by many to be a bottom half team in Blais' first season back in the WCHA, the Mavericks rolled through everyone not named Bemidji State en route to a third-place finish and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Now entering his third season as head coach in Omaha, much of Blais' team is his own recruits, including a very talented sophomore class that will be counted on to carry his team this season. UNO will lose plenty of talent up front in the form of Joey Martin, Matt Ambroz and Rich Purslow, the Mavs top three scorers from a year ago, and Eric Olimb, perhaps their best defenseman. But Omaha will return two impact forwards in Alex Hudson and Terry Broadhurst — two of the more underrated players in the entire league. Those two combined for over 60 points last season. Hudson will be out initially with a team-issued suspension, so UNO must find a way to survive without him, at least early on. Sophomores White, Walters and Montpetit will be counted on to become 25-30 point guys, which should replace the graduating forwards quite nicely. On the blue line, UNO brings back three guys who played in at least 37 games a year ago, including the Ottawa Senators draft pick Bryce Aneloski.

Nobody in the WCHA played more minutes in goal last season than John Faulkner, who was just 19 seconds short of playing in 2,200 minutes. His goals against of 2.56 and save percentage of .908 were good enough for All-WCHA third team honors. Blais said he hopes to find another goalie to help take some of the load off Faulkner this season, but that the junior must also find a way to be more consistent.

"The big question is going to be leadership," Blais said. "We've been lucky the last couple years with seven seniors and seven juniors so we've been a bit of an older team. This year, we're looking for those seniors to help lead the 10 freshmen we'll have. Up front, we lost three guys who can score, but we bring back five or six guys coming off great years last year."

Prediction: There is a lot of young talent at UNO and perhaps no team in the WCHA will be better coached. If White, Walters and Montpetit can take the next step, Faulkner continues to be a horse and Hudson doesn't miss too much time, there is no reason why the Mavericks can't be in the MacNaughton Cup mix come early March.

North Dakota Fighting Sioux

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol

2010-11 Record: 32-9-3 overall, 21-6-1 WCHA, (1st)

Who's Back: Jr. F Corban Knight (14-30—44), Jr. F Danny Kristo (8-20—28), So. F Brock Nelson (8-13—21), Sr. F Mario Lamoureux (3-14—17), So. D Derek Forbort (0-15—15), Sr. D Ben Blood (2-10—12), Jr. G Aaron Dell (30-7-2, 1.79 .924).

2011-12 Outlook: Unlike last season, when the Fighting Sioux had a slew of returning talent, UND returns just one of its top seven scorers from last season in Corban Knight. Gone are Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and Chay Genoway to graduation. Jason Gregoire and Brett Hextall signed professional contracts. That means Knight, along with the junior Danny Kristo and the sophomore Nelson will be counted on to help carry the scoring load, especially early in the season while UND's young guns get their feet wet. It's expected that freshman phenom Rocco Grimaldi — widely regarded as the top newcomer in the WCHA — will score plenty this season. To help the cause up front and perhaps blunt the effect of any learning curve, the Fighting Sioux return a bunch of top flight defensemen and perhaps the league's best goalie combination. Ben Blood and Derek Forbort are two of the top four or five defensemen in the entire league while Dillon Simpson and Andrew MacWilliam gained a ton of experience last season. Freshman Nick Mattson is a Chicago Blackhawks draft pick and will also play a pivotal role along UND's backline.

In goal, Dell put together a historically good season, holding opponents to under two goals per game while saving over 92 percent of shots faced. What's more impressive, is he began the year as the back-up to another former All-WCHA goalie, Brad Eidsness. When Eidsness struggled early on, Hakstol inserted Dell into the lineup and he never looked back. Hakstol said Eidsness will have a chance to get back into the rotation this season, which if he can, will make UND even more dangerous at the end of the season.

"With 10 freshmen coming in, we're going to have significant turnover from last year's leadership group," Hakstol said. "We're really starting with this new group at ground level and trying to build a baseline very quickly as we get into some really tough competition right away early in our schedule. But the cupboard's not bare for us."

Prediction: The Fighting Sioux may struggle early while their kids get used to playing at this level. And, until last season, early season difficulties were sort of the program's M.O. But once guys like Grimaldi and Mattson get going along with the amount of talent and depth always associated with North Dakota hockey, the Sioux will most definitely be a player by season's end. This group will be a tough out in any playoff scenario.

St. Cloud State Huskies

Head Coach: Bob Motzko

2010-11 Record: 15-18-5 overall, 11-13-4 WCHA, (T-8th)

Who's Back: Sr. F Drew LeBlanc (13-26—39), So. F Cam Reid (8-21—29), Sr. F Jared Festler (12-12—24), So. D Nick Jensen (5-18—23), Jr. F David Eddy (9-8—17), Jr. F Ben Hanowski (13-7—20), Jr. G Mike Lee (12-14-4, 2.75, .910).

2011-12 Outlook: To say the Huskies disappointed last season would be a massive understatement. A top-half team by all accounts heading into the year, SCSU struggled mightily in the first half en route to an 8th-place finish in league play. All in all, it wasn't a great year for anyone in red and black. Senior Garrett Roe posted a career low in points. Jared Festler failed to improve upon his 24-point sophomore season. David Eddy ran into trouble off the ice and failed to use a stellar run in the playoffs of his freshman year to kickstart his sophomore season. Mike Lee, perhaps the most talented goalie in the league, regressed slightly, with his save percentage dropping and his goals against increasing.

The good news is, many of SCSU's parts are back this season as eight of the Huskies top 10 scorers and Lee return to bolster the attack. Because expectations were so high last year and the results lacked on the ice, Motzko says this year's team is a motivated one. And with expectations lower, St. Cloud State could be primed for a jump.

Names like Festler, Eddy, Hanowski and Lee are well known throughout the league. LeBlanc established himself as a legitimate WCHA scorer last season and the emergence of Reid and Jensen make SCSU surprisingly deep with top-end talent.

"Obviously, last year was not a good year for the Huskies," Motzko said. "We had a terrible first half and we fell from expectations. I think we sat back, though, and we were very proud of how our guys got it back together. We were awful strong there in the second half and that's where we have to build from right now."

Prediction: St. Cloud desperately needs LeBlanc to fill Roe's shoes as a 40-50 point scorer and they need to see continued development from their explosive junior class. Eddy scored 17 points in just 18 games, but they need him to stay on the ice. Lee is supremely gifted, and without Dan Dunn looking over his shoulder, perhaps he will shine this season. If he does, the Huskies could challenge for home-ice.

Wisconsin Badgers

Head Coach: Mike Eaves

2010-11 Record: 21-16-4 overall, 12-13-3 WCHA, (7th)

Who's Back: Jr. D Justin Schultz (18-29—47), So. F Mark Zengerle (5-31—36), So. F Michael Mersch (8-11—19), So. F Tyler Barnes (5-12—17), Jr. F Derek Lee (3-14—17), Jr. D John Ramage (1-10—11), So. D Frankie Simonelli (2-9—11).

2010-11 Outlook: Graduation and early departures over the last two years have devastated Wisconsin's teams and given this season's group a very young flavor. Of the 26 guys listed on the Badger roster, there is just one senior (defenseman Eric Springer) and five juniors. An astounding 20 underclassmen make up the rest, and for the first time in school history, the Badgers don't have a single minute of returning experience in goal.

After a massive exodus last offseason, UW lost Craig Smith, Jake Gardiner and Jordy Murray to early departure signings this year. Without a doubt, those players would help them this season. Back is perhaps the best defenseman in the league in Schultz, whose 18 goals led all league blueliners last season. After that, Wisconsin lacks a proven goal scorer. Zengerle put up 36 points as a freshman, but 31 of those were assists. To compete for home ice, the Badgers will need a massive improvement from Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes in the goals department and immediate contributions from freshmen Joe LaBate and Brad Navin.

In goal, Wisconsin is expected to lean on Joel Rumpel, a highly thought of freshman from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, who posted a 2.53 goals against and stopped 91 percent of shots in the British Columbia Hockey League last season. Rumpel will turn 21 around the time of the Final Five, so he's by no means inexperienced. How quickly he adapts to the WCHA will likely go a long ways toward where UW ends up in the standings.

"I think the word that will describe our team this year is youthful," Eaves said. "It's going to be a matter of patience for us. I'm hoping we get a little better every day, every week and continue to grow as the season goes along."

Prediction: Early signings have killed Wisconsin more than any other team in the WCHA. You can place both blame and praise on Eaves for that. While he needs to do a better job of finding "four-year players" to supplement his blue chippers, there is no denying Eaves' ability to churn out top-end, NHL-ready talent. But with 20 underclassmen and not a second of Division I experience in net, if Wisconsin gets home ice or reaches the Final Five this season, it would probably be Eaves best job yet.
 

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