WCHA Watch List for 2011-12
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
Well, at least nothing important happened over the summer. Right?
The WCHA’s renovations made the past seven months one of the busiest offseasons college hockey has ever had, and only last week did the WCHA get its ninth team for the 2013-14 season.
Now, at least for awhile, attention can finally be put toward the ice, where things are, for now, status quo.
Games are underway, the conference boasts the defending national champion — whose coach nearly left in the offseason, too. Despite the busy break, the conference is still one of the best in the NCAA.
Here’s what took place over the summer and what to look for in 2011-12, the second-to-last season before the WCHA gets yet another shake up.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
This isn’t news to anyone, but it’s worth recapping one of the biggest landscape changes college hockey will ever endure — even though it’s not happening this year. Just wonder, what would have happened if Penn State hadn’t decided to start a hockey program?
Starting in the 2013-14 season, WCHA schools St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth and CCHA schools Western Michigan and Miami will band together to create the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Western Michigan and St. Cloud State recently committed to the conference, which came to life about four months after an announcement saying Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State will form a six-team Big Ten Conference in 2013-14.
Scrambling to pick up the pieces, remaining WCHA teams Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage invited the leftover CCHA schools to join. Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Alaska accepted. Western Michigan declined and later joined the NCHC and, after asking for an extension, Bowling Green accepted the invite last week, giving the WCHA nine teams for the 2013-14 season … for now.
The 2013-14 realignment is far from complete.
Guentzel in, Hill out
Mike Guentzel didn’t stay away from the University of Minnesota program long. Guentzel, who graduated from Minnesota in 1987 and was a Gophers assistant from 1994-2008, will rejoin head coach Don Lucia this season and replace John Hill, who, some believe, was forced out, similarly to the way Guentzel left in 2008.
Longtime Michigan assistant coach Mel Pearson returns to his alma mater to become Michigan Tech’s 21st head coach in its history. Pearson originally turned down the job offer but reconsidered. He was on Michigan’s staff as an assistant and associate head coach for 23 seasons, helping the Wolverines to 11 CCHA regular season titles and a record 21 straight NCAA tournament appearances (1991-2011).
Just as it has the last few seasons, early departures were a big part of the WCHA’s offseason. The league lost Justin Faulk (UMD, signed with Carolina), Mike Connolly (UMD, San Jose), Matt Donovan (DU, New York Islanders), Aaron Ness (UM, New York Islanders), Jake Gardiner (UW, Toronto), Oliver Laurisden (SCSU, Philadelphia), Brett Hextall (UND, Phoenix), Jordy Murray (UW, Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland), Jason Gregoire (UND, Winnipeg) and Craig Smith (UW, Nashville).
5 GAMES/THINGS TO WATCH
Not that either team is about to drop gloves over their former and current assistant coach, but it’s worth noting former Nebraska-Omaha assistant coach Mike Guentzel returns to Omaha as an assistant with the Gophers on Feb. 24-25.
Bulldogs, Huskies rematch
St. Cloud State hosts Minnesota-Duluth in both teams’ final regular season series of the year on March 2-3 at the National Hockey Center, which will be the first time the teams meet since Mike Connolly scored at 1:13 in the third overtime of Game 2 of their epic WCHA first-round playoff series last season.
The loss ended the Huskies’ season. The Bulldogs, of course, went on to win the national title.
Fighting Sioux, Pioneers rematch
How good was this matchup last season? They split early in the year and finished first and second, respectively, in the race for the MacNaughton Cup. They met later in the WCHA final and Matt Frattin scored a double-overtime winner to give the Sioux their second straight Broadmoor Trophy.
The fourth meeting wasn’t nearly as exciting as anticipated. North Dakota ended Denver’s season with a 6-1 drubbing in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final to reach the Frozen Four. The two squads meet again Feb. 24-25 in Denver.
Denver owned the league’s third-best offense last season but also benefited from having freshman Sam Brittain in net. Brittain finished his rookie season with a 19-9-5 record, 2.28 goals against average and .921 save percentage.
Brittain, however, had surgery to repair his ACL and meniscus in his left knee in June — which he believed he injured in the Broadmoor Trophy game against North Dakota — and will be out for at least the first half of the season.
Junior Adam Murray will be the starter (3.46 GAA, .879 save percentage last season) in his absence. Brittain’s injury and the uncertain timetable for his return — as well as the lingering question of how he will perform coming off the injury — will definitely be worth monitoring.
Nebraska-Omaha captain and top returning scorer Alex Hudson was suspended indefinitely from the Mavericks before the team's exhibition game against British Columbia for an unspecified training violation. He missed both nonconference games over the weekend as well.
The senior forward scored 13 goals and had 31 points last season, and his absence — if lengthy — is bad news to a team already underclassmen-heavy.
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
... who are not named Schwartz, Zucker, Connolly, Schultz or Blood.
Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota (So., F) — He had some setbacks in his rookie season (including mono) but the power forward (6-foot-5, 211 pounds) scored five goals and added three assists in his final six games of the season.
Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota (Fr., F) — The hands-down favorite for WCHA Rookie of the Year, Grimaldi, spent the past two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Despite his size (5-foot-6, 165 pounds), Grimaldi has a unique scoring ability. Besides, the last time the Fighting Sioux had a 5-foot-6 player on its roster he turned out to be a Hobey Baker Award winner (Ryan Duncan in 2006-07) in his second season.
J.T. Brown, Minnesota-Duluth (So., F) — His 16 goals last season were the most a Bulldogs freshman tallied since Brett Hull scored 32 in 1984-85. And he won the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award after a phenomenal stretch run. And with no more Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly on the roster, Brown will be needed to complement Jack Connolly.
Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College (Sr., D) — The Tigers have players in place to make a top-three push in the conference this season, and no defensive player’s role will be as important as Guentzel’s.
David Makowski, Denver (So., D)—His 24 assists last season ranked second among freshmen defensemen and trailed only Justin Faulk’s 25. Makowski has a good chance to lead the league in that category this season.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
Colorado College gets the early nudge over Denver because of Sam Brittain’s injury, but those top three teams seem pretty interchangeable. All three teams can score and all three bring back key players from last year — although North Dakota was hit a little harder with departures. The middle tier seems harder to figure out. Minnesota’s goaltending should be stable with Kent Patterson, but it’s always hard to predict how well its group of talented freshmen will play together with an already young team. It seems to be the team that could move up or down the most.
1. Colorado College
3. North Dakota
8. St. Cloud State
10. Bemidji State
11. Minnesota State
12. Michigan Tech