CCHA Watch List
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
It might be more appropriate to ask what didn't change over the summer in the CCHA.
Though the landscape of the CCHA will remain as the status quo for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, changes are coming to the entire college hockey map soon — changes that will effectively result in the end of the CCHA conference.
A brief summary of those changes, effective for the 2013-14 season: Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will naturally move to the newly formed Big 10 Conference, and Miami and Western Michigan will help form the also-new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). Meanwhile, the WCHA will absorb Alaska, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Bowling Green and Lake Superior. And Notre Dame made waves at the start of this month by accepting an invitation to move to Hockey East.
For now, though, the CCHA still has two seasons left under its current structure, and the conference welcomes a pair of new head coaches for the 2011-12 campaign. NHL veteran Andy Murray takes the helm at Western Michigan, after Jeff Blashill accepted an assistant coaching position with the Detroit Red Wings after serving just one year as head coach of the Broncos. In addition, former CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos takes over at Michigan State, his alma mater, following the retirement of the legendary Rick Comley, who amassed 778 wins (181 at Michigan State) and won a national championship with the Spartans in 2007.
Said Anastos, "The transition has gone quite smoothly. It's been a long but in many ways quick offseason. The real issue we're dealing with more than anything is getting to know the makeup of the players — their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses as players.
"The most important thing is for us to find an identity as a team."
With Comley departing, Spartans forward Derek Grant — the team's leading scorer in 2010-11 — chose to forego the remaining two years of his NCAA eligibility by signing a three-year entry-level contract with the NHL's Ottawa Senators.
A long-time assistant coach departed the league over the summer as well, as Mel Pearson — who spent the last 23 seasons on the Michigan coaching staff — was named the new head coach at Michigan Tech, his alma mater.
"He's been a great asset to the Michigan hockey program in his 23 years of service," said Michigan coach Red Berenson following Pearson's departure. "We're going to miss him, but part of this whole process is to help people move up and develop into head coaches."
Pearson's departure was far from the only change in Ann Arbor over the summer. The Wolverines lost an incoming goaltender before the academic year even began. Highly-touted netminder John Gibson, taken by the Anaheim Ducks with the 39th overall pick in the NHL draft this summer, had previously committed to Michigan but decided over the summer to play junior hockey in Canada instead. And in recent days, defenseman Jon Merrill, a pre-season CCHA first team selection, was suspended for the first 12 games of the season for violating team rules.
Michigan also lost defenseman Brandon Burlon, who decided to forego his senior season by signing an NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils. Burlon did not play in last year's Frozen Four but provided a strong offensive presence on the Wolverines blueline throughout the season.
Alaska junior defenseman Joe Sova also signed with the Devils during the summer. Sova was the Nanooks' top offensive defenseman a year ago and second on the team in scoring. Meanwhile, Sova's now-former coach, Dallas Ferguson, signed a contract extension with Alaska which will keep him in Fairbanks through 2016.
STORYLINES AND GAMES TO WATCH
1. Goaltending in Oxford
For three years, [Miami]] seniors Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp have formed one of the greatest goaltending rotations in CCHA history, taking turns in net and each allowing an average of approximately two goals per game during their careers. Reichard and Knapp have led the RedHawks to two Frozen Fours — and, as freshmen in 2009, to within seconds of a national championship.
Now, Miami promises — on paper, anyhow — to boast one of the nation's most impenetrable defenses, one that includes seniors Will Weber, Chris Wideman, and of course, Reichard and Knapp between the pipes.
Will Reichard and Knapp continue to alternate starts for the defending CCHA champions? Or will head coach Enrico Blasi allow one of them to be the RedHawks No. 1 starter?
Said Blasi, "They're a huge part of our program. Nothing's changed at this point. As coaches, we can only do what they allow us to do. Right now, they're allowing us to play both of them. They're unbelievable as far as preparation goes. They've come in in great shape again. They're focused, they're ready to go, and we'll just have to make decisions from week to week.
"They make our job difficult and yet they help each other as far as challenging themselves. It's a pretty healthy competition they have going. It takes two special people to do it. They're very competitive, yet they understand the culture and the family feel we have in our locker room. When one wins, the other one is the first to get to them and vice versa."
2. Can Michigan regroup?
The last time we saw the Michigan Wolverines, they had just lost the national championship game in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth — denying standout forwards Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso the opportunity to win a national title during their careers.
With Hagelin and Caporusso — in addition to Scooter Vaughan and Matt Rust — now graduated, Michigan enters the 2011-12 season with a much different composition. But will their consecutive NCAA tournament streak, now at 24, be in jeopardy?
"Scoring will probably be by committee rather than from one or two players," admitted Red Berenson, the 71-year-old head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. "A player like Chris Brown has played on one of our top two lines for the last two years. He's used to playing with good players. He's used to playing against good players. And he's played on special teams ever since he's been here. I think it will be easier for him to prove that he's a front line player.
"He's a year older, a year stronger, and now he'll have the opportunity to live up to some of the expectations. Same thing with Kevin Lynch."
Multiple off-ice changes (e.g. the decommitment of highly touted incoming goaltender John Gibson, the departure of longtime assistant coach Mel Pearson, and the 12-game suspension of the team's top defenseman, Jon Merrill) may affect the reloading process in Ann Arbor, but of course, the Wolverines have the benefit of being coached by the CCHA's all-time wins leader. Berenson has amassed 497 wins behind the bench for Michigan.
A key component of the Wolverines' ability to regroup may ultimately be incoming freshman Zach Hyman, a 2010 fifth-round selection of the Florida Panthers. Playing for the Hamilton Red Wings of the CJHL, Hyman led all junior players in Canada in 2010-11, with 2.37 points per game and was named the RBC Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year.
3. The Frozen Diamond Faceoff
This will be Michigan's second outdoor game in as many years and fourth overall in the modern era. Last season, Michigan hosted Michigan State at Michigan Stadium, as the teams set a world single-game hockey attendance record of nearly 100,000 people.
Said Michigan coach Red Berenson, "I'm a big proponent of outdoor games, particularly when they're in large venues, and it can be good for college hockey. It's a great experience for all the fans and the coaches. This event in Cleveland is going to be surrounded by a winter carnival, so it'll be more than just a hockey game. Hopefully it becomes a real special event."
Ohio State, meanwhile, first played in an outdoor game Feb. 11, 2006, when it faced off against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Osiecki was an assistant coach for the Badgers in the game, which was played in front of 40,890 fans.
"It's such a great, great experience for everybody," said second-year Ohio State head coach Mark Osiecki, who welcomes a class of 12 incoming freshmen to Columbus, Ohio, this fall. "Not only for the players but everyone involved. It continues to help college hockey grow and open eyes to the product that we have."
4. Out of Conference
While the CCHA conference schedule will offer its usual share of notable rivalry matchups, a slate of nonconference games will provide some additional intrigue for many teams around the league.
The annual Great Lakes Invitational always features the CCHA's Michigan and Michigan State, the WCHA's Michigan Tech, and an invited outsider. This year, Boston College will participate in the yearly winter event at Joe Louis Arena, setting up a matchup on Dec. 29 between legendary head coaches Red Berenson for the Wolverines and Jerry York for the Eagles.
BC, picked to finish first in the preseason Hockey East coaches poll, will also face Notre Dame this season, with a Nov. 18 trip to South Bed, where the squads will face off at the brand new $50 million Compton Family Ice Arena. This will be the first of many future matchups between the Irish and the Eagles, as Notre Dame is set to move to Hockey East to begin the 2013-14 season.
Another game to watch will be Miami's visit to Denver on Nov. 26, two days after Thanksgiving. RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi formerly served as an assistant under Denver coach George Gwozdecky, and the two remain close.
5. Will Tynan and Lee suffer sophomore slumps?
Last season for Notre Dame, 47 goals — and 98 points — came from freshman sensations T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee, who helped lead the Irish to the Frozen Four.
The 5-foot-8 Tynan led the Irish in scoring with 54 points, although the 6-foot-3 Lee scored one more goal (24) than his classmate. Lee, only a sophomore now, was named an alternate captain for the 2011-12 season.
Said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, "I think the sophomore jinx is a direct result of kids getting comfortable, not expecting the pressure to be even more severe. Now people know who they are, and they're going to be out there against the other team's top line or defensive players.
"They have to realize that things are going to be even tougher for them."
Jackson also pointed out that he expects increased offensive production from senior Billy Maday and junior Riley Sheahan.
"They have a good supporting cast," said Jackson, of Tynan and Lee. "The guys around them will help take the personal pressure off both of them. They have to try and do the same thing they did last year and improve."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Reilly Smith
Miami looks to replace a departing senior class that included Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele and fellow All-American Carter Camper, who combined for 43 goals and 128 points last season. Often mentioned in the same breath as Miele and Camper last year was fellow CCHA First Team forward Reilly Smith.
Now a junior, the Mimico, Ont., native led the RedHawks in scoring with 28 goals a year ago — including two tallies in Miami's CCHA championship victory over Western Michigan.
Certainly, Smith will be expected to shoulder much of the offensive burden this year as well.
"I think Reilly is going to do his thing," said Miami coach Enrico Blasi, now in his 13th season coaching at his alma mater. "He's a gifted hockey player at our level, and he'll have a lot of opportunities to score goals for us and be in key situations.
"He can do a lot of things with the puck and without the puck. He's got very good speed and great hands in tight. But we're going to try and spread it out. I think we have a deep team."
2. T.J. Tynan
Tynan is the reigning National and CCHA Rookie of the Year, after scoring 23 goals for Notre Dame and leading the Fighting Irish in overall scoring a year ago.
Tynan is certainly a player to watch in the CCHA this season — and as a potential Hobey Baker candidate, will draw attention from across the nation as well.
"T.J. is pretty dynamic," said Irish coach Jeff Jackson. "He has great agility, and he can cut on a dime. He can make great plays with the puck because of his visual skills, and his decision making is usually pretty strong. For a smaller guy, he has got a big heart, and he competes hard.
"And with that skill level, he can get to the front of the net as well as anybody and even outsmart bigger players to gain position on them. He's a competitive kid. He's got a strong desire to be successful, and that certainly bodes well for him in his future."
3. Shawn Hunwick
Before February 25, 2010, Shawn Hunwick had played only 21 minutes of NCAA action. Thrust into the starting role after an injury to then-Michigan netminder Bryan Hogan, Hunwick went 7-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average in the 2010 CCHA playoffs en route to a CCHA tournament championship. It was the first time in league history that a team that finished as low as seventh in the regular season standings won the conference title.
Last season, Hunwick beat out Hogan for the starting role, and after a dominant national semifinal performance against North Dakota (40 saves), the 5-foot-7 netminder almost brought home a national championship as well, coming up just short in a 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
Said Wolverines coach Red Berenson of his senior No. 1 netminder, "In all my years at Michigan, I've never proclaimed to be an expert on goalies. I found that out to be more than true when we brought Hunwick in as our third goalie with no promise to ever play, no expectations to play. And yet three years later, he's playing in the national championship game. And he was the reason he was in that game. He's come a long way. He never played in a game for his first two and a half years. He worked hard in practice, he was a good teammate, and a good third goalie. And that's not easy to be in that role.
"But when he got a chance to play, got a little confidence, and realized that the team was behind him 100 percent, he became a much better goalie."
4. Torey Krug
The Michigan State Spartans return all six starting defensemen from last season, including team captain Torey Krug, the league's reigning Best Offensive Defenseman. Krug was also named to the preseason CCHA first team, after leading the league in goals by a defenseman during conference play.
Krug, just the second sophomore captain in school history and the first in over half a century, scored 11 goals last year, seven of which came on the power play.
"I've been really impressed with Torey, on all fronts," said new first-year head coach Tom Anastos, who previously served for 13 years as commissioner of the CCHA. "He is a passionate leader. His teammates really respond to him. He's very talented, and in the limited amount of time that we've been on the ice, he's been our best player in practice every single day."
5. Scott Greenham
Alaska senior goaltender Scott Greenham has started 77 consecutive games between the pipes for the Nanooks and two years ago, as a sophomore, led Alaska to its first NCAA tournament appearance in program history.
Last year, Greenham was a CCHA Second Team selection after compiling a .921 save percentage and a 2.19 goals-against-average.
"He shows up every day with a good attitude," said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson, now in his fourth year. "He seems to get stronger as every game goes on. He's not content with what our team has done over the last couple of years. We've had some solid teams, but there's more to do.
"We look for him to be a leader on our team."