CCHA: What to Watch, 2012-13
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The number “42” represents the only jersey number to have ever been retired by Major League Baseball (Jackie Robinson). And it’s also the alleged “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – even if no one’s quite sure what the question is. As it turns out, the number “42” is meaningful to the CCHA as well, with the league set to begin its 42nd and final season before its teams disperse to various conferences around the country next fall – some to the Big Ten, others to the WCHA, still others to the NCHC. And even one to Hockey East.
For now, though, season No. 42 for the CCHA is set to begin, with one of its teams (Ferris State) coming off a national championship game appearance six months ago, another (Michigan) featuring the highest selected college hockey player at the NHL Draft in June (Jacob Trouba), and yet another team (Notre Dame) featuring arguably the most prolific scoring duo (T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee) in the country. So with that context, here are just a few of the many storylines and players to watch in the CCHA’s final season.
1. Dog Days
Ferris State enters the 2012-13 season just six months removed from a dramatic postseason that saw the Bulldogs plow through Denver, Cornell and Union en route to a national championship game showdown with Boston College. Head coach Bob Daniels' crew came up short in the title game but nevertheless enters this season with much more attention than what the Bulldogs have grown accustomed to in Big Rapids.
Notably absent from the current roster, however, are 20-goal scorer Jordie Johnston, All-American goaltender Taylor Nelson, and All-American defenseman Chad Billins – key cogs in the Bulldogs' success a season ago.
But after the championship game in Tampa ended, Johnston made a point to emphasis that the Bulldogs' surprise run to the Frozen Four would ultimately prove to be no anomaly.
Naming junior Kyle Bonis, who scored 19 goals himself a year ago, and goaltender C.J. Motte, who posted a goals-against average of 1.98 in 12 games last season, Johnston predicted, "I think those kids in that locker room are going to make this a special program the next few years."
“Up front, it’s going to be the strength of our team, at least on paper,” said Daniels this week, while also acknowledging the challenge of replacing his graduated defensemen and goaltender. “We’re two lines or three lines deep of veteran forwards.”
Of great interest to Bulldog fans will be whether C.J. Motte can follow the All-American goaltending tradition established not only by Nelson but by Pat Nagle behind him.
It helps, of course, that Daniels returns behind the bench for Ferris State. Daniels is the winningest coach in program history and last season was named the Spencer Penrose Award recipient as the nation's Division I Coach of the Year.
Said Daniels, ”We felt that we could have a very good season, but we didn’t anticipate the type of year we had either. What you can take from it is, you never really know when your time is going to come. And I feel the same about this year.”
2. Will Michigan's incoming freshmen fulfill expectations?
Of all the rookie classes in the CCHA, Michigan's will garner much of the early season attention – and not just because of the player selected No. 9 overall by the Winnipeg Jets in June. The attention starts between the pipes, a space vacated by now-graduated netminder Shawn Hunwick, one of the most improbable success stories in college hockey history. Hunwick, most CCHA fans will recall, progressed from an unheralded, unknown walk-on in Ann Arbor to a First-Team All-American by the end of his fifth and final year. Hunwick, who also led Michigan to the national championship game two years ago, finished his career as the Wolverines' all-time leader in goals-against average.
Now, the Wolverines bring in a pair of rookie netminders. Jared Rutledge, a product of the nearby NTDP, figures to be the presumptive starter but will certainly be challenged by fellow rookie Steve Racine.
“We lost all our captains,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We have new leadership, that will be a question, and we have new goalies, and that will be a question. Rutledge – we recruited Rutledge to be our starter, and I expect him to be our starter. But he’s had some adjustments with his contacts in the early going, so he’s not ready to take shots yet.”
Of course, beyond the goaltending situation, Michigan welcomes a full class of highly touted recruits — presumably a big reason why the media picked the Wolverines to finish in first place. Blueliner Jacob Trouba was the No. 9 overall pick in the NHL draft, making him the highest college player selected in June, and Trouba joins returning veterans on the backend such as Jon Merrill (who will play the full season this year) and Lee Moffie – a defensive corps that is expected to alleviate the inevitable growing pains associated with the aforementioned goaltending transition.
Of Trouba, Berenson raved, “Nothing fazes him. He just shows up and works hard and plays his game. He looks like a real impact player.”
3. Can Notre Dame bounce back?
After advancing to the Frozen Four in 2010-11, expectations were sky high in South Bend a year ago. Notre Dame played well until Thanksgiving, but aside from a few scattered highlights (such as a convincing New Year's Eve win over Boston University), Jeff Jackson's squad sputtered through the final two months of the season, failing to advance to the CCHA championship weekend or the NCAA tournament.
This year, behind returning superstars Anders Lee and T.J. Tynan, who still managed a combined 75 points last season, the Irish expect to bounce back.
“I think expectations [last year] were more of a negative than a positive, with guys putting a lot of pressure on themselves,” said Irish head coach Jeff Jackson. “Hopefully this year, having gone through the good and the bad, I think that group will be able to rebound.”
Keep an eye on Notre Dame through the first two months of the season, which should prove telling. The Irish's November schedule includes a pair of home games against defending CCHA tournament champions Western Michigan, road games at Boston College and Michigan, and a home series against North Dakota.
4. Celebrate the Legacy
In case you're new to following a CCHA team, now is probably not the best time to become invested in one of the many historic rivalries within the league. The CCHA, of course, will disband at the conclusion of this season, as the entire college hockey landscape prepares for a dramatic conference shuffling next year. The fact that this is the final CCHA season will be an omnipresent storyline for the next several months, as coaches, fans, and program administrators pledge to celebrate the legacy of a 42-year old league that has produced eight national champions and seven Hobey Baker winners. A CCHA team has played in the national championship game in five of the last six years, with Michigan State winning it all in 2007.
Said a candid Miami head coach Enrico Blasi, “For me, this is my 18th year in the league as a player and coach, so obviously there’s some mixed emotions. For our program, it’s where Miami has grown up, and we can’t be more thankful for being a part of such a great league for so long.”
In its final season, marquee games include a showdown between Michigan and Cornell at Madison Square Garden, one of seven NHL arenas scheduled to host a college hockey game this year. And of course, Notre Dame, set to join Hockey East next year, will play future NCHC member Miami on February 17 at Chicago's Soldier Field, as part of an outdoor doubleheader that will also feature WCHA and Big Ten foes Minnesota and Wisconsin.
5. Which program is ready to step up?
A year ago, few would have predicted that Bowling Green would reach the CCHA Championship weekend, that Western Michigan would win the CCHA title, or that Ferris State would advance to the national championship game at the NCAA Frozen Four. Could this be the year that a team like Alaska or Lake Superior surprises everyone, making the media's preseason prognostications look foolish?
Only time will tell, but three teams that are poised to make a push this season are Ohio State, Northern Michigan, and Michigan State. The Buckeyes, who suffered through an embarrassing final three months of the season, won just one time in 16 games played in 2012. The Buckeyes have had all summer to think about it, and despite losing netminder Cal Heeter, who still managed a 2.45 goals against average for the season, Ohio State returns 13 of its top 15 scorers from last season's senior-thin team.
Meanwhile, Michigan State and Northern Michigan will rely on their returning experience – and presumably the increased maturity – of their goaltenders and defensive corps, with the likes of Will Yanakeff returning for the Spartans and Jared Coreau for the Wildcats. Northern Michigan will also welcome back all its starting defensemen from a season ago, but the big question in Marquette will be how Walt Kyle's crew can replace the offense of Tyler Gron and Justin Florek.
Said Northern Michigan head coach Walt Kyle, “I can tell you our team is going to be built from the goal out. We return our top seven defensemen from our team a year ago. The strength of our team is going to be our defense and our goal, and the area we’re going to have to grow in is going to be offense. But I like our group of guys. I like our leadership, and I like our chemistry. Those are the things to me that, at the end of the day, determine how [well] you do.”
Players to Watch
1. Kyle Bonis, Ferris State
After scoring just nine goals in his first two seasons combined, Bonis scored 19 during his junior campaign, including the game-winning goal against Union in the national semifinal. This season, Bonis will take on the added responsibility of being a leader on a team that, as mentioned above, lost 20-goal scorer Jordie Johnston, All-American goaltender Taylor Nelson, and All-American defenseman Chad Billins – all of whom were among the more vocal members of a team that reached the Frozen Four last season.
2. Austin Czarnik, Miami
Czarnik, a CCHA All-Rookie Team selection last year, emerged as one of the most prominent playmakers in the league, serving 27 assists during a rookie campaign in which he led all CCHA freshmen in points. He also emerged as an effective two-way threat, with his plus-25 rating ranking as fourth best in the nation.
But perhaps the biggest reason to watch Czarnik this season will be to find out if he is able to shine in his center role without Reilly Smith, a Top 10 Hobey finalist last year, playing on his left wing. Jimmy Mullin figures to remain on Czarnik's right wing, given the chemistry the two developed last year, but with coach Enrico Blasi calling the shots, it's certainly possible that the early part of the season will consist of some line shuffling to maximize Czarnik's production.
3. Alex Guptill, Michigan
Wolverines sophomore forward Alex Guptill was named the CCHA Rookie of the Year last season after leading Michigan in goals (16). Guptill looks to avoid a sophomore slump as he will play on the left wing this year without now-graduated David Wohlberg as his center. Last year, Wohlberg and Guptill posted identical numbers: 16 goals and 17 assists in 41 games played.
Said a typically honest Red Berenson, “Last year, at this time, if you asked me if we had any impact freshmen, I did not mention Guptill because I did not think he would make an impact. He was coming off a lackluster two years of junior hockey, and was injury-plagued, and I didn’t think he was ready for this.
"What did he do? He had a nose for the net, He made the adjustment to Division I hockey and the work ethic that went with it. And then he showed that he had some talent, and he was a pleasant surprise last year.”
4. Frank Slubowski and Dan DeKeyser, Western Michigan
Twenty-one players return for the reigning CCHA champion Western Michigan Broncos, and among them, players to watch include returning sophomore goaltender Frank Slubowski and junior defenseman Dan DeKeyser. Last year, Slubowski set a program record for goals-against average and was named the CCHA Tournament Most Valuable Player, while DeKeyser led the Broncos in plus/minus rating, stabilizing a blue line that returns five of six starters this year.
“We like all seven of our defensemen that we have,” said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray, praising DeKeyser for being able to move the puck effectively.
Last year, Slubowski wrestled the starting job away from then-injured Nick Pisellini and now will face the added pressure of entering a season as the established No. 1 starter.
“Frank needs to play up to the standard he set last year,” said Murray. “He’s the one that set it.”
5. Andrew Hammond, Bowling Green
Last season, the Falcons stunned the college hockey world with a dramatic CCHA quarterfinal series win against eventual national runner-up Ferris State, then took Michigan to double-overtime in a CCHA semifinal thriller in Detroit. Among the catalysts of the drama, in addition to freshman forward Ryan Carpenter, was netminder Andrew Hammond, who now enters his senior season for Bowling Green.
“We’re hoping that he has a good season, and he’s expected to play most of the minutes this year,” said Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron.
As a freshman, Hammond finished with a record of 0-12-2 in 19 games played, a far cry from his 14-win season and postseason heroics a year ago – even though Bergeron is stressing consistency over and over again to Hammond and his teammates. In the national semifinal against Michigan, Hammond made 56 saves on 58 shots from the Wolverines, and that taste of the postseason may have Hammond more motivated than ever entering his final season.
Said Bergeron, “Andrew’s still a work in progress as well. We want Andrew to take his year from ‘good’ to ‘great,’ and so does he.”
Predicted Order of Finish
2. Western Michigan
3. Notre Dame
4. Northern Michigan
5. Ferris State
7. Michigan State
8. Ohio State
9. Bowling Green
11. Lake Superior