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October 10, 2012 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Team-by-Team Previews

by Zack Friedli/CHN Reporter

Alaska Anchorage

Head coach: Dave Shyiak

Last season: 9-25-2 overall, 5-22-1 WCHA (12th)

Changes: Alaska loses three seniors that contributed 47 points — Curtis Leinweber, Eric Scheid and Scott Warner.

Strengths: Austin Coldwell and Derek Docken are the best returning defensemen, and the year of college hockey experience will definitely help them increase their levels of play. Quinn Sproule and Corbin Karl are the only other blue-liners with any significant playing time a year ago.

Weaknesses: Matt Bailey was the only player to record at least 10 goals last season, but Mitch Bruijsten wasn’t far behind. Both players must elevate their games for the Seawolves to contend for a home-ice spot, and players like Jordan Kwas, Brett Cameron and Daniel Naslund will have to breakout in big ways.

Outlook: Just a year after upsetting Minnesota in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Alaska-Anchorage took a step backward in 2011-12. The Seawolves mustered only six wins after Oct. 15, and didn’t have a single player record 20 points.

UAA is now looking to establish itself as a force in the final season of the WCHA as we know it. Coach Dave Shyiak thinks that can happen, but he knows there is much work to be done.

“We’re more balanced class-wise this year," Shyiak said. "I like our mixture. I think we’re going to be a little quicker up front, and we’re definitely more mobile on the back end. I think we have to get back to being a difficult team to play against and find ways to manufacture some offense. Obviously we want to learn from our adversity from last year, but also learn from some of our success from two years ago.”

Bemidji State

Head coach: Tom Serratore

Last season: 17-18-3 overall, 11-14-3 WCHA (9th)

Changes: Gone are Shea Walters and Jamie MacQueen, mainstays in the Bemidji State lineup in the past four years, but BSU does return its best offensive player in Jordan George. Aaron McLeod and Brance Orban chipped in with a combined 18 goals last winter, but they’ll both have to increase their production this season.

Strengths: Jake Areshenko and Sam Wendle both saw action in more than 30 games last winter, giving Bemidji State four defensemen with good playing experience. BSU coach Tom Serratore believes experience will help his team deal with the challenge of replacing steady scorers and reliable presences on the blue line and in goal.

Weaknesses: Bemidji State was inconsistent last year, largely because of its anemic offense. The Beavers ranked second to last in the WCHA in goals during the 2011-12 season, averaging 2.6 per game. That fact must change for BSU to be a serious threat in a competitive WCHA.

Outlook: Radoslav Illo is one player the Beavers will need more consistency out of if they hope to bolster the offensive depth.

Defensively, BSU will be challenged to replace the on and off ice leadership of Brad Hunt. That responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Matt Prapavessis and Brady Wacker, who need to solidify their games at the back end.

“I think our biggest strength is our experience," he said. "We have 10 seniors, and over two-thirds of our roster is upperclassmen. We expect those guys to really lead us. We’re concerned about goal scoring. We want to keep our goals against down, but we want to definitely increase our offense. We’re going to have to be a little bit better below the tops of the circles.”

The ever-steady Dan Bakala is gone, but Andrew Walsh was a pleasant surprise in net as a freshman. His play this year will largely dictate where the Beavers end up in the standings.

Colorado College

Head coach: Scott Owens

Last season: 18-16-2 overall, 15-12-1 WCHA (5th)

Changes: With Jaden Schwartz (15-26—41) signing a professional contract and blue liner Gabe Guentzel graduating, the Tigers will be up against it to begin 2012-13.

Strengths: High-scoring Rylan Schwartz is back, along with Scott Winkler and Alexander Krusheinyski, giving the Tigers a solid core. Role players, like William Rapuzzi and Jeff Collett, will find themselves playing in key spots, and newcomers Hunter Fejes and Jared Hanson will be called upon to make an early impact. Mike Boivin, who led all Tiger blue liners in goals last winter, is back to lead the defensive unit.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency. And 40 percent of the scoring from a year ago has gone.

Outlook: Although Colorado College managed to secure home-ice in the first round of the WCHA tournament, the Tigers were inconsistent and underachieving last winter. After opening the season 4-0, CC’s longest winning streak was three games, and it only won back-to-back contests on two other occasions.

That being said, Colorado College does have plenty of room to grow, and it could be set up to overachieve this winter.

"We’re picked in the middle of pack, and that’s probably where we should be picked," Owens said. "We lost quite a bit — roughly 40 percent of our scoring — but a lot of teams have lost a lot of good players. We think we’re relatively good in goal. Our D-corps, we’re return five of our six regulars from last year. I think we’ll be solid at the blue line, it’s just scoring up front. We’re in the process of just trying to get some of these holes filled in. We have a chance to be decent if we can get some scoring.”

Eamonn McDermott, Joe Marciano and Aaron Harstad will have to elevate their games at the point, and all three are qualified to do so. Luckily, the Tigers have two goalies that can bail out the defensemen should they have off nights.

Josh Thorimbert was an All-WCHA selection last season after posting great numbers while now-senior Joe Howe struggled. Howe is confident and seems poised to return to his usual self this winter, giving Colorado College a solid one-two punch between the pipes.

Denver

Head coach: George Gwozdecky

Last season: 25-14-4 overall, 16-8-4 WCHA (3rd), lost in the NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinals

Changes: If there’s one thing that’s always true about Denver, it’s that it suffers from a huge loss of top-end talent every year. This offseason was no deviation from the norm, as Drew Shore, Jason Zucker and Luke Salazar, three key components to the Pioneers attack last winter, are all gone.

But, even with the losses every year, the Pioneers still seem to find a way to reload.

Strengths: The strength of this team will definitely be in its defense and goaltending. First-Team All-WCHA selection and reigning conference rookie of the year Joey LaLeggia is back to anchor the defensive unit, along with Scott Mayfield, David Makowski and Paul Phillips. Rookie Dakota Mermis will add to the Pioneers’ depth on defense, giving Denver a nice mix of skill and tenacity at the blue line.

In goal, Denver has arguably the best group of goalies in the nation. Sam Brittain played great down the stretch after returning from an injury. Juho Olkinuora was lights-out while Brittain was on the shelf. Adam Murray, the team’s other goalie, had a very respectable year, too, meaning the Pioneers boast three net minders that could probably start on most teams.

Weaknesses: Just in some experience in the secondary lines.

Outlook: The Pioneers will return some scoring punch in Nick Shore, Shawn Ostrow and Ty Loney, who all accumulated more 20 points in 2011-12. Senior Chris Knowlton will be counted on to build on a strong finish to last season, where he generated 12 of his 19 points in the second half, and freshman Quentin Shore is one of the top incoming forwards in the WCHA.

“We are a very different team this year," Gwozdecky said. "We lost three big time scorers for us. Certainly I think we’re going to be built a little differently this year. We’re going to be very strong in goal. We’re going to be very deep and good on our blue line. There’s going to be a little question mark on who is going to score for us. It’s going to be a different type of team to start out the season, and certainly our ability to check and defend and manage the puck will be crucial.”

Michigan Tech

Head coach: Mel Pearson

Last season: 16-19-4 overall, 11-13-4 WCHA (8th)

Changes: Losing Josh Robinson, the reliable start last year, is tough, but Kevin Genoe has shown in the past that he can play well at this level. Rookies Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips have Tech fans really excited, though, as both have incredible upside. Quality forwards Brett Olson, Jordan Baker and Alex MacLeod are also gone.

Strengths: The Huskies have a good mix of skill and size returning at the blue line. Steven Seigo, an offensive-minded defenseman, and Sova, a big, physical blue-liner, anchor the unit. Brad Stebner, Riley Sweeney and Carl Nielsen all saw a lot of minutes in 2011-12, and they’ll be better with that experience.

Weaknesses: "We are going to miss some key seniors from last year’s team," Pearson said. "Going forward we’re going to have to find out who our next goaltender is. I do feel good about our offense, we do have seven of our top ten scorers back. On defense we’re fairly stable there. We didn’t lose a defenseman from last year, so that will be a big key.”

Outlook: Mel Pearson’s debut season in Houghton can only be considered a successful one. The Huskies won more conference games (11) and overall contests (16) last winter than they won in the previous three years combined. To top it all off, Michigan Tech upset Colorado College in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs to advance to the Final Five.

"The one thing this year is that we’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody," Pearson said. "That will be the hardest part going forward – having some success and learning how to deal with it and taking the next step as a program.

David Johnstone, Blake Pietila and Furne are the catalysts up front, but Jacob Johnstone, Tanner Kero and Milos Gordic bring enough talent to the lineup to give Tech two solid scoring lines. Jujhar Khaira, a third-round selection of the Edmonton Oilers, is a big body with some real offensive upside, and he will be expected to manufacture offense from the start.

Minnesota

Head coach: Don Lucia

Last season: 28-14-1 overall, 20-8-0 WCHA (1st), advanced to Frozen Four

Changes: The biggest change will be in goal. Kent Patterson and his 2.32 goals against average departs.

Strengths: Led by Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, the Gophers boast one of the nation’s deepest offensive lineups. Zach Budish and Nate Condon, who both reached the 30-point plateau in 2011-12, are poised to build on those breakout efforts, and youngsters Travis Boyd and Sam Warning have plenty of skill, turning Minnesota into a line-matching nightmare.

Weaknesses: Goaltender Kent Patterson was lost to graduation, leaving the Gophers with severely limited experience between the pipes. Highly regarded rookie Adam Wilcox has Minnesota fans excited, and he’ll battle for the starting nod with Michael Shibrowski, who has only seen spotty action in his two collegiate seasons. Strong play in front of either one should relieve some of the growing pains and pressure associated with the high-profile job.

Outlook: The 2011-12 season served as a return to the national spotlight for Minnesota, which made its first Frozen Four trip since 2005 after collecting the program’s first WCHA regular season title in four years.

Now, with loads of talent returning, Minnesota and its reenergized fan base are expecting nothing less than a trip to Pittsburgh in April.

The Gophers’ depth isn’t limited to the front end. Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt lead a balanced defensive unit that returns every piece that led to the Frozen Four trip, and, thanks to the arrivals of smooth-skating Mike Reilly and the 6-foot-3 Brady Skjei, the blue line will feature eight defenders skilled enough to record heavy minutes.

“We have some players that we’re certainly going to have to replace, starting with our goaltender," Lucia said. "Last year’s team we had very good depth up front, and we were a little thin on the backline. This year we’re probably the opposite. We’ve got a lot of good returning players, I think they understand what’s required if they’re going to have a successful season.”

Minnesota-Duluth

Head coach: Scott Sandelin

Last season: 25-10-6 overall, 16-7-5 WCHA (2nd), lost in NCAA Northeast Regional Final

Changes: Gone is Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly, along with the dependable Travis Oleksuk and the electric J.T. Brown, both all-WCHA selections last winter. Brady Lamb, who quarterbacked the Bulldogs’ power play, and Kenny Reiter, the backstop during the 2011 title run, have also moved on.

Strengths: Defensively, UMD has a lot fewer question marks. Bergman, Casto and Drew Olson were reliable last winter. Rookie Andy Welinski, the reigning USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year, is expected to run the Bulldogs' power play and add a steady body at the backend. The remaining blue liners are worthy of playing time, too, and they’ll each be inserted into the lineup throughout the year.

Weaknesses: Lack of scoring depth and unknowns in goal.

Outlook: Minnesota-Duluth filled the holes left after departures off its 2011 national championship team and valiantly defended its title. This year, the voids left by departures probably aren’t going to be filled as quickly or easily.

“We obviously had some significant losses, so we’ve got some unknowns and some holes to fill," Sandelin said. "I think our team is going to kind of epitomize our older group. We’re going to be relying on our upperclassmen; they have a lot of experience and character. We have a huge sophomore class, so we’re going to rely heavily on them, and we’ll mix in some freshmen. We’ve got good depth in every position, and certainly we need to find a goaltender to carry us through.”

Caleb Herbert and Mike Seidel must pick up where they left off a season ago, and there are plenty of opportunities for several other skaters to have breakout seasons.

Joe Basaraba will be one of those guys, along with Jake Hendrickson, Keegan Flaherty and Justin Crandall, to name a few. Talented freshmen Austin Farley and Tony Cameranesi will have to chip in right away as well, and veteran role players littering the lineup will be given the opening to make the Bulldogs a much more top-to-bottom team in the scoring column than they have been over the past few winters.

In goal, Reiter’s replacement will likely be junior Aaron Crandall to begin the season. UMD also has freshmen Matt McNeely and Alex Fons coming in, setting up what could be a terrific battle for the starting job. On the other hand, three unproven goalies could be difficult for the Bulldogs to overcome in a league dripping with offense.

Minnesota State

Head coach: Mike Hastings

Last season: 12-24-2 overall, 8-18-2 WCHA (11th)

Changes: The biggest change is behind the bench, where Mike Hastings takes his first college head coaching job, replacing Troy Jutting.

Strengths: The talented trio of Matt Leitner, Jean-Paul Lafontaine and Zach Lehrke led the scoring for Minnesota State last year, and they each return with hopes of increasing their output. Eriah Hayes is strong on the puck and could be set to explode this year. Johnny McInnis and Eli Zuck are players with some good upside, too. Rookie Teddy Blueger is a second-round pick of the Penguins, and he comes to Mankato with high expectations after lighting it up at hockey factory Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

Weaknesses: Minnesota State had trouble staying out of the box last season, and injuries have been an issue.

Outlook: Despite an 11th-place finish last year, Minnesota State was a competitive group overall. They lost countless close games, which probably had to do with the overall inexperience and injury issues in Mankato during the 2011-12 campaign.

The Mavericks are healthy now, they have a new coach and the expectations are high.

Zach Palmquist was very good as a freshman, and he’ll return as the top defender for the Mavericks. Mosey, Tyler Elbrecht, Josh Nelson and Mat Knoll each played over 20 games last winter, giving MSU some depth and familiarity at the backend.

Minnesota State will look to Cook to play well in the crease this year, as the job will be his to begin the winter. Freshman Stephon Williams was solid in the USHL over the past two seasons, and he could pressure for some playing time.

“We’re still learning. One of the keys for us this year is going to be how our seniors lead this team," he said. "I really think their leadership is going to be important for us, because, going into the next step, we’ve got 16 underclassmen. We’ve got some sophomores that have come back. We really need those guys to make an impression that they have already. As everybody knows in this league, it starts between the posts. We’re going to ask some of our freshmen to step in and contribute right away.”

Nebraska-Omaha

Head coach: Dean Blais

Last season: 14-18-6 overall, 11-12-5 WCHA (7th)

Changes: Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna were lost to pro signings, and goalie Ryan Massa is taking a year off for personal reasons. Assistant coach Mike Hastings is gone, to be the head coach at Minnesota State, while former MSU coach Troy Jutting replaced him as the UNO assistant.

"It’s devastating in a way where you lose that kind of talent at the time of year that we lost it, but we’re happy with the guys we have coming back," UNO coach Dean Blais said.

Strengths: The strength of Nebraska Omaha should be its ability to frustrate opposing forwards, as the defensive corps remains intact. Should-be standout rookies Nick Seeler and Brian Cooper will join Bryce Aneloski, Andrej Sustr, Michael Young and the rest of the Maverick blue-liners to complete a deep unit.

Weaknesses: UNO has had trouble finding a consistent answer in net, though things did improve last season. Freshman Anthony Stolarz may be able to bring things to another level.

Outlook: Nebraska-Omaha really never got it going last winter, and the Mavericks were especially bad once the calendar flipped to February. UNO went 2-8-2 after that point, including another early exit from the WCHA playoffs following a pair of losses to St. Cloud State in the first round.

Omaha hasn’t made it to the Final Five yet, and if it expects to achieve that feat this year, some big shoes must be filled.

The good news is that Matt White and Ryan Walters return, as does Brock Montpetit. Sophomore Josh Archibald was a member of the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships last winter, and he, along with Brent Gwidt and Johnnie Searfoss, will be expected to increase their point production from 2011-12.

"Matt White is a potential all-American for us, and Ryan Walters has had a couple years with a lot of goals," Blais said. "Brock Montpetit and Josh Archibald had big years last year. I think those are our key forwards moving into this year. Brian Cooper and Nick Seeler are two freshmen that will get a lot of ice time for us.

John Faulkner returns in goal, along with Dayn Belfour. Blais thinks gifted freshman Anthony Stolarz could compete for minutes as well.

"Mike Young is looked upon to be one of the top defenders in the WCHA," Blais said. "Aneloski is a power play and penalty kill guy, and he’ll log a lot of ice time. Sustr has gotten nothing but better in the two years we’ve had him here. Goaltending should be a strength of ours with a senior, a talented freshman and a guy like Dayn who is all about the team.”

North Dakota

Head coach: Dave Hakstol

Last season: 26-13-3 overall, 16-11-1 WCHA (4th, WCHA Final Five Champions), lost in NCAA West Regional Final

Changes: The usual early departures included Brock Nelson and Aaron Dell, and big defenseman Ben Blood graduated. Long-time assistant coach Cary Eades was let go. And the Fighting Sioux logo has been replaced after many years of discussion and legal battling.

Strengths: The offensive skill on North Dakota’s roster is impressive, even with the loss of Brock Nelson. Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Carter Rowney are all explosive scorers. Mark MacMillan and Michael Parks both had productive WCHA debuts. Rocco Grimaldi, who many thought would be the best freshman in the conference last year, is back after fighting a knee injury all of last season. UND also has a good crop of freshmen coming in to add to the strength up front, like the vowel-less Bryn Chyzyk.

Weaknesses: UND did lose both of its goalies from a year ago with the graduation of Brad Eidsness and the early signing of Aaron Dell. Yet, North Dakota might not have much to worry about in the crease, thanks to the additions of Clarke Saunders, a transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, and rookie Zane Gothberg.

Outlook: North Dakota has had a bumpy month off the ice, but coach Dave Hakstol and his staff always seem to find a way to overcome adversity and turn North Dakota into a team capable of competing for a national title by the end of the year. With Brad Berry taking over for Carey Eades on the UND bench this year, that ability to orchestrate success is expected to continue.

Last year, UND was hit hard by injuries, but it still won the WCHA Final Five and advanced to the NCAA West Regional final.

Postseason success is really nothing new for North Dakota, though. The program has won some kind of WCHA championship, played in the Frozen Four or both seemingly every year in recent memory. With the brigade of battle-tested players returning to Grand Forks, there’s not reason to believe UND won’t be involved in the national title conversation this year, too.

“Last year one of the issues we ran into was that we were a young team and we suffered on the depth side because of the number of injuries that we suffered early and throughout the season," Hakstol said. "Obviously this year we have hopes that we’ll stay healthier, be a year older and be able to develop that good, solid depth that we like to have within our teams. We need to determine exactly where we’re at on day one, and we need to make good progress everyday towards becoming a better team.”

Defensively, stalwart Ben Blood is a big loss, but North Dakota has plenty left in its cupboard. Nick Mattson won’t make anyone forget Chay Genoway, but he’s a capable offensive-defenseman. Andrew MacWilliam, Dillon Simpson and Derek Forbort round out an imposing top-four, and freshman Jordan Schmaltz is bound to jump in and contribute immediately.

St. Cloud State

Head coach: Bob Motzko

Last season: 17-17-5 overall, 12-12-4 WCHA (6th)

Changes: Departed forwards Jared Festler, Travis Novak and David Eddy were key contributors in 2011-12, but St. Cloud State still has a good group to work with. Mike Lee left for the professional ranks with a year of eligibility remaining, but Ryan Faragher returns to man the crease, looking to build off a successful rookie outing he enjoyed largely when Lee was out injured. Freshmen Joe Phillippi and Rasmus Reijola round out the goaltending trio for the Huskies.

Strengths: Start with the return of 23-goal scorer Ben Hanowski.

Weaknesses: How will Faragher handle the bulk of the load in his sophomore season?

Outlook: St. Cloud State managed to lock up a home-ice spot in the WCHA tournament in 2011-12, which is pretty remarkable considering what the program went through last season. The injury bug bit both standout goalie Mike Lee and emerging star Drew LeBlanc, and offensive threat Cam Reid bailed for the WHL mid-season.

Luckily for St. Cloud State, Ben Hanowski more than doubled his point output, Ryan Faragher played great in goal and then-rookie Andrew Prochno had a wonderful freshman season.

As they enter 2012-13, the Huskies hope they don’t have to endure the same kind of ride as they did a winter ago.

“We’re taking off right where we left off," Motzko said. "The pile of injuries last year, our team overcame it. We felt at the end of the year we a tremendous group of guys that were pushing forward. We’ve only got seven upperclassmen, but they’re very talented. We think it’s a real strong group that we can build on. The downside of our team is that after [the upperclassmen] we’ve got a lot of unknowns. We have to find out where our secondary scoring is going to come from.”

Hanowski is back, LeBlanc is healthy and Nic Dowd can put the puck in the net. Add to the fold high-scoring freshmen Jimmy Murray and Jonny Brodzinski, and St. Cloud State’s outlook offensively is pretty solid. Joey Benik, another highly touted freshman, broke his leg in the team’s first official practice and will miss an extended period of time.

The point production isn’t limited to the forwards, either. Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno, who combined for 61 points from the blue line during 2011-12, are both back. Sophomore Jarrod Rabey – who tied Jensen for the most goals from the SCSU blue line last winter with six – is also back, and three other defenders who played over 30 games a season ago join them.

Wisconsin

Head coach: Mike Eaves

Last season: 17-18-2 overall, 11-15-2 WCHA (10th)

Changes: Justin Schultz, perhaps the best all-around player in college hockey last season, is gone after last year's 44-point campaign from the back line. But he's the only significant loss.

Strengths: Mark Zengerle is only the seventh player in the Eaves era to reach the 50-point mark, and he’s back and ready to build on last year’s breakout effort. Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes could both reach the 40-point plateau this winter, and Joseph LaBate is poised to play a bigger role after notching five goals and 20 points in 2011-12.

Weaknesses: Joel Rumpel emerged as the starter in net last winter, but the competition between him and Landon Peterson will still exist. That’s not a bad thing, obviously, and Eaves thinks it will allow both of them to find their potential.

Outlook: Wisconsin struggled early in 2011-12, but toward the end of the season, players and coaches felt as though they could compete with anyone in the WCHA. Wisconsin’s youth was the issue, and it relied too heavily on Mark Zengerle and Justin Schultz to create possession and scoring chances.

If the eligibility issues with freshman Nic Kerdiles clear up, he will jump right into the lineup and produce, giving the Badgers a dangerous six pack up front. However, Kerdiles likely won't hesitate to head to Kelowna of the WHL if the NCAA decides to uphold his decision.

Obviously a guy like Schultz can’t be replaced, but Frankie Simonelli, John Ramage, and Jake McCabe are steady blue liners who figure to log tons of ice time this winter. Joe Faust adds good depth at the backend, and rookie Ediie Wittchow should be inserted into the lineup right away.

“We feel pretty good about our core of guys," Eaves said. "We’re deeper than we were last year at forward, and with more experience. We have four guys at defense that we look to lean on a lot, and we have two freshmen goalies from last year that are now sophomores. The expectations are already understood so we’re starting at a further down the spectrum of learning. The expectations are certainly higher than we had last year.”
 

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