Big Ten Watch List
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
With a new college hockey year comes plenty of players to watch and storylines to follow. From a gold-medal winning captain to incoming freshmen to the conference itself, the Big Ten is looking at an interesting first season.
5 Things to Watch
The Big Ten sponsors hockey now
Let’s be honest. This is the elephant in the room. And it’s a little weird.
Sure, the six teams have done a good job in the past continuing to play each other despite being in two different conferences. The College Hockey Showcase was created to highlight Big Ten rivalries and became a Thanksgiving staple for close to 20 years. Even Penn State played three Big Ten teams last year as a first-year independent.
That doesn’t stop the fact this is all new. The Big Ten is different. It’s national. It’s a brand casual sports fans know. Some schools are leaving 50 years of history behind for the first season of Big Ten hockey.
A new schedule (20 conference games) and setup (closer to basketball in that conference play doesn’t begin until late November) is different from the rest of college hockey. It’s beneficial for a team like Michigan State, without forward Matt Berry and defensemen John Draeger for the first six to eight weeks of the season after both underwent surgery.
Most of all this year means that the four conference games against each Big Ten opponent count that much more.
Penn State and Ohio State entering the unknown
The Nittany Lions enter the second season of Division I hockey by opening Pegula Arena. That isn’t the only new thing for Penn State. Playing in an actual conference, along with facing two teams (Minnesota and Michigan) for the first time, leads a list of firsts for PSU.
Although Penn State went 3-2 against the Big Ten last season, defeating all three of its opponents at least once, having a full conference slate is different. The unknown of how Penn State will react, or how the second year of a program will go, is fascinating. There are so many options.
Even PSU head coach Guy Gadowsky isn’t sure what to expect for Penn State, saying at Big Ten Media that he “doesn’t know what is in store.”
Besides the Nittany Lions, Ohio State also features something new. The Buckeyes had a tumultuous offseason where former head coach Mark Osiecki was fired and replaced by assistant Steve Rohlik. OSU lost some key recruits like now-Minnesota State freshman Zach Stepan, however, much of last year’s team returns.
Will Minnesota's freshmen step up?
No team lost more players early last year than Minnesota. The Gophers, who entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 overall seed only to be upset by eventual national champion Yale in the first round, saw five players with eligibility remaining sign professional contracts. That includes leading scorer Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild), leading goal scorer Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) and captain Zach Budish (Nashville Predators).
The Gophers return firepower with junior Kyle Rau and sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox among others. Still, with how well Minnesota did on both ends of the ice last year — the team finished in the top eight nationally in total offense (first with 3.48 goals per game), defense (third with 2.00 goals per game), power play (second) and penalty kill (eighth) — losing so many key pieces is a major blow.
It also puts pressure on the freshman class to pick up some of slack.
There’s a good chance three or four freshmen will play in Minnesota’s top six. How players like Taylor Camarrata, Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos and both Michael Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff defensively play will tell whether or not the Gophers reload or if its first Big Ten season is a rebuilding year.
Can Michigan get back to the NCAAs?
The Wolverines last season ended one of the great streaks in college hockey when the team came one game short of reaching its 23rd straight NCAA Tournament. Instead, Red Berenson sat at home for the first time since 1990.
To put that in perspective, only one player from this year’s Michigan team, senior goalie Adam Janecyk, was alive in 1990.
This year the Wolverines, who lost 2012 first round pick Jacob Trouba after one season to the Winnipeg Jets, bring back experience with 14 upperclassmen. That includes five seniors and is something Michigan looks to rely upon. Although Michigan ended the year winning nine of its final 10 games, a 3-12-1 stretch from November to January doomed the Wolverines. How much the team learned over the final stretch last year should go a long way to this year and seeing if Michigan’s NCAA Tournament absence is a one-year deal.
Wisconsin’s status as the favorite
Wisconsin, like Michigan, has high expectations based on the end of last season. The Badgers struggled out of the gate last year, going 1-7-2 in its first 10 games, before turning the corner and winning the WCHA tournament.
Unlike Michigan, Wisconsin is aiming higher to start the year with its expectations.
Coaches and media picked UW to finish first in the inaugural Big Ten preseason poll. The team is considered a legitimate national contender along with Massachusetts-Lowell and Miami
“It’s almost a natural thing to happen because of the fact we are an upperclassmen team. So no surprises there,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said at Big Ten media day last month. “I don’t think it changes anything we do in terms of expectations and the way we want to conduct our business.”
5 Players to Watch
Kyle Rau, Junior, Forward, Minnesota ... The 5-foot-8, 173-pound junior may not be the biggest forward on the ice, but Kyle Rau plays with a tenacity that guys six inches taller would love. Rau led all returning players last season with 40 points (15 goals and 25 assists) for the Gophers and was the team’s barometer. Minnesota went 23-2-1 when the 20 year-old registered a point in 2012-13.
Rau differentiates himself, meanwhile, by how he plays. Many players with Rau’s size stick to the outside, utilizing speed and skating. Rau can skate, but he also does much more. The junior co-captain goes on the ice with a chip on his shoulder. Rau is just as likely to score in front of the net and agitate larger opponents.
Still, this season is different. After spending his first two years on Minnesota’s top line as the youngest player, Rau is now the oldest. It’s a role he takes seriously.
“I’m just doing what I can to help them and not be overbearing,” he said.
Michael Mersch, Senior, Forward, Wisconsin ... Wisconsin returns several forwards. Senior Tyler Barnes or sophomore Nic Kerdiles, following a freshman season where he scored 33 points (11 goals and 22 assists) in 32 games, could easily be on this list and deserve to be watched. Neither lit the lamp as much as senior teammate Michael Mersch.
In fact, no one playing in the Big Ten this year scored more goals than Mersch. The Park Ridge, Ill., native turned on the red light 23 times last season. He was consistent in a season that was anything but for Wisconsin. There was a point last season during the Badgers’ struggles where Mersch had eight of the team’s eighteen goals.
No one else had more than two in that stretch.
Jake McCabe, Junior, Defenseman, Wisconsin ... The Wisconsin junior defenseman can get overlooked, and that’s too bad. McCabe, who led all Badgers blue liners with 21 points (three goals and 18 assists) last season, is such a reliable two-way defenseman that he makes things looks easy. Only when he’s off the ice and not in front of either Joel Rumpel or Landon Peterson do his abilities become apparent. The Badgers are plainly just a better team with McCabe on the ice. There are few players in college hockey he can't shut down.
While McCabe is not the flashiest player on the ice, he has a abundance of strengths that make him one of the nation's best. He’s smart with positioning, plays in all situations, is very mobile and moves the puck well. Wisconsin has a long history with developing defensemen, and McCabe is the latest. It’s well worth the time to spend a shift or two just following McCabe on the ice.
Plus McCabe wore the “C” for Team USA’s gold medal winning 2013 World Junior Championship squad.
Ryan Dzingel, Junior, Forward, Ohio State ... Dzingel led Ohio State with 38 points (16 goals and 22 assists) last season and provides stability for OSU as the team enters the Big Ten. The Buckeyes junior forward finished the season strong. Dzingel scored in nine of Ohio State’s final 11 games. He also had an eight-game scoring streak in the middle of the season.
Along with final CCHA regular season scoring champion Tanner Fritz, Dzingel is one of several Buckeyes first-year head coach Steve Rohlik will count on this year.
Big Ten Freshmen ... The Big Ten is missing out on an outstanding group of players who didn’t make the jump by either leaving early for the pros or graduating. However, there are several freshmen on the six teams ready to step in and make their own mark. This includes Michigan forward J.T. Compher, the highest 2013 draft pick in college hockey (35th overall by Buffalo), and Wisconsin forward Grant Besse, the reigning Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner. The 2012 Mr. Hockey, Justin Kloos, is also making his collegiate debut at Minnesota. He is part of a triumvirate of Waterloo Black Hawks looking to make an impact in the Big Ten as freshmen with Penn State goalie Eamon McAdam and Minnesota forward Taylor Cammarata.