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October 14, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCHC Team Preview Capsules

by Avash Kalra and Matt Christians/CHN Reporters

Ryan Walters is a Hobey candidate for Nebraska-Omaha.

Ryan Walters is a Hobey candidate for Nebraska-Omaha.

Colorado College

Head Coach: Scott Owens
2012-13 Record: 18-19-5 overall, 11-13-4 WCHA (8th)

Changes:  Last year’s graduating class included forwards Rylan Schwartz and William Rapuzzi, along with defensemen Mike Golvin and Scott Winkler, and goaltender Joe Howe. Fortunately for the Tigers, incoming freshmen Gustav Olofsson, a Minnesota Wild second-round draft pick this past summer, and Jacob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes) will help fortify the blue line.

Strength: The Tigers are returning several offensively gifted players, most notably Alexander Krushelnyski, who hopes to have a more successful winter than his father Mike – a former three-time Stanley Cup winner – did on the Canadian television series ‘Battle of the Blades’ this year. While helping Colorado College make an improbable run to the WCHA tournament championship game, Krushelnyski amassed 43 points last season after scoring just 34 in his freshman and sophomore campaigns combined.

Weakness: Goaltending. Josh Thorimbert was a third-team all-WCHA selection as a sophomore in 2011-12 but took a step back last year, falling into back-up duties behind starter Joe Howe, who has since graduated. While Thorimbert unquestionably has the talent to re-establish himself as the No. 1 starter, goaltending represents a major question for the Tigers heading into the 2013-14 season. Thorimbert will be challenged by incoming freshman Tyler Marble.

2013-14 Outlook: The Tigers’ success will likely depend on whether they can find timely scoring to complement what should be a steady blueline, especially with two highly touted NHL draft picks joining the roster. And without question, CC has a strong leader in Krushelnyski.

“We’re going to have to be ready every single night,” said head coach Scott Owens. “Every team is going to be a battle, and I’d bet that the majority of those are going to be one goal games.”

Denver

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery
2012-13 Record: 20-14-5 overall, 14-9-5 WCHA (5th)

Changes: Last spring saw the firing of long-time head coach George Gwozdecky, who had led the Pioneers to back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005. The surprise announcement came after Denver’s disappointing exit from the first round of the WCHA tournament, followed up by a loss to New Hampshire in the first round of the NCAAs. Gwozdecky, now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, was replaced by Jim Montgomery, the former Maine standout who famously scored a natural hat trick to lead the Black Bears to the 1993 national championship.


Montgomery inherits a team that also lost would-be seniors Nick Shore (Los Angeles Kings) and Juho Olkinuora (Winnipeg Jets), both of whom signed NHL contracts at the end of their junior seasons. Olkinuora had established himself as the team’s go-to starting netminder, while Shore was the team’s leading scorer. Shore was a key reason why Denver was one of the most prolific scoring teams in college hockey a year ago – as only Boston College and Minnesota averaged more goals per game than the Pioneers.

Strength: The blue line. Denver’s strength on paper is its defensive corps, which includes the trio of Joey LaLeggia, David Makowski, and Nolan Zajac – who combined for 82 points last year. And they’ll be relied on by Montgomery to help guide his young team.

“It’s important to develop a culture of a family,” said Montgomery. “It’s something that wherever I’ve been, it’s been a huge part of the process. I think the biggest thing is, I’m coming from junior hockey where we traditionally have 17 new players in a year. Getting everyone on the same page and developing that trust is something I’m used to. It’s an opportunity for the veterans to immerse ourselves in the culture that we want, and to show [the rest of the team] that we have each other’s back.”

Weakness: Discipline. Denver will need to stay out of the penalty box in order to be successful against its prolific opponents in the NCHC. After all, five of the eight NCHC teams were in the top 10 in the nation last year in goals scored per game. Meanwhile, a year ago, the Pioneers were the second-most penalized team in all of college hockey, behind only Cornell.

Certainly, then, discipline and maturity will be a focus for this young Denver team early in the season.
Said goaltender Sam Brittain, “If you don’t show up one night, you’re going to get beat, and beat bad.”

2013-14 Outlook: The Pioneers’ depth will be challenged, with injuries already in the pre-season to freshman Brad Hawkinson and junior Zac Larazza. Those setbacks will naturally increase the pressure on an already-young team that includes 10 freshmen, and just two remaining seniors from a one-time standout class that included Nick Shore, Jason Zucker, and Beau Bennett. Still, with a strong defensive corps and an established goaltender in Sam Brittain, Montgomery’s fresh perspective – and a track record of success – should place Denver in a strong position to return to the NCAA tournament.

“My expectations of the players are the same as our staff and the entire program,” said Montgomery. “We have to get better every day, and the best way to do that is to communicate with each other.”

Miami

Head Coach: Enrico Blasi
2012-13 Record: 25-12-5 overall, 17-7-4-4 CCHA (1st)

Changes: Casual fans may not notice, thanks to the firepower that Miami returns – but the Red Hawks lost a key senior in Curtis McKenzie to graduation last spring. McKenzie played left wing on one of the most prolific scoring lines in the CCHA a year ago, with Austin Czarnik at center and Riley Barber on the opposite wing.

Strength: As strong as the top line for the Red Hawks will be – featuring Czarnik and Barber – the strength for Miami may ultimately, by necessity in the NCHC, be its goaltending. Last season, the duo of Ryan McKay and Jay Williams helped lead the CCHA’s top defense, allowing an average of less than two goals per game. Now sophomores, McKay and Williams are key reasons why the media selected Miami as the preseason favorite to win the NCHC. McKay will need to rebound from taking the loss Miami’s two biggest games of the season last year – first, its CCHA semifinal loss to Michigan and then its NCAA quarterfinal loss to St. Cloud.

Weakness: The X factor. Miami has had many teams in the past decade that, on paper, have the DNA of a national championship team. One, of course, was within seconds of raising the trophy. Will the Red Hawks be able to put together a complete season and return to the national title game? 

2013-14 Outlook:  With arguably the NCHC’s best preseason balance of offensive firepower and defensive prowess, it’s no surprise that Miami was picked to win the inaugural NCHC season. Of course, head coach Enrico Blasi is less concerned with the preseason poll and focused instead on ensuring that his team continues to focus on its own expectations.

Said Blasi, “Our focus on our program has always been making sure our team is better than it was yesterday. We’re not focused on polls. We do have a saying in our locker room – ‘Leave the program better than you found it.’ We’ll continue to focus on that.”

Minnesota-Duluth

Head Coach: Scott Sandelin
2012-13 Record: 14-19-5 Overall, 10-13-5 WCHA (9th)

Changes: The Bulldogs return only nine upperclassmen – many of whom were around for the 2011 national championship – and most notably took a hit on the blueline after last season with the graduations of both Drew Olson and Wade Bergman, along with Chris Casto’s early departure. Replenishing the defensive corps will be tough, but three incoming defensive freshmen will look to contribute early in the season.

Strength: The future. With last year’s freshmen returning with nearly 100 points, the Bulldogs have a promising array of underclassmen. Both Austin Farley and Tony Cameranesi offered 34 tallies last year alone and alongside Joe Basaraba will form the top line for the Bulldogs. The trio combined for 40 goals a season ago.

Weakness: The Bulldogs will have some large gaps to fill, most notably on the defensive end. “I think we’re going to see an impact on the blueline,” said coach Scott Sandelin. “We’re going to need a couple of those (new) guys to step in.”

2013-14 Outlook: The Bulldogs will almost certainly improve on their 2012-13 campaign. With the top two leading scorers returning and with the Bulldogs welcoming highly anticipated goal scorer (and Toronto Maple Leafs draft selection) Dom Toninato, UMD should be able to keep up with the offensive firepower around the league.

“We’re ready and we’re working hard,” said sophomore forward Tony Cameranesi. “Obviously last year was a disappointed for us as a team.  We’ve worked hard this summer and we’re working together to get back at it.”

Added Sandelin, of the anticipation of playing in the NCHC, “You want to play good teams and with college hockey in general there’s no easy weekends, no matter who you’re playing. We’ve seen that parity. We’ve talked about how much a grind it is already, [and] I think it can be certainly beneficial, I think it forces you to get better.”

Nebraska-Omaha

Head Coach: Dean Blais
2012-13 Record: 19-18-2 overall, 14-12-7 WCHA (7th)

Changes: The Mavericks lost 10 letterwinners to graduation or early departures last year, most notably Matt White and Andrej Sustr, who are both going to be missed for their individual talents. Fortunately for UNO, though, they’re being replaced with some of the finest recruits in the country.

Strength: Nebraska-Omaha returns arguably the NCHC’s most talented skater – and a potential Hobey Baker finalist – in Ryan Walters. Between Walters, Josh Archibald, and Dominic Zombo, the Mavericks should be able to find the right line combinations to score goals.

In addition, the incoming talent Blais welcomes is going to provide a huge boost as well. Austin Ortega has a goal scorer’s touch, as does Jake Guentzel, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect who led the Sioux City Musketeers in scoring with 73 points in regular season play last season. Guentzel was the USHL Rookie of the Year last season.

Weakness: Goaltending is an ongoing issue, or so it seems, for Nebraska-Omaha. Ryan Massa is more than likely going to have to rotate with freshmen Reed Peters and Kirk Thompson.

2013-14 Outlook: It's already been a rocky start for UNO, which lost its opener, at home, to Bentley, before winning the next night. But the Mavericks have potential and may be driven by the last-place pick in the preseason media poll.

“I know we got picked last in the preseason poll, and we might have to bite our tongues a little bit,” said senior Ryan Walters. “But my freshman year we were picked to finish ninth and we finished three points out of first place; anything can happen throughout the year.”

North Dakota

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol
2012-13 Record: 22-13-7, 14-7-7 WCHA (3rd)

Changes: Almost half of the team’s scoring from a year ago will not return for the 2012-13 campaign in Grand Forks, and that includes graduated seniors Corban Knight (49 points last season) and Danny Kristo (52 points). 

Strength: Goaltending. Last year, now-sophomore Zane Gothberg and now-senior Clarke Saunders split time in the crease for the Sioux, and the tandem proved to be successful. In the NCAA tournament, Gothberg earned a 2-1 win in the first round against Niagara, but it was Saunders who earned the start for the West Regional final that ultimately saw North Dakota fall to eventual national champion Yale. The duo will battle for playing time this season, but expect Hakstol to start the year with the familiar rotating starters, as he did in the opening weekend against Vermont.

Weakness: Although North Dakota has a tendency to reload its squad year after year, it’s certainly conceivable that last year’s losses to graduation – with all of the scoring left to find elsewhere this year – may be too much to replace, at least in the short term. Expect senior defenseman Dillon Simpson to help guide North Dakota in its early NCHC era.

2013-14 Outlook:  North Dakota has developed a reputation for being a late-blooming team but can ill-afford to fall behind quickly in what will be one of the most competitive leagues in the new-look college hockey landscape. ND kicks off the NCHC schedule with a trip to Miami in what will be a battle of arguably the top goaltending duos in the league, and two of the most accomplished teams in college hockey over the past several seasons.

Said coach Dave Hakstol about the outlook for his squad, “Our season will be dictated by the work has done over the summer, over the last three weeks, and what our guys are doing to get better today. The predictions are all left to somebody else. I won’t be making any.”

St. Cloud State

Head Coach: Bob Motzko
2012-13 Record: 25-16-1 overall, 18-9-1 WCHA (1st)

Changes: There’s no doubt the Huskies will miss 2013 Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc. Signed as a free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks after the Huskies fell to Quinnipiac at the NCAA Frozen Four last April, LeBlanc led the team in scoring with 50 points. Between LeBlanc, Ben Hanowski and Nick Jensen, all with powerful scoring abilities, the Huskies lose a lot of firepower. Fortunately, they have incoming recruits like Ben Storm, a 6-foot-6 Colorado Avalanche prospect out of the USHL, to help fill the voids.

Strength: The Huskies only lost four players from a season ago, and as a result, will return an experienced team that just played in a Frozen Four. St. Cloud also returns three of its top four scorers from a year ago and boasts developing stars like Joey Benik, who displayed his capabilities late last season after returning from an injury.

Defensively, Andrew Prochno has a strong presence on the ice, and combined expected solid goaltending from Ryan Faragher, the Huskies should be able to keep their goals-against count reasonably low.

Weakness: A void on defense. “I really think the biggest hole we have to fill this season is Nick Jensen,” coach Bob Motzko explained. “He wasn’t just one player; he was the heart of that defensive core, he was the heart of our penalty kill, he was the heart of that last minute of play.  In big moments, he was the guy on the ice.”

2013-14 Outlook: The experience of advancing to last year’s NCAA Frozen Four, while boasting the nation’s Hobey Baker winner, was undoubtedly an invaluable experience for the Huskies, who have the makeup to make another run in post-season action.

Western Michigan

Head Coach: Andy Murray
2012-13 Record: 19-11-8, 15-7-6-3 CCHA (3rd)

Changes: The Broncos enter the 2013-14 season without two of their top scorers from a year ago, Dane Walters and Mike Leone. What may sting more for Broncos fans are the less expected losses – those of Danny DeKeyser, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings, and Mike McCarron, who never even arrived. McCarron was a Western Michigan recruit and after being selected in the first round of the NHL draft, signed with the Montreal Canadiens in July.

Strength: Style of play. Western Michigan is known for being stingy, and its physical defense may surprise some of the more wide-open former-WCHA teams like, for instance, St. Cloud and Colorado College. Head coach Andy Murray in fact wants his team to not only be stingy, but to be entirely miserable as well.

“Everybody talks about being hard to play against,” said Murray. “But that’s not enough. Everyone wants to be hard to play against. We want to be miserable to play against. We want, by halfway through the third period, the other team’s saying, ‘Will you guys go away and leave us alone? Just leave us alone.’”

Weakness: Offense. The Broncos ranked No. 51 out of 59 Division I teams last season in goals per game and will need to develop more than one scoring line to keep up with the other teams in the NCHC. This was clearly evident in its opening weekend, as it got shut out in back-to-back games against former CCHA rival Notre Dame.

2013-14 Outlook:  Murray has developed a strong winning culture at Western Michigan and will rely on being “miserable to play against” in this first NCHC season. Returning goaltender Frank Slubowski will unquestionably be a key piece to the puzzle for the Broncos, who look to return to the NCAA tournament after faltering late in the season a year ago.

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