WCHA Watch List, 2016-17
by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer
College hockey’s landscape is shifting in many ways, and the WCHA arguably could be affected the most. Rule changes, programs facing uncertain futures, the potential for conference realignment and reassigned postseason games are just some of the issues brought up during the offseason.
On the ice, Ferris State was the lone WCHA representative in the NCAA tournament last season, while two teams qualified each of the two previous years. Many have Bowling Green as this year’s favorite to emerge from the conference, but Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Ferris State are among the teams that want to spoil the party.
5 Things to Watch
Alaska Schools’ Hockey Future Remains Cloudy
It’s been a worrisome offseason for hockey fans in Alaska. As outlined in the results of the Strategic Pathways report, both Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage are at risk of losing their hockey programs — among other potential budget cuts — to make up for a $50 million shortfall in the Alaska state university system.
The future is unclear, but a recent 11-0 vote from the Alaska Board of Regents authorized the schools to work with a plan that does not take away from athletics, giving both programs hope.
“That’s a very big, positive thing for the hockey programs, and athletics, in general,” Alaska-Anchorage Coach Matt Thomas said. “There’s still some process that needs to go on with that. But we feel very confident that we have a very strong place in our university and our community and that people are going to support us. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Both schools will play through at least this season before any decisions are made. There are multiple possibilities that could come to fruition including eliminating one team, combining both teams and keeping the teams and finding cuts elsewhere.
“Those types of things are completely out of my control and my team’s control,” Alaska Coach Dallas Ferguson said. “We’ve always had the philosophy of ‘control the controllable.’”
Calm Before the Realignment Storm?
The WCHA last saw major conference realignment in 2013-14, with the changes creating the 10-team format we see today. However, there’s always rumors of further changes, and those could be drastic. With the futures of the Alaska schools not yet decided, let’s consider other possible changes at hand.
We know that Notre Dame is moving from Hockey East to the Big Ten next season, and Hockey East recently noted it would remain at 11 teams for the near future. Arizona State remains an independent, and could stay that way for the next couple years. However, like the Sun Devils, Minnesota State tried to jump ship and join up with the NCHC, though both teams were eventually rejected, for now.
If there’s a shift, the WCHA could theoretically experience these changes in the coming years. The NCHC doesn’t want to expand yet, but may do it in the future. Arizona State needs to figure out its rink situation, and when it does, a domino effect could occur. It’s clear that Minnesota State wants out.
Will Atlantic Hockey see a drastic revamp if Hockey East eventually admits Holy Cross? If the Alaska programs merge or both go away, there could be spots up for grabs. Air Force could be a possibility for the WCHA in this scenario if the AHA has a major shift. For now, nothing is set in stone. However, with how quickly the college hockey landscape is changing, fans of WCHA teams should keep an eye out.
The WCHA changed course on its postseason tournament, ending the neutral site setup and sending all matchups to campus sites. Eight of the conference’s 10 teams will qualify, with best-of-3 quarterfinals and semifinals at the higher seed’s home rink on March 3-5 and March 10-12, respectively. The championship will be determined with a game at the highest remaining seed on March 18.
“This is tremendous, not just for our league, but for college hockey, to bring this unique excitement and passion of playoff hockey directly to the home fans,” WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson said. “There’s no greater thrill for hockey fans than watching their favorite teams playing for a championship on their home ice. I can’t wait.”
This change is the first time a single site hasn’t been used for the conference’s postseason tournament since the 1987-88 season. Moving to campus sites could act as a significant attendance booster, especially for a conference with teams as far south as Alabama, east as Ohio and west as Alaska.
“WCHA venues are already terrific,” Robertson said. “Expect boisterous crowds, where we’ll crown a true championship-caliber team when it’s all said and done mid-March.”
Overtime is about to get more complicated. In addition to the standard 5-on-5, five-minute overtime across college hockey, the WCHA will have an additional 3-on-3 overtime for another five minutes. If it remains tied, the teams will have a sudden-death shootout round. The NCAA will recognize anything decided after the 5-on-5 overtime as a tie, but the winner will earn a point in the conference standings. Teams who win in regulation or the first overtime period will earn three points for the victory.
“The 3-on-3 format and shootout are immensely exciting, and will give our fans a winner each and every night, which we felt was really important.” Robertson said. “Our coaches and administrators were all on board with these changes, and they’re excited, as well.”
There will also be smaller nets, depth-wise, in conference arenas this year. While the WCHA previously used the 44-inch nets that were standard around college hockey, the teams will now have 40-inch nets, which are used in the National Hockey League. This provides players with more room between the back of the net and the endboards.
Bowling Green hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1990, but that drought could end this year. Tabbed by the WCHA media and coaches poll to finish top of the heap this year, head coach Chris Bergeron’s team should have a great chance to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament.
“We feel it’s our best starting point in the six years we’ve been here,” Bergeron said.
The Falcons will be anchored by junior goaltender Chris Nell, and as long as he’s playing well, the team should be racking up wins. Defense will be the focus this season, as Bowling Green brings back five blueliners who helped bring the defense to 10th in the country last year, with just 2.17 goals allowed per game.
Backend strength will be necessary, as the Falcons lost its top two scorers last season. Mark Cooper graduated and Brandon Hawkins left the team in September.
“From an experience standpoint, we have lots of people we can lean on,” Bergeron said. “We’re probably as deep as we’ve ever been at all three positions. One of the things we’ll continue to talk about here, is we want to do it by committee. Whether that’s defending, scoring, whatever it may be. We want to do it as a group.”
However, Bergeron’s main problem could be the team’s weak out of conference schedule. The Falcons play RIT on Dec. 30, the only nonconference opponent that made the NCAA tournament last season. Early season weekends against Western Michigan, Ohio State and Miami, as well as a late-season game with Mercyhurst can all be won, but they may not help much in the Pairwise.
Regardless, there’s always the auto bid. As previously mentioned, the WCHA hasn’t had one year where more than two teams qualify for the NCAA tournament since the latest realingment. The Falcons will need to focus on conference play, and they certainly have the tools to prep for a long run. It should be a great battle between Bowling Green, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Ferris State.
“We know how difficult the league is going to be this year,” Bergeron said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re chasing. Michigan Tech and Minnesota State are the defending regular season champions, and Ferris State is the defending playoff champions. We’re chasing those schools.”
5 Players to Watch
Gerald Mayhew (Ferris State)
Fresh off an appearance in the NCAA tournament, Mayhew is set for another impressive year. Recently named co-captain for the Bulldogs this season, he was also named the Preseason WCHA Player of the Year by both the coaches and media.
“The more we play him, the better he plays,” Ferris State Coach Bob Daniels said. “He’s got excellent stick skills, and beyond handling the puck well, it’s a quick stick. He’s got a quick release to his shot.”
Last season, the Wyandotte, Mich., forward posted 16-25—41 — an impressive one point per game — to finish as the top scorer for Ferris State. With the team expected to take a slight step back this year, Ferris State will depend heavily on Mayhew to create some magic. He’s primed to be one of the top forwards in the country.
“It does seem in the big games and in the playoffs, he really comes up big,” Daniels said.
Dominik Shine (Northern Michigan)
The senior was named to both Preseason All-WCHA teams, and his 15-15—30 was good enough for second on the Wildcats last season, behind now-graduated Derrick Nowick. Shine, a Pinckney, Mich., native, averaged a point per game during conference play in 2015-16, and produced the third-best point production in the WCHA.
“Dom has always been a hard competitor,” Northern Michigan Coach Walt Kyle said. “He’s always been a kid who can shoot the puck. But what’s really grown with him is his confidence.”
Shine, along with forwards Robbie Payne and Gerard Hanson, will be crucial in Northern Michigan’s push to get home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
Chris Nell (Bowling Green)
With the Falcons’ lofty expectations this season, their goalie will need to play a critical role if they’re to make noise in the conference. Nell posted a .930 save percentage last season, which was good enough for 10th in the country and best in the WCHA.
The Green Bay, Wis., native was named to the 2015-16 All-WCHA First Team and the 2016-17 Preseason All-WCHA Team. Nell was also a Mike Richter Award nominee last season, and should be right there again this year.
Gordon Defiel (Lake Superior State)
The Lakers are another team that builds from the net out, and they will depend upon Gordon Defiel to provide a spark this season. The Stillwater, Minn., native finished with a .926 save percentage last season, which was third in the WCHA and tied for 14th nationally.
“He’s shown the ability to be among the top goaltenders within the WCHA, but also nationally,” Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten said. “He had a strong season overall last year, and a phenomenal finish.”
Defiel was named to the 2015-16 All-WCHA Third Team, and for good reason. He emerged from a goaltending tandem with a solid freshman netminder Nick Kossoff to become one of the more reliable options in the nation. While Lake State is expected to battle it out for the bottom playoff spots in the WCHA tournament, continued improvement from Defiel could make the team an unsavory opponent each weekend.
Matt Roy (Michigan Tech)
Last season, Michigan Tech touted one of the top defensive units in the country, finishing ninth in NCAAs with just 2.08 goals per game. Matt Roy proved to be a significant part of the Huskies’ defensive successes, and should be one of the conference’s best blueliners in his junior season.
“Matt has taken steps each year. He’s progressively gotten better,” Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “I think his freshman year he came in and did an excellent job; played strong defensively. Last year, he added a new dimension offensively to his game. He’s got a great shot. He’s got some real good instincts offensively.”
The defenseman from Canton, Mich., produced on the offensive side last season, as well. With 20 points and 0.54 points per game in 2015-16, Roy should play a role in the team’s attempt to repeat as a top-10 offense in the country.
“He’s expanded his game,” Pearson said. “Now, he’s become one of the best all-around defensemen in our league.”
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Bowling Green
2. Minnesota State
3. Michigan Tech
4. Ferris State
5. Northern Michigan
6. Lake Superior State
7. Bemidji State