May 1, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Looking Ahead to 2008-09

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Another college hockey season is behind us, and Boston College won its third national championship with a 4-1 win over Notre Dame. Overall, it was a great NCAA tournament, with just enough thrills and suspense, Notre Dame making its first Frozen Four, with a number of other teams finding it hard to shake their typical NCAA demons (New Hampshire, North Dakota, Colorado College, St. Cloud State).

Unfortunately, the final game also included a controversial video review, when a goal was overturned that would've made it a one-goal game with 15 minutes remaining in regulation. The explanations for why the goal was overturned still don't wash, and it's unfortunate that play marred an otherwise great Frozen Four.

However, regardless, it seemed like Boston College's year, despite a very up-and-down regular season. BC often gels late, but this year, it was very late before the Eagles got it all together. In the end, Nathan Gerbe, a runner up for the Hobey Baker Award, came away as a new superstar. He was already good, but he reached the stratosphere with a five-goal weekend.

So without further ado, let's take a long-range look at what to look for next season. This list of potential Top 10 teams for next season comes with a large caveat: We don't still don't know who will be back next season and who won't.

1. Boston College — Assuming everyone returns who is supposed to, BC has all the pieces to make another run. Most likely, someone else will emerge as a top team, and BC will have its ups and downs in the regular season like it always does. But with John Muse back in net for his sophomore year, and, theoretically, Nathan Gerbe — who finished as the nation's leading scorer with 68 points — back up front, the team will be formidable in the end. Let's not forget the return of Brock Bradford, the sophomore who was having a nice season until he broke his arm for the second time. Ben Smith and his 25 goals will also be back.

2. Michigan — Yes, the team loses stars Kevin Porter (the Hobey Baker Award winner) and Chad Kolarik, but there's so much else returning, and that big freshmen class will have another year under its belt. They include top forwards Aaron Palushaj, Louie Caporusso and Max Pacioretty, plus defenseman Chad Langlais. The big question is whether goalie Billy Sauer can shake off getting pulled in the NCAA semifinal after just one period. Coach Red Berenson — who was just named national coach of the year, and thus became the first to be so named in the NCAA and NHL — will be 70 by next season's end, and it could be one more crack at his third title.

3. Notre Dame — Losing a character forward like Mark Van Guilder, and one of the country's best defensive defensemen in Brock Sheahan, will hurt the Irish. But most all other key components are coming back, including top scorer Erik Condra, who missed the NCAA run with an injury. Plus, with the experience gained this season, Notre Dame is ready to fly. Jordan Pearce is back in net, and he still has some questions around him, but he's generally capable.

4. Colorado College — The team will lose some significant players, but so will most everyone else. First Team All-American defenseman Jack Hillen is the biggest loss. But if Chad Rau returns, he'll do so as a senior and one of the top two-way players in the country, if not the best. And with goalie Richard Bachman back between the pipes, the Tigers will be right back in the mix. Bachman was WCHA Rookie and Player of the Year, the first player to do that since long-time NHL goalie Curtis Joseph. Whether CC can come through in the postseason remains a question, but the regular season should be strong again.

5. Minnesota — The best news for the Gophers last year, despite a seventh-place finish in the WCHA, was finding a goaltender for the future. Junior Jeff Frazee was inconsistent, and the team wasn't scoring — a bad combo. But when freshman Alex Kangas helped settle things down, the team got better. Now Frazee left for the pros, and it's all Kangas. The Gophers will lose some character seniors, but have the usual big class coming in. And because the team wasn't that great last year, there aren't many underclassmen you'd expect to leave. Sophomore Ryan Stoa missed most of last year with an injury, but he'll be back. Top scorer Blake Wheeler was a high first-round selection by Phoenix in 2004, but currently looks like he'll return for his senior year.

6. Boston University — We'll see how much of a reach this is. BU loses big-time seniors in Peter MacArthur and Bryan Ewing, but if everyone returns, this wil be a formidable team. Colin Wilson should be a first-round pick in this year's NHL Draft after a strong freshman year, and Matt Gilroy is a highly sought after defenseman. But his brother comes to the team for his freshman year, and Gilroy may be inspired to stay for his senior year. If so, then it leaves only goaltending as the question. It's a big question, no doubt, but if BU can figure it out, it can go far.

7. North Dakota — The Sioux stand to lose a lot. T.J. Oshie hasn't signed yet, but the St. Louis Blues first rounder is poised to leave after his junior year. The same can be said for Joe Finley and Taylor Chorney, juniors that will likely go. There are other potential risks to leave, such as former Hobey winner Ryan Duncan (a free agent), and junior Andrew Kozek. And the Sioux lose goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, who was phenomenal all year until allowing six goals in the NCAA semis. But assuming enough players come back, with another good recruiting class, the Sioux will be right there. They will likely be playing with a freshman goalie, but two of the last four NCAA champs have been freshmen.

8. Wisconsin — In Jamie McBain and Ryan McDonagh, the Badgers will have two of the more dynamic defensemen coming back (assuming they do). They will presumably be stronger defensively to help Shane Connelly, who will be a senior in net. Guys like Blake Geoffrion and Ben Street will be bigger factors up front, complementing a strong recruiting class.

9. Miami — Yes, the RedHawks lost a ton in Ryan Jones (Hobey finalist), Nathan Davis (2007 Hobey finalist) and junior goalie Jeff Zatkoff. That means a freshman will start in net. Mitch Ganzak will also be a big loss on the backline. However, Davis didn't play most of the season and Miami was still one shot away from the Frozen Four, and so much else is returning. Assuming the goaltending is stable, you're looking at 25-goal scorer Justin Mercier returning as a senior, Carter Camper and his 41 points come back as a sophomore, Brian Kaufman, Jarod Palmer, Pat Cannone and Tommy Wingels are all very strong forwards. And defenseman Alec Martinez leads a still-solid defense.

10. Northern Michigan — It's time for the Wildcats to make their move and return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2000. The Wildcats were very strong down the stretch, and went 1-1 at Joe Louis Arena at the CCHA Championships. Freshman Mark Olver didn't get a lot of ink, but scored 21 goals. Another freshman, Phil Fox, had 13, and another, defenseman Erik Gustafson, had 27 assists and a plus-15. Goalie Brian Stewart will be a junior, and only one defenseman graduates.

Some others that will be right there include New Hampshire, Vermont and Denver, all of which will be playing with freshmen or otherwise untested, unproven goaltenders. Michigan State will be very good if Tim Kennedy doesn't leave, but that's a big if right now. Another team to watch out for is Princeton, which lost next to nothing from a team that was very strong down the stretch and made the NCAAs. The biggest loss is senior defenseman Mike Moore, but all of the top forwards are back, as is goaltender Zane Kalemba.

It goes without saying that Nathan Gerbe, who will be a senior, is the key preseason Hobey favorite next year, assuming he returns. A lot of top scorers are leaving early or graduating, but if these guys return, here are some of the others to keep an eye on: Ryan Lasch (Jr., St. Cloud State), Ben Smith (Jr., Boston College), Aaron Palushaj (So., Michigan), Justin Mercier (Sr., Miami), Tim Kennedy (Sr., Michigan State), Chad Rau (Sr., Colorado College).

Also to watch out for this summer:

* The rules committee may decide to change the overtime rules to something more like the NHL, keep it the same, or something else entirely.

* The two-referee system may be mandated

* You are likely to see a further change to the rules regarding kicking the puck into the net, after the Notre Dame controversy.

* The NHL Draft is always interesting

* There will be the usual bevy of early departures, adding to those that have already left

* The NHL and NHLPA will continue to meet with college hockey people to see if changes can be made that would help stem the tide of early departures, and particularly mid-season departures.

* Next year, the Frozen Four is in Washington D.C. for the first time, and I'm looking forward to it already.

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