Preview: Minnesota Tops WCHA Recruiting Trail
by Jasper Kozak-Miller/Recruiting Writer
Welcome to the new recruiting section here at College Hockey News. I'll be joining the staff as the new Recruiting Writer, writing regular updates, including new developments and college commitments. I also run a site called Over The Boards (www.overtheboards.net), where you can find more detail about the process for players, as well as in-depth coverage of the recruiting trail.
The WCHA features, as usual, some of the strongest recruits in college hockey. Headlining the incoming class are some names you might have heard quite a bit, including Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota), Brady Skjei (Minnesota), Anthony Stolarz (Nebraska-Omaha), Nic Kerdiles (Wisconsin), as well as quite a few lesser-known names, who are top prospects in their own right, such as Teddy Blueger (Minnesota State), Jujhar Khaira (Michigan Tech), Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) and Hunter Fejes (Colorado College).
While most teams in the WCHA have quite a few gems coming in to replace departing players, some whom were seniors, some whom departed for the pros, or other reasons (such as Nebraska-Omaha’s Ryan Massa, who is sitting out this year), some teams stand out above the rest.
Top Recruiting Class
The clear winner this year has to be Minnesota, which, as usual, tapped right into the home-state pipeline. Don Lucia and his staff did a great service in replacing a class of stellar seniors, which was headlined by goaltender Kent Patterson, forward Jake Hansen, and captain Taylor Matson.
Addressing their needs as any program should, they bring in blue-chip goaltender Adam Wilcox (6th Round, Tampa Bay, 2011), who played two seasons in the USHL, and was born in South St. Paul. Wilcox is an aggressive goaltender who likes to challenge in the paint and can handle the puck well, and the Gophers' sharp skaters will take that talent and run with it. Wilcox is the kind of guy you can rely on night in and night out, and that’s exactly the fit the Gophers need in net.
On the other side of the ice, three Minnesota-bred forwards are poised to make an impact right off the hop. Plymouth native Christian Horn, from state champion Benilde St. Margaret’s, will help add some offensive firepower. Alongside Horn, the Reilly brothers, who all laced up for the Penticton Vees (BCHL), will be joining the Gophers. Ryan and Connor are twins, both forwards, while younger brother Mike is an offensive mastermind from the blue line. All three put up well over a point per game in the BCHL, with what would end up being a record-breaking Penticton Vees squad. Not to ignore Brady Skjei, whose two-way play, stellar skating, and defensive prowess have blessed the USNTDP the past two seasons. The first-round pick (Rangers) should be noticeable immediately as a freshman.
Three-Way Tie For Second
Minnesota pulls away from the rest of the WCHA with its recruiting efforts, but runner-up is a tight race. North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin all bring in very strong classes of their own. North Dakota will be highly anticipating the arrival of defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, whose brother will join the team in 2014. They’ve been waiting for Schmaltz for just over two years now, and the only person they’ve been expecting longer is incoming netminder Zane Gothberg, who committed in 2009, finishing his USHL career by sharing goaltender of the year honors with Miami-bound Ryan McKay.
Forward Bryn Chyzyk, a Manitoba native who joined the USHL this past season, netted 28 goals and 21 assists, and will also have legitimate point-getting expectations hoisted upon him if UND is to make a title run. Other than that, they lose behemoth defenseman Ben Blood, who logged insane minutes for UND on his way to earning an All-WCHA First Team nod. Blood will be missed greatly, and Schmaltz, while he won’t fill the same role Blood did, could help to ease that transition.
Nebraska-Omaha brings in arguably the dark horse of the 2012 recruiting class, Anthony Stolarz, whose stock has risen like none other this year. Stolarz went from wearing undersized pads (due to a growth spurt), not being able to find a home on an EJHL roster, to now being the potential netminder of the future for the Philadelphia Flyers, who took a flyer (pun intended) on him in the second round. In addition to Stolarz, UNO has forward Tanner Lane, taken in a previous draft, finally joining the squad, who should be more than ready to contribute.
Lastly, Wisconsin brings in a small but respectable class led by Nic Kerdiles, taken in the second round by his hometown Anaheim Ducks, and forward Morgan Zulinick. Kerdiles is an athletic forward whose natural agility and stride excite scouts, and although his offensive ceiling might not be astronomical, it certainly will surprise opposing defensemen in Madison. While only five join the roster this season, as with most of the WCHA, the best is yet to come, as they have a few blue-chips coming down the pipeline, headlined by Benilde St. Margaret’s leading scorer Grant Besse (2014) and Chicago Mission forward Seamus Malone (2015).
Casualties and Feel-Good Stories
In a season of lost commitments, the WCHA has fared fairly well. In fact, Michigan Tech has a feel-good story of a kept commitment, as top prospect Jujhar Khaira, a 6-foot-3 power forward from the Prince George Cougars (BCHL), shied away from Major Junior offers and honored his commitment. The Edmonton Oilers should allow Khaira, their third-round pick this year, to develop at Michigan Tech for a while, since calling the Oilers current forward crop ‘deep’ would be a vast understatement.
UNO lost goaltender Ryan Massa for this season due to personal reasons, but that can be eased by the arrival of aforementioned Stolarz. However, two of their three leading scorers departed for the pro ranks, Jayson Megna and captain Terry Broadhurst, and that will not be an easily filled void. They also lose out on what would have been a second Broadhurst brother, top forward prospect Alex, who was deemed academically ineligible to join the squad and will be playing for the London Knights of the OHL.
On that aspect, Minnesota again wins out with the return of big-time forward Nick Bjugstad, who opted to return this season instead of joining his NHL rights-holding Florida Panthers. His 25 goals and 17 assists from last season will now be expected as the Gophers try to get back to the Frozen Four this year.
Last but not Least
Some situations that might be worth keeping an eye on in the WCHA this year: the arrival of the third Shore brother, Quentin, will arrive alongside Travis Zajac’s younger brother, Nolan, in Denver this fall. Jared Hanson, an Alaska-native forward, played for Lincoln of the USHL this past season and could really be a surprise contributor for Colorado College, alongside incoming freshmen forward Hunter Fejes, who hails from prep power Shattuck St. Mary's.
Minnesota-Duluth brings in a very solid recruiting class of its own, with 11 new freshmen joining the squad, led by the U.S. Junior Player of the Year, defenseman Andrew Welinski, a third-round pick of Anaheim in 2011. However, Duluth appears to be fighting the Gophers for the best class next year already, with the potential arrival of defensemen Blake Heinrich and Willie Raskob, and lights out home-town forward Dom Toninato (Duluth-East HS).
Meanwhile, the Gophers have budding star Hudson Fasching, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound former Apple Valley High School phenom, now playing for the NTDP, leading next year’s class alongside Louie Nanne and Taylor Cammarata, just to name a few. It should be interesting to see who comes in when, but if Duluth’s recruits finish strong, and end up joining the team in 2013, the Bulldogs will be right in the mix for the top class of 2013.
Jasper Kozak-Miller can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @OTBPuckWatch.