October 10, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA: What to Watch, 2012-13

by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer

Minnesota's Nate Schmidt

Minnesota's Nate Schmidt

This will be the last season of the WCHA as we know it. Once Penn State elevated its program to Division I, Wisconsin and Minnesota announced their intentions to join the new Big Ten conference in 2013. That set the wheels in motion for North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha to break away and join Miami in forming the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. St. Cloud State, along with Western Michigan, later joined the NCHC as well. Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota State and Bemidji State will remain in a new-look WCHA that will welcome five CCHA schools into the fold.

But all those changes are still in the future. In the present, we have one last wild ride featuring a group that has combined to win 31 national championships, including eight in the last 16 years. Minnesota took the MacNaughton Cup as the regular season champion last year, while North Dakota won the conference tournament to claim the Broadmoor Trophy for the third consecutive season.

Key storylines

Minnesota is the clear favorite

Simply put, the Gophers return a ton. They bring back 11 double-digit scorers, including four 40-point scorers in Erik Haula, Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Nate Schmidt. Bjugstad's 25 goals last year are tied for the most among returning Division I players, making him one of the Hobey Baker favorites entering the season. The Gophers also return all six of their starting defensemen, a group led by Schmidt.

The only question mark for the Gophers is in net, where they lose everyday starter Kent Patterson. Vying to replace him will be junior Michael Shibrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox. Shibrowski, who went to Colorado College as a freshman before transferring to Minnesota, has allowed four goals in five periods of college hockey. Wilcox is a sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning who ranked third in the USHL in save percentage last season and was named Tri-City's team MVP.

"We liked what Shibrowski did last year in practice, even though he didn't have the opportunity to play," said coach Don Lucia. "Obviously Wilcox was drafted by Tampa and had a good couple years in the USHL. He's very athletic, handles the puck extremely well. That'll play itself out. We are inexperienced, but there's only one way to gain experience, and that's for them to play. I think for the beginning of the year, we'll just rotate them for a few weeks and see what happens."

Can Denver overcome its losses and stay near the top?

The Pioneers are looking to reach the Final Five for the sixth straight year, but they have some big holes to fill. Forwards Drew Shore (22-31—53), Jason Zucker (22-24-46) and Beau Bennett (4-9-13 in 10 games) all elected to go pro after last season. Nick Shore, who put up 41 points of his own last year, will take over his brother's spot as the top-line center and offensive leader, while defenseman Joey LaLeggia (38 points) will look to build on a freshman season that earned him CHN Rookie of the Year honors.

Chris Knowlton (12 goals), Shawn Ostrow (11) and Ty Loney (10) will be counted on to step up and help replace the scoring output of Shore and Zucker. While the Pioneers jell on offense, defense and goaltending should be a strength. They return five regular defensemen, including a healthy David Makowski, plus the best goalie tandem in the conference in Sam Brittain and Juho Olkinuora. Olkinuora will miss the first four games while serving a suspension for violating team rules.

"We're gonna be built a little differently this year," said coach George Gwozdecky. "We're gonna be very strong in goal. ... Then on the blue line, we're gonna be very deep and talented, led by Paul Phillips, our captain. Joey LaLeggia was the national rookie of the year. Scotty Mayfield and Josiah Didier are coming back after very strong freshman years. And the one guy we didn't have from December to the end of the season was David Makowski, who arguably could've been one of the top defensemen in the league last year."

Will Wisconsin's forwards step up?

The Badgers ranked eighth in the league in offense last year and finished a disappointing 10th in the standings. The good news is that they return all 12 of their forwards who scored a goal last season. The bad news is that they lose defenseman Justin Schultz, who led the team in goals with 16. Without that kind of offensive production from the blue line, the forwards will need to step up and put the puck in the net more on their own if Wisconsin hopes to compete for home ice.

Mark Zengerle is the unquestioned leader up front. His 50 points and 1.35 points per game are both tops among returning D-I players. Michael Mersch scored 14 goals and Tyler Barnes scored 11, but after that no one scored more than seven. The Badgers suffered a tough blow over the weekend when top freshman Nic Kerdiles — a second-round pick in this summer's NHL Draft — was ruled ineligible for the season because of amateurism violations. Kerdiles is currently appealing the ruling.

"The expectations are certainly higher than last year," coach Mike Eaves said of his forwards. "Last year, we had a lot of young people playing and going through the process. Now the expectations are higher because we're starting further into that process, and that's a good thing."

Minnesota-Duluth has a lot to replace

Coming off four straight Final Five appearances, the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do if they hope to get back. They lose their top three scorers and five of their top eight, including Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly and fellow 20-goal scorers Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown. Also gone is goalie Kenny Reiter, who started 38 of 41 games last season.

"We've got some unknowns and some holes to fill, no question," said coach Scott Sandelin. "But I think our team is going to be a hard-working group, led by Cody Danberg, who is probably the oldest guy in the league now. He's in his sixth year after a couple redshirt injuries, and he's our captain, a real big character guy. He kind of epitomizes our team. We're certainly going to rely on our upperclassmen."

Caleb Herbert, Mike Seidel and Joe Basaraba will be the new leaders up front, but the Bulldogs will need bigger offensive contributions from just about everyone. In goal, junior Aaron Crandall will compete with freshmen Alex Fons and Matt McNeely. Crandall hasn't been great when he has played, and neither Fons nor McNeely are blue-chip recruits, so goaltending might be an even bigger question mark than scoring.

Mike Hastings takes over at Minnesota State

It was only a matter of time before Hastings became a Division I head coach, and now he gets his chance at Minnesota State. He spent the last three years as the associate head coach at Nebraska-Omaha and served as an assistant coach at Minnesota for a year before that. Prior to that, Hastings spent 14 years as the head coach of the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers, where he won three Clark Cup titles and became the league's all-time winningest coach.

"It's a privilege to be a part of the WCHA and be back with a lot of people I consider friends and be competing against them," Hastings said. "Obviously the WCHA is second to none, so it's a great honor."

Hastings takes over a Minnesota State program that has finished eighth or worse each of the last four years, including an 11th-place finish a season ago. There are reasons to be optimistic this year, though. The Mavericks return seven of their top 10 forwards and five of their top six defensemen, and they bring in a stellar freshman class led by second-round NHL pick Teddy Blueger.

"I think the key for us this year is going to be how our seniors lead this team," Hastings said. "We told them that right away. Tyler Elbrecht and Eriah Hayes, those two guys have had a great summer and really established themselves along with our senior goaltender Phil Cook, defenseman Evan Mosey and also Eli Zuck. Their leadership's going to be important for us because we've got 16 underclassmen."

How will the new goalies perform?

We've already touched on the goaltending situations at Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, but there are others who will be relying on new faces in goal, too. North Dakota replaces Brad Eidsness and Aaron Dell with freshman Zane Gothberg, a sixth-round NHL pick and USHL Co-Goaltender of the Year, and junior Clarke Saunders, a transfer from Alabama-Huntsville who played well on a bad team.

Nebraska-Omaha loses top goalie Ryan Massa, and although former starter John Faulkner is back, freshman Anthony Stolarz (a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers) is expected to see plenty of playing time. Michigan Tech also loses its starter — Josh Robinson. Freshmen Jamie Phillips (a seventh-round NHL pick) and Pheonix Copley are expected to compete with senior Kevin Genoe for playing time.

Players to watch

Erik Haula, Junior, Forward, Minnesota

Everyone's talking about Bjugstad as a Hobey favorite, and rightly so, but don't be surprised if Haula ends up right there with him. As the second-line center behind Bjugstad, he actually led the Gophers in points with 49, and his 20 goals were second only to Bjugstad. If Haula and his linemates can produce like they did last year, Minnesota will have two of the best lines in the country.

Rocco Grimaldi, Redshirt Freshman, Forward, North Dakota

Grimaldi was picked as the media's preseason rookie of the year last season, but he played just four games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Now the 2011 second-round pick is healthy, and he is expected to be a key contributor. North Dakota lost leading scorer Brock Nelson, but when you add Grimaldi to a group that includes Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, Carter Rowney, Mark MacMillan and Michael Parks, it's easy to imagine this being one of the highest scoring teams in both the league and the country.

Drew LeBlanc, Senior, Forward, St. Cloud State

LeBlanc had a few offers from NHL teams after a 39-point junior season in 2010-11, but he elected to return to the Huskies. Last year didn't go as planned, though. LeBlanc broke his leg in November and missed the rest of the season. Fortunately he received a medical redshirt and now he's back for a second go at a senior season. The Huskies return leading scorer Ben Hanowski, but lose their next three point-scoring forwards from last season, meaning they'll need LeBlanc to pick up where he left off pre-injury.

David Makowski, Junior, Defenseman, Denver

Makowski is another player coming off a season cut short by injury. After putting together a great freshman season and getting off to a good start last year, Makowski missed the final 23 games last season while battling ongoing migraines. He has finally been cleared of those issues, and now he is poised to become a leader for the Pioneers at both ends of the ice.

Josh Thorimbert, Junior, Goalie, Colorado College

The Tigers might struggle to replace three of their top four scorers, but they'll have one of the best safety blankets in the conference to bail them out. Thorimbert ranked third in the WCHA with a .924 save percentage and earned third team all-conference honors. The Tigers may have to rely on Thorimbert even more this season, especially as they find their feet offensively early on.

Joel Rumpel, Sophomore, Goalie, Wisconsin

Rumpel won the Badgers' starting job as a freshman and finished right behind Thorimbert with a .919 save percentage. If Wisconsin's forwards step up and Rumpel repeats his freshman performance, the Badgers could be poised for a huge jump up the standings and a deep postseason run.

Jordan George, Senior, Forward, Bemidji State

The Beavers don't have a lot coming back — they lose three of their top five scorers and starting goalie Dan Bakala — but Jordan George is a player opponents have to take note of. He ranked just outside the top 10 with 19 goals last season, and his four game-winners were tied for fifth. If the Beavers are going to do anything this season, it will be George leading the way.

Blake Pietila, Sophomore, Forward, Michigan Tech

The Huskies relied on a lot of young guys during last year's run to the Final Five, and Pietila was one of the leaders of that group. The New Jersey Devils pick tied for fourth on the team with 24 points last year, and he will be expected to improve on that and take on an even bigger role this year. If he and other forwards can continue to get better, a return trip to the Final Five should be within reach.

Josh Archibald, Sophomore, Forward, Nebraska-Omaha

Archibald was something of a surprise pick for last year's World Junior team, but he showed that he belonged by exhibiting the energy and physicality Dean Blais had seen all season at Omaha. The natural next step for Archibald is to build on his 10 goals last year and become a go-to forward for the Mavericks. That would be a huge help to a team that lost two of its top three scorers in Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna.

Freshmen to Know

Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly, Defensemen, Minnesota

Both guys will have to earn their playing time, as the Gophers return six regular defensemen, but both have the potential to be impact players from the get-go. Skjei is a U.S. National Team Development Program product who went 28th overall to the New York Rangers this summer, while Reilly was a fourth-round pick in 2011 who led the British Columbia Hockey League in scoring by a defenseman last year.

Brian Cooper and Nick Seeler, Defensemen, Nebraska-Omaha

The Mavericks also bring in a pair of dynamic freshman defensemen. Both are fifth-round picks — Seeler in 2011 to the Minnesota Wild and Cooper in 2012 to the Anaheim Ducks — and both will get a chance to be everyday players from the start. Both are touted as solid two-way players.

Jordan Schmaltz, Defenseman, North Dakota

Like Minnesota, North Dakota has a lot of returning defensemen, as everyone but Ben Blood is back. But Schmaltz should still see plenty of playing time. The offensive-mind blue-liner was the second-highest scoring defenseman in the USHL last year, and he was picked 25th overall by the St. Louis Blues this summer.

Quentin Shore, Forward, Denver

Yes, there's another one. Quentin follows in the footsteps of older brothers Drew and Nick, and he will be expected to develop into an impact forward just like those two. Shore went undrafted this summer despite being ranked 80th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, so he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder this year.

Jimmy Murray, Forward, St. Cloud State

The Huskies just lost their top freshman — Joey Benik — to a broken leg, but that just means someone else now has a chance to shine. That someone could be Murray, who ranked seventh in the USHL in scoring last season with 68 points in 60 games. He comes in as a 20-year-old, so he may not need a whole lot of time to adjust to the college game.

Austin Farley, Forward, Minnesota-Duluth

Like Murray, Farley was a top-10 scorer in the USHL last year, as he tallied 59 points in 51 games. Perhaps more than any other team, the Bulldogs will need freshmen to contribute immediately. Farley has the potential to do just that.

Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan, Forwards, Michigan Tech

The Huskies might not be the first team you think of for blue-chip freshmen, but these two guys qualify. Khaira ranked 10th in the BCHL with 79 points in 54 games and got picked in the third round by the Edmonton Oilers this summer. Petan is two years older, and actually had an even better BCHL season. He finished fourth in goals with 38 and sixth in points with 88.

Teddy Blueger and Bryce Gervais, Forwards, Minnesota State

Hastings can thank Troy Jutting for recruiting these two gems. Blueger led Shattuck-St. Mary's with 88 points last season and was drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Gervais' 42 goals for the Penticton Vees last year tied him with teammate (and Notre Dame freshman) Mario Lucia for the BCHL lead.

Hunter Fejes, Forward, Colorado College

Fejes played with Blueger at Shattuck-St. Mary's and wound up leading the team in goals with 38. Like Blueger, he also got drafted this summer, going to the Phoenix Coyotes in the sixth round. He could help compensate for the loss of Jaden Schwartz and Nick Dineen.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Minnesota
2. North Dakota
3. Denver
4. Wisconsin
5. St. Cloud State
6. Michigan Tech
7. Nebraska-Omaha
8. Minnesota-Duluth
9. Colorado College
10. Minnesota State
11. Bemidji State
12. Alaska-Anchorage

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