Big Ten Watch List, 2017-18
5 Things To Watch
The Fighting Irish begin their first season as official members of Big Ten Hockey. Notre Dame was Hockey East’s lone representative at the Frozen Four last year and adds much-needed depth to the conference. But they’re joining the league after being decimated by eventual NCAA champion Denver and losing their two best players — forward Anders Bjork and goalkeeper Cal Petersen. The move also gives Notre Dame some travel respite given its proximity to teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
“Playing in the Big Ten, I think it's something that’s certainly going to be an important contribution to our program and its history,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. “It’s great for us to reestablish some old rivalries that we had from the CCHA and obviously some teams that we’ve played more recently like Penn State and Minnesota.”
Coaches predicted the Fighting Irish would compete for a regular-season title right away, slotting them at No. 2 in the preseason poll. Regardless of where Notre Dame finishes this year, there’s no question the program brings much-needed strength and depth.
“It’s just been a huge positive for our league in general,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “(I have) a lot of respect for their coaching staff, their program and they bring a great brand to our league.”
Minnesota’s Postseason Pressure
The Gophers have always entered the season with a stacked team, constantly bringing in top-tier freshmen to replace whatever talented upperclassmen left during the offseason. So each season Minnesota is one of the top teams in the conference and usually wins the regular-season title.
But just once since the Big Ten’s formation has Minnesota claimed a conference tournament title. And they’ve struggled in NCAAs since making the Frozen Four in 2014 — despite having a large returning roster. The Gophers are, once again, in position to take charge of the conference. But if they finish first, will they be able to make some noise in the playoffs?
Who’s Behind the Bench?
It’s a new era for Michigan (the state) hockey. Both teams have taken on new leadership, with Michigan seeing its first new head coach since the early 1980s. While Mel Pearson tries to bring Michigan to the top, Danton Cole is at Michigan State trying to right the program.
“You look at two teams that were down last year in Michigan State and Michigan and you look at changes that they made behind the bench and changes that they made on how they’ve recruited,” Wisconsin’s Tony Granato said. “I think they’re both back in the mix of teams that will certainly push to make a big improvement from last year.”
It’s a tale of two teams for Michigan. The Wolverines, after losing all their scoring, had a down year. Their coaching change was prompted by Red Berenson retiring, while Michigan State’s came from the program’s decline.
Both teams are in an interesting position. It will take Michigan State longer to climb to the top than Michigan, but it will be interesting to see how quickly both coaches make an impact this year.
Penn State’s Defense
The Nittany Lions have been one of the most consistent teams in the conference over the past few seasons, but it’s been hard to measure a defense that doesn’t see the puck much. But then what happens when that defense is really needed?
“I think we really want to improve the consistency of our defensive play,” PSU coach Guy Gadowsky said. “I think there’s areas that we can control that we can be much better at and much more consistent at.”
To make matters more interesting, Vince Pedrie, the team’s standout defenseman, left early for a professional contract. While Gadowsky is confident the team has players to replace him, the defense will face an increased test in a tougher conference this year.
Since the NHL has barred its players from participating in the Olympics, the spotlight now falls on college hockey’s finest. The Badgers have already been affected, with coach Tony Granato chosen as the USA bench boss. There’s a chance the Big Ten could see some players join him.
5 Players To Watch
Casey Mittlestadt, F, Minnesota
Mittlestadt, last year’s Mr. Hockey in the state of Minnesota, is one of the most talented freshman this season. He was named the USA Today All-USA Athlete of the Year and the Associate Press Player of the Year last season, when he helped Eden Prairie to the Minnesota state tournament. Mittlestadt also spent time with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL and participated in the 2016 All-American Prospects Game, where he was named MVP. Awards aside, Mittelstadt is heralded for his skill.
“He’s a talented player. You don’t get picked that high in the (NHL) draft (8th overall in 2017) without a tremendously high skill level,” Don Lucia said. “He’s competitive. What I’ve enjoyed the most about him so far is he’s a humble kid. He’s one of those elite players that you walk in the locker room and you could say, 'You know what, he’s a fifth line guy.'”
Kyle Hayton, G, Wisconsin
Hayton has the chance to be the best goaltender in the Big Ten this season. He comes from the ECAC after being the backbone for a strong defensive St. Lawrence team, where he was named the ECAC Goaltender of the Year last season. As a freshman he was the ECAC Rookie of the Year. Hayton, who joins the Big Ten as a graduate transfer, posted save percentages of .937, .935 and .929 as a freshman, sophomore and junior, respectively.
“He’s an elite goaltender that we have on our roster that everybody’s looking forward to watching and he’s looked strong in practice,” Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato said.
The conference has struggled with goaltending and the Badgers have especially struggled the past couple of seasons. The last time Wisconsin had a strong net presence was when Joel Rumpel was a junior — the same season the Badgers won the Big Ten tournament. Wisconsin isn’t a terribly young team, but they struggled last year and having a solid net presence — especially in a conference with no other star goalies — will make or break the Badgers’ year.
Ed Minney, G, Michigan State
When Minney matriculated to Michigan State, he was expected to replace Jake Hildebrand as the next go-to goalkeeper. But things didn’t go as planned, and after sitting behind Hildebrand for two years, Minney struggled. Last season he finished with a .833 save percentage and split some starts with freshman John Lethemon.
The Spartans are hoping that with a productive offseason and some surgery, Minney will have a spectacular senior year. They’ll need it, too. Michigan State is well in rebuilding mode and its only chance at a successful season comes from a great performance in net.
Mason Jobst, F, Ohio State
At 5-foot-8, Jobst is one of the smallest forwards in the league. Because of his size, he’s often overlooked. But what he lacks in size he, of course, makes up with speed. He impressed as a freshman on an offensively-laden Buckeye team, finishing with 30 points. He broke out last season, splintering through defenses and posting 55 points. That total was second in the Big Ten. With Ohio State missing one of its big guns, Nick Schilkey, look for even more production out of Jobst.
“Mase is just certainly a guy up front that did it all year for us last year. We went through some stretches where we were missing some guys and he was kind of that consistent player,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said. “I think that’s the biggest thing just day in and day out, what he brings to the table and the way he prepares and from off ice to on ice. It’s of one of those things as a coach you call the culture you want and he certainly brings that.”
Denis Smirnov, F, Penn State
It didn’t take Smirnov long to start scoring. He finished his rookie season with 47 points, good for 15th nationally, and first among freshmen. Most of Smirnov’s scoring came in the first half of the season and he cooled a little as the team entered Big Ten competition. He still posted six mutli-point games in conference competition.
“What is going to make him get better and better is that he’s still a young guy,” Gadowsky said. “We’re really fortunate at Pegula Ice Arena to have great training facilities and he’s really taken advantage of that so he’s improved his strength and his conditioning greatly since we saw him in September last year. I think he’s going to bring much of the same in terms of his vision and skill but I think it’s going to be easier on hiss body and he’s going to be able to play in traffic a little bit better.”
Predicted Order of Finish
3. Notre Dame
4. Penn Ste
5. Ohio Sate
7. Michigan State