October 4, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Team Preview Capsules

by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer (@chrismboulay)

The WCHA had a dominant performance from Bemidji State during last year’s regular season. However, the impressive year from the Beavers came to a halt during the conference tournament, when Bowling Green upset the MacNaughton Cup champions. Michigan Tech upended the Falcons for the Broadmoor Trophy, taking the conference’s sole NCAA tournament bid.

There may be an equal amount of drama this year, especially with the possibility of another surprise team going on a roll on its way to the regular season title.

Alabama-Huntsville

Head Coach: Mike Corbett (5th year)
2016-17 Record: 9-22-3, 9-16-3 (9th)

Changes: The Chargers lost a large senior class from last season. Defenseman Brandon Carlson, along with forwards Brent Fletcher, Cody Marooney Matt Salhany and Regan Soquila, completed their eligibility. Goaltenders Carmine Guerriero and Matt Larose also graduated.

Strength: Goaltending should be a strong point for Alabama-Huntsville this year. Jordan Uhelski won the starting job from seniors Guerriero and Larose to appear in 23 games. The netminder posted a .906 save percentage, and could post solid numbers this season. He will likely compete for the position with freshman Mark Sinclair, who impressed since he arrived on campus.

“Even though we had two seniors — and two very impressive young men — they happened to struggle their senior year,” Corbett said. “We had roughly [an] 89 [percent] save percentage moving forward last year. We know in our league, and at the Division I level, that doesn’t cut it. We’re looking for improved goaltending. Jordan played about 17 games [last year]. Mark will come in. I think he’s shown very well in the preseason here to be able to come in and contribute in net for us, so we’re excited about that.”

Weakness: Penalties are the team’s Achilles’ heel; the Chargers were in the box for 15.8 minutes per game last season, putting them seventh in the country. This was notably higher than the previous year’s 13.5 penalty minutes per game, and lowering this is necessary to take pressure off of the defense.

2017-18 Outlook: The Chargers missed the WCHA playoffs by just four points last season. If they can start a downward trend on penalty minutes, and successfully weather the brutal road trips — one that puts them away from campus for nearly six weeks straight — Huntsville fans may see playoff hockey.

Prediction: 10th

Alaska

Head Coach: Lance West (1st year)
2016-17 Record: 12-20-4, 11-13-4 (6th)

Changes: After six seasons, coach Dallas Ferguson left for the WHL, giving way to former Alabama-Huntsville star and longtime Alaska assistant Lance West. In addition, the team lost Marcus Basara, Josh Erickson, Brandon Morely and Davis Jones to graduation. Goaltender Jesse Jenks and forward John Mullally are no longer with the team.

Strength: Alaska returns seven of its top-nine scorers from last year, which will help stabilize the team in the midst of so much change. While there wasn’t a double-digit scorer among them last year, the familiar faces should be able to improve from last year’s effort.

“As for the [defense] and the forwards, we’re really excited about our depth,” West said. “We think we’re way more balanced than we’ve been. We may not have as many of the high-end guys from our all-American days with Kunyk and Parayko, but we’re really, really excited about the group. These guys have had unbelievable work ethic. They’ve come in and guys have tested well. Probably some of the best physical tests we’ve had in my 10 years here, and we had some guys set some records this year.”

Weakness: Goaltending is a significant question mark for the Nanooks this season. In 2016-17, Jones and Jenks split time in net, making nearly 1,000 saves combined. With both gone, neither returning goalie has any in-game experience. There’s going to need to be some quick learning from the young guys in Fairbanks. However, Swedish import Anton Martinsson has opened eyes early on. He was ineligible last year because of NCAA issues, but had a 4.0 GPA while practicing with the team all year, and is now ready to go.

2017-18 Outlook: It’s positive that West takes the helm with skating depth, but someone needs to separate themselves from the pack to be a point producer. With no experienced goaltender on the roster, it could be a long season in Fairbanks.

Prediction: 9th

Alaska-Anchorage

Head Coach: Matt Thomas (5th year)
2016-17 Record: 7-21-6, 6-16-6 (10th)

Changes: Forward Aleksi Ainali left to play in Finland, while forward Sean MacTavish departed to play Canadian collegiate hockey. Mason Mitchell and Chase Van Allen signed pro contracts, and defenseman Eric Roberts is no longer with the team. Connor Wright, Rasmus Reijola, Dylan Hubbs, Brad Duwe all graduated.

Strength: The Seawolves will depend heavily on their goaltender this year. Senior Olivier Mantha recorded a .913 save percentage in 2016-17, and with a team that doesn’t have much firepower, it’s necessary that he comes up big again in 2017-18.

“This year, we boast a senior class of six,” Thomas said. “Five of the six have been impactful and everyday players for us since they stepped onto campus. That group is highlighted by Olivier Mantha, who is a very good goalie, and obviously has been a catalyst. He’s a three-time MVP for our program, so it shows you how well he’s respected among his teammates.

Weakness: Scoring was a problem last year, and it should only get more complicated for Alaska-Anchorage this season. Mitchell was the only player to score double-digit goals last year. Three returning players scored five goals apiece last season, so someone will need to step up and make things happen on offense.

2017-18 Outlook: With scoring an ongoing concern, it opens up an opportunity for Mantha to steal games for the Seawolves. If he improves upon last season’s effort, his performance could will Thomas’ team into the WCHA playoffs.

Prediction: 8th

Bemidji State

Head Coach: Tom Serratore (17th year)
2016-17 Record: 22-16-3, 20-6-2 (1st)

Changes: Defenseman Brett Beauvais went to Robert Morris as a graduate transfer. Defenseman Carter Struthers also graduated. Most of the team’s losses were forwards including co-captain Nate Arentz, along with fellow seniors Charlie O’Connor, Phillip Marinaccio and Brendan Harms. Goaltenders Reid Mimmack and Jesse Wilkins completed their eligibility, as well. Junior Adam Lovick is now the team’s student assistant.

Strength: The Beavers are a defensive team, and Michael Bitzer is returning between the pipes. The senior was third in save percentage (.932) and joins a mostly intact defensive corps from last season. Bemidji had the second-best scoring defense in the country last year, allowing just 1.93 goals per game. Expect those numbers to improve.

“We have our goaltender back, and we have all six defenseman back who played in the playoffs last year,” Serratore said. “So we’re experienced in goal and experienced in the back end.”

Weakness: Bemidji lost three of its top five scorers from last season. That’s not great news for a team that only averaged 2.28 goals per game, which was 50th in the nation. It’s going to be important for Gerry Fitzgerald and Kyle Bauman to have big years.

“It’s always time for somebody else to step up,” Serratore said. “We have 10 returning forwards and we have five freshman who came in. It’s a situation where there are some spots open, and competition. It’s exciting to see guys get after it, and we’re waiting for some guys to step up. It’s their time right now. We have a senior class that we’re going to lean on heavily. How they go, I think our team’s going to go.”

2017-18 Outlook: Having such a deep defense and one of the best goaltenders in the country returning is a combination few teams could boast about.  Serratore’s team shocked everyone by blowing through the regular season last year. It won’t be a surprise if they do it this year. Bemidji is dangerous, but everyone will be looking to exact revenge against last year’s regular season champion.

Prediction: 2nd

Bowling Green

Head Coach: Chris Bergeron (8th year)
2016-17 Record: 21-18-2, 14-13-1 (4th)

Changes: The Falcons lost defensemen Mark Friedman, Sean Walker and forwards Kevin Dufour, Matt Pohlkamp, Pierre-Luc Mercier and goaltender Chris Nell to pro contracts.

Strength: Bergeron should see continued strong play from his defensive pairings. The majority of Bowling Green’s defense returns, and Alec Rauhauser and Chris Pohlkamp should help the team, as they get a new goaltender acclimated in Nell’s place.

Weakness: Bowling Green will need to find its scoring identity early on. Mitchell McLain, along with Walker, Dufour and Friedman all reached double-digit goals during last season’s successful run. Only McLain remains, and he needs help to improve upon the team’s 2.93 goals scored per game last year, which was 27th in the nation.

“We’ve lost some players, but as college sports goes, that’s another opportunity for somebody else,” Bergeron said. “We’re not really focused on the people we don’t have, but the people that we do. I’m looking forward to seeing how some of our guys returning can take their games to another level, and some of the new guys — seeing how they contribute.

2017-18 Outlook: Bergeron is looking for his younger guys to fill the holes left by his departing stars, but it’s a big ask. This is still a tough team, but they may not be competing for a league title like they were expected to last year. It may be a step back before BG is ready to make another run at an elusive NCAA bid.

Prediction: 6th

Ferris State

Head Coach: Bob Daniels (26th year)
2016-17 Record: 13-19-5, 12-12-4 (5th)

Changes: The Bulldogs lost defenseman Ryan Lowney and forwards Gerald Mayhew, Chad McDonald and Jared VanWormer to graduation.

Strength: Last year, Ferris State had solid goaltending from its young tandem of Justin Kapelmaster and Darren Smith. Kapelmaster was one of the best goalies in the country last year, posting a .930 save percentage in 19 games, and should be even better this year as the defense gains experience.

“We feel really good about our d-corps, and the same about our goaltending,” Daniels said. “We think that we have some great competition in net. From the back-end moving out, we feel really good.”

Weakness: Scoring could take a hit this year; Daniels’ team needs to make up for the 38 goals lost by the outgoing seniors. Ferris only scored 2.57 goals per game last year, so finding goals quickly will be a premium. It helps that the team returns all but four skaters.

2017-18 Outlook: Good teams almost always have good goaltending. Daniels has a gem in Kapelmaster, and he this team could ride deep into the postseason on his shoulders. If Ferris can improve offensive production, they could surprise some people.

Prediction: 4th

Lake Superior State

Head Coach: Damon Whitten (4th year)
2016-17 Record: 11-18-7, 8-13-7 (7th)

Changes: Goaltender Gordon Defiel, defenseman Kris Bindulis and forward Mitch Hults signed pro contracts. James Roll transferred to Niagara and Luke Morgan transferred to Michigan. Forward Gus Correale graduated.

Strength: The Lakers shouldn’t experience scoring woes this year. Losing just two of the team’s top-eight scorers, it stands to reason that the team will improve upon last year’s 2.86 goals per game. Whitten will look to J.T. Henke, Gage Torrel and Max Humitz to lead the way.

“We’re excited that we have four seniors,” Whitten said. “They’re going to provide a real strong leadership base for our program that we haven’t had in the past couple years. One of those seniors is J.T. Henke. He’s led our team in scoring the last two years. Obviously, we’ll look to J.T. to continue that offensive impact he has on a nightly basis, and even have a career year.”

Weakness: With Defiel’s departure, Lake State may have struggles ahead in goal. The job is likely junior Nick Kossoff’s to lose. After a strong freshman campaign where he posted a .918 in 13 games, he took a backseat to Defiel last season. His six appearances and a save percentage of .881 are concerning. However, with an intact defense, there may be optimism that he will have time find his freshman form again.

2017-18 Outlook: Things are looking up for the Lakers. Losing Defiel hurts, but if Whitten can solve the goaltending issues, there’s reason to believe that Lake State can get home ice in the conference tournament. Replicating last year’s hot start will go a long way in ensuring that occurs.

Prediction: 5th

Michigan Tech

Head Coach: Joe Shawhan (1st year)
2016-17 Record: 23-15-7, 15-7-6 (2nd)

Changes: Coach Mel Pearson left for Michigan following six seasons in Houghton. He helped resurrect the program, but the one thing Tech fans feared was that he could return to Michigan when Red Berenson retired, and that's exactly what happened. He turned the reins over to capable assistant Joe Shawhan, but where that leads, is anyone's guess. Michigan Tech also lost seniors Shane Hanna, Chris Leibinger, Cliff Watson, Tyler Heinonen, Mike Neville, Reid Sturos and Matt Wintjes to graduation. Goaltender Angus Redmond and defenseman Matt Roy signed pro contracts.

Strength: Losing a young, talented goaltender in Redmond certainly hurt, but Michigan Tech got a potential gem in the transfer of Packy Munson. The former Vermont and Denver goaltender hasn’t played since 2015-16, but that year, he put up an impressive .920 save percentage in 21 games for the Catamounts. This solidifies what was a worry spot for the Huskies, and Munson’s presence could be a significant part of what brings the team success this season.

“We got a tremendous boost in a late addition of Patrick ‘Packy’ Munson,” Shawhan said. “He’s going to give us a lot of depth in goal. He’s provided a lot of competition. I think goaltending is going to be a strength of ours this year. I know in the summertime, it was the angst of what I was trying to make sure that we resolved. We went down a number of avenues with that. We were very fortunate with the way it worked out.”

Weakness: Leadership may be the Achilles’ heel of the Huskies this year. It’s tough to adjust from the loss of a successful coach and a large senior class with so many impact players. Michigan Tech lost four of the team’s top-five scorers from last year — two of them being defensemen — on top of losing two seasoned netminders. Shawhan is familiar with this group, and it will be a big test for him and seniors Joel L’Esperance and Mark Auk to push this talented team toward success.

2017-18 Outlook: With Pearson no longer on the bench, it’s a big blow to a school that has been on the rise under his tutelage. Shawhan has the reins now, and he will need to design a strategy that can absorb the significant losses in net and in the forward position. It’s hard to imagine that they will make a return to the NCAA tournament.

Prediction: 3rd

Minnesota State

Head Coach: Mike Hastings (6th year)
2016-17 Record: 22-13-4, 15-9-4 (3rd)

Changes: Defensemen Sean Flanagan and Carter Foguth graduated, as did forwards Michael Huntebrinker, Jordan Nelson, Zach Stepan and goaltender Cole Huggins.

Strength: Minnesota State may have the most dangerous returning scoring in the conference. The team’s top-six point-scorers are back, and four of them reached double-digit goals. It should position the team to make a serious run at the conference.

“We’re going to lean on some guys who have been around the block for us,” Hastings said. “We’re going to look to our senior leadership. Up front, we’ve got three guys who hopefully will be able to continue some of the success they’ve had up until this point for their senior years, in C.J. Suess, Brad McClure and Zeb Knudsen. They’ve, at different times in their three years prior to this year, have stepped up and been leaders for us.”

A lot of eyes will be on defenseman Daniel Brickley as well, a player CHN pegged as the top NHL free agent to watch this season.

Weakness: While not much can be pointed out as a weakness on this team, it should be noted that there were struggles on special teams for a team as talented as the Mavericks. Hastings’ team was 28th in the country on the penalty kill last year, which was 28th in the nation. A year more of experience for the defensive corps may be able to improve that number in 2017-18.

2017-18 Outlook: This Mavericks team returns most of its impact players. There should be little doubt that Hastings has the team best equipped to take the title. With so much scoring depth, along with a solid defense and a wealth of goaltending options, it would be a surprise if they aren’t on top at season’s end. The only question seems to be, how high up the Pairwise this team will be when all is said and done.

Prediction: 1st

Northern Michigan

Head Coach: Grant Potulny, (1st year)
2016-17 Record: 13-22-4, 10-15-3 (8th)

Changes: Coach Walt Kyle was fired last season after 15 years with the team, replaced by former Minnesota standout Grant Potulny. Northern Michigan is a much different environment than Potulny is used to, but the 37-year old brings in a jolt of much-needed enthusiasm. Defenseman Brock Maschmeyer graduated, as did forwards Gerard Hanson, Sami Salminen, Dominik Shine Casey Purpur and Shane Sooth.

Strength: This is a defensive team, and with most everyone returning, success in the back should continue. Atte Tolvanen, who made the lengthy shutout streak run last season, is the main starter, though Mathias Israelsson should also see playing time at certain points this year. Northern Michigan only gave up 2.77 goals per game last year, and it’s not unreasonable to see them take another step forward this year.

“The tandem of the goaltenders, that’s a strength for our team going into the year, no question,” Potulny said. “They both looked outstanding in practice. Really, really really impressive.”

Weakness: There may be some struggles on offense this year, as the Wildcats lost three of the top-five scorers, including Dominik Shine. There will need to be an immediate impact from the younger players to absorb some of the goals lost. Northern Michigan only scored 2.38 goals per game last season, so any losses to the attack are difficult to manage.

2017-18 Outlook: An impressive defensive team should help Northern Michigan stay a couple steps above the conference tournament cut line, but the lack of an offensive punch will probably prevent them from really making a push up the standings.

Prediction: 7th
 

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