October 4, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Watch List, 2017-18

by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer (@chrismboulay)

The WCHA had quite the unpredictable year last season, with Bemidji State surprising everyone for the regular-season championship. Michigan Tech had the most successful season in the end, winning the conference tournament championship and making the NCAAs.

With multiple new coaches and some new-look rosters, it’s possible that fans are in for another thrilling season that could easily put multiple teams into the national tournament in March. Minnesota State is the consensus favorite to win the conference, but Bemidji State returns many of its impact players and could make a push.

5 Things to Watch

Alaska Schools Here to Stay … For Now

The big question mark around the WCHA last season was the stability and long-term viability of the two Alaska schools. Both Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage were in the midst of a budget crisis, and there was real concern that the programs wouldn’t be able to survive in their current iterations.

However, the situation seems to be getting better, as both programs had reassurances that they are safe for the time being.

“From a league-wide level, we have achieved stability,” WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said. “We have moved forward from the uncertainties we faced a year ago at this time. The two Alaska schools both have had their status reaffirmed, even with ongoing state budget concerns, and plan to be playing collegiate hockey for the foreseeable future.”

Despite this, concerns still remain. Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson stepped down this summer after six years at the helm. While achieving some success at the school, it’s no secret that it was difficult to recruit for the Nanooks, especially since the Alaska Board of Regents released its study.

Theoretically, there could be improvements in recruiting issues, as it seems that worries about the viability of the two northernmost teams in college hockey aren’t as immediate as initially thought.

“Both Alaska schools have a solid foundation on which to grow,” Robertson said.

Non-conference Record Hurting Tournament Chances

Having just the WCHA tournament champion as the lone conference representative in each of the last two NCAA tournaments, the teams need to look at themselves and figure out how to improve their fortune quickly through ways they can control. The WCHA had an interconference record of 17-48-5 last year. The .279 winning percentage was the worst in Division I, and behind Atlantic Hockey’s .338.

“Our league is a good league,” Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said. “We got great coaches. We have great players. I have no issues with any of that. Our recruiting is doing fine. To me, that’s irrelevant. You have to win your non-conference games. We’re playing good teams. Our whole league is playing good teams non-conference. I look at who we’re playing right now, with Duluth, Air Force, Princeton and North Dakota. These aren’t easy teams, as well. We have to win those games.”

The difficulties out of conference are an issue that all 10 teams need to address in order for the best of the bunch in a given year to be in a position to win. In 2015-16, the situation wasn’t much better for the WCHA. The 28-36-9 record (.445) was fifth out of the six conferences. Scheduling the “tougher” teams hasn’t been a problem for many WCHA schools. They just haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities.

Serratore’s team last season is a perfect example of the problems with WCHA teams failing to win during the out of conference part of the schedule. Bemidji went 0-7-1 against non-conference opponents in 2016-17, with losses coming against North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Princeton.

Three New Coaches

Quite the shakeup occurred in the offseason, as the conference saw changes to three of its benches. Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle was fired and replaced by Grant Potulny, while Ferguson’s departure at Alaska made way for assistant Lance West to take over. Additionally, Mel Pearson took the vacant Michigan job, allowing for his assistant, Joe Shawhan, to assume the head coaching spot in Houghton.

“I’m especially excited to welcome Grant Potulny back to the WCHA with Northern Michigan, while applauding long-time assistants Lance West and Joe Shawhan for taking over coaching roles at Alaska and Michigan Tech, respectively,” Robertson said.

All three coaches have their own challenges to address. Potulny has a number of important offensive losses from last year. West is taking over a depleted Alaska team, and has a big task to build the program with limited resources. Shawhan is stepping into Pearson’s shadow — a coach that brought Michigan Tech back to national relevance.

“I’ve been around college hockey for a while, and I have a lot of respect for the coaches that are in our league,” West said. “So I know what kind of challenge I had ahead of myself here, and I want to thank all the guys who did reach out to me and congratulate me and give me some advice. So I appreciate and have a lot of respect for those guys.”

Alabama-Huntsville’s Crazy Schedule

It’s no secret that Alabama-Huntsville has a difficult time with scheduling due to its far-away location compared to most of the college hockey world. Road trips are common, and sometimes, they can be long. However, this year’s back-and-forth schedule has some daunting stretches that could make it complicated.

To ease scheduling, the team takes long, consecutive road trips, followed by long home stands. The school doesn’t have a home game until Nov. 10. That’s followed by six-straight home conference games before heading back out.

“It’s a little like an NFL season — the four quarters of the ol’ NFL,” UAH coach Mike Corbett said. “That’s the way we’re looking at it. We’re all or nothing. We’re either going to be all at home or we’re going to be all on the road. That’s something that we’re taking into account.”

The schedule really gets difficult when the Chargers head out on the final road trip of the year — at the beginning of December.

While there’s an abbreviated Christmas break in the middle, the team will travel from Alabama to Northern Michigan, Bowling Green, Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, before coming back home to play Bemidji. That’s nearly six weeks on the road, which is more like a rock tour than a hockey schedule.

“We’re flying straight from Minnesota to Fairbanks,” Corbett said. “It’s just more cost-effective for us to be able to do that. We are going to have kids not be on campus for five and a half weeks, because they’re going to go home for Christmas in between after our Mankato series. It’s going to be a unique situation, so we have to manage that.”

Dealing with such a chaotic schedule isn’t only difficult for travel purposes, but it’s also a big issue for the players health — both the physical and mental aspects.

“One thing that we do a good job of is the communication with our players,” Corbett said. “They’re going to have to communicate with us on how they’re feeling — not just how they’re practicing. They’re going to have to communicate with us to be able to give us energy levels.”

Another Surprise Success?

It’s always hard to predict what will happen before the season starts, and the polls typically don’t end up being correct. This was the case last year, when Bemidji State, a team picked sixth in the WCHA coaches’ poll, went on to win the regular-season championship.

“We’re in a league that is so tight, that has so much parity, that I don’t think it matters,” Serratore said. “I look at us last year, I think we were the sixth-placed pick. We were fortunate enough to win the WCHA. Somebody else this year is going to start off hot. Somebody else is going to be the team to beat after four or five weekends.”

While Minnesota State is a clear favorite to take the MacNaughton Cup, don’t be surprised if someone else gets hot in the early going and flips the script. Michigan Tech, Bemidji and even Ferris State could make pushes to keep up with the Mavericks.

5 Players to Watch

Marc Michaelis (Minnesota State)

Minnesota State has plenty of scoring options this year, but the most important may be sophomore forward Marc Michaelis. The Mannheim, Germany, native had 36 points last year, and was a big reason the team averaged 3.05 goals per game last year.

The Mavericks won’t have problems scoring points — inside or outside of conference play. Michaelis has a lot of help, and it could significantly boost his already-impressive numbers. The forward was picked as a preseason All-WCHA Team member by both the coaches and media, as well as joint preseason WCHA Player of the Year by the coaches.

“We’re appreciative of the recognition, but if you ask any coach from a coaching perspective, it doesn’t give us a lead on the scoresheet,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “At the end of the day, you’re worried about where you are come March. What is our body of work at the beginning of the year, whether it is as an individual — if you talk about a Danny Brickley, if you talk about a Marc Michaelis, if you talk about some of our freshmen — it’s all about where you are at the end of the year, not where you start. Our focus is on that.”

Michael Bitzer (Bemidji)

There isn’t a better goalie in the WCHA this season, and he’s certainly one of the best in the country. Michael Bitzer was impressive last year, recording a .932 save percentage, which was only behind Army’s Parker Gahagen and Canisus’ Charles Williams.

Most of the defense in front of Bitzer will be back next year, so the rock-solid state of this aspect of the Beavers’ squad should make any fan excited. The Moorhead, Minn., native is a All-WCHA team member for both media and the coaches, and rightly so.

Expect his save percentage to go up. He’s been solid-to-great since stepping foot on Bemidji, and it should be no different with three years under his belt now.

Mitchell McLain (Bowling Green)

Bowling Green lost a number of important offensive pieces last year, so there will be an extra onus on the remaining forward upperclassmen to carry the load. There may not be a better player in the locker room than Mitchell McLain. The Baxter, Minn., native produced a 17-16—33 tally last year, making him the team’s top scorer for the season.

The Falcons came up just short of their first NCAA tournament bid since 1990, losing in the WCHA tournament final to Michigan Tech. The media’s and coaches’ preseason All-WCHA team member’s leadership will go a long way in giving Bowling Green a shot to make a deep run in this year’s conference tournament.

“We want to get back there,” McLain said. “We know it’s going to take some effort, and it’s definitely a marathon — these seasons. We want to put ourselves in a position where that (WCHA tournament) championship game is at BG (Ice Arena).”

Mark Auk (Michigan Tech)

Defense may be more of a concern this year than last for the Huskies, but their best player is Mark Auk, and he should continue to be impressive at this level. The St. Clair Shores, Mich., native was a significant piece of a defense that was seventh in the country in goals allowed per game last year (2.22). He also made an impact on the offensive side, adding 5-17-22 in 2016-17.

Auk’s talent is clear, and he’s going to be the model for what the young, new players look to in order to adjust to the Division I level. His experience should help Michigan Tech lessen the blow of losing so many seniors last year.

“We’re the team that has those three, four, five freshmen that will be in the lineup this year, and will be earning minutes,” Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan said. “We’re trying to do things and tweak things to allow them to be effective right away. That will be an important part of what we’re doing, is the emergence and growth of that young defensive corps.”

Corey Mackin (Ferris State)

The Bulldogs lost some important scorers from last season, including Gerald Mayhew and Jared VanWormer, but a player they’re keeping could soften the blow. Corey Mackin is the top returning scorer for Ferris State this year, and while his 13-13—26 mark last season may not jump off the screen, there’s reason to believe that he could break out.

“We’ve got strength down the middle,” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said. “We’ve got four returning players that play center, and that’s Corey Mackin, Drew Dorantes, Jason Tackett and Craig Pefley. We’re pretty strong up the middle; we’re a little young on the wings.”

Due to the likely improvement on the defensive side of the puck, offense may be the main benefactor, giving the Philadelphia native a chance at a scoring trend improvement.

“I do think the offense may come a little easier at times, this year,” Daniels said.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Minnesota State
2. Bemidji State
3. Michigan Tech
4. Ferris State
5. Lake State
6. Bowling Green
7. Northern Michigan
8. Alaska-Anchorage
9. Alaska
10. Alabama-Huntsville

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