WCHA Preseason Predictions

Holy buckets this season is going to be a good one.  Making these predictions was not an easy task, as MOST of the teams this year can be placed in multiple places.  We’ll just have to see who gets the most luck and which team clicks first!

Here is my ’12-13’ preseason overview and rankings for the WCHA:

1) University of Minnesota Gophers

It’s hard to deny the fact that the gophers are going to be a powerhouse hockey team this year.  Returning most of their productive skaters from last year, including Nick Bjudstad, Kyle Rau and Erik Haula, this team will simply find the back of the net, often.  The only real issue Don Lucia needs to figure out is who will be stopping pucks for his gophers.  With the departure of star goalie Kent Patterson, the Don has a few options to fill the void.  Michael Shibrowski, a 6’2” 192lb junior and three new freshman, Ryan Coyne, Matt LaPrade, and Adam Wilcox will have to battle for the starting spot.  I anticipate Shibrowski to get the seniority start, but there could very well be a change during the season.

Another reason I like the gophers leading the WCHA this year is because of the young talent Lucia was able to bring in.  I can see players like Brady Skjei, the Reilly brothers, and Christian Horn performing very well which gives the gophs a bright futuristic outlook as well.  But, as most know, Connor Reilly, one of the brothers, is out for the season with a knee injury he sustained during a team party.

2) University of Denver Pioneers

To be honest, the next few teams were hard to place.  But I feel very confident in the pioneers having a good season.  Although they lost top guns like Drew Shore and Jason Zucker, I believe they have another talent to replace them and still be able to find the back of the net.  Now for me, what really stands out and was the deciding factor in my decision-picking DU second is their Goalie core.  I watched Juho Olkinuora and Sam Brittain stop pucks last year that I thought were for sure a bell ringer.  Stopping the puck isn’t going to be a problem for this team.

Denver also has returning stud Joey LaLeggia and between him and Scott Mayfield they should be able to control the line very well.  If Denver’s forwards can find the back of the net, consider them to be a huge threat this year in the WCHA.

3) University of North Dakota

North Dakota is never a team you can count out.  I’ve learned this the hard way over the years.  I swear they’re the only team that has the ability to lose every game during the first half of the year and turn around and win the rest.  Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to come to reality and admit they are a great hockey team.  Key returning players for UND include Danny Kristo who had 45 points last year, Corban Knight and Carter Rowney.   But the path to victory every weekend isn’t going to be easy for the former Sioux.  As if losing Brock Nelson and Ben Blood weren’t enough, Aaron Dell departed as well from the program earlier this year as well.

North Dakota has a couple things that will help them fill these voids, though.   Former Alabama Huntsville goalie, Clarke Saunders, transferred to UND as ‘bama thought their program was shutting down.  Saunders is a solid goalie to say the least and it will be very interesting to see him with an actual defense in front of him.  But Saunders isn’t the only good recruit coming in; UND also picked up Zane Gothberg and Jordan Schmaltz to strengthen the defense.  I imagine North Dakota starting out a little bumpy until their lines and goalie situation clicks and then watch out.

4) University of Minnesota Duluth

The Bulldogs have had a hell of a last few years, no one can deny that, the question is, can they keep it up?  Losing skilled players like Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly, goalie Kenny Reiter and the speed of JT Brown isn’t going to be easy to replace.  The Bulldogs will have a lot of work to do this year being such a young team, but with skill the team already possess and the new talented recruits, I believe the dogs definitely cannot be counted out.

UMD returns Mike Seidel and Caleb Herbert who both were 30+ pointers last year as well as the experience of Wade Bergman to control the blue line.  Coach Scott Sandelin did well recruiting, as the dogs look forward to USHL defenseman of the year Andy Welinski, a Duluth native and Willie Corrin to hold the blue line.  Also, look for freshman Austin Farley and Charlie Sampair to find the back of the net each weekend as well.  The real question for the bulldogs is the goalie situation.  Junior Aaron Crandall should get the starting job, but Sandelin brought in Matt McNeely and Alex Fons this year, which should mix a little competition into who gets the official starting job as the year progresses.

5) University of Wisconsin

The badgers are coming off a so-so season last year, where I want to give Justin Schultz most credit to.  He was my defenseman of the year, last year and the badgers are really going to miss him this year.  But UW is going to have a much improved this year as they return Mark Zengerle who had 13 goals and 50 points last year, as well as Michael Mersch and goalie Joel Rumpel.

Wisconsin also has some talented freshman coming in like Nic Kerdiles who will hold his own on the Blue line and forward Morgan Zulinick who should definitely fine the back of the net on multiple occasions this winter.  The Badgers are really going to miss Justin Schultz but I really believe they will look a lot better this year, adding some offense to their experienced defense.

6) St. Cloud State University

The huskies are going to be a fun and interesting team to watch this year.  Returning Ben Hanowski who had 23 goals last year as well as Nick Jensen who had 26 assists.  Although St. Cloud is returning some key players, they also took quite a hit, losing goalie Mike Lee who had an impressive 2.23 goals against average and .930 save percentage.  St. Cloud is going to need to figure out the goalie situation and find players to get Mr. Hanowski the puck.

The huskies have eight freshmen coming in this year and if they’re able to help out, consider the SCSU to be a powerful team.  If things fall into places this year and Mike Lee isn’t missed as much as people thought he would be, watch out.  If the huskies can stay injury free, unlike last season, look for them to have a strong push to climb among the WCHA.

7) University of Nebraska Omaha

It’s hard to ever count out UNO even if they ran into many unfortunate events this off-season, I mean come on now, Dean Blaise coaches these kids.  Many people disagree with his tactics, including pulling his goalie with what, four minutes left?  But he knows how to win, everyone knows that, so watch out when its coming time for the final five, as UNO just might make a push for home ice.

The mavs ran into some unfortunate events this summer including goalie Ryan Massa’s decision to take a year off for personal reasons and Jayson Megna leaving for the NHL.  Megna had 13 goals in his only season with the mavericks and finished the year in 3rd place for the mavs in terms of total points.  Massa, who shared time with John Faulkner for most the year, leaves the team with a 2.60 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.  The departures hurt, but keep in mind UNO returns Matt White and Ryan Walters who performed well under Blaise last year.  Not to mention the exciting class of incoming freshman; Anthony Stolarz and Tanner Lane to name a few.

8) Colorado College

The tigers are looking forward to this season with high hopes, just like last season, in hopes that they won’t be let down.  CC didn’t lose very many skaters, but the ones that did leave, were very good.  Jaden Schwartz who posted 41 points last year left to the NHL will hit them the hardest as he was a heck of a skater for CC.  But CC is returning many players as well, giving them an experience advantage over many teams.  Rylan Schwartz and goalie Josh Thorimbert both will take the ice this year for the tigers.

Look for Josh to have a little competition with Joe Howe for the goalie position this year, as this could be an interesting matter in CC.  If the Tigers are able to get going this year and play consistently throughout the year, look for them to maybe grasp home ice for the final five.

9) Michigan Tech

I really enjoy what Mel Pearson has done to this team last year and look for them to keep progressing and getting better as the years begin to pile.  This year Tech returns some of their more talented players like David Johnstone who combined 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points last year as well as Ryan Furne who finished the year with 24 points.  But the huskies also lost some individuals that helped them improve last year like Brett Olson and goalie Josh Robinson, who posted a 2.83 goals against average and a .880 save percentage.

Mel has got some talent coming in that have the potential to improve the team if the huskies can let everything fall into place.  Look for incoming goalie Pheonix Copley and forward Jujhar Khaira who had 79 points last season with the Spruce Kings.

10) Mankato State University

The mavericks are looking to improve this year even with the loss of Michael Door and Austin Lee, who both performed very well for the struggling Mankato State last year.  I think they’re do a bit better because of they’re returning players, giving them a bit more of an experienced advantage.  Jean-Paul Lafontatine, a forward who scored 28 points and Matt Leitner, also a forward with 29 points were both enjoyable to watch skate last year for the mavs.  Look for these players and others to perform very well.

MSU also has some exciting freshman coming in that should help replace the seniors that departed.  Bryce Gervais, who put up 75 points last year in the BCHL will join the mavs along with Brett Knowles who put up 68 points last year between two junior teams.  Look for the mavs to make strong strides toward home ice this year, as it wouldn’t surprise me if they somehow squeezed in.

11) Bemidji State University

The beavers had a pretty good run last year that honestly, I don’t think they’re going to be able to top.  With the loss of defenseman Brad Hunt who had 5 goals and 21 assists last year and goalie Dan Bakela who had a .911 save percentage and averaged 2.64 goals against per game, I think it’ll be difficult for the beavers to jump right back into it and continue moving forward from where they left off.

But not all hope is lost for the team in green.  The beavers return players like Jordan George and Brance Orban who performed well for the team last and should look to improve this year.  Also, BSU has recruits like Markus Gerbrandt and Cory Ward coming in that should add to the offense in hopes of burying a couple more pucks.

12) University of Alaska Anchorage

UAA has been riding the struggle-bus for years now.  This year, I cannot predict it will be any better for them.  They’re team is going to be much younger than most and none of the recruits I would categorize as “grade a”.  But this is the WCHA, and also college hockey.  UAA has always put up a good fight in every game and rarely do they quick before the 3rd period buzzer.  I can’t exactly sit here and tell you this year the seawolves will shock you and make a run for the MacNaughton, but look for a little improvement anyway.

Look for players like Matt Bailey, who finished the year with 17 points and led the seawolves to step up again and have another great year.  Eric Scheid and Scott Warner shouldn’t be counted out either, as they should be able to post numbers.  Hopefully UAA can surprise us and finish the year high in the standings, anything is possible right?  By the way, what exactly is a seawolf?