Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Very Early WCHA Thoughts

All quiet on the UAA front; no news is good news and all that but bad news for a blogger and his readers. Now I have to find something to write about. I had promised myself not to pontificate too much about the upcoming season but hey it's August. In less than a month there'll be Captain's practices and not long afterward teams will begin official practices. So I figured I'd take a look at the other WCHA teams and do a pre-preseason evaluation. In alphabetical order, here's what I think:

Colorado College
Last year CC bowed out of the WCHA playoffs with a loss to St. Cloud in the playoffs. Graduation losses hit this team harder than any other team in the league. Gone are two of the premier WCHA forwards Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling as well as Anchorage native Joey Crabb and consistent contributors Aaron Slattengren and Trevor Frischmon. Those five players accounted for 80 goals last season. Fucking OUCH! That's 12 more goals than UAA scored last season. On top of their graduation losses CC fans won't be seeing their 4th leading scorer from last season on the ice since underclassman Brian Salcido (D) signed a contract with Anaheim this week. Their highest returning scorers will be sophmore Chad Rau, junior Jimmy Kilpatrick, junior Derek Patrosso and senior defenseman Lee Sweatt who combined for 32 goals last year. The Tigers will be depending heavily on these returners to produce goals in 06-07. A couple of incoming freshman may contribute to their bottom line but as with virtually any freshman in the WCHA guessing what they'll contribute is folly. It'll be highly unlikely that they can repeat their 24-16-2 record from 05-06. Matt Zaba got the majority of the starts (36 games .909 sv%) in goal last season. The 50 year anniversary of CC's last NCAA Championship doesn't look to be quite as memorable.

University of Denver
Underclassmen departures hit DU hard as well this offseason. Matt Carle and Paul Stastny both signed pro contracts and took their 30 goals with them. Gabe Gauthier scored 15 goals in his senior year. Those three leave a pretty substantial offensive hole for Gwoz to fill. The light isn't quite as dim at the end of the tunnel for DU as down I-25 at CC. Ryan Dingle returns for his junior year having scored 27 goals in 05-06 but from there it's difficult to say where DU's scoring will come from this year. J.D. Corbin hasn't proven to be a big goal scorer in his first three years with the team and big Jeff Paukovich seems to have suffered a major sophmore slump as a result of losing his confidence after nearly killing Robbie Bina from UND. Ryan Helgason may step in to contribute but from my experience he is a better player when he has better players surrounding him. Can the Pios match the 21 games they won last year? Both Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino return between the pipes and should be expected to perform consistently though neither is anything other than occassionally spectacular. DU's defense looks to be fairly solid and it will have to be nominally so if DU hopes to match or improve on last seasons performance. In it's favor the Pios have a couple of potential studs coming in as freshman in Keith Seabrook (a teammate of Paul Crowder from the RBC Champ Burnaby team) and Rhett Rakhshani from the USNDT.

Michigan Tech University
UAA's dismal offensive output last season had company in the WCHA. Tech's 74 goals came from 15 different players. Graduates Chris Conner, Brandon Schwartz, Nick Anderson and Taggart Desmet accounted for 43 of them. Losing more 50 percent of your scoring from one year to the next is not usually a recipe for success. Returning junior Tyler Shelast looks to lead MTU offensively but frankly unless studly defenseman (and in my book he is one of the best skating defenseman in the WCHA) Lars Helminen plays more than the 40 minutes per game he is likely to see this year the Huskies are likely to founder offensively. There are a couple of returning players that might find a scoring touch but I'm not about to guess that any of the actually will. Two incoming recruits look to add to Tech's offense but counting on Phil Axtell and Alex Gagne to take up that much slack would be foolish. Definitely a rebuilding season for MTU unless their goalies (Teslak and Nolan) stand on their heads all season. It would seem to me that Jamie Russell would be smart to focus on defense this season with an eye toward improving the teams record in 07-08 and beyond.

Universe of Minnesota
Oops. I meant University of ... but that's about the same thing to Gopher fans in Minnesota. So the big questions this offseason for the Gophers was whether or not Kessel would come back and whether or not overall #1 pick Erik Johnson would sign an NHL contract. It "appears" that both of those questions have been answered and both of these future NHL stars will be wearing the Maroon and Gold at Mariucci. I wonder what it must be like for #7 overall pick Kyle Okposo and #20 overall pick David Fischer to be on this squad. Kessel and Johnson have already gotten the overwhelming majority of the press. Gee. How horrible for them. Ok; Sarcasm aside that is 4 players that ought to virtually guarantee a WCHA Championship for the Gophers. Yeah they lost a couple of pretty good underclassmen and graduated a couple of quality players but for the Gophers its more a case of unloading a .357 magnum and reloading with .44 magnums. Lucia and the Gopher faithful will sandbag their chances claiming inexperience etcetera but even if Kessel signs at the last minute with Boston I don't see how they don't finish on top of the WCHA. I don't see goaltending or defense as an issue for them since they'll rely on outscoring everyone (and most times they'll execute that game plan). The only knock on the Gophers is whether they'll play as a team or as a bunch of individuals. Lucia's most important activity this season looks to be managing the personalities. Any primadonna crap arises and the Gophers might repeat their NCAA performance from last year but no doubt Donnie realizes that. Being behind the bench on game night will be the least important thing he does all year. If he does manage it well; then look for the Gophers to win the league, the league tournament and the NCAA tournament. Yuck.

University of Minnesota-Duluth
After several years of mediocre performances UMD managed a great run in 03-04 to the Frozen Four. The last two years however saw a confusing return to less than stellar results with 15 wins in 04-05 and 11 wins last season. On the bright side the Bulldogs lost quite a bit less than most other WCHA teams with only 15 goals departed in the form of Tim Stapleton and Justin Williams. Returning junior Matt McKnight along with sophmores Mason Raymond, Andrew Carroll, Michael Gergen, MacGregor Sharp and Nick Kemp accounted for 39 of UMD's 62 goals last season. They should provide the core of the offense again in 06-07 but will need to increase that output for UMD to "make some noise" this year. Another WCHA defensive standout Matt Niskanen returns on the blueline and should provide on-ice leadership for what is a fairly young team. Goaltending could be an issue in Duluth this season since the departed Isacc Reichmuth played 28 games last season and neither Josh Johnson or Nate Ziegelmann showed anything special. This could mean that incoming freshman goaltender (USHL All-Star) Alex Stalock could be called upon to perform miracles. Scott Sandelin has his work cut out for him but should see an improvement from the 11 wins of 05-06.

Minnesota State, Mankato
Graduation losses and underclassmen losses are the story in Mankato. The graduating class (Brock Becker, Jeff Marler, Kyle Peto and Jon Dubel) accounted for only 21 goals but when you add in departed underclassmen David Backes, Rob Rankin and Ryan Carter who accounted for 44 goals then you see the problem. The good news for MSU,M is that standout freshman goalie Dan Tormey is back. Additionally the Mavericks bring in a couple of potential studs in Geoff Irwin (another Burnaby teammate of Paul Crowder) and Kael Mouilliaret. But as with all WCHA freshman they can't be counted on to produce right away. It could be a long season for Troy Jutting's squad. Defensive experience shouldn't be a major downside or upside with 4 returners who all played 30 or more games last season but accounted for only 8 goals total. I don't see anything other than the status quo (or less) in Maverickland for 06-07.

University of North Dakota
Losses are also a big story in Grand Forks this summer. UND lost more underclassmen to the pros than any other team in the league. Gone are goalie Jordan Parise, D-man Matt Smaby, Drew Stafford and Travis Zajac. On top of all that Rastislav Spirko (the best skater on the team) went home to Europe; I'm unsure if he is joining a pro team there or perhaps just had personal reasons. That's 57 goals lost from just the underclassman; Mike Prpich was the only Senior on last years squad that scored (Prpich scored 7 goals? I'm getting a headache ...). Last season Parise was awarded 3 R.E.A.H.I.G.A's (Ralph Englestad Arena Home Ice Goalie Assists) which converted to actual earned assist's equals .5 ... unfortunately that doesn't explain how Prpich scored 7 goals. In any case, both freshman phenoms T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews are returning for their sophmore seasons and bring their 46 goals back with them. Outstanding skating defensemen Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee both return as well. And as an incoming freshman class I'd expect UND's recruits will outscore all other freshman classes in the WCHA. So even though UND lost a ton of talent and scoring they aren't exactly suffering. The weakest link for the Sioux could prove to be goaltending; while Philippe Lamoureux put up a decent .911 sv% last year, enough of the 14 games he played in were ... shall we say ... not against the toughest competion and he went 3-5-0 in conference. I tend to think he'll be fine though as the team he has in front of him is likely to play well enough as to make his job mostly easy. In my mind over the years UND's greatest strength has been it's consistent ability to improve during the season and peak near the end. Look for that to be a factor again this season. They might not win 29 games in 06-07 but their conference record of 16-12 could definitely be matched.

St. Cloud State
Bobby, Bob, Bobby, Bob, Bobby, Bob, Bobby, Bob ad nauseum was the constant refrain in St. Cloud last season. New coach Bob Motzko replaced the Craig "mindgame" Dahl and Bobby Goepfert was far and away the best goalie in the league. Combined with some surprising output from the Senior class (all who were probably so glad that Dahl left that they just had fun) Huskies II became the WCHA surprise as the year progressed. They only lose 44 goals (primarily Reeder, Hengen, Jensen and Hooten) from the 134 goals they scored last season. 20 goal scorer Andrew Gordon returns as do Matt Hartman (10 goals) and Dan Kronick (11 goals) to supply the core of next years output. Kronick is a bit of a question mark as I think he scored all of 1 goal in his first two years before transferring from UMD. There was some relatively balanced scoring from the rest of the returners though which combined for around 50 goals. There will be two freshman joining Huskies II who are worth watching. Ryan Lasch put up 146 points last year in the COJHL; the league may not be one of the stronger Jr. A leagues in Canada but it's an impressive number nonetheless. He was invited to the CJAHL Prospects game last season as well. I've read enough to know that his skating and puck handling is top notch so it will be interesting to see if he can make any sort of impact as a WCHA freshman. The other kid is Andreas Noedl who was NHL draft pick #39 overall and a first team USHL All-Star. I already made the "Lasches with a wet Noedl" joke so there's no point in repeating it here except to reserve my copyright (for whatever that's worth). SCSU went 13-13 in conference last year and I have little doubt that will improve this year. I'd expect at the end of the season that they'll be on the cusp of an NCAA bid if Goepfert stays healthy all year. I don't know if he'll be the workhorse he was last year (38 games ... 20-14-4 overall) but much of Huskies II success in 06-07 will be dependent on his play.

Yup. Wisconsin could win back-to-back NCAA Championships this year. The stifling defensive work ethic that Mike Eaves has his team playing will no doubt contine in 06-07. The Badgers have lost a fair amount of scoring to graduation (37 goals from Burish, Gilbert, MacMurchy, Degenhart, Licari) and more to pro defection (47 goals from Pavelski and Earl) so they'll be looking for someone to step up and produce but they shouldn't necessarily need the 144 team goals they scored last year to be successful. With NHL draft picks #51, #56 and #63 among the 10 freshman the Badgers will be an extremely tough opponent every night in 06-07. I look for them to be a very physical team as well since overall they'll be a much bigger than last years squad. Look for Jack Skille, Andrew Joudrey and Ben Street to provide the scoring leadership with the consistent excellence of Brian Elliot in the pipes. I'd imagine the .938 sv% we saw from Elliot last season won't be his career high number at UW. While Minnesota and North Dakota both look to be more explosive offensively than the Badgers I wouldn't for a second count them out from winning the WCHA and/or repeating as NCAA champs. The former being more likely than the latter but both being quite possible.

In a lot of ways I expect this season to look similar to last year in the WCHA. Losses of talent are spread fairly evenly across the entire league. Coaching could prove to be the biggest factor over the course of the year. Will Hakstol bring the talented Sioux along for a big run? Will Lucia manage the personalities and get his players to gel? Will Eaves make sure his team maintains its defensive focus all season? Will Bob be able to move his squad back into the upper tier on Bobby's shoulders? Can Gwoz find a pink tie that will keep his team in contention? Can Scott Owens find some new wings for the usually "Flying Tigers"? Will Sandelin feel pressure about his job if Duluth doesn't improve? Can Jamie Russell steer a nice straight line to the future? And most importantly ... Will Troy Jutting end up in an institution for raving lunatics? I wouldn't make yes or no bets on any of the answers to those questions.


Runninwiththedogs said...

Didn't you know? It's my fault the Dogs started sucking. You know, because of starting RWD and all.

Chris said...

Actually Peto would have had a year left, and Rankin departed due to graduation. The USCHO rosters don't like players that redshirt(Peto) or players that transfer(Rankin).

Donald said...

I was wondering about that when I was writing it and just decided to go with what USCHO had ... I think I'll used CHN's website more. I would have double checked it last night but it was late.

Goon said...

Well written article, you did forget to mention how the SCSU fans are already penciling the Huskies into a top three finish which in my opinion is a little high.

Donald said...

To be fair ... pretty much only the blathering crossdressing knuckledragging droolers from there are pumping themselves full of those sorts of fantasies. St. Cloud will do as well as Bobby does. If he remembers to shove the spirit of Jamie Ram up his ass then the Huskies might get a chance to lose another NCAA game.

Goon said...

LOL, that is funny. Knuckle dragging, droolers and cross dressers. Good stuff man.

Anonymous said...

As a Husky fan I expect the Huskies to finish 4th or 5th. Anything more is a bonus, anything less is a disappointment.

Runninwiththedogs said...

There are a whole lot of people (myself included) who think their team is going to finish 4th-6th... and only 3 places. Interesting.

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