Wednesday, August 15, 2007

WCHA 07-08: An Early Look

Last August 2nd I wrote my first early WCHA preview. This will be my second. So ... in alphabetical order:

Colorado College
I characterized CC's chances last year as something that would probably be "less than memorable". I wasn't right. After a rough start in October the Black Bears went 9-3 in November and December and finished the season with a better than .500 record and a 5th place WCHA finish. I wasn't the only one who didn't see that coming. Departures (Sterling, Sertich, Crabb) had seemed to doom CC's 06-07 season. Apparently nobody told the CC players. This year though is a different story entirely. With that 5th place finish last year and only two really significant players graduated, I'd have to say that there should be an expectation in Colorado Springs for the 07-08 team to have a helluva good season. The Black Bears return 4 of their top 5 scorers. Their recruiting class for this season may be small but it's all quality. Freshman goalie Richard Bachman might just provide competition for playing time for Drew O'Connell. Tyler Johnson could prove to be the top rookie in the WCHA. UAA fans know that Eric Walsky has mad skills. And Nick Dineen is apparently no slouch. Look for this team to go deep into the NCAA's. You heard it here first.

University of Denver
Perhaps the most difficult team to predict this year, the Pioneers have a number of challenges to overcome in order to be successful. They've lost significant scoring from last season (Dingle, Paukovich) . They've lost significant defensive players (Seabrook). But they do have 4 of their top 6 scorers back. Their incoming class is pretty promising. Bozak scored shitloads in the BCHL. Jesse Martin's skills are liked by scouts. Kyle Ostrow brings a boatload of BCHL points as well. DU fans are mostly sandbagging their chances but another 4th place finish isn't out of the question. Then again neither is a 7th place finish out of the realm of possibility. There is a a small question of defensive experience and goaltender Peter Mannino will be asked to carry a big load that he has otherwise shared in his first 3 years between the pipes. If Rakhshani, Ruegsegger, Trotter and the new recruits can put big enough numbers up then it should be closer to 4th. If opponents are able to key on and shut down those players then Gwoz will have a hard time getting his team into the NCAA's. My guess is that someone on the squad will have to step up and perform exceptionally well above expectations otherwise it's a rebuilding year just off I-25.

Michigan Tech University
The real Huskies of the WCHA were a pleasant surprise in Houghton last year. I expected they'd be decent but predicted they were probably a year away from making any noise. I was wrong. They made some noise last year. That leaves me to expect one of the most successful years in 07-08 that MTU fans have seen in more than a quarter of a century. A bit of a hiccup with one of their promising recruits (Pierro-Zabotel won't play until the second half) isn't the end of the world with a strong core of returning players. The Huskies should be the best defensive team in the league this year with probably the most experienced blueliners and should have very balanced scoring. Teslak and Nolan are both very capable and experienced netminders. Jamie Russell's most difficult job this year might be to keep a huge grin off his mug. 6 of their top 7 scorers return. Unless there is some sort of ugly meltdown off the ice the real Huskies could do something that Huskies II (St. Cloud) have never done; win an NCAA game.

University of Minnesota
While several underclassmen left the Gopher program since the end of the 06-07 season but only one of them is really significant. Alex Goligoski was the shit. Cool headed and talented he was the heart of the Gopher defense over the last couple of years. Yes, they lost super-stud Erik Johnson but honestly what did he bring to the table other than power play assists? If he'd stuck around he would likely have been a dominating player but as a freshman he was not much more than utilitarian. The recent O'Brien loss wasn't significant in my mind either. The only other event of real interest is Mike Carman won't play the first half of 07-08. But as with every other season, the Gophers don't have to rebuild. They just reload. The bulk of scoring will come from Barriball, Okposo, Wheeler and Stoa. Expecting anything less than another top three WCHA finish would seem to be folly. Lucia should have the fewest problems he's had in years especially if he makes sure John Hill wears the required protective headgear.

University of Minnesota-Duluth
No Matt Niskanen and no Mason Raymond don't spell doom in Duluth but they are both big early losses as they were #1 and #2 in scoring. The #3 scorer Brian McGregor graduated. #4 scorer MacGregor Sharp returns but he only scored 11 goals last year. The next leading goal total came from freshman Drew Akins with 7. The Bulldogs have a couple of nice recruits coming in (Fontaine, Dorr) but I don't see anyone that looks to set the league on fire scoring-wise. Defensively, they should be at least as effective as they were last season. I wouldn't like to characterize goaltending as a problem for UMD. Alex Stalock is talented and a very effective puck handler but he had some unsteadiness in his play that makes him a bit suspect in my mind. If he handles the big workload well and doesn't go all "head case" then UMD could prove to be a difficult opponent in the WCHA playoffs although that will almost certainly be on the road.

Minnesota State, Mankato
I said DU was a difficult team to predict. They share that honor with perennially difficult to predict Mavericks. I'm not sure who likes Troy Jutting other than the admin that renewed his contract (and perhaps some of his players). It's difficult to find any fan on the Internet who has anything good to say about the guy. But every year he manages to pull a few big upsets here and there. There's no Travis Morin to carry the puck all over the ice and not pass it to anyone this season. That's a good thing and a bad thing. Morin popped in 17 goals last season and the Mavericks will miss that production a bit. But I saw little from him in terms of being a team player on the ice and so his departure probably bodes well. 3 forwards with good numbers return (Hanson, Kalinski and Berge) and some of their freshman began to produce late in the year. I'd think attitude will be a big factor for any success the 07-08 squad might have. I don't expect anything spectacular from any of the incoming freshman but one or two may surprise. Goaltending should be at least adequate and defensively the team is reasonably solid even though stud junior Steve Wagner left after the end of the season. Where in the bottom half they'll finish is anyone's guess but with the weirdly tempermental Jutting at the helm they'll almost certainly be on the road come WCHA playoff time.

University of North Dakota
I definitely underestimated UND last season. I guess what I really missed badly was the performance of Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan. I didn't even mention the guys name in my preview. I certainly wouldn't have pegged them as a Frozen Four participant. But there's definitely something to be said for their continued excellent 2nd half performances. It was a trait of the team under Dean Blais and it has continued under Dave Hakstol. Goaltending in my mind is a big question in Grand Forks. Lamoureux played 37 games last season and would have played more but for an early season injury. Consider me a Lammy skeptic. There'll be a lot of pressure on him to play a lot of games this coming season and while he had good numbers I'm attributing much of that to team defense and limiting quality shots. Lots of folks would disagree with me about Lammy. They have a bit of a tougher schedule this year as well, though that isn't reason enough to downplay their chances. This squad has the potential to finish in the top half of the league (lots of people expect them to win the league) but I believe last year was exceptional and unlikely repeatable. I'm not sure they'll be an NCAA participant. Sue me.

St. Cloud State
One Bob gone and one Bob still there. The two Bob's combined for a nice season last year and the supporting cast turned out nicely (especially freshman Lasch and Nodl). From the middle of November until the beginning of February SCSU won 15 games and only lost 2. Then came the seemingly inevitable swoon going 5-6-2 in Feb/Mar with their standard first round NCAA playoff face-washing loss. Will the 07-08 fake Huskies fare any better? I'm doubtful. To match their 2nd place finish they'll have to get equivalent goaltending to Goepfert. And that is a crapload of talent to replace. I estimate he was single-handedly responsible for at least 6 of their wins last year. Nodl and Lasch are likely to continue their good production but unlikely to improve it by much. Defensively the team lost a lot of experience to graduation and without Mr. StopEverything how can they be better? Weslosky will likely be adequate in goal and a huge freshman netminder (6'5") could pose a challenge to opponents. A big incoming class with at least 3 elite players should help but none of these incoming "studs" are blueliners. Unless SCSU can outscore everyone they could find themselves on the road for the WCHA playoffs.

I overestimated Bucky last year. I gave too much credit to their always excellent defensive play and (like everyone else) didn't see the scoring deficit coming. I placed a lot of weight on their drafted youngsters and expected them to produce. They didn't. But with a year of experience under their belt I'd have to think this year that they'll make up for last years deficit. The addition of Kyle Turris can't do anything but help. I said in the CC section that Tyler Johnson could turn out to be the best rookie in the league. In order to do so Kyle Turris will have to dramatically underachieve. Whoever plays on a line with Turris will likely have career best numbers. Goaltending is a bit of a small question in Madison but don't expect that to hold them back. A year without NCAA participation is a big deal on State Street in Madison and probably not something they'll have to experience in 07-08. For the rest of the league's sake lets just all hope Turris only stays one year. It might not be enough for the Red menace to get to Denver for the Frozen Four but don't count on it.

Last season saw the highest degree of parity in the WCHA in memory. The difference in points between first and last place was the smallest in more than a decade. It created a situation where only three teams made it to the NCAA's. I think this season will see much the same results. Perhaps 4 teams will get into the show but don't count on it as it will likely take an upset in the Final Five to get 4 teams in. Every year I hope that UAA can manage to earn a home playoff spot. This year is no different and while the talent on the squad is just about as good as it has ever been, getting home ice this year will be an even bigger challenge. Look for the middle of the league (3rd to 8th) to be extremely tight points-wise.


Anonymous said...

I guess I missed the press release where Colorado College changed their mascot to the Black Bears. Or did the University of Maine relocate to Colorado Springs?

Donald said...

What? Lemme check into that ...

Apparently their nickname is Tigers? WTF? There's not a Tiger within a radius of 9,000 miles of Colorado Springs. What a stupid nickname!

Anonymous said...

I thought Mike Dorr rescinded his commitment to UMD and is now going to play for the Gophers. Is this not true?

Donald said...

I like College Hockey News but I'll definitely not go for the convenience of the recruit listings they have on their roster pages.

Now I have to face east and bow three times to beg Chris Heisenbergs forgiveness.

So yeah ... Duluth has even less coming in than I mentioned.

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