It's almost that time of year again, folks! Gopher Hockey starts up in a few short weeks, and that means it's another season of the Pride on Ice Blog! I'd like to start this year off by taking a stab at predicting the 2011-2012 WCHA final standings. I'll provide any insight that I have along with each pick.
1. Colorado College
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 6th place, 23-19-3 Overall, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)
Key Losses: F Stephen Schultz
Key Returners: G Joe Howe, F Jaden Schwartz, F Rylan Schwartz, D Gabe Guentzel
Colorado College returns arguably the most dynamic player in the WCHA from last season, now-Sophomore phenom Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz, along with his brother Rylan, form a formidable tandem at forward for the Tigers, accounting for 27 goals between the two of them (with Jaden playing in only 30 total games due to breaking his foot at the World Junior tournament last season). The Tigers also return now-senior defenseman Gabe Guentzel, the son of returned Gopher assistant Mike Guentzel. Guentzel was one of the better offensive-defensemen in the league last season, scoring 6 goals and adding 22 assists for 28 total points in 45 games played. With a good goaltender between the pipes in Junior Joe Howe, expect the Tigers to be more consistent this season while still playing their exciting brand of high-flying offensive hockey. I would not be surprised to see Colorado College at the top of the WCHA table this season - in fact, I would be much more surprised to see them outside the top two than I would to see them in first place overall.
2. Denver University
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 2nd place, 25-12-5 Overall, lost in Final Five Championship, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)
Key Losses: F Anthony Maiani, F Kyle Ostrow
Key Returners: G Sam Brittain (torn ACL, out for first half), F Jason Zucker, Drew Shore
Denver is a team that seems to be always reloading. They return perhaps the only challenge to Jaden Schwartz's run at Player of the Year honors in Sophomore Jason Zucker (23-22-45 in 40 games played). The Pioneers also return junior forward Drew Shore (23-23-46). Denver lost key forwards Anthony Maiani (8-28-36) and Kyle Ostrow (15-13-28) to graduation, along with a pair of steady defensemen (Chris Nutini and John Ryder) who played in 84 combined team games. However, perhaps THE key returner on the Pioneer squad is sophomore goalkeeper Sam Brittain. Brittain was rock solid in net as a freshman last season, and his presence between the pipes along with coach George Gwozdecky's ability to have good teams year in and year out are one of the main reasons why I think Denver is a lock for a top two position in the WCHA this year. Brittain is out for the first half of the season with a torn ACL, so look for junior goalie Adam Murray to hold the fort until Brittain is healthy enough to come back. To me, it's DU and CC that will be battling for first and second place, with the rest of the league struggling to keep up.
3. University of Minnesota
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 5th place, 16-14-6 Overall, lost to UAA in WCHA 1st round, did not make NCAA)
Key Losses: F Mike Hoeffel, F Jacob Cepis, F Jay Barriball, D Cade Fairchild, D Aaron Ness, G Alex Kangas
Key Returners: G Kent Patterson, F Nick Bjugstad, F Zach Budish, Assistant Coach Mike Guentzel
I fully recognize that this could be a "homer" pick. Sue me for my optimism :) Minnesota is right in a pack of three or four teams that could finish anywhere from third to sixth in the league, and I believe that Minnesota's key offseason additions put them in a position to return to prominence on the national scene this season. The return of Assistant Coach Mike Guentzel should provide a tremendous boost to the team, especially on the defensive side of the puck. A healthy Zach Budish (2-4-6 in 7 games) will be an important cog in the Gopher lineup as a big player that plays smart and can score. Nick Bjugstad (8-12-20 in 29 games) is the player that the Gophers will need to rely on the most for scoring. Bjugstad had a breakout second half of the season last year after recovering from a bout with mono. Minnesota will also need to rely on seniors Jake Hansen (11-9-20 in 35 games) and Taylor Matson (10-3-13 in 33 games) to take up more of the scoring. The team lost a lot of scoring from last season due to graduation in Jacob Cepis, Mike Hoeffel, Jay Barriball and Cade Fairchild. Those four players accounted for 43 goals, or 38% of the team's total goals from last season. The team will need to lean on its talented incoming freshmen more than ever, and the Gophers bring in some good ones in freshmen Seth Ambroz, Kyle Rau and Ben Marshall. This is the year that the Gophers finally make the Final Five and the NCAA Tournament again.
4. University of Nebraska-Omaha
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 3rd place, 21-16-2 Overall, lost in NCAA 1st rd)
Key Losses: F Joey Martin, F Matt Ambroz, F Rich Purslow, D Eric Olimb
Key Returners: G John Faulkner, F Alex Hudson, F Terry Broadhurst, F Matt White, F Ryan Walters, F Brock Montpetit
This Dean Blais-led Nebraska-Omaha team finished in an 'under the radar' third place in their first year of the WCHA last season. UNO returns its solid 3rd team WCHA goalkeeper John Faulkner, as well as two 30-point scorers in seniors-to-be Alex Hudson (13-18-31) and Terry Broadhurst (11-19-30). No question that the Mavericks lost a lot of top-end scoring in graduated seniors Joey Martin, Matt Ambroz, Rich Purslow, and defenseman Eric Olimb (129 combined points), but expect their super-talented sophomore class led by Matt White, Ryan Walters and Brock Montpetit to take a step forward and fill the scoring void. This Omaha team is good, and with its strength between the pipes and behind the bench I would not be surprised to see them crack the top three come March.
5. University of North Dakota
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 1st place, 32-9-3 Overall, WCHA Final Five Champions, lost in NCAA Semifinal)
Key Losses: F Matt Frattin, F Brad Malone, F Evan Trupp, F Jason Gregoire, D Chay Genoway, F Brett Hextall
Key Returners: F Danny Kristo, F Corban Knight, D Ben Blood, G Aaron Dell, G Brad Eidsness
North Dakota was without question the best team in college hockey last season. I have them down into fifth place for the upcoming year due to a tremendous churn in their offensive output. The team is missing five of their top six scorers from their MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy winning season last year, including the entirety of the top "Pony Express" line which included Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and WCHA leading scorer Matt Frattin. However, North Dakota always seems to get it done, and returning forwards Corban Knight and Danny Kristo should dent the twine often for NoDak. North Dakota could possess the best goaltending tandem in the league in Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness, as well as a solid defensive corps led by Ben Blood. Expect a breakout season from sophomore forward Brock Nelson (1st round NHL draft pick last season). Also, look for highly-touted recruit Rocco Grimaldi to make a statement in the lineup.
6. University of Minnesota-Duluth
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 4th place, 26-10-6 Overall, NCAA Champions)
Key Losses: F Justin Fontaine, F Mike Connolly, D Justin Faulk, G Kenny Reiter
Key Returners: F Jack Connolly, F Travis Oleksuk, F J.T. Brown
The reigning NCAA Champions round out the top six of my WCHA predictions this season. The Bulldogs were a good team that got hot at the right time last year, and although they lost a lot of talent from last season's roster they return enough good players to remain relevant in the WCHA this year. UMD lost two-thirds of their high-powered top line in Justin Fontaine (22-36-58) and Mike Connolly (28-26-54), as well as super talented freshman defenseman Justin Faulk (8-25-33). They return senior forward Jack Connolly (18-41-59) and sophomore J.T. Brown (16-21-37), as well as sophomore goalie Aaron Crandall. UMD likely will not be as good as they were last season, but expect them to be a solid team that is right there with the rest of the second-teir squads.
7. University of Wisconsin
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 7th place, 21-16-4 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)
Key Losses: D Jake Gardiner, F Craig Smith, G Scott Gudmandson, G Brett Bennett, F Jordy Murray, Assistant Coach Tom Osiecki
Key Returners: D Justin Schultz
Wisconsin had a disappointing season last year and lost a lot of talent from their roster. F Jordy Murray left the team to play in Switzerland, and Wisconsin lost both of their senior netminders in Brett Bennett and Scott Gudmandson to graduation. Defenseman Jake Gardiner and Forward Craig Smith turned pro, and defensive coach Tom Osiecki left the team to take the reins at Ohio State. Although they return Justin Schultz, the Badgers have an uphill battle to crack the top six in the league.
8. St. Cloud State University
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 9th place, 15-18-5 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)
Key Losses: F Garrett Roe, F Aaron Marvin
Key Returners: G Mike Lee, F Ben Hanowski, F Drew LeBlanc
St. Cloud was another team that had a disappointing season last year. Picked by many to be one of the preseason favorites heading into the 2010-2011 season, the Huskies never got anything going, falling all the way into ninth place by the time the season ended. This season, the team will live and die by the hand of junior goaltender Mike Lee. If Lee is good, St. Cloud will likely finish just outside the top six in the league. If he's great, we could see the Huskies contending for home ice as the WCHA season winds to a close.
9. Bemidji State University
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 10th place, 15-18-5 Overall, beat UNO in first round of WCHA playoffs, lost in first round of Final Five)
Key Losses: F Matt Read, F Ian Lowe
Key Returners: F Jordan George, D Brad Hunt, G Dan Bakala
The Beavers lose two key players in forwards Matt Read (22-13-35) and Ian Lowe (12-16-28), but return leading scorer Jordan George (17-19-36), stellar offensive-defenseman Brad Hunt (3-18-21) and their solid goalkeeper Dan Bakala. Bemidji plays a physical game, so expect them to be tough to beat on their small home ice sheet. The Beavers won't be a pushover, but they likely will finish in the bottom third of the league.
10. University of Alaska-Anchorage
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 8th place, 16-18-3 Overall, beat University of Minnesota in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: F Tommy Grant, F Craig Parkinson
Key Returners: G Chris Kamal
Dave Shyiak's squad pulled off an upset in the first round of the WCHA playoffs by sweeping the Gophers in their own rink, and Anchorage will need to win in the same gritty fashion if they wish to move much higher than the bottom third of the WCHA this season. The Seawolves keys to victory were stifling defensive play and capitalizing on the few offensive chances that they got. The defensive part shouldn't be much of a problem, as Anchorage returns now-sophomore goalie Chris Kamal in net. Kamal really came on towards the second half of the year, and it was when the Seawolves chose to keep him in the pipes that they started beating quality opponents. The offensive part may be more difficult to maintain, as Anchorage lost their most potent offensive weapon in Tommy Grant (16-16-32) to graduation. Expect Anchorage to be better than the bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the WCHA, but not quite ready to spring up to the middle of the pack.
11. Minnesota State University - Mankato
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 11th place, 14-18-6 Overall, lost to Denver in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: F Kurt Davis, D Ben Youds
Key Returners: F Michael Dorr
The Mavericks were not great last season, and I expect them to remain that way going into the 2011-2012 campaign. One of the bright spots in the lineup this year is former Gopher Michael Dorr, who had 12 goals and 14 assists last season. Dorr will need to lead the charge for the Mavericks if they wish to move past the cellar of the league.
12. Michigan Tech University
(2010-2011 WCHA Finish: 12th place, 4-30-4 Overall, lost to UND in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: D Deron Cousens
Key Returners: F Milos Gordic, F Ryan Furne, new Head Coach Mel Pearson (former Michigan assistant)
Michigan Tech's biggest reason for optimism going into this season is new head coach Mel Pearson. Pearson, an assistant under Red Berenson at Michigan, should inject some new life into the program. Michigan Tech does have some good young players, too - forward Ryan Furne (12-9-21) had a great Freshman campaign and showed lots of promise for the Huskies last season. I expect to see an improved team out of the UP this season, but for a team that won just four games last year, the Huskies could improve and still end up at the bottom of the league. A new coach should make Michigan Tech should be more competitive this year, but as with all coaching changes, results take time and do not happen overnight very often.
Offensive Player of the Year: Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Schultz, University of Wisconsin
Goaltender of the Year: Kent Patterson, University of Minnesota
Rookie of the Year: Rocco Grimaldi, University of North Dakota
Coach of the Year: Scott Owens, Colorado College
WCHA First Team:
F Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
F Danny Kristo, University of North Dakota
F Jason Zucker, Denver University
D Justin Schultz, University of Wisconsin
D Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College
G Kent Patterson, University of Minnesota
WCHA Second Team:
F Nick Bjugstad, University of Minnesota
F Jack Connolly, University of Minnesota-Duluth
F J.T. Brown, University of Minnesota-Duluth
D Ben Blood, University of North Dakota
D Brad Hunt, Bemidji State University
G John Faulkner, University of Nebraska-Omaha