With the Gophers having played in their first exhibition game of the season, I figured it's probably time to take a stab at predicting the WCHA standings for the 2012-2013 season. Here we go:
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 1st place, 28-14-1 Overall, lost in NCAA Frozen Four Semifinal)
Key Losses: G Kent Patterson, F Taylor Matson, F Jake Hansen
Key Returners: F Nick Bjugstad, F Erik Haula, F Kyle Rau, D Nate Schmidt
The Gophers return their top four scorers from last year's Frozen Four squad, as well as all six defensemen and many other key players. The roster was bolstered by Nick Bjugstad's mid-summer decision to return to the team for his junior season, and the coaches' preseason WCHA player of the year tallied 25 goals and 17 assists in his dominant sophomore campaign. The Gophers are certainly the best team in the WCHA on paper, but their inexperienced goaltending tandem of Michael Shibrowski (junior) and Adam Wilcox (freshman) will be one of the team's few question marks heading into the season.
2. North Dakota
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 4th place, 26-13-3 Overall, won Final Five Championship, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)
Key Losses: F Brock Nelson, F Mario Lamoureux, D Ben Blood, G Aaron Dell, G Brad Eidsness, Fighting Sioux nickname
Key Returners: F Danny Kristo, F Corban Knight, F Rocco Grimaldi, D Andrew MacWilliam
North Dakota was a surprise #1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season, after enduring an injury-plagued season in which they lost their star incoming freshman forward Rocco Grimaldi after playing only four games. Grimaldi, the 5'6" scoring machine, will be key to North Dakota's success this year, alongside senior forward Danny Kristo (19-26-45). North Dakota is a team, like the Gophers, that features a pair of brand new goalies in freshman Zane Gothberg and junior Clarke Saunders. Saunders is a transfer from Alabama-Huntsville, so he'll likely have the edge as opening day goalie.
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 3rd place, 25-14-4 Overall, lost to Ferris State in NCAA 1st Rd)
Key Losses: F Jason Zucker, F Drew Shore, F Luke Salazar
Key Returners: F Nick Shore, F Shawn Ostrow, D Joey LaLeggia, G Sam Brittain, G Juho Olkinuora
Denver lost a lot after last season, as Zucker and Drew Shore scored a combined 44 goals and 99 points between them. However, they return 41 point scorer Nick Shore, along with WCHA freshman of the year Joey LaLeggia. They also return their dynamite goaltending duo of Brittain and Olkinuora, which should be the best goaltending tanedm in the league this season.
4. St. Cloud State
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 6th place, 17-17-5 Overall, lost in UND in WCHA Final Five 1st rd)
Key Losses: F Travis Novak, F David Eddy, F Jared Festler, F Cam Reid, G Mike Lee
Key Returners: F Drew LeBlanc, F Ben Hanowski, F Nic Dowd, D Nick Jensen, D Andrew Prochno, G Ryan Faragher
St. Cloud State had a rough season last year, losing Drew LeBlanc for the year and having several players leave the team mid-season. This year, however, should be different, as the Huskies return 23-goal scorer Ben Hanowski, along with the aforementioned LeBlanc and key defensemen Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno. St. Cloud also returns goaltender Ryan Faragher, who filled in for the injured Mike Lee admirably as a freshman last season.
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 10th place, 17-18-2 Overall, lost to Denver in WCHA 1st Rd)
Key Losses: D Justin Schultz
Key Returners: F Mark Zengerle, F Michael Mersch, F Tyler Barnes, D John Ramage, G Joel Rumpel
Wisconsin had an uncharacteristically horrible year last season, as their pair of freshman goaltenders experienced lots of growing pains en route to a 10th place WCHA finish. The team should be much better this year, however, as the only real key contributor to leave was phenom defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz' loss is huge, but another year of seasoning for goaltender Joel Rumpel, along with the returns of Zengerle, Mersch and Barnes should spell a top six finish for the Badgers.
6. Colorado College
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 5th place, 18-16-2 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)
Key Losses: F Jaden Schwartz, F Nick Dineen, D Gabe Guentzel
Key Returners: F Rylan Schwartz, F Scott Winkler, F William Rapuzzi, F Alexander Krushelnyski, D Mike Boivin, G Joe Howe, G Josh Thorimbert
The Tigers lost their leading point-getter in Jaden Schwartz from last year's squad, but they bring back his older brother Rylan, as well as several other key forwards from last year's team. CC will need to find players to fill in for Jaden Schwartz, Nick Dineen and Gabe Guentzel, but they return lots of points as well as two solid goaltenders in Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert. Expect CC to be hosting a first round playoff series in Colorado Springs.
7. Minnesota State - Mankato
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 11th place, 12-24-2 Overall, did not make WCHA Final Five or NCAA Tournament)
Key Losses: F Michael Dorr, G Austin Lee
Key Returners: F Jean-Paul LaFontaine, F Matt Leitner, F Zach Lehrke, D Zach Palmquist, G Phil Cook
After a long dry spell, things are finally starting to look up for the Minnesota State Mavericks. The entirety of Mankato's great freshman class from last year returns this year, led by forwards Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner and defenseman Zach Palmquist. Leitner, LaFontaine and Lehrke were the only Mavericks that scored more than 10 goals last season. This Mankato team has a really bright future, and if any of the teams above falter they could very well be hosting a home playoff series this season.
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 7th place, 14-18-6 Overall, lost to St. Cloud State in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: F Terry Broadhurst, F Jayson Menga, F Alex Hudson
Key Returners: F Matt White, F Ryan Walters, D Bryce Aneloski, G Ryan Massa
Dean Blais' UNO team should be in the mix for home ice this season, as they return a couple of dynamic scorers in Matt White and Ryan Walters. Last season's team did not lack for scoring, though - it was goaltending woes that led them to a bottom half finish. With Ryan Massa returning between the pipes, the Mavericks might see enough consistency to vault them into the top half.
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 2nd place, 25-10-6 Overall, lost in NCAA 2nd Rd)
Key Losses: F Jack Connolly, F Travis Oleksuk, F J.T. Brown, D Brady Lamb
Key Returners: F Caleb Herbert, F Mike Seidel
The Bulldogs won the NCAA Championship two years ago, but lost a lot last year and lose a lot going into this season, too. In Connolly, Oleksuk, Brown and Lamb, the Bulldogs lost 191 total points and 74 goals, more than half of the goals than they return from last year's squad (67). As Caleb Herbert goes, so will go the Bulldogs - the sophomore winger scored 14-19-33 last season as a freshman, and he'll take over the reins of this offense. One thing is for sure: he's got big shoes to fill.
10. Michigan Tech
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 8th place, 16-19-4 Overall, beat Colorado College in first round of WCHA playoffs, lost in first round of Final Five)
Key Losses: F Brett Olsen, F Jordan Baker, G Josh Robinson
Key Returners: F David Johnstone, F Ryan Furne, F Blake Pietila, D Steven Seigo
The middle of the WCHA is pretty good this year, and Michigan Tech is squarely in that tier. The Huskies return four of their top six scorers from last season, and they should be one of the teams in the middle of the conference that has a chance to get home ice in the last couple weekends of the season. Even the tenth place team shouldn't be too bad in this league this season.
11. Bemidji State
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 9th place, 17-18-3 Overall, lost to North Dakota in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: F Shea Walters, D Brad Hunt, G Dan Bakala
Key Returners: F Jordan George, F Aaron McLeod, F Ben Kinne
Bemidji State was not horrible last season, but this year could be a step back for the Beavers. Gone are 26 point scorers Shea Walters and Brad Hunt, but, more importantly, gone is senior goalie Dan Bakala. If Bemidji wants to move up in the standings in this incredibly deep WCHA, they'll need a big season from Jordan George (19-12-31 last season), and they'll need some of their younger players to step up. They should be on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
(2011-2012 WCHA Finish: 12th place, 9-25-2 Overall, lost to Minnesota in WCHA first round)
Key Losses: F/D Curtis Leinweber, F Mitch Bruijsten
Key Returners: F Matt Bailey, G Chris Kamal, G Rob Gunderson
The cupboard appears to be pretty bare up in Anchorage. The Seawolves return their top scorer from last year in Matt Bailey, but even he only had 10 goals and 7 assists on the year. Their most important returners are their pair of junior goaltenders - on a team with as little scoring as Anchorage had last year, the play of the goalie is all the more important. Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson who split the goaltending duties last season will be the two most important players for the Seawolves this year. They'll need to be stellar for the Seawolves to make it out of the bottom of the league.
Offensive Player of the Year: Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
Defensive Player of the Year: Joey LaLeggia, Denver
Goaltender of the Year: Sam Brittain, Denver
Rookie of the Year: Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota
Coach of the Year: Don Lucia, Minnesota
WCHA First Team:
F Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
F Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State
F Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
D Joey LaLeggia, Denver
D Nate Schmidt, Minnesota
G Sam Brittain, Denver
WCHA Second Team:
F Danny Kristo, North Dakota
F Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College
F Matt White, Nebraska-Omaha
D Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
D Zach Palmquist, Minnesota State - Mankato
G Ryan Faragher, St. Cloud State
Under the Radar Guys to Watch:
Alaska-Anchorage: Austin Coldwell, sophomore D, 2-12-14 last season
Bemidji State: Radoslav Illo, junior F, 7-10-17 last season
Colorado College: Eamonn McDermott, junior D, 2-8-10 last season
Denver: Ty Loney, sophomore F, 10-11-21 last season
Michigan Tech: David Johnstone, sophomore F, 11-18-29 last season
Minnesota: Travis Boyd, sophomore F, 1-8-9 last season, and Christian Isackson, sophomore F, 0-0-0 last season
Minnesota State: Jean-Paul LaFontaine, sophomore F, 13-15-28 last season
Minnesota-Duluth: Caleb Hebrert, sophomore F, 14-19-33 last season
Nebraska-Omaha: Andrej Sustr, junior D, 4-13-17 last season
North Dakota: Rocco Grimaldi, freshman F, 1-1-2 last season (in four games)
St. Cloud State: Andrew Prochno, sophomore D, 5-24-29 last season
Wisconsin: Joseph LaBate, sophomore F, 5-15-20 last season
WCHA Team Ranking Tiers:
1st Tier - Minnesota
2nd Tier - North Dakota
3rd Tier - Denver
4th Tier - St. Cloud State, Wisconsin, Colorado College
5th Tier - Minnesota State Mankato, Nebraska Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech
6th Tier - Bemidji State
7th Tier - Alaska-Anchorage