Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Preview Time: NHL West

Oddly enough, the balance that appears present in the NHL's Eastern Conference is only topped by what you see in the Western Conference.

Last year's crazy playoff race could only be the start. Realistically, the top 13 teams (maybe even 14, depending on the ability of the Coyotes to focus) are going to contend for playoff spots. The problem, of course, is that only eight get in.

Let's take a look at the West.

15. Phoenix Coyotes

Upheaval on the ice, and pure insanity off of it. The Coyotes still don't have an owner, it seems that the team is lacking a bit of on-ice direction, and there are virtually no fans who trust this organization enough to spend their money on tickets. You have to feel bad for Shane Doan, a very good player who has this to show for his unending loyalty to this franchise. There is some talent outside of Doan, including defenseman Ed Jovanovski and forward Matthew Lombardi, who was the centerpiece of the Coyotes' return for Olli Jokinen.

14. Colorado Avalanche

It appears a youth movement has begun, and that's not a bad thing. The Avalanche have some quality veterans, but depth is a serious problem, and no one knows how Craig Anderson will fare as a top goaltender. If management is willing to stick to this plan for a couple years, there could be a real payoff. However, it remains to be seen if ownership will let the Ryan O'Reillys and Matt Duchenes develop before they get antsy and look for high-profile veterans.

13. Dallas Stars

This is where the fun really begins. If we were trying to rate teams based on their ceiling, the Stars could conceivably be as high as sixth or seventh. They have some nice young defensemen, including former Bulldog Matt Niskanen, and they have veterans Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Modano, and Brenden Morrow up front. Marty Turco needs to rebound in goal, and the Stars are leaning on a lot of younger guys in front of him. How they gel will play a huge role.

12. Nashville Predators

Nashville can stop people, thanks to guys like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and goalie Pekka Rinne. However, the problem comes when it's time to score goals. The Predators just don't have a lot of punch up front, barring breakout seasons from the likes of David Legwand and Martin Erat. This team is going to be very close, but a lack of offensive punch will cost them dearly in the end.

11. Calgary Flames

This is going to be the "What are you, nuts?" pick. Calgary has a very impressive group of top players. The problem comes in the half of the game that these top players can't be on the ice for. After getting caught too close to the cap to help an ailing roster late last season, general manager Darryl Sutter spent to the cap again, and he is very low on depth. If Miikka Kiprusoff is asked to start 70 games again, watch for a breakdown there, too.

10. Minnesota Wild

New coach Todd Richards promises a more wide open attack this season. That's good, but it won't guarantee enough wins to make the playoffs. The good news is that this division is still wide open, but the bad news is that the Wild still look to be short on NHL-caliber centers, and it's unknown if they can score enough goals. If they're healthy, and they pick up on the new system quickly, the Wild could really surprise. However, those are big "if"s, as big star Martin Havlat has just as much of an injury history as former star Marian Gaborik does.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets

While Columbus had a nice run to the playoffs last year, they didn't make it by much. The margin for error is slim again this season, thanks to an ultra-competitive division and a lack of top-line forwards. They'll go as captain Rick Nash goes, and there are some nice young defensemen here. Of course, they also have goalie Steve Mason, who looks to follow up on his Calder Trophy season.

8. Los Angeles Kings

General manager Dean Lombardi has built to this moment. His team now has to be considered a legitimate playoff threat, thanks to the offseason additions of defenseman Rob Scuderi and forward Ryan Smyth. One of the league's top young rosters now has gritty, edgy veterans to help lead the way. No matter what these two do, there are two players who will play the big roles in determining this team's fate. Goalie Jonathan Quick has Olympic potential, but he has to prove himself as an NHL starter first. Forward Anze Kopitar has "superstar" written all over him, but he was very subpar a year ago.

7. St. Louis Blues

Last year's hot streak to make the playoffs didn't help the Blues once they got there, as St. Louis was dispatched in four straight by Vancouver. This year, St. Louis is stronger in goal, with Ty Conklin signed to help out Chris Mason, and they're a year older. The biggest offseason addition was a player already on the roster. Young defenseman Erik Johnson blew out his knee last summer and didn't play a second in 2008-2009. He's back to quarterback the Blues' power play, which was potent without him and is now downright deadly.

6. Edmonton Oilers

Here's a surprise for you. Edmonton has speed, skill, tons of talent, some grit, added a quality veteran goalie, and now has one of the top coaches in the world. Pat Quinn might be 66, but he's coming off a World Junior Championship as coach of Team Canada, so there is proof that Quinn is capable of coaching younger players. He'll have to do this with Edmonton, which is loaded with youthful energy. Craig MacTavish struggled to get these kids to play hard, but there's reason to believe that Quinn won't.

5. San Jose Sharks

Dany Heatley can only do so much. He has to gel with Joe Thornton, and the Sharks have to hope that they don't miss Milan Michalek. Also, what is the psyche of this team, one that lost another early playoff series to an underdog and then watched its longtime captain stripped of his job? The Sharks have a lot of potential, but that hasn't helped them get over the hump in the past. With virtually everyone in the West having improved in some way, San Jose will face a huge challenge.

4. Chicago Blackhawks

The addition of Marian Hossa won't help them for a while, as he will miss time after shoulder surgery. However, they don't need him that badly, and the rest will help him greatly after two long playoff seasons with Pittsburgh and Detroit. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland, and Dustin Byfuglien lead the way, with Cristobal Huet looking to prove himself once and for all as a top NHL goalie.

3. Vancouver Canucks

The image of Roberto Luongo sitting in his crease after Patrick Kane's third goal in Game 6 of the West semifinals last year is a lasting one. It was a shocking end to Vancouver's season, as the normally-stout defensive team gave up seven goals in their swan song. The Canucks are a bit stronger on the blue line, thanks to players like Mathieu Schneider and Christian Ehrhoff, and the return of the Sedin twins is huge. Luongo is the man, though. He has to rebound, or it will be a long year for the defending Northwest Division champs.

2. Anaheim Ducks

They may have lost Chris Pronger, but Anaheim is clearly a better team than they were at the outset of last season. Old guys Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are back for the long haul, and young stars Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan will continue to develop. The Pronger trade brought them Joffrey Lupul, and the club signed veteran center Saku Koivu. The Ducks have transitioned from Brian Burke's fisticuffs style to more of a free-wheeling, skating team, and they could be a real power in the Pacific Division.

1. Detroit Red Wings

There are teams you just don't bet against. Detroit is one of them. They may have lost Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson, along with Jiri Hudler (KHL), but the Wings have an uncanny ability to reload when guys take off. They're still a very strong defensive team, with veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski joined by the likes of Niklas Kronwall, who is going to have a huge season. Speaking of not betting against people, Chris Osgood is still in goal. The Red Wings are the class of the Western Conference until proven otherwise. Like it or not.

Garrison, Rosehill Make NHL Rosters

Great news out of Finland, as well as Toronto.

We'll start in Finland. The Florida Panthers are there to open the NHL season Friday and Saturday with games against the Chicago Blackhawks.

After the 2007-2008 season, a year that ended with practically one-legged Jason Garrison gutting it out in the last game against Denver, the Panthers plucked Garrison from college one year early.

He spent the season with the AHL's Rochester Americans. He had a pretty good year there, and even got a one-game cup of coffee with the Panthers, who brought him in for a Saturday night game in St. Louis.

This year, we hope he gets more than a one-game cup of coffee. Garrison has made the Panthers' NHL roster. He is one of eight defensemen Florida has to choose from, but he's on the team!

Florida’s roster includes three goaltenders (Tomas Vokoun, Scott Clemmensen, Alexander Salak), eight defensemen (Bryan Allen, Keith Ballard, Jason Garrison, Ville Koistinen, Dmitri Kulikov, Jordan Leopold, Bryan McCabe, Dennis Seidenberg) and 13 forwards (David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Cory Stillman, Steven Reinprecht, Michael Frolik, Rostislav Olesz, Gregory Campbell, Radek Dvorak, Mike Duco, Shawn Matthias, Kamil Kreps, Michal Repik).

See? He's on the team!

Kulikov isn't likely to be around for long. The Panthers have nine games to decide whether to send the 2009 first-round pick back to juniors or keep him. Unless he plays lights-out for those nine games, they'll send him to juniors.

Great news for Garrison, who was a fan favorite during his time at UMD. It wasn't hard to imagine why, as he had a great attitude, worked hard on the ice, and had a big shot.

If he hangs around into late November, he can always have friendly wagers with former Gophers Jordan Leopold and Keith Ballard on the first UMD-Minnesota series, scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, a rather unexpected development has happened in Toronto. Jay Rosehill played one year as a defenseman at UMD before turning pro. He's struggled to get a shot at the NHL, but a position change and a new team have opened up a great opportunity for him.

Rosehill is one of 22 players on the season-opening roster for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He's a scrappy guy who will drop the gloves with anyone, as evidenced in the photo to your right. He actually fits in rather nicely with general manager Brian Burke's way of doing things. Burke is all about winning, but he's a big fan of doing it by out-toughing his opponents.

Yes, there will be dumb penalties and plenty of fights along the way. Remember, Burke was the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, when they led the league in fights during the regular season and won the Stanley Cup.

Rosehill might not be a 20-goal guy, but he's tough as nails. Burke will love having Rosehill on the roster.

Meanwhile, fellow former Bulldogs Matt Niskanen (Dallas) and Mason Raymond (Vancouver) start their third seasons in the NHL this weekend. Tim Stapleton will play for Chicago of the AHL, having been sent down by the Atlanta Thrashers.

A much more comprehensive update on former UMD Bulldogs playing pro hockey will be coming to this space very soon. If you have any information that can help with that project, please don't hesitate to e-mail or leave a note in the comments.

Preview Time: NHL East

Let's be honest for a minute.

You're not ready for the NHL season.

It's okay. Neither is anyone else, outside of those who cover the league on a daily basis. It always sneaks up on you, no matter how much you look forward to it.

Thursday is the lid-lifter for a handful of teams, then the defending champs put a banner in the rafters and play the Rangers on Friday.

We'll start our preview with the Eastern Conference. If all goes well, you'll see the West preview Thursday. Teams are listed in reverse order from the bottom to the top. These are regular season predictions. You'll see fruitless postseason and award picks Thursday.

15. New York Islanders

There are positives on Long Island. The youth movement is going well, and top pick John Tavares takes the helm of the ship starting this weekend. Veterans Doug Weight, Mark Streit, and Dwayne Roloson provide stability, but there just isn't enough talent on either end of the ice.

14. Florida Panthers

Peter DeBoer is a good coach, and there are some quality players. However, there are also distractions off the ice, and while it's not as bad as the situation in Phoenix, there are parallels. The Panther players have to stay focused on the game, and let the business people take care of the business side of things. It's easier said than done, and it didn't work for the Coyotes last year. If Florida can pull it off, they will be much closer to the playoffs than this.

13. Ottawa Senators

The Dany Heatley saga is finally over, which should help the Senators a ton. He was going to be nothing but a huge distraction for them, especially if he didn't stay quiet on his trade demand. Milan Michalek has a chance to be the gem of that trade, as he still has some serious goal-scoring upside, and he could realize his full potential with the ice time he has a chance to get in Ottawa.

12. Montreal Canadiens

There were some huge risks taken by Montreal in the offseason. They hired retread Jacques Martin to coach the club, then brought in veterans like Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Michael Cammalleri. Only Cammalleri played really well last season, but he was in a contract year and on Jarome Iginla's team in Calgary. It's hard to trust Carey Price, and it's really hard to trust the team's depth.

11. New York Rangers

There is just too much money tied up in high-risk players for the Rangers to be taken seriously. Marian Gaborik is a wonderful talent, but he's getting $7.5 million a year when he hasn't proven he can stay healthy. Combine that with big money and not enough production with players like Chris Drury and Wade Redden, and you have a recipe for disaster, especially as the Eastern Conference gets more and more competitive.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning

The addition of stud youngster Victor Hedman and veteran Matthias Ohlund should help make the defense better. However, the Lightning are still a bit low on top-flight forwards until Steven Stamkos is ready to make the leap, and Mike Smith has to prove himself in goal now that he has legitimate help in front of him.

9. Atlanta Thrashers

A defense that seemed to rid itself of solid players at the trade deadline (Niclas Havelid and Mathieu Schneider) actually got better down the stretch, and the Thrashers have the makings of an exciting front line. The organization needs to make a decision on what to do with Ilya Kovalchuk, because his impending free agency hangs over this franchise. Atlanta also has to solve their goaltending issues before they can be a playoff team again.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Brian Burke doesn't stand for mediocrity for long. In the case of last season, he wasn't going to stand for bad, uninspired hockey. This year's Leafs won't be bad or uninspired. They'll stop people, both with sound defense and physical play. If either Jonas Gustavsson or Vesa Toskala emerge as a No. 1 goaltender, this could be a high-ceiling team. Getting Phil Kessel healthy and happily inserted onto the top line will also be huge for them.

7. Carolina Hurricanes

Last year's awesome run to the conference finals gives the Hurricanes some momentum into this season. However, they need to find Eric Staal some quality linemates before they can have a real chance for a repeat. Guys like Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose can provide depth if they're not suited to play with Staal. Freshly-signed goalie Cam Ward is the leader in back, having proven that 2006 was not at all a fluke.

6. Philadelphia Flyers

Call it a pick of skepticism. Chris Pronger is a great player who has caused tons of trouble in his career. Ray Emery is a roller-coaster ride waiting to happen in goal. Mike Richards is a great player with an extremely short fuse (just ask Cal Clutterbuck). The Flyers struggled to skate with the Penguins and get the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury. Trading away Joffrey Lupul isn't going to help them do either of these things.

5. New Jersey Devils

Jacques Lemaire returns, and while some fans will complain about his boring style of play, the reality is that he wins games, and he exploits favorable matchups. With guys like Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brendan Shanahan, and Paul Martin on board, Lemaire should have little trouble finding advantages against opponents. Oh, and he has a healthy Martin Brodeur in goal, too.

4. Buffalo Sabres

Sometimes, standing pat can be a good thing. The Sabres chose to keep their team intact as much as possible, because they knew they were close to breaking back into the top eight. They have an elite forward (Thomas Vanek), and a top goalie (Ryan Miller) to lead the way. On the bench, Lindy Ruff is as good as they come, too. Newcomers Steve Montador and Joe DiPenta make the defense a bit more rugged.

3. Boston Bruins

The Kessel trade is just mind-boggling. While it was nice to get some high picks in return for him, the Bruins didn't get one player in the deal, and it will hurt them in the short term. You don't just flip a switch and replace a guy of his caliber on the top lines. That said, Boston still has a ton of talent. The net is well-protected, thanks to reigning Vezina winner Tim Thomas and Norris winner Zdeno Chara.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

The defending champions have all the key players back, but will miss the scoring that a healthy Petr Sykora would have brought them. They should still be near the top of the heap, thanks to stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Fleury is one of the league's best in goal, and the Penguins will be solid on defense with youngster Alex Goligoski playing more and Brooks Orpik throwing his body around.

1. Washington Capitals

It's Alex Ovechkin's turn. He has a rugged forward (Mike Knuble) to play with up front. Semyon Varlamov might not start right away, but the Capitals know he can play if they need him to. Of course, with Jose Theodore as the starter, they'll probably need Varlamov. Mike Green needs to be better in his own zone, but he's one of the better offensive defenseman to come around in a long time. The key for the Capitals making a Cup run will be supplementing his offense with a bit more defense once the snow melts and the games really start counting.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

WCHA Coaches and Media Polls Nearly Identical Again This Year

I can't speak for other members of the media, but I can promise you that I am not in cahoots with the coaches on this thing.

Todd Milewski, who is no longer on the Wisconsin hockey beat (stupid newspaper!) but is still very actively involved in covering this league (he also happens to be a super guy who is a lot of fun to chat about the game with), put together a media poll last year. The results were scary, as the people who accepted Milewski's invite ended up voting identically to the coaches.

We all figured it was a freak thing, something that wouldn't repeat itself.


The 2009-2010 versions of the WCHA media and coaches polls were released Tuesday, and it appears that great minds think alike.

We'll start with the media poll, which had 25 voters take part, representing all ten WCHA teams, as well as the "major" college hockey sites (USCHO, INCH, CHN, and WCH).

Team (first-place votes) Points
1. Denver (23) 248
2. North Dakota (1) 205
3. Wisconsin 190
4. Minnesota (1) 186
5. St. Cloud State 152
6. Minnesota-Duluth 118
7. Colorado College 101
8. Minnesota State 88
9. Alaska Anchorage 57
10. Michigan Tech 30

In case you're too lazy to read back, here's how I voted:

1. Denver
2. North Dakota
3. Wisconsin
4. UMD
5. Minnesota
6. St. Cloud State
7. Colorado College
8. Alaska-Anchorage
9. Minnesota State
10. Michigan Tech

The media picked Minnesota's Jordan Schroeder as player of the year, and St. Cloud State goalie Mike Lee as the league's top rookie (I voted for Schroeder and UMD's Dylan Olsen, respectively).

The Grand Forks Herald conducted a preseason coaches' poll for the 39th year. Here is how theirs turned out. Remember, the coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team.

1. Denver (8) 80
2. UND (2) 70
3. Wisconsin 61
4. Minnesota 58
5. St. Cloud State 55
6. Minn.-Duluth 37
7. MSU-Mankato 34
8. Colorado College 26
9. Alaska-Anchorage 20
10. Michigan Tech 9

Player of the year: Ryan Lasch, SCSU (3); Jordan Schroeder, Minnesota (3); Chay Genoway, UND (2); Rhett Rakhshani, Denver (1); Patrick Wiercioch, Denver (1)

Rookie of the year: Mike Lee, SCSU (5); Nick Leddy, Minnesota (2); Dylan Olsen, Minnesota-Duluth (2); Matt Donovan, Denver (1)

Strikingly similar again, as the only differences are with seventh and eighth place. Despite the resounding agreement this seems to imply, there is much question about how the league will shake out this season.

While Denver and North Dakota seem like the only true consensus picks, spots three through nine are fully up for grabs. In all honesty, about the only thing remotely close to a safe bet is that Michigan Tech will need a near-miracle to avoid the cellar. And even that is subject to change.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Preview Time: WCHA

Yes, this was the scene after UMD won the WCHA Final Five in March.

No, you're not seeing the last of it here.

After all, a championship is a championship, even if it's not the ultimate prize. Fans have the right to gloat.

The college hockey season is about to begin, as teams open practice and start playing exhibition games this weekend. Real games start showing up on the schedule beginning next weekend.

The defending WCHA Final Five champion Bulldogs play British Columbia at the DECC Saturday night, then open for real against Lake Superior State Oct. 9. You can hear all the games this season on The Fan 1490 in Duluth, the KQ Radio Network across northeastern Minnesota, and online at

Heading into the season, here's how your humble correspondent sees the league shaping up. These votes are included in a preseason WCHA media poll that will be released Tuesday, and we'll have that info in this space when it arrives.

1. Denver Pioneers

A man wiser about hockey than I once made it very clear to me a few years ago. When you vote in a preseason poll, don't try to get too cute. The team you pick in first place should be the team you think has the fewest holes on its roster. There are many reasonable arguments that could be made in favor of teams like North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or UMD, or maybe even someone else, but that would ignore the obvious, and that's that Denver has the fewest holes of anyone. Forwards Rhett Rahkshani and Tyler Ruegsegger have proven themselves in this league, and sophomore Joe Colborne could be in for a Colin Wilson-type season before he makes his way to the NHL. On defense, sophomore Patrick Wiercioch leads the way, and the Pioneers have plenty of grit and intensity on their third and fourth lines, as well as on defense. If the stars come to play, this team will rarely get completely outworked. Of course, they did get outplayed pretty badly in the regional loss to Miami, and goalie Marc Cheverie has shown some inconsistencies. There are holes here (scoring depth, a bit of inexperience on the blue line, potentially goaltending), but Denver is the most complete team on paper, and that's all we have to judge them on right now.

2. North Dakota Fighting Sioux

This is not a recording. Expect North Dakota to do what they seem to always do. They'll fumble away some points in October and November, because no WCHA title is ever won in those months. The team will gel around Christmas, and they'll steamroll through the second half of the season like they're playing bad high school teams every night. Then North Dakota will make the Final Five, possibly lose a game or two, and head comfortably into the anything-goes NCAA Tournament. It happens every year, it seems. The Sioux are sometimes burned in their MacNaughton Cup quest by that slow start, but they'll be one of the most dangerous teams in the country by March 1. They have the league's best returning goalie (Brad Eidsness), defenseman (Chay Genoway), and some great talents up front, including senior Chris VandeVelde and sophomore Jason Gregoire. Being second to a likely preseason No. 1 nationally in Denver is nothing to sneeze at.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Scott Gudmandson is next in line to take over between the pipes for the Badgers, now that Shane Connelly has moved on. Gudmandson is blessed with one of the nation's best defensive groups. They are deep, fast, physical, and smart. Juniors Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, and Cody Golubef are joined by sophomore Jake Gardiner and promising freshman Justin Schultz. The Badgers might struggle a bit to generate consistent offense up front, but it won't be for a lack of experience. They have seven senior forwards on the roster, including Blake Geoffrion and Ben Street. Remembering back to the Final Five, and listening to DU coach George Gwozdecky talk about the amount of experience UMD brought into that tournament, it makes me think Wisconsin could be a in for a huge season. Yes, every season is different, and every team is different. What worked for UMD might not work for Wisconsin. However, it's clear the pieces are in place.

4. UMD Bulldogs

Momentum can indeed carry over from one season to the next. The Bulldogs played inspired, intense, nearly-perfect hockey in the league playoffs, and while there are valuable seniors gone from that team, the rest of the returning players learned a ton with that experience. The top line returns intact, should the coaches wish for it to stay that way. Jack Connolly, Justin Fontaine, and Jordan Fulton had molded into a solid unit, playing together for much of the season. Connolly shook off a bit of a slump to play some of his best hockey in the playoffs. Mike Connolly (remember, they're not related!) also had a huge freshman season, but he needs new linemates, as primary pivot MacGregor Sharp graduated. UMD should be able to count on some thump from freshman forward Dan Delisle, and sophomore Travis Oleksuk is ready to emerge as a key center. Sophomore Brady Hjelle takes over in goal, and could see a lot of pucks while the defense figures itself out. Freshman Dylan Olsen -- a first-round pick -- should see huge gobs of ice time, along with sophomores Brady Lamb and Scott Kishel and senior Trent Palm, who is back after hip issues ruined his junior season.

5. Minnesota Gophers

This team should be plenty motivated after the way last season ended. A 2-1 loss to UMD in the Final Five play-in game sent the Gophers to the golf course, and it propelled UMD on their magical run to the title. There are many important keys to the Gophers' season. For starters, they need strong leaders to step up. A team of high school and junior top-liners doesn't do you a lot of good when you don't have anyone who wants to get their hands dirty in the tough areas. The Gophers have to find the answer in goal, too. Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson are expected to duke it out to start, with Kangas considered the favorite by most. Expect great improvement on defense, where Don Lucia has another Mr. Hockey (Nick Leddy) and a couple breakout candidates (Aaron Ness and Sam Lofquist) to go along with a big senior (David Fischer) and stud junior (Cade Fairchild).

6. St. Cloud State Huskies

There might not be a more exciting team in the league this season. Garrett Roe and Ryan Lasch are back, and now they get help from returnees Aaron Marvin, Jared Festler, Drew LeBlanc, and Jordy Christian, along with the all-time leading scorer in Minnesota high school hockey, Ben Hanowski, and top prospect David Eddy. Where SCSU fans should be a bit less confident is their own zone. The Huskies will continue to struggle stopping opponents, especially as they break in freshman goalie Mike Lee. Yes, Lee is going to be very good in this league. However, that's not likely to happen right away, especially as Huskies coach Bob Motzko tries to find an identity on defense.

7. Colorado College Tigers

I have great respect for the work Scott Owens has done at CC, but this could be his most challenging year yet. He was already in for a tough campaign before USHL star defenseman John Moore decommitted to play in the OHL. Thankfully, he does get forwards Bill Sweatt and Andreas Vlassopoulos back, but there are depth issues all over the roster, especially on defense. The Tigers could find themselves on the short end of higher-scoring games if they don't get better play out of that group, which lost some guys after a tough season. Perhaps CC will play better with lower expectations, because last year's team was unquestionably a disappointment in the end. They will face quite the uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament.

8. Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves

There are some absolute facts about the UAA program. Their players rarely will get outworked, and they are also not often flashy. Senior forward Kevin Clark, off a 13-goal season, leads the way for the Seawolves offense. The smallish Clark is an absolute beast around the net. He's the classic UAA player who is unafraid of contact and always willing to play with an edge to be successful. The Seawolves are likely to struggle in goal, and perhaps on defense, where there isn't a ton of skill but plenty of hard work. Jon Olthuis and Bryce Christianson will share goaltending duties unless one emerges, and sophomore Curtis Leinweber is the best among the defensemen. If the Seawolves can avoid a second-half swoon, they'll be a player for a top-five spot. Frankly, I've been waiting for the day that UAA finally earns home ice, because whoever has to go up there could be facing logistical nightmares trying to get situated in Anchorage for a weekend set on short notice. That would be a huge advantage for the Seawolves.

9. Minnesota State Mavericks

This was the toughest team to peg, and I freely admit I might be missing badly on this one. The Mavericks return some talent up front, thanks to guys like Mike Louwerse and Kael Mouillierat. Defenseman Kurt Davis leads a rather non-descript group that has some promise, but the rearguards will be watching over inexperience galore in goal. Both of last year's main guys -- Mike Zacharias and Dan Tormey -- are gone, and neither were all that consistent last year. It's going to be very tough for MSU to keep up with the better offensive teams in the league, as they're just not likely to be strong enough in their own zone.

10. Michigan Tech Huskies

There wasn't a more unlucky team in all of college hockey last year. Tech lost a myriad of players to injuries, including forward Malcolm Gwilliam, who was hospitalized before a game with stroke-like symptoms. He's back on a medical redshirt, and he will lead a determined group of Huskies into what they hope is a huge bounceback season. The problem here is that there isn't enough proven talent to win games in this league. Tech has the most holes, including offensive and defensive depth, along with special teams issues, and even though they're bound to be vastly improved from last year, it might be too much to ask them to climb any higher than ninth place in a tough and improving league.

Preseason First Team All-WCHA
Forward: Jordan Schroeder, Minnesota
Forward: Joe Colborne, Denver
Forward: Tyler Ruegsegger, Denver
Defenseman: Patrick Wiercioch, Denver
Defenseman: Chay Genoway, North Dakota
Goalie: Brad Eidsness, North Dakota

Preseason Second Team All-WCHA
Jason Gregoire, North Dakota
Forward: Justin Fontaine, UMD
Forward: Ryan Lasch, St. Cloud State
Defenseman: Cade Fairchild, Minnesota
Defenseman: Ryan McDonagh, Wisconsin
Goalie: Marc Cheverie, Denver

Preseason Coach of the Year: Mike Eaves, Wisconsin
Preseason Player of the Year: Jordan Schroeder, F, Minnesota
Preseason Rookie of the Year: Dylan Olsen, D, UMD

BlogPoll: Sept. 30 Ballot (Draft)

1 Florida
2 Alabama 1
3 Texas 1
5 Boise State 5
6 Cincinnati 2
7 Houston 8
8 TCU 1
9 Southern Cal 3
10 Kansas 3
11 Oklahoma 3
12 Ohio State 5
13 Michigan 2
14 Mississippi 7
15 Oklahoma State 1
16 Iowa
17 Penn State 12
18 Oregon
19 California 13
20 Georgia 1
21 Virginia Tech 1
22 Pittsburgh 1
23 Nebraska 1
24 Miami (Florida) 6
25 Wisconsin
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Florida State (#21), Brigham Young (#22), Southern Miss (#25).

A few thoughts, and I will await your comments:
  • The top three are the only teams I have a strong feeling about. The rest of this is a mess.
  • Can anyone really diagnose how good South Florida is? I'm sure they'll crack the poll, but I'm just not impressed by what I've seen from them so far.
  • How about that Penn State flop? Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin are the only unbeatens left in the Big Ten. Seriously.
  • That Boise State/Cincinnati/Houston/TCU grouping in the top ten should show you how wacky this season has been. With how quickly top-ranked teams are dropping, don't be surprised to see a school not considered a big-time football program make a serious run at the title game. If it's ever going to happen, this is the year.
  • I know things aren't going that well, but I still feel USC is a legit team. Maybe it's the reputation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

NFL Week 3: Real Quick-Like

Let's not talk about the past.

Home team in CAPS.

MINNESOTA over San Francisco
Green Bay over ST. LOUIS
DETROIT over Washington
NEW ENGLAND over Atlanta
Tennessee over N.Y. JETS
HOUSTON over Jacksonville
PHILADELPHIA over Kansas City
N.Y. Giants over TAMPA BAY
BALTIMORE over Cleveland
Chicago over SEATTLE
New Orleans over BUFFALO
Denver over OAKLAND
SAN DIEGO over Miami
Indianapolis over ARIZONA
Carolina over DALLAS

Last week: 8-8
Season: 18-14

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

College Football Weekend Preview: Briefly, Just This Once

Leaving town for a few days, but wanted to leave some (hopefully accurate) picks.

As usual, home team in CAPS.

Mississippi over SOUTH CAROLINA
Missouri over NEVADA
CINCINNATI over Fresno State
NORTHWESTERN over Minnesota
WISCONSIN over Michigan State
BOSTON COLLEGE over Wake Forest
California over OREGON
OHIO STATE over Illinois
PENN STATE over Iowa
Notre Dame over PURDUE
Texas Tech over HOUSTON

Last week: 10-3
Season: 26-11

I'm Back

Tuesday got a little hectic, and surely you're aware of it by now, but since I announced my departure in this space back in December, it makes sense to confirm my return in this space.

I have indeed signed on to return as play-by-play announcer for UMD men's hockey. I have to offer my unending gratitude to the folks at Red Rock for the opportunity, and I can't wait to get to work.

I also want to take a moment to thank all the players (current and former), coaches, staff, alumni, parents, fans, and bloggers for the support they've shown over the last nine-plus months. It meant the world to my family that so many people were appreciative of the work I did in the booth for 128 games (yes, I went back and counted, but you all knew I was a nerd).

I hope to last longer in this stint, and I plan to give everything I have every night.

We'll have updates throughout the season in the blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter, so I hope you'll come along for the ride.

If nothing else, it's kind of fun to be able to say "Defending WCHA champions!" every time you reference UMD. Hopefully, they can add more hardware this season.

The season opens Oct. 3 with an exhibition. I beg that you all remember that it will be an exhibition for the guy in the booth, too. It's like starting over, in a way.

And it's a great feeling.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

NFL Week 2: Will Detroit Ever Win?

It's a miserable existence to be a Detroit fan these days. The Red Wings blew the Stanley Cup, the Pistons are coming off a miserable season, the Tigers are going to blow the AL Central title to Minnesota (I hope!), and then there are the Lions. Ouch.

At some point, Detroit is going to snap a regular-season losing streak that now sits at 18 games, dating back to Week 17 of the 2007 season.

There have been some close shaves along the way, including both losses to Minnesota last year. The Vikings visit Ford Field Sunday, and they bring along a guy who is used to torturing the Lions.

Brett Favre.

Now, Favre was Captain Checkdown in last week's win over Cleveland. He could afford to be, thanks to Adrian Peterson running for 875 yards and 44 touchdowns (close enough). We still don't know what Favre will look like in the face of a real defense, but Detroit isn't likely to present that challenge.

The Lions allowed Drew Brees to carve them up for six touchdowns, and put up little resistance against the Saints last week. Yes, the Saints have a great offense, one that is probably a bit more dynamic than Minnesota's. But if you can't stop Mike Bell, how the hell are you going to stop Peterson?

Detroit might be a better team than they were last year, but the hill they need to climb to move the ball and score points on the Vikings defense is just too steep. It's too much to ask.
The pick: Minnesota

Cincinnati at Green Bay: Reggie White, Sean Jones, Edgar Bennett, and, yes, Favre, were all on the team the last time Green Bay hosted the Bengals for a regular-season game. Chad Ochocinco was still Chad Johnson, and Carson Palmer was but a twinkle in Pete Carroll's eye. Ochocinco says he wants to do a Lambeau Leap if he scores a touchdown, but will Al Harris and/or Charles Woodson let that happen? The primary concerns for the Packers are an offensive line that will be tested by Cincy's front seven, and the loss of safety Atari Bigby. The Packers are somewhat thin at safety. That said, Green Bay's offense should break out of the funk they were in for most of the opener.
The pick: Green Bay

Pittsburgh at Chicago: This game got a lot more interesting when Steelers defensive star Troy Polamalu was injured, and then Bears quarterback Jay Cutler spent way too much time Sunday night throwing to the Packers. Cutler is under a lot of pressure in Chicago, and his performance last week only added to it. The Bears probably don't have the offensive talent to scare even a Polamalu-less Steeler defense, and if they thought Green Bay's 3-4 defense gave them fits, wait until they see Dick LeBeau's 3-4.
The pick: Pittsburgh

New England at N.Y. Jets: There was a lot to like about the Jets' opener. They were sharp on both sides of the ball, they played physical football, and they got great play out of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. Yes, they were playing Houston, but the Jets looked good. New England spent the better part of 55 minutes going through the motions against Buffalo Monday night. It was enough to bring doubt to the mind of many NFL observers, but when the Patriots needed it most, they had more than enough to win the game. It's going to be fun to watch this matchup now that Rex Ryan is leading the charge for the Jets, but they're not ready yet to compete with the Patriots.
The pick: New England

Other picks (home team in CAPS)

ATLANTA over Carolina
TENNESSEE over Houston
KANSAS CITY over Oakland
New Orleans over PHILADELPHIA
WASHINGTON over St. Louis
SAN FRANCISCO over St. Louis
BUFFALO over Tampa Bay
DENVER over Cleveland
SAN DIEGO over Baltimore
DALLAS over N.Y. Giants
Indianapolis over MIAMI

Last week: 10-6
Season: 10-6