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 www.fan1490.com.

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
Forward:
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

2 comments:

Chris said...

Schroeder is coaching now? Wow, that is impressive. Thats the problem with Blogs, no editors. :)

Bruce Ciskie said...

Hey, I read it pretty carefully, as I normally do.

It's just that I can't read, apparently.

Thanks for catching that!