The annual WCHA preseason polls are due out next week. Once again, the Grand Forks Herald is going to release their preseason coaches' poll, and the third annual 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll -- conducted this year by your humble correspondent -- will be released on the same day.
(The release will be available via the WCHA, and I will post the information here as well.)
For the first time, the league has 12 members, thanks to the additions of Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha. The last two years have seen the coaches' and media surveys almost identical.
It'll be interesting if the same feat can be accomplished with 12 teams and a good deal of uncertainty in the middle of the pack.
30 media members were invited to take part, and while I wait for the rest of the votes to come in, here is my best guess at a 1-12 order for the world's toughest college hockey league this season.
The Seawolves have some talent on this team. I like forward Tommy Grant and defenseman Kane Lafranchise, but leading scorer Kevin Clark -- a pest and a very good player to boot -- is gone, as is promising young defenseman Lee Baldwin, who signed a free-agent deal with the New York Rangers.
(First, the Rangers steal that game from the guys of Mystery, and now they steal one of UAA's better defensemen. Blasphemy.)
Anyway, UAA doesn't often get outworked when they're playing well, and they have some nice young players on this team. There are major questions up front and in goal, however, and the experience they do sport on defense is just not going to be enough for them.
11. Minnesota State
There was reason for hope all last season. The Mavericks had four senior forwards among their top six scorers last year. Shouldn't that have been a good thing?
Problem: The four averaged just 10.5 goals and 24.5 points between them. And now they're gone, leaving two undersized senior defenseman as the top returning point producers, along with forward Rylan Galiardi.
The guy they need a lot out of junior Mike Louwerse, who produced 13 goals as a freshman but slipped to seven last year.
Also hurting is the departure of NHL second-round pick Tyler Pitlick, who bolted for major juniors.
10. Michigan Tech
This is probably optimistic for Tech, but I like Jamie Russell, I like Brett Olson, and I think they have a chance to do some positive things.
Olson has to cool his jets a little bit. He's sometimes guilty of getting too involved in the action, if you know what I mean, and a good example is the stupid kneeing penalty he took late in the Huskies' Saturday loss to UMD last year in Houghton. It's nit-picky, but the Huskies need him on the ice. Let someone else take out the aggressions and frustrations.
Anyway, Kevin Genoe is a good young goalie, and the Huskies are due for some positive luck.
9. Colorado College
These types of things are hard to predict. I like the Tigers, and I think they have the makings of a solid team. But they have lost a lot in guys like Bill Sweatt, Mike Testwuide, and Nate Prosser. Those were rock-solid players who got a lot of ice time and did a lot of good things last year. It's going to be tough to replace all of that, but the Tigers sure do have a lot of talent in the Brothers Schwartz -- Rylan and Jaden.
Jaden was a first-round pick in June, and he might not be there very long if he plays the way he did last year in the USHL. No biggie, because if he's that good, the Tigers will be just fine.
We'll see if Joe Howe -- who quickly got a stranglehold on the starting goaltender job as a freshman -- can avoid the kind of sophomore slump that hit former Tiger Richard Bachman. It'll be a huge key to the season, as Prosser's departure leaves the Tigers a bit thin on defense.
This makes me very uncomfortable. I have the greatest respect for Dean Blais' coaching ability, and I think this UNO team will be better than the one he fielded last year. Throw out all the CCHA snark you want, but he won 20 games in a good league with a team that didn't appear to be that strong on paper.
The WCHA should and will be tougher on this Maverick team, but they're probably good enough to make a run at home ice. What might stop them is a conference schedule that features North Dakota and St. Cloud State four times, UMD and Minnesota only on the road, and four games with fellow newcomer Bemidji State.
Make no mistake, though. UNO should be in the mix for a home-ice spot when the season is drawing to an end. Sophomore goalie John Faulkner will be a key player, along with senior forward Rich Purslow.
7. Wisconsin Badgers
We know Mike Eaves can make something of this team. We also know he has plenty of talented players.
But the Badgers lost so much experience off last year's national runner-up that it's hard to imagine them finishing in the upper half of such a strong league.
In fact, it's probably a stretch to rate them this high. Eaves has to replace guys like Hobey winner Blake Geoffrion, star playmaker Derek Stepan, defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Cody Goloubef, and assistant coaches Mark Osiecki (Ohio State) and Kevin Patrick (USHL).
Even for a proven winner like Eaves, this is just too much in one fell swoop.
6. Minnesota Gophers
This is one of the toughest calls of the 12 teams in this league. Minnesota underperformed greatly last year, lost leading scorer and an emerging defenseman, among others, and there is this huge dark cloud floating over coach Don Lucia's head.
It's as if this is just set up for something bad to happen.
The Gophers have talent, though, and they have a ton of experience with Lucia, a winner at every stop in his coaching career. It's unlikely that he just forgot how to recruit or coach, and it's hard to imagine that this team is just going to fall off the face of the earth because Jordan Schroeder and Nick Leddy left eaerly.
Look for freshman Nick Bjugstad to jump right in and make an impact, and don't be surprised if someone from a group that includes Patrick White, Zach Budish, Jacob Cepis, Cade Fairchild, and Aaron Ness emerges as a real force.
5. Bemidji State Beavers
I've said this to a few people this summer.
You have got to like what this program is capable of. They have a solid footing now, a top-notch arena, and a fanbase hungry to see a consistent winner at college hockey's top level. Tom Serratore is simply one of the nation's smartest coaches, and now it's highly likely he'll have even more talent to work with than before.
What he has now? Well, it's pretty damn good. Matt Read, Jordan George, and Ian Lowe are very good two-way forwards who can play anywhere in this league. They have speed all over the lineup, and they aren't afraid of anyone.
Goalie Dan Bakala is a big key, because he will be tested on a consistent basis now, as opposed to the lower level of play you'd sometimes see out of CHA opponents.
The biggest question I have about this team: How will they handle playing 28 WCHA games, as opposed to six to eight? You can't treat every game against a WCHA foe like it's a Super Bowl of sorts, a tremendous opportunity to prove yourself as a program. The mindset has to be different now.
4. Denver Pioneers
If anyone in the league can handle serious losses, it's a motivated George Gwozdecky. There is little doubt that he wants a new contract from DU, and it doesn't seem to be coming at this point.
There is no better way to get it than to win when no one thinks you will.
No Rakhshani. No Ruegsegger. No Colborne. No Wiercioch. No Cheverie.
Beau Bennett could be the best freshman in the league. Kyle and Shawn Ostrow have to do more offensively, but they're capable. Defensemen John Lee, Matt Donovan, and William Wrenn can all play at a high level.
There is no way Gwozdecky -- one of the top coaches in the sport not working in the professional ranks -- is going to field a non-competitive team. No chance. Denver will win, and they might shock some people at how they play without last year's stars.
3. St. Cloud State Huskies
Even without departed scorer Ryan Lasch, the Huskies are going to be a very strong threat in the WCHA. Garrett Roe returns, and when he's not driving fans nuts with a tendency to embellish, he's one of the best players in the league. The Huskies have plenty of depth with guys like Tony Mosey, Drew LeBlanc, Ben Hanowski, Jared Festler, David Eddy, and Travis Novak.
Mike Lee and Dan Dunn are a formidable goaltending tandem.
The only major question is on defense, where Garrett Raboin and Craig Gaudet are gone, and there isn't a ton of offensive upside back there.
2. UMD Bulldogs
When this team lines up in October, they know expectations will be high. It won't be like last year, when most tabbed UMD as a second-division team ... one not good enough to host a WCHA playoff series for the first time since 2004.
They proved the experts wrong, winning 20 games for a second straight year and only missing the NCAAs by a hair.
At the end of the year, Kenny Reiter emerged as a quality starting goaltender. With running buddy Brady Hjelle gone to the USHL, he may have to take another step this year and become a No. 1 goalie.
The skaters are strong. UMD has offensive and defensive defensemen, and they might have the best returning line in the league with Justin Fontaine and Jack and Mike Connolly.
The battle against expectations might be tough, but it's about the only thing keeping UMD from having a big season.
1. North Dakota Fighting Sioux
No doubt about it, the Fighting Sioux are the favorites. Returning defenseman Chay Genoway will bring All-American ability to the blue line, and he's not the only one in line for that honor. Only senior Chris VandeVelde is gone among their top scorers, and that leaves a lot coming back. Look out for forwards Danny Kristo, Brett Hextall, Jason Gregoire, Evan Trupp, Matt Frattin, and Brad Malone, among others.
Genoway joins Derrick LaPoint, Ben Blood, and Joe Gleason in a defensive corps that is very talented and good at both playing defense and moving the puck up the rink.
Goalie Brad Eidsness could use a break once in a while, but he's a good one. More recruits are coming to reinforce things, and the Sioux easily have the fewest holes of any team in the league entering the season.
Preseason All-WCHA Team
Goalie: Brad Eidsness, North Dakota
Defenseman: Mike Montgomery, UMD
Defenseman: Chay Genoway, North Dakota
Forward: Jack Connolly, UMD
Forward: Justin Fontaine, UMD
Forward: Garrett Roe, St. Cloud State
Coach: Dave Hakstol, North Dakota
Preseason Player of the Year: Chay Genoway, D, North Dakota
Preseason Newcomer of the Year: Jaden Schwartz, F, Colorado College