Monday, September 24, 2012

WCHA Preseason Poll: My Ballot

The annual WCHA Preseason Media Poll will be released Wednesday morning. Monday night is the voting deadline, but we do have 21 ballots returned. That's a quorum as far as I'm concerned, so I'm going to proceed with the poll.

I vote in the poll, and I invited two media representatives from each of the WCHA's teams to take part. No team is unrepresented when the list of returned ballots is looked at, though I count ten unreturned at this point.

In the interest of full disclosure, my votes appear below, starting with the generally-fruitless exercise of predicting what order the teams will finish in.

(All other voters are encouraged to post their ballots. As usual, no one will be forced to, and no one will have their individual ballot revealed.)

12. Alaska Anchorage

There are some pieces here that I like. Matt Bailey can score, and I thought Eric Scheid had his moments as a freshman (NOTE: not that it matters anymore, because he's gone). Scott Warner gives them some nice experience on the blue line. However, there is little scoring depth, and the goaltending tandem of Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal struggled to stop the puck consistently.

The schedule-making fairy did the Seawolves no favors. Two of the three teams UAA plays both home and away: Minnesota and Wisconsin.

11. Bemidji State

Jordan George is back for one more year, but Shea Walters, Jamie MacQueen, and defenseman Brad Hunt graduated after stellar nine-year careers at BSU (or at least it felt like they were there that long). Dan Bakala, who kept the Beavers in many a game, is also gone, leaving the goaltending duties to Andrew Walsh and (maybe) Mathieu Dugas.

Someone will step up and make noise as a linemate and runnin' buddy for George. It's just a matter of who that will be. The missing pieces on the secondary lines will hurt BSU this season.

(Literally, this is the point where the decisions became extremely tough. I'd say spots 2-10 were as hard to decipher as ever before.)

10. Nebraska Omaha

Just like picking the Rams to win the NFC West, I have a feeling I'm going to regret this. But here goes. The Mavericks lost six straight and seven of eight to go from "home ice shoo-in" to "swept out of the playoffs" in a span of a month. UNO may have a revolving door in goal again. Senior John Faulkner is back, as is sophomore Dayn Belfour. But 2011-12 minutes leader Ryan Massa is taking the season off, and don't be surprised if Flyers draft pick Anthony Stolarz sees some playing time, too.

The Mavericks were gutted up front, losing Jayson Megna and Terry Broadhurst (29 combined goals) early. Dean Blais can recruit, but will the Mavs' hulking defensive corps be improved enough to offset more potential upheaval in goal and fewer goals scored?

9. Colorado College

A team that faded last season now faces a huge test. CC lost leading scorer Jaden Schwartz to the NHL (well, the AHL for now), along with experience at center in Nick Dineen, and an all-around defenseman in Gabe Guentzel.

The Tigers need production from the freshmen, including Hunter Fejes of Anchorage, but it doesn't hurt to have Rylan Schwartz back for one more season.

Junior Alexander Krushelnyski -- now that he's a junior, I no longer have to look up the correct spelling of his name -- could be in for a big offensive year. Goalie Josh Thorimbert won the job late last season, but senior Joe Howe is still around, and I'm guessing he'd like to play.

8. Minnesota State

It's just the kind of luck Troy Jutting had towards the end of his Minnesota State run. Now that he's gone, the hockey team looks to be vastly improved, perhaps enough to seriously challenge for home ice.

The improvement starts with new coach Mike Hastings, who gets his first crack at a college head-coaching job after paying plenty of dues over the years as a USHL coach and college assistant. He'll get this team to play a higher tempo, and Jutting's recent recruiting classes support such a change.

Sophomore forwards JP Lafontaine and Matt Leitner lead the way. A solid class comes in this year, including Bryce Gervais and Teddy Blueger. If the defense can stay healthy, it should get better, too.

The Mavericks need to find a No. 1 goalie on their team, but Hastings will point this program in the right direction, and he'll do it quickly.

7. Michigan Tech

Speaking of programs quickly pointed in the right direction, here's an example. Michigan Tech had as miserable a season as you can possibly conceive in 2010-11, winning four of 38 games and going scoreless for three whole games in a row (all at home).

Enter Mel Pearson. The Tech alum and longtime Michigan assistant made the most of his first head-coaching job, winning 16 games and getting Tech to the Final Five, where the Huskies lost in overtime to Denver.

Brett Olson, Jordan Baker, and goalie Josh Robinson depart, but the Huskies return the Johnstone boys (Jacob and David), the Pietila boys (Blake, Chad, and Aaron), smooth blue-line puck-mover Stephen Seigo, and big defenseman Daniel Sova, among others.

Kevin Genoe is back in goal, but he was porous last season before Robinson won the job. He's backed up by two freshmen, so there's opportunity here. Of course, the youngsters -- Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips -- probably see an opportunity, too.

6. Wisconsin

Don't sleep on this team. The offensive engine last year was Mark Zengerle, who returns this year, and shouldn't have to worry about being overshadowed by Jack Connolly in the pantheon of smallish WCHA centers who are a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

He's joined up front by Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes, who combined for 25 goals last season, and promising freshman Nic Kerdiles, who got votes in our preseason rookie of the year balloting.

Everyone thinks the defense is gutted without Justin Schultz, but Jake McCabe, John Ramage, and Frankie Simonelli aren't bad guys to lean on.

Junior goalie Joel Rumpel needs to take another step forward. He's capable, but showed flashes of inconsistency last season.

5. Minnesota Duluth

Like many teams in the WCHA, UMD is dealing with some questions about goaltending. Junior Aaron Crandall is joined by newcomers Matt McNeely and Alex Fons in the battle to replace Kenny Reiter.

They'll benefit from what I think is a deeper and more experienced group of defensemen. Wade Bergman and Drew Olson have played a lot of minutes in their first three years, Chris Casto was really good from the start of the season on last year, and Luke McManus played his best hockey at the NCAA regional against Maine and Boston College. Freshman Andy Welinski -- last year's USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year -- will play a lot.

(By the way, the last USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year to ply his craft at UMD? Some guy named Jack Connolly. You may have heard of him.)

Up front, sophomore Caleb Herbert and senior Mike Seidel lead the way. Don't be surprised if freshman Austin Farley becomes a known name, and it might not take him long.

4. St. Cloud State

This is a sneaky-good hockey team that is going to surprise a lot of people (just wait until I give you some nerdy stuff on the preseason poll).

Ben Hanowski is back, and I'm certain people have forgotten that he scored 23 goals last season, and did it largely without any help from senior captain Drew LeBlanc, who red-shirted after a broken leg ruined what was supposed to be his last year in St. Cloud.

Jared Festler and Travis Novak will be missed up front, but LeBlanc's return helps placate that. Newcomers like Joey Benik don't hurt.

The defense is full of really good players. Kevin Gravel doesn't jump off the page, but he doesn't have to. The Huskies have Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno, both of whom have plenty of offensive upside.

In goal, Ryan Faragher benefits from all the playing time he got last year when Mike Lee went down. They need to find a backup, but they have their No. 1, in all likelihood.

3. Denver

The losses of Drew Shore and Jason Zucker are the first thing people think of. That's fine, but the Pioneers return plenty. Nick Shore had 41 points, Shawn Ostrow is a very capable two-way forward, and Ty Loney will help pick up the scoring slack. Freshman Quentin Shore should pick up where his older brother left off.

(Does Denver have a rule that two Shores must be on every team now?)

DU's two best players, however, aren't forwards. Goalie Sam Brittain came back from a knee injury and got stronger as the season wore on, beating UMD in the Final Five semifinals with a tremendous performance. Oh, and then there's sophomore defenseman Joey LaLeggia, who was the most consistent freshman in the league last year. He's the best two-way defenseman Denver's had since Matt Carle.

So, yeah, Denver will be just fine. Imagine if Drew Shore and Zucker hadn't turned pro. Scary stuff ...

2. North Dakota

The suspensions of UND's four captains and four other players for one or two games of the team's opening weekend in Alaska next month gained headlines last week.

Regardless of what happens with guys like Danny Kristo, Carter Rowney, and Corban Knight sitting out one or both games of the Brice Alaska Goal Rush, UND is a serious threat to win the WCHA.

Knight, Rowney, and Kristo key the offense, but they'll have help from Rocco Grimaldi, who had his first crack at a freshman season ruined by injury. The team is strong in the back, with captain Andrew MacWilliam and Duluth native Derek Forbort leading the way. Forbort was hurt for a chunk of last season, but played the best I've seen him play at UND down the stretch. If he keeps that up, there's no reason to think the Artists Formerly Known as the Fighting Sioux won't be as strong defensively as they've been in a while.

No more Aaron Dell or Brad Eidsness in goal, but UND has Alabama-Huntsville transfer Clarke Saunders and solid freshman Zane Gothberg there.

1. Minnesota

I'm breaking a rule in a sense here.

Generally, I pick the team that I think has the fewest holes to win the WCHA. But I think North Dakota has fewer holes than Minnesota. So why are the Gophers here?

Because Minnesota will be improved on defense, and has the best offensive talent in the WCHA. That's why.

Kent Patterson kept Minnesota from having to score its way out of a lot of messes last year. Sure, Patterson's numbers weren't gaudy, but he was consistent. He didn't force his team to overcome soft goal after soft goal, and he kept his bad outings to a minimum.

If Michael Shibrowski and Adam Wilcox -- whoever plays the bulk of the games -- can duplicate that effort, Minnesota will do just fine.

Defensively, it's up to Mark Alt, Justin Holl, and Nate Schmidt to keep shot totals down and make sure their goalie only has to make one save at a time. Yes, it's a cliche. But it's a justifiable one.

Even with Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Zach Budish, Nate Condon, and a host of other talented scorers on hand, the only thing that can stop the Gophers from winning the MacNaughton in their last year in the league is if the defense and goaltending are too leaky.

Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota; Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State; Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State; Joey LaLeggia, Denver
Sam Brittain, Denver

PRESEASON WCHA ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Andy Welinski, D, Minnesota Duluth

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