We'll go league-by-league through the western half of our realigned college hockey nation, starting with the league UMD (and many others) left.
The WCHA might not be as strong as it once was, but it houses at least one legitimate top-15 team, and a couple others that would like to stake a claim.
10. Alabama Huntsville Chargers
Mike Corbett takes over as the Chargers' head coach, and obviously there are high hopes that the move to the WCHA will provide the program with much-needed stability. However, that stability might take some time to show itself on the ice. UAH definitely benefits from no longer living such a nomadic existence, but the Chargers aren't ready to contend in a Division I league just yet. There are some building blocks here, with guys like forward Jeff Vanderlugt back, and UAH is young, so the future certainly is better.
9. Lake Superior State Lakers
could be a struggle out in Sault Ste. Marie this season. The Lakers
lose a lot of high-end guys from a so-so 2012-13 squad, most notably
leading scorer Domenic Monardo and runner-up Nick McParland. Their depth
was hit by the early departure of power forward Kellan Lain. Senior
goalies Kevin Murdock and Kevin Kapalka return, and they might have to
carry the team early while it finds some offense.
8. Northern Michigan Wildcats
Wildcats have to shake off some losses, especially the early departure
of goalie Jared Coreau, who could have been a real leader on this team
had he not turned pro. Junior forward Reed Seckel can score (13 last
year), but who sets him up with Matt Thurber gone? And who plays goal
with Coreau and his 38 games gone to the pros? Lots of questions for
Walt Kyle to answer as his team starts up in a new league.
7. Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves
administration and a new coach for UAA, as Matt Thomas takes over for
the fired Dave Shyiak. If Thomas can get the culture changed, this could
turn around quickly. There is talent, especially with sophomore Blake
Tatchell, junior Scott Allen, and senior Matt Bailey up front. Thomas
needs to straighten out his blue line and find consistent goaltending.
Community support wouldn't hurt, either.
6. Alaska Nanooks
UAF snuck over .500 last year, and wasn't really written out of NCAA contention until late in the season. However, leading scorer Andy Taranto departs. Sophomore goalie John Keeney played 27 games last year and should carry the load again in '13-14. Senior forward Cody Kunyk could be in for a big season.
5. Ferris State Bulldogs
in Florida was my first chance to see Ferris State in person, but these
Bulldogs have always impressed me from afar. The chances for veteran
coach Bob Daniels' team in the new WCHA depend the development of some
young forwards. Seniors Garrett Thompson and Cory Kane return, but they
need help from guys like Kenny Babinski and Dakota Klecha to add scoring
balance. CJ Motte returns in goal after a strong sophomore season.
4. Bemidji State Beavers
Always a well-coached group, Tom Serratore and the Beavers might benefit greatly from the sport's realignment. BSU just didn't have the talent to consistently compete with the likes of North Dakota, Minnesota, and others (their odd hex on UNO notwithstanding). The Beavers, however, do have the talent and work ethic to make noise in this league. And with junior Andrew Walsh, they have the goalie.
3. Bowling Green Falcons
People in this part of the land might not have noticed, but man has Chris Bergeron done a nice job with this program. The record (39-73-14) is underwhelming, but the Falcons look ready to make some strides. Juniors Ryan Carpenter and Dajon Mingo lead the offense, and the Falcons have experience all over the ice. The one exception is goal, where Andrew Hammond is gone.
2. Michigan Tech Huskies
Mel Pearson should have his best this this season. The Huskies have high-end forwards like Blake Pietila, Alex Petan, Tanner Kero, and David Johnstone all back. The early departure of Jujhar Khaira should only be a small dent in the group. Defense and goaltending lacked last season, but the hope is improved depth between the pipes and further development from defensemen like Riley Sweeney and Justin Fillion should help matters.
1. Minnesota State Mavericks
Even if I wanted to, I'm not sure I could make an argument against MSU being the prohibitive favorite in the WCHA. Mike Hastings got this team to the NCAAs last year, and they're only going to be better. JP Lafontaine, Matt Leitner, Zach Lehrke, Max Gaede, and Bryce Gervais are among the top forwards, and the Mavs sport a strong group of defensemen led by Zach Palmquist. Not only is MSU legit in this league, but the Mavericks should be in most preseason top tens. Justifiably so, too.