Last week, the NCHC posted its inaugural preseason poll, showing Miami on top and UMD sixth. Here's how I voted, with some words on each team.
8. Nebraska Omaha Mavericks
This was tough. I mean, excruciating. But I prioritized a number of things in putting this list together, including scoring balance, defense, and goaltending. I also looked at the fact that UNO appeared to be (again) trending in the wrong direction late last season. The Mavericks went just 3-7 over their last ten games, and two of the wins were over Alaska Anchorage. Also in that span was an exhibition loss to the US Under 18 Team. I don't know what to make of UNO's goaltending, and I just don't think the uber-talented Ryan Walters (Hobey candidate if UNO ends up being better than I'm expecting) and Josh Archibald can score enough to keep the Mavericks out of last place in the NCHC's first season.
7. Colorado College Tigers
If anyone else finishes last in the league, I'd guess it's CC. There's talent here with this group, including the highly underrated Alex Krushelnyski. I think Archie Skalbeck could make a leap this season. CC loses Mike Boivin in the back, however, and I think a lot will end up on the shoulders of freshman Gustav Olofsson (Wild second round pick in 2013) to do things offensively that Boivin (14 goals) did last year. Joe Howe is gone, so the net belongs to Josh Thorimbert for the time being, though he was inconsistent like crazy last year and could get unseated.
6. St. Cloud State Huskies
This was also difficult. There's a ton of scoring talent, with guys like Jonny Brodzinski, Nic Dowd, Kalle Kossila, and youngster Joey Benik, who really emerged in the postseason. Where the Huskies could suffer is the back line, where Nick Jensen departs, leaving Andrew Prochno as the team's top defenseman. He and Kevin Gravel are capable, but the depth isn't as strong here. SCSU was a tough team to figure out, because I do think the experience of last year's Frozen Four run is significant, but the Huskies lost a lot of big-time skill and leadership from that team, and now we'll see if it can be quickly replaced.
5. Denver Pioneers
No more Gwoz means Denver might be slightly less interesting, at least from a reporter's standpoint. But Gwoz doesn't leave a bare cupboard for new bench boss Jim Montgomery. Top recruits like Will Butcher stuck around, and so did senior goalie Sam Brittain, who inherits the No. 1 job for the time being after Juho Olkinuora departed. The Pioneers aren't as deep up front as SCSU, but I think they have more talent on defense and better goaltending. For this Pioneers team, it's going to be all about how they handle the adjustment from Gwozdecky to someone who isn't Gwozdecky.
4. UMD Bulldogs
I believe this team is poised for a rise after a down year. If a No. 1 goalie doesn't emerge, UMD could be in some trouble, but UMD has high-end talent at forward with Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, Caleb Herbert, and freshman Dominic Toninato. Andy Welinski is going to be a top defenseman in this new league, and freshman Willie Raskob has a lot of talent. The Bulldogs have to fill some third- and fourth-line holes, but look for this team to display more puck possession, crisper offense, and an improved back line.
3. Western Michigan Broncos
Here's my reach in the poll. The Broncos only scored 87 goals last season, and leading scorer Dane Walters is gone. I'm betting big with this pick on a few things: Chase Balisy becomes a bigger part of the offense, as does Denney Morrison from the blue line; Colton Hargrove emerges as a top-line scoring threat; and Frank Slubowski keeps doing Frank Slubowski things in goal. Andy Murray is a hell of a coach, and it's going to be fun to watch him match wits with guys like Hakstol, Motzko, Sandelin, and Blais on a regular basis.
2. North Dakota
This might be more of a respect vote, because I'm not sure UND has enough defense to win consistently in a tougher league. However, I've wondered this about UND before, and UND's always just fine. North Dakota will do okay this season, too. Rocco Grimaldi will have a huge season, as will Mark MacMillan. There's more than enough talent in the back with guys like Dillon Simpson and Jordan Schmaltz. I do wonder about UND's goaltending, which was shaky at times, but you could do a lot worse than returning two guys who combined for a .916 save percentage.
1. Miami RedHawks
No-brainer, in my view. These polls are impossible, especially with new league alignments, but Miami has the most returning talent in all phases, and it's not like the CCHA was a scrub league last year. Scoring will be balanced, and they have high-end skill guys like Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber back, along with defenseman Matthew Caito and goalies Ryan McKay and Jay Williams. This is a well-coached team that expects to be on top of its league, and I think Miami might be the team to beat, nationally as well as in the NCHC.