Thursday, September 18, 2014

NCHC Preseason Prognostications

Welcome to the annual post where I feebly try to predict the order of finish in a college hockey conference, based almost solely on the reputations of the programs involved and the returnees on each team.

Before we begin, let's look at last year's results. Here's what I predicted:

1. Miami
2. North Dakota
3. Western Michigan
4. UMD
5. Denver
6. St. Cloud State
7. Colorado College
8. Nebraska Omaha

Here's how they finished:

1. St. Cloud State
2. North Dakota
3. Nebraska Omaha
4. UMD
4 (tie). Western Michigan
6. Denver
7. Colorado College
8. Miami

Three teams in the correct position, based on tournament seeds (UND, UMD, CC). One other team (Denver) within one spot of correct. But I was so glaringly wrong on St. Cloud State, Miami, and Omaha that I probably should just hand in my credential and let Chris Dilks write this post.

Let's see how I'll be off my rocker this year. After all, the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result." And I'm nothing if not insane.

8. Colorado College Tigers

There is some intrigue on this team. Defenseman Jaccob Slavin is in a position to play 30-plus minutes at least some nights, and I really like some of the guys up front, most notably Alex Roos, who could take a huge step this season.

But depth is a question for first-year coach Mike Haviland, and so is goaltending. Josh Thorimbert was inconsistent at best on a bad team last year, and he's gone, leaving the job (in all likelihood) for Tyler Marble, who sat out injured last year.

Haviland takes over for longtime coach Scott Owens, and how the highly-respected veteran NHL coach fits in college hockey will be a storyline this season. And since I'm picking them last, the Tigers will probably win the league or something.

7. Western Michigan Broncos

This is where it starts getting really difficult, and I'm probably going to end up looking like an idiot. There's a lot to like about this Broncos team, most notably big forwards Josh Pitt and Colton Hargrove, along with smooth defenseman Kenney Morrison. However, Andy Murray loses Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach up front, and their speed, skill, and leadership will be difficult to replace. Murray deployed both players in all situations last year, and they were effective.

Kyle Novak needs to take a big step at forward, and Morrison will be counted on for a lot of minutes with trusted veterans Dennis Brown and Jordan Oesterle both gone.

Lukas Hafner and Frank Slubowski compete for time in goal, where WMU should continue to be rock-solid. I'm just not sure Murray can find enough goals to get this team in the top four.

6. Denver Pioneers

There might not be a more important player in the league than DU defenseman Joey LaLeggia. He moves the puck, he protects his own zone, and he's a huge key to everything the Pioneers want to do in 2014-15. His presence is of added significance with the loss of David Makowski on the blue line. Yeah, Jim Montgomery can also send sophomore Will Butcher over the boards, but LaLeggia is the straw that stirs this drink.

The Pioneers have talent up front with guys like Ty Loney and Quentin Shore, but it's in goal where the big question mark lies. Who takes over for the departed Sam Brittain? That player will have huge shoes to fill come October.

5. Nebraska Omaha Mavericks

Yes, UNO loses Josh Archibald, Ryan Walters, and Brock Montpetit. Yeah, Nick Seeler is a late-summer departure Dean Blais can't recruit a replacement for. No, the goaltending situation doesn't really look like it's that much better.

Just look at those freshmen. Luc Snuggerud joins from Eden Prairie and will play a lot on the blue line. Blais added Duluth's Jake Randolph and Grand Rapids Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson up front, along with Tyler Vesel. Lots of high-end skill there, and no reason this team can't score goals.

Don't forget: Jake Guentzel and Dominic Zombo are both back, too. If Ryan Massa can grab the starting job and hold on to it, UNO is one of the most interesting teams in the nation.

4. UMD Bulldogs

No one wants to put all the pressure on a freshman, but UMD's fortunes this year will almost certainly be tied to freshman goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo. The former Minnesota Wilderness (NAHL) star is the likely starter at a position UMD has seen two years of struggles at. After five straight years of team save percentage of .900 or higher (as high as .920), the Bulldogs have slipped to .896 each of the last two winters. Last year, UMD would have allowed 15 fewer goals if that team save percentage would have matched the Bulldogs' opponents (.911). Considering UMD scored and allowed 104 goals last year, cutting 15 from the goals allowed total would have made a huge difference.

Can Kaskisuo do that? We don't know. But UMD should score more, as almost every key offensive contributor returns sans Caleb Herbert, who left early to sign with Washington. Joe Basaraba has gone pro after an 18-point senior season.

3. North Dakota

Yes, UND loses the criminally underrated Rocco Grimaldi, who left early to turn pro. Yes, North Dakota no longer has Dillon Simpson, one of the top defensemen in the country.

It doesn't matter.

Defensemen Jordan Schmaltz and Paul LaDue return. Forwards Mark MacMillan and Michael Parks are back, and so is goalie Zane McIntyre (formerly Gothberg), a 20-game winner if you're a Neanderthal and think "wins" matter when it comes to judging the quality of a goalie.

Oh, and the recruiting class includes stud forwards Nick Schmaltz and Austin Poganski.

North Dakota's going to be good. Probably really good.

2. St. Cloud State Huskies

After winning the league last season, Bob Motzko's Huskies will be a favorite again in 2014-15. They should be, too. SCSU needs to replace goalie Ryan Faragher, but the Huskies return forwards like Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila, along with star defenseman Andrew Prochno, who is one of the best in the country at his position.

Charlie Lindgren is favored to get the bulk of the work in goal. He made a handful of appearances last year and acquitted himself very well.

(The freshman class includes former Duluth Marshall Hilltopper Judd Peterson, by the way.)

SCSU has depth, snarl, and a lot of skill. This team will be a force again this season.

1. Miami Redhawks

Yeah, that whole "definition of insanity" bit. I know.

Rico Blasi's crew had a Murphy's Law type of season. Between injuries and surprisingly leaky goaltending, just about everything that could go wrong did for MU last year.

Don't bank on it happening again. Miami's run to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game is just the start for this program. Nearly everyone is back, led by the dynamic Austin Czarnik and thumping forward Blake Coleman. The same suspects are back in goal, so MU is relying on improvement from Jay Williams and Ryan McKay. But if Miami stays healthy, Blasi has a much deeper and better-skilled team than last year.

I know "worst to first" seems like a stretch in such a strong league, but the Redhawks are going to be a contender this winter.

Preseason All-NCHC Team
Jonny Brodzinski, St. Cloud State
Tony Cameranesi, UMD
Jake Guentzel, Nebraska Omaha
Joey LaLeggia, Denver
Andrew Prochno, St. Cloud State
Zane McIntyre, North Dakota

All-Rookie Team
Karson Kuhlman, UMD
Avery Peterson, Nebraska Omaha
Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota
Louie Belpedio, Miami
Luc Snuggerud, Nebraska Omaha
Kasimir Kaskisuo, UMD

Preseason Player of the Year: Jonny Brodzinski, St. Cloud State
Preseason Rookie of the Year: Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota

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