Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Preseason NCHC Predictions

Another season is upon us, and now it's time to fruitlessly predict how the NCHC will finish pull out the crystal ball and make some picks.

Before we do that, here's how they finished in 2014-15:

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

For fun, here's how I picked them:

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

Not as bad as the year before, but still not very good. Of course, that won't stop me from trying again. I wish I wasn't so stubborn.

8. Colorado College

I was prepared to move the Tigers out of the cellar, even with questions up front and in goal, largely because of defenseman Jaccob Slavin. Then I turned on the NHL Network and saw him playing for the Carolina Hurricanes. Guess that means he's not coming back.

(Kidding. I knew he was gone. But seeing that was a stark reminder of how young CC is going to be this season.)

It seemed the Tigers had some moments of positivity in Mike Haviland's first season. There were plenty of nights where CC was competitive and just lost out on some bad bounces, or the stunning lack of scoring really reared its ugly head. I just don't see how they get out from that with 14 freshmen on the roster this year. Haviland will have a much better team, though. If the Tigers get goaltending they could really surprise.

7. Western Michigan

How stupid competitive is the NCHC? Western Michigan is good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. I have them seventh in an eight-team league.

Highly-respected veteran coach Andy Murray lost big forward Colton Hargrove to the Boston Bruins, but he returns speedy forward Sheldon Dries and highly-skilled Nolan Laporte, who can score goals while also getting under the skin of opponents. The hard-nosed Broncos did lose talented defenseman Kenney Morrison and four-year goalie Frank Slubowski, but Lukas Hafner is back in net, and Murray has some promising young defensemen to deploy.

(The team overall is young. Laporte and Hafner are the best -- in my view -- of a five-man senior class at WMU.)

Western might not wow anyone with its speed or pace of play, but the Broncos are a formidable foe because of how consistently hard they play. They're as good as anyone in the league at making life hell for opponents in all zones.

6. St. Cloud State

Last year, the Huskies finished sixth in the NCHC. How did they end their season? By blitzing Omaha in a two-game road playoff sweep, then taking down No. 1 North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals before bowing to Miami in the title game. Oh, and then SCSU went to the NCAA West Regional, beat Michigan Tech, and ended its season a win away from a second trip to the Frozen Four in three years.

Not too shabby, eh?

Bob Motzko has built a power here, a team capable of annual NCAA trips, and this year is no different. With that being said, the Huskies do have to fill some holes. Goal-scorer Jonny Brodzinski left early, and SCSU also lost steady leaders like Joe Rehkamp and Nick Oliver up front, along with Andrew Prochno and Tim Daly in the back.

Talent? They've got it. Joey Benik already made the leap, and he could be a darkhorse Hobey candidate. David Morley and Kalle Kossila lead a strong senior class, and Charlie Lindgren is rock-solid in goal.

5. Omaha

Some teams lost talented players. Omaha lost its backbone. If not for Ryan Massa, UNO doesn't make the Frozen Four. He might not have been at his best in the semifinal loss to Providence, but Massa was as good as any goalie in the country last year, and he was that way basically from start to finish.

He's gone now, but Dean Blais isn't shedding tears and wondering how his team will compete. While Massa was backstopping UNO to Boston, young players were learning the ropes and showing a ridiculous amount of promise. Now, the Mavs have Avery Peterson and Jake Randolph back as sophomores, joined by junior forwards Austin Ortega and Jake Guentzel, as dangerous as anyone in the league.

Blais will need Luc Snuggerud and Joel Messner to keep stepping forward on the blue line, as depth there is a bit questionable.

4. North Dakota

"Bruce, you're doing it again. You're underrating UND."

North Dakota fans should be happy. It seems I do this every year, and every year UND outperforms my expectations.

I respected Dave Hakstol as much as any opposing coach I've ever dealt with. I've heard nothing but good things about Brad Berry, who takes over after Hakstol left for the NHL. This prediction isn't about coaching. Not in the least.

Instead, I'm curious about UND's forward depth and goaltending. Even if Drake Caggiula puts up All-NCHC numbers as I believe he will, and even if Nick Schmaltz has the big year I think he will, I don't know that North Dakota has the scoring depth to win the league again.

What do I know? That North Dakota's blue line -- featuring Paul LaDue, Troy Stecher, captain Gage Ausmus, and soon-to-emerge Tucker Poolman -- is as good as any in college hockey. And just think: Jordan Schmaltz left early for pro hockey.

3. Miami

A disappointing end to last season, for sure, losing to Providence in the first round of the NCAAs, and when you look on paper, it's easy to say Miami was gutted up front. Austin Czarnik, Riley Barber, and Blake Coleman are all gone.

But the underrated Sean Kuraly and Anthony Louis are both back up front, and the RedHawks were able to supplement a large senior class (ten guys, including both primary goalies) with another strong recruiting class, led by NTDP star Jack Roslovic.

Defenseman Matthew Caito is one of the seniors, and sophomore Louie Belpedio will be one of the nation's best blue-liners this year (you'll notice I voted Belpedio to my preseason all-league team).

Despite the heavy losses, I expect Miami will content. Rico Blasi's team might not score as much this year, but they'll be stronger from the net out to make up the difference.

2. Denver

Similar to North Dakota, I do question Denver's forward depth. Trevor Moore and Danton Heinen are the most explosive forwards in the conference, but Jim Montgomery does need to find them a new center (assuming he keeps them on the same line). The good news? With all due respect to Daniel Doremus, Montgomery could put a broomstick in between those two and get 20 points out of it (it's an old wrestling analogy, just go with me on it). If Montgomery needs volunteers to play center on that line, I'll look into my college eligibility.

In all seriousness, you're not going to find a better one-two scoring punch, possibly in the country. Whoever plays center will be a better player for it, just having these two to feed. We talk about great centers making the linemates better. In DU's case, the unbelievably-talented Moore and Heinen can make the center better.

(Again, assuming they stay on the same line. I'd have to think DU at least starts out that way.)

Joey LaLeggia is the biggest loss in the NCHC, but Denver's blue line isn't a barren wasteland without him. Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher are ready, and Montgomery has some nice complimentary pieces in Matt VanVoorhis and Adam Plant. Freshmen Blake Hillman and Sean Mostrom will compete for a piece of the pie as well.

Oh, and the goalies. Tanner Jaillet and Evan Cowley both return, and while both had their share of struggles at times, Montgomery has a potent tandem in net.

1. UMD

Before you cry "HOMER!," know this:

2015-16 is my 11th year calling UMD hockey. I'm such a terrible homer that this is the first time I've ever picked UMD to win its conference.

And I have my reasons.

It starts with preseason All-NCHC goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo. Here's what I wrote about him in March:
Kaskisuo was fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, to the point I voted him Most Outstanding Player for the Northeast Regional (votes were due before BU got the late power play). He played well in both games, and this summer will be a key to his success going forward. I think he has a chance to be one of the best goalies in the NCHC, if not Division I, next season if he has a good offseason.
Now, we see it all come together for Kaskisuo. He unquestionably had a rough patch last season, and there were times his fundamentals were just a little off what they should be. If he can improve that .917 he put up as a freshman by even a couple percentage points, UMD is off and running. If something happens to Kaskisuo, senior Matt McNeely is waiting in the wings. "Matty Ice" only got in five games last year, but one of those was a crucial 2-1 win over Minnesota. In that game at the North Star College Cup, McNeely played possibly his best game as a Bulldog and helped UMD snap a four-game losing streak that threatened to spoil a promising season.

Preseason all-league defenseman and cap'n Andy Welinski leads a stout blue line that returns big-minute guys Willie Raskob and Carson Soucy (emerging as a top prospect on the Wild blue line, by the way), along with improved senior Willie Corrin. Oh, and Hermantown's Neal Pionk debuts this year after two strong years in the USHL.

Up front, the top line of Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, and Karson Kuhlman return intact, along with juniors Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo. UMD adds former Hibbing star Adam Johnson after he had a very good year in the USHL last year.

Not that it should matter, but given the difficulty UMD had extracting points from games against Western Michigan last year, it probably helps the Bulldogs that they only see Western Michigan once this year. It's the kind of scheduling break that could make a difference in such a competitive league.

UMD has skill, size, depth, and goaltending. I believe the Bulldogs have the fewest holes in the NCHC, and they are my pick to claim the Penrose Cup.

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