College Hockey: 2011-12 WCHA Preview and Preseason Rankings

Peter StrohmeierContributor ISeptember 22, 2011

College Hockey: 2011-12 WCHA Preview and Preseason Rankings

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    Conference realignment has dominated most of the discussion in college hockey as of late.

    However, it will still be a couple of years until the new conferences officially begin play. The Big Ten and National College Hockey Conference are expected to start in the 2013-14 season.  

    In the meantime, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is still one of the premier conferences in college hockey.

    Here are my preseason rankings for the 2011-12 season.

12. Minnesota State-Mankato

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    Minnesota State University-Mankato

    Key Returnees: Michael Dorr, Eriah Hayes 

    Key Losses: Kurt Davis, Ben Youds

     If you’ve ever attended a game at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Mankato, you’ve probably witnessed one of the strangest goal celebrations by the team’s fans. Fortunately for opposing teams, they didn’t have to experience it much last season.

    The Mavericks lost their three best players in Kurt Davis, Ben Youds and Rylan Galiardi. This isn't good news for a team that only managed to scrape up eight conference wins last season. 

    This season the Mavericks will need to rely on Michael Dorr and Eriah Hayes to scrounge up some offense in order for the Mavericks to climb out of the basement of the WCHA. 

    The defense is in worse shape losing Kurt Davis, Ben Youds and Channing Boe. Goaltenders Phil Cook and Austin Lee showed flashes of brilliance at times last season, but will really need to carry the team on their shoulders in order for the Mavericks to rise above the bottom of the league.

    Unless Michael Dorr and Eriah Hayes really break out this season, it is likely that the Mavericks will find themselves at the bottom of the WCHA.

    Pictured: Former MSU-Mankato Maverick standout David Backes now plays in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues

11. Michigan Tech

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    Michigan Tech

    Key Returnees: Milos Gordic, Ryan Furne, Jacob Johnstone, Steven Seigo 

    Key Loss: Deron Cousens

    Last season was one of the worst ever for the Tech hockey program. The Huskies lost 18 consecutive WCHA games, tying a WCHA record set by Colorado College in the 1961-62 season.

    It’s a new day for the Michigan Tech Husky hockey program. 

    This past May, Michigan Tech hired long-time University of Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson. At Michigan, Pearson helped the Wolverines to two national championships and 11 Frozen Four appearances. 

    Coach Pearson was also the lead recruiter for the Wolverines. For the first time in years, things are starting to look up for the Michigan Tech hockey program. 

    In addition to the hiring of Pearson, Tech also returns a lot of young talent. Returning is the youthful trio of Milos Gordic, Ryan Furne and Jacob Johnstone, who finished last season with a combined 61 points.  

    Gordic will be a junior this season with Furne and Johnstone both sophomores. Defenseman Steven Seigo is also back and should provide an offensive presence on the blue line.

    It may take a couple years, but Mel Pearson should turn around this struggling program. Huskies' fans have reason to be optimistic and should start seeing signs of progress this season.

    Pictured:  Former NHL goaltender Steve Shields joins Mel Pearson's staff as a volunteer goalie coach.

10. Bemidji State

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    Bemidji State

    Key Returnees: Jordan George, Brad Hunt, Dan Bakala 

    Key Losses: Matt Read, Ian Lowe

    Last season was a dream come true for the Beavers. Not because the Beavers finished tenth in the WCHA but because BSU has been waiting for ages to finally play in the elite WCHA.

    The dream became reality last season.

    Bemidji State was one of the more underrated teams in the WCHA last year. They finally showed what they were capable of by upsetting Nebraska-Omaha in the WCHA playoffs to advance to the WCHA Final Five. 

    At the Final Five, the Beavers continued their impressive streak defeating the eventual NCAA champion UMD Bulldogs. The streak ended with a 6-2 loss to Denver.

    Returning for the Beavers is leading scorer from last season Jordan George. The young sniper for the Beavers led the team with 36 points. Brad Hunt also returns to the blue line and will be a vital to BSU’s success this year. Also back is the underrated goaltender Dan Bakala. He recorded a .919 save percentage last season.

    The Beavers have a solid core returning and should once again be that team that always plays better than their record.

    Pictured: Brad Hunt

9. St. Cloud State

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    St. Cloud State

    Key Returnees: Drew LeBlanc, Mike Lee, Ben Hanowski, Cam Reid 

    Key Losses: Garrett Roe, Aaron Marvin

     I am still not entirely sure what went wrong with the SCSU Huskies last season. Garrett Roe looked lost without Ryan Lasch. Roe and Lasch were one of the most exciting duos to watch in college hockey a couple of years ago.

    Roe was an extremely dynamic scorer and will be greatly missed by the St. Cloud State program. Roe recorded 178 points in his four-year career with the Huskies.

    Returning leading scorer Drew LeBlanc should provide the Huskies with some much-needed offense this season. LeBlanc finished last season with 13 goals and 26 assists. Cam Reid and Ben Hanowski will need to step up this season in order for the Huskies to have a decent season. 

    Between the pipes, the Huskies have an excellent goaltender in Mike Lee. This season, Lee will be the unquestioned starter and will be looked upon to carry the Huskies in crucial games.

    St. Cloud State will need Drew LeBlanc, Cam Reid and Ben Hanowski to increase their offensive production this season in order for the Huskies to have success in 2011-12.     

    Pictured: Ben Hanowski was selected in the Third Round of the 2009 NHL Draft.

8. Alaska Anchorage

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    Alaska Anchorage

    Key Returnees: Matt Bailey, Jordan Kwas, Chris Kamal, Rob Gunderson 

    Key Losses: Tommy Grant, Craig Parkinson

    Alaska-Anchorage had a pretty solid season in 2010-11. They beat the teams they were expected to beat and lost to the teams they were expected to lose to. Occasionally, they’d throw a few surprises here and there. The Seawolves were rewarded with a trip to the WCHA Final Five after eliminating Minnesota on the road.

    The squad lost their best player in Tommy Grant. He put up 32 points for UAA in 2010-11. Additionally, the Seawolves lost their team leader in Craig Parkinson. 

    However, the Seawolves return a lot of young talent with Jordan Kwas and Matt Bailey coming back this season. Kwas and Bailey were both freshmen last season. 

    Their two returning netminders, Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson, who were also freshmen last season, will be counted on to perform well in critical conference games.

    Head coach Dave Shyiak has done a great job at UAA and has made the Seawolves a respectable team in the WCHA. 

    Pictured: Curtis Glencross played for the Seawolves from 2002-04.

7. Wisconsin

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    Key Returnees: Justin Schultz, Mark Zengerle 

    Key Losses: Craig Smith, Jake Gardiner, Jordy Murray, Scott Gudmandson

    It’s going to be a tough year for the Badgers. However, Mike Eaves and the Badgers always seem to find a way to survive.

    The Badgers lost three key players in Craig Smith, Jake Gardiner and Jordy Murray to the professional ranks. Gardiner and Smith both signed NHL contracts. Murray signed a professional contract in Europe. The loss of these three will be devastating to the Badgers. 

    On top of that, UW also lost veteran goaltender Scott Gudmandson. He finished last season with a .921 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average.

    Returning is offensive defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz was the nation’s leading scorer among defenseman with 47 points and a dominating presence on the ice. Mark Zengerle is coming off a solid first year, scoring 36 points and should provide the Badgers with much-needed offense.  

    Michael Mersch will also be expected to step up this season. 2011 NHL Draft pick Joseph LaBate should contribute immediately.

    The Badgers lost a lot of star players. Fortunately, Schultz returns for his junior year. The Badgers should be competitive this season.

    Pictured: Justin Schultz returns to the Badgers for the 2012-12 season

6. Nebraska-Omaha

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    Key Returnees: Alex Hudson, Terry Broadhurst, John Faulkner 

    Key Losses: Matt Ambroz, Joey Martin, Rich Purslow, Eric Olimb

    Nebraska-Omaha shocked a lot of people by finishing third in the WCHA last season. The Mavericks are the perfect example of how an excellent coaching staff can make a difference in college hockey. The coaching staff of Blais, Guentzel and Hastings was arguably one of the best in college hockey last season.

    Assistant coach Mike Guentzel leaving to return to Minnesota is unfortunate news, but head coach Dean Blais and associate head coach Mike Hastings will still keep the Mavericks competitive this season. 

    The Mavericks lose their top three leading scorers from last season in Matt Ambroz, Joey Martin and Rich Purslow, but still have plenty of talented players remaining.

    The loss of defensive leader Eric Olimb is also significant. Senior forward Alex Hudson and Terry Broadhurst return as captains of UNO this year. Hudson and Broadhurst combined for more than 60 points last season. 

    Also returning is John Faulkner, a reliable presence between the pipes, who posted a .908 save percentage last season and started in all 39 games.

    This season, teams will see UNO coming and won’t take them lightly. 

    Pictured: Head Coach Dean Blais

5. Minnesota-Duluth

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    Key Returnees: Jack Connolly, J.T. Brown, Kenny Reiter, Aaron Crandall

    Key Losses: Mike Connolly, Justin Fontaine, Justin Faulk

    Bulldogs fans have been waiting since 1984 for another shot at a national championship. Last season, the Bulldogs got that shot and didn’t let the opportunity slip them by. The UMD Bulldogs are the 2010-11 NCAA National Champions. 

    The trio of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine was probably one of the best trios college hockey has seen in recent memory. Each of them surpassed 50 points, and together combined for a total of 171 points.

    Just a few days after their NCAA national championship victory, Mike Connolly signed a NHL contract with the San Jose Sharks. Young power defenseman Justin Faulk followed suit and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Bulldogs also lost Justin Fontaine to graduation.

    Leading scorer Jack Connolly returns for his senior season. He led the Bulldogs in scoring with 59 points last season. NCAA Frozen Four MVP J.T. Brown is also slated to return.

    Between the pipes, Kenny Reiter and Aaron Crandall will most likely split goaltending duties, unless one gets on a hot streak like Reiter did at the end of last season.

    It’s doubtful that UMD will be in a position to defend their national title, but the Bulldogs will still be a tough team to beat.

    Pictured: J.T. Brown and Jack Connolly return for the 2011-2011 season.

4. Minnesota

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    Key Returnees: Nick Bjugstad, Kent Patterson, Mark Alt, Erik Haula

    Key Losses: Jay Barriball, Jacob Cepis, Aaron Ness

    It seems like every year for the past four years it’s been considered a rebuilding year for Minnesota.  For Gophers fans, there are reasons to hope things will be different this year. Don Lucia’s job may depend on it.

    The Gophers lose their top three scorers from last season in Jay Barriball, Jacob Cepis and Mike Hoeffel. To make matters worse, defenseman Aaron Ness bolted for the NHL after his junior year. However, the Gophers should crack the upper ranks of the WCHA again this season.  

    Among these reasons is the return of power forward Nick Bjugstad. 

    Bjugstad, a 2010 first-round NHL Draft pick, started off slow during the first half of last season, but the talent and potential of the 6'5" power forward was unquestionable.  He finished the year with 16 points with all coming in the last 16 games of the season. He will have a breakout season. 

    Also returning is second team all-WCHA goalie Kent Patterson, who is one of the top goaltenders in the WCHA.  The return of popular assistant coach Mike Guentzel also gives Gophers fans reason for hope. 

    Newcomers Seth Ambroz and Kyle Rau should also contribute immediately and will be counted on to provide offensive production for the Gophers.

    It’s been a rough few years for the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey program. This year, Gophers fans have some reasons to be optimistic.

    Pictured: Nick Bjugstad should have a breakout season in 2011-12.

3. Denver

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    Key Returnees: Jason Zucker, Drew Shore, Nick Shore, Dave Makowski, Sam Brittain (half of the season), Beau Bennett

    Key Losses: Matt Donovan, Anthony Maiani

    The Denver Pioneers return many of their offensive weapons from the 2010-11 season, and should start right where they left off. The good news for the Pioneers is that Jason Zucker, last year’s WCHA Rookie of the Year returns. 

    The bad news is that the Pioneers will lose one of their top offensive weapons on the blue line in Matt Donovan. Donovan, who finished last season with 32 points as a defenseman, signed an NHL entry-level contract with the New York Islanders.

    To pile on the bad news, in June it was reported that star goaltender Sam Brittain is projected to be out possibly until January 2012, after major knee surgery. Last season, Brittain ranked second among all WCHA goaltenders with a .921 save percentage.

    DU will be an elite team in the WCHA this upcoming season and very tough to beat.

    Pictured: Jason Zucker returns to the Pioneers for the 2011-12 season.

2. North Dakota

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    North Dakota

    Key Returnees: Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, Ben Blood, Aaron Dell

    Key Losses: Matt Frattin, Chay Genoway, Jason Gregoire, Evan Trupp

    There aren’t many teams in college hockey that can survive losing six of its top seven scorers. From these six players, North Dakota will lose a combined total of 250 points.

    However, UND isn’t like other teams.  

    While much of the spotlight last year was on Hobey Baker candidate Matt Frattin, Corban Knight was quietly having an excellent sophomore campaign putting up 14 goals and 30 assists on the season.   Danny Kristo will also be expected to step up this season after scoring 28 points last season.

    On defense, UND lost a strong leader in Chay Genoway, but still have the young Derek Forbort and veteran Ben Blood. Also returning is the dependable second team All-American goaltender Aaron Dell.  On top of that, North Dakota will welcome the highly touted Rocco Grimaldi to the lineup. 

    UND will finish in the upper ranks of the WCHA, despite losing so many top scorers. Once again, St. Paul will be crowded with UND fans come March for the WCHA Final Five.

1. Colorado College

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    Colorado College

    Key Returnees: Jaden Schwartz, Rylan Schwartz, Joe Howe, Gabe Guentzel

    Key Losses: Stephen Schultz, Tyler Johnson

    Last season was a rebuilding period for the Tigers, but anyone who watched them knew that it wouldn’t be long until they were back on top of the WCHA. The surprising 8-4 thrashing of a talented Boston College team in the NCAA Tournament last season gave Tigers fans and opposing teams a glimpse of things to come. 

    Well, the future has arrived.

    The Tigers have a solid core returning. The Schwartz brothers will once again wreak havoc on opposing teams. Jaden Schwartz is one of the most dangerous scorers in college hockey.

    As a freshman, he posted 45 points despite missing 15 games due to his time with Team Canada, and an injury sustained during the World Junior Championships. 

    The other half of the dynamic duo, Rylan Schwartz, finished the season with 38 points

    Gabe Guentzel, one of the best defensemen in the WCHA, also returns. The dependable and solid netminder, Joe Howe, will also be back.

    The Tigers will return to prominence this season and will go on to raise the MacNaughton Cup this year.

    Pictured: Jaden Schwartz