It’s almost that time of year again: hockey season. Well, it kind of has been that time of year for almost a month, but now the games are about to mean something. Well, technically we have to wait until next weekend for that to be true for the college guys, but I think we can all agree that hockey being back in any capacity is great news. Trust me, working at an all-hockey publication when no hockey is happening can get monotonous. Anyway, I would like to call your attention to this little screen shot taken from the Blackhawks’ website when Bobby Shea was participating in their rookie camp.
That last part. Looks weird, right?
That was my first thought. Now that I no longer cover the team (or college hockey in general, for that matter) on a day-to-day basis, I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to get used to seeing that “WCHA” next to the Bowling Green. But the fact of the matter is that’s what it’s going to be moving forward, due to some radical realignment that came forth two summers ago. How long it remains like that is debatable, and is quite talked about here in Colorado Springs (where the NCHC offices are located), but that’s a story for another day.
A new conference brings new challenges, new expectations and, most importantly, a new set of competition. Including BG, only five of last season’s 11 CCHA teams are a part of the new-look WCHA. Of the remaining five teams in the league, four are from the old WCHA and one — Alabama-Huntsville — was an independent. Huh, there’s more old CCHA teams in the new WCHA than old WCHA teams. Maybe they should’ve kept the CCHA name.
I kid, I kid. I generally don’t like stating what the point of an article is in the article, because I feel like you’re all smart enough to figure it out. But, that being said, I’m going to do it here for my own amusement. This is your “get to know the competition” post. But instead of organizing them alphabetically, I wanted to organize it in a power rankings format. So not only will you hopefully learn a little bit about each of these teams, but you’ll also get to read my completely, 100 percent uninformed opinion on where they will finish the year, so you’ll get at least a general idea on how good these teams are. Because, fair assessment or not, these aren’t your Michigan and Ohio State “name brand” schools. If you knew where Bemidji State was before reading this, congratulations, you’re probably in the minority.
Without further adieu, your 2013-14 WCHA preseason power rankings:
1. Minnesota State – Mankato: Of the current WCHA teams, the Mavericks were the only school to make the NCAA Tournament this past season. They were really good. And then they ran into the buzz saw that was Miami and got clobbered in the first round. Three guys to keep an eye on: forwards Matt Leitner and Zach Stepan and goalie Stephon Williams. Leitner was tied for ninth in the nation last year with 47 points. Williams posted a 2-flat goals-against average in 34 starts. Stepan is a freshman, a younger cousin of New York Rangers’ forward Derek Stepan. He crushed it in the USHL last year, and he’s my early pick for WCHA Rookie of the Year. (Side note: I wrote this before the WCHA media named him their collective pick for Rookie of the Year. So I guess I’m not as smart and innovative as I thought I was.) They are No. 14 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll (no, I didn’t have any say in that). Quite frankly, they are the class of this league, and I don’t really think it’s close.
2. Ferris State: Hey a familiar face! Falcon fans know Ferris well. They played seven times during the 2011-12 season. You know, the year Dan DeSalvo had one of the greatest postseasons in the history of the CCHA Tournament? The year BG came back to knock Ferris out of the playoffs? The same year Ferris nearly won the national title? Sorry, taking a trip down memory lane. That was fun. If there’s one team this year that can challenge Mankato for the top seed, it’s the Bulldogs. Why is Ferris so good? Simple: defense and continuity. Bob Daniels is entering his 22nd season as head coach with the school. That’s pretty solid no matter the school, no matter the sport. Last year (and Kevin Meyers can attest to this if he can remember back that far) I compared their style of play to the Phoenix Coyotes. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Last year they were one of either two or three schools (I can’t remember if Alaska fell into this category or not) in the CCHA with no NHL draft picks. Yet they finished fifth in the conference. Why? Because they play a sound defensive game. C.J. Motte (2.19 GAA, .927 save percent) is one of the better goalies in the nation, they play great in front of him and they get enough offense to be a dangerous team. Just like Phoenix. You can count on that continuing this year.
Sidebar: After the top two, things get kind of interesting. Not interesting in a fun way, if that makes sense. Interesting in a sense of, “this is why the WCHA isn’t going to get much respect” way. After Mankato, the three remaining old WCHA teams finished at the bottle of the league last year. After Ferris, save for Alaska and Michigan State’s absolutely abysmal year, the remaining CCHA teams finished at the bottom of that league. And then Alabama-Huntsville won three games last year. Between three and 10, anything can happen with this league. Which is why expectations for BG are high. That is also why there are people (at least who I have talked to) who are worried about home attendance this year.
3. Michigan Tech: Last year Michigan Tech had a respectable 13 wins in what was an extremely difficult conference. They beat some pretty good teams. They won the Great Lakes Invitational (against Michigan and Western Michigan) by a combined score of 8-0. They return five of their six leading scorers and a combined 27 starts from 2012-13 in goal between sophomores Jamie Phillips and Pheonix “yes, that is really how it’s spelt” Copley — although they combined for a .901 save percent so you can judge for yourself exactly how valuable those two are.
4. Alaska – Fairbanks: There’s two Alaska teams in the WCHA this year, which means a yearly trip to the far American west, which can’t make teams or athletic departments very happy. But this is the better Alaska team by a pretty wide margin. I didn’t expect much from them last year and they responded to my preseason criticisms (yeah, that’s what they did) by finishing sixth in the CCHA. Gone is leading scorer Andy Taranto, but they do return their second, third and fourth leading scorers from last year. What gives them the edge at No. 4 in my rankings is experience in goal. They return 32 starts and 15 wins from last year between John Keeney and Sean Cahill.
5. Bowling Green: I will probably catch some flack for having BG lower than the fourth they were picked to finish in the coach’s poll, and I will gladly welcome any conversation on this. My simple answer to that: I’ll believe it when I see it. After the 2011-12 playoff run, expectations were sky-high for last year, to the point that it was almost unfair; because the Falcons weren’t going to finish any higher than seventh or eighth, even if Andrew Hammond was healthy all year. If you were one who felt the late-season collapse was because Hammond was out, guess what? He’s gone. He’s not coming back to bail the team out. In keeping up with my required Kevin Gordon Sentinel-Tribune reading, we know Bergeron likes what he has in net. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a combined 13 starts in goal on this roster. Not to mention, it seemed the Falcons played a different game when Tommy Burke was in net, choosing to limit shots on him instead of trusting him to make big saves, like they did with Hammond. In the 13 games Burke played more than 58 minutes last year, he faced 25 or fewer shots nine times. He made fewer than 20 saves seven times in those games. Conversely, in 26 “full games,” Hammond faced fewer than 25 shots only six times. He only made fewer than 20 saves twice. Is that a viable strategy throughout a season? Can Burke or Tomas Sholl withstand facing 25-plus shots a night on a consistent basis? I had the chance to watch Sholl play in Fresno last December. He’s athletic, he made some incredible stops. He also made some bone-headed plays, which is not uncommon with young players. He also got picked apart in the shootout which, lucky for him, is not going to be used in WCHA games this year. There’s questions with the skaters, too. Other than Ryan Carpenter, who steps up and provides consistent offense? Who steps up to replace Bobby Shea as the utility wrench on the blue line? How does Ralfs Freibergs hold up to a full season (and also, who fills his void in February, when he will likely get the call to represent Latvia in the Olympics)? As I said last year, it would not surprise me to see BG challenge Ferris for the second seed. But it would also not surprise me to see BG fall to the lower half of the league. There’s quite a few variables that can go either way.
6. Lake Superior: This time last year, I inadvertently predicted a BG-Lake first round playoff game, except I had it being played in BG, not Sault Ste. Marie. That’s not at all relevant anymore, I just like to brag about it. Well, BG dusted the Lakers in the matchup, which was kind of a poo poo on an otherwise strong season. The Kevins in net — Murdock and Kapalka — were one of the top goalie tandems in the league. Both seniors, they bring in a ton of experience. Whether or not they’re still shaken from giving up 13 goals combined the final two games of that series remains to be seen. Offensively, their two leadings scorers in Dominic Monardo and Nick McParland are both gone, as is 6-foot-6 center Kellan Lain, who, as you may remember, got kicked out of the game twice against BG last year. Jim Roque is entering his ninth season as head coach of the team. They’ll be strong defensively, but offense could be a challenge.
7. Northern Michigan: A deplorable 5-15-1 record on the road last year condemned the Wildcats to a 10th place CCHA finish, and a first round playoff date with red-hot Michigan, at Yost Arena, no less. We all know how that ended. While, like Alaska, they return their second, third and fourth leading scorers, they lost Matt Thurber, who was the man who made their offense go. His 32 points aren’t particularly earth-shattering, but his 26 assists were pretty significant. That tied him for 15th in the nation, and he did it in only 30 games, significantly fewer games than everyone in front of him on the list. Will their trio of seniors up front — Reed Seckel, Erik Higby and Stephan Vigier — be able to produce enough offense without Thurber there to pilot the ship?
8. Bemidji State: Bemidji is so far north in Minnesota it’s closer to Canada than it is Minneapolis. The more you know. Anyway, the Beavers did not have a good year last year. They finished 6-22-8, getting outscored 110-74 in the process. They had one player — Brance Orban — post more than 20 points, and he’s since graduated. Goalie Andrew Walsh was the lone bright spot on the team, posting a 2.65 GAA and .916 save percent despite a forgettable 5-14-6 record. BG actually played at Bemidji in 2011, losing both games by a combined score of 6-2. But, in fairness, the Beavers won 17 games that year. Oh, and someone actually gave them a first-place vote in the WCHA media poll. “Uhhh, wut?” is all I’m gonna say about that.
9. Alaska – Anchorage: I told you the gap between Alaska teams was large. This is the one BG will be visiting, in the middle of February. Which does not sound like a fun trip. But the Falcons will take on the Seawolves four times this year, which is good news for BG. Anchorage went 4-25-7 last year, good for last in the WCHA. They return their four leading scorers from last year. The problem is they also return both of their goalies. That’s a problem because, well … I’ll let the stats speak for themselves:
You’re not going to win much when you’re giving up nearly four goals per game. As you can see above, you’ll only win about 20 percent of the time. Unless you score a lot. Like Michigan.
10. Alabama-Huntsville: The Chargers have been BG’s favorite punching bag the last couple of years. Since 2010-11, the Falcons are 5-0 against UAH. The funny thing is the Chargers have been more relevant than the Falcons on the national scene in recent years. They went to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, losing to Notre Dame (in double overtime) in the second round, and then again in 2010, losing to Miami in the first round. They got screwed over with the demise of the CHA following that 2009-10 season. UAH applied for membership in the CCHA for the 2010-11 season and were denied. So the Chargers have been playing as an independent and it nearly killed their program. They’ve won five games combined the last two years. They scored 36 goals in 25 games last year, while giving up 103. Probably they only fascinating thing about the team is that Brice Geoffrion, the grandson of Montreal Canadiens legend Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, plays on the team (he has five points in 84 career games). They’ve shown it’s possible to build a strong program in the south. But if they finish any higher than dead last this year, I will be shocked.