Hi guys! It’s officially year two of the new-look Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Are you as excited as I am?
Probably not, but I’m pretty excited. So I don’t want to belittle your enthusiasm any. It seems like six months since I’ve been around these parts … wait, it’s actually been six months? OK, I don’t feel as lost and confused now.
So much has happened since you all last heard from me so before we get into the fun stuff, I figured I’d catch you all up (because I know you all care so much). I finished my internship with USA Hockey Magazine and once again live in BG because life is cyclical and weird and stuff.
I’ve been working part-time for The Courier in Findlay and The Sentinel-Tribune in BG. Part of my duties with the Sentinel going forward will be with BG hockey coverage. I’ll be attempting to come close to replacing the coverage of the esteemed Kevin Gordon, who recently called it a career at the Sentinel and, ironically, is now writing here. See, life is weird.
You’ll still get the same lovable, supremely, overtly positive observations (I struggled typing that with a straight face) from yours truly here twice a week so fear not! Your early-in-the-week hockey reading will still be here, for better or worse.
This is going to be a weird year for the WCHA. Weird in the sense that I don’t think many people know what to expect. We know what we have at the top in Ferris State and Minnesota State, and we know what we have at the bottom in Alabama-Huntsville, but there’s going to be a lot of guesswork in between. Based on the three or four media ballots I’ve seen (including my own), it looks like that will be the case.
Last season, Nos. 3-9 in the WCHA were separated by a mere six points. Yep, seven teams in the league fell within six points of each other. That made, and will make for, some remarkable competition in terms of evenly-matched teams. One can argue the quality of that competition, but I digress.
So let’s take a look at what we have this year. As always, feel free to mock at your discretion. I’m pretty sure I only hit three of 10 teams correctly last year so I can guarantee this will end up looking pretty gnarly at the end of the season.
1. Ferris State (Last year: 29-11-3 overall, 20-6-2 WCHA): There are some questions with the Bulldogs this season, but I don’t think they’ll be insurmountable enough to cost them their perch atop the WCHA, where they spent all of last season.
The biggest question I can come up with is offense. Of the six skaters Ferris had post 25-plus points last season, four have graduated (Cory Kane and Garrett Thompson had 32, Andy Huff and Scott Czarnowczan had 25). That being said, the Bulldogs had five players post between 19 and 24 points, and they all return. The Bulldogs return six forwards who posted at least 19 points last season, and three defensemen who posted at least 14. I think they’ll be OK.
Most importantly, Ferris returns an All-America candidate in net in C.J. Motte. A first-team All-WCHA selection last season, Motte boasts a career 2.11 goals-against average and .927 save percent. He had 28 wins and five shutouts last season; any time he is in the net, Ferris has an above-average chance of winning (to put it lightly).
To be clear, this team is more than a great goalie. They play a great system behind coach Bob Daniels, who is entering his 23rd season behind the Ferris bench. It’s not a stretch to say he is one of the best coaches in the nation, and despite playing with a lesser talent level than the Minnesota’s and Boston College’s of the world, Ferris continues to be a perennial top-10 team. Don’t expect that to change this season.
2. Minnesota State (Last year: 26-14-1 overall, 20-7-1 WCHA): Minnesota State had an … interesting start to last year. Entering the season as the odds-on favorite to capture the WCHA title, the Mavericks sputtered out of the gate to a 5-7-0 start because preseason All-WCHA goalie Stephon Williams couldn’t get his head on straight. Eventually, the Mavericks turned the crease over to Cole Huggins, they won six-straight WCHA games to end 2013 and won the WCHA Final Five to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
OK, that’s an oversimplification of things, but you get the point. As a freshman, Huggins ended up being a revelation in net, much like Williams the season before him. Huggins ended up starting 29 games, posting a 1.81 GAA, a .926 save percent and was named the WCHA Goaltending Champion, which is a really weird thing to call your “goaltender of the year” award. The funny thing is, he didn’t make either the WCHA first or second team. Makes sense.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Minnesota State’s turnaround was its playmakers started playmaking. Matt Leitner, after a slow-as-molasses start that saw him post only three assists in Minnesota State’s first 10 games (eight of which he played in), ended up leading the league with 45 points on the season. He’s back this season, as is J.P. Lafontaine (40 points).
However, the Mavericks will have to replace the production of Johnny McInnis (38 points) and Zach Lerhke (28 points), who both graduated. Expect junior forward Teddy Blueger and Bryce Gervais (both had 26 points) to improve, and look for sophomore forward Zach Stepan (21 points) to make a big jump. Stepan was pretty much everyone’s preseason pick for WCHA Rookie of the Year last year which obviously didn’t work out. Now that the pressure has sort of subsided, I bet he picks it up.
Defensively, the Mavericks return their three leading scorers on the blue line in Zach Palmquist, Sean Flanagan and Brett Stern. Huggins and Williams are both back between the pipes, so the Mavericks should once again be strong defensively next season. They’re good enough to overtake Ferris, but last year’s early season brain farts make me a little bit apprehensive to call that right now.
3. Michigan Tech (Last year: 14-19-7 overall, 12-11-5 WCHA): So now we get into that point where pretty much anything can happen, so this is going to be fun. Also, I picked Michigan Tech to finish third last year, so I’m giving myself bonus points for continuity, or something like that.
In reality, I like what the Huskies bring back, even though the running joke in my circle of one was “ALEX PETAN MICHIGAN TECH GOOD.” The Huskies had 10 players post double-digit points last season, and nine of them return this year. They also bring back goalie Pheonix “yes that’s how it’s really spelt” Copley, who had a respectable season with a 2.51 GAA and .911 save percent.
But the fact of the matter is, Tech was rather one-dimensional offensively last year. Outside of Petan and Blake Pietila (28 points each), the Huskies didn’t do much offensively. But with another year of experience for their top nine returning scorers, I expect that to improve, and Copley should once again be solid between the pipes. They don’t have a lot of weapons on defense (read: they have one), but sophomore Shane Hanna is a good one, coming off a 23-point freshman season.
They’ll need some help, but if Petan and Pietila can make that leap and become elite-level scorers, Michigan Tech should find itself hosting a first-round playoff series in the spring.
4. Bowling Green (Last year: 18-15-6 overall, 13-11-4): This was a little bit of a tough call, but after sky-high expectations for the Falcons last season, it’s probably best to pull the reigns back a little bit this year.
The Falcons lose a lot without really having lost a lot this year, if that makes sense. It doesn’t really so let me try and explain. Yes, losing Ryan Carpenter a year early is unfortunate, and with him BG could theoretically be a top-two team in this WCHA, if other guys progress the way they should. However, having him for only 16 games last year means BG is already used to playing without him, so while not having him is certainly not a good thing, it’s not as if he was coming off the 45-point season that he probably would’ve had if he stayed healthy all year.
Additionally, losing Ralfs Freibergs hurts on the back end. But with his alleged failed Olympic drug test and possible NCAA suspension looming, his departure means that is a distraction BG does not have to deal with this year. Also, Mark Friedman should adequately fill the void in offensive production. No pressure there, right?
Even with losing Carpenter and Bryce Williamson, BG should be fine offensively. Dan DeSalvo is now the undisputed No. 1 center on the roster. He quietly has been one of the best players in recent BG memory; assuming he stays healthy and doesn’t regress into adolescence or something, he’ll surpass 100 career points this season (he currently has 82).
What BG really needs is a healthy Brent Tate, which unfortunately might be too much to ask. When the junior is in the lineup he is a force, with 32 points in 52 career games (including a 19 in 28 mark last year). But, if you can do math, you can see he’s only played in 24 and 28 games in his two seasons at BG. If he can somehow shake that injury bug, he’ll be a huge weapon for the Falcons.
The interesting battle will be in net. One would figure Tommy Burke has the inside track to the No. 1 position after a good 2.43 GAA, .912 save percent sophomore year, but he’ll have to improve on those numbers if BG is to compete for a league title. Natural progression figures to benefit highly-touted Tomas Sholl (2.68 GAA, .896 save percent), but don’t sleep on freshman Chris Nell. He had a 3.18 GAA and .910 save percent for Chicago in the USHL last year. Comparatively, in Sholl’s final USHL season he was at 3.14 and .908. Burke posted a 2.59, .910 in his final junior season in the NAHL, which is a tier below. Regardless of who starts, the Falcons need better than a collective .903 save percent if they hope to make the jump to the next level.
5. Alaska (Last year: 18-15-4 overall, 14-12-2 WCHA): For the majority of last season, it looked like Alaska would completely miss the WCHA playoffs, mostly because it didn’t get evened up in the conference games played until late in the season. When you’ve played two fewer games than everyone else, that apparently makes a big difference when the standings are that close.
Instead, the Nanooks had a big late-season run and ended up finishing third in the league, where they were dispatched by in-state rival Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in a thrilling three-game series.
The Nanooks scored a lot last season. Their 97 goals in conference games was a league-high. That was helped by a guy named Cody Kunyk who scored 22 goals, had 21 assists and was named the WCHA Player of the Year. Well, he’s gone now, as is No. 2 scorer Colton Beck (39 points), but Alaska brings back some firepower. The Nanooks had six additional players post 20-plus points last season, and five of them are coming back, including last year’s WCHA Defender of the Year Colton Parayko (two Colton’s on one team seems excessive, doesn’t it?). The Nanooks may not score as prodigiously this year as they did last year, but they should still be able to put the puck in the net at a higher rate than just about everyone else in the league.
The one thing that could be a slight issue for Alaska this year is goaltending. OK, that’s an understatement. Alaska goalies were cataclysmically bad last year. How bad is cataclysmically bad? They had all three goalies start at least 10 games. That’s not supposed to happen. The best of the bunch was Sean Cahill, who started 17, went 10-6-1 with a 2.40 GAA and .900 save percent. Alaska’s team save percent last year was .892. If that number doesn’t improve, Alaska will have some issues this year, especially since Kunyk and Beck won’t be around to light up the scoreboard again.
6. Bemidji State (Last year: 10-21-7 overall, 10-14-4 WCHA): I think I’m a little bit higher on Bemidji than most people. Their overall record last year was terrible, but there’s a very simple explanation: their non-league schedule last year was brutal.
St. Cloud, Minnesota, Miami, North Dakota. That’s three elite teams and a team with great talent that had a down year. The Beavers also had the misfortune of playing Minnesota State and Ferris State four times each (six times against Ferris if you count the playoff series). And the fact of the matter is, the Beavers played better in conference play.
For the season, goalie Andrew Walsh posted a 3.04 GAA and .904 save percent. In WCHA games, those numbers improve to 2.55 and .916. Obviously those aren’t elite numbers, but they paint a larger picture here: Bemidji was not as bad as their 10-21-7 overall record suggests last season.
That overall number might not look much better this year. North Dakota, Minnesota and St. Cloud are still on the schedule, with a game against Minnesota Duluth added. So the Beavers will have their hands full there, but they only get Ferris twice, which is nice.
Offensively, the Beavers return eight of 10 double-digit point scorers from last year, so their offense should be a little improved on a unit that scored fewer goals than everyone but Lake Superior and Huntsville last year. The key will be in net. If Walsh can improve on the numbers he posted in conference games last year, the Beavers will be in decent shape.
7. Northern Michigan (Last year: 15-21-2 overall, 13-14-1 WCHA): Northern is a team that I feel perpetually inhabits this range in the standings. The Wildcats finished seventh last season and I really don’t see any reason for that to change this year.
The Wildcats have an … uninspiring offensive attack led by seniors Reed Seckel (23 points) and defenseman Mitch Jones (23 points). They’ll have to replace leading scorer Stephan Viger, who had 33 points last season. Look for exciting redshirt sophomore John Siemer to fill that void. After not dressing in Northern’s first 17 games last season, he posted 18 points in 21 games down the stretch. It’ll be fun to see what he can do with a whole season to do some damage.
Northern should be strong in goal with sophomore Mathias Dahlstrom, who posted a 2.64 GAA and .912 save percent last season. He actually finished in the top half of WCHA goalies in conference games GAA and save percent (2.44 and .914, respectively), but with what will likely once again be a middling offense this year, he’ll have to take his game to the next level if the Wildcats are going to sniff a home playoff series this year.
8. Alaska Anchorage (Last year: 18-16-4 overall, 12-12-4 WCHA): Conversely, I feel like I’m a lot lower on the Seawolves than most are. There’s one big reason for that: they were not good on the road last year.
OK, that’s not the only reason, but it’s the one that pops into my head first. The Seawolves were 6-11-2 on the road last season. In 14 conference road games, they were 3-9-2. If they were even just mediocre on the road, they’d have been the No. 3 seed. Really the only reason they were able to advance out of the first round of the WCHA playoffs is because, by some act of god, Alaska got the No.3 seed, so Anchorage didn’t need to leave the state for its first-round “road” series. Obviously being in Alaska, your travel schedule is going to be so much more difficult than any other team. But that’s an unfortunate side effect of playing in a league where every other school is at least three time zones away. Even if Anchorage gets adjusted to that this year, there’s a few more reasons I am skeptical.
Perhaps the biggest reason is experience in net. They have minimal. Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal have both graduated and while neither set the world on fire last year, they were decent options. Gunderson in particular, as he had a 2.30 GAA and .910 save percent in 15 WCHA games.
Their only returning experience is in sophomore Michael Matyas, who posted a 3.29 GAA and .877 save percent in five starts last year. If he struggles, freshmen Olivier Mantha and Jared D’Amico are waiting in the wings.
Additionally, the Seawolves most replace their tops scorers in Matt Bailey (38 points) and Jordan Kwas (32 points). Fortunately for them, they return pretty much everyone else from last year’s team, led by a pair of 30-point scorers in Blake Tatchell and Scott Allen. So there’s talent there, but I don’t know if it’s enough to overcome a horrifying lack of experience in goal and collective road woes.
9. Lake Superior (Last year: 16-19-1 overall, 12-16-0 WCHA): Speaking of horrifying lack of experience in goal … well, we’ll get to that in a minute. What a crazy season it was for Lake Superior. After a 4-0-1 start against Robert Morris, (eventual national champion) Union and Wisconsin, the Lakers were flying high and ranked. They looked like they would be a legitimate threat at the top of the WCHA.
Well, after that start they lost 8-1 to the Badgers, split three-consecutive WCHA series’, swept BG, and then went on a 2-8-0 stretch that had them looking up at just about everyone in the league. So I think we have a feeling of who the real Lakers are.
The unfortunate thing is there is talent on this team. But they have to replace a lot. And by a lot I mean a lot. Of their six leading scorers, four of them either graduated or turned pro, so the Lakers are losing most of what was an already thin offensive attack. But that’s not even the worst news.
Nope, the worst news is the Lakers make Anchorage’s goalie inexperience seem like a minor hangnail. The Lakers have four goalies on their roster this year, with a combined zero games of college experience between them. Yep, you read that right. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Gone is the Kevin/Kevin tandem in net, with both Kevin Kapalka (2.60 GAA, .927 save percent) and Kevin Murdock (3.76 GAA, .892 save percent) having graduated.
That’s bad news for a team that surrendered 1,264 shots last season (about 35 per game). It’s rather unclear what they’ll have in goal. Sophomore Aaron Davis hasn’t played since 2012-13, when he posted a 2.75 GAA and .896 save percent in the North American Hockey League. Sophomore Peter Megariotis is an Ohio State transfer who never made it into a game for the Buckeyes. He hasn’t seen game action since 2011-12. The best of the bunch may be freshman Kevin Aldridge (no, not just because his name is also Kevin). He led the Fairbanks Ice Dogs to an NAHL championship last year, posting a 2.22 GAA and .910 save percent for the season. However, at only 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he’s … let’s just say a little smaller than you’d like your goalie to be.
On a positive note, keep an eye on Alex Globke. He had 31 points as a freshman last season and is my darkhorse candidate for WCHA Player of the Year this year. I doubt that happens because he’s not going to have much help, but he’s a good one.
10. Alabama-Huntsville (Last year: 2-35-1 overall, 2-25-1 WCHA): There’s really nothing to say about Huntsville. They were abysmal last year and that shouldn’t change much this year. With a roster that’s heavy on underclassmen, including sophomore goalies Carmine Guerriero (3.90 GAA, .905 save percent) and Matt Larose (4.72 GAA, .888 save percent) and junior forward Jack Prince (13 points), natural progression dictates that they should improve some, but it’s highly doubtful it’ll be enough to come close to climbing out of the WCHA basement.
Bonus Content: Preseason WCHA picks
I didn’t fill out a preseason media ballot because I’m not important at all. Literally a day after I wrote these, I filled out a media ballot, so hooray irony! For that process, we were asked to submit their picks for a preseason All-Conference Team, a preseason player of the year, and preseason newcomer of the year (which is basically freshman of the year, but I think this particular wording allows the award to be applied to transfers too). So since this power rankings is basically what I would have submitted did submit for a preseason poll, I figured I’d give you the other picks as well. Just for kicks.
F: Matt Leitner, Minnesota State.
F: Tyler Morley, Alaska.
F: Alex Globke, Lake Superior.
D: Colton Parayko, Alaska.
D: Shane Hanna, Michigan Tech.
G: C.J. Motte, Ferris State.
Hard not to start this list with Leitner, who will probably end up being picked as the WCHA preseason Player of the Year. With 45 points last year, it’s not hard to see why … With 1.10 points per game last year (34 in 31 games), Morley actually had the third highest points-per-game ration in the WCHA last year, behind Leitner and Cody Kunyk, so expect him to have another big year … As I mentioned above, Globke has enough talent to challenge for league player of the year … Defensively, it’s impossible to leave Parayko, last year’s WCHA Defender of the Year, off this list … All of the other ballots I’ve seen had Minnesota State’s Zach Palmquist on here, but I think Hanna improves significantly on his 23-point freshman season … In net, it’s a toss-up between Motte and Minnesota State’s Cole Huggins, but I give Motte the edge.
Preseason Player of the Year
Tyler Morley, Alaska.
As I just said, Leitner probably ends up getting this distinction, and very likely will be the league’s player of the year at the end of the season, but what fun is it if I go with the grain? Morley is small but talented, and having missed Alaska’s final four games of last season, you can bet his absence was a reason why the Nanooks bowed out in the first round of the postseason. With Kunyk and Beck gone, Morley becomes the featured man in this offense, so he’ll have all the opportunities to put up points. But that also means he’s going to be getting the opposing team’s top defensive unit every night.
Newcomer of the Year
Mark Freidman, Bowling Green.
You can call this a homer pick of you want, but I don’t really know who else you could possibly give this to. Of incoming WCHA players this year, he was the first one selected in the 2014 NHL Draft. He has a good, but not really spectacular, group of defensemen around him that he can absorb information from. And, perhaps most importantly, with Ralfs Freibergs gone, he’ll have every opportunity to take over the role of power play quarterback. Don’t expect him to put up huge numbers (I think 15-20 points is a safe projection), but without an elite forward in this WCHA freshmen class, I think this award is Freidman’s to lose.