2000-01 WCHA Season Preview

The theme song for the WCHA this season might as well be the Police’s signature tune, “Roxanne.”

You know: “You don’t have to put on the red light.”

With such stars as Karl Goehring, Graham Melanson, Scott Meyer, Jeff Sanger, Andy Kollar and company returning to their teams this season, the story of the season is unquestionably going to be goaltending.

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Isn’t it?

That would make sense, right? Goals are going to be at a premium, so may the best goaltender win.

“I can’t think back to when there’s been a stronger group of goaltenders in this league in a long time,” said Colorado College coach Scott Owens, himself a WCHA goaltender in the 1970s.

“That’s why we brought in two more, because we realized we didn’t match up well enough even though we got decent goaltending,” Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous said.

Not so fast.

"I believe that you’re going to see one of the strongest years in goaltending in the league in a long time."

— first-year Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting

A counter theory suggests that because goaltending is strong around the league, no one team will gain that much of an advantage, leaving it probably up to the forwards to decide the league.

In other words, may the team with the most depth up front win.

“If everybody’s getting quality goaltending, then I think it’s going to turn more to the kids that can get the job done in scoring the goals, because I believe that you’re going to see one of the strongest years in goaltending in the league in a long time,” said Minnesota State-Mankato’s Troy Jutting, entering his first year as head coach of the Mavericks.

No matter the year, the situation or the dominant area, expect North Dakota to be in the mix for the MacNaughton Cup. The Fighting Sioux’s three-year reign as WCHA regular-season champions was broken by Wisconsin last season, but UND got the big prize — the national championship.

Wisconsin got good news when Dany Heatley elected to return for his sophomore season instead of signing what certainly would have been a lucrative pro contract as the No. 2 selection in the NHL draft. But will that translate into wins?

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The Badgers and the Sioux might be the favorites for the league championship, but teams like St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Colorado College will be happy to make a run.

Elsewhere, it’s time to start over. Minnesota State-Mankato (Jutting) and Minnesota-Duluth (Scott Sandelin) have new coaches. Alaska-Anchorage wants to keep improving an already-improving team. Denver looks to prove last season wasn’t indicative of the program. And Michigan Tech has to put one of the worst seasons in college hockey history behind.

“Maybe this year more than ever, it’s going to take a team that just has everything,” Talafous said. “Teams have some real talented players, special teams are going to be sizzling, goaltending is going to be stellar, there’s lots of depth and experience, so you’re going to see a lot of great hockey games.”

Buckle up.

A quick look at the WCHA’s teams follows. Click on a team’s name to see its preview. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.

North Dakota
Coach: Dean Blais, seventh year overall and at UND
1999-2000 overall record: 31-8-5
1999-2000 WCHA record: 17-6-5
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Second, 39 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: First
Quick hit: Surprise, surprise. Despite losing a firm grip on the MacNaughton Cup last season, the Sioux came back to win the national championship. Despite Blais’ claim that the Sioux are rebuilding this year, expect them to stay near the top.

Coach: Jeff Sauer, 30th year overall, 19th at UW
1999-2000 overall record: 31-9-1
1999-2000 WCHA record: 23-5
1999-2000 WCHA finish: First, 46 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Second
Quick hit: Boston University coach Jack Parker put the pressure on the Badgers, saying they were the team to beat nationally this year. Tough to argue with him, but time will tell. “I could make the same statement about his team,” Sauer said. “I suspect that we’re going to be rated fairly high nationally to start the season. Now we just have to go out and stay on top of it.”

St. Cloud State
Coach: Craig Dahl, 20th year overall, 14th at SCSU
1999-2000 overall record: 23-14-3
1999-2000 WCHA record: 16-9-3
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Third, 35 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Third
Quick hit: This is what happens when you raise the bar: You’re expected to do it over and over again. If things work out right for the Huskies, including staying healthy, that bar may not look too high. “Everybody’s a year older and with a year more experience, so that usually bodes well in our league,” Dahl said.

Coach: Don Lucia, 14th year overall, second at UM
1999-2000 overall record: 20-19-2
1999-2000 WCHA record: 13-13-2
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Sixth, 28 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Fourth
Quick hit: Lucia said he thinks his team is better than it was last year, when it slipped down the stretch to lose a home-ice playoff spot. “I look at ourselves and I think we’re going to be better,” he said, “but who are we going to be able to bypass? That’s a scary thought.”

Colorado College
Coach: Scott Owens, second year overall and at CC
1999-2000 overall record: 18-18-3
1999-2000 WCHA record: 14-11-3
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Fifth, 31 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Fifth
Quick hit: Is Owens on the hot seat? Not if the Tigers come back with a strong season this year. If they do, it’ll probably be because their offense came through in the clutch. They’ll have plenty of time at home to build a good record. “We do have a lot of home games this year, so we need to improve our home record,” Owens said. “That was one of the things I was disappointed with last season.”

Coach: George Gwozdecky, 15th year overall, seventh at DU
1999-2000 overall record: 16-23-2
1999-2000 WCHA record: 9-18-1
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Ninth, 19 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Sixth
Quick hit: It’s been an up-and-down, topsy-turvy ride for Gwozdecky, and he knows a ninth-place finish last year means work ahead this year. “When you finish in ninth place, I think there’s more than one question mark that you have to answer,” he said.

Coach: Dean Talafous, 12th year overall, fifth at UAA
1999-2000 overall record: 15-18-3
1999-2000 WCHA record: 11-14-3
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Seventh, 25 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Seventh
Quick hit: The Seawolves may have turned a corner last year, but they’ll face a tough schedule in an effort to take it up another notch. They kick off the season with Michigan and Michigan State. “I’m 47 and I’ve done this all my life, play the best,” Talafous said. “I would rather have a .500 record and play every good team in the country than hand-pick seven teams you’re pretty sure of beating so you six or seven wins. What good does that get you?”

Coach: Scott Sandelin, first year overall and at UMD
1999-2000 overall record: 15-22
1999-2000 WCHA record: 10-18
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Eighth, 20 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Eighth
Quick hit: It’s a new beginning for the Bulldogs with one of the top new coaches in the league. But Sandelin has an uphill climb if he’s going to bring UMD back to the top of the league. “We’re going to stumble a little bit like everybody does, but we just want to be consistent and be competitive and give ourselves a chance to win every game,” Sandelin said.

Minnesota State-Mankato
Coach: Troy Jutting, first year overall and at MSU-M
1999-2000 overall record: 21-14-4
1999-2000 WCHA record: 15-10-3
1999-2000 WCHA finish: Fourth, 33 points
2000-2001 predicted finish: Ninth
Quick hit: It’s a new beginning in Mankato, but with a familiar feel. Longtime assistant Jutting takes over, but without a lot of the firepower that helped the Mavericks come close to an NCAA bid in their first year in the WCHA. “We want to be a successful program, we want to be a program that continues to head in the right direction,” Jutting said, “and I believe tradition and history play a big part in a lot of programs, in the success they have.”

Michigan Tech
Coach: Tim Watters, fifth year overall and at MTU
1999-2000 overall record: 4-34
1999-2000 WCHA record: 2-26
1999-2000 WCHA finish: 10th, four points
2000-2001 predicted finish: 10th
Quick hit: Well, the good thing for Michigan Tech is that it’s going to be difficult to slip any further than last season’s finish. The Huskies have a large incoming class that could breathe some new life into the program, but it could be another tough year. “I feel as a coach that we’re a better team at this time this year than this time last year,” Watters said.