Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:
The WCHA is going to be so tough this year …
Yep, right before the start of every season it seems anyone connected to the WCHA is putting forth the opinion that the six months that lie ahead will provide some of the best competition the league has ever seen, replete with scintillating battles for positions that go right down to the minute details.
Truth be told, it can get a little old.
The thing is, they’re usually right.
Do we need the reminders? The five teams in the NCAA tournament for the last three seasons? The .714 winning percentage outside of the conference a year ago? The four straight national champions?
And the big one: the four teams in the Frozen Four last season?
Now there’s a category where the league can do no better this season. A year ago, the league was the story at the Frozen Four, earning all four spots — an accomplishment that has to rank among the greatest the WCHA has ever put forth, even if it was attained by an anomaly of bracketing.
“Nobody else was represented except the WCHA,” said George Gwozdecky, who earned his second straight NCAA championship with Denver last season in that all-WCHA weekend in Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t see the competitive level of this league changing at all from the last few years. In fact, it might be ratcheted up even more.”
That’s even with a handful of well-known players taking their talents to a higher level.
The league’s defensive corps took a significant hit from early departures to the NHL. Everyone figured Colorado College’s Mark Stuart would go pro and he did, joined by Denver’s Brett Skinner, North Dakota’s Matt Greene and Minnesota-Duluth’s Jay Rosehill, among others.
With a number of defenses in full rebuilding mode, the offense could be the draw again this year. Think CC’s Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling will mind? Or Denver’s Gabe Gauthier? Or a host of Minnesota players?
A tough road? You’d better believe it.
One of these seasons, a coach will say that the league as a whole is down. “I sure would like to know what year that’s going to be,” Gwozdecky said. “It ain’t going to be this year.”
So you probably can’t blame coaches for telling the truth. It’s so tough …
… that winning the MacNaughton Cup will be a accomplishment deserving celebrations far greater than the short one allowed before moving to bigger quests.
Whoever gets through this group deserves to raise the silver cup at the end of the season. Sure, there were significant losses in talent from last season, but consider this: Eight of the top 11 and 73 of the top 102 scorers from last season are back for more this year.
And the list of contenders for the league championship is long.
You’ve got Denver, which keeps finding a way to get things done. There’s Minnesota, with most of its key players back and a stellar freshman class.
North Dakota figures to be in the mix, even with a bunch of newcomers in the lineup. You’ve got to figure Wisconsin into the race this season based on a veteran lineup and potential for a surge in scoring. Colorado College will be up there with a strong offense.
Grab bag, anyone?
“I don’t think any of us know how it’s going to turn out in the end,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said.
… that anyone who finishes in the top five will have earned it.
Even if Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State are projected to be in the bottom half, there’s a better-than-average chance one of them will actually be hosting a WCHA playoff series in March. Isn’t that always the way?
“You can be a player on the national scene in the middle of the pack in our league, so there’s a lot of hope for everybody in our league,” new St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “If you’re in our league and you’re in the middle, you’re in a hunt somewhere. You’re playing for something. Denver won the national title two years ago and they finished fifth. So every coach is talking that way.”
UMD isn’t that far removed from the Frozen Four, even if most of the cast from that experience is gone. The Bulldogs have work to do, but they should be in the mix for a top-five spot in the final weeks of the season.
If any one of the expected top five falters, someone will be waiting to pounce.
… that a team can return a Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner, a 34-goal scorer and 87 percent of its scoring from a squad that made it to the Frozen Four and still be considered to be merely fighting for a top-three spot the next year.
That’s Colorado College, which was able to keep Hobey winner Sertich and strike partner Sterling on the roster despite the wave of post-lockout NHL signings. That would seem to give CC a hold on a favorable position this year, but it will have to earn it.
“We could be as good as last year and drop two or three spots in the standings,” Tigers coach Scott Owens said. “You just don’t know. That’s how good this league is — top to bottom, not just the top five.”
… that even the teams in the bottom half will make their presence felt.
Assuming a win over one of the league’s bottom-feeders in the standings is just a bad idea.
There was no better example last season than a three-week stretch that saw Michigan Tech get a win at Denver and a sweep at Minnesota.
It has reached the point where upsets in the WCHA just aren’t surprises anymore because, while there is often a clear division between the haves and the have-nots, the have-nots don’t seem to care.
So welcome to the 54th version of the WCHA, where the road just keeps getting tougher and tougher.
Here’s a look at the league’s 10 teams in predicted order of finish.
Click on any team name at the top of the sections below for its individual season preview.
Head coach: Don Lucia, 19th season overall (441-232-50), sixth at Minnesota (162-77-21)
2004-05 record: 28-15-1 overall, 17-10-1 WCHA (35 points, tied-third of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.52 goals per game overall (fifth in NCAA), 3.75 conference (second in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 2.48 goals per game overall (17th), 2.86 conference (fourth)
2004-05 power play: 20.5 percent overall (12th), 22.9 percent conference (second)
2004-05 penalty kill: 83.4 percent overall (25th), 84.2 percent conference (fifth)
Key returners: F Danny Irmen, jr. (24-19-43); F Tyler Hirsch, sr. (11-33-44); F Ryan Potulny, jr. (24-17-41); D Chris Harrington, sr. (2-24-26); G Kellen Briggs, jr. (21-12-0, 2.43, .912)
Newcomers to watch: F Phil Kessel (32-30-62 in 32 games for USA NTDP); F Blake Wheeler (19-28-47 in 58 games for Green Bay/USHL); F Ryan Stoa (14-24-38 in 38 games for USA NTDP); G Jeff Frazee (14-7-0, 2.70, .916 in 24 games for USA NTDP)
Early departures: None
Other key losses: F Barry Tallackson (11-8-19); F Garrett Smaagaard (8-8-16); G Justin Johnson (7-3-1, 2.34, .914)
2005-06 predicted finish: First
The bottom line: Kessel will get a lot of the attention, but Minnesota has plenty of other weapons on offense and defense to justify its position in the early rankings.
Head coach: Mike Eaves, fifth season overall (67-69-16), fourth at Wisconsin (58-50-16)
2004-05 record: 23-14-4 overall, 16-9-3 WCHA (35 points, tied-third of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.10 goals per game overall (21st in NCAA), 3.36 conference (fourth)
2004-05 team defense: 2.22 goals per game overall (seventh), 2.29 conference (first)
2004-05 power play: 19.6 percent overall (17th), 22.3 percent conference (third)
2004-05 penalty kill: 86.9 percent overall (seventh), 86.2 percent conference (first)
Key returners: F Robbie Earl, jr. (20-24-44); F Joe Pavelski, so. (16-29-45); F Ryan MacMurchy, sr. (11-22-33); D Tom Gilbert, sr. (8-9-17); G Brian Elliott, jr. (6-2-1, 1.16, .945)
Newcomers to watch: F Jack Skille (15-22-37 in 42 games for USA NTDP); F Ben Street (29-39-68 in 56 games for Salmon Arm/BCHL); F Tom Gorowsky (18-35-53 in 54 games for Sioux Falls/NTDP); G Shane Connelly (14-17-3-1, 2.99, .911 in 37 games for Chicago/USHL)
Early departures: F Ken Rowe (0-2-2); F Mark Heatley (0-0-0)
Other key losses: G Bernd Brückler (17-12-3, 2.40, .914)
2005-06 predicted finish: Second
The bottom line: The offense looks improved, but can the performance there finally match the potential? A big question in goal, too, as Elliott takes over.
Head coach: George Gwozdecky, 20th season overall (404-284-54), 12th at Denver (255-161-33)
2004-05 record: 32-9-2 overall, 19-7-2 WCHA (40 points, tied-first of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 4.05 goals per game overall (second in NCAA), 4.07 conference (first in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 2.56 goals per game overall (18th), 2.89 conference (fifth)
2004-05 power play: 20.6 percent overall (11th), 21.2 percent conference (fourth)
2004-05 penalty kill: 85.0 percent overall (15th), 84.4 percent conference (fourth)
Key returners: F Gabe Gauthier, sr. (26-31-57); F Paul Stastny, so. (17-28-45); D Matt Carle, jr. (13-31-44); G Peter Mannino, so. (18-4-1, 2.19, .927)
Newcomers to watch: F Brock Trotter (20-38-58 in 60 games for Lincoln/USHL); D Chris Butler (6-22-28 in 60 games for Sioux City/USHL); D T.J. Fast (8-28-36 in 58 games for Camrose/AJHL)
Early departure: D Brett Skinner (4-36-40)
Other key losses: F Luke Fulghum (23-19-42); F Jeff Drummond (16-23-39); D Matt Laatsch (1-10-11)
2005-06 predicted finish: Third
The bottom line: Gauthier and Carle should lead the Pioneers to a good regular-season finish, and after that they know how to get things done.
Head coach: Scott Owens, seventh season overall and at Colorado College (153-76-18)
2004-05 record: 31-9-3 overall, 19-7-2 WCHA (40 points, tied-first of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.73 goals per game overall (fourth in NCAA), 3.50 conference (third in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 2.35 goals per game overall (11th), 2.36 conference (second)
2004-05 power play: 23.6 percent overall (third), 25.2 percent conference (first)
2004-05 penalty kill: 84.0 percent overall (21st), 85.4 percent conference (second)
Key returners: F Marty Sertich, sr. (27-37-64); F Brett Sterling, sr. (34-29-63); D Brian Salcido, jr. (7-23-30); G Matt Zaba, jr. (10-5-2, 2.46, .916)
Newcomers to watch: F Chad Rau (31-40-71 in 57 games for Des Moines/USHL); F Andreas Vlassopoulos (2-15-17 in 36 games for USA NTDP)
Early departures: D Mark Stuart (5-14-19); D Brady Greco (4-2-6); F Mike Sertich (0-0-0)
Other key losses: G Curtis McElhinney (21-4-1, 2.24, .922); F Scott Polaski (2-15-17); D Richard Petiot (3-5-8)
2005-06 predicted finish: Fourth
The bottom line: The offense should be fine with Sertich and Sterling leading the way, but the defense and goaltending must prove they will be as strong after the loss of big-time players.
Head coach: Dave Hakstol, second season overall and at North Dakota (25-15-5)
2004-05 record: 25-15-5 overall, 13-12-3 WCHA (29 points, fifth of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.02 goals per game overall (25th in NCAA), 2.54 conference (eighth)
2004-05 team defense: 2.29 goals per game overall (10th), 2.39 conference (third)
2004-05 power play: 19.0 percent overall (18th), 17.1 percent conference (seventh)
2004-05 penalty kill: 85.9 percent overall (12th), 85.2 percent conference (third)
Key returners: F Travis Zajac, so. (20-19-39); F Drew Stafford, jr. (13-25-38); F Rastislav Spirko, so. (16-21-37); G Jordan Parise, jr. (17-7-3, 2.13, .917)
Newcomers to watch: F Jonathan Toews (48-62-110 in 64 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school); F T.J. Oshie (37-62-99 in 31 games for Warroad (Minn.) HS); D Brian Lee (Moorhead (Minn.) HS); D Zach Jones (1-1-2 in 41 games for USA NTDP)
Early departures: F Brady Murray (8-12-20); D Matt Greene (2-8-10)
Other key losses: F Colby Genoway (13-31-44); F Rory McMahon (14-17-31); D Matt Jones (6-11-17); D Nick Fuher (7-22-29)
2005-06 predicted finish: Fifth
The bottom line: With 13 freshmen on the roster, UND may be rough around the edges early but don’t expect that to last. Given history, that would be foolish.
Head coach: Scott Sandelin, sixth season overall and at Minnesota-Duluth (85-97-22)
2004-05 record: 15-17-6 overall, 11-13-4 WCHA (26 points, sixth of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.13 goals per game overall (18th in NCAA), 3.21 conference (fifth in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 3.11 goals per game overall (t-35th), 3.18 conference (sixth)
2004-05 power play: 17.9 percent overall (30th), 19.0 percent conference (sixth)
2004-05 penalty kill: 79.2 percent overall (49th), 77.2 percent conference (eighth)
Key returners: F Tim Stapleton, sr. (19-20-39); F Justin Williams, sr. (5-10-15); D Steve Czech, sr. (3-10-13)
Newcomers to watch: F Andrew Carroll (32-22-54 in 60 games for Sioux Falls/USHL); F Michael Gergen (56-50-106 in 66 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school); D Jason Garrison (22-40-62 in 57 games for Nanaimo/BCHL); D Josh Meyers (8-24-32 in 57 games for Sioux City/USHL)
Early departures: D Jay Rosehill (0-5-5); F Blair LeFebvre (2-5-7)
Other key losses: F Evan Schwabe (19-26-45); F Marco Peluso (19-19-38); D Tim Hambly (5-15-20); D Neil Petruic (1-8-9)
2005-06 predicted finish: Sixth
The bottom line: This season will go a long way in showing whether the real Bulldogs showed up in 2003-04 or in 2004-05.
Head coach: Troy Jutting, sixth season overall and at Minnesota State (78-92-24)
2004-05 record: 13-19-6 overall, 8-16-4 WCHA (20 points, eighth of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 3.11 goals per game overall (19th in NCAA), 2.93 conference (sixth in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 3.68 goals per game overall (54th), 3.89 conference (10th)
2004-05 power play: 18.3 percent overall (25th), 16.7 percent conference (eighth)
2004-05 penalty kill: 80.3 percent overall (40th), 78.8 percent conference (sixth)
Key returners: F David Backes, jr. (17-23-40); F Travis Morin, jr. (12-19-31); D Kyle Peto, jr. (3-24-27); G Chris Clark, jr. (6-6-4, 3.42, .897)
Newcomers to watch: F Mick Berge (13-44-57 in 60 games for Lincoln/USHL); D Blake Friesen (4-9-13 in 48 games for Sioux Falls/USHL); G Dan Tormey (23-4-2-3, 2.25, .926 in 32 games for Cedar Rapids/USHL); G Mike Zacharias (27-17-5-3, 2.98, .888 in 53 games for Tri-City/USHL)
Early departure: G Kyle Nixon (0-2-1, 6.66, .802)
Other key losses: F Brad Thompson (13-11-24); F Adam Gerlach (11-11-22); D Steven Johns (2-13-15)
2005-06 predicted finish: Seventh
The bottom line: The Backes-Morin combination is impressive, but it won’t be enough to move the Mavericks up the standings unless the team can get some better defense.
Head coach: Bob Motzko, first season overall and at St. Cloud State (interim)
2004-05 record: 14-23-3 overall, 8-19-1 WCHA (17 points, ninth of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 2.73 goals per game overall (36th in NCAA), 2.36 conference (ninth in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 3.15 goals per game overall (39th), 3.57 conference (eighth)
2004-05 power play: 12.2 percent overall (53rd), 9.9 percent conference (10th)
2004-05 penalty kill: 83.3 percent overall (27th), 78.6 percent conference (seventh)
Key returners: F Joe Jensen, sr. (12-14-26); F Andrew Gordon, so. (9-8-17); D Justin Fletcher, jr. (8-14-22); G Tim Boron, jr. (10-18-3, 3.00, .904)
Newcomers to watch: F Michael Olson (32-28-70 in 60 games for Nanaimo/BCHL); D David Carlisle (2-12-14 in 58 games for Lincoln/USHL); G Bobby Goepfert (transfer from Providence)
Early departures: None
Other key losses: F Dave Iannazzo (16-16-32); F Peter Szabo (5-15-20); F Mike Doyle (9-8-17); D Matt Gens (3-14-17)
2005-06 predicted finish: Eighth
The bottom line: Not sure what to expect from the Huskies? Join the club. Goepfert has been touted as someone who can make a difference; now he needs to.
Head coach: Jamie Russell, third season overall and at Michigan Tech (16-50-9)
2004-05 record: 8-25-4 overall, 7-19-2 WCHA (16 points, 10th of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 2.46 goals per game overall (44th in NCAA), 2.29 conference (10th in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 3.68 goals per game overall (52nd), 3.50 conference (seventh)
2004-05 power play: 22.1 percent overall (seventh), 20.3 percent conference (fifth)
2004-05 penalty kill: 79.2 percent overall (52nd), 76.8 percent conference (ninth)
Key returners: F Chris Conner, sr. (14-10-24); F Brandon Schwartz, sr. (10-16-26); D Lars Helminen, jr. (8-24-32)
Newcomers to watch: F Ryan Angelow (46-26-72 in 43 games for Oakville/OPJHL); F Alex Gagne (35-35-70 in 60 games for Cowichan Valley/BCHL); G Michael-Lee Teslak (21-9-0, 2.47, .931 in 33 games for Prince George/BCHL)
Early departures: D Marek Dora (2-4-6); F B.J. Radovich (1-0-1); F Rolf Ulvin (0-0-0); G Bryce Luker (1-6-1, 4.66, .872)
Other key losses: F Colin Murphy (11-42-53); D Clay Wilson (3-4-7); G Cam Ellsworth (7-18-3, 3.23, .916)
2005-06 predicted finish: Ninth
The bottom line: Progress has been measured in effort, not victories, but the time will come soon when that has to change.
Head coach: Dave Shyiak, first season overall and at Alaska-Anchorage
2004-05 record: 12-19-6 overall, 9-15-4 WCHA (22 points, seventh of 10 teams)
2004-05 team offense: 2.54 goals per game overall (43rd in NCAA), 2.57 conference (seventh in WCHA)
2004-05 team defense: 3.49 goals per game overall (47th), 3.64 conference (ninth)
2004-05 power play: 13.6 percent overall (47th), 13.3 percent conference (ninth)
2004-05 penalty kill: 78.3 percent overall (55th), 76.4 percent conference (10th)
Key returners: F Justin Bourne, jr. (12-11-23); F Ales Parez, sr. (5-10-15); D Luke Beaverson, so. (0-2-2); G Nathan Lawson, so. (7-15-3, 3.32, .914)
Newcomers to watch: F Adam Corrin (36-40-76 in 63 games for Winnipeg South/MJHL), F Jay Beagle (28-42-70 in 64 games for Calgary Royals/AJHL), D Shane Lovdahl (7-32-39 in 60 games for Cedar Rapids/USHL)
Early departures: D Brandon Segal (2-9-11); D Matt Hanson (3-4-7); D Tyler Cherwinski (0-4-4)
Other key losses: F Martin Stuchlik (12-13-25); D Lee Green (2-4-6)
2005-06 predicted finish: 10th
The bottom line: Can Shyiak do more than John Hill did with the Seawolves? There’s plenty of work to be done to end a 12-season string of losing campaigns.