2006-07 WCHA Season Preview

Numbers don’t lie.

It is no secret that NCAA men’s hockey lost a bevy of talent with the long list of players leaving college early and forgoing their last years of eligibility. But if one league was hit the most, it was the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Try these numbers on for size:

In the 16 players that left their teams early, the WCHA lost more than 30 percent of the goals scored in league games.

Those 16 players had a combined 258 goals and 410 assists — a whopping 668 points — during the 2005-06 season. Again, those numbers do not even include the league’s graduated seniors.

A closer look shows that, with all of the players absent from last year’s WCHA, the league will return just over 44 percent of its total scoring from league games.

“We had an unusually high number of underclassman signings this year,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said at a Tuesday teleconference. “We really don’t keep records on it, but I would say it’s probably twice as many as usual.

“But you know me, I kind of prefer to look at … the half-full rather than the half-empty, and we’ve got some great returnees coming back and 68 NHL draft picks in the league this year.”

It is easy to dwell on the players who will no longer be in the league, but as the adage goes, the games must go on and it is more important to take a look at what the league will offer this year.

Although the WCHA lost an abundance of top-end players, the teams within it surely picked up a bunch of stars in the making. Some of the nation’s top recruiting classes include a number of players from the U.S. National Team Developmental Program as well as the best players from the junior leagues.

However, it is not hard to see that the jump to the college level does not come as easy as the snap of the fingers. It will be up to the coaches and upperclassmen-leaders — those who are still around — to try and help make it a quick transition.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Mike Eaves' Badgers may be the defending NCAA champions, but Wisconsin has plenty of competition this season in the WCHA.

Mike Eaves’ Badgers may be the defending NCAA champions, but Wisconsin has plenty of competition this season in the WCHA.

Tuesday’s teleconference with the league’s coaches ran something like a broken record. With all of the early exits to the professional ranks, it seemed like almost every coach made it a point to mention that they were going to have eight to 10 rookies on their squads.

“When you lose seven key people and you plop in nine freshmen to fill those roles, it’s a different task,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said.

“We’re putting nine freshmen in this year,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said.

“We have so many new players on our team,” Minnesota’s Don Lucia said. “It’s a big change in our locker room from a year ago with the seniors that we had on our team and the four underclassmen who signed.”

“Ten new faces out of 25 kids, there’s a lot of new stuff going on,” Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting said.

“We’re a very young team,” North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol said. “When you take a look at our roster, at this point in time we have 18 freshmen and sophomores … out of 25 guys.”

Needless to say, WCHA fans will have to keep their rosters handy in the first few weekends of league play if they want to know who is on the ice.

Filling The Gaps

With more than 55 percent of the goals in league games gone from last year, it should be an interesting opening month as teams try to figure out who their go-to scorers will be.

It seemed to be the resounding question of most of the coaches, as most teams seem to be pretty comfortable with mostly-veteran blue lines and goaltenders.

Defending national champion Wisconsin was hit the hardest, losing every one of its top five scorers from a year ago.

“The riddle we’re going to have to resolve is who’s going to provide some goal-scoring for us,” Eaves said.

But obviously, the Badgers are not alone in that department.

Minnesota lost four of its top five scorers. So did Minnesota State. So did St. Cloud State.

Michigan Tech did not have any underclassmen leave early, but the Huskies still lost four of their top six scorers. Those four accounted for nearly half of their 74 goals last year.

“One of the questions we have is who will be doing the scoring for us,” Tech’s Jamie Russell said.

But it was Colorado College which took perhaps the hardest hit, losing its top four scorers. The coaches poll which was released Tuesday reflects that, as the league’s head coaches predicted a seventh-place finish for the Tigers.

“The real challenge is going to be scoring goals,” CC head coach Scott Owens said. “We’re hoping it’s done a little bit by committee.”

Unfortunately for the Tigers, they did not get the result they were looking for in an exhibition with the University of Calgary last weekend. Despite putting 52 shots on goal, they still lost 4-2.

Like Pulling Names From A Hat

After a summer of big-time departures, Jonathan Toews is among the keys to North Dakota's success (photo: Melissa Wade).

After a summer of big-time departures, Jonathan Toews is among the keys to North Dakota’s success (photo: Melissa Wade).

So what does this all mean? Well, with so many youngsters bringing so many question marks, predicting the final standings of the WCHA could prove to be about as easy as tossing a Frisbee from the stands into the sunroof of a car circling an ice rink.

Six WCHA teams found themselves in the USCHO.com/CSTV preseason poll, including four in the top 10. Two more received votes.

Five of those teams could legitimately fight for the title when the season is winding down. And according to at least one coach, darkhorse Minnesota-Duluth could even find itself in the running. Eaves said he had the Bulldogs second on his preseason poll.

So without further ado, I’ll unveil my picks for the 2006-07 season. They may not look the same as yours, and you could probably persuade me to change them in a number of ways, but here are my initial thoughts. Individual team previews can be accessed by clicking on each team’s name.

Minnesota

Head coach: Don Lucia, 20th season overall (454-251-63), eighth at Minnesota (189-86-26)
2005-06 record: 27-9-5 overall, 20-5-3 WCHA (43 points, first of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 4.12 goals per game overall (second in NCAA), 3.82 conference (first in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 2.56 goals per game overall (17th), 2.29 conference (third)
2005-06 power play: 22.4 percent overall (third), 20.0 percent conference (fifth)
2005-06 penalty kill: 85.2 percent overall (14th), 85.1 percent conference (third)
Key returners: D Alex Goligoski, jr. (11-28-39); F Tyler Hirsch, sr. (11-33-44 in 2004-05); F Ben Gordon, jr. (12-17-29); F Ryan Stoa, so. (10-15-25); G Kellen Briggs, sr. (21-6-3, 2.55, .904)
Newcomers to watch: D Erik Johnson (16-33-49 in 47 games with US NTDP); F Kyle Okposo (27-31-58 in 50 games with Des Moines/USHL); F Mike Carman (21-33-54 in 60 games with US NTDP); F Jim O’Brien (17-24-41 in 51 games with US NTDP); F Ryan Flynn (16-17-33 in 59 games with US NTDP)
Early departures: F Ryan Potulny (38-25-63); F Phil Kessel (18-33-51); F Kris Chucko (4-9-13); F Danny Irmen (16-22-38)
Other key losses: D Chris Harrington (3-33-36)
2006-07 predicted finish: First
The bottom line: They lost just as much as anybody else, but also gained just as much. If the Gophers get steady goaltending, do not be surprised if they successfully defend the MacNaughton Cup.

North Dakota

Head coach: Dave Hakstol, third season overall and at North Dakota (55-30-6)
2005-06 record: 29-16-1 overall, 16-12-0 WCHA (32 points, tied-fourth of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.57 goals per game overall (fourth in NCAA), 3.71 conference (second in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 2.37 goals per game overall (12th), 2.71 conference (fifth)
2005-06 power play: 21.1 percent overall (seventh), 20.4 percent conference (third)
2005-06 penalty kill: 83.3 percent overall (t-25th), 80.0 percent conference (seventh)
Key returners: F T.J. Oshie, so. (24-21-45); F Jonathan Toews, so. (22-17-39); F Ryan Duncan, so. (16-20-36); D Brian Lee, so. (4-23-27)
Newcomers to watch: F Michael Forney (68 points in 25 games for Thief River Falls H.S.); F Darcy Zajac (37-43-80 in 57 games with Salmon Arm/BCHL); F Chris VandeVelde (67 points for Moorhead prep school, 1-6-7 in 11 games for Lincoln/USHL); F Evan Trupp (20-59-79 in 59 games with Penticton/BCHL)
Early departures: F Drew Stafford (24-24-48); D Matt Smaby (4-15-19); F Travis Zajac (18-29-47); G Jordan Parise (24-9-1, 2.20, .929); F Rastislav Spirko (11-20-31)
Other key losses: F Mike Prpich (7-5-12)
2006-07 predicted finish: Second
The bottom line: They may have 18 underclassmen, but a talented and experienced sophomore class should make this team fun to watch.

Wisconsin

Head coach: Mike Eaves, sixth season overall (97-79-19), fifth at Wisconsin (88-60-19)
2005-06 record: 30-10-3 overall, 17-8-3 WCHA (37 points, tied-second of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.37 goals per game overall (13th in NCAA), 3.50 conference (tie-third in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 1.84 goals per game overall (first), 2.14 conference (first)
2005-06 power play: 18.2 percent overall (20th), 20.2 percent conference (fourth)
2005-06 penalty kill: 88.4 percent overall (second), 85.9 percent conference (second)
Key returners: G Brian Elliott, sr. (27-5-3, 1.55, .938); F Ross Carlson, sr. (11-12-23); F Jack Skille, so. (13-8-21); D Kyle Klubertanz, jr. (4-17-21)
Newcomers to watch: F Blake Geoffrion (18-23-41 in 54 games for USA NTDP); D Jamie McBain (9-21-30 in 55 games for USA NTDP); F Michael Davies (28-43-71 for Lincoln/USHL)
Early departures: F Joe Pavelski (23-33-56); F Robbie Earl (24-26-50)
Other key losses: D Tom Gilbert (12-19-31); F Adam Burish (9-24-33); F Ryan MacMurchy (8-17-25)
2006-07 predicted finish: Third
The bottom line: The Badgers lost their top five scorers from their national championship team, but backed by Hobey Baker finalist Brian Elliott, they should have a chance to repeat.

St. Cloud State

Head coach: Bob Motzko, second season overall and at St. Cloud State (22-16-4)
2005-06 record: 22-16-4 overall, 13-13-2 WCHA (28 points, sixth of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.19 goals per game overall (21st in NCAA), 2.82 conference (seventh in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 2.36 goals per game overall (10th), 2.21 conference (second)
2005-06 power play: 18.5 percent overall (17th), 17.2 percent conference (sixth)
2005-06 penalty kill: 84.5 percent overall (18th), 86.8 percent conference (first)
Key returners: F Andrew Gordon, jr. (20-20-40); D Justin Fletcher, sr. (6-21-27); F Dan Kronick, sr. (11-12-23); G Bobby Goepfert, sr. (20-14-4, 2.20, .924)
Newcomers to watch: F Ryan Lasch (68-78-146 in 56 games for Pembroke/CJHL); F Andreas Nodl (29-30-59 in 58 games for Sioux Falls/USHL); G Jase Weslosky (9-18-8, 2.33, .910 for Sherwood Park/AJHL)
Early departures: G Tim Boron (15-27-5, 3.05, .899 in career at SCSU)
Other key losses: F Joe Jensen (14-18-32); F Billy Hengen (9-23-32); F Konrad Reeder (11-16-27); F Brock Hooton (7-20-27)
2006-07 predicted finish: Fourth
The bottom line: The Huskies should go as far as All-WCHA goalie Bobby Goepfert takes them, which should be a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002-03.

Denver

Head coach: George Gwozdecky, 21st season overall (426-300-57), 13th at Denver (276-176-36)
2005-06 record: 21-15-3 overall, 17-8-3 WCHA (37 points, tied-second of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.21 goals per game overall (20th in NCAA), 3.50 conference (tie-third in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 2.82 goals per game overall (t-28th), 2.79 conference (sixth)
2005-06 power play: 22.4 percent overall (fourth), 25.4 percent conference (first)
2005-06 penalty kill: 82.9 percent overall (29th), 83.3 percent conference (fourth)
Key returners: F Ryan Dingle, jr. (27-16-43); D Chris Butler, so. (7-15-22); F J.D. Corbin, sr. (5-15-20)
Newcomers to watch: F Brock Trotter (medical redshirt last year after 3-2-5 in five games, 20-38-58 in 60 games for Lincoln/USHL in 2004-05); F Rhett Rakhshani (24-25-49 in 59 games for the US NTDP); F Matt Glasser (15-20-35 for Fort McMurray/AJHL); F Tyler Ruegsegger (38-51-89 in 60 games for Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school); F Brandon Vossberg (24-39-63 in 58 games for Santa Fe/NAHL)
Early departure: D Matt Carle (11-42-53); F Paul Stastny (19-34-53)
Other key losses: F Gabe Gauthier (15-24-39)
2006-07 predicted finish: Fifth
The bottom line: As Gwozdecky said Tuesday, it’s a roll of the dice on offense after Dingle. The Pioneers will need some players to step up, including a pair of goalies who saw regular action last year.

Minnesota-Duluth

Head coach: Scott Sandelin, seventh season overall and at Minnesota-Duluth (86-122-26)
2005-06 record: 11-25-4 overall, 6-19-3 WCHA (15 points, ninth of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 2.42 goals per game overall (48th in NCAA), 2.21 conference (eighth in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 3.70 goals per game overall (51st), 4.07 conference (10th)
2005-06 power play: 15.6 percent overall (44th), 15.8 percent conference (eighth)
2005-06 penalty kill: 84.4 percent overall (56th), 75.5 percent conference (10th)
Key returners: F Mason Raymond, so. (11-17-28); F Matt McKnight, jr. (9-16-25); F Andrew Carroll, so. (13-10-23); F Michael Gergen, so. (14-8-22)
Newcomers to watch: F Jordan Fulton (45-38-83 in 28 games for The Breck School, prep school in Minneapolis); F Mitch Ryan (27-24-51 in 60 games for Waterloo/USHL); D Trent Palm (2-8-10 in 59 games for US NTDP); G Alex Stalock (28-13-3, 2.54., .931 in 44 appearances for Cedar Rapids/USHL)
Early departures: None
Other key losses: F Tim Stapleton (14-16-30); F Justin Williams (8-13-21); G Isaac Reichmuth (6-16-4, 3.45, .877)
2006-07 predicted finish: Sixth
The bottom line: The sophomore-laden Bulldogs are the league’s darkhorse, but they have to improve on special teams and figure out their goaltending situation in order to push into the top half of the WCHA.

Colorado College needs Matt Zaba's best in net again this season (photo: Casey Gibson).

Colorado College needs Matt Zaba’s best in net again this season (photo: Casey Gibson).

Colorado College

Head coach: Scott Owens, eighth season overall and at Colorado College (177-92-20)
2005-06 record: 24-16-2 overall, 15-11-2 WCHA (32 points, tied-fourth of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.40 goals per game overall (tied-10th in NCAA), 3.36 conference (fifth in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 2.60 goals per game overall (18th), 2.68 conference (fourth)
2005-06 power play: 22.7 percent overall (first), 21.0 percent conference (second)
2005-06 penalty kill: 81.1 percent overall (t-42nd), 80.1 percent conference (sixth)
Key returners: F Chad Rau, so. (13-17-30); F Jimmy Kilpatrick, jr. (7-14-21); D Lee Sweatt, sr. (5-16-21); G Matt Zaba, sr. (20-14-2, 2.52, .909)
Newcomers to watch: F Billy Sweatt (29-26-55 in 59 games with US NTDP); D Kris Fredheim (14-32-46 in 63 games with Notre Dame/SJHL); F Dan Quilico (17-29-46 in 62 games with Smoke/BCHL)
Early departures: D Brian Salcido (8-32-40)
Other key losses: F Brett Sterling (31-24-55); F Marty Sertich (14-36-50); F Joey Crabb (18-25-43); F Aaron Slattengren (10-8-18)
2005-06 predicted finish: Seventh
The bottom line: Without Sterling, Sertich and Salcido, this team desperately needs players to step up early and often, but it might not be that easy for a team which has made the NCAA tourney five times in Owens’ first seven years.

Minnesota State

Head coach: Troy Jutting, seventh season overall and at Minnesota State (95-110-28)
2005-06 record: 17-18-4 overall, 12-13-3 WCHA (27 points, seventh of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 3.23 goals per game overall (19th in NCAA), 3.32 conference (sixth in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 3.10 goals per game overall (38th), 3.14 conference (seventh)
2005-06 power play: 17.1 percent overall (28th), 16.9 percent conference (seventh)
2005-06 penalty kill: 82.1 percent overall (38th), 82.0 percent conference (fifth)
Key returners: F Travis Morin, sr. (20-22-42); F Joel Hanson, jr. (4-16-20); F Kurtis Kisio, sr. (8-8-16); G Dan Tormey, so. (14-13-4, 2.83, .902)
Newcomers to watch: D Nick Canzanello (27-23-50 for Mayo H.S., Rochester, Minn.); F Geoff Irwin (37-51-88 in 57 games for Burnaby/BCHL); F Kael Mouillierat (31-40-71 for Drayton Valley/AJHL)
Early departures: F David Backes (13-29-42); F Ryan Carter (19-16-35); D Kyle Peto (8-21-29);
Other key losses: F Rob Rankin (12-11-23); F Brock Becker (7-9-16)
2006-07 predicted finish: Eighth
The bottom line: They may not look like much on paper, but the Mavericks always bring an energy that helps them win a few games along the way.

Michigan Tech

Head coach: Jamie Russell, fourth season overall and at Michigan Tech (23-75-15)
2005-06 record: 7-25-6 overall, 6-16-6 WCHA (18 points, 8th of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 1.95 goals per game overall (57th in NCAA), 1.93 conference (ninth in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 3.92 goals per game overall (56th), 4.04 conference (ninth)
2005-06 power play: 11.0 percent overall (57th), 11.3 percent conference (10th)
2005-06 penalty kill: 80.1 percent overall (59th), 78.8 percent conference (eighth)
Key returners: F Tyler Shelast, jr. (9-9-18); D Lars Helminen, sr. (2-17-19); G Michael-Lee Teslak, so. (7-14-4, 3.68, .902)
Newcomers to watch: F Phil Axtell (22-15-37 in 45 games for Cedar Rapids/USHL); F Ryan Bunger (29-31-60 in 64 games for Bozeman/NAHL); F Alex Gagne (35-35-70 in 60 games in 2004-05 for Cowichan Valley/BCHL)
Early departures: None
Other key losses: F Chris Conner (17-12-29); F Brandon Schwartz (10-16-26); F Taggart Desmet (7-10-17)
2005-06 predicted finish: Ninth
The bottom line: The Huskies have plenty of holes to fill on offense, so it may be up to Teslak and Nolan to try and give Russell his first 10-win season.

Alaska-Anchorage

Head coach: Dave Shyiak, second season overall and at Alaska-Anchorage (6-27-3)
2005-06 record: 6-27-3 overall, 4-21-3 WCHA (11 points, 10th of 10 teams)
2005-06 team offense: 1.89 goals per game overall (58th in NCAA), 1.82 conference (10th in WCHA)
2005-06 team defense: 3.83 goals per game overall (54th), 3.93 conference (eighth)
2005-06 power play: 14.4 percent overall (48th), 15.3 percent conference (ninth)
2005-06 penalty kill: 78.7 percent overall (55th), 78.7 percent conference (ninth)
Key returners: D Mark Smith, sr. (6-9-15); F Chris Tarkir, jr. (8-6-14); G Nathan Lawson, jr. (4-11-3, 3.44, .908)
Newcomers to watch: F Ken Selby (36-30-66 in 62 games for Daupin/MJHL); F Kevin Clark (40-36-76 for Winnipeg/MJHL); F Josh Lunden (34-47-81 in 56 games for Chilliwack/BCJHL); D Trevor Hunt (15-42-57 for Chilliwack/BCJHL)
Early departures: None
Other key losses: F Ales Parez (6-7-13)
2005-06 predicted finish: 10th
The bottom line: With a new group of assistants helping Shyiak, the Seawolves are on the up-and-up, but we are talking about a multi-year project here.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here