MCHA Season Preview

As many may recall, last season’s MCHA preview focused on the myriad of changes the league had gone through in the previous year. Though the state of the MCHA has solidified somewhat between then and now, it is still evolving at a more rapid pace than any other league in the nation.

As certain questions relating to the MCHA have surfaced numerous times over the past year, it’s time to set the record straight on a variety of topics.

To do so we turn to MCHA Commissioner Terry Brand, who was kind enough to answer a multitude of questions regarding the past, present and future of the league.

Special thanks to Terry for taking the time to talk with us.

USCHO: The MCHA has come along way in only 11 years. What is your take on the current state of the league relative to what it has been and what you would eventually like it to be?

Brand: Stability is the first word that comes to mind. Four charter member schools, those being Lawrence, MSOE, Marian, and Northland have been competing in the conference since the 1998-99 season, Crookston came into the conference in the 1999-2000 season, Finlandia in 2004-05, and then we expanded by two members for the 2007-08 season with Adrian and Concordia of Wisconsin. We are now a contender in the search for student athletes that are looking to continue their hockey careers while getting a quality education.

USCHO: There is still a fairly wide-held perception that the MCHA is a “weak sister” of D-III hockey. What are your thoughts on the validity of that perception?

Brand: I think that is only the opinion of those who have not seen the top teams of the MCHA play. Our Harris Cup championship game last March, which featured Adrian and Finlandia, was the most competitive game I saw all season. People have to understand that our schools are a bit different in that they are all recruiting younger players, both right out of high school or with only a year of juniors or prep school play. So when we play out of conference in the preseason we are putting 18 year-old true freshman up against 24 year-old seniors. Look at our scores when we play out of conference again in January. We close the gap. I think that is when the politics of NCAA bids starts up because nobody wants to get picked off by what they think is a “weak sister”.

USCHO: What are your thoughts on the overall competitiveness within the MCHA itself?

Brand: Last season our games broke down as follows. In 80 conference games we had one tie, 22 games decided by one goal, eight by two goals, 15 by three goals, five by four goals, 10 by five goals, and 17 decided by six or more goals. As you can see, a strong majority of our games are very competitive. The big scores are happening when our top teams are playing our lowest ranking teams. Those games concern me because it is very hard to take a loss like that and also very hard to tell your team to slow down and not run up scores. I would like to see that number of big score games diminish this season.

I think our top four teams can compete with anyone in the nation.

USCHO: The MCHA is largely comprised of relative newcomers to the D-III hockey world, yet many MCHA teams appear to receive excellent institutional support. Is this a fair assessment?

Brand: Yes, that is a fair assessment. Overall our teams are receiving the support they need to compete at this level. They have all seen the benefits of having a hockey program on campus and the diversity in the student population that a hockey team can bring. Many of our schools have to keep a strict balance between athletics and academics, which can have a huge effect on the potential student-athletes that the coaches can be recruiting. However, I think as a result we put a much more well-rounded young man on the ice when those academic standards are achieved.

USCHO: How big of a landmark event do you think the additions of Concordia and Adrian were?

Brand: We were looking to expand, but set some pretty high standards for the programs we considered. Both schools were willing to make a large commitment to their hockey programs. Everything from coaching, recruiting, facilities, academic standards, and overall budget were considered in the decision to bring them both aboard before ever putting a team of any kind on the ice. Look at the results. Adrian wins a conference championship in their first season and Concordia boasts a roster of over 30 players for this upcoming season. These additions also give the MCHA that magic number of seven teams needed as part of the qualification for an automatic qualifier for a conference.

USCHO: Adrian’s success as a first-year team was something the likes of which college hockey had never seen. Do you think that success is good for the league, and if so, why?

Brand: Adrian’s success has been a huge boost for the league. Every time people hear about Adrian it begs the question: where do they play? That then leads people to the MCHA. Their strength adds to the strength of the MCHA by strengthening all our member’s schedules and they give us exposure as a conference every time they show up in the rankings.

USCHO: There are rumors that UM-Crookston will no longer be in the MCHA following this season. Is that true, and if so, why?

Brand: Yes, that is true. Having a Division II school in the MCHA has been a concern for some of our members for some time. The fact that those games do not count in the rankings made it hard for our stronger teams to get ranked, as it was as if those games never happened. It had been the topic of many discussions prior to any official action being taken. The University of Minnesota system even did a study of the athletic program at Crookston to determine if Division III would be a better fit. The findings showed that there would not be competition available for its other sports, so in the fall of 2006, Crookston made the announcement that it would remain an NCAA Division II institution.

At our spring 2007 membership meeting a motion was passed to make an addition to our bylaws that required all members to be NCAA Division III institutions by July 1 of 2008. Therefore, the 2008-09 season will be the last season that Crookston will be a member of the MCHA.

It’s never a good thing for hockey to see a college team put into a situation where it does not know its future. It was a very difficult decision for some of our members to vote to take a team that was a 10 season member of the MCHA and tell them they are no longer welcome.

Lake Forest will be joining the MCHA for the 2009-10 season.

USCHO: Why will Lake Forest be joining the MCHA beginning in 09-10? Did they approach the MCHA or did the MCHA approach Lake Forest — and in either case what was the motivation behind it?

Brand: Back in the fall of 2006, I was hearing lots of rumors that Lake Forest wanted out of the NCHA and into the MCHA. So to put rumors to rest, I scheduled a visit to Lake Forest to meet with their administration. We all found that making the change would be a good fit for everyone. So I guess the easy way to explain it is that I heard they may be knocking on our door so I made the gesture to welcome them in.

USCHO: It is well known the lack of available non-conference games has resigned the MCHA to a 20 game league schedule. With the expiration of the NCHA-MIAC Interlock following this season, will the MCHA be able to reduce the amount of league games and play more non-conference games against NCHA and MIAC teams beginning in 09-10?

Brand: Over this past off season, there was a proposal drawn up by the NCHA that would have provided a four game interlocking schedule between the MCHA and the NCHA. All spring and summer we heard it was a done deal. Then just before our fall membership meeting where had had planned on making it official, we were notified that the NCHA had chosen some alternative type schedule.

We decided that maybe it would be best that we stay with our 20 game conference schedule and have a greater control of our own destiny. The MIAC was not willing to make room in their schedule to allow for an interlock. They also had some concerns with the amount of travel it would have entailed for some of their teams.

Follow up: Do you think this helps or hurts the MCHA?

Brand: I don’t know that we will ever know if it would have helped the MCHA to get into interlocking schedules. Most of our teams play most of the NCHA and MIAC teams as part of our non-conference schedule now.

USCHO: The 2005-06 MSOE (21-5-1) and 2007-08 Adrian (26-3-0) teams had arguably the two most successful seasons in MCHA history. Do you or perhaps the league as a whole feel each deserved a bid into the NCAA Tournament?

Brand: They absolutely deserved a bid. It was only the current system that kept them out. An AQ will solve this problem and it will not have to be a political challenge to provide a long term solution for the MCHA.

USCHO: Speaking of which, what is the current status of the MCHA and it’s pursuit of a league automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament?

Brand: Below is the timeline for what we have completed in the application process. At our Fall 2006 membership meeting, we discuss the option to become conference members of the NCAA. After some research and finding that there were no real benefits of membership we decided not to. We did not have the seven teams required at that time. Then when we expanded by two teams we decided to go ahead and pay the $450.00 for conference membership for the 2007-08 season.

The talk of awarding single sport conference automatic qualifying bids started up. The eventual criteria included having a minimum of seven teams competing with each other for two full consecutive seasons. As you can see, there were some mix ups at the NCAA office due mainly to some staff leaving and not forwarding our paperwork onto the right people. It is our hope that the NCAA will allow the 2007-08 season to count as our first complete season. If that is the case, upon completion of the 2008-09 season we will be eligible to apply for the AQ for the 2009-10 season.

Updated October 8

April 17, 2007 At Spring meeting of the MCHA, motion was passed to apply for NCAA Conference Membership for the MCHA and include the fee of $450.00 in the 2007-08 operating budget.

May 9, 2007 Conference Membership application submitted with bylaws and check for $450.00

Oct. 11, 2007 NCAA deposited check for $450.00 (recorded on bank statement of Oct 1 — 31 )

Early Feb. 2008 I received a call from Shana Levine. She informed me that she did not have a copy of MCHA Constitution and bylaws and that she also needed to know the name of our president. I told her that we did not have a president, as we operated with a commissioner. She said we just needed to name someone as president and that it could be one of the athletic directors from our membership. She said as soon as she received those items the application would be forwarded for approval.

This is the first I had ever heard back from the NCAA. I had made the assumption that it had been approved since I had not heard anything and the check had cleared. To this day, even after they did approve the application in July of 2008, the only notification or material I have received from the NCAA is a letter which I did not receive until August 15, 2008.

That same day, I emailed the constitution and bylaws along with naming Dan Harris, Milwaukee School of Engineering Athletic Director, as the president.

Mid-Feb. 2008 After not hearing back from Shana, a few weeks later I called her only to find out she was no longer on staff at the NCAA. The staff person I spoke with told me that they did have Dan Harris listed as the president now, however they did not have constitution and bylaws. I believe it was then that I was informed that an athletic director could not serve as the president, that it had to be a Member Institution President. That same day, I again emailed the constitution and bylaws to the NCAA. It was after that call that I scheduled a conference call with MCHA ADs and we passed a motion to name President Jeffery Docking of Adrian College the new President of the MCHA.

Follow up: How significant of an impact do you believe the MCHA AQ will have?

Brand: I think it will have probably the largest effect of anything to happen to the league since its inception. What it does recruiting-wise is that it finally puts [us] on a level playing field. We’re the only eight teams in the West Region that can’t say they are playing for an AQ. So for kids being recruited from the Midwest and Western Canada if it comes down to a tossup and he has a chance to play for an AQ someplace else we are losing that kid. I think it gives us independence. We are no longer relying on the NCAA rankings and non-conference competition to get us that pool B bid.

I think we’ve been sort of looked down on because of that. It’s easy for the MIAC and NCHA to sit there and look down on us. Some of them won’t even play us. I do think the biggest thing, though, is that it gives is independence as a league.

USCHO: Last year was the first year the league used a pre-determined site for the Harris Cup Frozen Four. How did it work out at MSOE, and how do you think it will work out at Adrian this season?

Brand: Actually MSOE was the last site that was based on a bid. Starting this season for our playoffs in 2009, the site has been awarded to Adrian as a result of their being the regular season champion. This practice will continue into the future.

USCHO: Prior to last season I predicted a MCHA team would win a NCAA tournament game within five years. One down, four to go. For fun, will the league come through for me on that guarantee?

Brand: I would hope that can happen in the spring of 2010. We need to have a chance to play first, but given that, I am sure we can put up a win for you and our fans.
Teams are listed in reverse order of predicted finish by

Northland Lumberjacks

Head Coach: Steve Fabiilli, 4th year overall and at Northland (7-73-1)
2007-08 Overall Record: 4-23-0
2007-08 MCHA Record: 4-16-0 (7th)
Key Returners: F Nick Matson, so., (10 goals, 6 assists, 16 points); F Jeff Diehl, jr., (3-10-13); D Shaun Newman, so., (1-11-12); F Chad Moore, so., (7-3-10); F Kent Lillejord, so., (4-5-9); D Matt Tanneberg, jr., (2-4-6); G Daniel McIntosh, so., (3-19-0, 5.41 goals against average, .887 save percentage)
Key Losses: F Tony Huberty (5-11-16); D Eric DeCaires (0-3-3); F Zach Kozak (6-6-12); F Ray Tremblay (3-7-10)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Eighth

“Baby steps” is probably an apt word to use when describing the progress head coach Steve Fabiilli is trying to make at Northland.

Though the Lumberjacks only won four games last season, it was four more than the season before and also included the Lumberjacks first weekend sweep in program history.

A bright spot for Northland last season was the play of freshman goaltender Daniel McIntosh. McIntosh picked up three of the four Lumberjack wins last year and posted a save percentage just shy of .890 — not bad for someone facing upwards of 50 shots per game.

“We hope McIntosh can build on that experience he got last year,” said Fabiilli. “He’s the only experienced goalie we have right now, so hopefully Mac can carry the load for us this year while our two freshmen build on getting some experience of their own.”

Northland’s goal output increased by 20 last season, largely thanks to a power play that fired at 18.6% a year ago — up from 7.6% the season prior.

Returning forwards such as juniors Jeff Diehl and Jake Carlson and sophomores Nick Matson and Chad Moore, will be expected to carry some of the load, though Fabiilli expects the Lumberjacks to be a “score by committee” type of team this year.

“I think we’re going to need an overall effort from everyone returning. We have 15 new faces and 11 of those are forwards, so we’re looking for those guys to chip in as much as they can.”

Continuing, “[o]verall in terms of offense though it’s going to have to be a collective team effort with the returning guys building on what they did last year and the new guys getting into the flow of the college game as quickly as they can.”

On the defensive side, junior Matt Tanneberg and sophomore Shaun Newman will be expected to lead Northland blueliners.

It’s been noted in numerous places, but despite their struggles in recent years, the Lumberjacks play their system well and do not beat themselves. They are also one of the least penalized teams in the league.

Northland took some small steps in the right direction last year, and eventually a series of small steps will add up to a significant leap. For now however, Fabiilli is focused on continuing forward one step at a time.

“We want guys who are going to make a four year commitment and buy in to what we are trying to do here. Last year we scored more than we did the previous year, our penalty kill was better, our power play was better and our defense was better. It’s going to take some time and these guys know that. We just have to keep moving forward.”

Concordia-Wisconsin Falcons

Head Coach: Tony Hrkac, 2nd season overall and at Concordia (2-25-0)
2007-08 Overall Record: 2-25-0
2007-08 MCHA Record: 2-18-0 (8th)
Key Returners: F Sam Aide, sr., (9-9-18); F Jonathan Smith, so., (6-7-13); D Jari Sanders, so., (5-6-11); F Michael Turbitt, so., (5-6-11); D Alec Michael Kautzman, jr., (5-5-10)
Key Losses: None
2008-09 Projected Finish: Seventh

It doesn’t really come as a surprise that the Falcons went through some difficult times last year, but that is to be expected for a first year program.

The question now is where do they go from here?

Head coach Tony Hrkac spoke last season as to how the Concordia position was his first coaching job ever and how the season was as much a learning process for him as it was for his team.

Now with a year under their collective belts, Hrkac and the Falcons look to improve on last season’s performance.

“I think we picked up a couple of players that could help us this year,” he said. “Unlike last year where I had to bring in 30 guys all at once, now I can focus on maybe bringing in a few quality players here and there, so now it’s more about quality than it is quantity.”

“As far as the team itself is concerned,” he continued, “I think we’ve upgraded a bit from last year, especially in the goaltending area. Some of our new guys have some college hockey experience and the guys we have coming back are a little bit older now.”

And Concordia’s netminders could very well end up paying some huge dividends. After two years playing club at MSU-Bottineau and one year at UM-Crookston, senior goaltender Eric Everson has joined the Falcons for his final year of collegiate hockey.

When asked if Everson was going to be the Falcons’ number one heading into the season, Hrkac’s reply was a simple one.


On the blueline, Hrkac expects significant contributions from sophomores Jari Sanders and Alec Michael Kautzman.

Hrkac also singled out some forwards that he expects to help lead the Falcons’ attack this season.

“Of course we have our captain Sam Aide,” he said. “Niclas Soderberg will help a lot. He’s very good offensively, he knows the game, and he’s more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, but he should be able to set guys up so hopefully they can bury it.”

He added, “Jon Smith is another guy and I’ve also really noticed a big improvement in Adam Domaas and Eric Domaas. They worked real hard over the summer and hopefully give us a little more scoring this year.”

This will likely be another tough season for the Falcons, but if they follow the models laid out by other new programs like Neumann and Castleton, this year should certainly be better than last.

“We’re still building and we know it will be a tough year for us, but I think we’ve improved from last year and hopefully we’ll improve in the standings as well.”

Minn.-Crookston Golden Eagles

Head Coach: Gary Warren, 8th season overall and at Minn.-Crookston (72-104-13)
2007-08 Overall Record: 6-21-0
2007-08 MCHA Record: 5-15-0 (6th)
Key Returners: D Matt Marchel, jr., (3-8-11); F John Lombardi, jr., (6-2-8);
Key Losses: F Matt Hann (12-9-21); F Teal Plaine (5-15-20); F Ryan Tucker (10-6-16); D Brett Groenke (2-7-9); G Eric Everson (6-13-0, 3.82, .898); F Alex Maginnis (13-4-17); F Jared Kropp (4-5-9)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Sixth

From 2002-05 the Golden Eagles were the class of the MCHA. Over that span they posted an overall record of 45-30-8 and won two MCHA playoff championships.

Over the past three seasons, however, Crookston has posted an overall record of 19-55-5 and has failed to win a MCHA playoff game.

If they wish to rebound this season it won’t be easy, as they lose their top three — and four of their top six — scorers to graduation. Netminder Eric Everson emerged as Crookston’s number one goaltender last season, but Everson will also not return having transferred to division rival Concordia-WI for his senior season.

All told, no one is quite sure what to make of the Golden Eagles. For a host of reasons, 21 players who saw ice time last year do not return this season.

Included in that mix are nine of its top 11 scorers a year ago, as well as all three goaltenders.

The Golden Eagles do return a few familiar faces in junior defenseman Matt Marchel and junior forward John Lombardi.

Aside from that however, the Golden Eagles are a complete question mark entering the season.

It will be interesting to see what kind of story they write.

Finlandia Lions

Head Coach: Joe Burcar, 7th season overall and at Finlandia (60-56-7)
2006-07 Overall Record: 18-9-2
2006-07 MCHA Record: 14-6-0 (2nd)
Key Returners: F Keith Johnstone, sr., (7-13-20); F Corey Blake, sr., (12-8-20; G Ryan Donovan, so., (12-5-1, 2.65, .890); D Tiger Marcotte, sr., (6-14-20); D Blake Miller, sr., (3-9-12)
Key Losses: F Josh Paquette (8-28-36); F Mike Parks (16-20-36); F Ryan Sullivan (17-14-31); F Travis Hanson (10-7-17); D Brad VanTassel (4-2-6); F Joe Beaudry (17-15-32); D Ross Rouleau (7-18-25)
2007-08 Projected Finish: Fifth

Teams are always in a state of flux, and eventually most run into the inevitable “rebuilding” year. Though that is the case, there might not even be a word to accurately describe the overhaul the Lions have undergone this off-season.

Gone to graduation is the core of the team that led Finlandia to the Harris Cup two years ago. Additionally, seniors-to-be forward Ryan Sullivan and defenseman Ross Rouleau made jumps to the pro ranks, while forward Joe Beaudry graduated in only three years.

All told, Finlandia loses 12 players who accounted for 205 of the Lions’ 291 points of offense last year. They also lose a handful of top defensemen.

As one of Finlandia’s strengths has been its experience over the past few seasons, head coach Joe Burcar knows he is treading in new water this time around.

“With a total of 14 players not returning, that really changes the personality and even the talent level of our team in some ways,” said Burcar. “We’ve been an offensive team the past few years but we lost a lot of guys. At the same time we are pretty excited about some of the new guys we brought in.”

As far as what Finlandia does have returning, they look to be led up front by senior forwards Keith Johnstone and Corey Blake.

Defensively, the Lions do return seniors Tiger Marcotte and Blake Miller, so some weapons will be back and the cupboard is not completely dry.

Among the newcomers Burcar expects to contribute immediately are freshman forward Eric Schultz and junior defenseman Quinn McIntosh.

“They were teammates at MSU-Bottineau,” said Burcar. “The won a national championship last year and I think they are guys who can step in the lineup right away and do a lot of good things for us.”

One of the places the Lions might be most solid is between the pipes. Ryan Donovan won the starting role as a freshman last year and hits the ice for his sophomore campaign with the number one goaltending position as his to lose.

“He’s the number one guy but he has some competition from freshman Mike Wuthrich right now. He (Wuthrich) is a local boy that played in Ontario last year and he’s doing some good things but Donovan is the number one right now,” explained Burcar.

It should be an interesting year for the Lions as despite the holes they must fill as they are only a season removed from winning the Harris Cup, and only seven months from dropping the Harris Cup championship game, 1-0, in overtime to Adrian.

“With 14 new guys we aren’t changing everything,” said Burcar. “But we are tweaking our systems a little bit, if that’s even the right way to say it. We’re making some adjustments and we’ll see where that goes.”

Lawrence Vikings

Head Coach: Mike Szkodzinski, 3rd year at overall and at Lawrence (23-28-5)
2007-08 Overall Record: 10-14-3
2007-08 MCHA Record: 10-9-1 (5th)
Key Returners: F Marc Howe, jr., (17-16-33); F Nick Jennette, sr., (18-13-31); F Josh DeSmit, so., (10-19-29); F Matt Jacobs, so., (9-13-22); D Mike Ackley, sr., (3-14-17); D Cody Garrett, so., (1-10-11); G Evan Johnson, so., (5-11-3, 3.81, .876)
Key Losses: D Josh Peterson (6-20-26); D Austin Montgomery (0-5-5); F Neil Wallace (5-6-11)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Fourth

When head coach Mike Szkodzinski took over the Lawrence program three years ago he talked numerous times about the desire to instill a culture of excellence both on the ice and off.

Lawrence has progressed nicely on the ice, finishing 10-9-1 in the league last season, and though it returns a solid score of players, Szkodzinski understands his program is in the midst of a long-term process and that success will not some easy.

“You can’t put a price on experience,” he said. “We still don’t have a lot of that. We brought in 12 more new guys this year so experience will once again be a factor for us until later in the season.”

Like Finlandia, Lawrence plays in the MCHA North Division which on paper looks to be weaker than a South Division that includes MSOE, Adrian and Marian. Though the North looks to be a two team race between Lawrence and Finlandia, Szkodzinski isn’t sold on that one bit.

“It doesn’t matter who it is. Crookston, Northland and Finlandia are all very competitive teams — especially when there are two conference points on the line,” said Szkodzinski.

He added, “We’ve also bumped up our non-conference schedule this year, so to be honest I think our level of competition has actually increased this year.”

The Vikings’ mettle will certainly be tested in non-conference action as they will take on St. Norbert twice, Bethel, St. Scholastica and Lake Forest.

As far as the team itself, Lawrence’s offense will be led by a pair of returning upperclassmen in senior Nick Jennette and junior Marc Howe. Both scored over 30 points last season.

“I like what we have up front right now,” said Szkodzinski. “Masa Takahashi is a guy I look to have a very good year as he came in in phenomenal shape. Aaron Lafave and Josh DeSmit are guys that have a lot of potential to really help us out.”

As Szkodzinski is a protégé of St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin, it’s no surprise he places a premium on defense. The Vikings’ defense allowed 3.93 goals last season, which to Szkodzinski is simply too many. In an attempt to stiffen up defensively, he pointed to senior Mike Ackley and sophomore Cody Garrett as leaders on the Vikings’ blueline.

One area the Vikings might have found an answer it net. After rotating between junior Jim Ryan and freshman Evan Johnson early last season, Lawrence settled on Johnson down the stretch. Now a sophomore, Szkodzinski says the job is Johnson’s to lose.

“As of right now Evan Johnson has separated himself from our other two goaltenders,” said Szkodzinski. “The other two have had their moments and I expect both to be ready to play but at this time Johnson is our number one.”

Lawrence should be an interesting team to watch as there is no question it has made significant strides under Szkodzinski. The rise to the top takes time, though how much time? Will Lawrence be able to start beating the likes of Finlandia, MSOE, Marian and Adrian on a regular basis? Time will tell.

Milw. School of Engineering Raiders

Head Coach: Mark Ostapina, 14th season overall and 8th at MSOE (162-169-14 overall, 99-85-6 at MSOE)
2007-08 Overall Record: 15-13-0
2007-08 MCHA Record: 11-9-0 (4th)
Key Returners: F Michael Soik, so., (20-15-35); F Steve Smiddy, jr., (13-11-24); F Simon Labrosse-Gelinas, sr., (5-16-21); D Jason Woll, sr., (4-13-17); D Jason Yolo, sr., (8-6-14); G Chris Keller, so., (11-10-0, 3.57, .882)
Key Losses: F Lee Swallow (9-31-40); F Blair Hanberg (9-12-21); D Ken Walters (3-8-11); D Ross Chawansky (0-0-0); F Matt Fastelin (7-6-13)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Third

Last year Marian was my MCHA sleeper team. This year, I’ll get it out of the way early: it’s MSOE.

It’s hard to call MSOE a sleeper as they are three-time MCHA regular season and two-time Harris Cup champions, but as Adrian and Marian look to be the top two teams in the league, MSOE appears to be the most likely to give them a run.

If the Raiders do wish to make a run at the top of the league, they will have to find a way to replace the scoring of Lee Swallow and Blair Hanberg, two names well-known to MCHA aficionados.

“I think Michael Soik is a guy we’re going to look to pick that up,” said MSOE head coach Mark Ostapina. “He was on our first line as a freshman last year we feel he’s going to do it there. Steve Smiddy is another guy that we’re looking to pick it up more than he did last year.”

He added, “The new kid Brock King from Alberta is a kid that definitely has a scoring touch and a passing touch and we’re expecting a lot from him.”

The Raiders do look to be in decent shape despite the graduations, as Soik and Smiddy were the top two goal scorers on last season’s club.

In net, Chris Keller turned in a fine freshman campaign after winning the job early in the season, but the Raiders will turn to freshman Connor Toomey to carry the load early this season.

“Connor Toomey is our number one. There is no question about it,” said Ostapina.

Ostapina also pointed to a few blueliners he expects to turn in solid seasons out in front of Toomey.

“Jason Woll is a captain this year and I’m expecting a lot from him in terms of being a three zone player,” he said. “I think the biggest thing this year is the addition of Michael Johnson from (D-I conference College Hockey America) Air Force. He’s just an incredible gift for us. I think the fact he chose to come here to continue the education he was getting and help us out at the same time is just going to be a key addition for us.”

An interesting thing to note with MSOE, and one of the reasons they absolutely should not be slept on, is that despite finishing fourth in the MCHA last year, it may have been due to circumstances largely out of its control.

“Last year was a year where we had so many injuries. There was one point in time we were actually skating with 16 guys and three goalies,” explained Ostapina. “Last year we had more injuries than we had in my previous six years combined.”

If the Raiders can stay healthy, they do have a few significant losses to overcome, but between their returning talent and a very good recruiting class expect them to be a threat every time they take the ice.

Marian Sabres

Head Coach: Jasen Wise, 5th season overall and at Marian (55-51-7)
2007-08 Overall Record: 17-10-1
2007-08 MCHA Record: 14-5-1 (2nd)
Key Returners: F James Goodfellow, sr., (11-22-33); F Todd Collins, so., (10-16-26); F Nick Cinquegrani, jr., (12-12-24); F Brendan Hull, so., (12-11-23); D Jeffrey Wills, sr., (8-10-18); D Brandon Blair, so., (6-11-17); D Gregory Copeland, sr., (1-9-10); G Jason Jadczak, sr., (11-4-0, 2.54, .916)
Key Losses: F Carl Bresser (24-11-35)
2008-09 Projected Finish: Second

As mentioned, in last season’s MCHA preview I suggested Marian could be a sleeper come league play. I underestimated them.

The Sabres placed second in the league and their 17-10-1 season was their best ever under Jasen Wise. Marian handed Adrian its only loss in conference play and would have done it twice were it not for a furious late third period comeback that propelled Adrian to an overtime win in the team’s fourth and final meeting of the season.

No matter how one draws it up, Marian is for real.

When Wise took over behind the Sabres’ five years ago he had a severely shortened bench. In fact, that season Marian had a total of 19 skaters — three of whom were goalies.

A couple of recruiting classes later the roster was rounded out and Marian has not only improved dramatically, but amassed invaluable experience along the way.

“We have a lot more experience,” he said. “Guys are a lot more relaxed and we’re able to focus a lot more on hockey now that we have a mostly upperclassmen team.”

The Sabres enter the season with 13 upperclassmen, the most ever under Wise and a far cry from the one they had a mere three years ago.

He added, “Things are a little easier off the ice and the guys are much more prepared on the ice. So from that perspective they are a lot easier to coach.”

Marian does lose its leading scorer in forward Carl Bresser, but aside from that returns all but 10 points of production from last year’s edition.

Wise singled out a pair of sophomore forwards in Todd Collins and Brendan Hull as players who he expects to fill the void Bresser leaves, and also expects a greater contribution from junior forward Nick Cinquegrani following a sophomore campaign that was somewhat less productive than his freshman effort. Freshman forwards Justin Cormier and Adam Freeman also are expected to fit into the picture for the Marian attack.

Marian ranked third in the NCHA with 4.5 goals per game last year, and though they held opponents to 3.15 goals per game, also good for third in the league, defense will be the focus as the Sabres enter this season.

“We wanted to be better defensively,” said Wise. “We recruited some guys I think will help us do that. That’s pretty much our main focus.”

“That being said,” he continued, “this year we will be relying heavily on our senior defenseman. We are counting on their leadership heavily this year.”

The senior blueliners Wise referenced are Jeffrey Wills, Kyle Rasmussen and Gregory Copeland, while junior Nick Henkemeyer and sophomore Brandon Blair also figure to play major defensive roles.

The Sabres began last season using a three goalie rotation, but by the end of the year Jason Jadczak had earned the number one spot. Nothing has changed in this regard, and the senior will begin the season as Marian’s number one goaltender.

“As of right now he is in the number one spot,” said Wise. “We are going to lean heavily on him; he’s a senior. Cullen Caldwell had a career freshman year and has a career save percentage over 90% so he’s a very capable backup at this time. If either one of those two stumble we also have Matt Lyon, a transfer from River Falls, so hopefully he can pick us up if they do stumble.”

Overall, Marian brings a little bit of everything to the table. They have the speed and scoring skill that is well-suited to the Olympic-sized ice sheet they play on, but are not afraid to get physical while bringing a solid defensive presence to the ice.

As far as Marian being a sleeper, forget it, they are a contender. Expect the Sabres to give Adrian and the rest of the MCHA all it can handle.

Adrian Bulldogs

Head Coach: Ron Fogarty, 2nd season overall and at Adrian (26-3-0)
2006-07 Overall Record: 26-3-0
2006-07 MCHA Record: 19-1-0 (1st)
Key Returners: F Adam Krug, sr., (30-47-77); F Shawn Skelly, so., (30-44-74); F Eric Miller, so., (40-29-69); F Brad Houston, so., (21-23-44); F Sam Kuzyk, so., (17-12-29); F Mike Dahlinger, so., (5-19-24); D Quinn Waller, so., (7-39-46); D Chris Stansik, so., (11-23-34); D Jeremy Klaver, so., (7-15-22); G Brad Fogal, so., (20-2-0, 1.87, .926)
Key Losses: None
2007-08 Projected Finish: First

It’s somewhat hard to preview a team like Adrian. By now the stories of the Bulldogs’ inaugural season is known to most, but let us rehash it quickly anyway:

They won the MCHA regular season and playoff titles all while leading the nation in scoring. Adrian’s 26 wins were the most ever for a first year program.

Additionally, Bulldog forwards Adam Krug, Shawn Skelly and Eric Miller were the top three individual scorers in the nation, while defenseman Quinn Waller was the highest scoring defenseman in the country.

Though the accolades did not translate into a NCAA tournament bid, it’s tough to say there is much room for Adrian to improve on last season, but it’s something it plans on doing — especially considering the Bulldogs lost nobody to graduation.

“We are focused — last year is over,” said Bulldog head coach Ron Fogarty. “Our season ended March 9 last year and we’re going to continue now and go after our goal. We have a goal to achieve this year and right now that’s the same goal as every other team in the country.”

Fogarty expects his team to hit the ice skating as unlike last season the Bulldogs know what they are getting into from the get-go.

“We had to learn everything last year through adapting to different situations,” he said. “This year with our experience we want to work on perfecting our game and our systems and go out there and treat every game like it’s our last game.”

Scoring proved to be the least of Adrian’s worries last season as it rolled up 220 goals last season — 100 of which were accounted for by the Skelly-Krug-Miller line. Aside from that trio, the Bulldogs return eight other players who tallied more than 20 points on the season. All but Krug are sophomores.

Sophomore netminder Brad Fogal allowed less than two goals per contest en route to a 20-2-0 record last season. He joined on the defensive side by a defensive unit led by sophomores Quinn Waller, Chris Stansik and Jeremy Klaver, along with junior Eric Roman, a transfer from now-defunct DI Wayne State.

Now that Fogarty fully knows what kind of hand he been dealt, he hopes his team will be better versed at paying attention to the details this season. When asked what the one thing was he hopes his team improves on this season the answer was a concise one:

“Penalty kill.”

He added, “That’s the biggest thing. We gave up too many back door opportunities and goals against. It’s something we have been working on a lot this preseason and it has to get better.”

His concerns are well-warranted as the Bulldogs gave up 26 power-play goals last season, which amounts to almost one per game.

Every year I speculate as to whom the most likely MCHA team to make noise on the national stage will be, and Adrian is certainly the team to watch this year.

The MCHA season comes first and foremost however, and though the Bulldogs will be targeted by every team in the league they are certainly the odds-on favorites to claim their second straight MCHA title.