NCHA Season Preview

For the past nine seasons, the NCHA has been a modicum of stability. It has been a highly competitive eight team league with a balanced 14 game league schedule and a nice symmetrical playoff bracket.

Though there is no question the league will remain as competitive as ever this season, it’s time to throw everything else out the window as Lake Forest’s move from the MCHA this offseason has forced some necessary alterations regarding how the league conducts some its operational activities. Both changes have been met with across-the-board approval by the NCHA brass.

Welcome Back

Long time NCHA aficionados no doubt recall the days when teams played two game weekend series against the same opponents. Well, after 10 years of the old “travel partner” system, those days are back.

Now with only seven teams in the league, the NCHA considered two options as far as scheduling was concerned: A 12 game conference schedule consisting of seven home-and-home series, or an 18 game schedule in which teams would meet three times each season. The NCHA chose the latter, and with it comes the return of two-game weekend sets.

The logistics of it are quite simple. This (almost) goes for any two teams, but using Superior and River Falls as examples, this season the Falcons will play a two game set in Superior while the Yellowjackets will play a single contest in River Falls. Next year it will be the opposite as the Falcons will host the series.

The one exception to this is Stout and Eau Claire who will play a home-and-home series in lieu of a two-game set hosted at a single institution.

This nod to the old days has been met with widespread approval across the league as it is expected to ramp up the intensity level a bit while also offering coaches the ability to game plan for only a single opponent in some weekends.

“I think it really stokes the fire for the rivalries again,” said River Falls head coach Steve Freeman. “We had it many years ago and it was very interesting. I think it might make it better for the coaches as far as preparation as well.”

“It’s been awhile since we’ve had this and maybe I have a little bit of mixed feelings about it,” added Superior’s Dan Stauber. “But I do believe that in a conference you need more conference games. It’s going to be different in that I think it offers a little more strategy for the coaches for a weekend. Also, it offers us the ability to get in a little more preparation per the team we are playing that week. It’s going to be interesting for the league and to see how it shakes out in terms of the standings and rankings. “

Looking to mark your calendar for when your favorite team will be hosting a series? Here they all are:

Eau Claire hosts: River Falls (11/13, 11/14); St. Norbert (1/15, 1/16); St. Scholastica (1/22, 1/23).
River Falls hosts: St. Norbert (11/20, 11/21); Stout (12/11, 12/12); Stevens Point (1/22, 1/23).
St. Norbert hosts: Stevens Point (11/13, 11/14); St. Scholastica (12/4, 12/5); Superior (1/22, 1/23).
St. Scholastica hosts: Stout (11/13, 11/14); Superior (12/11, 12/12); River Falls (1/15, 1/16).
Stevens Point hosts: St. Scholastica (10/30, 10/31); Superior (12/4, 12/5); Eau Claire (12/11, 12/12).
Stout hosts: St. Norbert (10/30, 10/31); Stevens Point (11/20, 11/21).
Superior hosts: River Falls (10/30, 10/31); Eau Claire (11/20, 11/21); Stout (1/15, 1/16).

To the Winner Go the Spoils

With only seven teams in the league, it’s obvious that the old eight team playoff format is no longer a possibility. All teams will still make the playoffs, but the stakes have been raised, as the regular season league champion will now receive a bye into the conference semifinals.

The remaining six teams will still play quarterfinal series with the higher seeded teams continuing to host first-to-three-point series.

It seems like a rather large perk to have one team bypass what as of late have been brutal opening round series, but it’s one that has no doubt been earned — especially considering the more grueling conference schedule facing teams this season.

“It certainly makes that top spot a lot more attractive,” said Freeman. “Not only do you avoid the first series which would be tough no matter whom you play, now you only have to play two games to get to the national tournament and both are at home so it’s a huge advantage.”

NCHA coaches acknowledged this setup was the only way to ensure that all seven teams still qualified for the postseason — something they viewed as being essential considering the overall balance of the league as well as the slew of opening round upsets that have occurred over the past few seasons.

“I think every team in our conference needs to be in the playoffs,” said Eau Claire head coach Matt Loen. “There is no better way to do it than to give the regular season champs the bye. The unfortunate part is that maybe they have to take a week off and play that semifinal game, but at the same time if you win the NCHA I think your chances of getting a NCAA bid are pretty good.”

“If you look at the upsets of the last three years, I think the main focus behind this decision is that every team needs to be in the playoffs.”

These predictions (in reverse order of finish) are for entertainment purposes only and are likely in no means an accurate reflection of the reality that will unfold. After all, twice in the past three seasons my sixth place selection has won 20-plus games . . .

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds

Head Coach: Matt Loen, 3rd year overall and at Eau Claire (24-29-2).
2008-09 Overall Record: 13-13-1.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 3-10-1 (7th) .
Key Returnees: G Tyler Brigl, sr., (11-12-1, 2.40, .902); F Joe Bluhm, sr., (14-6-20); F Brant Marple, sr., (4-14-18); F Nic Weight, so., (5-4-9); D D.J. Clark, sr., (7-9-16); D Tyler Trudell, sr., (3-6-9); D Bryan Plaszcz, sr., (3-4-7).
Key Losses: F Sean Garrity (12-14-26); F Jesse Vesel (7-15-22); F Andrew Johnson (4-8-12); D Greg Petersen (5-13-18).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Seventh.

Like most everyone else in the NCHA, Eau Claire has improved every season for the better part of the last five years. Like some others, however, that improvement has not been enough to leapfrog some of the more traditional powers in the standings. The Blugolds are hoping that a blend of youth and experience will be enough to make the difference this time around.

“We’re going to be a young team,” said Blugolds head coach Matt Loen. “Half of our team are freshmen so they will be expected to contribute. We’ll see though, as it’s easy to say that now in practice, but when we are playing ranked teams every week that’s when we’ll know for sure if they are the ones.”

Where the Blugolds will be experienced this year is in net. Tyler Brigl is back for his senior campaign and has seen action in 51 games over the past few seasons, with a save percentage over 90 in both years.

“It’s Tyler’s job to lose,” said Loen. “He had a great season two years ago and had a good season last year, but he’s experienced and has played 90 percent of our games the last two years so we are looking for a big season from him.

“With that said, we brought in Scott Pederson (who is a transfer from St. Mary’s) and I expect him to compete for the job, too.”

The Blugolds have been one of the better defensive teams in the league over the past few seasons, having conceded only 2.59 goals per game last season despite finishing seventh in the league.

Seniors D.J. Clark, Brian Plaszcz, and Tyler Trudell, along with junior Jon Kearns, all return to lead the defensive corps.

“From there, it’s a point of emphasis for us — getting more goals and creating more offense. I think we are probably one of the better teams in the league defensively, but we have to figure out a way to create offense,” said Loen.

With the defense in good hands, offense has been getting most of the attention from the coaching staff, as the Blugolds ranked sixth in the league in scoring a year ago. Complicating matters is the fact that they graduated three of their top four, and four of their top seven scorers from a year ago.

Senior forwards Joe Bluhm and Brant Marple are expected to lead the attack. Big things are expected from Marple, a former D-I transfer, in particular.

“There are tendencies from our point of view that these Division I transfers don’t expect the hockey to be as good as it is. They think they are going to come and rip it up at our level but spend the first year getting a feel for what this league and level is like, so I’m expecting a lot more production from him this year,” said Loen.

Loen also pointed to a quartet of freshman in Jordan Singer, Travis Peckscamp, Eric O’Hearn and Kurt Weston that are all expected to contribute offensively.

With a veteran goalie and an experienced defensive unit all returning for the Blugolds this season, they once again look poised to finally make the jump they have been striving for the past few seasons — provided they can find just enough offense.

“We need to find a way to get some timely goals,” Loen said. “We’re always in those 2-1 and 3-2 type games, and if we can just get some timely goals while continuing to play our style of game we’ll be alright.”

University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons

Head Coach: Steve Freeman, 14th season overall and at River Falls (246-113-27).
2008-09 Overall Record: 10-15-2.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 4-9-1 (6th) .
Key Returnees: F Tyler Czuba, sr., (12-5-17); F Ben Beaudoin, so., (5-12-17); F Grant Everett, so., (4-13-17); F Jamie Ruff, jr., (7-7-14); F Nolan Craner, jr., (5-8-13); G Bo Storozuk, jr., (1-5-0, 2.87, .898).
Key Losses: G Stephen Ritter (9-10-2, 2.65, .921); F Derek Hansberry (16-9-25); F Dustin Norman (3-5-8); D Josh Meyers (1-5-6).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Sixth.

Victim to injuries and youth a year ago, River Falls was never able to overcome a 1-6-1 start to the season. The end result was a 4-9-1 sixth place finish in the NCHA — unfamiliar territory for the Falcons.

“We got out of the gates slow and took too many penalties and that sort of thing,” said Falcons head coach Steve Freeman. “Then we got on a roll and won seven or eight in a row in the middle of the season, but at the end of the season we had some real impact players out of the lineup and it really hurt.”

Following a 7-1 stretch in December and January, the Falcons posted a 2-8-1 mark down the stretch and were swept by St. Scholastica in an opening round playoff series.

River Falls is a year older and wiser now, however, and looks to improve on last season’s somewhat disappointing campaign.

With goaltender Stephen Ritter leaving the university for the pro ranks, junior Bo Storozuk returns and will look to grab the number one spot. A transfer a year ago, Storozuk saw limited time due to injuries, but performed admirably in 2006-07 as he faced an incredible 1,091 shots at Northland.

“We like him as a veteran and he played well when we was healthy last year. We also have another kid in Erik Babcook who played at [Division I Alaska] last year. We feel pretty good about our goaltending situation.”

Up front the Falcons lost 25 point scorer Derek Hansberry to graduation but will return just about everybody else. Seniors Tyler Czuba and Jordan McIntyre, juniors Jamie Ruff and Nolan Craner, and sophomores Sean Roadhouse, Ben Beaudoin and Nolan Craner are all expected to be major contributors.

The attack will also feature the return of juniors Jason Yuel and transfer Josh Calleja. Yuel missed significant time due to injury last season, but tallied 46 points as a freshman at Curry two years ago. Calleja, meanwhile, took last season off but was University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s leading scorer two seasons ago.

Senior Sean Pettinger, junior Jon Halstenson and sophomore Tyler Pederson all return to anchor the Falcons’ blueline, but Freeman expects an improved corps this season thanks to some of the incoming recruits.

“We wanted to get a little more mobile on the backside and I definitely think we were able to do that. I also think we’ve added a little depth,” he said.

Last season’s 10-15-2 finish was, believe it or not, the Falcons’ first losing season since they finished 6-17-1 in 1991-92. As last year was a clearly a rebuilding year, Freeman expects much better results this time around — even if they are flying a bit under the radar.

“I think we had 11 freshmen playing for us last year, so with the experience we have coming back and with some of the mobility we have added we want to try to finish in the top half for sure. I think we might be a bit of a dark horse but I think that’s realistic for us.”

St. Scholastica Saints

Head Coach: Mark Wick, 5th season overall and at St. Scholastica (66-60-17).
2008-09 Overall Record: 20-7-2.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 9-4-1 (3rd).
Key Returnees: F Jeremy Dawes, so., (10-19-29); F Jordan Chong, sr., (13-11-24); F Carter Davis, so., (4-8-12); D Jordan Baird, sr., (4-11-15); D Dustin DeGagne (1-11-12); D Chris Meagher, sr., (3-2-5); D Rob Rodgers, sr., (1-4-5).
Key Losses: G Steve Bounds (18-7-2, 1.84, .938); F A.J. Tucker (16-15-31); F Joey Martini (15-15-30); F Trevor Geiger (12-16-28); F Matt Stengl (4-8-12); D Kelly Reynolds (0-2-2).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Fifth.

The Saints enter the year coming off one of the finest seasons in school history. Their third place finish last season was their highest ever in the NCHA, and along with it came a NCAA tournament appearance. Though the Saints dropped a 2-1 quarterfinal game at Stout, the season was the culmination of a plan initiated by Mark Wick some four years prior.

Now, for the first time in the Wick era, the Saints face significant turnover as his inaugural recruiting class has graduated.

Perhaps the most significant loss to graduation is that of goaltender Steve Bounds. Not only did he start every game a year ago for the Saints, but he posted an amazing 1.84 goals against average while stopping nearly 94% of the shots he faced.

This year, the goaltending duties will be handled by senior Zach Kleiman and freshmen Patrick Sullivan and Kyle Moody. Despite being a senior, Kleiman has only seen action in 11 career games. He holds a 3-2-0 overall record.

The Saints also lost three of their top four scorers: A.J. Tucker, Trevor Geiger and Joey Martini, who combined for 89 points a year ago.

Senior Jordan Chong and sophomore Jeremy Dawes return to lead the Saints offense; both scored over 20 points a year ago. Seniors Aaron Spotts and Jeff Gagnon, along with sophomore Carter Davis, are also expected to play significant roles.

On the back end, the Saints lost only one defenseman to graduation and return the bulk of a defensive unit that allowed a paltry 2.00 goals per game — tops in the NCHA.

A very experienced unit, the Saints defense will feature five seniors: Jordan Baird, Dustin DeGagne, Chris Meagher, Rob Rodgers, and Neil Sauter.

Though the Saints return enough firepower that they are certainly not facing prolonged goal droughts, this season should prove interesting as it’s the first time in four years the Saints hit the ice with a variety of new faces. In all, the club will feature 12 newcomers.

As evidenced by their sixth place selection in the NCHA Preseason Coaches’ Poll, not many are expecting the Saints to be quite the force they were last season, but if this recruiting class is anything like the last large class Wick brought it, they will remain a team to be reckoned with.

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Pointers

Head Coach: Wil Nichol, 3rd season overall and at Stevens Point (29-19-6).
2008-09 Overall Record: 15-10-2.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 6-7-1 (5th) .
Key Returnees: F Jon Madden, so., (17-14-31); F Luke Nesper, so., (11-13-24); F Travis Erstad, so., (10-8-18); F Harrison Niemann, so., (2-4-6); D Garret Suter, jr., (6-12-18); D Creighton Scarpone, sr., (1-4-5).
Key Losses: F Russel Law (16-8-24); F Matt Stendahl (8-13-21); F Sean Fish (7-13-20); F Brett Beckfeld (3-13-16); D Jonathan Ralph (2-13-15); D Tim Manthey (2-12-14).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Fourth.

For the first time in his three year tenure as Pointers head coach, Wil Nichol is faced with the eventual cyclical challenge of college coaches: high turnover.

Gone are 14 players from last season’s opening night roster, 12 of whom were seniors. Considering all five captains from a year ago were among the losses to graduation, it would seem there might be a leadership void entering the season. But Nichol isn’t so sure that is the case considering this season’s captains.

“I love our leaders,” said Nichol. “Tom Upton, Garrett Suter and Creighton Scarpone are great leaders. They’ve been with me for two years and they know exactly what this staff wants from them. At this point it’s almost like autopilot.

“Aside from them, though, we don’t have a lot of juniors and seniors. I think the ones we do have really understand the way we want to do things.”

The Pointers are one of a few NCHA teams to return a goaltender with significant experience. Junior Thomas Speer has already seen action in 43 games in his first two years, though after a sensational freshman campaign he struggled a bit down the stretch a year ago.

Though experience can be invaluable, Nichol says a pair of incoming freshman will push Speer for playing time from day one.

“Nick Graves and Alan Armour are very good goaltenders and they are coming in here to play,” he explained. “I’m not trying to be coy here, but when we hit the ice for practice we really don’t know who our goalie is going to be. It’s a three man race at this point.”

In front of whomever the Pointers settle on in net will be a fairly experienced defensive unit. Upton and Scarpone are now seniors and Suter, a junior, will be expected to anchor a unit that, despite ranking seventh in the NCHA a year ago, conceded fewer than three goals per contest.

Stevens Point lost three of its top five scorers to graduation, but there is still plenty of room for optimism in the Pointer camp when it comes to offense. Sophomore Jon Madden led the team in scoring with 31 points last year, while sophomores Travis Erstad and Luke Nesper also each tallied double digits in goals.

Nichol also identified sophomore forward Harrison Niemann as one who a significant contribution can be expected from despite the fact he saw action in only eight games as a freshman.

“I think Niemann has the potential to have a breakout year,” he said. “He didn’t play until second semester and then he got hurt, but in the games he did play he made an immediate impact so I think he’s someone who might be flying under the radar a little bit.”

What the rest of the Pointers’ attack, it looks like it might be anybody’s guess as eight freshman forwards enter the mix.

The influx of youth will certainly be a constant theme any time the Pointers are discussed this season. Their ability to quickly adapt to the NCHA will also likely be a key component in whether or not the Pointers will score their first top-four NCHA finish — and the home playoff series that comes with it — under Nichol.

“I think every freshman that comes into this league always finds a little bit of a surprise as to how good the hockey is,” said Nichol. “Across the league I think every freshman always has a little bit of a learning curve and some growing pains, no matter what junior league they are from.

“I’m hoping to get contributions from all of them. We need them to because we have so many and I think it’s going to be impossible to have success without them playing a role”

University of Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets

Head Coach: Dan Stauber, 10th season overall and at Superior (184-52-34).
2008-09 Overall Record: 23-4-3.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 11-1-2 (1st).
Key Returnees: F Braden Desmet, sr., (15-20-35); F Chris Wilson, sr., (16-17-33); F Logan Isley, jr., (13-16-29); F Talon Berlando, jr., (11-18-29); D Brian Bina, sr., (1-12-13); D Josh Seifert, sr., (1-3-4).
Key Losses: G Chad Beiswenger (23-4-3, 1.98, .919); F Kevin Huck (8-24-32); F Seth Reda (9-17-26); F Eric Bausano (7-8-15); F Ryan Kuntz (4-10-14); F Rob Turville (6-6-12); D Kent Detlefsen (6-7-13).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Third.

The full body of Superior’s work last season could be described as nothing short of sensational. The Yellowjackets established themselves as elite early in the season and upheld that perception all the way into March. Their 11-1-2 regular season NCHA title was extremely impressive, especially considering no one expected a NCHA team to be that dominant last year.

Despite that, the Yellowjackets couldn’t help but be disappointed as they closed out the season with back-to-back home losses; first to Stout in the NCHA title game, and then to eventual national runner-up Gustavus Adolphus in the NCAA quarterfinals.

If the Yellowjackets are looking for a repeat of last year, they will have to fill the gaping void left by the graduation of All-American goaltender Chad Beiswenger.

“It’s a huge loss from a win-loss perspective,” said Yellowjackets’ head coach Dan Stauber. “He was an All-American goalie and when you lose one of those it’s absolutely a concern. That said, we are confident that we have some goalies who can play. The big question is who is going to be consistent and be the number one, and then who is going to battle to try to maintain that.”

As to who will step up and replace Beiswenger, it’s a four man race between senior Mike Rosett, junior Jim Patterson, sophomore Brian Dalbec and freshman Garrett Tinkham. Patterson and Dalbec are transfers.

“It’s goalie by committee maybe for now, but it’s going to be a battle,” said Stauber. “If you look at our track record here, we’ve been able to build confidence in our goalies and they’ve been successful, so we’ll see.”

The Yellowjackets led the league in scoring a year ago and will be led by seniors Braden Desmet and Chris Wilson, as well as juniors Logan Isley and Talon Berlando. Desmet and Wilson both posted over 30 points last season while Isley and Berlando both checked in with 29.

Senior Brian Bina will lead the Superior blueliners and will joined by fellow seniors Art Clark and Josh Seifert, along with junior John Dvorak. Freshman D-men Casey Dion, Derek Stauber and Chad Blanleil are all also expected to compete for playing time.

The pieces are there for the Yellowjackets to have another fine season, but one item of note is that all three captains from a year ago also graduated, and the importance of their senior leadership cannot be underestimated when it comes to its impact on Superior’s success last season.

“It’s still being developed and it’s an ongoing process,” said Stauber. “With Bina and [Tyler] Fletcher being captains and our team as young as it is, it’s still a building process and a learning process for everyone, but I think we are going in the right direction.”

The bottom line is that if Superior can find a way to replicate last season’s leadership, can get anything close to last season’s goaltending, and can get significant contributions from its freshman, the Yellowjackets should once again be a NCHA power.

“[Our freshman] have to have an impact — we have ten of them. They are going to see ice time and they are going to have to take care of business when they are out there,” said Stauber.

“We have high expectations, but we’ve got to take it one night at a time and not worry about trying to duplicate last year.”

St. Norbert Green Knights

Head Coach: Tim Coghlin, 17th season overall and at St. Norbert (341-100-36).
2008-09 Overall Record: 19-8-1.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 8-5-1 (4th) .
Key Returnees: G Blake Bashor, jr., (10-6-1, 1.93, .914); B.J. O’Brien, jr., (9-2-0, 2.57, .896); F Matt Boyd., sr., (5-20-25); F Shane Wheeler, sr., (11-17-28); F Tyler Allen, sr., (10-10-20); F Brandon Longley, jr., (10-6-16); F Scott Pulak, jr., (5-15-20); D Nick Tabisz, jr., (11-17-28); D Jason Nopper, sr., (3-7-10); D Sam Tikka, sr., (3-6-9); D Adam Hammerbeck, jr., (0-2-2).
Key Losses: F Ryan Petersen (5-12-17); F Steven Sleep (2-11-13); F A.J. Gale (19-11-30).
2009-10 Projected Finish: Second.

The Green Knights finished last season 19-8-1 and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. Included in that season was an 8-5-1 fourth place finish in the NCHA. Not a bad season…unless your name is St. Norbert.

It was the first time the Green Knights failed to make the NCAA tournament since 2001 and was even more disappointing considering they returned the bulk of the squad that claimed the 2008 national championship.

As they try to reclaim a spot atop the NCHA, the goaltending position is one the Green Knights are relatively experienced at relative to most of the NCHA as they return a pair of juniors, Blake Bashor and B.J. O’Brien. Both saw extensive playing time a year ago.

Though somewhat maligned last season, their overall play was not poor, but both suffered from allowing bad goals at times. Green Knights’ head coach Tim Coghlin hopes that problem can be cured by experience.

“I look back at Bounds at Scholastica, Beiswenger at Superior and Koenig at Stout, and I don’t remember those guys as sophomores,” he said. “It’s a position that maybe requires a little more time and attention and mental preparation, so I think that between these guys we’ll have an answer.”

Last season the Green Knights rode a rotation until late in the season, but it never paid the dividends they were hoping for. Coghlin plans on taking a bit different approach this time around.

“The difference this year is that we are going to have an open competition right through this two week period and then were going to start a guy and we’re going to go with him,” he explained.
“I think last year we rotated too long and never got a guy going right away. And we ended up making several goaltending changes at critical times down the stretch. We just can’t afford that kind of situation this year.”

In front of Bashor and O’Brien, St. Norbert returns the bulk of a defense that surrendered a mere 2.21 goals per game a year ago.

Seniors Sam Tikka and Jason Nopper return, as does a quartet of juniors in Mike Bernardy, Dustin Walz, Adam Hammerbeck and Nick Tabisz. Tabisz’ presence is especially valuable as the power-play quarterback’s 28 points a year ago were good for third most on the team.

Coghlin also pointed to a freshman blueliner than he expects to make an immediate impact.

“We’ve got one freshman there, Justin Favreau, who is going to be hard pressed not to play every night. He brings a lot to the table so I expect him to make an impact on the back end.”

On the offensive side, the Green Knights’ 3.89 goals per game last season was their second lowest in the past 14 seasons. Despite losing their top scorer from a year ago, the offensive drop off doesn’t seem to have Coghlin worried.

“When we won it all we won a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games,” he said. “It’s been a lot of years since we’ve been scoring five, six, seven a night. If you look at the league and how competitive it is, I don’t think anyone is looking at putting five on the board.”

Seniors Shane Wheeler, Tyler Allen and Matt Boyd will be expected to carry the offense from day one this season. They are the Green Knight’s top three returning scorers and all were 20 point scorers last season.

Juniors Brandon Longley and Scott Pulak are also expected to figure prominently into the mix, as are freshmen Cody Keefer, Noah Nemgar and Kyle Stroh.

“We have more holes than we anticipated and that’s going to be more opportunity for incoming players,” said Coghlin. “Between now and Thanksgiving we’re going to try to get a look at everyone, so I think everyone should expect to see ice-time.”

Overall, St. Norbert will enter the season with more new faces than many expected, but if defense truly wins championships, the return of two solid goaltenders and a very competent defensive corps might just put the Green Knights in a bit better position than some are expecting considering last season’s fourth place NCHA finish.

University of Wisconsin-Stout Blue Devils

Head Coach: Terry Watkins, 14th season overall and at Stout (163-178-20).
2008-09 Overall Record: 23-6-2.
2008-09 NCHA Record: 10-2-2 (2nd) .
Key Returners: F Derek Hanson, sr., (17-28-45); F Joel Gaulrapp, sr., (21-21-42); F Scott Motz, sr., (14-22-36); D David Larson, jr., (7-13-20); F Andy Sternberg, sr., (9-10-19); D Bobby Kuehl, sr., (2-5-7); F/D Paul Henderson, sr., (8-9-17).
Key Losses: G Matt Koenig (21-5-2, 2.41, .924); F Nick Klaren (8-19-27); F Jeff Wheeler (6-16-22); D Jack Wolgemuth (4-13-17).
2009-10 Projected Finish: First.

Stout’s recent rise to prominence moved a few more steps up the ladder a year ago as the Blue Devils’ not only claimed their first Peters Cup, but also made their first ever appearance in a national semifinal. Though ultimately losing in overtime to Gustavus Adolphus, the experience gained from last season’s run offers nothing but positives as the program now looks forward.

“It helps us in a lot of different ways,” explained Blue Devils’ head coach Terry Watkins. “It helps especially in terms of confidence, recruiting, all the press and those types of things. I think it shows that the kids have believed in the things we’ve been preaching over the past five years. It shows that it works and that can really go a long way.”

Stout’s 10-2-2 NCHA finish a year ago was good for second in the league and the program has posted an impressive 62-20-7 mark over the previous three seasons.

Goaltending is the one real question for the Blue Devils, as they will have to replace Matt Koenig. As a senior, he backstopped Stout in 28 contests a year ago, finishing the season with a 21-5-2 record.

Junior Jesse Pischlar, sophomore Mike Morgan, and freshman Nick Hopper and Tom Lescovich all are in the running for the starting role.

“It looks like Hopper kind of has the inside track right now, but the [others] have been looking very good as well,” said Watkins. “If we can get anything close to what we had last year, I think we’ll be ok. I don’t know if we’ll be as good in goal as we were last year, but if we can get above average goaltending we’ll be fine.”

Despite a handful of losses to graduation, the high scoring Blue Devils should once again be solid up front. They are led by the prolific scoring line of Scott Motz, Joel Gaulrapp and Derek Hanson. As to just how potent those three are, last season they combined for 52 goals, 123 points, 14 game-winning goals and 21 power-play tallies.

While big things are once again expected from that line, Watkins hopes to see a little more balance up front this season.

“We relied on one line too much last season. Everyone knew they were coming and keyed on them. They were pretty beat up by the end of the year, so we’d like to see it be a little more balanced this year.”

Watkins pointed to senior Andy Sternberg and junior Robert Carr as players expected to step up on the offensive end. He also singled out newcomers in freshmen Justin Giles, Joe Knoepke, Garrett Grimstad, Mike Hartviksen, as well as junior D-I transfer Branden Gay as forwards expected to make an immediate impact.

Defensively, the Blue Devils will be hurt by the graduation of All-American Jack Wolgemuth, but return an experienced core including senior Bobby Kuehl and junior David Larson. Ryan Sullivan and Joe Beaudette, a pair of freshman, are also expected to garner significant ice time this season.

All told, the Blue Devils’ stock has been on the rise for the better part of five years, and its price peaked last with a March that included a trip to Lake Placid. If Stout can find an answer in net early in the season, it might be bringing in enough offensive and defensive firepower that another finish at or near the top of the NCHA standings, and perhaps another trip to Lake Placid, could very well be in the cards.

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