NCHA 2012-2013 season preview: Can anyone dethrone St. Norbert?

For six out of the seven teams in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association, the goal is clear: try to somehow weaken St. Norbert’s grip on the NCHA title.

The Green Knights have won the last three regular season and playoff championships, along with at least a share of the regular season title 10 of the past 11 seasons. The Green Knights are not only the best team in the NCHA, they’re also the top dog in the land, having won back-to-back NCAA Division III titles.

With this season already underway, five of seven NCHA coaches have picked St. Norbert to once again reign as conference champions. Last season, the Green Knights, having lost a boatload of seniors, hardly skipped a beat, finishing 12-4-2, three wins ahead of second place St. Scholastica (9-5-4).

St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin, now in his 20th season guiding the Green Knights, knows it won’t be easy to three-peat as national champions.

“How do you possibly predict other teams’ success?” Coghlin said. “How do you possibly predict how good St. Scholastica is going to be, this year? How do you predict how good Stevens Point’s going to be after they elevated their program to the highest levels it’s been in 10 years?”

That’s where I come in. Here’s where I think each of the seven teams in the NCHA will finish in 2012-13, the final season of the NCHA.

St. Norbert Green Knights
Projected finish: 1st
NCHA Coaches Poll: 1st
Previous season: 1st, 21-5-5, 26 points
Key Players: Cullen Bradshaw (8-22-30), Kyle Stroh (11-18-29), Joe Perry (10-16-26), Reid Campbell, David Jacobson
The Green Knights won’t be lacking in experience, returning 22 letter-winners. Two of those players, junior defenseman Reid Campbell and sophomore goalie David Jacobson, were all-conference selections last season.

Also returning is sophomore Cullen Bradshaw, who finished second in the NCHA in scoring with 30 points. Senior forward Kyle Stroh, who recorded 29 points as a junior, has played in the last three NCAA D-III title games. Junior forward Joe Perry (26 points last season) should complement Stroh and Bradshaw.

“I think you look at our experience level and say, ‘Okay, hindsight tells you that these guys know what it takes to win in those big games, now they have to make those plays,'” Coghlin said.

Defensively, St. Norbert returns its entire blue line, which should protect Jacobson, who had a surprising season a year ago.

“We should be able to keep the puck out of our net and we should be able to defend well and be active with our ‘D.’ I think that’s one of the things we try to do every year,” Coghlin said. “Up front, we’ve got some proven clutch players, like Cody Keefer (senior forward), who had a hat trick in the national championship game; well, that’s about as clutch as it gets.”

Coghlin believes St. Norbert will be able to run four solid lines. He said the Green Knights have added toughness, speed, and skill. Overall, if everything falls into place, the Green Knights will be celebrating another championship in March.

Coghlin knows, however, that all six opponents in the NCHA could challenge St. Norbert every weekend. He called the conference the “deepest league in the country.” Last season, four of the seven teams finished with winning marks, and Wis.-Superior went 10-10-7.

Wis.-Stevens Point Pointers
Projected finish: 2nd
NCHA Coaches Poll: 3rd
Previous season: 4th, 14-11-4, 20 points
Key players: Kyle Heck (20-7-27), Tyler Krueger, Jerry Freismuth, Brandon Jaeger
Heck returns to pace the Pointers again this season. While the Pointers lost second-leading scorer Luke Nesper (18 points) to graduation, Wis.-Stevens Point brings several key players back to a squad that took a step forward last season.

After completing his first season last year, coach Chris Brooks believes his team has reached a comfort level with the direction he’s taking the program in.

“The growth of the identity of our team and really focusing on how we need to prepare and how we need to come to play each night has come into focus for a lot of guys,” Brooks said.

Besides Heck, Brooks will also look to defenseman Tyler Krueger and senior forward and team captain Jerry Freismuth and sophomore forward Scott Henegar to provide leadership and points.

“We need to maintain focus on what we need to do to be successful,” Brooks said. “I think we’ve kind of simplified things; at times, we were being too fancy. We have to stay disciplined in the system and disciplined in staying out of the penalty box.”

In goal, the Pointers will feature all-WIAC netminder Brandon Jaeger, who had a stellar .920 save percentage in 16 games last season.

Brooks hoped to spoil St. Norbert’s banner-raising celebration in their NCHA opener, but fell to the Green Knights on consecutive nights. Stevens Point will get another shot at St. Norbert on Feb. 9 at home.

“We lost to them in the conference championship last year and were a win away from competing in the NCAA tournament,” Brooks said.

Wis.-River Falls Falcons
Projected finish: 3rd
NCHA Coaches Poll: 2nd
Previous season: 16-9-2, 22 points
Key players: Geoff Shewmake (14-9-23), Scott Lewan, George Malliaras
Both Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.-River Falls are primed to take a step up in the conference, so picking which one will finish second is a difficult choice. Expect both to jockey for position throughout the season.

The Falcons, led by veteran coach Steve Freeman, return Geoff Shewmake, a senior forward who led the team with 14 goals last season. In goal, Wis.-River Falls welcomes back junior netminder Scott Lewan, an all-NCHA selection last winter. In 27 games, Lewan posted a .915 save percentage.

On defense, the Falcons return sophomore George Malliaras and senior Jeff Burke, a 6-3, 206-pound force on the blue line.

To assist Shewmake up front, Wis.-River Falls will also look to senior Adam Cardwell and sophomore Alec Hagaman to provide offense. River Falls lost senior forwards Justin Yuel and Justin Brossman, so finding quality replacements will be key to their success.

The Falcons won the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title last season, and could challenge St. Norbert for the NCHA crown in 2013.

Looking ahead to the NCHA season, a key stretch for the Falcons will come early in the year. Wis.-River Falls faces St. Norbert Nov. 9-10, followed by Wis.-Stevens Point Nov. 16-17, both on the road.

Can Wis.-River Falls start this season like it did last season, winning 12 of its first 13 games?

Wis.-Superior Yellowjackets
Projected finish: 4th
NCHA Coaches Poll: 4th
Previous season: 10-10-7, 15 points
Key players: Jeff Forsythe (8-6-14), Pat Dalbec (13-9-22)
While the Yellowjackets finished at .500 overall, they had a 4-7-7 season in the NCHA. Last season, Wis.-Superior didn’t quite have enough firepower to surpass St. Scholastica, who finished second, Wis.-River Falls (third), and Wis.-Stevens Point (fourth). However, the Yellowjackets were pegged to finish fourth among NCHA coaches this season.

Wis.-Superior returns all-NCHA defenseman Jeff Forsythe, a junior from British Columbia. Offensively, the Yellowjackets feature junior forward Pat Dalbec, a Superior native. Last season, Dalbec paced Wis.-Superior with 22 points. Senior forward Kyle Leahy also returns after producing 18 points last winter.

In goal, junior Drew Strandberg should improve this season after a solid campaign (.900 save percentage in 23 games) last season.

In November, Wis.-Superior will have important games with Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.-River Falls that should give us a sense of where this program is heading.

St. Scholastica Saints
Projected finish: 5th
NCHA Coaches Poll: 6th
Previous season: 15-8-5, 22 points
Key players: Brett Corcoran (17-16-33), Tyler Miller (10-16-26)
The Saints didn’t get much love from the NCHA coaches, who picked them to finish sixth in the coaches’ poll. However, last season the Saints were picked to finish last and surprised everyone with a second-place finish.

Can they prove the experts wrong again this season?

Well, dynamic forward Brett Corcoran who led the conference in scoring and was rewarded with an all-NCHA selection, bolsters the Saints. Along with fellow senior Tyler Miller, the Saints should be solid up front. Sophomore Dave Williams should also provide an offensive spark.

In goal, St. Scholastica will look to junior Colin Rundell, who finished last season with 655 saves, second best in the NCHA.

Defensively, St. Scholastica lost second-team all-American defenseman Austin Brown, but welcome Brenden Kotyk, a 6-5, 225-pound freshman.

Looking at the schedule, the Saints will have pivotal games with St. Norbert in late December and Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.-River Falls in January.

Wis.-Eau Claire Blugolds
Projected finish: 6th
NCHA Coaches Poll: 5th
Previous season: 13-12-3, 12 points
Key players: Jordan Singer, Kurt Weston, Bryce Wilcox
While the Blugolds finished with a winning record overall, they only mustered a 5-11-2 mark against NCHA foes.

The Blugolds welcome back junior Jordan Singer, an all-conference selection in 2011-12. Wis.-Eau Claire could also get a boost from David Donnellan, who joined the program after stints in the USHL and at Division I Western Michigan. Senior forward Kurt Weston should also provide offense.

Defensively, at 5-9 and a shade above 150 pounds, senior Bryce Wilcox isn’t imposing, but he can hold his own along the blue line.

This season, a key stretch for the Blugolds comes early when they face St. Scholastica and St. Norbert in back-to-back road series during the first month of the season.

Wis.-Stout Blue Devils
Projected finish: 7th
NCHA Coaches Poll: 7th
Previous season: 8-17-2, nine points
Key players: Jordan Tredinnick, Kevin O’Donnell, Zach Vierling
The Blue Devils will have to replace forward Branden Gay, their leading scorer from last winter.

Wis.-Stout is young, but with underclassmen forwards Zach Vierling and Kevin O’Donnell, the future looks promising. Junior forward Mike Hartviksen produced 20 points last season and showed potential.

On defense, sophomore Jordan Tredinnick was named to the all-NCHA rookie squad last season.

The question is, who will serve as the Blue Devils’ main goaltender? Last season, Wis.-Stout split time between seniors Tom Lescovich and Nick Hopper. Hopper had a slightly higher save percentage (.902) than Lescovich (.891).

The schedule makers were kind to the Blue Devils. After beginning the season with three road games, Wis.-Stout’s next road game won’t be until Dec. 7 at Wis.-Stevens Point.