Ready or not, the 2015-2016 season is here

Shea Tiley (Clarkson - 35). (Shelley M. Szwast)
Shea Tiley will be important if the Golden Knights want to get back to the NCAA tournament. (Clarkson – 35). (Shelley M. Szwast)

The 2015-2016 NCAA hockey season fast approaches. On the Division-I women’s side, we welcome Merrimack, the newest member of Hockey East, bringing the total number of teams competing in D-I conferences to 35.

As is tradition, I will attempt to predict how the standings will finish in each of the four leagues as I preview each conference individually over the next week. How valid will these predictions be? It isn’t exactly like throwing darts at a board; I used to be able to do that with at least some accuracy. These picks — not so much.

Consider College Hockey America. Last season, I correctly named Mercyhurst to finish on top. Hardly noteworthy, given the Lakers always take the top prize in the season race. The only other placement I had correct was Robert Morris in third. After a roller-coaster season, the Colonials rebounded to finish in a third-place tie and garnered the third seed. Among my errors was slotting RIT second; the Tigers wound up dead last. That they bounced back in the postseason to take the CHA tourney and reach the NCAA tournament yielded some measure of vindication, but it also highlights just how misleading pictures painted today will prove to be in five months.

Not that prognostication in the sports world is ever an exact science. For an example outside of hockey, we need look no farther than the Serena Williams loss to Roberta Vinci in a U.S. Open Tennis semifinal. Vinci came into the tournament as a 300-1 underdog to win the title. The odds makers were ultimately proved correct, as Vinci fell in the final to friend and countrywoman Flavia Pennetta, who celebrated her title by announcing her retirement from competition by year’s end. However, few foresaw Williams being stopped short of achieving a Grand Slam by an unseeded opponent.

In fact, count Vinci among those who didn’t expect that she’d defeat the top seed. She was asked immediately after the match, “When you woke up this morning, what gave you the belief that this moment was possible?” Her response was, “No,” with an emphatic shake of her head. Joking? Apparently not. “Really, it’s true,” she continued. Her approach was just to try to enjoy playing in her first-ever singles semifinal at a Grand Slam event. “But I didn’t expect that I won, no.”

So much for the importance of belief in oneself that everyone always claims. However, belief in something obviously matters. Under new coach James Scanlan, Bemidji State, with largely the same roster, improved by 10 wins and finished last season as a ranked team.

Who could replicate that improvement this year? In addition to the new program at Merrimack, there are five other programs with new coaches in place. Both Jenny Potter at Ohio State and Cassandra Turner at Quinnipiac succeed coaches whose coaching style with their players was the major reason they are no longer behind the bench, so a fresh start under a new coach could propel the programs forward. Given the Bobcats and Buckeyes won 26 and 17 games respectively last year, such dramatic gains will be more challenging to achieve. Bob Kenneally at Brown and John Harrington at Minnesota State will also attempt to change the culture of their programs, and the primary hurdles will be overcoming rosters at a deficit to the competition in terms of talent and experience. At Minnesota-Duluth, Maura Crowell takes over the reins of one of the most successful programs in the sport’s brief NCAA history, but little of that glory has been enjoyed by the current roster. In any case, the coaching turnover adds another level of uncertainty to an already murky forecast.

Three of the conferences held teleconferences with their coaches for the media. Their comments will be featured in my league previews, but if you want to know what any coach is thinking in advance of that, the odds are very good that any selected coach mentioned being excited about the start of the season and claimed to really like his/her team. The challenge is to hold onto those feelings if the losses should mount and enjoy the ride, a la Vinci.

Beyond the conference races, which eight teams figure to still be playing when the national tournament commences in March? Half the field is picked by the conference tournaments. The other four are invited by a selection committee guided by the PairWise Rankings. Picking RIT as the team to represent the CHA would have likely been easier to accomplish last September than it was in February, so the five-months-out excuse is less of a factor; tournaments with single-game knockouts will always carry uncertainty. The rankings puzzle will form piece by piece as the season plays out.

The four squads from March’s Frozen Four are ranked at the top of the USCHO Preseason Poll and are decent bets to return. Clarkson, the 2014 NCAA Champion, appears most likely to crash that party. Boston University graduated crucial pieces from its roster, but the Terriers find a way to be involved once the ice shavings settle. So Minnesota, Boston College, Wisconsin, Harvard, Clarkson, and BU appear to be the safest bets for the NCAA Tournament.

Who joins them? I could list half of the remaining teams here. The edge goes to teams such as: Northeastern, if the Huskies can get over the hump in Kendall Coyne’s senior season; North Dakota, if it can eliminate those crippling losses to lower-ranked teams; Quinnipiac, particularly if the Bobcats can find a way to finish as strong as they’ve traditionally started; or Mercyhurst, if the Lakers are rejuvenated after seeing their streak of consecutive NCAA appearances end at 10. We know that at a minimum one CHA team will be included, whether it emerges over the long haul or comes from beyond the radar, as RIT did last season.

September’s final weekend brings a number of exhibitions and the first eight pieces to the NCAA PairWise puzzle. Like the coaches, I’m excited for the season, and so far, I like all 35 teams.