After emerging as powerhouse, NCHC looks to stay there in 2015-16

Minnesota-Duluth enters the 2015-16 season as the favorite in the NCHC (photo: Jim Rosvold).

In just its second season, the NCHC stepped forward as a powerhouse conference in college hockey.

Six of the league’s eight teams advanced to the NCAA tournament, and five played in regional finals. Omaha and North Dakota advanced to the Frozen Four before falling to Providence and Boston University, respectively.

The chance for an all-NCHC Frozen Four was very real. While Providence defeated Denver 4-1 in the regional final, that game was essentially a one-goal contest, decided on a power-play goal during a five-minute major to Joey LaLeggia late in the third, with the final two goals coming into an empty net. Minnesota-Duluth gave up the winning power-play goal with 2:24 left in its regional final against BU.

All of the league’s coaches talk about the grind involved in playing some of the toughest teams in the country week in and week out.

“It gives you more gray hair, I know that,” laughed Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “I think when you have a strong conference and you are playing those opponents, and our team has been doing it for two years, you know how difficult it is. You stay pretty focused as you get prepared. They know there are no easy games.”

Denver sophomore and NCHC rookie of the year Danton Heinen echoed Sandelin: “We think it’s the best conference in college hockey as well. That looks good for you, but you still have to go out and play, so it doesn’t mean much. It’s definitely tough playing all NCHC teams. Every night is a battle and you can’t take any nights off, so it’s a grind, but you want to be playing against the best.”

Looking ahead to the start of the 2015-16 season, all eight teams have some interesting question marks, but most observers expect the NCHC to be standing tall again. Four NCHC teams are in the top 10 of the preseason USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, while Miami was ranked 11th and St. Cloud State ranked 17th.

Will the conference return six teams to the NCAA tournament? Several squads enter with questions marks, whether it’s a new coach at North Dakota, the loss of seven seniors at Denver, the loss of an offensive star at St. Cloud State or the loss of the top two scorers at Miami. The NCHC, however, is what Air Force coach Frank Serratore refers to as a “reload conference.” Six squads back may be tough, but they will all be in contention.

Can Colorado College or Western Michigan finish higher? CC has 14 freshmen and lacked any sort of consistent scoring except for Cody Bradley last season, so the odds are against it. Western Michigan is more likely to challenge St. Cloud, Omaha and Miami in the standings.

Will the Penrose Cup come down to the final week or two of the season? The last two years, the league’s regular season champion has been crowned on the final weekend of the season. With the conference being so competitive, this seems likely again.

Here’s a look at the NCHC’s teams in alphabetical order, with predictions on the regular season finish by Candace Horgan and Matthew Semisch:

Colorado College

Candace and Matthew both pick the Tigers for eighth.

Ten players are gone from last year’s squad, and only some to graduation. The team’s best player, Jaccob Slavin, left early for the NHL, while several others went back to juniors. With 14 freshmen in the lineup, this is a rebuilding year at CC. Read more

Denver

Candace picks the Pioneers for second; Matthew picks them for fifth.

The Pioneers graduated seven important seniors from last year’s team, including All-American defenseman Joey LaLeggia, but with three of their top five scorers back and the same goalies in net, Denver still looks like a tough out. Read more

Miami

Candace picks the RedHawks for sixth; Matthew picks them for third.

Three of the NCHC’s best forwards from last season are gone, but high expectations have again been placed upon the RedHawks. Read more

Minnesota-Duluth

Candace and Matthew both pick the Bulldogs for first.

The Bulldogs return most of their core players, and are older and more experienced. Duluth enters as the favorite, but can it find the needed scoring punch? Read more

North Dakota

Candace picks UND for third; Matthew picks UND for second.

UND has a new coach and several key pieces missing from last season’s team, but plenty of talent remains. Read more

Omaha

Candace and Matthew both pick the Mavericks for fourth.

Question marks surround the Mavericks despite coming off of their first Frozen Four berth and the positivity surrounding the opening of the new Baxter Arena. Read more

St. Cloud State

Candace picks the Huskies for fifth; Matthew picks them for seventh.

The early departure of Jonny Brodzinski is a blow, but the return to full health of several players, plus the continuing strong play of goalie Charlie Lindgren, bodes well for St. Cloud State. Read more

Western Michigan

Candace picks the Broncos for seventh; Matthew picks them for sixth.

The Broncos are young again and lost key pieces to the professional ranks, but Western Michigan is optimistic heading into the new season. Read more

33 COMMENTS

  1. The NCHC is certainly a top notch tough & competitive conference but the “best conference in College Hockey?”
    In the last 8 years, the NCAA Championship has gone to:
    HE = 5
    ECAC = 2
    NCHC = 1 (Minnesota-Duluth)

    • Fact-Free Fred is back. Rather than look at a tournament where a hot goalie or a penalty call can decide a one-and-done tourney, look at the full year records. And by the way, how bad did YOUR ECAC teams suck last year, against terribly weak competition? Since when did you become a HE fan?

      • We (ECAC) did suck last year. Our interconference record sucked, we were 0-3 in the NCAA’s and worse of all, we only scored 4 goals vs 11 scored against us in the tournament. We came close to only getting one team in the tournament.

        • Fred, I was busting your chops a bit concerning the ECAC. One solution to their horrible PWR rankings would be to schedule non-conference games against better teams. Beating up on Bentley, I will await Bentley fans ire, really hurts your PWR. Even losing to a ranked team will often increase your rankings.

      • Fred may be trolling a bit but Hockey East was 12-8-1 against the NCHC last season. I’m not saying HEA is better, but that those two conferences are pretty close.

        • I think one of the problems with Hockey East is that after BU and BC, its easy to forget (at least to me) who else is good in the conference on a year in / year out basis. Plus, BU and BC cast a huge shadow given their histories and the fact they are in major media market.

          Yes — I know Providence won it all last year and was ranked preseason #3 last year. And, Lowell has been very good for a few years.

          Make no mistake, I’m not trying troll or start a conference holy war — just stating an opinion.

          • I didn’t come here to start a conference war, only to read the preview for ONE OF the best conferences in the country.
            The reality is that the NCHC is the best in the west and HEA is the best in the east. I’m glad to see that conference that started the shakeup floundering a bit, while the NCHC can easily beat on anyone west of Buffalo.
            That said, 5 of the last 8 titles, by 3 different schools, is worth pumping out my Hockey East chest about, along with the trail of losing NCHC teams en route to the all HEA final last April.
            Now, of only the HEA could drop the interleague agreement they have now and start hosting more NCHC teams on Comm Ave (and thereabouts,) we could all be happier.

          • John, when you “start hosting” teams on Commonwealth Ave you need to reciprocate at their place every other year. Look at DU’s agreement with BC/BU. You don’t get to host any team at your home every year.

          • The Terriers have gone up to Magness and to the Ralph since the NCHC has started, but I want more. I want to see Omaha and Duluth on Comm Ave, but who am I stuck seeing this year? Michigan! And Wisconsin!

          • The agreement DU has with BC/BU goes way back, not just the 2 NCHC years. Look at the Terriers schedule from 8-10 years ago, you will see DU on it. I agree with you that something should be worked out in the future for other NCHC teams. One trip back east could be done, playing at Kelly one night and Agganis the other. BC and BU could take turns making the return trip.

          • That probably stems back to the HEA/WCHA conference tie-in OofCS agreement from the early 2000s?, if anyone here remembers.

          • Michigan will give you all the offense you can handle, but defensively not so much, should be a high scoring game…. and the Badgers game… yeah, no comment.

          • Sick and tired of this conferences fans downplaying HE. It is always funny to read this stuff. I believe that the NCHC is a great conference, but for these fans to keep on believing that they are superior to Hockey East is a joke. Just BU and BC? Lowell has done very well recently. Maine used to be a power and PC won it all last year. Lowell deserved to be in the NCAA tourney last year yet there were 6 from the NCHC and only 3 from HE. Somehow HE still had the final 2.

        • I agree HE is a very good conference, like Exiled Gopher said, their reputation is mainly due to BU/BC. DU plays one, or both of them every year, and it is a good barometer (though not definitive) of each teams strength. This year we play at BC, then the next night at BU. This was the point I made to Fred on below post. Good teams, and leagues, are not afraid of competition. The NCAA tourney is a tough read with a hot goalie or one penalty often making the difference. Just because a team wins a one-and-done match, does not make them the best throughout the year.

    • Well you obviously left out the best conference cause its not even close… the BIG!0 hands down… best ever… never was and never will there be a better conference then the BIG!0….

        • Rumor has it that George Gwozdecky is just coaching Valor as a stop gap waiting for the Wisconsin Job to open up… Don’t know if its true but wouldn’t be surprised if that actually happens.

          • George is happy now, coaching and mentoring high school students. Guess he didn’t like coaching in the pros, which is why he quit the Lightning. Even though he helped the Badgers win an NCAA title in 1977, I doubt he would take another college job. He has roots in Denver, and with the CCHSA rules he has a chance to make Valor Christian a great hockey school.

          • He most likely will, they are pretty serious about their athletics at Valor Christian. It will be interesting to see what happens with Wisco…

          • He’s not leaving but he is for sure on the hot seat this year if he doesn’t turn it around quickly. Don’t know if you know of the site sbncollegehockey, but they had an article about coaches on the hot seat, but I like their content as much as uscho’s its always good to find some more college hockey websites. I hope DU sweep the sioux this year….. wait I mean north dakota “to be named…”

          • I did read the article you mentioned, “Five Coaches on the Hot Seat”. I disagree that Eaves and Appert’s jobs are on the line. Comparing RPI to Union is apples to oranges. I read an article, think it was on CHN, regarding Eaves situation. Last year he had a ton of freshman, Rumple was only proven player. They could not score goals, and gave little defensive support to one of the best goalies in college hockey. A lot, including me, predict this will be a much better year for the Badgers as the Freshman become Sophomores. As far as the crowds at Kohl, I can remember going there in WCHA days to see DU play and was wondering why there were so many empty seats. This was when Wisconsin had good teams. I also know what it is like when a school lowers their priorities on hockey. DU just gave Tierney a nice 5-year extension. The last 4 years hockey has taken a back seat to lacrosse.

          • Yup it all depends on results, luckily for him he is in the Big10 so a turnaround should in theory be easier then it would have in the old WCHA. Hopefully the gophers will come out to DU next year, thats what I miss about the old WCHA, can’t see my gophers out here on a regular basis. Good luck to DU this year.

          • Totally agree. I miss the old rivalries too. Problem is Minnesota fills up their OOC schedule with “natural” rivalries like UMD, MSU and SCS. Plus, the North Star Cup also includes these teams. A lot of DU fans would love to see a home-and-home with the Gophers get revived.

          • I understand why they play the in state rivals for expense reasons but I think it benefits them to play DU since its always a tough road test.

          • Hard to believe a huge school like Minnesota, with a large athletic budget, would be concerned about the expense of a roundtrip plane fare to Colorado, North Dakota or even back East. You would know better than I, though.

      • If that’s the angle you’re taking, then why even make the statement at all? “NCHC zero titles in last 8 years!… Even though it’s only been around for 2.”

      • Didn’t expect that from you, terrible comparison. Let’s just erase all records before 2006, that way no past or present NCHC team ever won a title.

  2. Over-Rated. Hockey East was the best conference last year and got robbed of at least one spot in the NCAA tournament. Same bullshit will happen this year. Selection process is flawed. See you in March/April.

  3. Let’s be realistic, NO conference deserves six teams in a field of 16. Five is the max, which is huge stretch most years (ie: HEA in 2014). Last two playoff seasons have proved it. 5 of the 6 conferences are ultra competitive, the overall collegiate talent is better, more spread out across the country from decades past.

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