WCHA Season Preview: Conference moving forward with Minnesota State, Bowling Green the favorites in ’19-20

 (photo: BGSU Athletics)
Max Johnson led Bowling Green in scoring a season ago and will be a key component to the Falcons’ offense in 2019-20 (photo: BGSU Athletics).

This should be an exciting year in the WCHA.

No, not with how the league shakes out.

Minnesota State has won three of the last six WCHA titles. We expect Mankato to go for its fourth title, or at least compete with Bowling Green or one of the Upper Peninsula teams for the McNaughton Cup.

We say it’s going to be exciting because of all the craziness happening away from the ice.

Raise your hand if you’re a fan of Ferris State or Bemidji State and you’ve actually made it to Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks or Alabama Huntsville to see your team play a road game. Oh, wow, cool. That was, like, six of you who raised your hand.

And that, right there, is why seven of the 10 WCHA teams have banded together to exit the conference following the 2020-21 season. The travel is just too much for the seven Midwestern-based programs to make regular trips to Alaska and Alabama. It’s not good for the hockey players (read: student-athletes), nor is it realistic for most of these schools to continue to budget for that kind of travel. Sure, Bowling Green is a Division I program in all other sports, but most of these schools are D-II at heart. Those budgets aren’t very big to begin with.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Anchorage, Fairbanks and Huntsville coaches and players react to the other seven schools wanting to boot them from the conference. It could make the games a little more interesting to watch. Or at least we hope.

As if that wasn’t enough of an offseason eye-opener, the Alaskan government is trying to make huge budget cuts to get its finances back on solid footing. For the time being, both the Anchorage and Fairbanks hockey programs are safe and shouldn’t face any immediate cuts. For the time being, though. Who knows what will happen in 2020? Here’s hoping the hockey tradition can continue in The Last Frontier.

Two other shakeups have caught our eye this season.

After Bowling Green gave MSU everything it had in the WCHA championship, losing just 3-2 in overtime, it got its first NCAA tournament berth since 1989-90. So, naturally, it only made sense for coach Chris Bergeron to jump ship in the off-season after nine seasons and take over his alma mater, Miami, which hasn’t been above .500 since 2014-15.

The Falcons have done a wonderful job of reloading, and first-year coach Ty Eigner seems like a great fit to take over after spending all nine seasons by Bergeron’s side. But, wow, that stinks for the Falcons players who entered the off-season with their eyes on getting back to the big dance with Bergeron as their coach.

Remember when we talked about Alaska’s budget cuts? Well, that’s actually going to impact WHERE Anchorage plays this season. After playing at Sullivan Arena in downtown Anchorage since 1983, the Seawolves are moving back to the on-campus Wells Fargo Sports Complex, a building constructed in 1978 that previously hosted their hockey team for five years, to save some cash.

What made the Sully standout was its Olympic-sized sheet of ice that often played to its advantage. While death and taxes are certain, so, too, was Ferris coach Bob Daniels’ yearly speech about how tough it is to go to Anchorage and play on that wider ice. At least Daniels’ Bulldogs will be able to get that extra 15 feet when they visit the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.

So, as you can see, there are lots of zany headlines to begin the season, which we’re thankful for. If MSU is going to continue to dominate on the ice, then we want craziness off of it.

But, yes, we get it! You want to know who’s on your favorite team and where we think it’ll finish in the final standings. Right, we hear you. That’s why we have individual team capsules located below for all of you fans looking for the nitty-gritty on your team.

Happy hockey, everyone! Here’s to another great season around the WCHA.

Marc Michaelis (Minnisota State - 20). ((c) Shelley M. Szwast 2016)
Marc Michaelis enters his senior year at Minnesota State for the 2019-20 campaign (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Alabama Huntsville

HEAD COACH: Mike Corbett, entering his seventh season at UAH

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 8-28-2 (8-18-2 WCHA, eighth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Bauer Neudecker (7-7-14), sophomore forward Jack Jeffers (7-7-14), senior forward Austin Beaulieu (5-9-14), junior forward Christian Rajic (3-11-14), junior goaltender Mark Sinclair (6-18-2, .915, 2.89)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Hans Gorowski (12-7-19), defenseman Kurt Goesslin (4-11-15), forward Madison Dunn (4-10-14)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Adrian Danchenko (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, NAHL), Liam Izyk (Fort MacMurray, AJHL), Josh Latta (Vernon, BCHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: The Chargers have made the WCHA playoffs the past two seasons but have never finished higher than seventh. For UAH to better their previous conference finishes, they will need big contributions from the large freshman class Corbett has brought in – 10 newcomers to be exact. Corbett also says he’s changing the Chargers’ systems some, hoping to pressure opponents more than they have in the past. They also have a solid goalie in Mark Sinclair. Still, it’s hard to see them breaking through and competing for home ice this season with so many youngsters. That said, they will be a solid playoff team in seventh or eighth place.


HEAD COACH: Erik Largen, entering his second season at UAF

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 12-21-3 (12-14-2 WCHA, 7th)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Steven Jandric (9-15-24), senior defenseman Tristan Thompson (6-14-20), senior forward Kylar Hope (8-11-19), senior forward Colton Leiter (6-10-16), sophomore defenseman Chris Jandric (3-12-15)

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Nicholas Koberstein (0-10-10), forward Ryan Leer (6-2-8), forward Chad Staley (2-9-11)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Markuss Komuls (Kenai River, NAHL), forward Didrik Henbrandt (Minot, NAHL), defenseman Garrett Pyke (Oakville, OJHL), forward Chase Dubious (West Kelowna, BCHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: Unfortunately for the Nanooks, the main talking points for Alaska this summer weren’t focused on the ice. Between the Alaska governor threatening to slash $130 million from the university system’s budget to the announcement that the Nanooks were on the outside of the seven WCHA teams looking to form a new conference, it’s been hard to concentrate on the ice in Fairbanks. Luckily, the governor gave the program a reprieve and the Nanooks will skate again this season. They finished seventh last season, their fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and hope to make it a fifth appearance this year. Largen has an experienced team of 10 seniors at his disposal and should be particularly strong up front, where they return seven.

Alaska Anchorage

HEAD COACH: Matt Curley, entering his second season at Alaska Anchorage

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 3-23-3 (2-23-2 league, 10th)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior defenseman Carmine Buono (3-6-9), senior defenseman Tomi Hiekkavirta (1-7-8), sophomore defenseman Drayson Pears (2-5-7), junior goaltender Kris Carlson (0-13-1, .896, 3.46)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Nicolas Erb-Ekholm (6-7-13), forward Jeremiah Luedtke (7-3-10), forward Nils Rygaard (3-6-9), goaltender Brody Claeys (2-5-1, .921, 2.33)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Troy Robillard (Coquitlam, BCHL), goalie Brandon Perrone (New Jersey, NAHL), forward Alex Frye (Jamestown, NAHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: The first-year learning curve is over for coach Matt Curley and the Seawolves, who must take the next step in the rebuilding process by winning a few games and sometimes playing spoilers to league opponents hoping to win a WCHA title. Looming in the background of this season will be the state-wide budget cuts to local universities as well as the Seawolves return to playing on campus after playing at Sullivan Arena in downtown Anchorage since 1983. The Sully was an Olympics-sized sheet of ice that often played in their favor when opponents came to town.

Bowling Green

HEAD COACH: Ty Eigner, entering his first season at Bowling Green

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 22-11-5 (16-8-4 WCHA, third)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Max Johnson (19-24-43), junior forward Brandon Kruse (10-31-41), junior forward Connor Ford (17-17-34), senior defenseman Alec Rauhauser (4-22-26), senior forward Lukas Craggs (13-12-25)

KEY LOSSES: Goaltender Ryan Bednard (20-8-4, .927, 1.77), forward Stephen Baylis (8-14-22), forward John Schilling (8-10-18)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward T.J. Lloyd (Spruce Grove, AJHL), forward Adam Comquest (Cowichan Valley, BCHL), forward Adam Pitters (Aberdeen, NAHL), defenseman Cameron Babiak (Brookings, NAHL).

2019-20 PREDICTION: It’s hard to call Ty Eigner a rookie coach. Sure, it’s technically his first year as the head at Bowling Green, but Eigner is hardly a stranger to the Falcons bench. He was an assistant to Chris Bergeron for nine years. For that reason, I wouldn’t expect anything less than a seamless transition. The Falcons return strong team, including their top five scorers, from a team that made the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than 25 years. They have a great chance to do it again. They’re also a MacNaughton Cup contender, despite the fact that Minnesota State is the favorite. Wherever they finish in the league, the goal is clear: Make it back to the NCAA tournament and take the next step and make a run. I think they have the firepower to achieve all of those goals.

Bemidji State

HEAD COACH: Tom Serratore, entering his 19th season at BSU

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 15-17-6 (13-11-4 WCHA, fifth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Charlie Combs (11-11-22), senior forward Adam Brady (8-13-21), junior forward Aaron Miller (11-9-20), sophomore forward Owen Sillinger (10-9-19), junior goaltender Zach Driscoll (10-11-4, .909, 2.32)

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Justin Baudry (9-22-31), forward Jay Dickman (6-10-16), defenseman Dillon Eichstadt (3-11-14)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Elias Rosen (Tri-City, USHL), defenseman Nick Leitner (Green Bay, USHL) defenseman Will Zmolek (Cedar Rapids, USHL), forward Samuel Solensky (Aberdeen, NAHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: After a fifth-place finish in 2018-19, the Beavers were something of a surprise pick to finish third in the preseason coaches poll. Although some might argue for some other teams to finish ahead of them for home ice this season, they’ve got as good an argument as any of the mid-table teams to finish behind Minnesota State and Bowling Green. One reason is goaltending. Both Zach Driscoll and Henry Johnson played lots of minutes last season, so Seratore will be confident whoever he puts between the pipes. The Beavers also have great forward depth, returning three double-digit goal scorers. The only question mark is the blue line, where the Beavers will have just one senior but four freshmen and two sophomores. Still, third or fourth in the league is certainly not out of the question.

Ferris State

HEAD COACH: Bob Daniels, entering his 28th season at Ferris State

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 10-23-3 (7-18-3 league, ninth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior defenseman Nate Kallen (7-17-24), junior forward Coale Norris (7-13-20), senior forward Jason Tackett (6-8-14), sophomore goalie Roni Salmenkangas (6-13-2, .887, 3.32)

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Cooper Zech (8-20-28), forward Corey Mackin (10-15-25), forward Craig Pefley (5-10-15), goaltender Justin Kapelmaster (1-8-1, .903, 3.52)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Max Finner (Topeka, NAHL), goaltender Carter McPhail (Johnstown, NAHL), Dallas Tulik (Dubuque, USHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: The rebuild is officially on after the Bulldogs missed the WCHA postseason for the first time since joining the league in 2013-14, in what Daniels called “a very disappointing hockey season” during last week’s media teleconference. Before that, they hadn’t missed a league postseason since 1996-97. FSU has two stars returning in Kallen and Norris, but it has question marks across the board. Not to mention it’ll need new leadership with the graduation of Mackin and Kapelmaster. Expect the Bulldogs to take their lumps throughout the season as they build toward the future. Hopefully, for Ewigleben Arena’s sake, they’ll knock off a few visitors to give their crowd some positives this winter. Expect them to finish in the bottom half of the league.

Lake Superior State

HEAD COACH: Damon Whitten, entering his sixth season at LSSU

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 23-13-2 (16-10-2 league, fourth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Max Humitz (16-17-33), senior defenseman Collin Saccoman (10-15-25), senior forward Brayden Gelsinger (10-13-23), junior goaltender Mareks Mitens (6-5-0, .919, 2.31)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Diego Cuglietta (25-16-41), forward Anthony Nellis (15-18-33), forward Gage Torrel (7-18-25), goaltender Nick Kossoff (17-8-2, .918, 2.42)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Arvid Henrikson (Des Moines, USHL), goaltender Seth Eisele (Lone Star, NAHL), forward Robert Blueger (Madison, USHL

2019-20 PREDICTION: Whitten knows that Mankato is the favorite to win the league and a good bet to make the Frozen Four later this winter. But he’s hoping the Lakers can make the NCAA tournament for the first time since making the regional semifinal in 1995-96. The Lakers were on a tear a year ago, competing for the WCHA regular-season title. But 1-3 records against both the Mavericks and rival NMU all but ended that dream. If they can replace the scoring of Cuglietta and Nellis, they should be able to make another league title run this winter. It would be a shocker if the Lakers finished worse than fourth in the league.

Michigan Tech

HEAD COACH: Joe Shawhan, entering his third season at Michigan Tech

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 14-20-4 (13-12-3 league, sixth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior defenseman Seamus Donohue (1-21-22), sophomore forward Brian Halonen (12-9-21), sophomore forward Trenton Bliss (6-9-15), senior goaltender Matt Jurusik (9-11-2, .909, 2.50)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Jake Lucchini (11-15-26), forward Dylan Steman (4-9-13), forward Jake Jackson (3-5-8), goaltender Devin Kero (1-3-1, .912, 2.34)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Chris Lipe (Dubuque, USHL), goaltender Blake Pietila (Cedar Rapids, USHL), forward Jake Crespi (Tri-City, USHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: Shawhan hopes the depth the Huskies have at each position will catapult them back to the top pack of the WCHA after last year’s tough sixth-place finish. But they’ll have to do so without a star like Jake Lucchini, who is now in the AHL. Some of the Huskies toughest games will be nearby against both NMU and LSSU, while Mankato will be another team that’ll try to keep them from rebounding this winter. Expect them to clean up against the league’s lesser teams, such as Ferris, Huntsville, Anchorage and Fairbanks. If the depth comes through, they could be a WCHA playoff team that has a chance to upset a team or two. If it doesn’t, however, I’d expect the Huskies to place fifth or worse in the final standings.

Minnesota State

HEAD COACH: Mike Hastings, entering his eighth season at MSU

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 32-8-2 (22-5-1 WCHA, first)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Marc Michaelis (19-23-42), senior forward Parker Tuomie (14-26-40), sophomore defenseman Conner Mackey (7-18-25), senior defenseman Ian Scheid (5-20-25), sophomore goalie Dryden McKay (24-7-2, .927, 1.76)

KEY LOSS: Forward Max Coatta (8-7-15)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Nathan Smith (Cedar Rapids, USHL), defenseman Colby Bukes (Muskegon, USHL), forward Ryan Sandelin (Penticton, BCHL), forward Cade Borchert (Sioux Falls, USHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: At this point, the question for Minnesota State isn’t about whether the Mavericks can win a MacNaughton Cup title. They’ve proven that year after year. It’s about who can stop them. Right now, it looks like a two-team race in the WCHA this season with Bowling Green, and the Mavericks are decidedly the favorite. They return the league’s unanimous preseason player of the year in Marc Michaelis, the preseason player of the year runner-up (from the coaches) in Parker Tuomie and also the preseason rookie of the year in Nathan Smith. They’ve also got one of the top goaltenders in the nation from a year ago in Dryden McKay. They will be the odds-on favorite to win the league, but the real question for the Mavs will be if they can finally win an NCAA tournament game.

Northern Michigan

HEAD COACH: Grant Potulny, entering his third season at Northern Michigan

2018-19 OVERALL RECORD: 21-16-2 (18-8-2 league, second)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior defenseman Philip Beaulieu (6-29-35), senior forward Darien Craighead (10-10-20), junior forward Joseph Nardi (9-10-19), sophomore goalie Nolan Kent (0-0-0)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Troy Loggins (23-17-40), forward Adam Rockwood (7-28-35), forward Denver Pierce (10-10-20), goaltender Atte Tolvanen (21-16-2, .917, 2.35)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Tanner Vescio (Fargo, USHL), goaltenders John Roberts (Bismarck, NAHL) and John Hawthorne (Alberni Valley, BCHL)

2019-20 PREDICTION: The biggest challenge, especially early on, for the Wildcats will be replacing a generational talent like goalie Tolvanen with an unproven sophomore goaltender like Kent. Then Potulny can worry about reloading after losing Loggins, Rockwood and Pierce, who were assets offensively. Once they’ve proven they’re reloaded, it wouldn’t be a shocker if they competed in the top half of the league. Potulny has been a home run hire at NMU and his teams have been exciting to watch. Hopefully, they’ll get more of the same from him and his Wildcats.