NCHC 2020-21 Season Preview: Omaha ‘pod’ kicks off what may be surreal hockey season for league teams

Miami and Minnesota Duluth battle during a 2019-20 series in Oxford, Ohio (photo: Jeff Sabo/Miami University).

It seems surreal.

The last time I sat down at my computer to do a story on the NCHC, I had interviewed Denver coach David Carle about the abrupt end to the college hockey season.

Carle, in a statement that seems prescient, said, “I think the lesson to be learned, or one of the many, is life’s a fragile thing. Our game is fragile, and it can be taken from you at any moment.”

It seems almost innocent, in a way. That story ran on March 23. According to the Centers for Disease Control reports, on March 21, 573 U.S. citizens had died of COVID-19. As I sit to type this preview, over 252,000 Americans have now died of COVID-19, and it’s only getting worse. The U.S. just reported its highest ever infections in a day, at 185,000.

So, all I can think is, are we really going to do this? Is hockey really that important? What will it take for people to realize what we are up against? Will it take the death of a player? A coach? A referee? A support person?

I’ve seen what COVID-19 can do, even to previously healthy people. I’ve been personally affected, as a family member died of it. I had a friend spend a month in the hospital due to COVID-19, with two weeks of that time spent in the ICU, intubated and on a ventilator.

Every now and then, I go online to a few sites to see the latest on how many healthcare workers have died of COVID-19.

I see 1,500 nurses worldwide.

I see 1,100 healthcare workers overall in the U.S. alone.

And I read what we are up against in healthcare, the patients who refuse to believe what is happening to them, even as they are dying. I read about the nurses working to promote flattening the curve who are being stalked and threatened by people who refuse to believe that COVID-19 is lethal. Their families are also being threatened.

It’s interesting to think about the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Many people don’t realize that the disease didn’t originate in Spain, despite its name. That strain of H1N1 actually crossed into humans in the American Midwest, likely in Kansas. With the U.S. sending soldiers overseas, and those soldiers being in close quarters and experiencing malnourishment, the disease quickly spread. It got the name the Spanish flu because Spain wasn’t a participant in World War I, and as such its media wasn’t being censored to maintain morale, so the first consistent reports of death were published in Spain.

The deadliest time for that pandemic was October 1918. The second wave officially began in August. A parade held in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1918, became the biggest super-spreader event, with an estimated 12,000 people dying solely because of those who attended the parade.

Now we are seeing the spikes here for the novel coronavirus, and we are seeing COVID-19 mortality increasing at exponential rates. So, sitting down to write a preview for a college hockey season, even for a league I love, just seems off. The Ivies have canceled, as have a couple of other ECAC schools. Will someone get deathly ill as a result of hockey being played?

It’s entirely possible it will happen.

Colorado College has had to shut down hockey activities for 14 days as a player has tested positive for COVID-19. U.S. Women’s Soccer star Lindsey Horan just tested positive and had to leave the team ahead of its friendly with the Netherlands. Three New York Giants players just tested positive.

The city of Denver is currently at level red, which prohibits all indoor gatherings. If the school decides to go to virtual classes, they might cancel athletics. And last week, the state of North Dakota recorded the highest mortality rate from COVID-19 in the entire world.

People still seem resistant to do what is necessary to stop the virus, or at least slow its spread. Last spring, a friend and I were talking about it during a break, and he encapsulated the resistance to masks and social distancing by saying, “The thing zombie movies got wrong is they didn’t realize there would be a substantial number of people demanding their constitutional right to be eaten by zombies.”

I truly hope that this doesn’t lead to someone dying, but the thing is, this disease seems to be unpredictable, and while it doesn’t hit most people that hard, there is still a large minority that experiences severe complications. Even with the vaccine news, it will take time to get things under control.

So let’s keep our fingers crossed that this goes well.

— Candace Horgan

League play starts in Omaha ‘pod’

The NCHC has won the last four national championships.

Prior to the end of the season due to COVID-19, three NCHC teams were among the favorites to capture the 2020 title, with North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and Denver all in fine form. Whether the NCHC can continue its recent national championship run remains to be seen, but they certainly will be in the mix.

The season will begin with league play with a series of “pod” games on Dec. 1 in Omaha. The league is divided into an East pod (Miami, Western Michigan, Minnesota Duluth, and St. Cloud State) and a West pod (Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Omaha). This is a creative approach to try to keep the teams from contracting COVID-19.

Each team will play six games against their division opponents over the season. In pod play, each team will play a total of 10 games spaced over three weeks. The second half of the league will consist of home and away games against every team in the league, for a total of eight home games and eight away games. The season will have each team playing six games against pod opponents and two games against each cross-divisional pod team.

The schedule for the pod games was recently announced. Two games will take place on most weekdays Tuesday through Friday, with game times at 3:35 p.m. and 7:35 p.m. CDT, while weekends will consist of triple-headers with games starting at 12:05 p.m., 4:05 p.m. and 8:05 p.m.

When the concept was announced, NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton said, “Throughout the past eight months, we have learned to adjust and think creatively about how we live our personal and professional lives. I’m proud of our membership for their entrepreneurial spirit to build a concept grounded in health and safety that we believe gives a group of deserving student-athletes the best opportunity to conduct a successful season.”

Medical support and COVID-19 testing will be conducted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.


Matt Vernon begins the 2020-21 season as Colorado College’s No. 1 goalie (photo: Casey B. Gibson).

Head coach: Mike Haviland (seventh season)
2019-20 overall record: 11-20-3 (4-17-3 NCHC, eighth)
Key returning players: Junior forward Ben Copeland (4-14-18), junior forward Grant Cruikshank (11-6-17), junior defenseman Bryan Yoon (1-16-17), sophomore goaltender Matt Vernon (8-16-3, 3.42 GAA, .901 SV%)
Key losses: Chris Wilkie (23-8-31), Nick Halloran (12-18-30), Alex Berardinelli (4-13-17)
Key additions: Forward Ray Christy (Sioux City Musketeers), forward Jackson Jutting (Cedar Rapids Roughriders), defenseman Hugo Blixt (Boston University), forward Brian Hawkinson (Miami)
2020-21 predictions: You might look at CC’s record last year and think they were terrible, but until the midway point of the season, the Tigers were having a solid year. However, a sweep by Denver to close the first half of the season seemed to affect their confidence, and the Tigers only won five of their last 20 games.

CC’s biggest challenge this season will be replacing the scoring of Chris Wilkie and Nick Halloran. The Tigers scored 86 goals last year, and those two players figured in the lion’s share of the points.

The Tigers will look to get more scoring from Ben Copeland and captain Grant Cruikshank. Another bright spot is junior defenseman Bryan Yoon, who has been a stabilizing influence on the back line.

Sophomore goalie Matt Vernon will need to improve his play too if CC is to contend again and escape the NCHC cellar.

CC is a young team, with 12 freshmen on the roster. The Tigers also added two transfers, defenseman Hugo Blixt (Boston University) and forward Brian Hawkinson (Miami), who should see regular playing time.

Candace’s prediction: seventh
Matt’s prediction: eighth

Bobby Brink should be an offensive catalyst this season for Denver (photo: Nick Monaghan/DU Athletics).

Head coach: David Carle (third season)
2019-20 overall record: 21-9-6 (11-8-5 NCHC, third)
Key returning players: Junior forward Cole Guttman (14-14-28), junior forward Brett Stapley (5-25-30), sophomore forward Bobby Brink (11-13-24), sophomore goaltender Magnus Chrona (16-6-4, 2.14 GAA, .920 SV%)
Key losses: Emilio Pettersen (13-22-35), Ian Mitchell (10-22-32), Liam Finlay (5-23-28), goaltender Devin Cooley (4-3-2, 2.08 GAA, .908 SV%)
Key additions: Defenseman Mike Benning (Sherwood Park, AJHL), forward Carter Savoie (Sherwood Park, AJHL), defenseman Bo Hanson (St. Lawrence), goaltender Corbin Kaczperski (Yale)
2020-21 predictions: Last season was an interesting one for the Pioneers, who started 8-0. The team could best be characterized as one that beat the teams they should, but usually fell to teams higher than them. They were 11-8-5 in league play, and the Pioneers went 0-6-2 against the league’s top two teams, North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.

The off season saw Denver lose two of its best players, as forward Emilio Pettersen and defenseman (and captain) Ian Mitchell both signed NHL contracts. Those two were the team’s leading scorers last year. Also departing was goaltender Devin Cooley.

Despite those losses, Denver returns a lot of power. Forwards Cole Guttman, Brett Stapley, and Bobby Brink will be looked to for a lot of firepower. Incoming freshman Carter Savoie, a fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2020 NHL draft, will also be looked to early for points.

Defensively, Denver will hope that incoming freshman Mike Benning, a fourth-round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2020 NHL draft, will bring the same level of intensity and play of Mitchell. Denver also just announced that they have graduate transfer Corbin Kaczperski, a goaltender who posted a 2.77 GAA with Yale last season.

Denver was ranked fourth in the preseason poll, and the Pioneers should battle all season long with Minnesota Duluth for second place in the conference.

Candace’s prediction: second
Matt’s prediction: third

Ryan Savage scored seven goals and dished out another seven assists during the 2019-20 season (photo: Miami Athletics).

Head coach: Chris Bergeron, entering his second season at Miami
2019-20 overall record: 8-21-5 (5-16-3-2 NCHC, seventh)
Key returning players: Senior forward Casey Gilling (9-22-31), sophomore forward Ryan Savage (7-7-14), junior defenseman Derek Daschke (10-13-23), sophomore goaltender Ben Kraws (1-7-2, 4.12 GAA, .871 SV%)
Key losses: Forward Gordie Green (14-22-36), forward Karch Bachman (10-21-31), goaltender Ryan Larkin (7-12-2, 3.47 GAA, .901 SV%)
Key additions: Forward Joe Cassetti (Merrimack and Waterloo, USHL), defenseman Hampus Rydqvist (Maryland, NAHL), goaltender Ludvig Persson (Lone Star, NAHL)
2020-21 predictions: With a first-year coach at the helm, Miami wasn’t expected to set the college hockey world alight last season. Some predictions turn out to be accurate; the RedHawks won one of their first five games and went on to finish seventh in the league, just like they did in 2019-20.

Miami still made a good decision in hiring Bergeron, though, a MU alum who helped Bowling Green snap a nearly three-decade NCAA tournament drought two years ago. This could be another tough season for the RedHawks, though, who graduated their top two point-producers from last year and a starting goaltender who made 120 appearances in net over his four seasons in Oxford, Ohio.

Gilling is Miami’s top returning scorer but is also a good setup man, and Cassetti’s background as a National Team Development Program product and former Merrimack player makes him another one to watch. Also, keep an eye on who’s between the pipes, as Kraws looks to stave off Persson, who was 22-4 last season in juniors with a .934 save percentage.

Candace’s prediction: eighth
Matt’s prediction: seventh

Minnesota Duluth’s Noah Cates celebrates one of his 14 goals last season (photo: Terry Cartie Norton).

Head coach: Scott Sandelin (21st season)
2019-20 overall record: 22-10-2 (17-5-2 NCHC, second)
Key returning players: Junior forward Cole Koepke (16-17-33), junior forward Noah Cates (14-19-33), senior forward Nick Swaney (12-14-26), junior forward Jackson Cates (8-15-23)
Key losses: Defenseman Scott Perunovich (6-34-40), defenseman Dylan Samberg (1-20-21), forward Justin Richards (14-11-25), goaltender Hunter Shepard (22-10-2, 2.18 GAA, .918 SV%)
Key additions: Defenseman Wyatt Kaiser (Andover, USHS), defenseman Blake Biondi (Hermantown, USHS), defenseman Connor Kelly (U.S. National Development Team)
2020-21 predictions: While several other teams lost important players to early departure, perhaps none was hit harder than Minnesota Duluth, as defenseman Scott Perunovich, the team’s leading scorer the last few seasons and a dynamic presence on the blue line, signed an NHL contract. Also departing early was defenseman Dylan Samberg, a potent force on the back line. The Bulldogs also lost goaltender Hunter Shepard to graduation. Shepard was a force in the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national titles.

Given that Minnesota Duluth won its national championships with an impenetrable defense and timely scoring, the loss of the three players who were the key to that defense will be the most difficult part of Minnesota Duluth’s season this year. Also gone is defenseman Nick Wolff, who graduated.

However, coach Scott Sandelin is known for having a deep bench. Back are forwards Cole Koepke, Noah Cates, and Nick Swaney, who were among the top scorers on the team last year. Freshman Blake Biondi, a fourth-round selection of the Montreal Canadians in the June draft, will also bring some scoring power.

Louie Roehl will be looked to on the blue line at the start of the year. Freshman Wyatt Kaiser, who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the third round in June, will be looked to early to bring some of what was lost by Perunovich’s departure.

One thing we know about Sandelin is he knows how to get his team in playoff form. The Bulldogs will again be in the mix for the NCAA championship this season.

Candace’s prediction: third
Matt’s prediction: second

Jordan Kawaguchi is back for his senior season with North Dakota (photo: Russell Hons).

Head coach: Brad Berry, entering his sixth season at North Dakota
2019-20 overall record: 26-5-4 (17-4-3-2 NCHC, first)
Key returning players: Senior forward Jordan Kawaguchi (15-30-45), sophomore forward Shane Pinto (16-12-28), senior defenseman Matt Kiersted (6-23-29), junior defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker (7-18-25), junior goaltender Adam Scheel (19-4-2, 2.07 GAA, .904 SV%), senior goaltender Peter Thome (7-1-2, 1.37 GAA, .935 SV%)
Key losses: Forward Westin Michaud (16-12-28), forward Cole Smith (11-7-18), defenseman Colton Poolman (4-13-17)
Key additions: Forward Riese Gaber (Dubuque, USHL), forward Griffin Ness (Waterloo, USHL), defenseman Jake Sanderson (NDTP), defenseman Tyler Kleven (NDTP)
2020-21 predictions: Remember when North Dakota missed out on the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row in 2019? How long ago does that feel now?

Fresh off their best season since 2015-16, when the Fighting Hawks won the national title in Berry’s first season in charge, UND enters this season looking to win a ninth championship, which may have arrived last season if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

UND returns a Hobey Baker Award finalist in Kawaguchi, and six of the Hawks’ top seven point-producers from last season are back. Berry’s bunch is strong between the pipes, too. Scheel got most of the game time last season, but Thome’s goals-against average would’ve ranked second in the country if he hadn’t just fallen below the minimum for minutes played.

There’s also much to like about UND’s newcomers. Take a look at this year’s NHL draft, for instance: Ottawa took Sanderson fifth and then grabbed Kleven, a prep product of Fargo (N.D.) Davies, in the second round.

We had predicted UND to be in the middle of the NCHC pack last season. This time, not so much.

Candace’s prediction: first
Matt’s prediction: first

Omaha goalie Isaiah Saville won 10 games as a freshman last season for the Mavericks (photo: Omaha Athletics).

Head coach: Mike Gabinet (fourth season)
2019-20 overall record: 14-17-5 (8-13-3-0 NCHC, sixth)
Key returning players: Junior forward Taylor Ward (16-11-27), senior forward Kevin Conley (12-15-27), sophomore defenseman Brandon Scanlin (3-11-14), sophomore goaltender Isaiah Saville (10-11-4, 2.85 GAA, .907 SV%)
Key losses: Forward Teemu Pulkkinen (7-11-18), forward Zach Jordan (12-4-16), defenseman Dean Stewart (2-10-12)
Key additions: Forward Brock Bremer (Lincoln, USHL), forward Jack Randl (Michigan and Omaha, USHL), defenseman Jonny Tychonick (North Dakota transfer)
2020-21 predictions: Omaha was five wins better last season than the Mavericks were in 2018-19, when they started 0-6-1 and struggled to recover.

Don’t be surprised if UNO is even better this time, as the Mavs return their top five scorers from last season plus a promising goaltender in Saville, taken by Vegas in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Ward will be a focal point again, UNO’s top scorer last season who is two years removed from his NCHC rookie-of-the-year season. Two newcomers with prior college hockey experience will help too, and Tychonick could provide an offensive boost at the blue line for a UNO team whose top 10 point-producers last season were all forwards.

Might this season’s Mavericks better the .500 mark that UNO set in Gabinet’s first campaign in charge? Absolutely, and getting their first dozen games at home ought to help.

Candace’s prediction: sixth
Matt’s prediction: fifth

Sam Hentges (SCSU-19) 2019 February 9 St. Cloud State University hosts Colorado College in a NCHC contest at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center (Bradley K. Olson)
Sam Hentges (19) went for seven goals and 24 points in 2019-20 for St. Cloud State (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Head coach: Brett Larson (third season)
2019-20 overall record: 13-15-6 (10-12-2 NCHC, fifth)
Key returning players: Senior forward Easton Brodzinski (12-15-27), senior goaltender Dávid Hrenák (12-11-6, 2.76 GAA, .906 SV%), junior forward Sam Hentges (7-17-24), junior forward Micah Miller (7-11-18)
Key losses: Forward Nick Poehling, defenseman Jack Ahcan, forward Jack Poehling
Key additions: Forward Veeti Miettinen (Kiekko-Espoo, Finland), forward Jack Johnston (Fairbanks Ice Dogs, NAHL)
2020-21 predictions: If a team had cause to feel frustrated when COVID-19 ended the season in March, it might have been St. Cloud, as the Huskies had rebounded from a poor first half to play strong in the second half, including a home sweep of Minnesota Duluth, a win over then-No. 2 Minnesota State, and wins over North Dakota and Denver in the final weeks of the season. The Huskies looked to be a dangerous team to face in the playoffs.

Much of that team is back, including starting goaltender Dávid Hrenák, now a senior, who posted a .906 save percentage and 2.76 goals-against average. Also back is leading scorer Easton Brodzinski, who had 27 points last season.

The team did lose some important players, including forwards Nick and Jack Poehling, who were second and fifth on the team in scoring. Potentially making up for that scoring will be rookies Veeti Miettinen and Jack Johnston. Miettinen was drafted in the sixth round by the Toronto Maple Leafs; he had 73 points last year for the U20 team while nabbing second team honors. Johnston was team captain last year for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the NAHL and finished with 45 points.

The challenge will be replacing defenseman Jack Ahcan, a potent two-way player who was one of the anchors of the power play.

Candace’s prediction: fourth
Matt’s prediction: fourth

Senior Paul Washe will serve as Western Michigan’s captain for the 2020-21 season (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Head coach: Andy Murray, entering his 10th season at Western Michigan
2019-20 overall record: 18-13-5 (12-9-3-2 NCHC, fourth)
Key returning players: Senior forward Paul Washe (12-9-21), senior forward Ethen Frank (9-11-20), sophomore goaltender Brandon Bussi (18-12-4, 2.65 GAA, .910 SV%)
Key losses: Forward Hugh McGing (13-22-35), forward Dawson DiPietro (12-17-29), forward Austin Rueschhoff (12-14-26)
Key additions: Forward Ty Glover (Lincoln, USHL), defenseman Aidan Fulp (Dubuque, USHL), defenseman Cédric Fiedler (Fargo, USHL)
2020-21 predictions: Murray’s 10th season behind the bench in Kalamazoo starts with a team that is less proven out of the box than others.

The Broncos’ four top point-producers from last season are gone, including an early departure in Rueschhoff, who signed in March with the New York Rangers. Washe, Frank and junior forward Cole Gallant will be relied upon again, although all three of them reached the 20-point plateau last season.

Bussi was very good last season in earning NCHC all-rookie team honors, and he beat out two seniors to grab the starting job. There’s another senior teammate to contend with this season in Austin Cain, but Bussi gained plenty of momentum as a freshman. No surprise; a year earlier, he won 33 games and had a .915 save percentage for Muskegon in the USHL.

Western might have a tough road to hoe if the Broncos are to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, but ending that hiatus this season certainly isn’t beyond comprehension.

Candace’s prediction: fifth
Matt’s prediction: sixth