Big Ten 2021-22 Season Preview: Michigan has the talent, but are the Wolverines the conference favorite?

After being the No. 1 overall pick by Buffalo in the 2021 NHL draft, Owen Power is returning to Michigan for his sophomore year (photo: Michigan Photography).

As the sudden cancelation of the 2019-20 season and the general, let’s say, quirkiness of last year gets put in the rearview, everyone is hoping for a more normal Big Ten season this year.

Saying more normal instead of 100 percent normal is already necessary as during the process of writing this piece a nonconference series has already been moved due to COVID issues. However, having nonconference series in general and planning to play them in early October is already an upgrade.

As the Big Ten enters its ninth season the only consistency has been inconsistency. The preseason prognostication, while fun to talk about in September, very rarely look like the final standings at the end of the year.

As fall begins this year, a race between Minnesota and Michigan with the Gophers coming out on top is the prediction. One person who isn’t necessarily buying that is Minnesota coach Bob Motzko.

“I start every year in last place in my brain, and we work from there,” Motzko said at Minnesota’s preseason media day. “I don’t play the schedule out in the summer to figure out the ending, which I know is a fun thing to do this time of year when rankings come out and picking where you’re going to finish.”

Motzko’s team makes sense as a top pick, the Gophers return a lot of key pieces from the team that came close to winning the regular-season crown last year, knocked off the Badgers to win the postseason tournament and was a game away from the Frozen Four. He pointed to scenarios in previous seasons where the standings became very jumbled and one game having a different result could have changed things drastically. Then he directed everyone’s attention to Michigan.

“I anticipate one tough conference,” he said. “There’s no question Michigan is leading the pack right now. They’ve got a lot of accolades for all the kids that they got drafted in such high spots. Tag, they’re it, and then it’s the rest of us chasing them. It’s a good spot for us to be.”

Mel Pearson’s Wolverines may be appointment viewing this season. The expectations are certainly high, based on number of draft picks alone, but Pearson said there is no extra pressure to succeed.

“When you come to Michigan you expect to compete for championships,” he said. “Just because we have a few high draft picks this year, it doesn’t change the narrative from our coaching staff to within our team.

“What is pressure? It’s just your own expectations is really what it breaks down to. We have high expectations here at Michigan.”

A challenge for the Wolverines, like many teams littered with talent, could be getting all the correct pieces to come together in the correct way. The NCAA championship game is only 183 days after Michigan’s first contest and with many players expected to depart after this year it can’t afford a sluggish start.

“They’re here to play for Michigan and that’s why they all came back,” Pearson said. “They know that there’s something special here and that they can have a special year, but they all have to get on the same page, and we have to make sure that we do our job to help them get on the page and then go for it.”

While the Gophers and Wolverines are the headliners, the rest of the conference comes into the season with question marks. Wisconsin needs to replace a large chunk of its scoring from last season while Notre Dame hopes to find its scoring touch in general after a down year last year. Ohio State and Michigan State seek consistency and Penn State is a bit of a wild card having missed so much of its season last year.

After the past few seasons, simply seeing teams hit the ice for a game is more than enough excitement for most, no matter the school.

“It’s exciting,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “Whatever the word normal is, whatever that might be, we’re looking forward to it and getting off to a good start. It’s kind of the unknown, I think the unknown is exciting. Our guys are excited, our staff is excited, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Michigan sophomore forward Brendan Brisson was a first-round pick of Vegas back last October (photo: Michigan Photography).

MICHIGAN

HEAD COACH: Mel Pearson (fifth season)

LAST SEASON: 15-10-1 (11-9-0 B1G, fourth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Thomas Bordeleau (8-22-30), forward Kent Johnson (9-18-27), forward Matty Beniers (10-14-24), forward Brendan Brisson (10-11-21), defenseman Owen Power (3-13-16)

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Cam York (4-16-20), goaltender Strauss Mann (11-9-1, 1.89 GAA, .930 SV%)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Luke Hughes (U.S. NTDP), forward Mackie Samoskevich (Chicago, USHL)

2021-22 Prediction: All aboard the hype train in Ann Arbor. Will the tracks lead to Boston in April? With the amount of talent packed on the roster, including four of the top five picks in last year’s NHL draft, a Frozen Four has to be the minimum expectation for the Wolverines. They’ll have to navigate the regular season first, however, and you know the opposition will be tough every night.

2021-22 Position Prediction: First

Michigan State’s Josh Nodler netted the game-winning goal for the Spartans with less than a minute left against Michigan in a game this past January (photo: Matthew Mitchell Photography).

MICHIGAN STATE

HEAD COACH: Danton Cole (fifth season)

LAST SEASON: 7-18-2 (5-16-1 B1G, seventh)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Mitchell Lewandowski (6-7-13), defenseman Dennis Cesana (2-10-12), forward Josh Nodler (3-8-11), goaltender Drew DeRidder (7-15-2, 2.76 GAA, .923 SV%)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Tommy Apap (5-4-9)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Griffin Loughran (Northern Michigan, WCHA), forward Jesse Tucker (Green Bay, USHL), forward Tanner Kelly (Muskegon, USHL)

2021-22 Prediction: If you’re a Michigan State fan, the hope for this season is that all the young players from last year’s team took a step forward during the offseason. Having Lewandowski and DeRidder back provides a solid base and getting a proven DI scorer in Loughran will help a team that struggled in that department last year. The ceiling for the Spartans is probably a midtable finish but simply getting out of the cellar would be a good thing.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Sixth

Minnesota’s Jack LaFontaine started the 2020-21 season 8-0-0 with two shutouts for the Gophers (photo: Minnesota Athletics).

MINNESOTA

HEAD COACH: Bob Motzko (fourth season)

LAST SEASON: 24-7-0 (16-6-0 B1G, second)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Sammy Walker (13-16-29), forward Blake McLaughlin (12-16-28), forward Ben Meyers (12-16-28), defenseman Jackson LaCombe (4-17-21), goaltender Jack LaFontaine (22-7-0, 1.79 GAA, .934 SV%)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Sampo Ranta (19-12-31), forward Scott Reedy (11-17-28), forward Brannon McManus (9-16-25)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Tristan Broz (Fargo, USHL), forward Chaz Lucius (U.S. NTDP), forward Rhett Pitlick (Tri-City, USHL), forward Matthew Knies (Tri-City, USHL)

2021-22 Prediction: After closely losing the Big Ten regular-season crown to Wisconsin and getting bounced from the NCAA tournament by an in-state rival, the Gophers come into this season with an axe to grind. Minnesota lost its leading scorer from last season but a stable of talented freshmen forwards should be able to fill that void. The cherry on top is that Jack LaFontaine, who was brilliant in net last season for the Gophers, used his fifth-year option to return to Dinkytown.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Second

Graham Slaggert enters his senior season with Notre Dame in 2020-21 (photo: Notre Dame Athletics).

NOTRE DAME

HEAD COACH: Jeff Jackson (17th season)

LAST SEASON: 14-13-2 (12-10-2 B1G, third)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Graham Slaggert (7-18-25), forward Landon Slaggert (8-14-22), defenseman Nick Leivermann (5-12-17), defenseman Max Ellis (5-11-16)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Alex Steeves (15-17-32)

KEY ADDITIONS: Justin Janicke (U.S. NTDP)

2021-22 Prediction: The good news for Notre Dame is it didn’t lose a lot of key players from last year’s team. The bad news is the Irish will need to count on multiple players to take a next step and help shoulder the scoring burden for a team that struggled in that department. Jeff Jackson also took advantage of the transfer portal, including bringing in Jack Adams to play at his third different school. Between the pipes, Cornell transfer Matt Galajda should help stabilize that position.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Third

Steve Rohlik enters his ninth season behind the Ohio State bench (photo: Ohio State Athletics).

OHIO STATE

HEAD COACH: Steve Rohlik (ninth season)

LAST SEASON: 7-19-1 (6-16-0 B1G, fifth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Travis Treloar (8-12-20), forward Mark Cheremeta (5-14-19), forward Quinn Preston (6-7-13), defenseman Grant Gabriele (3-10-13)

KEY LOSSES: Goaltender Tommy Nappier (7-16-1, 3.28 GAA, .906 SV%)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Mason Lohrei (Green Bay, USHL), goaltender Jakub Dobes (Omaha, USHL)

2021-22 Prediction: Like Notre Dame, Ohio State will be counting on a lot of its players from last season having improved over the offseason. The Buckeyes frequently hung Tommy Nappier out to dry last season and, with him having moved on, there are now three goalies with limited college experience. With some youngsters finding the next gear and a few upper classmen regaining their mojo the Buckeyes could be an intriguing team, but that’s a tall order.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Seventh

Penn State goalie Oskar Autio pitched his first career Big Ten shutout, stopping all 23 shots he faced during a 1-0 victory against Michigan State on Jan. 3, 2021 (photo: Penn State Athletics).

PENN STATE

HEAD COACH: Guy Gadowsky (10th season)

LAST SEASON: 10-12-0 (7-11-0 B1G, fifth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Forward Kevin Wall (8-11-19), forward Connor McMenamin (6-9-15), goaltender Oskar Autio (9-9-0, 3.13 GAA, .894 SV%)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Alex Limoges (10-12-22), forward Tim Doherty (8-10-18)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Ryan Kirwan (Green Bay, USHL), forward Danny Dzhaniyev (Dubuque, USHL)

2021-22 Prediction: After having a whole month of games canceled last season, simply playing the schedule as scheduled will probably be relief for Penn State. The Nittany Lions return a lot of their scoring from last season but with the lack of games most of those players ended up with a point total in the 5-15 range. A high-flying offense is usually Penn State’s bread and butter, so it’ll be interesting to see who steps up to lead the charge.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Fifth

Owen Lindmark recorded four goals and 17 points in 27 games in ‘2020-21 for the Badgers (photo: Wisconsin Athletics).

WISCONSIN

HEAD COACH: Tony Granato (sixth season)

LAST SEASON: 20-10-1 (17-6-1 B1G, first)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Roman Ahcan (9-13-22), forward Brock Caufield (7-10-17), forward Owen Lindmark (4-13-17)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Cole Caufield (30-22-52), forward Linus Weissbach (12-29-41), forward Dylan Holloway (11-24-35), forward Ty Pelton-Byce (12-19-31)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Daniel Laatsch (Sioux City, USHL), defenseman Corson Ceulemans (Brooks, AJHL)

2021-22 Prediction: As if replacing Cole Caufield wasn’t going to be difficult enough the Badgers also have to replace the next three leading scorers behind him, too. Wisconsin almost solely relied on Caufield at points last season and his 30 goals are now, obviously, going to have to be spread out amongst the remaining players. Goaltender Cameron Rowe, who posted a 9-2-1 record last season while sharing the net with Robbie Beydoun, returns. Minnesota transfer Jared Moe will give Tony Granato the option to rotate goalies again this season.

2021-22 Position Prediction: Fourth

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