NCHC 2021-22 Season Preview: With ‘hopefully a normal season to come,’ conference seeing balance throughout teams

Jake Sanderson returns for his sophomore season at North Dakota as one of the top NHL prospects playing college hockey (photo: North Dakota Athletics).

October is basically hockey’s spring.

Hope abounds for each new season, and this time around, that extends to what’s going on amid a pandemic that has affected all of us for a year and a half.

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton knows all about that.

Lucky guy.

When the conference began play eight years ago, he couldn’t have foreseen what would be happening nowadays.

It would’ve been unthinkable back then to imagine that the whole 2020 postseason would be canceled, and that the following season would start with all eight of the league’s teams playing in a pod environment over three weeks at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. Then there was the entire NCHC playoffs taking place under one roof, at North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The 2021-22 NCHC season is now underway, and — feel free to knock on any wooden object near you — operationally, Fenton feels that the league is running close to normal.

“We’re very cautious and aware of the environment that’s still out there, but there’s fans back into games, obviously us having a normal schedule and traveling somewhat normally when teams move one from one site to the next, and our officiating assignment schedule is pretty much normal,” Fenton said.

“The feeling is that we’ve got hopefully a normal season to come, yet we still have some caution that we’re paying attention to, obviously, as it relates to the virus that’s still very much out there. It’s normality with some tweaks, things like masking in venues and having to follow NCAA Sport Science Institute guidance for people that are vaccinated and unvaccinated, the differences between the two of those, but generally we feel good about where we are.”

Fenton said Friday that all eight NCHC teams are almost entirely vaccinated: some are at 94 percent, others at 100. Additionally, all full-time employees at the NCHC’s Colorado Springs headquarters are vaccinated.

The league is coming off of a year in which half of the membership reached the NCAA tournament, with St. Cloud State playing in the national championship game. Minnesota Duluth also reached the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and there’s every reason to think that the NCHC would be strongly represented again in the 2022 postseason, provided there is one.

There’s plenty else that’s familiar in the NCHC this season, including veteran leadership. The NCAA granted a blanket eligibility exemption last season, and six NCHC teams will field a combined 22 fifth-year or graduate-student players this time around.

There is some newness, though, and more than just in terms of freshmen.

Colorado College opened its brand-new, on-campus Robson Arena home Saturday in an exhibition against Air Force. CC also has a new coach, as former Michigan assistant Kris Mayotte now has the keys to the Tigers’ kingdom. They began practice at Robson on Sept. 10, and they played in front of a full house Saturday.

With a capacity around half of what CC had at its former Broadmoor World Arena home, the Tigers’ new confines feature space for 350 CC students, or around a fifth of the school’s enrollment.

Western Michigan also has a new coach, with former Broncos assistant Pat Ferschweiler accepting the reins from longtime former coach Andy Murray.

WMU has a new bench boss for the first time in a decade, but Ferschweiler was on hand when the Broncos utilized six locker rooms — the team’s bespoke locker room, plus five general-use ones — most of last season at Lawson Ice Arena. Most of that team returns, and the Broncos’ roster includes three graduated veterans.

That kind of familiarity feeds into Fenton’s eagerness over the new season.

All things considered, the NCHC stands in as good-quality stead as ever.

“I’m excited about returning to some sense of normalcy,” Fenton said. “I’m excited to go into a venue where we’re going to have lots of fans, although there’s going to be protocols and restrictions they’re going to have to follow.

“I think the aspect of going into a venue and having those student-athletes on the ice competing in front of hopefully full arenas, that’s what college athletics is all about, and that’s what college hockey is all about.

“Our players across the country in general deserve to compete in those environments. Last year, the environments typically were not real great. They were stale, they were quiet. We were just out there playing basically hockey games in almost like a scrimmage environment. I’m most excited about seeing the electricity and excitement come back to college hockey.”

Hunter McKown looks to improve on his six points collected a season ago for Colorado College (photo: Casey B. Gibson).

COLORADO COLLEGE

Head coach: Kris Mayotte (first season)

2019-20 overall record: 4-17-2 (seventh in NCHC)

Key returning players: Sophomore forward Hunter McKown (2-4-6), sophomore defenseman Jack Millar (2-4-6), sophomore goaltender Dominic Basse (4-11-1, 3.18 GAA, .895 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Josiah Slavin (5-8-13), forward Ben Copeland (4-7-11), forward Grant Cruikshank (8-2-10)

Key additions: Forward Noah Prokop (Omaha transfer), forward Danny Weight (Boston College transfer) forward Brett Chorske (St. Cloud, NAHL), defenseman Nate Schweitzer (Sioux Falls, USHL)

2020-21 predictions: Colorado College hasn’t finished above .500 in a decade, but the Tigers appear to have made a good hire in Mayotte. Don’t be surprised if CC gets new-coach and new-arena bounces, but the thing about college sports these days is that arms races don’t stop. One team might get significantly better, but that doesn’t mean the others won’t.

Matthew’s prediction: Eighth

Denver goalie Magnus Chrona earned seven wins last year for the Pioneers (photo: Denver Athletics).

DENVER

Head coach: David Carle (fourth season)

2019-20 overall record: 10-13-1 (fifth in NCHC)

Key returning players: Senior forward Cole Guttman (8-14-22), sophomore forward Carter Savoie (13-7-20), sophomore defenseman Mike Benning (3-8-11), junior goaltender Magnus Chrona (7-11, 2.47 GAA, .907 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Kohen Olischefski (4-10-14), forward Hank Crone (5-4-9), defenseman Slava Demin (3-5-8)

Key additions: Forward Carter Mazur (Tri-City, USHL), defenseman Shai Buium (Sioux City, USHL), sophomore Sean Behrens (USNDTP)

2020-21 predictions: Denver returns five of its top six scorers from last season, but Carle will be hoping for a season that better resembles his first one in charge, 2018-19, when the Pioneers reached the Frozen Four. That might be a stretch for a DU team that was up and down last season, but when are we ever surprised to see the Pioneers make a good postseason run?

Matthew’s prediction: Fourth

Derek Daschke will be counted on for leadership this season at Miami (photo: Mark Kuhlmann).

MIAMI

Head coach: Chris Bergeron (third season)

2019-20 overall record: 5-18-2 (eighth in NCHC)

Key returning players: Senior forward Matt Barry (2-15-17), Senior forward Matthew Barbolini (5-9-14), senior defenseman Derek Daschke (4-8-12), sophomore goaltender Ludvig Persson (5-11-2, 2.61 GAA, .925 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Casey Gilling (4-11-15), forward Phil Knies (3-6-9)

Key additions: Forward Red Savage (USNTDP), defenseman Alex Murray (Lone Star, NAHL), defenseman Will Cullen (Bowling Green transfer)

2020-21 predictions: There’s a part of me that is tempted to pick Miami higher. I’m interested to see what Cullen brings to the table as a first-team all-WCHA player from last season, playing in front of a goalie who had the NCHC’s second-best save percentage from last season. Miami still gave up the most goals in the league last season, though, and the RedHawks might not improve hugely on that minus-37 goal difference.

Matthew’s prediction: Seventh

Ryan Fanti starts the 2021-22 season as UMD’s No. 1 goaltender (photo: Minnesota Duluth Athletics).

MINNESOTA DULUTH

Head coach: Scott Sandelin (22nd season)

2019-20 overall record: 15-11-2 (third in NCHC)

Key returning players: Fifth-year forward Koby Bender (7-13-20), fifth-year forward Kobe Roth (13-10-23), senior forward Noah Cates (5-14-19), junior goaltender Ryan Fanti (11-7-2, 2.36 GAA, .907 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Nick Swaney (13-15-28), forward Jackson Cates (11-16-27), forward Coel Koepke (15-8-23)

Key additions: Forward Casey Gilling (Miami transfer), forward Dominic James (Lincoln, USHL), defenseman Owen Gallatin (Fargo, USHL)

2020-21 predictions: UMD has reached the last four Frozen Fours, and I know better than to say Boston is beyond the Bulldogs’ grasp. They have to replace their top three scorers, but UMD won’t be short on veteran leadership, thanks in part to five fifth-year seniors and a graduate transfer in Gilling. Keep an eye on what happens in the crease, though as Fanti will be pushed by sophomore Zach Stejskal. He had a .929 save percentage and 1.83 save percentage in nine games last season.

Matthew’s prediction: Third

Omaha goalie Isaiah Saville was in net for 12 of Omaha’s 14 wins during the 2020-21 season (photo: Omaha Athletics).

OMAHA

Head coach: Mike Gabinet (fifth season)

2019-20 overall record: 14-11-1 (fourth in NCHC)

Key returning players: Senior forward Chayse Primeau (9-14-23), senior forward Tyler Weiss (7-16-23), junior defenseman Brandon Scanlin (2-15-17), junior goaltender Isaiah Saville (12-11-1, 3.02 GAA, .907 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Ryan Brushett (1-6-7)

Key additions: Forward Cameron Berg (Muskegon, USHL), forward Brannon McManus (Minnesota transfer), defenseman Davis Pennington (Muskegon, USHL)

2020-21 predictions: Omaha returns nearly everyone from last season’s Mavericks squad that would’ve hosted a NCHC playoff series if the entire tournament hadn’t taken place at North Dakota. I haven’t been blown away by UNO’s goaltending corps, however, and that’s tough in a conference with some really good ones. Really, though, my predictions through the middle of the league are interchangeable, so my taking UNO fifth shouldn’t keep anyone up at night.

Matthew’s prediction: Fifth

Riese Gaber celebrates his third-period goal last season as North Dakota came from behind to down St. Cloud State in the Frozen Faceoff championship (photo: Russell Hons).

NORTH DAKOTA

Head coach: Brad Berry (seventh season)

2019-20 overall record: 22-6-1 (first in NCHC)

Key returning players: Sophomore forward Riese Gaber (11-10-21), sophomore defenseman Jake Sanderson (2-13-15), senior forward Mark Senden (3-11-14)

Key losses: Forward Jordan Kawaguchi (10-26-36), forward Collin Adams (14-20-34), defenseman Matt Kiersted (3-19-22), goaltender Adam Scheel (20-4-1, 1.73 GAA, .931 SV%)

Key additions: Forward Matteo Costantini (Sioux City, USHL), defenseman Brent Johnson (Sioux Falls, USHL), goaltender Zach Driscoll (Bemidji State transfer)

2020-21 predictions: Sure, UND loses its five top point-producers from last season, plus arguably the NCHC’s top goaltender, but is anyone that concerned about the Fighting Hawks? Sanderson is a preseason all-conference defenseman, Gaber has the potential to be a beast in this league, and UND’s recruiting class features four NHL draft picks. Goaltending is a question mark with Scheel gone, but the Hawks should be more than fine.

Matthew’s prediction: Second

St. Cloud State’s Jami Krannila celebrates a goal last season against Minnesota Duluth (photo: Russell Hons).

ST. CLOUD STATE

Head coach: Brett Larson (fourth season)

2019-20 overall record: 20-11-0 (second in NCHC)

Key returning players: Sophomore forward Veeti Miettinen (11-13-24), senior forward Nolan Walker (10-14-24), junior forward Jami Krannila (11-12-23), senior defenseman Nick Perbix (7-16-23), fifth-year goaltender Dávid Hrenák (17-10, 2.66 GAA, .904 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Will Hammer (3-6-9)

Key additions: Defenseman Eamon Powell (USNTDP), forward Danny Weight (Penticton, BCHL), Nikita Nesterenko (Chilliwack, BCHL)

2020-21 predictions: Predicting St. Cloud State to win the NCHC this season seems pretty straightforward. The Huskies return nearly everyone on a team that finished second at last season’s Frozen Four, and having five fifth-year players on board is big. SCSU will want a little more from Hrenák between the pipes, but there’s every reason to think the Huskies could reach the national championship game again.

Matthew’s prediction: First

Western Michigan senior Ethen Frank is back for a fifth season with the Broncos (photo: Ashley Huss).

WESTERN MICHIGAN

Head coach: Pat Ferschweller (first season)

2019-20 overall record: 10-12-3 (sixth in NCHC)

Key returning players: Sophomore forward Drew Worrad (5-18-23), graduate student forward Ethen Frank (13-8-21), junior defenseman Ronnie Attard (8-14-22), junior goaltender Brandon Bussi (2-1, 2.84 GAA, .889 SV%)

Key losses: Forward Brett Van Os (4-4-8), goaltender Austin Cain (3-8-2, 4.03 GAA, .870 SV%)

Key additions: Forward Wyatt Schingoethe (Waterloo, USHL), forward Max Sasson (Waterloo, USHL), forward Dylan Wendt (Muskegon, USHL), defenseman Nick Strom (Fargo, USHL)

2020-21 predictions: Western brings back nearly every player from last season’s team, and Broncos fans are excited to see what Attard can do after earning first-team All-American honors as a sophomore. WMU ran into trouble early last season when Bussi suffered a severe injury in the NCHC pod, but the Broncos won five straight down the stretch and took UMD to overtime in a conference playoff game. I look at my prediction here the same way I look at my one for Omaha: I have WMU sixth, but they could just as easily finish in the top half.

Matthew’s prediction: Sixth

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