Women’s Division I College Hockey: 2022-23 WCHA season preview

Welcome back for what looks to be the best DI women’s college hockey season we’ve ever seen. The combination of elite recruits, fifth year players and Olympians means the level of talent on rosters across the board is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The puck officially drops on the season Thursday at 7 PM ET as Wisconsin visits Penn State, so those two conference previews are up first, starting with the WCHA.

WCHA teams were picked as four of the top five teams in the country in both polls to start the season. The WCHA coaches picked Minnesota as the preseason favorite, but just two points separate the top three teams, with Ohio State and Wisconsin coming right behind the Gophers. Three coaches picked Minnesota as the top team. Three more picked Ohio State. Two picked Wisconsin. And that’s not even adding UMD into the equation. My introduction paragraph last year talked about how these are some of the best teams in the country that will spend the year beating up on each other and that seems even more true this year.

Ohio State kept the national championship trophy in the WCHA family with their first ever title win. They return nearly all the key pieces from that run and they join the Gophers, Bulldogs and Badgers in bringing in talented freshman while returned players who took a year off for the Olympics.

It’s impossible to predict how this conference will shake out in terms of standings, but it would be shocking if the WCHA does not once again have four representatives in the NCAA tournament.

Bemidji State

Last season
11-20-3, 8-18-2 (sixth). Lost to Wisconsin in the WCHA quarterfinals.

Names to know
After splitting time in net last season, junior Hannah Hogenson is the starting goalie this season. She has the luxury of knowing the role is hers and the experience of 21 starts last season to build off of.

Senior Reece Hunt led the team with 20 points last season and will be looked to to push the team’s offense again.

Sophomore Claire Vekich showed flashes of brilliance last season and the expectations on her are high this year as she’ll draw more defensive attention and more time with the puck. Her size is an advantage and Bemidji needs her to be solid in front of the net to screen, deflect and bury pucks.

What to Watch For
The Beavers were 36th in the country in team defense last season, allow 3.54 goals per game. They had five freshman defenders that got extensive playing time last season, but that group now has a year of experience under their belt

They had eight games last season where they were shutout and 11 more where they managed a single goal. With the high powered offenses in the WCHA, they have to find a way to get pucks to the net.

Bemidji closes the regular season with a series against UMD, but the six games before that are all against the bottom half of the conference. They showed last season that what happens when teams let them hang around, including a tie against Wisconsin and a win over Ohio State. I like that they can build momentum off those games heading into the WCHA tournament.

Crystal ball
I have Bemidji sixth

Minnesota

Last Season
29-9-1, 21-6-1 (first). Lost to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Names to know
Not only have incoming international players Nelli Laitenen (Finland) and Josefun Bouveng (Sweden) played in a number of top tier tournaments, but they are both older than average freshman. At 20 and 21 years old respectively, they bring experience on and off the and represent the future of this team. They’ll get a season to skate alongside and learn from Minnesota’s veterans and should not have the difficulty transitioning to the speed of the game that first-year players often experience.

Fifth year skater Taylor Heise won the 2021 Patty Kazmaier Award. She and linemates Abigail Boreen and Catie Skaja worked together flawlessly last season and return this year to try and push the Gophers back to a national championship. They were as good as any line last season and will only be better this year. Take the time to watch a game just to see how these three skate together.

What to Watch For
Like many teams this season, goaltending is a question mark for the Gophers. Each of their three goalies have had starts and seen time in a number of games, but none have yet emerged as the clear starter. Minnesota allowed 15 more goals than Ohio State and 21 more goals than Wisconsin last season and the Gopher goalies had to make more saves than the netminders of their main rivals. The uncertainty is a little concerning because teams are able to get in on their net. The defense looks to be stronger, but this is something I’ll be watching out for.

As I wrote about when she won the Patty Kazmaier Award, part of what made Heise so good is how she elevated the players around her. Then she went off and spent the summer scoring seemingly at will at the IIHF Women’s World Championship. I still think she’s going to be dishing pucks to her linemates, but I also think we saw her grow in confidence about her abilities and that she should trust her instinct and look to light the lamp. I expect her to be even more lethal this season.

Crystal Ball
I have Minnesota third right now, but that is absolutely negligible. On paper, there is very little separating the top teams here.

Minnesota Duluth

Last Season
27-12-1, 19-8-1 (fourth). Lost to Ohio State in the National Championship game.

Names to know
UMD is one of the few top teams that does not have a goalie question thanks to fifth year netminder Emma Soderberg. She is the backbone of the team and continues to impress internationally, as well. Having her in net is the solid basis Minnesota Duluth builds out from.

Grad student Gabbie Hughes was a Patty Kaz and Hockey Humanitarian top-3 finalist last season. The Bulldogs will be looking to her even more to take on the lead role. She is creative and sneaky on the ice, getting behind the defense and claiming territory in front of the net.

What to Watch For
The Bulldogs stumbled in the WCHA playoffs last season, barely eking out a best-of-three win over Minnesota State before losing 5-1 to the Gophers in the conference tournament semifinal. They made it into the NCAA tournament thanks to the expanded field and did not take the opportunity for granted, making it to the title game. The turnaround from one weekend to the next between the WCHA Final Faceoff and their NCAA regional games was impressive. That kind of resiliency and response is much rarer than it should be and I think the lessons learned through that experience will be helpful and important to this team this year.

Nearly half of UMD’s points last season came from their top line, with now-graduated Elizabeth Giguère leading the way. Linemates Gabbie Hughes and Anna Klein remain and there are a number of forwards that stepped up at different time during the season, but I think the Bulldogs need a bit more balance throughout their lines to make a run this season like they did last. Giguère’s vision and ability to move the puck is something they’ll miss and I’ll be watching to see if the team as a whole can take a step forward. That top line was so good they *were able to produce even when they were being well-defended. But when teams are able to neutralize that threat, who are going to be the players who step up with consistency?

Crystal Ball
If – and that’s a big if – there is distance between UMD and the trio Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio State, it is inconsequential. They’ve already shown that perceived step down is easy to overcome. I believe the other three teams may have a deeper offense, so for now I have the Bulldogs fourth.

Minnesota State

Last Season
15-9-1, 10-17-1 (fifth). Lost to Minnesota Duluth in OT in the WCHA quarterfinals.

Names to know
2021 WCHA Rookie of the Year Jamie Nelson returns to the lineup after being sidelined by injury. She should make a dynamic pairing with Kelsey King, who is the team’s top returning scorer.

Freshman Oceane Asham has good instincts near the net, fights along the boards and should be a great boost for the Maverick offense.

What to Watch For
Their 15 wins last season were one shy of tying a program record. This team keeps improving and it’s unfortunate for them that the gap to close between the top and bottom half of this conference is so big. They start the season with series against Ohio State, Minnesota and UMD. It’s important that they find a way to keep improving and growing ot close that gap, even if the end result is yet another fifth place conference finish.

There’s still too big a gap between the offense and defense for the Mavericks. The were in the top half of the country in team offense, but 32nd in team defense. They had the sixth best power play unit in the country and the worst penalty kill.

Crystal Ball
I have Mankato finishing fifth.

Ohio State

Last Season
32-6, 21-6 (second). Won the National Championship.

Names to know
Grad student Sophie Jaques was our USCHO Player of the Year. The defender was dynamic on both ends of the ice and is absolutely lethal when she is able to cheat in from the blue line to the top of the circles. She shrinks the ice, requires teams to defend her closely and still seems to find the open ice and a clear shot. This whole Buckeye roster is talented, but when she’s on the ice, I can’t help but watch the details of who Jaques plays.

Grad student Emma Maltais has flourished at Ohio State. She took her talent and confidence to Team Canada to win two World Championships and an Olympic gold medal over the past year and returns to enhance an already powerhouse Buckeye team. Beyond bringing adding her talent on the ice, she’s a tremendous addition to the locker room as a leader who’s positive and always enjoying the game.

Sweden’s Sofie Lundin is a 22 year old freshman with Olympic and World Championship experience who uses her small stature to her advantage.

What to Watch For
Everything. If the Buckeyes are playing, you should be watching. That point stands for quite a few teams this season, particularly in this conference, but is particularly true here. The Buckeyes are a threat on every part of the ice. Their roster looks much the same as it did when they won the title and they’ve added a number of great pieces. Their game is quick and exciting and dynamic. Watch for the overarching great play, but also watch for the details. You won’t regret it.

Ohio State has played with a chip on it’s shoulder under Nadine Muzerall. They have embraced being the upstarts against the old guard of Wisconsin, Minnesota and even UMD. I’ll be interested to see what the attitude and motivation looks like now that their “no respect” drive doesn’t ring true.

Crystal Ball
I have no practical idea how to separate them from the other three. They’re the defending champions, so they get the benefit of the doubt. I have the Buckeyes first.

St. Cloud State

Last Season
9-23-3, 4-20-3 (seventh). Lost to Ohio State in the WCHA quarterfinals.

Names to know
New coach Brian Idalski will be familiar to long-time WCHA fans – he was the coach of the North Dakota women’s team when the university dropped the program. Since then he’s been coaching the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays and Chinese national team. This feels like a stellar hire for a program that needed a shot in the arm. Idalski will be determined to bring this program up and has the experience to do so.

Junior Jojo Chobak transferred to SCSU from Minnesota Duluth. She was stellar in net for the Bulldogs when Emma Soderberg was at the Olympics, so much so that folks wondered if she should be the starter in the post season. She is likely either going to be the starter or split time with Sanni Ahola and either way, that puts the Huskies in a very solid position to build out from.

Junior forward Emma Gentry led the Huskies with 15 goals last season. The 5’11” left-handed forward also led the team in shots on goal. She’s a big target who moves well and claims space in front of the net.

What to Watch For
This might be more long term than immediate, but one of the ways Idalski made UND into a competitor in the WCHA was by bringing in international talent. He knew he couldn’t compete with the top schools for recruits, so he built his team through a different route. SCSU already has a number of non-North American players, but expect that number to grow under Idalski. The international players bring more than just talent and I think that kind of experience and maturity will really help evolve the program in St. Cloud. I’d imagine having Mira Jalosuo as an assistant will help in this regard, as well.

Crystal Ball
I think we’ll see improvement from St. Cloud State, but for now I have them seventh.

St. Thomas

Last Season
5-27-1, 3-23-1 (eighth). Lost to Minnesota in the WCHA quarterfinals.

Names to know
Sophomore Abby Promersberger led the team with 13 pts in her rookie season.

Defender Nicole Vallario is Swiss National Team mainstay and she scored a goal at the most recent Women’s World Championships in Denmark.

Senior Alexa Dobchuk saw the majority of starts in net for the Tommies, but Saskia Maurer has seen increased time with the Swiss National Team and has shown herself well at international competitions. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a more even split of starts between these two.

What to Watch For
It is an absolutely rough second half for St. Thomas, who open with a non-conference series with RIT before facing Minnesota, UMD, Wisconsin, Bemidji State, Ohio State and Minnesota to close out the season.

Doing dual duty coaching the Olympic team and St. Thomas was a tough proposition for head coach Joel Johnson and meant we didn’t really get a good read on the kind of head coach he’ll be at St. Thomas. Seeing how he and the team progress together through a full season will be interesting to watch.

Crystal Ball
St. Thomas did a lot in a tough league in tough circumstances their first year. I think they’ve got a lot to show, but for now I have them eighth.

Wisconsin

Last Season
26-8-4, 18-6-3 (third). Lost to Northeastern in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Names to know
KK Harvey makes her long-awaited Badger debut with two World Championships and an Olympics under her belt. After sporadic playing time through the first World Championships and Olympics, she seemed to find comfort and settle into her role in Denmark in August. Like Jaques, she moves up from the blue line into offensive play. Harvey has an impressive shot she’s able to unleash from anywhere on the ice. She fortifies Wisconsin defense and adds another dimension to their offense.

Fifth year skater Jesse Compher transferred to Wisconsin from Boston University for her final year of eligibility. She had three goals and an assist for Team USA in Beijing and brings a wealth of experience and hockey IQ to center the Badgers’ top line.

It’s hard to take your eyes off 6’1″ freshman Laila Edwards when she’s on the ice. With her height and scoring at the U18 World Championships in June, no one on the ice was unaware of who she was or what she was capable of doing on the ice, but she was still able to slice through the defense, using her long reach to keep the puck away from defenders and give her the angles she needed to cut to the net.

What to Watch For
We have to see how things shake out, but for me, here and now and on paper before the puck drops, Wisconsin has the most dynamic roster this season. Two of the breakout stars of the U-18 World Championships held at LaBahn in June, Laila Edwards and Kirsten Simms, who play incredibly well together, look like they’ll be on Wisconsin’s third line, possibly with Sarah Wozniewicz. Between the caliber of players in their newest class, adding Compher, getting Lacey Eden and Britta Curl back from centralization and getting Marianne Picard back from inury, it’s just a really impressive four lines of offense.

All that being said, the Badgers have a massive question mark in goal. The front-runner for the role would appear to be Cammi Kronish, who has two career starts in net and has appeared in seven total games. Sophomore Jane Gervais has one start and two appearances and Chloe Baker is a rookie. The Badgers’ style of play means that pucks make it back to their own net infrequently and I’d bet possession is even more of a stress as this season kicks off. It’s hard to predict this with so little information and data to go off of, but Wisconsin fans can rest a little easier knowing that the team has the offensive firepower to offset any stumbles that may come from trying to find a starter.

Crystal Ball
On paper, the Badgers look like the team to beat to me. It’s hard to argue with all the talent they’re adding (and adding back). I have them second because the returning national champs get the nod at 1.

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