note: from now until the start of the year I am going to be predicting the order of finish for all of the leagues, as well as picking my all-league teams. In the interest of brevity I will break each league into two posts, one for the order and one for the preseason awards. Today’s conference is the WCHA
The Pioneers are a strong national title candidate, but putting them 1st here required me to go out on a limb a bit, as they will be relying on Adam Murray in net rather than potential All-American Sam Brittain. The Pioneers also lose Matt Donovan, who signed early with the Islanders. Donovan has some work to do defensively, but was one of the better defensemen in the WCHA and was leaned heavily on by George Gwozdecky and company.
Still, Denver returns a ton of talent. Jason Zucker is a potential WCHA player of the year, the Shore brothers are fantastic, and Beau Bennett is a Sophomore breakout candidate for me, even though the 1st round pick struggled in his Freshman campaign.
Furthermore, Denver has an incredibly strong recruiting class, led by 2011 2nd rounder Scott Mayfield. If Murray is even average between the pipes I think Denver has what it takes to win the MacNaughton Cup.
2. North Dakota
The Sioux lost more talent than anyone this summer, but still return a ton of talent. Ben Blood might be the best defensive defenseman in the country, and I think Andrew MacWilliam will have a nice bounceback year this year after struggling a bit as a Sophomore. I also am a big fan of Dillon Simpson, as the Sophomore had some time quarterbacking the power
play as a 17 year old Freshman on the best team in the league last year.
Up front the Sioux need a big year from Danny Kristo, who struggled a bit as a Sophomore last year. Corban Knight might be the best player you’re not yet aware of, as he had 44 points in 44 games last year, and is one of the better faceoff men in the country.
Recruiting wise the Sioux’s big chip is Rocco Grimaldi, a 2nd round pick who was dominant for the NTDP. But also look out for Nick Mattson, who was a first team all-USHL performer on the blueline.
Another big question is in goal, though it’s a different one than the Pioneers. Aaron Dell put up a lot of wins and a low GAA last year, but also had a low save percentage in conference games. If he struggles this year the Sioux could go back to Brad Eidsness, who was the guy in his Freshman and Sophomore years.
3. Colorado College
welcome back Jaden Schwartz, who led the team in scoring despite being hurt playing for Canada at the World Juniors last year. He resisted overtures both from the Blues and from the WHL to return to CC, where he is a prime candidate for WCHA POY. His brother Rylan is one of the better passers in the conference and another key cog to the offense.
If you haven’t sensed a theme yet, goaltending is a key for the Tigers. Joe Howe struggled mightily last year, putting up just a .895 save percentage in league play last year, which ranked 11th. He’ll have to be a lot better for the Tigers to finish 3rd (or higher), but I think he will due so simply due to regression.
put in a top 3 finish in their first year of the league, and have the skills to do so again. Their biggest problem was in net, where John Faulkner, despite tying for the nation’s lead in shutouts he finished 8th in the league in save percentage. So when he was good he was really good, and when he was bad he was really bad. If Dean Blais isn’t a fan of that hot and cold approach, he could go to Ryan Massa, who played well for Fargo (USHL) last year.
Up front the Mavericks lose some big names, but return some great forwards as well. Alex Hudson and Terry Broadhurst figure to have big names, and watch for Jayson Megna up front as well.
5. St. Cloud State
I ranked St. Cloud extremely high last year, not just in the WCHA but nationally. Whoops. I apparently haven’t learned my lesson because I am going to that well again. The Huskies don’t have a ton of star power but like Omaha they’re deep up front, led by Junior Ben Hanowski. Drew LeBlanc, who was 10th in ppg in conference play, is back as well. Also watch for David Eddy, who had almost a point per game, though he missed half the year for academic issues.
Defensively the Huskies lost Oliver Lauridsen, who will be a big loss, but return Nick Jensen
, who had 16 points in conference play as a Freshman. He’ll likely take big steps forward as a Sophomore and be one of the better defensemen in the league. Also watch for Kevin Gravel who is another Sophomore breakout candidate.
A lot of jokes are made about Mike Lee being pulled from big games (a lot of them made by yours truly) but he’s an all-league candidate after posting a .915 save percentage in league play last year, which was 4th in the WCHA.
Duluth was the toughest team for me to rank. They lose two of their best three players off last year’s team, as well as maybe their most talented player, defenseman Justin Faulk. Jack Connolly should be the preseason POY, but how will he do having to mesh with two new linemates? JT Brown had a good year, but really turned into a household name in the NCAA tournament and will probably sign a free agent deal this summer as this year’s Stephane Da Costa.
I do think that Duluth has significant questions along the blueline, losing both Faulk and Mike Montgomery, who was a great defensive defenseman. Not to mention the loss of Dylan Olsen at midseason last year when he signed with the Blackhawks.
In net Duluth has a pair of goalies in Kenny Reiter and Aaron Crandall who will both need to play a bit above their station in order for Duluth to compete. Both have battled bouts of inconsistency but can also put in a stretch of great games in a row.
The Gophers have fallen on hard times in recent memory. Still, despite losing Mike Hoeffel, Jay Barribal and Jacob Cepis (who I think was their best player last year), I think the Gophers could push for home ice. Nick Bjugstad is the big cog up front, as he came on in the latter stages of the year and is primed for a breakout year. He, like Erik Haula, played well at the WJC last year and each could be an all-league type player.
On the blueline, the biggest addition is not on the ice but off it as assistant coach Mike Guentzel is back to try to shore up the defensemen.
As usual, Minnesota has plenty of talented recruits coming in, led this year by Seth Ambroz, who at this time last year was considered a guaranteed first round pick but fell all the way to the 5th round, where he was picked by Columbus.
In net the Gophers may have the best goalie in the league in Kent Patterson, who led the WCHA in save percentage in conference play last year.
Another team that was exceptionally hard for me to rank, the Badgers mainly played to their schedule, beating the teams they should and losing to the teams they probably should have as well. The Badgers lost their best forward in Craig Smith, who looks like a Calder Trophy candidate, and Jake Gardiner, who I think was their best defenseman even though Justin Schultz got the majority of the publicity.
Speaking of Schultz, he led the Badgers in scoring last year and looks like a favorite for the Hobey this year. The Badgers have a ton of very good defensemen, especially John Ramage, who is probably the best defensive defenseman in the conference outside of Ben Blood.
9. Bemidji State
The Beavers lost a ton of talent last year, including Matt Read, who signed with Philadelphia. But they do return leading scorer Jordan George, who has a good all-league case as well.
In net, the Beavers are led by Dan Bakala, who had a .912 save percentage in conference play which ranked 6th, but when taking into consideration the team in front of him he’s probably better than the numbers suggest. He should be much better this year with most everyone from his blueline back.
The Seawolves broke through last year, advancing to the Final Five. Though they lose their best forward in Tommy Grant, they return some talent
such as Matt Bailey, who had 8 goals and 16 points in conference play, and on the blueline they like Bemidji return nearly everyone. Worth noting is that Anchorage had the best penalty kill in the conference last year, though it’s worth wondering if that can continue given how many shots they gave up.
11. Michigan Tech
The Huskies will probably struggle under first year coach Mel Pearson, but it can’t be worse than 4-30-4 last year. However, up front the Huskies return nearly every key forward off last year’s team, so they could put up some goals, and they also add a couple key recruits in Tanner Kero and Blake Pietila.
12. Minnesota State
Minnesota state lost probably their best four players off last year’s team that won just 8 WCHA games, and will need their goalie tandem of Phil Cook and Austin Lee to steal some games if they want to make it out of the basement.