2014-15 WCHA Preview, part 2: Minnesota Mankato looks to defend WCHA Final Five title

By DJ Powers
Zach Stepan - Minnesota State University-Mankato

Photo: Minnesota State-Mankato forward and Nashville Predators prospect Zach Stepan will be a main cog for one of the WCHA’s top offensive teams (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon Sportswire)

 

The 2014-15 season in the WCHA gets fully underway this weekend. Ferris State University was the 2013-14 regular season conference champion, while Minnesota State-Mankato was the winner in the WCHA Final Five tournament. The former was previewed in part one of the Hockey’s Future 2014-15 WCHA preview, while the latter is being previewed here in part two of this NCAA conference preview.

Minnesota State University-Mankato
NHL prospects: 5

The reigning WCHA tournament champions open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Nebraska-Omaha.

The Mavericks reached new heights last season that included winning the WCHA Final Five and making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. And with much of last season’s squad returning, Minnesota State-Mankato is poised to continue their upward trend this season.

Up front, the Mavericks will once again have great depth. Among those leading the group are junior Teddy Blueger (PIT) and sophomore Zach Stepan (NSH). Blueger posted 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) in 40 games. Stepan posted 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 35 games. Of his nine goals, five came on the power play. Blueger and Stepan were magical together last season, and as head coach Mike Hastings explains, he hopes to have them together again through this season, as well.

“We’ll have them together to start the season, but I’m hoping that we’ll be able to keep them together the rest of the year,” said Hastings of his offensive duo. “I think Teddy and Zach have a great partnership and respect each other. And because of that, I think it has allowed them to have the success that they’ve had.

“I think Teddy will be able to score more goals and have a breakout year for us. He does a phenomenal job of finding people at the appropriate times. Teddy can give his teammates those extra seconds to allow them to get into those open areas.”

“Zach is really good at finding open areas,” continued Hastings. “I think that’s part of what makes him so good with Teddy. Zach was a little dinged up last year but he’s come in faster and stronger and I think that’ll allow him to go through the grind (of the season) and become a more confident player for us this year.”

The Mavericks defense, led by senior tri-captain Zach Palmquist, is shaping up to be quite good this season. Palmquist, an All-WCHA First Team selection last year, led all Minnesota State-Mankato defensemen with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 41 games.

Sophomore Cole Huggins returns as the Mavericks’ starter in goal. The Centennial, CO native is coming off a sensational, record-setting rookie campaign, posting a 21-8-1 record that included six shutouts in 34 games. Huggins’ six shutouts, 1.88 goals-against average and .926 save percentage were all new school records. And as good as Huggins was last season, he could potentially be even better this season.

In addition to the returning players, Minnesota State-Mankato also welcomes six newcomers, including forward C.J. Franklin (WPG). The Forest Lake, MN native isn’t big (5’11”, 190 lbs.), but he makes up for it with his speed and tremendous work ethic. Hastings is very excited about what Franklin will bring to the team this season.

“I think C.J. will be a real impact player for us,” said Hastings of his freshman forward. “He brings a real solid, overall game and does a lot of things well. C.J. does a great job of getting the puck to the net. He’s got this hungry mentality where he’s never satisfied and his engine runs at a high RPM.”

Bowling Green State University
NHL prospects: 1

The Falcons open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Miami.

Bowling Green ended the 2013-14 season with their best finish since 1996-97, advancing all the way to the WCHA Final Five semi-finals. While the Falcons return much of last season’s team intact, some holes left by key departures will need to be filled this season.

The most significant loss that Bowling Green suffered was that of graduate Ryan Carpenter (SJS). The Oviedo, FL native saw limited time in an injury-shortened senior campaign last season, but made key contributions as the Falcons’ offensive catalyst. He capped his final year with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 15 games.

Among the players leading Bowling Green’s offensive charge this season is junior assistant captain, Mark Cooper. The Toronto, ON native led the Falcons with 14 goals last season and finished with 24 points. He was also one of only four players to play in all 39 games, as well. Cooper, who attended the Detroit Red Wings‘ prospect camp over the summer, is a power forward who can score timely goals and excels on the power play.

The Falcons lost three defensemen from last season, including top-scoring defenseman Ralfs Freibergs, who opted to turn pro by signing with St. John’s (AHL). While the losses are significant, the blueline is shaping up to one of Bowling Green’s strengths this season.

Senior Mike Sullivan is one of the anchors of the Falcons defense. The Toronto, ON native posted 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in 36 games last season. He also led Bowling Green with 48 blocked shots. Sullivan is an excellent skating, puck-moving defenseman that plays a very solid two-way game.

Mark Friedman (PHI) is one of 11 freshmen on the Falcons roster this season. He is also Bowling Green’s first NHL-drafted player since 2009. Friedman is a 5’10”, 191-pound offensive defenseman who could eventually help fill the void left by Freibergs.

Another of the Falcons’ strengths entering this season is in goal. Bowling Green returns their top two goaltenders in junior Tommy Burke and sophomore Tomas Sholl. Burke, Bowling Green’s starter, was outstanding between the pipes last season. The Chaska, MN native posted a 14-7-6 record that included three shutouts. Sholl, who will push Burke for playing time this season, posted a 4-8-0 record that included two shutouts in 12 games last season.

Lake Superior State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Lakers opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 4th versus Michigan Tech.

A new era dawns at Lake Superior State this season as Damon Whitten takes over as the Lakers’ new bench boss. Whitten comes to Lake Superior State after serving as an assistant coach at Michigan Tech. He succeeds Jim Roque, who has gone on to become a scout with the Arizona Coyotes.

“It’s a huge honor to be taking over this team with the history and tradition that we have,” said Whitten. “But with that comes a huge responsibility to try and mirror that legacy. For us, it’s going to be a process. We’ve set a goal where we want to be a step better every day and closer to where we need to go.”

The most pressing issue facing Lake Superior State entering this season is in goal. The Lakers graduated all of their netminders in Kevin Kapalka, Kevin Murdock and Niels-Erik Ravn. Lake Superior State will have four new goaltenders this season in Ohio State transfer Peter Megariotis, sophomore Aaron Davis, and freshmen Kevin Aldridge and Gordon Diefel. As Whitten explains, earning the starting job will be a competitive one.

“We have zero (collegiate) experience in net and it’s certainly not ideal, but it’s the situation that we have in front of us,” said Whitten. “We told those guys that this is a great opportunity. The position is wide open. Those guys have all been pushing each other every day and we’re hoping that one, two or three of them will emerge and (eventually) make it a position of strength for us.”

Junior Zach Loesch is one of just three upperclassmen anchoring the Lakers blueline this season. The towering White Bear Lake, MN native played in 33 games last season, posting five points (all assists). Loesch, who attended the Washington Capitals‘ prospect camp over the summer, is a 6’5”, 220-pound defensive defenseman who plays a simple yet effective game.

Ryan Renz is one of Lake Superior State’s five freshmen defensemen and one well worth a look. Renz, who had originally committed to Northeastern, is a hard-nosed, 6’2” and 208-pound defender who thrives in the physical aspect of the game.

Sophomore Alex Globke leads Lake Superior State’s offensive attack this season. The Waterford, MI native is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign that culminated with the WCHA Rookie of the Year honor. He was also the only WCHA freshman to lead his team in scoring last season, finishing with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists). While Lake Superior State does not have any NHL-drafted players on their current roster, in recent years the team has become a free agent hotbed of sorts for NHL teams. And Globke, who attended the prospect camps of the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings this summer, could potentially be the next Laker to be scooped up by an NHL team down the road.

“The big point of emphasis for Alex this summer was improving his foot speed,” Whitten said of Globke. “He’s come in a step quicker and his stride has improved. I think that, along with his pro body, will help Alex create some separation and get to get pucks quicker.”

Michigan Tech University
NHL prospects: 4

The Huskies opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 4th at Lake Superior State.

Michigan Tech finished fifth in the conference last season. Although the Huskies lost some key players from last year’s squad, the team will be more experienced. And, along with sporting an outstanding freshman class, the Huskies could also be in the mix for the WCHA title this season.

The big question mark for Michigan Tech coming into this season is in goal. Starting netminder Phoenix Copley opted to forego the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the Washington Capitals. He was the Huskies starter the last two seasons, finishing his final season with a 10-13-6 record that included one shutout in 30 appearances.

Copley’s departure also means that junior Jamie Phillips (WPG) will get more playing time and is likely to begin the season as Michigan Tech’s starter. Although the Caledonia, ON native played in just 13 games last season, he played remarkably well. He finished the year with a 4-6-1 record. Back on Oct. 20th, 2013, Phillips collected his first collegiate assist in the 7-3 loss to Notre Dame.

One area where the Huskies are shaping up to be even better this season is on their blueline as the Michigan Tech defense will be more experienced and have some added size, as well.

Anchoring the defensive corps this season is sophomore assistant captain Cliff Watson (SJS). The Appleton, WI native is coming off of an excellent freshman campaign with the Huskies where he posted four points (all assists) and was one of just four players to play in all 40 games last season. Much of what Watson did last season won’t be found on the score sheet, but he was one of Michigan Tech’s top shot-blockers and continually improved in taking care of his own zone and using his 6’2”, 200-pound frame more effectively.

Of the Huskies ten newcomers this season, four are defensemen including Dane Birks (PIT). At 6’3” and 190 pounds, the Merritt, BC native adds size to Michigan Tech’s blueline. Birks is noted for his mobility and willingness to be a physical presence.

All of the Huskies’ top point producers return this season with senior co-captain Blake Pietila (NJD) leading the offensive charge. The Brighton, MI native led the Huskies with 20 assists and co-led the team with 28 points in 39 games. Where Pietila really made his mark last season was on the power play where seven of his eight goals were scored. Pietila has also established a nice balance between his offensive side and defensive responsibilities, which have greatly benefited he and his Michigan Tech team.

Northern Michigan University
NHL prospects: 0

The Wildcats open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 17th versus Wisconsin at the Resch Center in Green Bay, WI.

Northern Michigan finished seventh in the WCHA last season in large part due to the rash of injuries, particularly on defense, that plagued the team. The Wildcats had only four players that played in all 38 games last season. With the team healthy heading into the new season, Northern Michigan could make a strong push up the WCHA standings.

One area the Wildcats will look to improve upon is their offensive numbers. Northern Michigan possessed an offense that averaged 2.68 goals per game last season, which ranked 35th nationally. Interestingly, the Wildcats power play was excellent last season, clicking at 20 percent. Only Minnesota State-Mankato had a better power play in the WCHA.

The good news for Northern Michigan is that the team returns nearly all of their top scorers this season. The Wildcats did graduate top scorer Stephen Vigier, however, who finished with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games. His 16 goals also included nine power play tallies.

Pesky senior Reed Seckel returns as the Wildcats’ top scorer from last season. The Melvin, MI native posted 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 33 games last season. He also led the WCHA with a whopping 103 penalty minutes. Seckel is a winger that can be a thorn in the side of opposing teams. While his ultra-aggressive style is one of his greatest attributes, he needs to balance that with more discipline to be a consistently effective player.

All but one of Northern Michigan’s five newcomers this season are forwards, including senior Joe Manno. The Montreal, QC native is one of two Northeastern transfers on the Wildcats roster this season (senior defenseman Luke Eibler is the other). Manno possesses some nice offensive skills that should help boost Northern Michigan’s point production this season.

The Wildcats have an experienced defensive corps that is shaping up to be even better this season. Senior co-captain Jake Baker anchors the Northern Michigan defense. The towering Port Moody, BC native posted six points (one goal, five assists) in 36 games last season. At 6’5” and 223 pounds, Baker is the Wildcats’ biggest player this season. He’s a very good puck-moving defenseman that plays equally well at both ends of the ice. Baker has been on the NHL radar since his sophomore season, having previously attended the prospect camps of the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks.

An area where Northern Michigan could really shine this season is in goal. Sophomore Mathias Dahlstrom returns after an outstanding freshman campaign last season that saw him post a 14-19-2 record that included three shutouts in 36 games. While the Smedjebacken, Sweden native is the Wildcats starter, he will get some competition for ice time from junior Michael Doan and fellow sophomore Derek Dun. Both combined for a 1-2-0 record in six combined starts last season.

2014-15 WCHA Preview, Part 1

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF