2014-15 Big Ten Preview: Strong Minnesota squad positioned to repeat

By DJ Powers
J.T. Compher - University of Michigan

Photo: University of Michigan forward and Buffalo Sabres prospect J.T. Compher was named Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2013-14 after posting 31 points in 35 games (courtesy of Brad Rempel/Icon Sportswire)

 

For the 2014-15 season, Big Ten hockey features 44 NHL prospects. All six member teams have at least two prospects on their rosters. Minnesota leads both the Big Ten and the nation with 15 NHL prospects.

University of Minnesota
NHL prospects: 15

The defending Big Ten regular season champions open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Minnesota-Duluth in the Icebreaker Tournament in South Bend, IN.

No NCAA team this season features more NHL prospects on their roster than Minnesota with 15. The Golden Gophers reached the National Championship game last season and, as good as they were then, the team could be even better this season.

A big reason behind the Golden Gophers success in 2013-14 was due to the extraordinary performance of junior Adam Wilcox (TBL). The South St. Paul, MN native was one of the nation’s premier goaltenders last season, posting a 26-6-6 record that included four shutouts en route to earning the Big Ten’s Player and Goaltender of the Year honors, as well as being named to the All-America West Second Team. Wilcox’s .932 save percentage finished second nationally while his 1.97 goals against average and .763 winning percentage both finished fourth.

Wilcox will also have a stellar defensive corps in front of him again this season. One of the unique aspects of Minnesota’s defense is the fact that it is comprised entirely of NHL prospects.

Anchoring the defense this season is junior Mike Reilly (CBJ). The Chanhassen, MN native is coming off a sensational sophomore campaign where he tied for fifth among all NCAA defensemen in scoring with 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists) in 41 games en route to being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and earning a spot on the All-America West First Team. Where Reilly really made his mark last season was on the power play, where three of his nine goals were scored.

Reilly is one three players, including two defensemen, on the Golden Gophers roster this season that are prospects of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The other defenseman is towering newcomer Ryan Collins. At 6’5” and 204 pounds, the Bloomington, MN native certainly adds size to Minnesota’s defense. He is a defensive defenseman that takes good care of his own zone.

Aside from losing graduates Nate Condon and Tom Serratore, the Golden Gophers return all of their top forwards from last season.

Leading Minnesota’s offensive attack this season is senior captain Kyle Rau (FLA). The Eden Prairie, MN native is coming off of an excellent junior campaign where he led the Golden Gophers with 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 41 games. Rau had the opportunity to sign with the Florida Panthers this past off-season but opted to return to Minnesota to complete his collegiate career. Rau’s superb combination of playmaking ability, winning draws and scoring timely goals has made him an invaluable cog in one of the nation’s most prolific offensive machines.

One returning veteran that is poised to have a big 2014-15 season sophomore Hudson Fasching (BUF). The Burnsville, MN native is coming off of an outstanding freshman campaign where he posted 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) in 40 games last season. Part of what made Fasching so good last season, particularly in the second half, was his ability to effectively use his 6’2” frame in front of the net. If he continues to do that with his added size and strength, Fasching could become one of the NCAA’s most dominant players this season.

University of Wisconsin
NHL prospects: 7

The defending Big Ten tournament champions open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Alaska in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage, AK.

Wisconsin comes into this season as a predominantly young team that features only nine upperclassmen. With a number of key departures, the Badgers will have some big holes to fill to successfully defend their Big Ten tournament crown.

The most pressing issue for Wisconsin is replacing the offensive production that departed this off-season as seven of their top eight scorers from last season have moved on. In addition to graduating players such as Michael Mersch (LAK) and Tyler Barnes, the Badgers also lost Nic Kerdiles and defenseman Jake McCabe when the two opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres, respectively. The aforementioned seven departures accounted for a whopping 62 percent of the team’s point production last season.

Senior alternate captain Joseph LaBate (VAN) returns as Wisconsin’s top scorer and is the lone returning player that posted 10 or more goals last season. The Eagan, MN native posted 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 37 games. LaBate was moved to center and saw an expanded role last season. Head coach Mike Eaves says he plans to leave LaBate at center this season and will be expecting more from the forward.

“One of the players we’re expecting to step up for us is Joseph LaBate,” said Eaves. “We moved Joe to the center position and ended up leaving him there. He was able to solidify that position and did some good things for us. We will start him at center and leave him there this season. Joe has developed a great understanding of the concept of how to play with and without the puck.”

Another player that will see an increased role for the Badgers this season is sophomore Grant Besse (ANA). The Plymouth, MN native is coming off of a very good freshman campaign where he posted 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 36 games. Besse is a dynamic winger who had difficulty finding a consistent groove last season, but with collegiate experience now under his belt and being relied on for more offensive production, this could become his breakout season.

The forward position wasn’t the only area that Wisconsin suffered key losses as the Badgers also took significant hits on the blue line. In addition to losing McCabe, the team also graduated Joe Faust (NJD) and Frankie Simonelli.

Among those anchoring the Wisconsin defense this season is junior Eddie Wittchow (FLA). The Burnsville, MN native posted seven points (one goal, six assists) in 37 games last season. He also co-led the Badgers with a +12 rating. Wittchow was a stalwart, shutdown defenseman last season and that isn’t likely to change much this season.

Of the Badgers’ 11 newcomers, three are defensemen including Jack Dougherty (NSH). The Cottage Grove, MN native is noted for his strong two-way game and superb skating. Dougherty is a player that could eventually fill the role that McCabe has left.

“Jack is going to be given the opportunity to play on our power play right away,” Eaves said of Dougherty. “He has things that you can’t teach. At this point, I’m guessing that Jack could become a cross between Jake (McCabe) and Justin Schultz because Jack’s built like Justin and has similar qualities that Jake has.”

Goaltending will be one of Wisconsin’s strengths this season. The Badgers return all of their netminders including senior starter Joel Rumpel. The Swift Current, SK native is coming off of a stellar junior campaign where he posted a 21-6-1 record that included two shutouts in 29 appearances en route to being named a Top Ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

University of Michigan
NHL prospects: 10

The Wolverines opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 4th at Ferris State.

2013-14 marked the second consecutive year that Michigan failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, but that could change this season. The Wolverines return a terrific veteran group and, coupled with a stellar freshman class, they should be able to make a strong push to return to the NCAA Tournament this season.

Michigan lost three of last season’s top scorers in Phil Di Giuseppe (CAR), Alex Guptill (OTT) and Luke Moffatt, along with stalwart defensemen Mac Bennett (MTL) and Kevin Clare. These players accounted for 37 percent of the Wolverines’ point production last season that will need to be replaced.

Leading Michigan’s charge up front are junior captain Andrew Copp (WPG) and sophomore J.T. Compher (BUF). Copp led the Wolverines in goal scoring last season with 15 and finished with 29 points in 33 games. The Ann Arbor, MI native has become Mr. Everything for Michigan, excelling in a number of areas as well as being a player who leads by example. As head coach Red Berenson explains, Copp being voted as team captain this season came as no surprise.

“Andrew may be just a junior, but he was almost a unanimous choice for captain by the players, and that didn’t surprise me’” Berenson said of Copp. “He’ll be able to back it up on the ice. Andrew has shown that he’s a leader both on and off the ice and is a great role model for our freshmen, too.”

Compher is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign where he led the Wolverines with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 35 games en route to being named the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. After being one of Team USA’s last cuts for the World Junior team last year due to injury, Compher is expected to be with the team this year.

Among those anchoring the Wolverines’ outstanding defense is sophomore Michael Downing (FLA). The rugged Canton, MI native enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign last season, playing in 34 games and posting 12 points (two goals, 10 assists). Downing also led Michigan with 60 penalty minutes.

“I thought Michael was one of our best defensemen at the end of last year, and I think he will be one of our top four defensemen this season,” Berenson said of Downing. “I think as the season wore on, Michael got more physical than I had seen him get before. He was able to change some games around for us last year with one of his big hits. Michael has also developed more confidence offensively, as well.”

One of the issues that the Wolverines had to contend with early last season was their goaltending situation. Returning sophomore Zach Nagelvoort (EDM) eventually emerged as Michigan’s starter. The Holland, MI native played exceedingly well last season, posting an 11-9-3 record that included one shutout in 24 appearances.

In addition to the returning veterans, Michigan also welcomes eight newcomers. One that many will be watching is forward Dylan Larkin (DET) The Waterford, MI native, who was the collegian chosen highest in this past June’s NHL Draft, is noted for his superb skating and strong two-way play.

“Dylan will bring speed to our team,” Berenson said of Larkin. “He can score as well as make plays. I think he was a good pick for Detroit and I think Dylan will prove everybody right that he deserved to be drafted in the first round.”

Michigan State University
NHL prospects: 6

The Spartans open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 17th versus the University of Massachusetts.

Michigan State was a predominantly young team last season and it showed, as they finished fifth in the Big Ten. The Spartans relied heavily on their freshman class that responded well to the challenge. This season, that experience should help Michigan State make a strong push up the Big Ten standings.

The first orders of business for the Spartans would be increasing their offensive output and replacing the point production that left with their top three scorers from last season in forwards Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer and defenseman Jake Chelios. The trio accounted for 33 percent of the team’s points. The Spartans offense finished 54th nationally last season, averaging 2.19 goals per game, and their 79 total goals were the fewest in the Big Ten.

Among the returning players that Michigan State will be leaning on this season to pick up the slack are sophomore Mackenzie MacEachern (STL) and junior Matt DeBlouw (CGY).

MacEachern is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign, posting 12 points (eight goals, four assists) in 36 games last season. MacEachern was a part of the Spartans’ terrific all-freshman line that also included Villiam Haig and Joe Cox.

After a stellar freshman season two years ago, DeBlouw struggled mightily last season. The Chesterfield, MI native played in 23 games, posting just four points (all assists). In his freshman season, DeBlouw displayed some great offensive prowess and this season, Michigan State is hoping he’ll bounce back and show that touch again.

The Spartans defense is shaping up to be their strongest position this season. While the loss of Chelios is significant, Michigan State returns an excellent group that should be able to fill the void he leaves.

Among those anchoring the Spartans defense this season is junior John Draeger (MIN). The Fairbault, MN native struggled through a frustrating sophomore campaign last season due largely to the physical toll that his off-season surgery took on him, forcing him to miss the first eight games. He played in 28 games, posting eight assists. Now healthy, Draeger is poised for an outstanding season. Part of what makes Draeger such an invaluable part of the Spartans defense is his puck-moving ability. He makes great outlet passes and is smart in where to move the puck.

Of Michigan State’s four newcomers this season, the only defenseman is highly touted Josh Jacobs (NJD). The Shelby Township, MI native is a strong, two-way defender noted for his excellent skating.

Goaltending will be one area of the Spartans that will be well worth watching this season. Junior Jake Hildebrand returns after a rock solid freshman campaign where he posted a 9-15-7 record that included two shutouts in 32 appearances. Hildebrand was the Spartans main man between the pipes last season, but this season he’ll get some serious competition for the job from towering newcomer Ed Minney. The Wind Gap, PA native is a 6’5”, 195-pound netminder noted for his superb athleticism and lateral movement. Minney is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.

Ohio State University
NHL prospects: 2

The Buckeyes open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Providence College.

Ohio State has the fewest NHL prospects of any Big Ten team this season. The two prospects on the Buckeyes roster both have their NHL rights held by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Ohio State had a great finish to their interesting 2013-14 season, advancing all the way to the Big Ten Championship game before falling to Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are shaping up to be an excellent squad this season, but they have some significant holes to fill to build on last season’s success.

Nowhere were the losses greater for Ohio State than up front, most notably that of All-American Ryan Dzingel and forward Max McCormick. Both opted to forego their senior year to sign with the Ottawa Senators. Dzingel and McCormick accounted for 25 percent of the team’s offense last season.

Senior captain Tanner Fritz returns as the Buckeyes top scorer after posting 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 32 games last season. The Grand Prairie, AB native excelled on face-offs, winning over 50 percent of his draws. While Fritz is noted more for his great playmaking ability, he has shown that he can score clutch goals, as well.

Sophomore Nick Schilkey returns as the Buckeyes’ top goal-scorer. The Marysville, MI native is coming off of a fantastic rookie campaign where he led Ohio State freshmen with 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 37 games en route to being named to the Big Ten All-Rookie Team. Schilkey possesses tremendous offensive prowess that could help the Buckeyes replace the goal-scoring lost due to Dzingel’s departure.

Aside from graduating Curtis Gedig, Ohio State returns their defensive corps intact. While Gedig is a significant loss, the Buckeyes have an excellent group of veterans that could help fill Gedig’s role this season. Among them is junior alternate captain Sam Jardine (CHI). The Lacombe, AB native is coming off of an excellent sophomore campaign, posting 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) in 36 games. Jardine was a stalwart on Ohio State’s blueline last season as a shutdown defenseman who also brought some physicality to his game, and that’s not likely to change much this season.

The Buckeyes experienced a goaltending carousel of sorts last season when Collin Olson (CAR) left the program and then-freshman Matt Tomkins (CHI) went down with an injury back in November. The situation proved to be kind of a blessing in disguise for Ohio State, however, when Christian Frey and Logan Davis were pressed into service, giving the team some remarkably good goaltending. The result makes for a hotly contested starting job this season for the returning sophomore trio. Tomkins, who could potentially be tapped as this season’s starter, appeared in 17 games last season, posting a 6-7-2 record. Frey appeared in 16 games, posting a 9-4-3 record. Davis played in just five games, posting a 3-2-0 record that included the Buckeyes’ lone shutout.

In addition to the returning veterans, Ohio State also welcomes eight newcomers, including defenseman Janik Moser. The Manheim, Germany native is a superb puck-moving defenseman who was among Team Germany’s standouts at last year’s World Junior Championship. Moser is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.

Penn State University
NHL prospects: 4

The Nittany Lions open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus the University of Connecticut.

Penn State made some very good strides in their first season as a member of a conference, most notably reaching the Big Ten Tournament semi-final game. And with the team returning nearly intact, the Nittany Lions are poised to reach even greater heights this season.

Penn State struggled in a number of areas last season, but one area where the team performed reasonably well was on special teams. The Nittany Lions power play finished 28th nationally, clicking at 17.7 percent of their chances, while their penalty kill finished 39th, clicking at 81.1 percent, and those numbers should continue to improve this season.

One of the catalysts on Penn State’s power play last season was Eric Scheid. The redshirted junior from Blaine, MN returns after leading the Nittany Lions with 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 36 games. Of his 11 goals, four came with the man advantage. Scheid, who attended the Minnesota Wild’s prospect camp this summer, is a center who can create opportunities through his relentless drives to the net.

Redshirted senior captain Patrick Koudys (WSH) and sophomore Mike Williamson (VAN) are the anchors on Penn State’s defense this season. Koudys played in all 36 games last season, posting eight points (two goals, six assists). Much of what the Smithville, ON native does won’t be found on a score sheet. And as head coach Guy Gadowsky explains, Koudys has the tools to be a great leader for the team.

“I think Patrick being named captain by his teammates says a whole lot about him as both a player and a leader,” said Gadowsky of Koudys. “The things that are very difficult to do that also take courage and toughness are things that Patrick excels at. He’s solid defensively, and moves pucks and bodies. I think those are some of the reasons that Patrick was selected as our captain.”

Williamson made great strides in his rookie campaign, particularly in the second half of last season. The Deephaven, MN native missed time due to injury, playing in 27 games. He finished the season with six points (two goals, four assists). One area where Williamson played showed promise was on the power play, where both of his goals were scored last season, an area where it is hoped that he’ll continue to produce.

“The area where I think Mike made the greatest strides was in his health,” Gadowsky said of Williamson. “He’s been able to stay healthy and for him it was a matter of getting the repetitions. Mike is a big body that moves well and has a bomb of a shot. I think once Mike puts it all together, he could become a top defenseman in the Big Ten because he has that potential.”

Penn State returns all of their goaltenders, including junior Matt Skoff. The McKees Rock, PA native became the Nittany Lions’ starter and was outstanding down the stretch of last season, posting a record of 8-13-2 that included one shutout. He was the only Penn State netminder to post wins last season.

The Nittany Lions have the fewest number of incoming freshmen of any NCAA team this season with three. One to keep an eye on is Scott Conway. The Basingstoke, England native is a winger who is noted for his hands and tremendous scoring ability. Conway, who is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, is the cousin of former Michigan State Spartan Brett Perlini and 2014 Arizona Coyotes draft pick Brendan Perlini.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF