WCHA 2009-10 season preview

By DJ Powers

The WCHA looks to once again be one of, if not the strongest league (conference) in D-I coming into the 2009-10 season. The WCHA features more NHL prospects than any other league this season with a combined 75 prospects. All member teams except Michigan Tech have at least one prospect on their rosters. The University of Minnesota leads both the WCHA and the nation with a whopping 18 NHL prospects on this year’s roster. They are followed by the University of North Dakota with 15, the University of Denver with 13, and the University of Wisconsin with 11.

University of Minnesota-Duluth

NHL prospects on roster: 5

The reigning Broadmoor Cup Champions will be looking to defend their WCHA post-season crown when they open their 2009-10 season at Lake Superior State in the Superior Showcase on Oct. 9.

The Bulldogs are coming off their most successful season since 2003-04. The most pressing concern for Minnesota-Duluth coming into the new season will be in goal. All-American Alex Stalock opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the San Jose Sharks. Stalock played in all but two games last season and was a key reason behind not only the team’s successful run but also for their excellent defensive numbers, allowing an average of just 2.28 goals per game. Sophomores Brady Hjelle and Kenny Reiter will be battling for the starting job, but newcomer Aaron Crandall is certain to be in the mix as well.

Another area that the Bulldogs will look to solidify is on the blueline. Jay Cascalenda and Josh Meyers have graduated, while Evan Oberg opted to leave early to sign with the Vancouver Canucks. To complicate matters, seniors Chase Ryan and Trent Palm are currently nursing injuries and are expected to be out of the lineup to start the season. So the leadership duties will fall to juniors Mike Montgomery and Chad Huttel. But the blueline attention will be on newcomers Dylan Olsen (CHI) and Drew Olson (CBJ).

“Both Dylan and Drew bring a physical element that I think we kind of lacked back there,” head coach Scott Sandelin said. "They have some offensive ability and are very competitive kids. The thing that I like about them is that they have some offensive capabilities and in time, I think they can help our D corps and some of the things that we want to do. They move the puck well, and get up and skate well. They can make that first pass and are smart enough as far as offensively to know when to go in. So I think those are all positives with those kids and it’s going to help us transitionally.”

The Bulldogs’ strength will be upfront. Despite losing five to graduation, including top scorer MacGregor Sharp (ANA), they will still be quite good at the forward position. Three of the Bulldogs’ top four scorers from last season return in junior Justin Fontaine and sophomores Mike Connolly and Jack Connolly. The trio combined for 119 points (38 goals, 81 assists) and Minnesota-Duluth will be looking for secondary scoring behind them. Among those that could help boost the offensive numbers include newcomers Dan Delisle (CHI) and Mike Seidel.

One of Minnesota-Duluth’s glaring weaknesses last season was their penalty kill, which ranked 45th in the nation. If the Bulldogs can quickly solidify their goaltending and blueline situations, those numbers could significantly rise before season’s end.

University of Alaska-Anchorage

NHL prospects on roster: 1

When the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 hosting Mercyhurst in the Kendall Hockey Classic, they’ll be looking to build on an outstanding 2008-09 season. While the Seawolves will have some work to do, this could potentially be the season that could see them make it into the WCHA Final Five next spring.

Alaska-Anchorage will be very good up front this season. The biggest off-season loss was that of leading scorer Paul Crowder, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the New York Rangers. Seniors Kevin Clark and Josh Lunden lead the Seawolves attack up front. One player to watch is junior Tommy Grant. The North Vancouver, BC native led Alaska-Anchorage in goal scoring last season with 15 and could be poised to break the 20-goal mark this season. In addition to their returning players, the Seawolves forward lines will also feature six newcomers, including Swedish-born Daniel Naslund and the towering Dutch-born Mitch Bruijsten.

The Seawolves will have a solid veteran tandem between the pipes this season as well in senior Jon Olthuis and junior Bryce Christianson. Olthuis posted a record of 6-9-1 in 17 games last season, while Christianson posted an 8-8-4 record that included two shutouts. Although both players enjoyed good campaigns last season, neither was able to put together consistently solid performances. If Alaska-Anchorage expects to reach the WCHA Final Five this season, consistency in net will be key.

Despite the Seawolves blueline losing Mat Robinson, Shane Lovdahl and Jeremy Smith all to graduation, they should still be quite good this season. Seniors Nils Backstrom (DET) and Trevor Hunt lead a very good and experienced defensive corps. Backstrom will be one defenseman to watch this season. Although he only posted eight points (four goals, four assists) last season, he was a key contributor in a variety of situations and finished the season with a plus-10.

One area that the Seawolves hope to vastly improve this season is their penalty kill. The team ranked 56th in the nation and last in the WCHA in that category with a dismal 77.8 percent efficiency rating.

Colorado College

NHL prospects on roster: 3

When the Colorado College Tigers open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 9 hosting Northeastern, they’ll be a lot of questions that will need to be answered.

This off-season was anything but kind to Colorado College. First was the loss of many key players. But making things worse was the loss of their top recruit, defenseman John Moore. Moore, who was a first round selection (21st overall) of Columbus in this past June’s NHL Draft, opted to sign with the Blue Jackets, who would ship him to the OHL to play for the Kitchener Rangers. While the Tigers’ recruiting class is quite good, it doesn’t have another player that is of Moore’s caliber coming in this season.

The most immediate concern that Colorado College will have to contend with is their goaltending situation. Former All-American Richard Bachman opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Dallas Stars. Drew O’Connell, who served as Bachman’s backup last season, has graduated. The trio of netminders on the roster this season has little to no collegiate playing experience. Junior Tyler O’Brien, who played less than 30 minutes total last season, will be battling two talented newcomers in Joe Howe and Hudson Stremmel for the starting job.

Another area of concern will be offense. The Tigers finished the 2008-09 season ranked 34th in the nation with a team offense that averaged 2.71 goals per game. Last season’s top three scorers in forwards Chad Rau (TOR) and Eric Walsky (VAN), and defenseman Brian Connelly (CHI), and their combined 100 points are gone. Senior Bill Sweatt (CHI) is the returning top scorer with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists). If the Tigers are to generate good offensive numbers, it’ll likely have to come by committee.

One player who’ll be looked upon to contribute is newcomer Scott Winkler. A 2008 third round draft selection (89th overall) of the Dallas Stars, Winkler comes in after a strong 2008-09 campaign with Cedar Rapids (USHL), where he posted 38 points (10 goals, 28 assists) in 60 games.

Despite the loss of Jake Gannon and Cody Lampl to graduation, and Connelly to the pros, the blueline looks to be Colorado College’s strength coming into the season. Senior Kris Fredheim (VAN) and outstanding sophomore Gabe Guentzel lead what is shaping up to be a very good defensive unit. One player worth keeping an eye on is newcomer Joe Marciano. The rookie defensive defenseman, one of three California-born players on the Tigers roster this season, will bring size and puck-moving ability to Colorado College’s defensive unit.

University of Denver

NHL prospects on roster: 13

When the University of Denver opens their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 hosting the University of Vermont, it will also mark the 60th anniversary for the storied program.

Denver lost only four starters in the off-season. Defensemen J.P. Testwuide and Julian Marcuzzi, as well as forward-turned-defenseman Patrick Mullen (LA) have all graduated. Dynamic forward Tyler Bozak opted to leave early to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But with most of their key players returning in addition to bringing in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, it’s not hard to see why some are picking them to not only advance to the 2010 Frozen Four in Detroit in April but to also capture the national championship as well.

Defense will be one position to watch this season. Sophomore Patrick Wiercioch (OTT) is coming off of a sensational rookie campaign where he led the nation in rookie defensemen scoring with 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists). His 35 points also ranked second in the WCHA in overall defenseman scoring as well. Among the other returning rearguards include senior Cody Brookwell and junior John Lee (FLA). An incoming trio of outstanding NHL prospects in Matt Donovan (NYI), Paul Phillips (CHI) and William Wrenn (SJ) round out what is shaping up to be a lethal defensive unit for the Pioneers.

Junior netminder Marc Cheverie, one of three Florida Panthers prospects on Denver’s roster, enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign last season. His .921 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average both ranked in the top 20 nationally. And he is poised to have another excellent season this year.

Led by senior captain Rhett Rakhshani and senior assistant captain Tyler Ruegsegger, the forward position will be tremendously deep for the Pioneers this season. Both players had opportunities to sign pro contracts in the off-season with the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs respectively, but opted to return to Denver to finish out their collegiate careers. As Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky explains, this season’s senior class will certainly factor into the success of the team this season.

“In probably the last three or four years, the numbers in our senior class have been very small just because of players leaving early. The attrition rate has been fairly high. But this year, we have a very good senior class. And when you have a group of seniors that are gifted, talented and have been through the WCHA wars in three plus years and have that experience and know-how, it certainly sets the table pretty well for the rest of the team and how that team is going to develop.”

Sophomore Joe Colborne (BOS) is coming off a strong finish to his rookie campaign, posting 31 points (ten goals, 21 assists). And this season, he could be an even more dominating force for the Pioneers. A trio of newcomers in Drew Shore (FLA), Chris Knowlton and Shawn Ostrow will also be looking to make an impact as well.

Michigan Tech University

NHL prospects on roster: 0

When the Michigan Tech Huskies open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 9 at Northern Michigan in the Superior Showcase, one thing that would like to do is try and stay healthy all year. Few teams around D-I were hit as hard by the injury bug as Michigan Tech was last season. And it was reflected not only in their numbers, but also in their lack of consistency. But with the new season comes renewed optimism.

The Huskies most pressing issue to begin the season is generating a lot more offense. Their 1.63 goals per game average tied them for last in the nation. Furthermore, Michigan Tech’s 62 total team goals were among the fewest in the nation. Only American International and Brown scored fewer goals. While the Huskies return their top four scorers from last season, only junior Jordan Baker and sophomore Brett Olson posted ten or more goals.

One returning player whose offensive production will help to boost Michigan Tech’s numbers is sixth-year senior and team captain Malcolm Gwilliam. The Kamloops, BC native saw his 2008-09 campaign limited to just nine games before suffering a season-ending stroke. In the games he did play in, he posted seven points (two goals, five assists).

Another player to keep an eye on this season is sophomore Alex MacLeod. The Nelson, BC native was a potent force on the Michigan Tech power play. All six of his goals last season came on the man-advantage and this season he is poised to better his 10 points from a year ago.

Although, the Huskies lost stalwarts Geoff Kinrade (TB) and John Schwarz to graduation, their blueline looks quite good coming into the season and could well be their strength too. Senior Drew Dobson and junior Deron Cousins lead a very good, experienced defensive corps. A trio of newcomers in Steven Seigo, Tommy Brown and Carl Nielsen will also look to make an impact as well. The one rookie to watch is Seigo. He is the youngest member of this year’s recruiting class and is coming off of an excellent year with Bonnyville (AJHL), posting 39 points (14 goals, 25 assists) in 47 games.

In goal, senior Rob Nolan has graduated. Sophomore Josh Robinson, who split time with Nolan last season, returns as the Huskies starter this season. Robinson posted a 4-8-2 record that included one shutout. Challenging Nolan this season are sophomore Corson Cramer and newcomer Kevin Genoe.

University of Minnesota

NHL prospects on roster: 18

When the Golden Gophers open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 16 at archrival North Dakota, they’ll have a team where all but six players on the entire roster are NHL draft selections. They’ll also be strong contenders for both the WCHA regular and post-season crowns as well.

While the Golden Gophers will still be a relatively young team, they’ll also be more experienced. And with few key losses and an excellent incoming recruiting class, Minnesota is poised to make a return to the NCAA Tournament this season as well.

Of the six players that have left the team this off-season, only two were graduates. Top scorer Ryan Stoa chose to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Colorado Avalanche. The other three players opted to leave the team for personal reasons. Of all the departures, Stoa’s loss will be felt the most. However, Minnesota’s plethora of talent up front should be able to compensate for the loss. Two forwards, sophomore Taylor Matson (VAN) and newcomer Zach Budish (NSH), both of whom saw little or no playing time last season, could be among the impact players this season. Matson missed all but 13 games last season due to a knee injury, while Budish missed the 2008-09 season with the Edina, after a knee injury he sustained playing football.

One player that many will be watching to lead the Minnesota offensive attack is sophomore sensation Jordan Schroeder (VAN). The Prior Lake, Minn. native led the nation in rookie scoring last season with 45 points (13 goals, 32 assists) and took home both the National and WCHA Rookie of the Year honors.

Their tremendous depth on the blueline will make the Golden Gophers defensive corps one of the best in the nation this season. And all eyes will be on talented newcomer Nick Leddy. The first round selection (16th overall) of the Minnesota Wild in this past June’s NHL Draft is coming off of a superb season with Eden Prairie, where he posted 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists) in 31 games that culminated with being named the recipient of the Mr. Hockey Award. Senior Cade Fairchild (STL) and sophomore Aaron Ness (NYI) are among the returning top defensemen coming off of excellent 2008-09 campaigns, posting 33 and 17 points respectively.

One player that the Golden Gophers will be looking to have a strong year is junior netminder Alex Kangas (ATL). The Rochester, MN native struggled in the second half of last season that was further complicated by illness during the WCHA Final Five. He finished the season with a 17-11-6 record that included three shutouts.

An area where Minnesota excelled last season and hope to continue this season, was on special teams. The Golden Gophers were one of only four teams that ranked in the top ten nationally on both the power play (8th) and penalty kill (4th).

Minnesota State University-Mankato

NHL prospects on roster: 2

When the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 hosting Bowling Green, they’ll be looking to build on a strong 2008-09 campaign. However, there will be some issues to address first.

The most notable will be in goal. Last season’s tandem of Mike Zacharias and Dan Tormey have both graduated. The lone returning netminder, sophomore Austin Lee, did not see playing time last season. Though Lee could inherit the starting job when the season begins, he will see competition for the job in a pair of newcomers in Phil Cook and Kevin Murdock.

With the uncertainty at the goaltending position, Minnesota State will be relying on the defensive corps to help stabilize the back end. And the Mavericks blueline is shaping up to be very good this season. Brian Kilburg, who has graduated, was the lone off-season loss on defense. Junior and All-WCHA Third team selection Kurt Davis leads the Mavericks defensive group. Davis enjoyed an impressive 2008-09 campaign, finishing 14th in the nation in defenseman scoring with 31 points (six goals, 25 assists). He is also the Mavericks’ top returning scorer.

Despite the loss of Mick Berge to graduation and Trevor Bruess leaving early to sign with the Washington Capitals, Minnesota State will have some very good depth and talent upfront this season. Senior Kael Mouillierat leads the Mavericks’ impressive group of forwards. Mouillierat led the team in goal-scoring last season with 17 and could potentially break the 20-goal mark this season.

One returning player that Minnesota-State hopes will have a breakout year this season is sophomore Justin Jokinen (BUF). The Carlton, MN native struggled through a less-than-stellar rookie season, appearing in 24 games and posting just five points (three goals, two assists).

In addition to the returning forwards, Minnesota State also welcomes a quartet of newcomers. The one to watch will be Tyler Pitlick. The Centerville, MN native is coming off of an excellent 2008-09 season with Centennial (HS), where he posted 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists) in 25 games and was named a finalist for the Mr. Hockey Award. Pitlick is also the top eligible player coming out of the NCAA for the 2010 NHL Draft as well.

University of North Dakota

NHL prospects on roster: 15

The reigning MacNaughton Cup Champions will be looking to successfully defend their crown when they open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9, hosting Merrimack College. And despite some key losses, the Fighting Sioux are poised to be a very strong contender again this season.

One of the most talked about news story coming out of North Dakota this off-season was the dismal of junior-to-be forward Matt Frattin (TOR) for violating team rules. There is the possibility that he could be reinstated next season.

In addition to Frattin, North Dakota also lost two of their top three scorers in Ryan Duncan and Brad Miller to graduation. Senior Chris Vande Velde (EDM) is the top returning scorer with 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists). However, the tremendous depth that the Fighting Sioux will have at the forward position could make them one of the best offensive teams in the nation again this season. Sophomores Jason Gregoire (NYI) and Brett Hextall (PHX) are coming off excellent freshman campaigns, posting 29 and 26 points respectively, and could help to fill the holes left by the departures.

North Dakota will also welcome five new forwards that will also be looking to make their mark. One to keep an eye on is Danny Kristo. A 2008 second round selection (56th overall) selection of the Montreal Canadiens, Kristo is coming off an outstanding season with Omaha (USHL), where he posted 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists) in 50 games. Kristo is an excellent skating winger that is blessed with great hockey sense.

Another of the Fighting Sioux’s areas of strength coming into this season is in goal. Sophomore Brad Eidness (BUF) is coming off a solid rookie season where he posted a 24-12-4 record with a 2.56 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. And this season, he could see those numbers on the rise.

North Dakota suffered perhaps their greatest losses on the blueline with stalwarts Joe Finley (WSH) and Zach Jones having graduated. Senior Chay Genoway, who will serve as team captain this season, leads a very good, but predominately young defensive corps. Genoway is coming off a terrific 2008-09 season, where posted 32 points (three goals, 29 assists) in 42 games. He took home the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year as well as being named a West Second team All-American.

The power play is an area that the Fighting Sioux will want to improve on this season. North Dakota ranked 24th in the nation on the power play last season with a 17.2 percent efficiency rating. But what may be more concerning is the fact that the 11 shorthanded goals that they allowed were tied for third most in the nation.

St. Cloud State University

NHL prospects on roster: 7

When the St. Cloud State Huskies open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 at Miami, they’ll look to build on a strong 2008-09 campaign.

The Huskies lost few players this off-season, but nowhere was the loss felt more than in goal. Last season’s starter Jase Weslosky (NYI) became academically ineligible to start the 2009-10 school year and has since left St. Cloud State. He will transfer to Bemidji State. Weslosky played in 33 games for the Huskies last season, posting a 16-13-2 record.

Even with Weslosky’s departure, the goaltending position will still be one to watch this season. Junior Dan Dunn (WSH), who served as Weslosky’s backup last season, returns and will get some serious competition from rookie sensation Mike Lee (PHX). Dunn appeared in nine games last season, posting a 2-4-1 record. Lee is coming off a terrific season with the Fargo Force, where he posted a 26-15-4 record that included three shutouts en route to capturing both the USHL and National Junior Goaltender of the Year honors.

To help stabilize the goaltending situation, St. Cloud State will be looking to get some consistency out of their blueline this season. And as head coach Bob Motzko explained, it will also be crucial to the team’s success.

“I think our defensive corps is our No. 1 focus right now. We were inconsistent last year. We had some strong moments and not so strong moments. So that has to solidify itself for us to be successful.”

The lone loss on defense was that of David Carlisle, who graduated. Senior Garrett Raboin leads predominately young, but very good group of defensemen. Raboin, who will serve as team captain again this season, is coming off of a stellar junior campaign that saw him post 33 points (ten goals, 23 assists) and earning a spot on the All-WCHA Second Team.

Up front, the Huskies are going to be loaded. However, they’ll be looking to get some offensive support for the top-scoring pair of junior Garrett Roe (LA) and senior Ryan Lasch. The dynamic duo accounted for roughly a quarter of the Huskies’ entire offensive production last season, posting 48 and 42 points respectively.

One player that is certain to make a quite an impact is newcomer Ben Hanowski (PIT). The prolific winger comes to St. Cloud State this season after ripping up the Minnesota High School league last season at Little Falls (HS) with a whopping 135 points (73 goals, 62 assists) in 31 games. In the process, he set a new Minnesota high school career scoring record with an astounding 405 points.

University of Wisconsin

NHL prospects on roster: 11

After missing the NCAA Tournament last season, the University of Wisconsin Badgers will look to making a return engagement this season when they open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 16 at Colorado College. Wisconsin will also be involved in one of the two outdoor games taking place in college hockey later this season, when they host Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium on Feb. 6.

The biggest loss that the Badgers suffered in the off-season was that of West First Team All-American Jamie McBain, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes. McBain led the WCHA in overall defenseman scoring with 37 points (seven goals, 30 assists). He ranked second in the nation in defenseman scoring as well.

Despite the loss of McBain, Wisconsin will have one of the most exciting defensive corps in the nation this season. The one defenseman to watch this season is the highly-touted newcomer Justin Schultz. Schultz, a 2008 second round draft selection (43rd overall) of the Anaheim Ducks, is a skilled, excellent skating defenseman.

“Justin is a very fine skater that sees the ice very well,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves of Schultz. “And he also has the hockey sense and puck skills to take advantage of what he sees and make things happen. If Justin plays to his strengths, then I think he’ll make an impact for us.”

The deep and experienced defensive corps should also help to stabilize the Badgers’ goaltending situation as well. Workhorse Shane Connelly and third-string netminder Ryan Jeffery have both graduated. Competing for the starting the job this season will be junior Scott Gudmandson, who served as Connelly’s backup last season, and junior Brett Bennett (PHX), a transfer from Boston University.

Like on the blueline, the Badgers will also have great depth upfront as well. Perhaps the best news coming into the season for the team is the long-awaited return of redshirted senior Ben Street. Street, who will serve as a tri-captain this season, saw his 2008-09 season limited to just four games after suffering a devastating knee injury last October. One returning player that made quite a splash last season and could do so again this season is sophomore Derek Stepan (NYR). The Hastings, MN native enjoyed a sensational rookie campaign leading the Badgers in rookie scoring with 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists). In addition, his 33 points also tied for sixth in the nation among rookies.

Another returning player to watch this season is senior Blake Geoffrion (NSH). The Brentwood, TN native had the opportunity to sign with the Nashville Predators in the off-season, but chose to return to Madison to finish out his collegiate career. Geoffrion proved to be invaluable to the Badgers last season on special teams. Of his team co-leading 15 goals, 11 came on special teams – 10 on the power play and one shorthanded.