CCHA 2009-10 preview

By DJ Powers

Several big changes and some new faces in familiar places highlight what is shaping up to be another exciting year in the CCHA. This season, the conference features 52 NHL prospects. All member teams except the University of Alaska have at least one prospect on their roster. The University of Michigan leads the CCHA with 12 prospects. Michigan is followed by the University of Notre Dame with nine, and Miami University with eight.

University of Notre Dame

NHL prospects on roster: 9

The reigning Mason Cup Champions will be looking to successfully defend their crown when they open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 hosting Alabama-Huntsville in a rematch of their 2007 NCAA Tournament Midwest regional contest.

Despite the loss of several key players, Notre Dame will once again be a force to be reckoned with and is among the early favorites to advance to the 2010 Frozen Four in Detroit.

Perhaps the Fighting Irish’s greatest loss was that of netminder Jordan Pearce (DET). Pearce capped a superb senior season leading the nation in both wins (30) and shutouts (8). Pearce’s successor will be junior Brad Phillips (PHI). The Farmington Hills, MI native missed the entire 2008-09 season due to a knee injury and Notre Dame hopes that he can return to his top freshman form of two years ago.

The Fighting Irish’s excellent blueline should help to stabilize the goaltending position this season. Led by the talented returning trio of senior Kyle Lawson (CAR) and juniors Ian Cole (STL) and Teddy Ruth (CBJ), the defensive corps will be experienced, tough and quite deep.

The one to watch is Cole. The Ann Arbor, MI has become one of the nation’s best and most complete rearguards and looking at his overall numbers it’s not hard to see why. He had the opportunity to sign with the St. Louis Blues in the off-season but chose to return to South Bend. Cole led all Notre Dame defensemen in scoring last season with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 38 games. He also led the team with a plus-15.

The area where Notre Dame will be particularly dangerous will be upfront. The Fighting Irish will have tremendous depth in their forward lines thanks in part to an outstanding incoming class of freshmen. The two to watch are Kyle Palmieri and Riley Sheahan. Palmieri, a first round selection (26th overall) of the Anaheim Ducks in this past June’s draft, is a highly skilled, instinctive player who can make things happen. Sheahan, the youngest player on the roster, is one of the top 2010 draft-eligible players playing in the NCAA this season. He is blessed with great on-ice vision and can play in any type of situation.

“I think both of those two freshmen have the potential to be dynamic freshmen, but obviously it’s going to take some time for them to adjust to the college game,” head coach Jeff Jackson said of Palmieri and Sheahan in the recent CCHA media teleconference.

Among the returning forwards to watch this season is senior and team captain Ryan Thang (NSH). The Edina, MN will be looking to bring his offensive numbers up after dipping last season to 19 points (ten goals, nine assists) in 33 games.

Notre Dame was one of the most balanced teams in the nation last season. They were one of five teams that finished the season ranked in the top ten on both offense and defense. The Fighting Irish also possessed the nation’s stingiest defense, allowing an average of just 1.73 goals per game and 69 total goals. Furthermore, they were the only team in the nation that ranked in the top three on both the power play (1st) and penalty kill (3rd).

University of Alaska

NHL prospects on roster: 0

When the University of Alaska Nanooks open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 9 versus CCHA foe Michigan in the Kendall Hockey Classic, they’ll be looking to build on an impressive 2008-09 season.

The one position that many will be watching is in goal. Chad Johnson (NYR), the reigning CCHA Player of the Year, has graduated. Johnson was brilliant in his final year at Alaska. He posted a record of 14-16-5 that included six shutouts. In addition, he also led the nation in both goals against average (1.65) and save percentage (.940). In the process, he helped make the Nanooks one of the nation’s best defensive teams last season, ranking second behind only Notre Dame. Johnson’s successor will be sophomore Scott Greenham. Though he only appeared in five games last season, Greenham was impressive and is poised to be even better this season. In 2008-09, Greenham posted a 3-0-1 record that included two shutouts.

“He was in a situation last year where I thought it was a challenging one for him,” head coach Dallas Ferguson said of Greenham in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “Scott had a great attitude and a great work ethic. I think he realized that he needed to learn from this experience (of playing behind Johnson) and maintain his development as much as he could through practice and his limited action. I thought he did an excellent job. I feel real good about where he’s at right now with him coming in and being our starting goaltender from day one.”

The Nanooks defensive corps is also shaping up to be very good coming into the new season. Although the group will be more experienced, it will also still be quite young too.

The one defenseman to keep an eye on this season is sophomore Joe Sova. The Berwyn, Ill. native enjoyed a very solid rookie season that saw him post 10 points (three goals, seven assists) playing in all 39 games. His plus-6 was tied for third on the team. He is a defenseman with size and is quite good with the puck.

Alaska’s most glaring weakness last year was their anemic offense. And this season the Nanooks will focus much of their attention on improving in that area. The team averaged just 1.90 goals per game, which ranked them 54th in the nation. The Nanooks 74 goals were the second fewest in the CCHA. The team will need to find a way to generate more offense throughout their lineup. And they’ll have to do it without two of their top four scorers from last season in Braden Walls and Adam Naglich, who have both graduated.

Leading the Nanooks offensive charge this season are senior Dion Knelsen and junior Kevin Petovello. Knelsen returns as Alaska’s top scorer and is the only returning player to post 10 or more goals and 20 or more points last season. Petovello, who will serve as one of the Nanooks captains this season, is poised to have a very big year this season. The Sparwood, BC native finished the 2008-09 season with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) playing in all 39 games.

Bowling Green State University

NHL prospects on roster: 2

When the Bowling Green Falcons open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 at Minnesota State-Mankato, the team will have a very different look and looking to move up the CCHA standings as well.

The off-season was an uneasy one to say the least for Bowling Green, but the best news the team received was the infusion of $4 million towards saving the program that was on the university’s chopping block. With the program saved for now, the team is forging ahead to the new season.

The Falcons saw a large number of defections from the program. Among the defensemen were Nick Bailen, who will be transferring to RPI and Russ Sinkowich, who left for personal reasons. The team also lost 2008-09 recruit Dean Petiot and stalwart Kevin Schmidt, who graduated. So stabilizing the blueline will be one of the most pressing issues to start the 2009-10 campaign. Stalwart senior Kyle Page, who will serve as one of the team’s co-captains, leads the defensive corps. Page returns as Bowling Green’s top scoring defenseman. He posted 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) playing in all 38 games last season.

With starter Jimmy Spratt having graduated, junior Nick Eno (BUF) will likely be taking over the starting duties in goal for Bowling Green. The Howell, MI native was limited to just seven games last season due to an ankle injury. The Falcons are hoping that Eno could return to his excellent freshman season form of two years ago. As new head coach Dennis Williams noted in the recent CCHA media teleconference, goaltending is an area of focus this season, and Eno will be counted on to help improve that position.

“Heading into the season, obviously an issue that we dealt with a little bit last year that we’re looking to improve on this year is our goaltending. We had Nick Eno, who missed most of last season with a high ankle sprain, and we’re moving forward with him. He’s had a great, great summer and came back in great shape. He’s conditioned well.”

Bowling Green’s losses and defections weren’t limited to just the defense. The forward lines took some big hits as well. The greatest loss was that of top scorer Dan Sexton, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Anaheim Ducks. Sexton posted 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists) playing in all 38 games last season. Junior David Solway returns as the top scorer after posting 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in all 38 games.

The Falcons will also welcome a quartet of newcomers up front. The player to watch is Jordan Samuels-Thomas. He was a seventh-round selection (203rd overall) of the Atlanta Thrashers in this past June’s Draft. The power forward from South Windsor, CT is coming off of a terrific season with Waterloo (USHL), where he posted 54 points (32 goals, 22 assists) in 59 games and could significantly help boost the Falcons offensive production.

Ferris State University

NHL prospects on roster: 1

When the Ferris State University Bulldogs open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 at Canisius, they’ll be looking to better their ninth-place finish from last season. The Bulldogs will also have some questions to start the new season as well.

The biggest concern for Ferris State coming into the new season is replacing the offensive contributions upfront that left with graduates Brian Connolly, Corey Couturier and Justin Lewandowski. The trio posted a combined 60 points last season, which accounted for roughly one quarter of the team’s entire point production. Senior Aaron Lewicki returns as the Bulldogs top forward after posting 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 37 games last season. Lewicki is also the only returning player that posted 10 or more goals, so getting some more scoring depth will be key to Ferris State’s success this season.

One returning player to watch is senior and team captain Cody Chupp. The versatile local boy has been one of the Bulldogs’ stabilizing presences on the forward lines and that’s not likely to change this season. Though Chupp posted only 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 33 games last season, he’s proven that he can score timely goals. Ferris State is hoping to get more out of him this season.

“Cody hits all the points that we look for in a captain,” head coach Bob Daniels said of Chupp in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “He’s a terrific student and very mature off the ice. He’s a hard worker on the ice and a hard worker in the weight room. So he hits all of the points that we look for in our leadership and in our captain. He was our captain a year ago and I think we’re in good hands with him leading the way again this season.”

The Bulldogs got excellent offensive production last season out of their defense, which is also their strongest position coming into the new season. The dynamic junior duo of Zach Redmond (ATL) and Scott Wietecha continue to put up impressive numbers for Ferris State. Redmond, who is the team’s top overall returning scorer, posted 24 points (three goals, 21 assists) playing in all 38 games last season. He was also an honorable mention to the CCHA All-Conference team as well. Wietecha finished the 2008-09 season with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 30 contests.

With the defense returning almost completely intact, the goaltending situation will also return intact. The tandem of junior Pat Nagle and sophomore Taylor Nelson look to be even better this season. Despite posting under-.500 records last season, the goaltending duo actually played quite well. Both posted save percentages over .900 and goals against averages of under 2.90.

If there is one area where Ferris State will need to improve this season is limiting their trips to the penalty box. The Bulldogs were the most penalized team in D-I last season, averaging 22.4 penalty minutes per game and finishing the 2008-09 season with 853 total minutes in penalties.

Lake Superior State University

NHL prospects on roster: 1

When the Lake Superior State Lakers open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 9 at Minnesota-Duluth in the Superior Showcase, they’ll be looking to make a push up the CCHA standings. But there will be some issues to address first.

The most pressing concern for Lake Superior State coming into season will be increasing their overall offensive production. The Lakers lost three of their top four forwards in the offseason. Troy Schwab and Josh Sim have graduated. Nathan Perkovich (NJ) opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Trenton Devils (ECHL). Senior Zac MacVoy, who will serve as an assistant captain this season, returns as Lake Superior State’s top scorer after posting 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists) in all 39 games a year ago. MacVoy along with sophomore Fred Cassiani are the only Lakers that posted 10 or more goals last season, so getting more offensive production throughout their lineup will be key to their success this season.

Lake Superior State also welcomes five new forwards as well. The player to watch will be Domenic Monardo. The Oakville, ON native brings a nice combination of offensive prowess and high energy to the Lakers lineup. Monardo is coming off of a sensational year with Aurora (OJHL), where he posted 90 points (45 goals, 45 assists) in 50 games.

Goaltending looks to be Lake Superior State’s strongest position coming into the new season. The experienced tandem of junior Brian Mahoney-Wilson (SJ) and senior Pat Inglis will be relied upon heavily for both stability and consistency. The two split time in goal last season, but Mahoney-Wilson had the slightly better numbers, posting a 7-10-6 record that included one shutout, along with a .915 save percentage and a 2.66 goals against average in 25 appearances.

“I made a commitment this year, at least based on their play last year and how they came in this fall, that I would give the one guy a chance, and that guy right now is Brian Mahoney-Wilson” head coach Jim Roque of his junior netminder in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “He’s the guy and I think he’s earned it through his play in the second half of last year. I think Brian right now is the guy that has our confidence the most and our team’s confidence. So he’s the guy that we’re going with. I think it’s time that I need to let one guy take the ball and right now that’s going to be Brian-Mahoney-Wilson.”

While Lake Superior State will be quite experienced on the blueline this season, it will also need to be better if they expect to compete against the league’s top teams. The Lakes lone loss was that of Steven Oleksky, who graduated. Towering senior Simon Gysbers leads the Lakers defensive corps. The Richmond Hill, ON native led Lake Superior State in defenseman scoring last season with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) playing in all 39 games.

Miami University

NHL prospects on roster: 8

The Miami University RedHawks will be looking to make a return trip to the Frozen Four when they open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 9 hosting St. Cloud State. The RedHawks are coming off their best season in program history despite the heartbreaking overtime loss to Boston University in the national championship game.

“I can tell you that our guys have really done a good job of putting it behind them and understanding that it was a great experience,” said head coach Enrico Blasi in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “This year is a new year with a new team, new team dynamics with new leadership. Our focus is on our daily improvement like it always is within our locker room and within our program. We’re excited to have an opportunity to hopefully be one of those teams in the end to be playing for not only a CCHA championship but a national championship at the end of the year.”

The RedHawks will have arguably the best goaltending tandem in the nation this season. Sophomores Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp (BUF) are both coming off excellent rookie campaigns. Reichard, who backstopped Miami in the NCAA Tournament, finished with a record of 10-8-2 with two shutouts in 20 games. Knapp finished with a record of 13-5-3 that also included two shutouts in 23 contests. Knapp and Reichard also finished 10th (2.08) and 11th (2.10) respectively in the nation in goals against average.

Miami will also have one of the nation’s most lethal group of forwards as well. The only loss that the team suffered among their top scorers was Justin Mercier (COL), who graduated. Juniors Tommy Wingels (SJ) and Carter Camper lead the Miami offensive attack. Wingels is coming off a sensational performance in the NCAA Tournament. He finished the 2008-09 campaign with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) playing in all 41 games. Camper, an All-CCHA First Team selection last season, led the RedHawks with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 40 games.

Miami also welcomes a quartet of newcomers upfront including a pair of 2009 draft selections of the Dallas Stars in Reilly Smith and Curtis McKenzie. Smith, a third-round selection (69th overall), is noted for his offensive prowess and great skating ability. McKenzie, a sixth-round selection (159th overall), is noted for being gritty and very good around the net.

The RedHawks blueline will be an area well worth watching this season. The defense took a bit of hit in the off-season when Kevin Roeder, Ray Eichenlaub and Michael Findorff all graduated. Nevertheless, it will still be quite good albeit very young. Sophomore Chris Wideman (OTT) leads the group. The St. Louis native led all RedHawks defensemen in scoring last season with 26 points – all coming on assists. So Wideman will be looking to notch his first career goal this season too.

Miami has become one of the nation’s best defensive teams and that’s not likely to change this season. Where the team really excelled last season was in their penalty killing, which ranked second in the nation with an efficiency rating of just under 90 percent.

University of Michigan

NHL prospects on roster: 12

When the University of Michigan Wolverines open their 2009-10 season against CCHA foe Alaska in the Kendall Hockey Classic on Oct. 9, they’ll be looking to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the 20th straight year. This season also marks the first year that the team will play in an outdoor game since 2001, when they meet host Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Feb. 6.

The Wolverines only lost one defenseman to graduation, but it was also their best in Mark Mitera (ANA). The graduated rearguard will be missed, but the talent and experience that Michigan will have on defense should be able to compensate for the loss. Senior and team captain Chris Summers (PHX) leads the excellent returning group. Summers, who also plays at forward, is coming off of a strong junior season where he posted 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) playing in all 41 games.

Michigan also lost just one goaltender to graduation in Billy Sauer (COL). Though the loss is significant, the Wolverines will be still be quite good between the pipes this season with the return of junior Bryan Hogan, who took over the starting job last season. The Highland, MI native is coming off a stellar 2008-campaign where he posted a 24-6-0 record that included three shutouts in 31 appearances.

The one area where Michigan’s tremendous depth can be seen will be in their talent-laden forward lines. The Wolverines lost five players this off-season. The biggest loss was that of leading scorer Aaron Palushaj, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the St. Louis Blues. Palushaj led the team with 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists) in 39 games. His 37 assists ranked third in the nation and first in the CCHA.

Three of the team’s top four scorers do return and the one to watch will be sophomore David Wohlberg (NJ). The South Lyon, MI native is coming off of a terrific freshman year that saw him lead the team in rookie scoring with 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) in 40 games and be named the CCHA Rookie of the Year.

The Wolverines also welcome a superb quintet of newcomers. The one to keep an eye on is Chris Brown, a second-round selection (36th overall) of the Phoenix Coyotes in this past June’s draft. He is also the first Texas-born player to don the Maize and Blue.

“Chris is a big power winger that played a little bit in the Development program and that’s where we saw him,” head coach Red Berenson told Hockey’s Future in a recent interview. “He’s got good hands and he’s really raw. I just see him as a player that should get better week in and week out, but we really like him. For a big kid, Chris can really skate. He can handle the puck and can shoot. So he’s going to be an exciting player to watch.”

One of the most curious stats that Michigan posted last season was their low success rate on the power play. While the team possessed the fifth best offense in the nation averaging 3.54 goals per game, their power play numbers didn’t reflect that. The Wolverines finished 35th in nation on the man advantage with just a 15.8 percent efficiency rating.

Michigan State University

NHL prospects on roster: 6

The Michigan State Spartans will be looking to get things back on track when they open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 hosting Clarkson. 2008-09 proved to be a tumultuous season for the Spartans and it showed with their 11th-place finish in the 12-team CCHA.

The best news for Michigan State coming into the new season is the return of redshirted fifth-year senior Nick Sucharski (CBJ). The Toronto native was limited to just six games last season after injuring and then re-injuring the same shoulder. 

“No. 1, Nick is healthy and that’s great news for us,” head coach Rick Comley told Hockey’s Future. “He’s one of our captains on a very young team. Nick’s been a really good player for us. He’s really good on faceoffs and he’s a smart player. He also brings great experience and composure to our team as well. So we certainly welcome Nick back.”

One area that will greatly benefit from Sucharski’s return is the Spartans offense. Last season, Michigan State scored just 62 total goals. Only Brown scored fewer goals nationally.

One player poised to have a great season this year is sophomore Daultan Leveille (ATL). The St. Catharines, ON native returns as the Spartans top scorer. In 38 games last season Leveille posted 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) and this season those numbers could potentially double.

In addition to the returning players, Michigan State will also welcome six new forwards as well. The one to keep an eye on is Derek Grant. Grant, a 2008 fourth round selection (119th overall) of the Ottawa Senators, is an intelligent player that can play in any type of situation.

Greater offensive production isn’t the only concern for Michigan State to start the season. With former All-American Jeff Lerg having graduated, the starting goaltending position is up for grabs. The duty could likely fall to sophomore Drew Palmisano, who served as Lerg’s backup last season. He appeared in just seven games, posting a record of 1-3-2. Palmisano will get some competition for playing time from senior Bobby Jarosz and sophomore Kyle McMahon.

The blueline could well be the Spartans strongest position coming into the season. The only defensive losses were that of Brandon Gentile, who has graduated, and Ryan Turek (STL), who was dismissed from the team last December.

Leading the predominantly young defensive corps is junior Jeff Petry (EDM). The Farmington Hills, MI native will serve as one of the team’s co-captains this season. Petry led all Spartans defensemen in scoring last season with 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 38 games. Though his point total dropped from the 24 he posted as a rookie two years ago, Petry’s numbers could significantly rise this season.

University of Nebraska-Omaha

NHL prospects on roster: 1

When the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 versus Army in the Icebreaker Tournament, it will mark the dawning of the Dean Blais era as well as the team’s final season in the CCHA. The Mavericks will be moving to the WCHA beginning in 2010-11. Blais, the successful former North Dakota head coach, becomes just the second head coach in Nebraska-Omaha’s history. Blais will also serve as Team USA’s head coach at the upcoming IIHF U-20 World Junior Championships in Saskatchewan in December and January.

“We’re going to try to play a high-energy game,” said Blais in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “It starts with conditioning and I think our players are getting there. So definitely we’re going to play the same way. We’re going to try to be energetic and working hard all the way through our 120 minutes over the weekend. I had to more or less convince some of the players that we don’t do anything at half speed. Even if you make mistakes, you do it at full speed. So it’s going to take some work with them.”

Last season, the Mavericks excelled on defense and this season it could be even better. Senior Jeremie Dupont will be the man between the pipes to start the season. Dupont split time with Jerad Kaufman last season. Kaufman has since graduated. Dupont posted a 6-7-5 record in 20 games in 2008-09 that included three shutouts.

The blueline is shaping up to be Nebraska-Omaha’s strongest position. The only defenseman that the Mavericks lost was Alain Goulet (BOS), who left the team to join the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL). Junior Eddie DelGrosso returns as not only the top defenseman, but also the team’s top scorer. The Las Vegas, NV native, who will anchor the Mavericks blueline this season, enjoyed an excellent junior season posting 34 points (six goals, 28 assists) in 39 appearances. He also earned a spot on the All-CCHA Second Team as well.

One area where Nebraska-Omaha will be looking to improve is their offensive production. The Mavericks finished 42nd in the nation last season in team offense, averaging just under 2.50 goals per game. If they are to increase their scoring output, the Mavericks will have to do it by committee. They will also have to replace the combined 50 points (23 goals, 27 assists) that left with graduates Tomas Klempa and Dan Charleston.

Two forwards to keep an eye on that could significantly boost their point production this season are a pair of Californians in John Kemp and Alex Hudson. Both players enjoyed outstanding rookie campaigns in 2008-09. Kemp led all Nebraska-Omaha freshmen in scoring with 22 points (two goals, 20 assists) in 38 outings. Hudson finished the year behind Kemp with 16 points (six goals, ten assists) in 37 games.

The Mavericks also welcome five new forwards who include Brent Gwidt, a 2006 draft selection (157th overall) of the Washington Capitals. Gwidt comes to Nebraska-Omaha after a three-year stint in the USHL, most recently with the Clark Cup Champions Indiana Ice.

Northern Michigan University

NHL prospects on roster: 3
 
The Northern Michigan Wildcats will be looking to get off to strong start when they open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 9 at Michigan Tech in the Superior Showcase. The 2008-09 season was almost a tale of two teams in Marquette. The Wildcats went 3-12-3 in the first half before getting things going in the right direction in the second half with a record of 16-5-2.

Coming into the new season, Northern Michigan’s strongest position will be in goal. Senior Brian Stewart returns as the Wildcats go-to guy between the pipes. The Burnaby, BC native enjoyed a stellar junior season, posting a record of 14-13-3 that included three shutouts in 32 outings. His .925 save percentage ranked ninth in the nation, while his 2.32 goals against average ranked 19th.

The blueline is shaping up to be quite good as well. Although Blake Cosgrove and Derek May were lost to graduation, the Wildcats defense will still be a formidable one to watch. The good news for Northern Michigan is the return of seniors T.J. Miller and Alan Dorich, both of whom missed significant time last season due to injuries.

The one defenseman to watch however is junior Erik Gustafsson. The Kvissleby, Sweden native, who will serve as team captain this season, followed up a stellar rookie season with a rock solid sophomore season in 2008-09. He led all Wildcats defenseman in scoring with 34 points (four goals, 30 assists) in 40 games and led the team with a plus-21. Gustafsson was also named the CCHA’s Best Offensive Defenseman and earned a spot on the All-America West Second team as well.

The forward position should also be very good for Northern Michigan this season. While veterans Tim Hartung, Nick Sirota and Nathan Sigmund have all graduated, they do return their top two scorers in exciting juniors Mark Olver (COL) and Greger Hanson. Olver led Northern Michigan in scoring with 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists), while Hanson finished second with 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists). Both players appeared in 40 contests last season.

One returning forward poised to have a breakout season in 2009-10 is towering sophomore power forward Justin Florek. The Marquette native got off to a rather slow start to his collegiate career but enjoyed a strong finish. He led the Wildcats in rookie scoring last season with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 40 contests.

“I would tell you that Justin Florek started the year on my fourth line and wound up in the last third of the year playing on my top line and on one of my top power play and penalty killing groups as well,” head coach Walt Kyle said of his young sophomore in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “He’s really grown as a player. He’s a guy that’s not going to probably put up huge numbers, although I do think he’ll contribute significantly offensively. But he’ll just be a guy that you’ll see a lot of this year.”

The Ohio State University

NHL prospects on roster: 6

The Ohio State University Buckeyes are coming off of an excellent 2008-09 campaign that included a trip to the NCAA Tournament and they will look to build on that this season when they open their 2009-10 campaign on Oct. 8 hosting Quinnipiac.

One of the keys to Ohio State’s success last season was their tremendous offensive production. The Buckeyes finished the season with the nation’s sixth-best offense that averaged 3.40 goals per game. With the exception of graduates Cory Elkin (LA) and Zach Pelletier, Ohio State returns all of their top point producers from last season. Junior John Albert (ATL) returns as the Buckeyes top scorer after posting 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) in all 42 games last season. His 38 assists also led Ohio State.

But the player that all eyes will be on this season is sophomore Zac Dalpe (CAR). The Paris, ON native is coming of an impressive rookie campaign where he posted 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 37 games and was named to the CCHA All-Rookie team. With his strong two-way play and skill set, Dalpe is poised to have an even bigger sophomore year this season.

Despite the early departure of Joe Palmer (CHI) to the pros, Ohio State’s goaltending situation will be in excellent shape coming into the season. Junior Dustin Carlson, who took over the starting job in goal last season, was outstanding. He posted a record of 21-12-3 that included four shutouts in 39 games. Carlson was also one of the busiest netminders in D-I, logging over 2,200 minutes in playing time last season.

Another area that looks very strong for Ohio State coming into the season is on the blueline. Stalwart Nick Biondo, who graduated, was the only defensive regular lost. Junior Shane Sims (NYI) and sophomore Matt Bartkowski (FLA) lead the defensive corps. Sims returns as the Buckeyes top scoring defenseman after posting 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in all 42 games.

But Bartkowski is the defenseman to keep an eye on this season. The Pittsburgh, PA native enjoyed a stellar freshman campaign where he posted 20 points (five goals, 20 assists) and joined teammate Zac Dalpe on the CCHA All-Rookie team.

“I’m expecting a couple of sophomores in Zac Dalpe and (Matt) Bartkowski to really perform to the (next) level,” said head coach John Markell in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “I think they can get up there maybe quicker than other guys. We leaned on them a little bit last year and are certainly hoping that they continue to improve and show the promise that they did in their first year.”

The most glaring weakness that the Buckeyes will look to improve is their special teams. Ohio State ranked 45th in the nation on the power play (13.8 percent) and 41st on the penalty kill (81.7 percent) last season.

Western Michigan University

NHL prospects on roster: 3

When the Western Michigan University Broncos open their 2009-10 season on Oct. 16 hosting Mercyhurst, they’ll be looking to have a better start than they did last season when they went 3-11-4 in the first half. The Broncos will also have some significant holes to fill as well.

The most notable will be on the blueline. Chris Frank (PHX) and Kevin O’Connor have both graduated, while CCHA All-Rookie team honorable mention Kevin Connauton (VAN) has left Kalamazoo to play for the Vancouver Giants (WHL). Senior Tyler Ludwig anchors Western Michigan’s blueline. The Colleyville, TX native became one of the Broncos most reliable defensemen last season. He led all Western Michigan rearguards in scoring with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) playing in all 41 games. If the Broncos are going to be successful this season, stabilizing and getting more consistency out of their predominantly young defensive corps will be crucial.

In addition to their returning players, Western Michigan will also bring in four new defensemen. The one to watch will be Luke Witkowski. The 2008 sixth round (160th overall) draft selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning is an excellent skating, shutdown type of defenseman that can make an immediate impact for the Broncos.

Western Michigan returns their goaltending tandem of senior Riley Gill and junior Jerry Kuhn. Gill, who saw most of the games, is coming off of a solid junior campaign that saw him post a record of 13-11-3 with two shutouts in 28 appearances. Kuhn, who appeared in 14 games, posted a 1-7-4 record and a respectable .903 save percentage.

Although last season’s top scorer Patrick Gallivan (CHI) has graduated, the Broncos offensive attack is shaping up to be quite good this season. It is also their strongest position coming into the new year. However, their boost in overall point production will have to come by committee. Western Michigan only had two players on its entire roster that posted ten or more goals in 2008-09. One of them was junior Max Campbell (NYR). The Strathroy, ON native returns as the Broncos top scorer after notching 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists) in 38 games last season. Where Campbell proved to be particularly dangerous was on the power play. His 11 power play tallies ranked tied for sixth in the nation.

“Max is one of those kids in our hockey program that has developed,” head coach Jim Culhane said of Campbell in the recent CCHA media teleconference. “We like where his game is at right now. We are trying to teach him and continue his learning process of playing both ends of the rink. Max had a good summer. He did a have a minor setback with a hand injury here late this summer, but we expect him to be ready to go in the next couple of weeks.”

Another returning player to watch is talented sophomore Greg Squires. The White Plains, NY native is coming off of a terrific freshman season where he led the Broncos in rookie scoring with 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) playing in all 41 games. Squires was also an honorable mention to the CCHA All-Rookie team.