2015-16 Big Ten Preview: Michigan, Minnesota could be cream of weaker crop

By DJ Powers
Zach Werenski - University of Michigan

Photo: University of Michigan defenseman and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski is looking to build off of a fine freshman season with the Wolverines in 2014-15 (courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

 

For the 2015-16 NCAA Hockey season, the Big Ten Conference features 40 NHL prospects, with each member school having at least two prospects on their rosters. The University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota lead all conference teams with 12 prospects apiece.

Minnesota finished atop the regular season standings in 2014-15, then defeated Michigan to win the 2015 Big Ten Tournament. No Big Ten school advanced to the 2015 Frozen Four. As of the October 19th NCAA Men’s Hockey rankings for 2015-16, no Big Ten school is ranked among the top 10 schools.

Below is a preview of the 2015-16 season for the six teams competing in the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference

University of Minnesota
NHL prospects: 12

 

The Big Ten regular season and tournament champions opened their 2015-16 season on Oct. 10th versus Vermont in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.

Like other NCAA powerhouses, the Golden Gophers don’t rebuild, they simply retool, and this season is no different. Minnesota brings in one of the nation’s top incoming classes led by center Brent Gates (ANA). The Grand Rapids, MI native is one of three Golden Gophers taken in the 2015 NHL Draft. Gates is a 6’2”, 197-pound forward noted for his shot and effective use of his large frame.

Gates joins a very deep group of veteran forwards that includes junior assistant captain Hudson Fasching. The Burnsville, MN native enjoyed an outstanding sophomore campaign, finishing with 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 38 games. Fasching had the opportunity to sign with the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason but opted to return and is poised to be one of Minnesota’s go-to guys this season.

Despite losing Brady Skjei (NYR), Ben Marshall (ECHL) and All-American Mike Reilly (CBJ) in the offseason, the Golden Gophers will once again sport an NHL prospect-laden defensive corps. One defenseman that could make a huge impact on the Golden Gophers blueline this season is redshirted junior Nick Seeler (MIN). The Nebraska-Omaha transfer combines great hands with excellent skating that could potentially help fill the hole left by Reilly’s departure.

The biggest question coming into the season for Minnesota is goaltending. Workhorse Adam Wilcox opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The South St. Paul, MN native finished his stellar career with a 22-12-3 record that included six shutouts in 38 appearances. The daunting task of filling Wilcox’s role this season could potentially fall to newcomer Eric Schierhorn. The Anchorage, AK native is the brother of Dartmouth senior Brad Schierhorn. The younger Schierhorn is noted for his great athleticism and consistency.

University of Michigan
NHL prospects: 12

 

The Wolverines opened their 2015-16 season on Oct. 16th versus Mercyhurst.

Michigan brings in one of the nation’s best incoming classes that includes five players taken in the 2015 NHL Draft. The group is led by Winnipeg Jets first round selection, Kyle Connor. The Shelby Township, MI combines speed with tremendous hockey sense that could help the Wolverines replenish some of the scoring left by departed top players Zach Hyman (TOR), Dylan Larkin (DET), and Andrew Copp (WPG).

Juniors Tyler Motte (CHI) and captain J.T. Compher (COL) lead the team’s offensive attack up front. Motte returns as Michigan’s top scorer after compiling 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) in 35 games. One notable area where the St. Clair, MI native has developed quite nicely is in his defensive game. This is evident in his shot-blocking numbers and vastly improved checking game.

Compher returns as the Wolverines’ top goal scorer after posting 12 goals and finishing with 24 points in 34 games last season. The Northbrook, IL native has blossomed into an excellent two-way forward who has demonstrated that he can step up his game in crucial situations.

Sophomore sensation Zach Werenski (CBJ) anchors Michigan’s superb and talent-laden defense. The Grosse Pointe, MI native led the Wolverines in defensive scoring with 25 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 35 games en route to earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Rookie Team. Last season, Werenski quickly established himself as one of the Big Ten’s elite defensemen. But, as good as he was last season, Werenski could potentially be even better this season.

Junior Zach Nagelvoort (EDM) and senior Steve Racine return after platooning in goal last season. Both netminders were very good, posting nearly identical numbers last season (11-9-0 and 11-6-0 respectively) but neither was able to nail down the starting position. It is possible that the same scenario could play out again this season.

Michigan State University
NHL prospects: 5

 

The Spartans opened their 2015-16 season on Oct. 9th at host Maine in the Icebreaker Tournament.

After a strong second-place finish in the Big Ten last season, the Spartans are poised to make an even stronger run for the conference title this season.

For Michigan State, it all begins in goal. Senior Jake Hildebrand returns after a terrific junior campaign where he finished with a 17-16-2 record that included six shutouts playing in all 35 games. The Butler, PA native garnered numerous accolades that included Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year honors and a spot on the All-America First Team. Not surprisingly, Hildebrand has generated considerable NHL interest and could potentially be among the most sought-after free agents available at season’s end.

In addition to their goaltending, the Spartans also possess an excellent defensive corps this season. One notably absent defenseman is Big Ten All-Rookie Team selection Josh Jacobs (NJD), who opted to leave Michigan State to join the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. Among those anchoring the Spartans blueline is redshirted junior Rhett Holland (ARI). The Calgary, AB native posted four points (one goal, three assists) in 35 games last season. Although Holland is noted more for his defensive side, his vastly improved puck-moving ability could potentially make him a solid offensive contributor as well.

Michigan State returns nearly all of their top scorers from last season. Among those leading the Spartans offensive attack this season are junior Mackenzie MacEachern (STL) and senior Matt DeBlouw (CGY). MacEachern enjoyed a breakout year in 2014-15, posting 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 35 games. The Troy, MI native has been a model of consistency for Michigan State and last season took his development to a new level with his improved defensive game.

After a disappointing sophomore campaign two years ago, DeBlouw bounced back quite nicely last season posting 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in 35 games. The Chesterfield, MI native’s re-commitment and renewed sense of confidence greatly benefited his development. This was particularly evident in his smarter decisions both with and without the puck.

Michigan State welcomes five newcomers to the team this season. Heading the group is 2015 NHL-drafted center Mason Appleton (WPG). The Green Bay, WI native is a gifted playmaker with size (6’2”, 190 lbs.) and noted for his superb vision.

Ohio State University
NHL prospects: 4

The Buckeyes opened their 2015-16 season on Oct. 9th versus Bowling Green.

Ohio State is coming off a strong finish to their injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign that saw them advance to the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals. This season, the Buckeyes will be looking to build on that and fill some significant holes as well.

Most of Ohio State’s losses occurred on defense, most notably that of top defenseman Sam Jardine (CHI). The Lacombe, AB native opted to forego his senior season to turn pro after an excellent junior campaign that saw him lead all Buckeyes defensemen with 12 points (two goals, ten assists) in 33 games.

While the defense will be considerably younger this season, it is also shaping up to be very good. Anchoring the Ohio State defense is senior tri-captain Craig Dalrymple. The Kippen, ON native was limited to 28 games due to injury and finished with seven points (two goals, five assists). A towering (6’5”, 210 lbs.) force to be reckoned with on the blueline, Dalrymple has become an invaluable cog on the Buckeyes special teams. This summer, he attended the Winnipeg Jets’ prospect development camp.

One area to watch with Ohio State this season will be in goal. The Buckeyes return all of their goaltenders including junior Matt Tomkins (CHI). The Sherwood Park, AB native appeared in 14 games, posting a 5-7-1 record that included two shutouts. Tomkins played quite well in his limited starts last season but not well enough to grab the starting job. If he can find some consistency to his game this season, he could potentially be tabbed as the starter. However, Tomkins is also going to get fierce competition from fellow juniors Christian Frey and Logan Davis.

The Buckeyes forward lines are shaping up to be solid this season. Senior tri-captain Anthony Greco leads the group up front. The Queens, NY native led Ohio State with 15 goals and finished second on the team with 23 points in 36 games last season. Greco established himself as a clutch scorer for the Buckeyes and was especially dangerous on special teams where four of his 15 goals were scored.

In addition to the returning veterans, Ohio State also welcomes 10 newcomers. Among them are three players chosen in the 2014 NHL Draft in forwards Dakota Joshua (TOR) and Miguel Fidler (FLA) and defenseman Tyler Nanne (NYR). The one to keep an eye on is Dakota Joshua. The Dearborn, MI native is a 6’3”, 194-pound power forward noted for his physicality and relentless drives to the net. Although Joshua is a center, he could potentially be moved to play wing this season.

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