WCHA 2011-12 season preview part two

By DJ Powers

Photo: Offensively talented forward

Rocco Grimaldi (FLA) will be expected to provide offense for a North Dakota that saw a lot of turnover in the off-season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

University of Minnesota
Number of NHL prospects: 17

The Golden Gophers will open their 2011-12 season on October 7th hosting Sacred Heart.

2010-11 marked the third consecutive season that Minnesota failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, despite having the most NHL prospects in the NCAA. But this season could be different.

One noteworthy change to the team is the return of Mike Guentzel. Guentzel, who’ll be in his second stint with the Golden Gophers, replaces departed assistant coach John Hill. Last season, Guentzel served as an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha. This season, he will serve as associate head coach. Guentzel’s return will particularly benefit Minnesota’s defense this season since he himself is a former Golden Gophers defenseman.

Injuries and illnesses to some of the team’s top players was a contributing factor to the Golden Gophers demise last season. Minnesota played some of their best hockey of the year in the month of February before seeing their 2010-11 campaign come to an unceremonious end at the hands of Alaska-Anchorage in the opening round of the WCHA Final Five in March. This year, the talent-laden Golden Gophers are aiming to change that.

Minnesota lost nine players this offseason, seven of whom were NHL prospects.

One area where the losses will be particularly felt coming into this season is on defense. The Golden Gophers graduated top scoring defenseman Cade Fairchild (STL) and stalwart Kevin Wehrs. Aaron Ness opted to forego the final year of his eligibility to sign with the New York Islanders. The loss of Fairchild and Ness will be felt particularly on the Golden Gophers power play as well. Minnesota was excellent on the power play last season, finishing 14th in the nation with a 20.9 percent efficiency rating.

A player who could fill the offensive void left by Fairchild and Ness is newcomer Ben Marshall (DET). Marshall, a 2010 seventh-round (201st overall) selection of the Detroit Red Wings, is one of the best incoming defensemen in college hockey this season. He is also one of Minnesota’s two newest rearguards. Marshall is a small (5’9, 178lbs) offensive defenseman blessed with great mobility that can put up some big points from the blue line.

In goal, the Golden Gophers have graduated Alex Kangas but will return senior Kent Patterson (COL). Kangas saw his final season in the maroon and gold cut short by a hip injury, appearing in just eight games, posting a 2-5-0 record. The loss of Kangas paved the way for Patterson to take over the top goaltending duties. And he was excellent between the pipes. In his 30 appearances, Patterson posted a 14-9-6 record with a .920 save percentage and a 2.49 goals against average. He was particularly good in WCHA play, where he led the conference with a .926 save percentage. Patterson capped his stellar junior campaign with a selection to the All-WCHA Second team.

Last season, the Golden Gophers ranked 23rd in the nation with an offense that averaged 3.14 goals per game. Minnesota was able to generate point production throughout their lineup, but what may perhaps be the most puzzling stat of all is the fact that the team did not have a 30-plus point producer last season. Furthermore, the team only had five players who posted ten or more goals. This season, those numbers should rise significantly.

The challenge of boosting their offensive output is made more difficult by the fact that the team graduated its top four scorers from last season. In addition to Fairchild, the Golden Gophers also lost forwards Jacob Cepis, Jay Barriball (STL) and Mike Hoeffel (NJ). The four players accounted for 39 percent of the team’s offense.

While trying to replace that kind of offensive production may seem like a daunting task to some teams, Minnesota will be more than capable of filling that hole with their returning players as well as their stellar seven-member incoming class.

Three returning players that the Golden Gophers will look to are sophomores Erik Haula (MIN) and Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and redshirted sophomore Zach Budish (NSH). Haula returns as the team’s top scorer after leading all rookies with 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 34 games last season. He also led Minnesota with a plus-10. Haula proved to be particularly effective was on face-offs, winning nearly 50 percent of his draws.

After missing five games early last season with mononucleosis, Bjugstad began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with for the Golden Gophers. He appeared in 29 games and posted 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists). He was especially dangerous in the second half after returning from the World Junior Championship, posting 16 of his 20 points. As good as Bjugstad was last season, he could be even better this season and potentially finish among the WCHA’s top scorers as well.

Budish makes his long-awaited return to the Minnesota lineup this season after a season-ending knee injury last November that limited him to just seven games and four points (two goals, two assists). This season, Budish will bring many things to the team, not the least of which is toughness and a big (6’3, 214lbs) body.

In addition to the returning group upfront, the Golden Gophers will have seven new forwards this season that include a pair of draft picks from this past summer in Kyle Rau (FLA) and Seth Ambroz (CBJ).

Rau, the 2011 recipient of the Mr. Hockey Award as the state of Minnesota’s top high school player, was a third round selection (91st overall) of the Florida Panthers. Rau is a small (5’8, 172lbs), exceedingly quick centerman that is really fun to watch.

Ambroz, who is perhaps the most highly-touted of all the Minnesota newcomers this season, was a fifth round (128th overall) selection of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ambroz is a strong, 6’2 and 209 pound power forward that possesses elite-level skill.

Minnesota State University-Mankato
Number of NHL prospects: 2

The Mavericks they open their 2011-12 season on October 7th at RPI.

After a promising start to 2010-11, Minnesota State-Mankato ended the season on a five-game losing skid and finished 11th in the WCHA. But with a new season about to begin, the Mavericks certainly want to change that.

Minnesota State-Mankato lost six players in the offseason, and nowhere will the losses be felt more than on the blue line. The Mavericks got excellent production out of their defensive corps last season, which accounted for 29 percent of the team’s point production. But they will start the 2011-12 campaign without their top three defensemen in Kurt Davis, Ben Youds and Channing Boe, all of whom have graduated. Davis was one of two WCHA defensemen that led their team in scoring last season. The Plymouth, MN native posted 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 38 games. He also co-led the team with four power play tallies as well. His outstanding senior campaign earned him a spot on the All-WCHA Third team.

Youds, who was perhaps the Mavericks’ best all-around defenseman, finished with 21 points (seven points, 14 assists) in 38 games. At season’s end, he went on to sign with AHL‘s Rockford Ice Hogs. Boe finished with ten points (five goals, five assists) in 38 games.

All three players, particularly Davis and Youds, gave Minnesota State-Mankato some excellent offensive punch that will need to be replaced this season. Senior Cameron Cooper and junior Tyler Elbrecht will among those that the Mavericks will be looking to pick up some of the slack. Cooper returns as the top goal-scoring defenseman after posting five points (three goals, two assists) in 37 games. Elbrecht, who is becoming a dominant force on the Minnesota State-Mankato blue line, posted eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 38 games.

Along with their defensive corps, the Mavericks will be looking for increased offensive production throughout their forward lines. One reason is because Minnesota State-Mankato averaged 2.76 goals per game last season, which ranked 31st in the nation. Another was their anemic power play, which ranked 49th in the nation, clicking at just 14.4 percent.

Two returning players that the Mavericks will be looking to help boost the team’s point production this season are junior Eriah Hayes and senior Justin Jokinen (BUF).

Hayes finished an impressive sophomore campaign with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 38 points. His 11 goals ranked second on the team, while his 22 points ranked third. Hayes, who attended the Chicago Blackhawks prospects camp this summer, is a player to keep an eye. He uses his large frame (6’4, 210lbs) and strength quite effectively. And because of that, Hayes is a difficult player to move off of the puck.

Jokinen enjoyed a breakout season of sorts in 2010-11 after posting 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) playing in all 38 games. The Carlton, MN native has made some good strides in development, most notably utilizing his speed more advantageously and driving more to the net. But the one area that is a concern is his inability to consistently use his 6’3, 185 pound frame effectively in protecting the puck.

One of the Mavericks strengths coming into the season is in goal. The tandem of junior Phil Cook and senior Austin Lee both return after having solid 2010-11 campaigns. Cook, who saw the lion’s share of the time in net, appeared in 28 games and posted a 10-13-4 record that included one shutout. Lee appeared in 13 games, posting a 4-5-2 record. Both goaltenders also posted save percentages that were better than .900 last season.

In addition to the returning veterans, Minnesota State-Mankato also brings in seven newcomers this season, including center Max Gaede. Gaede, a 2010 third round (88th overall) selection of the San Jose Sharks, is a power forward noted for his superb puck-moving skills.

University of Nebraska-Omaha
Number of NHL prospects: 3

The Mavericks will open their 2011-12 on October 7th hosting Mercyhurst in the Mutual of Omaha Stampede.

After taking over as head coach in 2009, Dean Blais has got Nebraska-Omaha going in the right direction. In just his second year at the helm, Blais guided the Mavericks to their second NCAA Tournament appearance. Last season’s WCHA Coach of the Year has also greatly improved the recruiting efforts of the program, bringing in high-caliber players in greater numbers. Blais has continued that trend this season and a return to the NCAA Tournament doesn’t look to be out of reach.

Two things that made Nebraska-Omaha so successful last season were their great depth and offensive production throughout their lineup.

Last season, the Mavericks ranked 17th in the nation with an offense that averaged 3.28 goals per game. The team had nine players that posted 20 or more points and eight players with ten or more goals. But four of their 20-plus point producers have graduated, including their top three scorers in Joey Martin, Matt Ambroz and Rich Purslow. The trio accounted for 29 percent of the team’s offense last season.

Among those leading the Mavericks offensive charge this season is sophomore Matt White. The Whittier, CA native returns as the team’s top goal scorer after posting 14 last season. His finished his freshman campaign with 25 points playing in all 39 games. White has developed a knack for scoring timely goals. Of his 14 goals, three came on the power play, one came shorthanded and two were game-winners.

One returning player that will be noticeably absent to start the season is senior Alex Hudson. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Hudson has been suspended indefinitely due to an unspecified training violation. The Corona, CA native was among Nebraska-Omaha’s top scorers last season after posting 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in 39 games. Hudson had recently been named as one of the team’s co-captains.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Mavericks will also welcome six new forwards that will look to make an impact in their own right. Leading the group is Josh Archibald. Archibald, a sixth round (174th overall) selection of the Pittsburgh Penguins last June, will fit right in with Nebraska-Omaha’s ultra-aggressive style. At 5’10 and 170 pounds, Archibald will be among the team’s smallest (and youngest) players, but he’s fast, gritty, and can play both ends of the ice equally well. He is the son of former North Dakota standout Jim Archibald, who also played under the tutelage of Blais.

"All the way through his junior hockey days, Josh has always been well-coached, whether by his father or somebody else. When Josh came here, he surprised a lot of people. He’s not big, but he plays with the same tenacity as his father did. He’s just got the heart of a lion. Josh is skilled and strong on his skates. He’s also a fierce competitor. We’re not counting on Josh to be a big point guy for us, but we want him to bring what he’s capable of, which is intensity character. That, with hard work, I think will allow Josh to develop into a scorer. I can’t say how many points Josh will put up, but he does have that ability. He can make plays, and he’s smart."

Last season, the Mavericks defense ranked 15th in the nation, allowing an average of 2.54 goals per game. And it will be likely be as good, if not better this season. However, the team lost Eric Olimb, Nick Von Bokern, and Pasko Skarica to graduation.

The most notable aspect of Nebraska-Omaha’s defense is their sheer size. The Mavericks featured the nation’s biggest blue line last season, with seven of their nine defensemen measuring 6’2 or taller. And it’s not going to change much this season. Two players to keep an eye on are 6’2 junior Bryce Aneloski (OTT) and 6’4 sophomore Michael Young.

Aneloski returns this season as the team’s top scoring defenseman and plus/minus co-leader (plus-15). He appeared in all 39 games last season, posting 19 points (two goals, 17 assists). Since his arrival at Nebraska-Omaha, Aneloski has gradually developed more foot speed. And that has gone a long way to improve his transitioning as well as his ability to keep up with faster opposing forwards.

"Bryce is big, strong and mobile," Blais said of Aneloski. "He doesn’t get outmuscled anywhere around the net. He’s not overly physical, but he’s physical enough to make plays and will take a hit to make a play in the defensive zone. Bryce makes good decisions on the offensive blue line and is intelligent. He’s also got a pretty good shot. He’s very coachable and a real competitor. The thing with Bryce is we want him to be more of a leader this year because he’s skilled and he’s going to be a power play type of guy on our blue line."

Young is coming off of an impressive rookie campaign that saw him post 14 points (three goals, 11 assists), playing in 37 games. The Calgary, AB native possesses a really nice skill set, in addition to a large frame (6’4, 210lbs). But what may be one of his best qualities is the fact that he rarely takes himself out of plays when delivering hard checks. And these attributes have put Young squarely on the NHL radar as well. One team that has taken particular notice of Young is the Philadelphia Flyers, whose prospects camp he attended this past summer.

"Mike is a big, physical defenseman that can hit the outlet passes and knows the game real well. He had a pretty good year last year. Mike will be on our power play, penalty kill and will log a lot of ice time for us this year. He has a lot of ability, both offensively and defensively. Mike is very reliable, knows the game and he may be our smartest defenseman."

One of the keys behind Nebraska-Omaha’s success last season was the brilliant goaltending of John Faulkner. The returning junior from Sarnia, ONT was one of the nation’s workhorses last season. Faulkner appeared in all 39 games, posting a 20-15-2 record that included a nation co-leading six shutouts. The 2199:41 minutes he played ranked sixth in the nation.

Two netminders will be competing with Faulkner this season, including sophomore Dayn Belfour. He is the son of legendary North Dakota and NHL goaltender Ed Belfour, who also played under the tutelage of Blais. The younger Belfour did not play last season.

University of North Dakota
Number of NHL prospects: 15

The Fighting Sioux will look to successfully defend their WCHA Regular Season and Final Five crowns when they open their 2011-12 season hosting Air Force in the Icebreaker Tournament on October 7th in Grand Forks, ND.

After capturing both the MacNaughton and Broadmoor Trophies, and making it to the Frozen Four last season, North Dakota saw their pursuit of an eighth National Championship come to a crushing halt at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines in the Frozen Four semi-finals. But with a new season right around the corner, the Fighting Sioux are determined to not let history repeat itself.

Few teams were as deep or as dominant as North Dakota was last season. The Fighting Sioux ranked in the top three nationally on both offense and defense. They were one of only two teams in the nation (Yale was the other) that averaged over four goals per game. Their 178 total goals were the most of any team nationally. North Dakota’s defense, which ranked third, allowed an average of 2.14 goals per game. The 84 total goals that they allowed were the fewest of any WCHA team.

Equally good last season was the Fighting Sioux’s special teams, both of which ranked in the top ten nationally. Their 11 shorthanded tallies were the third most in the country.

Coming into this season however, North Dakota will have to fill the vast offensive hole left by the departure of six of the team’s top seven scorers from last season in Matt Frattin (TOR), Jason Gregoire (WPG), Evan Trupp, Brad Malone (COL), Brett Hextall (PHO), and defenseman Chay Genoway (MIN). Those six players accounted for a whopping 53 percent of the Fighting Sioux’s total points last season.

Two of the most notable of the group are Frattin and Genoway. Frattin led the nation with 36 goals and finished second with 60 points playing in all 44 games. The WCHA Player of the Year was also named to the All-America West First team and was a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist.

Genoway capped an excellent final year finishing fourth in the nation among defensemen with 37 points (six goals, 31 assists) in 36 games. His 31 assists were the tied for second most among all defensemen nationally. Genoway was named to the All-America West First team and the All-WCHA First team.

North Dakota’s top returning scorer is junior Corban Knight (FLA). The High River, AB native finished second on the team with 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists) in 44 games last season. Knight was also the team’s top player on face-offs, winning nearly 60 percent of his draws.

One returning player that is poised to have a very big year is junior Danny Kristo (MON). The Eden Prairie, MN native enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign despite missing ten games due to frostbite. He finished the season with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists) in 34 games. And head coach Dave Hakstol is expecting bigger and better things from Kristo this season.

"I think Danny’s game is really beginning to mature. When he came back into our lineup late last year as well as through the summer and what we’ve seen of him here (so far) this fall, there’s just an enhanced maturity level to his game. I think that’s going to be something very important for Danny and for our team. He’s back to 100 percent with his skating and is going to be a player that we’re going to be relying heavily on throughout the season."

Joining the returning group upfront are seven newcomers. And all eyes will be on diminutive dynamo Rocco Grimaldi (FLA). He is the newest NHL-drafted collegian to come out of the California hockey factory known as the LA Selects/LAHC, which also produced Denver’s Beau Bennett and Jason Zucker, among others. At 5’6, Grimaldi will be the smallest player in the NCAA this year, but by season’s end, he could be putting up some of the nation’s biggest numbers. The Rossmoor, CA native is also considered the early favorite for this season’s WCHA Rookie of the Year honor as well.

Grimaldi is part of North Dakota’s exceptional incoming class that is among the best in the nation this season. The class also features Michael Parks (PHI), Brendan O’Donnell (TB) and defenseman Nick Mattson (CHI). One playing missing from the group is J.T. Miller. The first round (15th overall) selection of the New York Rangers this past June has opted to play in the OHL this season.

While Grimaldi is almost certain to post some tremendous numbers this season, Hakstol says that he is expecting Mattson, Parks, and O’Donnell to be significant contributors as well.

"Nick’s a puck-moving defenseman that can play on the power play. We’re expecting to see some of that ability come through. We’re replacing some talented players on our blue line that were power play guys for us, and I feel that Nick will be able to take some of those minutes in an offensive type of role.

When you look at the amount of scoring that we lost on our forward lines, we’re going to need to replace that to some degree by committee. Michael is a power forward and a guy that takes the puck to the net. Brendan is more of a playmaking type of winger/center. Both of them are two offensively-gifted freshmen that we’ll rely on right away to supply some of what we lost."

The great success that North Dakota enjoyed last season can be attributed in large to part to the spectacular goaltending of Aaron Dell. The returning junior from Airdrie, AB put up some extraordinary numbers that earned him selections to the All-America West Second Team and the All-WCHA First Team. Dell led the nation with 30 wins and a miniscule 1.79 goals against average. He finished the 2010-11 campaign with a 30-7-2 record that included a nation-tying six shutouts in 40 appearances. Dell ranked third nationally in winning percentage (.795) and eighth in save percentage (.924). Not surprisingly, those numbers have certainly caught the attention of NHL teams. One that has taken particular notice is the Montreal Canadiens, whose prospects camp Dell attended this summer.

Despite losing three key defensemen to graduation in Genoway, Jake Marto and Derrick LaPoint, North Dakota’s defensive corps will once again be an intimidating one. Leading the Fighting Sioux defense this season is senior Ben Blood (OTT). The Plymouth, MN native was one of the cornerstones on the North Dakota blueline last season. He posted 12 points (two goals, ten assists) playing in all 44 games. Blood also co-led the nation with a plus-33 as well.

"Well leadership is certainly a key thing that Ben will bring," Hakstol said of Blood. "The level of play and the number of minutes that we expect from Ben this year is going to be great. We expect him to be a workhorse for us back there, not only in that solid, two-way role playing against other teams’ top forward units, but we also expect Ben to grow in his game and be able to add a little bit in the offensive end of the rink as well. Ben’s dedication and preparation have been extremely impressive. He has improvement himself in every area of his game, whether it’s been in his skating or really understanding the game. Ben has drastically improved himself athletically and in his conditioning. And he has turned his body into a pro body."

Sophomores Derek Forbort (LAK) and Dillon Simpson (EDM) will be two players that should help fill the offensive void from the blue line left by Genoway. Forbort will be looking to notch his first collegiate career goal this season after posting 15 assists in 38 games last season. Simpson, who saw spot duty in 30 games in 2010-11, will have an expanded role on the team and is expected to see much more ice time this season. He finished his rookie campaign with ten points (two goals, eight assists).

St. Cloud State University
Number of NHL prospects: 7

The Huskies will open their 2011-12 season on October 7th versus Alaska (Fairbanks) in the Kendall College Hockey in Anchorage, AK.

After making a trip to the NCAA Tournament two years ago, St. Cloud State was unable to repeat the feat last season after finishing eighth in the WCHA and getting bounced out of the conference tournament in the opening round. This season, the Huskies will try to change that.

St. Cloud State lost eight players this offseason, most of whom were key components on last season’s team.

Four of the eight were forwards in graduates Aaron Marvin, Garrett Roe (PHI), Nick Oslund and Brian Volpei. The most notable of the group are Marvin and Roe. Marvin brought a real physical presence to the Huskies while providing good support at both ends of the ice. He finished his senior campaign with 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 37 games. At season’s end, Marvin signed with the AHL‘s Abbotsford Heat.

After a 49-point season two years ago, Roe’s offensive numbers dipped last season, but his stellar play didn’t. He finished second on the St. Cloud State roster with 36 points (ten goals, 26 assists) playing in all 38 games. Roe was particularly dangerous on the Huskies special teams last season. Of his ten goals, three came on the power play and two came shorthanded. Most recently, Roe signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers.

While losing Marvin and Roe are significant, St. Cloud State will have some great depth upfront this season.

Two players that will be leading St. Cloud State’s offensive attack are senior Drew Leblanc and junior Ben Hanowski (PIT). Leblanc was the Huskies best two-way forward last season. The Hermantown, MN native led the team with 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 38 games last season. His excellent season earned him a spot on the All-WCHA Third team. This past summer, Leblanc attended the Chicago Blackhawks prospects camp.

Hanowski began to emerge as a serious offensive threat for St. Cloud State last season. He co-led the team with 13 goals and finished with 20 points in 37 games. He also co-led the team with six power play goals. Hanowski’s added size and strength were particularly noticeable in his relentless drives to the net. It also enhanced his overall speed as well. One area where he improved over the course of last season was in aggressively pursuing the puck. If Hanowski can do that more consistently, he could wind up being among the WCHA’s top scorers at season’s end.

Two returning sophomores that St. Cloud State will be relying on to continue their strong play this season are Cam Reid (NSH) and Nic Dowd (LAK). Reid enjoyed a stellar freshman campaign, leading all Huskies rookies with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 27 games. He also led the Huskies with a plus-7 as well. Reid benefitted greatly playing alongside Leblanc for much of last season. He utilized his speed quite effectively, which were evident in his hard drives to the net and beating opposing players to loose pucks.

Dowd injected some high energy into the St. Cloud State lineup last season and is blossoming into a player that can be a real pest to play against. He finished his outstanding freshman season with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 36 games. The two games he missed were due to injury.

The Huskies lost two key cogs on their blue line this offseason in Brett Barta and Oliver Lauridsen. Barta, one of the guiding forces of the Huskies defense last season, has graduated. The Moorhead, MN native capped his final year with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) playing in all 38 games. Lauridsen opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. He posted nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 37 games. Lauridsen finished second on the team with a plus-6.

Among those leading St. Cloud State’s defense this season is sophomore Nick Jensen (DET). The Rogers, MN native was one of the best young defenseman to emerge out of the WCHA last season. Jensen led all Huskies rearguards with 23 points (five goals, 18 assists) in 38 games. He averaged roughly 20-25 minutes of ice time per game, playing in all situations.

Junior Mike Lee (PHO) returns as St. Cloud State’s main man between the pipes. The Roseau, MN continues to be a solid and steadying presence for the Huskies. He appeared in 32 games last season, posting a 12-14-4 record that included one shutout. One of Lee’s most memorable games came in the second game versus Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round of the WCHA Tournament. In that contest, Lee stopped 60 of 63 shots before the Huskies fell to the Bulldogs in triple overtime.

In addition to the returning veterans, St. Cloud State will welcome a nine-member incoming class headed by center Nick Oliver, a fourth round (110th overall) selection of the Nashville Predators in 2009. Oliver will add some grit and some good offensive depth to the Huskies this season.

University of Wisconsin
Number of NHL prospects: 8

The Badgers will open their 2011-12 season hosting Northern Michigan on October 7th.

Wisconsin was one of the nation’s best defensive teams last season. The Badgers’ eighth-ranked defense allowed an average of 2.39 goals per game.

Those numbers could be greatly affected this season due to their situation in goal. Wisconsin graduated last season’s tandem of Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett. And for the first time in over four decades, Wisconsin will feature a goaltending trio that has no prior collegiate playing experience. Freshman Joel Rumpel, who is the nephew of former Badgers All-American goaltender Roy Schultz, has been tabbed to start the season. The Swift Current, SK native possesses a nice combination of size (6’3, 180 lbs) and athleticism.

"We’ll have a real competitive situation with our goaltenders this year, which is what coaches like because when you have that, it brings out their best day in and day out," head coach Mike Eaves said of his goaltending situation. "We’re going to give the ball to Joel to start the season and see how he runs with it. He comes in as a very athletic, tall, lanky goaltender and we’re expecting good things from him, but he’s going to be pushed every day by Mitch Thompson and Landon Peterson. If Joel struggles or stumbles a little bit, and the other guys are playing well, we’re not going to be shy about pulling the trigger to make changes."

In addition to losing last season’s top goaltending tandem, Wisconsin also lost five of their top seven scorers, most notably forward Craig Smith and defenseman Jake Gardiner. The two players opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Nashville Predators and the Toronto Maple Leafs respectively. Smith led the Badgers in goal scoring last season with 19 and finished second on the team with 43 points in 41 games.

Gardiner was part of the nation’s best defensive pairing last season. His 43 points (ten goals, 31 assists) in 41 games ranked second in the nation among defensemen, while his 31 assists tied him for second. His stellar 2010-11 campaign earned him selections to the All-America West Second Team and the All-WCHA Second Team.

The only defenseman in the nation who bested Gardiner last season was his blueline partner, Justin Schultz (ANA). The West Kelowna, BC native had the opportunity to sign with the Anaheim Ducks this offseason but chose to return to Wisconsin for his junior year, much to the delight (and relief) of the Badgers faithful. Schultz’s numbers last season were staggering. He led the nation in defenseman scoring with 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists) playing in all 41 games. His 47 points also ranked tied for 17th among all players. Schultz was named the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Year and earned selections to the All-America West First team and the All-WCHA First team. Schultz was also the lone defenseman and underclassman to be named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and is among the early top candidates for the award this season.

"I think Justin came back this year because he was disappointed in the way that our season ended last year and he wants to help improve on that," Eaves said of Schultz’s return. "He also sees the value in coming back. He can get bigger and stronger, so that when he does make that step, he’ll be able to better compete for a (NHL) job right away. Justin had a real good summer. He’s put on ten pounds and has gotten a lot of stronger."

As crucial as Schultz was to Wisconsin’s success last season, he might be even more so this season. Schultz is one of only six upperclassmen on the Wisconsin roster. He, along with fellow junior rearguard John Ramage (CGY) will be counted on to stabilize a very young Badgers squad. Ramage, who will serve as team captain this season, posted 11 points (one goal, ten assists) in 37 games last season.

Joining the returning veterans on defense are two newcomers in Patrick Daly (NJ) and Jake McCabe. Of the two, the one to keep an eye on is McCabe. An Oct. 1993-born player, McCabe will be one of the youngest players in the NCAA this season. He is also one of the top collegians eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft. McCabe is noted for his outstanding vision, reliable defensive play and possesses a good offensive upside.

"Jake is an old soul for a young man that’s just seventeen years old," Eaves said of McCabe. "The guys are amazed at his maturity, both physically and mentally in the way he handles things. I think Jake is going to be able to step in and helps us rights away."

With only two upperclassmen among the forwards this season, Wisconsin will be relying heavily on an outstanding group of sophomores and newcomers to fill the vast offensive hole left by the departures of Smith, Gardiner, Jordy Murray, Podge Turnbull, and Patrick Johnson. The aforementioned players accounted for 42 percent of the team’s points last season.

Sophomores Michael Mersch (LAK) and Jason Clark (NYI) are among the returning players that Wisconsin will be relying on to help fill that hole.

Mersch, a fourth round (110th overall) selection of the Los Angeles Kings this past June, enjoyed an outstanding freshman campaign that saw him post 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) playing in all 41 games. He also led the Badgers with a plus-23. One area where Mersch excelled last season was on face-offs, winning nearly 46 percent of his draws.

"Michael has worked hard this summer," said Eaves. "He continues to work hard on his leg strength and technique, which will help improve his skating and make him a better player. I think the one thing that Michael has come to realize is that every success that he has is going to be predicated on his ability to play big, hard, and getting things done in the hard areas. The success that Michael had last year was based on using his body and getting into the hard areas. So we’re hoping that he’ll be able to build on that this year."

A lingering injury limited Clark to just 14 games and one assist last season. If he can stay healthy, Clark will add some good offensive depth to the Badgers this season.

"Jason is healthy now, but he kind of missed the whole summer of training because of some surgery that he had" said Eaves. "So he’s coming from a little further back than the rest of the team is right now. The amount of ice time Jason gets will be determined by how he goes through the pre-season and the early part of the year."

Joining the veteran group upfront are four newcomers, led by 2011 Vancouver Canucks draft selection (fourth round, 101st overall) Joseph Labate. The Eagan, MN native is a tall (6’4), lanky, smooth-skating center that is known for his blistering shot.

"You know as skinny as Joe is, he’s also almost 200 lbs!" Eaves said of Labate. "I was pleasantly surprised to see that he was, because that’s a lot of beef. I think by the time Joe leaves Wisconsin, he can easily put on 10 or 15 pounds. He’s got some offensive things there that you can’t teach. He’ll have a chance to play for us right away and deservedly so because he’s definitely got some ideas of what he wants to do with that puck. Joe is a player that’ll be able to come in and make an impact right away too."