Lighting It Up – April Edition

By Glenn Gawronski

Now that the Frozen Four has closed out another college hockey season, it’s time to take a quick look at some of my end of the year notes.

The WCHA was justifiably proud of the fact that the final four teams standing were members of their conference. From top to bottom, the WCHA is the best hockey conference in the country. Their top end programs are traditional hockey schools with a great commitment from the administration and excellent fan support. Most generally recruit throughout the US and Canada, not necessarily focusing on just one geographic region. This simply allows for better overall players, directly impacting the overall brand of hockey. And let’s not forget that the coaching in the WCHA is first rate.

All of that being said, I’ll admit that a lot of things had to fall just right to sweep the Frozen Four spots. There were certainly other quality teams who realistically could have gone to Columbus. This was the absolute best case scenario for the WCHA.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear why Denver was able to repeat as National Champions. Clutch goaltending? They got that from Peter Mannino. A real difference-maker up front? More often than not, Gabe Gauthier was the best player on the ice. And a cornerstone blueliner who can play at both ends? Well how about two in Matt Carle and Brett Skinner. Plus the Pioneers were able to get career years out of the likes of Luke Fulghum, Jeff Drummond and Kevin Ulanski.

From one year to the next, championship teams always seem to have similar qualities. Denver had a team built for tournament play and deserved to be there in the end.

A three-peat? Probably not likely. They just lose an awful lot of skill, leadership and heart. The incoming freshman class looks solid but unspectacular and I just don’t see them stepping in and filling all the departing roles.

Denver’s biggest challenge is probably going to be just surviving the WCHA. Come next year, look for Colorado, North Dakota and Minnesota to be championship contenders, with Wisconsin a team on the upswing. Each club has very good players returning and have had excellent recruiting years.

The Colorado duo of Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling was one of the most dynamic combinations I’ve seen in a while. Their game may not translate well at the NHL level, but don’t count them out. They have puck skills, creativity and excellent instincts.

When San Jose drafted Denver defenseman Matt Carle 47th overall in 2003, I thought it was a good pick but a bit of a risk nonetheless. Right now it’s looking like a terrific selection. He has made strides in every element of his game and he’s making that gradual, steady progress that is so important in the development process. His confidence level has risen dramatically over the past two seasons.

Minnesota State forward David Backes is very quietly maturing into an excellent pro-style forward. He has size, skill and heart. The St. Louis Blues have a definite pro prospect in Backes.

Goalie Bernd Bruckler was the only senior in the Wisconsin lineup this season. With virtually the entire roster returning and some very good incoming freshmen, the Badgers will be a team to watch next year. And even though Bruckler posted some awesome numbers, the void in net should be filled admirably by Brian Elliott.

Michigan was once again the class of the CCHA. Winger Jeff Tambellini is NHL ready. He’s becoming more consistent and showing signs that he’s really learning how to use his speed and creativity to create offense. Draft eligible winger T.J. Hensick had a fine season and displayed the scoring touch that scouts were looking for. But we’re still hearing a lot of concerns about his consistency and two-way play. Goalie Al Montoya was good, but is definitely capable of playing better. One of the downsides to having this much ability is that you’re held to different standards. Night in and night out, you’re expected to be spectacular, not just good. Montoya seems to be at the point where he’s ready to move on to the pro game. There may be more to accomplish at the college level, but I’m wondering if Montoya needs another challenge at a higher level of play.

Not only did Ohio State have a great season but they did it with one of the youngest teams in the league. Dave Caruso emerged as a dependable number one goalie while Tom Fritsche headlined a strong freshman group. The Buckeyes will be a real force next year.

They didn’t get much publicity, but Nebraska-Omaha impressed me. They’re a very young team with even better days ahead.

Something has gone terribly wrong at Notre Dame. On paper, they’re a pretty decent club. On the ice, they’re anything but. Blueliner Wes O’Neill had a decent year and goalie Morgan Cey showed composure and heart, but just about everyone else in the lineup underachieved.

Bowling Green’s Jonathan Matsumoto and Miami’s Nathan Davis are two draft eligibles I paid close attention to this year. Matsumoto has quick hands, very good hockey sense and the ability to find the open spots on the ice. But his lack of size is a concern. Davis may not have the pure finesse skills you would hope for, but his overall game may be better suited to the pros. They are both different players, but I like them long term.

A senior laden squad at Boston College had a solid regular season but just couldn’t get it done at the tournament. They’ll build around goalie Cory Schneider who has the tools to carry a club. Fellow freshman Dan Bertram didn’t meet my expectations this year. I expected a bit more, and from what I’m hearing, so to did a lot of scouts. Big winger Brian Boyle helped re-establish himself as a solid pro prospect after taking a step back the previous season.

Chris Bourque’s decision to leave Boston University didn’t catch many close observers by surprise. As well as Bourque played this season, you now have to wonder if going the college route was a mistake. By now, he’d have at least two major junior seasons under his belt and likely be one step closer to being NHL material.

Maine was a solid team this year, but what they really lacked was that game-breaker up front who could score the key goal when they needed it. A 40-point scorer could have made a world of difference.

UMass-Lowell will be a definite Hockey East power next year. Ben Walter and Elias Godoy will be poised for big senior years, while goalie Peter Vetri will be even more comfortable in net as a sophomore. The youngest team in the conference this year, the River Hawks are maturing very nicely.

Seniors Sean Collins and Preston Callander ended their college careers with terrific seasons for New Hampshire. But there are mixed opinions in NHL circles about their pro potential. Freshman goalie Kevin Regan looked like a top prospect with a very bright future.

While it’s sometimes difficult to gauge just how good some of the ECAC goalies are, this was definitely a banner year for the netminders. Cornell’s David McKee was sensational, with Harvard’s Dov Grumet-Morris and Colgate’s Steve Silverthorn not too far behind. Also impressive were Brown’s Adam D’Alba and Vermont’s Joe Fallon, two freshmen who adjusted very quickly to the college game. As usual, there wasn’t much offensive firepower in the league this season, but don’t discount the performance of the goalies.

Coming up in a few weeks, I’ll take another look at the performances of some prominent prospects in the CHL.