WCHA 2006-07 season preview

By DJ Powers

The depth and quality of the talent level in the WCHA will be very evident once again this season. The conference features 71 current NHL prospects, the most of any of the six NCAA conferences. The University of Minnesota, with 15 NHL prospects on its current roster, has the most of any team in the nation.

University of Wisconsin

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 10)

When the reigning national champion Wisconsin Badgers begin defense of their title on Oct. 6 versus Northern Michigan, they will face some key challenges.

The most notable is filling the roles of key players who are no longer with the team. Forwards Robbie Earl (TOR) and Joe Pavelski (SJ) opted to leave early for the pro ranks. Forward Adam Burish (CHI) and defenseman Tom Gilbert (EDM) have both graduated. The loss of Earl and Pavelski will be especially crucial to fill. The two players combined for 106 points last season, both finishing amongst the top 15 in the nation in scoring.

The best news that the Badgers received coming into this season was the return of the record-setting senior goaltender Brian Elliott (OTT). There had been some speculation that Elliott would sign with the Ottawa Senators in the offseason.

“[Ottawa] looked at what their situation was and what they thought would be the best for his development and in their opinion, it was to come back here and play and do it again,” said head coach Mike Eaves. “So that’s a big thing for us because goaltending is such a key position.”

The 2006 Hobey Hat Trick finalist and All-American led the nation in virtually every goaltending category last season, including goals against average (1.55), save percentage (.938) and wining percentage (.814).

Elliott wasn’t the only returning Badger who had speculation of an early departure to the pro ranks surrounding him, there was also sophomore power forward Jack Skille (CHI). To the delight of the Badger nation, ‘Jack’s back’ and he is poised to be a formidable impact player not only on the Wisconsin roster but possibly in the nation as well.

In addition to the return of Elliott on the defensive side, the Badgers will also have an outstanding group of blueliners led by the tandem of junior Kyle Klubertanz (ANA) and senior Jeff Likens. Klubertanz returns as the Badgers top scoring defenseman after posting 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) last season.

Klubertanz and Likens will be joined by a group of newcomers who bring good size along with some impressive credentials to Wisconsin this season. The two most notable are a pair of 2006 NHL draft selections in the excellent puck-moving Jamie McBain (CAR) and great skating behemoth Nigel Williams (COL).

Another newcomer to watch this season is Blake Geoffrion (NSH). The grandson of legendary NHLer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion is a player noted for his size, clutch play and relentless drives to the net.

University of Alaska-Anchorage

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

Last season and the offseason that followed proved to be tumultuous for Alaska-Anchorage. The Seawolves will be looking to get back on track and move out of the WCHA cellar when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 versus Merrimack in the Maverick Stampede Tournament in Omaha.

While teams such as Minnesota and North Dakota were losing players to the pros, Alaska-Anchorage was losing players to other NCAA teams. Forwards Shea Hamilton, Billy Smith and Eric Walsky have all left Anchorage. Hamilton and Walsky have transferred to other WCHA schools (North Dakota and Colorado College), while Smith has transferred to Northern Michigan. All three players will be eligible to play beginning in the fall of 2007. In addition, Alaska-Anchorage also lost incoming defenseman Erik Felde to academic ineligibility.

The loss of the three transfers, along with the graduation of Ales Parez, intensifies perhaps the Seawolves most glaring need this season, increased offensive production. Alaska-Anchorage scored a grand total of 68 goals in 2005-06. The team’s dismal 1.89 goals per game average last season ranked 58th in the nation. Only Merrimack had a lower goals per game average in the country. The good news for the Seawolves coming into this season, however, is the fact that their top three goal scorers from last season in senior defenseman Mark Smith and junior forwards Chris Tarkir and Merit Waldrop all return.

One returning forward that the Seawolves will be relying on for increased offense this season is senior and team captain Charlie Kronschnabel. After posting 20-plus point seasons in his first two years at Alaska-Anchorage, Kronschnabel saw his numbers fall last season, posting just 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 36 games.

While question marks surround the offense coming into this season, defense may be the area where the Seawolves could see vast improvement in. Alaska-Anchorage returns junior Nathan Lawson who will provide some stability in goal as well as five of their seven defensemen last season that includes imposing junior Luke Beaverson (FLA). The Vadnais Heights, MN native has become one of Alaska-Anchorage’s most reliable defensemen. Last season, he logged a ton of ice time as a member of the Seawolves top defensive pairing. This season, Beaverson be relied upon more for his leadership after being named one of the team’s assistant captains.

Joining Beaverson and Smith on the blue line will be three newcomers, the most notable of which is two-way defenseman Nils Backstrom. The Stocksund, Sweden native is a 2004 draft selection (ninth round, 290th overall) of the Detroit Red Wings.

Colorado College

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 4)

No team in the WCHA suffered as many losses on offense this offseason as the Tigers did. This year, Colorado College faces the daunting task of replacing roughly half of their entire team scoring from a year ago when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 6 at Air Force.

The Tigers lost their top four scorers in Brett Sterling (ATL), Marty Sertich (DAL), Joey Crabb (ATL) and defenseman Brian Salcido (ANA). All but Salcido, who opted to leave early for the pros, have graduated. The foursome combined for 188 (51 percent) of the Tigers 371 total points last season.

“Without a doubt, the biggest challenge going to be scoring and getting scoring. Who is going to emerge from the returning veterans and the newcomers to put the puck in the net? We only return about 35-36 percent of our scoring from last year,” said head coach Scott Owens. “We had the top-ranked power play in the country last year, so the power play will be a big concern too.”

The top returning scorer for Colorado College is sophomore Chad Rau (TOR). Rau, who enjoyed a stellar rookie season finishing up with 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists), will be counted on to lead the Tigers offense this season.

While offense is the biggest concern, defense looks to be the least. A pair of seniors in goaltender Matt Zaba (LA) and stalwart defenseman Lee Sweatt, who will serve as team captain this season, will provide solid defensive stability for the Tigers this season.

Colorado College also brings in a freshman class that is perhaps one of the most underrated in the nation. Amongst the newcomers, the player to watch will be forward Billy Sweatt. The younger sibling of the Tigers team captain is a 2007 NHL draft eligible player who already has draft watchers buzzing.

“Billy is one of the fastest players in the world in his age group,” said Owens of the younger Sweatt. “He’s going to get the opportunity as much as any freshman here to do something right now. He’s going to be counted on to play a lot.”

University of Denver

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 11)

The Denver Pioneers will have a very different look this season when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 6 versus host Miami-Ohio in the Icebreaker Tournament.

Denver lost relatively few players, but the ones they did lose were significant. Three of the Pioneers top four scorers from last season are gone. Gabe Gauthier (LA) has graduated. Last season’s Hobey Baker Award recipient Matt Carle (SJ) and WCHA All-Conference First team selection Paul Stastny (COL) opted to turn pro. Junior Ryan Dingle returns as the team’s top scorer. After scoring just 18 points in his rookie season two years ago, Dingle exploded for 43 points (27 goals, 16 assists) last year. He finished the season third on the team in scoring.

One issue that plagued Denver last season was inconsistent goaltending. It is the one position that head coach George Gwozdecky expects not only to be better, but also be an area of strength for the team this season as well.

“When you look at our goaltending over the course of the last few years, it’s been very, very strong and very consistent,” said Gwozdecky. “Last year was the exception. Our goaltending was at times good and at times very mediocre and I think that inconsistency was a disappointment for both Glenn Fisher (EDM) and Peter Mannino. That’s an area where I’m very confident is going to be really strong this year.”

The 2005-06 season also saw the re-emergence of sorts of returning junior Geoff Paukovich (EDM). The Englewood, CO native struggled mightily to get on track early last season. After a strong showing at the 2006 WJC with Team USA, Paukovich returned to Denver noticeably more relaxed and with a renewed sense of confidence. This season, the Pioneers are expecting bigger and better things from the imposing power forward.

One returning player well worth keeping an eye on is redshirted freshman Brock Trotter. After a very promising start to his collegiate career, Trotter suffered a season-ending severed Achilles tendon injury against North Dakota last October. The dynamic Trotter, who is again draft eligible in 2007, should help fill some of the offensive holes left by the departed players this season.

In addition to a stellar returning group, Denver also brings in one of the nation’s best freshman classes that includes highly touted offensive-defenseman Keith Seabrook (WSH) and superb puck-handling forward Rhett Rakhshani (NYI). Center Tyler Ruegsegger (TOR), drafted in 2006, was originally slated to come to Denver in the fall of 2007 but was brought in this year due to his excellent senior season last year at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the early departure of Stastny.

Michigan Tech University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 1)

It’s a brand new season and for Michigan Tech there is optimism in the air. The Huskies finished their 2005-06 season with a 7-25-6 record and an eighth place finish in the WCHA. This season, they’re hoping to better that when they open their 2006-07 campaign on Oct. 13 hosting upper peninsula rivals Northern Michigan.

For the second year in a row, the Huskies lost a top-flight talent to graduation. Last summer, it was Colin Murphy and this summer it was Chris Conner. For a team that is severely lacking in blue-chip talent, losing a player like Conner makes the task of finding a comparable replacement all the more difficult. Last season, Conner led Michigan Tech in both points (29) and goals (17). Coupled with the loss of other graduates, the Huskies will be digging very deep this season to see who can carry the team offensively.

The most likely candidates could be diminutive senior defenseman Lars Helminen and junior forward Tyler Shelast. Helminen returns as the team’s top scorer from last season. He posted 19 points last season which included just two goals. Shelast returns as the Huskies top goal scorer, having finished with nine goals to go along with his 18 points.

One player who has struggled to get his game on track since coming to Michigan Tech is junior forward Jordan Foote (NYR). The Huskies lone NHL prospect came in with some high expectations that haven’t quite materialized yet. He finished his sophomore campaign playing in 31 games but only had two points to show for it. If Foote can pull it all together and do so consistently, he could provide Michigan Tech with the offensive help they so desperately need.

While questions persist up front for the Huskies, one area where there are the fewest is in goal. The talented sophomore duo of Michael Lee Teslak and Rob Nolan gave Michigan Tech some solid goaltending last season but they also faced a ton of rubber. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Great Lakes Invitational versus Michigan State back on Dec. 29. Teslak stopped 60 of 63 shots, including 24 in the first period, in the Huskies’ heartbreaking 2-3 overtime loss.

University of Minnesota

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 15)

After a successful 2005-06 regular season that included winning the MacNaughton Cup, it all came to an unceremonious end in the NCAA West Regional when Holy Cross handed Minnesota a stunning 3-4 loss in overtime. With the bitterness of that defeat still very much with them, the Minnesota Golden Gophers look to remedy that this season when they open their 2006-07 campaign on Oct. 6 versus Maine in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game.

Minnesota will certainly have a revamped roster this season. Gone are three of last year’s top point producers in Ryan Potulny (PHI), Danny Irmen (MIN) and Phil Kessel (BOS), all of whom opted to leave early to turn pro. They, along with the other departures, leave some big holes, particularly at center that will need to be filled.

The Gophers bring in what is widely considered the nation’s best freshman class this season. Led by the sensational trio of 2006 first round selections in defensemen Erik Johnson (STL) and David Fischer (MON) and right wing Kyle Okposo (NYI), Minnesota will feature loads of talent, depth and youth this year. The big questions will be how quickly and consistently will all of that talent come together and if it can bring Minnesota another national championship this season.

One newcomer that head coach Don Lucia knows particularly well is his son Tony. The younger Lucia, a 2005 draft selection (sixth round, 193rd overall) of the San Jose Sharks, will make his Minnesota debut this season.

“Tony’s going to be treated just like every other hockey player and I think he understands that. The only difference being is that I’m going to know a heckuva lot more about what’s going on in his life than any other (player’s) parent does,” said Lucia. “He came here because this is what he wanted to do. I had to feel in my own mind that I knew Tony was good enough to play here otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted a situation like that. I was convinced that he was and he’s here on his own merit and that’s the way it had to be.”

In addition to the infusion of some high-powered new talent, Minnesota will welcome back a redshirted player in senior forward Tyler Hirsch who will both provide experience and leadership to a predominantly young Gophers team this season. [Note: The University of Minnesota has announced
that defenseman Nate Hagemo has retired from hockey
due to his lingering shoulder injury. He will remain
at the university on scholarship to attain his degree.]

Minnesota possessed a very solid defensive corps last season and this season it looks to be even better. Senior and team captain Mike Vannelli (ATL) leads a superb group of defenders that, with the return of Hagemo and the additions of Johnson and Fischer, will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

Reliable goaltending, particularly in post-season play, will be of the utmost importance if Minnesota expects to avoid another upset. The talented tandem of sophomore Jeff Frazee (NJ) and senior Kellen Briggs both return to the Gophers lineup this season. Briggs is expected to be the starter when Minnesota’s season opens this week.

University of Minnesota-Duluth

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 10)

After a ninth-place finish in the WCHA standings at the end of the regular season, the very young Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs earned a trip to the WCHA Final Five by defeating second-place Denver in three games. This season, the Bulldogs look to build on that success when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 hosting UMass-Lowell.

Youth was served in a big way at Minnesota-Duluth last season as 14 freshmen suited up for the team. It became quite a learning experience for both the newcomers and the veterans alike. With a year under their belts, the youthful Bulldogs are poised to take the next step.

“The biggest thing is our attitude. I think we need to be a much more aggressive, competitive team than we were last year all throughout our lineup,” said head coach Scott Sandelin. “One of the things that we struggled with a little bit last year was if we scored, we’d follow it up with a soft shift. If we got scored on, we got down. We just need to stay positive, believe in each other and just kind of have that we’re-going-to-win attitude. I know that they’re very excited to get the season started and they have very high expectations for themselves.”

One of the more interesting positions to watch on the Minnesota-Duluth team this year is in goal. With Isaac Reichmuth gone, the battle for the starting job should be a good one. Junior Nate Ziegelmann, who was stellar in post-season play last year, looks to have the inside track for the starting job on opening night. However, returning senior Josh Johnson and much-heralded newcomer Alex Stalock (SJ) may have something to say about that. Regardless of which player wins the starting job, consistency in goal will be paramount to Minnesota-Duluth’s success this season.

The Bulldogs defense, though still quite young, should be even better this year. The Minnesota-Duluth blue line will get some much-needed experience and leadership with the return of redshirted senior Ryan Geris. Geris, who has not played since early in the 2004-05 season due to lingering post-concussion problems, is one of only two defensive upperclassmen on the Minnesota-Duluth roster. Complimenting Geris is a superb group of sophomores led by Matt Niskanen (DAL). Niskanen returns as Minnesota-Duluth’s top scoring defenseman. Last season, he posted 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in 38 appearances.

One area that Sandelin would like to see improvement this season is the team’s offensive production. Minnesota-Duluth averaged 2.42 goals per game last season, ranking them tied for 48th in the nation. Sophomore Mason Raymond (VAN) returns as the team’s top scorer. He capped an excellent freshman season with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) and was selected to the WCHA All-Rookie team. While there had been some speculation of Vancouver possibly signing Raymond this offseason, he will return to Minnesota-Duluth with some added physical strength and a big dose of determination.

“In talking to Vancouver, they want to see Mason get stronger and take pucks to the net more. They know what his capabilities are,” said Sandelin. “He’s a very driven kid who wants to play at the next level. He’s gotten stronger, but there are areas of his game that we’ve sat down and talked about. He knows that he’s got some areas to work on.”

The one player to watch this season is dynamic sophomore Michael Gergen (PIT). The Hastings, MN native enjoyed an outstanding freshman campaign finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 22 points (14 goals, eight assists). His 14 goals co-led the team. With a year under his belt and having gone through the customary freshman ‘growing pains’, Gergen is poised to make a big offensive push not only at Minnesota-Duluth but in the WCHA as well.

Minnesota State University, Mankato

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

Minnesota State-Mankato got off to a very slow start again last season before ending the year with a 17-18-4 record and a seventh place finish. This season, the Mavericks will look to continue their climb up the WCHA standings when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 12 at Notre Dame.

For Minnesota State-Mankato, playing in the WCHA has always been a real battle. This offseason, that battle just got a little tougher. The Mavericks lost three of their top scorers from last season in All-American David Backes (STL), Ryan Carter (ANA) and defenseman Kyle Peto, all of whom opted to leave early for the pro ranks. Backes and Carter signed with NHL teams while Peto signed with KalPa of the Finnish SM-Liiga. The trio combined to score 106 (32 percent) of the Mavericks 335 points last season.

With the departure of three top scorers, the Mavericks will need to find their scoring elsewhere this season. Senior Travis Morin (WSH) returns as the main go-to offensive player. He co-led the team in scoring with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) and was one of only three players to play in all 39 games last season. Morin’s point production will be crucial in Minnesota State-Mankato’s pursuit of finishing in the top half of the WCHA.

Among the other players who could help boost the Mavericks offensive production this season are senior Kurtis Kisio and junior Joel Hanson. Kisio finished with eight goals and 16 points last season while Hanson finished with 20 points (four goals, 16 assists).

With the team’s offensive production and where it will come from being the biggest concerns, defense will perhaps be the least. Despite the significant loss of Peto, Minnesota State-Mankato returns a very solid group of blueliners who should help make the team better defensively. Senior Chad Brownlee (VAN) battled through a shoulder injury that limited him to just 29 games last season. He’s now healthy and his leadership and presence will be invaluable to the team’s success.

Another area that the Mavericks look good is in goal. Sophomore Dan Tormey was brilliant between the pipes last season. The WCHA All-Rookie Team selection went 14-13-4 last season. He also posted a respectable .902 save percentage and a 2.83 goals against average. This season, Tormey looks to be even better, but will be pushed hard by the other two returning Mavericks goaltenders, senior Chris Clark and sophomore Mike Zacharias.

University of North Dakota

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 11)

The University of North Dakota is coming off of a very successful 2005-06 season that saw them earn their second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four. This year, they look to try and make it three years in a row when their 2006-07 campaign opens on Oct. 6 versus Quinnipiac.

For the North Dakota, losing players early to the pro ranks has become a yearly occurrence. This offseason however, it was particularly difficult. The team lost five key players to early defections in top scorers Drew Stafford (BUF), Travis Zajac (NJ) and Rastislav Spirko, top defenseman Matt Smaby (TB), and starting goaltender Jordan Parise (NJ). The challenge for North Dakota this season will be finding the right players to fill the crucial roles that these players leave.

Not all of the news has been bad however. The best news that North Dakota got in the offseason is the return of sophomore sensation Jonathan Toews (CHI). There had been much speculation of Toews’ possible departure to Chicago, but much to the delight of the North Dakota faithful he’ll be back to help lead an excellent albeit very young offense this season. Toews, along with fellow sophomores T.J. Oshie (STL) and Ryan Duncan, will help fill the lost offensive production left by Stafford, Zajac and Spirko.

In addition to the returning forwards, North Dakota will have four new additions up front that include left wing Michael Forney (ATL) and smooth skating centerman Chris VandeVelde (EDM).

Another area that North Dakota looks very strong at coming into this season is on defense. With the exception of Smaby, North Dakota returns its defensive corps intact. The sophomore foursome of Brian Lee (OTT), Joe Finley (WSH), Taylor Chorney (EDM) and Ryan Jones give North Dakota a deep yet varied returning group on the blue line.

The defense will also get a big dose of experience and leadership with the much-anticipated return of redshirted junior Robbie Bina. Bina suffered a severe neck injury as a result of a Paukovich hit in the 2005 WCHA playoffs versus Denver that forced him to miss not only the remainder of North Dakota’s 2004-05 season, but also the entire 2005-06 season as well.

While North Dakota looks set at all of the skating positions, goaltending will be the biggest concern. With the departure of Parise, the goaltending duties will fall to junior Philippe Lamoureux. The local product served as Parise’s back-up last season, posting a 5-7-0 record that included one shutout. If Lamoureux can provide some solid and consistent goaltending this season, it will make North Dakota’s pursuit of another Frozen Four appearance that much more of a realistic possibility.

St. Cloud State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 5)

By most accounts the 2005-06 season was a successful one for St. Cloud State, and the Huskies will look to build on that success when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 hosting Denver.

St. Cloud took some major hits to their roster in the offseason that will present some significant challenges this season. Nowhere were the losses felt more than at the forward positions. Joe Jensen (PIT), Brock Hooton, Billy Hengen and Konrad Reeder have all graduated. The foursome combined for 118 (32.4 percent) of the Huskies 364 points last season. So the obvious question becomes who is going to help replenish the offensive production that left with the graduated players?

One returning player who will be leaned on heavily for scoring is junior Andrew Gordon (WSH). The Porters Lake, NS native led the Huskies in scoring last season with 40 points (20 goals, 20 assists). With the huge losses on offense, Gordon’s offensive production becomes even more important to the team’s success this season.

What should also help the Huskies generate some more offense is their stellar group of incoming forwards led by the highly-regarded right wing Andreas Nodl (PHI).

“People who have followed Andreas know that he has got the ability to score goals,” said head coach Bob Motzko. “One of the special things that he does is he can really pass the puck. He can find people all over the offensive zone. You’ve got to play him with players that know what to do with the puck because he can get it to them.”

With the offensive situation still needing sorting out, defense looks to be the Huskies strength once again. St. Cloud possessed one of the nation’s best defenses last season and this season looks to be no different. Led by seniors Casey Borer (CAR) and Justin Fletcher, the Huskies blue line will feature a good mix of strong positional play and offensive contributions.

Great defense starts with goaltending and the Huskies have one of the nation’s best in senior Bobby Goepfert (PIT). The WCHA All-Conference First team selection was sensational between the Huskies pipes last season, posting a 20-14-4 record that included three shutouts. His 2.20 goals against average ranked ninth in the nation last season while .924 save percentage ranked 11th. Goepfert will also be sharing time with talented newcomer Jase Weslosky (NYI). Motzko pondered the idea of bringing in Weslosky next fall, but felt that bringing him in this season was the right thing to do.

“Well, we toyed back and forth with it for a number of months. We had to bring a goalie in and we just felt that it could be very healthy for Jase to work alongside with Bobby this year and groom him for the future. We’re going to do everything in our power to make this a real positive experience all around for Jase,” said Motzko.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.