2013-14 WCHA season preview, part 1

By DJ Powers
Graeme Strukoff - University of Alabama-Huntsville

Photo: While defenseman Graeme Strukoff and his University of Alabama-Huntsville teammates may not have a lot to celebrate in 2013-14, they enter a season as a member of an NCAA conference for the first time since 2009-10 (courtesy of Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

 

The revamped WCHA is comprised of ten teams that made up parts of last season’s WCHA, the now-defunct CCHA, and one of the two now former independent programs. The parity and the recent successes by some of the member schools make the WCHA very competitive and well worth watching in 2013-14.

This season, the WCHA features nine NHL prospects representing four teams. Minnesota State-Mankato leads with four, followed by Michigan Tech with three. Alaska and Bemidji State each have one prospect on their respective rosters.

University of Alabama-Huntsville
NHL prospects: 0

The Chargers open their 2013-14 season at Northeastern on Oct. 11.

It’s a rebirth of sorts for Alabama-Huntsville, as Mike Corbett becomes the program’s third head coach in as many years. This season also marks the first time since 2009-10 that the Chargers will have a conference home as the newest members of the WCHA. Corbett, who comes to Alabama-Huntsville from Air Force, will be looking to not only establish the Chargers identity but also build on the renewed excitement in the Alabama-Huntsville community.

“I think we need to establish our identity first before we can really start rebuilding,” said Corbett. “We need to build a foundation and establish who we are and where we want to be. Right now, we’re kind of trying to figure who we are as a team in terms of our strengths and our weaknesses. We have guys here that are competitors and take pride in their jersey. They don’t have to worry about the team folding or any of those types of things. We want to build on all of the good things and it will take time. Winning for us won’t necessarily be just measured by what the scores look like. It’ll be measured in many different ways and that’s the way we want to do it.”

Among the many tasks that lie ahead will be to find some increased offensive production. Alabama-Huntsville finished 59th in the nation last season with an offense that averaged just 1.44 goals per game. The 36 total goals that the Chargers tallied were the fewest in the nation.

To further challenge things, Alabama-Huntsville also lost three of their best forwards, including Kyle Lysaght. The Marrieta, GA native was forced to retire following a horrific automobile accident in mid-March that left the skilled winger in critical condition. Lysaght finished his final season second on the Chargers roster with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 23 games.

Among those leading Alabama-Huntsville’s offensive attack this season is senior Brice Geoffrion. The Brentwood, TN native posted three points (one goal, two assists) in 25 games. Geoffrion has blossomed into one of the Chargers’ best checking forwards. He plays a scrappy style and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. While Geoffrion possesses some very good puck skills, he likely won’t be a prolific scorer. But he’ll be counted on to add some secondary scoring this season.

“Brice was one of my first calls when I got the job,” said Corbett. “He’s a good, strong-minded kid and he’s willing to give you his opinions. He’s not intimidated by anything. Brice is going to be a top-flight penalty killer for us, and he’s going to be a leader. I think Brice is going to be one of those guys, with the experience that he has, that’s going to be able to help support the top line. He’s able to check when need be and he’s a well put-together kid that works his butt off. I think Brice’s biggest goal right now is to literally lead this program to a better place than where it was when he first started.”

One area where Alabama-Huntsville’s youth and inexperience will be evident this season is on the blueline. The Chargers have only three upperclassmen on defense and among those anchoring the group is junior Graeme Strukoff. The Chilliwack, BC native is coming off of a very good sophomore campaign, leading all Alabama-Huntsville rearguards with nine points (three goals, six assists). Strukoff is a mobile, offensive-minded defenseman who can quarterback the power-play.

Of the three netminders that the Chargers had on the roster last season, only senior C.J. Groh returns this season. Groh played in just three games last season in relief appearances. He’ll be competing against freshmen Carmine Guerriero and the towering Matt Larose for the starting job this season.

Guerriero and Larose are among 12 newcomers for Alabama-Huntsville this season. One freshman to watch is defenseman Brandon Carlson. The Huntington Beach, CA native possesses a nice combination of size (6’2”, 200 lbs.), toughness and strong skating ability.

“Brandon is one of those guys that we’re expecting will come in and contribute right away,” Corbett said of Carlson. “He shows up every day wanting to get better and just has a great attitude. He knows what it takes to be successful and how to win, and that’s what makes him valuable to our team.”

University of Alaska-Anchorage
NHL prospects: 0

The Seawolves open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 hosting Quinnipiac in the Kendall Hockey Classic.

Alaska-Anchorage comes into the season following a tumultuous offseason that saw the dismissal of head coach Dave Shyiak after eight seasons. Former Stockton Thunder bench boss Matt Thomas has been named Shyiak’s successor and will have the task of getting things back on track in Anchorage. The Seawolves finished last in the WCHA in 2012-13, the second consecutive year that they accomplished this dubious feat. Thomas notes that the first order of business in getting the team moving forward will be in laying the foundation for success.

“I think it’s going to be more about how we want to play. It’s about understanding the process and what works, and what type of work needs to be put into it to be successful. I think that’s our goal for this year. We want to get ourselves into a spot where we know what makes us win and gives us opportunities to win games night in and night out. There are a lot of quality players here and so I don’t think we need to do a total re-build. I just think that there are some things that we need to repair. To me, it all comes down to culture, preparing the right way and most importantly, executing when it matters the most.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be in generating more offense. Alaska-Anchorage had the second-worst offense in the NCAA last season, averaging just 1.86 goals per game. The team’s 67 total goals were the fewest in the WCHA.

The good news heading into this season is that the Seawolves return most of their top scorers, including senior co-captain Matt Bailey. The Oakbank, MB native continues to steadily increase his point production, despite a decline in goals. He finished with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 36 games last season. Bailey is a hard working center with great hands who plays a very solid two-way game. He has been on the NHL radar for some time and this summer attended the Winnipeg Jets' prospect camp.

“Matt is that type of player where you want other guys emulating,” Thomas said of Bailey. “He’s a hard-working guy and puts in his time to prepare. He’s the perfect type of leader and is the type of player that can be a huge factor in all areas. Matt went to the Winnipeg Jets developmental camp over the summer and was able to learn from that experience. So I think he’s looking to have a big year and that’s what I’m looking for from Matt, as well.”

As dismal as Alaska-Anchorage’s offense was last season, their defense wasn’t much better. The Seawolves finished 57th nationally, allowing an average of 3.69 goals per game. Alaska-Anchorage should be able to improve on those numbers this season with a veteran returning group.

Among those anchoring the Seawolves blueline this season is junior Derek Docken. The Northfield, MN native finished his sophomore campaign tied for second on the team in defensive scoring with six points (three goals, three assists) and was one of just seven players to play in all 36 games. Docken is an outstanding puck-moving defenseman blessed with great hands and vision. This summer, he attended the Boston Bruins' prospect camp.

“The one thing Derek gives you right off the bat is that veteran presence who is very mature,” Thomas said about Docken. “I think sometimes as a defenseman, having that calming presence and that emotional control in your game can really resonate through the rest of the team. And Derek has that. I think he’ll kind of help keep us focused and keeps us in the right frame of mind when we’re going through the tough times during each game and throughout the season.”

Alaska-Anchorage also returns their senior goaltending tandem of Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson. The two split time last season. Kamal posted a 2-14-3 record that included the team’s lone shutout in 21 appearances. Gunderson posted a 2-11-4 record in 18 appearances. While both netminders played equally well last season, neither was able to provide the consistency that the Seawolves desperately needed.

In addition to the returning veterans, Alaska-Anchorage welcomes seven newcomers. One to watch is defenseman-turned-forward Hudson Friesen. The East St. Paul, MB will add size (6’2”, 196 lbs.) and tremendous scoring ability to the Seawolves roster.

University of Alaska Fairbanks
NHL prospects: 1

The Nanooks open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 versus Air Force in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

After a strong sixth place finish in the CCHA last season, Alaska could potentially finish among the top teams in the WCHA this season.

One reason is their outstanding defense. The Nanooks defense finished 26th nationally last season, allowing an average of 2.62 goals per game. Alaska was also one of the nation’s best penalty killing teams. The Nanooks finished fourth nationally with an 89.9% efficiency rating. With the exception of defenseman Kaare Odegard and goaltender Steve Thompson, both of whom have graduated, Alaska returns their back end intact.

Last season, the Nanooks got excellent production out of their freshmen, with the two most notable being returning sophomores John Keeney and Colton Parayko (STL).

Keeney became the latest in a line of terrific goaltenders coming out of Alaska’s program in recent years. The Twin Peaks, CA native finished his stellar freshman season with a 13-11-3 record in 27 appearances en route to being named an honorable mention to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Keeney’s calming presence and consistency, especially in the second half, was a crucial part of the Nanooks success last season. His play also caught the attention of several NHL teams including the Boston Bruins and the Dallas Stars, whose prospect camps he attended this summer.

Parayko made an immediate impact for Alaska and became one of the most promising young defensemen to emerge from the CCHA last season. The St. Albert, AB native co-led all Nanooks rearguards with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 33 games en route to being named an honorable mention to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Parayko logged upwards of 25-30 minutes per game last season playing in all situations. His 6’4” frame combined with his excellent feet and hands allowed him to be a force at both ends of the ice. And as good as Parayko was last season, he could potentially be even better this season with added size and strength. Parayko was recently named as one of the team’s assistant captains.

Another returning defenseman that will anchor the Nanooks blueline this season is Parayko’s defensive partner, senior Michael Quinn. The Surrey, BC native co-led all Alaska defensemen with 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 37 games last season. Quinn, who will also serve as an assistant captain, possesses good size (6’2”, 195 lbs.) and plays both ends of the ice equally well. This summer, Quinn attended the Vancouver Canucks' prospect camp.

The biggest concern for Alaska heading into the season will be generating increased offense and filling the holes left by three of their now-graduated top scorers in Andy Taranto, Jarret Granberg and Nik Yaremchuk. The trio accounted for 26% of the team’s total offense last season.

Leading the Nanooks offensive charge this season are seniors Cody Kunyk and Colton Beck. Kunyk, who will serve as an assistant captain, is the top returning scorer for Alaska. The Sherwood Park, AB native finished his outstanding junior campaign leading the team with 17 assists and finished second with 28 points in 37 games. Kunyk is a dynamic center who uses his speed and superb vision very effectively in creating and finishing plays. This summer, he attended the Tampa Bay Lightning’s prospect camp.

Kunyk’s linemate Beck finished last season third on the team with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 35 games. The Langley, BC native will serve as the Nanooks captain this season. Beck is a fiercely competitive winger who has shown a knack for scoring timely goals. He possesses speed along with a quick shot and release. This summer, Beck attended the New York Islanders' prospect camp.

In addition to their returning players, Alaska will also feature eight newcomers. One to keep an eye on is forward Brandon Morley. The Burnaby, BC native is the younger brother of Nanooks sophomore Tyler Morley. The younger Morley is a center noted for his blazing speed. He is also eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

Bemidji State University
NHL prospects: 1

The Beavers open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at St. Cloud State.

After a promising start last season, Bemidji State struggled in the second half and ended up finishing 11th in the WCHA. This season, the Beavers will look to have a better finish with a predominantly young team.

Bemidji State lost 11 players in the offseason and no position was hit harder than their forward lines. The Beavers lost five forwards to graduation, which included four of their top scorers from last season in Brance Orban, Jordan George, Aaron McLeod and Ben Kinne. The quartet accounted for 37% of the team’s total points and 45% of the team’s total goals. So filling those holes and increasing overall team offense will be crucial in their quest for the WCHA title this season.

Last season, Bemidji State’s offense finished 56th nationally, averaging just 2.06 goals per game. The 74 total goals were the second fewest in the WCHA. With the loss of the aforementioned players along with a large freshman class, scoring will likely come more by committee this season.

Two players that the Beavers will be relying on for more offensive production this season are sophomore Cory Ward and senior Radoslav Illo (ANA).

Ward is coming off of an outstanding rookie campaign where led all Bemidji State in freshman scoring last season with 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 36 games. The Las Vegas, NV native is a 5’11”, 200-pound center who is dangerous around the net. Ward’s combination of persistence and great stick work allows him to be very effective in tight areas.

Ward’s linemate Illo finished a very solid junior campaign with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 34 games. The Bystrica, Slovakia native has blossomed into an outstanding shutdown forward for Bemidji State. One of the most notable areas in his development last season was the grittiness that he has added to his game, making him more difficult to play against. Illo has also done a very good job of providing secondary scoring for the Beavers.

One area where Bemidji State looks to be better this season is on the blueline. The Beavers finished tied for 45th nationally last season with a defense that allowed an average of 3.06 goals per game. Although Brady Wacker and Jake Areshenko were lost to graduation, Bemidji State’s defensive corps is shaping up to be quite good. And they will be bigger as well, with five of their eight defensemen standing 6’0” or taller.

Anchoring the Beavers blueline is junior captain Matt Prapavessis. The Oakville, ON native is coming off another excellent season where he led all Bemidji State defensemen with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 36 games. Prapavessis is an offensive-minded defenseman who possesses some good speed and superb puck-moving skills.

Two of the three goaltenders on the Beavers roster last season return this season, including junior Andrew Walsh. The Dawson Creek, BC native was Bemidji State’s go-to guy between the pipes. He finished his sophomore campaign with a 5-14-6 record that included one shutout in 26 appearances. Walsh actually played better than his record would indicate, posting a .916 save percentage and a 2.65 goals-against average. At 6’2” and 190 pounds, Walsh possesses good size. He has great rebound control and has the ability to win and keep his team in games.

Bemidji State will have one of the largest incoming classes in the WCHA this season with 11 newcomers. One player to watch is Brendan Harms. The Steinbach, MB native is the youngest player on the Beavers roster this season. As a late 1994-born player, he is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. Harms is a 6’0”, 180-pound sniper who can rack up the points and can help boost Bemidji State’s offensive production. He also possesses good playmaking skills.

Bowling Green State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Falcons open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Union College.

Bowling Green was one of the nation’s youngest teams last season. But, with a more experienced group competing this season, the Falcons will be a team to watch in the WCHA. While Bowling Green graduated just four players, they were all key contributors last season.

The greatest loss that the Falcons suffered was in goal. Starter Andrew Hammond graduated and signed with the Ottawa Senators. Last season, he was the backbone of Bowling Green’s outstanding defense that finished 22nd nationally, allowing an average of 2.56 goals per game.

With Hammond gone, the starting job in goal will be up for grabs this season, and one that will need to be solidified as quickly as possible. Sophomore Tommy Burke and senior Scott Zacharias are the Falcons returning netminders. Burke, who served as Hammond’s backup last season, played in 15 games and posted a 5-6-2 record. Zacharias did not see action in 2012-13. Newcomer Tomas Sholl will be competing with Burke and Zacharias for the starting job this season.

The Falcons also lost two top defensemen in Ryan Peltoma and top-scoring rearguard Bobby Shea. Despite losing Peltoma and Shea, Bowling Green’s blueline is shaping up to be very good this season. And with the uncertainty in goal to start the season, the Falcons defensive corps will be relied on to help stabilize things on the back end.

Among those anchoring the experienced group this season are juniors Mike Sullivan and Connor Kucera. Sullivan is the team’s top returning scorer among defensemen. The Toronto, ON native finished his strong sophomore campaign posting 16 points (one goal, 15 assists) in 41 games. He also finished second on the team with a plus-14. Sullivan is an offensive-minded defenseman who moves the puck well and was the Falcons’ top shot-blocker last season.

Kucera posted eight points (two goals, six assists) in 36 games last season. The Twin Lakes, IN native has been a stalwart on the blueline for the Falcons and provides both leadership and stability to Bowling Green’s defensive corps. There isn’t anything fancy about Kucera’s game. He’s a defensive-minded defenseman who takes good care of his own zone and keeps it simple.

Bowling Green’s strength this season will be up front. With the exception of Marc Rodriguez, the Falcons return all of their regular forwards. Junior co-captain Ryan Carpenter leads Bowling Green’s offensive attack. The Oviedo, FL native is coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign, leading the Falcons in both goals (18) and points (33) en route to earning a spot on the All-CCHA Second Team. Carpenter was the catalyst on Bowling Green’s excellent top line that also featured Adam Berkle and Dajon Mingo last season. The 6’1”, 180-pound center has superb puck skills and is equally adept at finishing and setting up plays. Where Carpenter has been particularly dangerous is on the Falcons power-play. Of his 18 goals last season, six came on the man-advantage. The excellent play of Carpenter has also caught the attention of NHL teams. Among those taking notice is the Boston Bruins, whose prospect camp Carpenter attended this summer.

Another returning Falcons forward that has drawn some NHL interest is sophomore Mark Cooper. The Toronto, ON native is coming off of a very good freshman campaign where he posted 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 38 games. Cooper is the prototypical late bloomer. He has a good frame (6’2”, 185 lbs.), is a tough competitor and is very creative with the puck. But what has scouts taking notice is what Cooper will be able to do once he fills out his body and puts all of his tools together. No longer draft-eligible, he’ll be looked at as a possible free agent signee in the future. This summer, Cooper attended the prospect camps of the San Jose Sharks and the Winnipeg Jets.

In addition to the returning veterans, Bowling Green will also welcome five newcomers to the fold this season. The one to keep an eye on is forward Matt Pohlkamp. The Brainerd, MN native is a 6’0”, 200-pound winger noted for his excellent skating, physicality and strong play at both ends of the ice.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF

 

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