2013-14 Big Ten season preview

By DJ Powers
Michael Mersch - University of Wisconsin

Photo: University of Wisconsin forward and Los Angeles Kings prospect Michael Mersch is expected to be one of the offensive leaders for the Badgers in his final NCAA season (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

 

The Big Ten is one of two brand new conferences debuting in the NCAA this season. There’s much anticipation and excitement surrounding this new conference and, with 50 NHL prospects playing in the Big Ten this season, it is certain to be among the most-watched conferences.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson sees great opportunities in not only a competitive conference schedule, but an equally competitive non-conference one, as well.

“We’re excited to be a part of the Big Ten and I think our fans are too,” said Berenson. “It’s going to be a lot different, obviously, from the CCHA. 20 of our 34 games will be in the Big Ten. It also opens up an opportunity to play some good non-conference games. We’re playing Boston University, Boston College, and Nebraska-Omaha, to name a few. So we’ve got a real good non-conference schedule to go with our tough conference. I think joining the Big Ten made sense because here at Michigan we have 31 sports and until now hockey was the only sport that didn’t play in the Big Ten. So it was just a matter of time before hockey would get a Big Ten conference.”

For Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves it’s about more exposure and hockey having a greater voice within the NCAA organization.

“There’s a lot of excitement about the Big Ten and we’re certainly excited about that too,” said Eaves. “I think what becomes really important is the exposure that college hockey is going to get because of the Big Ten Network. I think that’ll help everybody. With (Men’s) hockey now a part of the Big Ten, it’s a win-win situation for both our program and the university because we’re a part of the same conference as all of our other athletic programs. I think for the sport of ice hockey, having the Big Ten is a voice for college hockey and really beneficial for everybody. I think because the Big Ten is recognized and honored as a really strong conference, we (hockey) will have a stronger voice within the NCAA because of that fact.”

University of Michigan
NHL prospects: 12

The Wolverines open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 10th hosting Boston College.

After struggling through much of the year with injuries and uncertainty in goal, Michigan ended last season on a high note, reaching the CCHA Championship title game. But the Wolverines struggles and loss in the CCHA title game also marked the first time in 22 years that they failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. While there are some issues that need to be addressed, Michigan could potentially see a return to the NCAA Tournament this season.

The biggest question surrounding the Wolverines is goaltending. Michigan struggled to find their go-to guy between the pipes for most of last season before current sophomore Steve Racine was able to take the reins. The Williamsville, NY native posted a 12-6-3 record in 24 appearances last season. The question now is whether Racine will be able to continue his strong play this season. He’ll get some competition for the starting job from senior Adam Janecyk and newcomer Zach Nagelvoort.

Another issue that the Wolverines will have to contend with is filling the big holes left by three of last season’s top defensemen, including Jacob Trouba (WPG), who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Winnipeg Jets. Trouba led Michigan in defensive scoring with 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 37 games. He was also was one of only two freshmen that was named an All-American, earning a spot on the All-West First Team.

This season, Michigan’s defensive corps will have a nice mix of talented veterans and newcomers. Anchoring the Wolverines blueline this season is senior captain Mac Bennett (MTL). The Narragansett, RI native posted 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 31 games last season. He missed much of January due to a knee injury. One notable area where Bennett has begun to make great strides is playing equally effectively at both ends of the ice. While Bennett will continue to be an offensive contributor, he has already begun to balance that with sound defensive play. Berenson says that he has the utmost trust in Bennett to guide the Wolverines this season.

“I think Mac will be an excellent captain,” said Berenson of Bennett. “He was our most consistent defenseman last year and he’s years older in terms of maturity, awareness, and in the way he communicates. The good thing about that is Mac can back that up when he goes on the ice because he’ll be our go-to defenseman and our leader on defense. I have no worries about Mac.”

Of the Wolverines three freshmen defensemen, two are NHL prospects, including Michael Downing (FLA). The Canton, MI native was one of five Michigan players that were selected in the 2013 NHL Draft. Downing has size (6’2”, 180lbs.) and is noted for his toughness and powerful skating.

Despite losing two of last season’s top forwards, including A.J. Treais, to graduation, the Wolverines will once again feature an elite group up front that includes eight NHL prospects.

Leading Michigan’s offensive attack this season is junior Alex Guptill (DAL). The Newmarket, ON native led the Wolverines last season with 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 38 games. His 16 goals also led the team. Guptill’s slow start last season earned him time in Berenson’s doghouse and served as a wake-up call to the winger. The result was a higher commitment to his game and level of play. Guptill became more of a dominating presence around the net and used his superb combination of hands and feet to create and finish opportunities.

One returning veteran poised for an excellent year this season is sophomore Cristobal “Boo” Nieves (NYR). The Baldwinsville, NY native led all Wolverines rookie forwards last season with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 40 games. Nieves utilized his blazing speed quite well last season, especially in the latter half, and he showed glimpses of the many things that he can do with that speed, as well. It’s an attribute that will both help Nieves’ development and the Wolverines going forward.

Along with the veterans up front, Michigan will also welcome five newcomers. One that many will be watching is J.T. Compher (BUF). The highly touted Northbrook, IL native is a 5’11”, 185-pound winger noted for his superb hands, fiercely competitive nature, and ability to make plays at high speeds. But as Berenson explains, it’s Compher’s work ethic that has impressed him the most.

“The thing that we like about J.T. is, not only is he talented, but he’s also driven,” stated Berenson. “J.T. is a hard working, every day player. I just see him being an impact player right from the get-go. He just perseveres and outworks his opponents on a regular basis. I think J.T. will fit right into our style of hockey and we can put good players with him and trust him right away.”

Michigan State University
NHL prospects: 5

The Spartans open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 18th at UMass.

When you have a predominantly young team, chances are you’re going to go through some growing pains. And that was the case for Michigan State last season. Although the Spartans finished their final CCHA regular season at the bottom of the conference, they had a very good showing in the CCHA Tournament before falling to Miami in the third game of the quarter-finals. The good news heading into this season is that Michigan State will be more experienced and return all but five players from last season’s squad.

The Spartans’ main strength this season is in goal. Sophomore Jake Hildebrand took over the starting job in mid-November last season and went on to have a terrific rookie year that saw him post a 9-17-2 record that included two shutouts in 29 appearances. He also posted a .928 save percentage, which placed him 14th nationally. What made Hildebrand such a valuable component on Michigan State’s roster last season was his consistent ability to keep his team in games and his unflappable composure. While he’s likely to be the Spartans go-to guy to start the season, senior Will Yanakeff will be looking to reclaim the job that he had two seasons ago. Also in the mix is redshirted sophomore Nathan Phillips. This summer, Hildebrand attended the New Jersey Devils' prospect camp.

Another area where the Spartans will be very good this season is on the blueline. Michigan State only lost two defensemen in graduate Matt Grassi and Branden Carney, who was forced to retire after suffering two fractured vertebrae in practice last fall.

One veteran rearguard to watch this season is sophomore John Draeger (MIN). The Fairbault, MN native is one of three NHL prospects on the Spartans blueline this season. He will miss the first eight-to-ten weeks while recovering from offseason surgery, however. Draeger is coming off of an excellent freshman season where he posted 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 42 games, logging upwards of 20-25 minutes per game. One area where Draeger really stood out last season was in his defensive positioning. He does a very good job of controlling his gaps, but his lack of strength was problematic in effectively containing opposing players. That should improve as he adds size and strength to his 6’1” frame.

Michigan State will also see the return of redshirted freshman Rhett Holland (PHX) this season. The Calgary, AB native played in just three games last season before a shoulder injury requiring surgery abruptly ended his rookie campaign.

One issue that the Spartans will need to address if they expect to win the Big Ten title this season is increasing point production throughout their lineup. Last season, Michigan State’s offense finished 55th nationally, averaging just 2.07 goals per game. Their 87 total goals were tied for the fewest among CCHA teams.

Leading the Spartans offense this season are junior Matt Berry and sophomore Matt DeBlouw (CGY). Berry is coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign where he led Michigan State with 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 41 games last season. The Canton, MI native’s point total was nearly double his point total from his freshman season. Berry is a dynamic winger who can make things happen whenever he’s on the ice, and he has the ability to dictate the pace of the game, as well.

DeBlouw, who played alongside Berry for much of last season, led Michigan State in rookie scoring with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 42 games. The Chesterfield, MI native was one of only four Spartans to amass 10 or more goals. Part of what made DeBlouw so good last season was his ability to play a strong, two-way game; he was as good at putting up points as he was at supporting the defense. And, as DeBlouw continues to develop and mature, those attributes will become more evident.

In addition to the returning veterans, Michigan State will also welcome five newcomers this season. One player that many will be watching is Mackenzie MacEachern (STL). The Troy, MI native is a 6’2”, 193-pound winger who is noted for his excellent on-ice vision and great nose for the net.

University of Minnesota
NHL prospects: 14

The Golden Gophers open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th hosting Mercyhurst in the Icebreaker Tournament.

Last season, Minnesota claimed a share of the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season co-champions. But the Golden Gophers saw their efforts to reach the Frozen Four dashed in stunning fashion by eventual national champion Yale. With a new season comes new challenges for Minnesota, but the ultimate goal remains the same for this perennial hockey power.

The biggest challenge facing the Golden Gophers this season is replacing the offensive production from four of their top scorers – Erik Haula (MIN), Nick Bjugstad (FLA), Zach Budish (NSH) and defenseman Nate Schmidt (WSH) – all of whom were early departures to the pros. The four players accounted for 43% of Minnesota’s total goals last season.

Leading the Golden Gophers up front this season are co-captains junior Kyle Rau (FLA) and senior Nate Condon (COL). Rau returns as Minnesota’s top scorer. The Eden Prairie, MN native finished second on the team in scoring last season with 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games last season. He also co-led the nation with seven game-winning goals. Rau's noticeably strengthened 5’8” frame, coupled with his quickness and tenacity, made him a particularly difficult player to defend last season, and nowhere was that more evident than his play around the net.

Condon finished sixth on the team with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 40 games last season. The Wausau, WI native has blossomed into one of the nation’s top defensive forwards. His potent combination of blazing speed, quick transitioning and sound defensive game has made him especially dangerous in penalty killing situations.

Minnesota will have significant holes to fill on their blueline, as well. In addition to Schmidt, the Golden Gophers also graduated Seth Helgeson (NJD) and lost Mark Alt when he opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. Compounding matters is the fact that top defensive recruit Tommy Vannelli (STL) left school in mid-September to play in the WHL.

Among those leading Minnesota’s defensive corps this season are senior Justin Holl (CHI) and junior Ben Marshall (DET). Holl finished his strong junior campaign with seven points (three goals, four assists) in 35 games. The Tonka Bay, MN native spent a good portion of last season playing forward, but will likely be moved back to the blueline this season with just seven defensemen on the team’s roster entering the season. One of Holl’s greatest attributes is his speed and he uses it quite well in all three zones. This is particularly noticeable in his great transition game.

Marshall, an offensive defenseman, returns as the Golden Gophers top scoring rearguard after posting 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in 40 games. One notable area where Marshall has continued to make great strides in his development has been on the defensive side. While he’s only 5’9” and 179 pounds, Marshall has done a great job of using his small but stronger frame more effectively in one-on-one situations by being more physically aggressive. He also uses his stick really well in taking away time and space.

Unlike many teams in the NCAA, the Golden Gophers don’t rebuild. They simply retool and have one of the best incoming classes to back it up.

Among that group are four NHL prospects, including forward Taylor Cammarata (NYI) and defenseman Michael Brodzinski (SJS). What Cammarata lacks in size (5’7”, 157 lbs.), he makes up for with his exceedingly high hockey IQ and elite-level puck skills.

Brodzinski is one of two freshmen defensemen on Minnesota’s blueline this season. The Ham Lake, MN native is also the brother of St. Cloud State sophomore winger Jonny Brodzinski (LAK). The younger Brodzinski is noted for his excellent mobility and can play both ends of the ice equally well.

Goaltending is the only position that the Golden Gophers return intact this season. Returning sophomore Adam Wilcox (TBL) was brilliant between the pipes last season, posting a 25-8-5 record that included three shutouts in 39 games. The South St. Paul, MN native’s 1.88 goals-against average and .724 winning percentage both finished sixth nationally. Wilcox’s consistency and calming demeanor were big reasons behind Minnesota’s success last season. Michael Shibrowski, who served as Wilcox’s backup, appeared in three games, posting a 1-1-0 record.

The Ohio State University
NHL prospects: 6

The Buckeyes open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th hosting Miami.

After a strong finish to their 2012-13 season that ended with a CCHA Tournament semi-final appearance, Ohio State saw some significant changes in the offseason that will have a big impact on this season.

The most notable change was the surprise dismissal of head coach Mark Osiecki in April after just three seasons. The resulting fallout was resounding, with several Osiecki recruits decommitting. Among them were two top incoming recruits in forward Zach Stepan (NSH) and defenseman Cliff Watson (SJS), who will be playing for Minnesota State-Mankato and Michigan Tech respectively this season. Steve Rohlik, who served as the Buckeyes' associate head coach under Osiecki, has been promoted to head coach.

Osiecki wasn’t the only significant loss that Ohio State suffered this offseason. Another was All-American goaltender Brady Hjelle, who has graduated. The International Falls, MN native was the backbone of the Buckeyes’ excellent defense that allowed an average of 2.40 goals last season. He finished his final season posting a 14-14-6 record that included four shutouts. His .935 save percentage finished tied for sixth nationally. In addition to being named to the All-America West First Team, Hjelle was also named to the All-CCHA First Team.

This season, the daunting task of filling the role left by Hjelle will fall on two young NHL-drafted goaltenders in sophomore Collin Olson (CAR) and newcomer Matt Tomkins, as well as another newcomer in Logan Davis. Olson played quite well in his limited time as Hjelle’s backup last season. The Apple Valley, MN native posted a 2-3-1 record in nine games. Olson possesses great composure and quick reflexes, which served him well last season and will be an asset for the Buckeyes in goal again this season.

Tomkins, one of two Chicago Blackhawks prospects on Ohio State’s roster, has size (6’3”, 194 lbs.) and is noted for his great athleticism. He and Davis are two of the seven newcomers that will be looking to make their mark on the Buckeyes roster this season.

With youth and relative inexperience in goal coming into the season, Ohio State will be relying on their experienced blueline to help stabilize things on the back end. The Buckeyes defensive corps will also be among the biggest in the NCAA, with eight of their nine defensemen being 6’0” or taller.

Anchoring Ohio State’s defense this season is senior captain Curtis Gedig (NJD). The West Kelowna, BC native posted 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 32 games last season. All three of Gedig’s goals came on the power-play. He also finished tied for second on the team with a plus-6. One notable aspect in Gedig’s development has been his leadership. He leads by example with a tireless work ethic and exceedingly smart play in all three zones. There’s nothing fancy about Gedig’s game, it’s simply consistent and very sound.

The forward position is shaping up to be one of the Buckeyes’ strengths this season. Ohio State returns all but one of their top forwards. The only loss was that of Chris Crane, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with the San Jose Sharks.

A pair of Ottawa Senators prospects in juniors Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick lead the Buckeyes offensive attack this season. Dzingel returns after leading Ohio State with 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 40 games last season. The Wheaton, IL native was especially good on the Buckeyes special teams last season. Of his 16 goals, six came on special teams – five on the power-play and one shorthanded. Dzingel’s noticeably stronger 6’0” frame allowed him to better fend off opposing defenders and be more effective in controlling the puck. This was especially evident in his relentless drives to the net and his ability to find and utilize open spaces more effectively.

McCormick finished third on Ohio State’s roster last season with 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 40 games. The De Pere, WI native played his best hockey near the end of last season, so the Buckeyes are hoping that he’ll be able to pick up this season where he left off last season. Two notable areas that helped make McCormick so good last season were his stronger play along the walls and the grittiness that he has added to his game.

Penn State University
NHL prospects: 4

The Nittany Lions open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th hosting Army.

After a strong inaugural D-1 season last year, Penn State is poised to take another step as a member of the Big Ten conference this season. Head coach Guy Gadowsky says that, while the Nittany Lions will certainly be challenged, it’s one that they welcome, and that there is a lot to look forward to in Hockey Valley this season.

“We’re honored and thrilled be a part of the Big Ten and absolutely like our schedule,” says Gadowsky. “I think it’s going to be extremely demanding with UMass-Lowell, Union and Boston College on it. That adds to our Big Ten conference schedule and I don’t think it gets any tougher than that right now. We’re also excited about the fact that our students and alumni will get a chance to see these great programs, as well”.

While Penn State lost a number of players due to graduation, transferring, etc., none were among their top players.

One of the Nittany Lions strengths this season will be in goal, and the competition for the starting job will be a fascinating one to watch. The tandem of sophomore Matt Skoff and junior P.J. Musico return after outstanding seasons last year. Skoff saw the most time, posting a 9-8-0 record that included two shutouts in 18 starts. Musico posted a 4-6-0 record with one shutout in 10 appearances.

Challenging the veterans is highly touted newcomer Eamon McAdam (NYI). The Perkasie, PA native will give Penn State some added size (6’2”, 199 lbs.) in goal and is noted for his athleticism and exceedingly good feet.

“Eamon is an excellent athlete that we have extremely high hopes for with his on-ice performance,” Gadowsky said of McAdam. “He’s very proud to be a part of Penn State and knows that he’ll be competing for the (starting) job. I think that the best goaltenders like competitive situations, and Eamon’s no different. We’re going to have a lot of competition at the goaltending spot and I think that’ll make all of our goaltenders better.”

On the blueline, the Nittany Lions will sport an experienced defensive corps that’s a nice mix of size, speed and mobility. Among the rearguards to watch is 6’3”, 206-pound newcomer Mike Williamson (VAN). The Leduc, AB native is known for his powerful shot and mobility. Gadowsky notes that Williamson will also be able to provide some offense from the blueline.

“Mike is a guy that has the explosive physical attributes to be able to jump up into the play,” said Gadowsky. “He’s a big body that’s tough to play against, but at the same time can really add to your offensive output from the back end. He has a great shot too. Mike had to fight through some injuries last year, but obviously Vancouver felt strongly enough about his potential to draft him.”

Although the Nittany Lions will have experience and good depth up front this season, they will also need to find a way to generate more scoring throughout their lines. Last season, Penn State averaged 2.74 goals per game with only two players posting 10 or more goals.

While Penn State’s exciting top line of sophomore Casey Bailey and juniors Max Gardiner (STL) and Taylor Holstrom are the motors that power the Nittany Lions offensive attack, it is junior captain Tommy Olczyk, the son of former NHL player and current hockey analyst Ed Olczyk, that is the glue that holds the team together. The Long Grove, IL native played in 26 games last season, posting four points (three goals, one assist). What makes Olczyk such a valuable part of the team is his strong leadership and attention to details that aren't necessarily reflected on the score sheet. As Gadowsky explains, it’s those attributes that help make Olczyk the embodiment of Penn State hockey.

“Tommy is a special young man that’s really demonstrated a great grasp of the big picture on what we were looking for in terms of setting examples and building a foundation for the future," stated Gadowsky. “Tommy is a young man that really gets it. He excels in the areas that don’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, but are areas that are important to our team’s success. I think Tommy takes pride in leading through example in those areas and he’s very committed to that.”

University of Wisconsin
NHL prospects: 9

The Badgers open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th hosting Northern Michigan.

Wisconsin is coming off an outstanding 2012-13 campaign where they claimed the Broadmoor Trophy as winner of the WCHA Final Five Tournament, earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. With most of last season’s squad returning and a small, excellent group of freshmen coming in, the Badgers are poised to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this season.

Wisconsin’s back end returns nearly intact and their defensive depth will be one of their strengths this season. The lone loss was defenseman John Ramage (CGY), who has graduated.

Anchoring Wisconsin’s blueline this season is junior assistant captain Jake McCabe (BUF). The Eau Claire, WI native led all Badgers defensemen last season with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 38 games. McCabe also captained Team USA to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship last winter and the experience paid big dividends for Wisconsin in the second half. Two notable areas where it was especially evident were in his stronger leadership and ability to better control plays.

“When you have a guy like Jake that has played at a high level like the World Juniors and winning it, there’s a certain level of confidence that comes with that,” head coach Mike Eaves said of McCabe. “He exudes a confidence that his teammates feed off. Jake doesn’t get rattled. The tougher the battle, the bigger the smile is on his face. I think Jake really enjoys that and it’s one of his great qualities. As a leader, I think Jake is very smart and selective in his moments that he’ll say something to his team. He picks his places and when he speaks, people listen.”

The Badgers platooned now-juniors Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson for a good part of last season, with Rumpel taking over the starting duties in goal down the stretch. And, while Rumpel could potentially be the starter this season, Peterson is certainly not out of the running for the job. Both goalies were superb in their own right last season. Rumpel posted a 16-9-4 record that included four shutouts in 29 games, while Peterson posted a 6-4-3 record in 14 appearances.

“We will be platooning Joel and Landon again to start the season,” Eaves said of his goaltenders. “One of the great things that we have is a really competitive goaltending situation. Joel and Landon really push each other and because of that they get better and stay sharp. They also have to prove to their teammates whose going to be the guy that’s going down the stretch, too.”

The other players that the Badgers lost were Brendan Woods, who opted to forego his final two years to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes, and graduates Derek Lee and Ryan Little. And while those losses are significant, Wisconsin will again feature tremendous depth among their forward lines.

Leading the Badgers offensive charge this season are senior Michael Mersch (LAK) and sophomore Nic Kerdiles (ANA). The two finished first and second respectively in scoring last season.

Mersch led Wisconsin in both points (36) and goals (23) in 42 games. Where the Park Ridge, IL native was especially lethal last season was on the Badgers power-play. Of his 23 goals, six came on the man-advantage. One notable area where Mersch made great strides last season was in capitalizing on his opportunities.

Kerdiles led Wisconsin in rookie scoring last season, despite missing the first two months of the season. The Irvine, CA native quickly made his presence felt, racking up 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists) in 32 games. And if what we saw out of Kerdiles last season is any indication, he could potentially finish among the nation’s top scorers this season. Kerdiles took full advantage of his mix of excellent vision, hockey sense and elite-level skill last season. And with added size and strength to his 6’2” frame, he could be a dominating force going forward. Eaves notes that one area Kerdiles improved will not only help his team, but also help make him potentially one of the NCAA’s top players this season.

“Nic led our team in points per game down the stretch last year and if he can use that as a springboard to what he can do this year, he’ll be fun to watch,” said Eaves. “I think the one area that Nic improved last year that will help us was his puck decisions. He learned that instead of trying to force it all the time he should just make better reads with the puck and do the most intelligent thing with it. So I would say that Nic’s decisions with the puck got a lot more intelligent.”

Kerdiles won’t be the only Anaheim Ducks prospect donning the cardinal and white this season. Joining him will be newcomer Grant Besse. The Plymouth, MN native is one of five freshmen on the Badgers roster this season and is noted for his prolific scoring ability and creativity.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF