The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) is one of two new conferences that will be making their NCAA debut this season. To say that the conference race will be an all-out war is probably an understatement. The NCHC is shaping up to be arguably the tightest and most competitive conference this season. All eight member schools have made NCAA Tournament appearances within the last three years, with St. Cloud State reaching the Frozen Four last season.
This season, the NCHC features 54 NHL prospects. North Dakota leads with 15, followed by Denver and Minnesota-Duluth with seven apiece.
Four conference head coaches in Dave Hakstol (North Dakota), Bob Motzko (St. Cloud State), Andy Murray (Western Michigan) and Scott Owens (Colorado College) recently shared with Hockey's Future their thoughts on playing in the newly formed NCHC, and all agree that the NCHC will be a very competitive conference.
“I think it’s an exciting time because we can start to build new traditions within a new league that’s going to be highly competitive,” said Hakstol. “I think it’s going to be a challenge on a nightly basis.”
“I think it’s going to be a challenge and a battle throughout the season,” said Motzko. “We’re excited about playing in the NCHC, but it’s going to be a dogfight.”
“We’re really excited about being a part of the NCHC,” said Owens. “It’s going to be a really, really good league and challenging at the same time. I think there’s good parity and it’s also going to be high quality in all aspects, as well.”
“We’re really excited to have the opportunity to play in a league with (some of) the premiere programs in the country,” said Murray. “I think it’s pretty special for our players to have this experience, particularly for our upperclassmen.”
NHL prospects: 5
The Tigers open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 18th versus Minnesota-Duluth.
Colorado College came within one game last season of making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the WCHA Final Five championship before falling to Wisconsin. The Tigers hope to remedy that this season. But before that can happen, there are some issues that will need to be addressed first.
One of the most pressing is replacing the scoring that left with four of last season’s top five graduated scorers, including the nation’s top scorer in Rylan Schwartz (SJS) and the nation’s top goal-scoring defenseman in Mike Boivin. The four players accounted for 41% of the team’s points and 47% of the team’s goal production.
Senior alternate captain Alex Krushelnyski returns as the Tigers top scorer. The Bloomfield Hills, MI native is coming off of a stellar junior campaign where he finished second on the team with 43 points (15 goals, 28 assists) in 42 games. One area that’s become Krushelnyski’s specialty is penalty killing. His quick transition game makes him especially dangerous in shorthanded situations. Not surprisingly, he led Colorado College with three shorthanded tallies last season. Krushelnyski is a player that many NHL teams will be watching this season as he is among the top free agent forwards available at season’s end.
One returning veteran poised to have a very good season is sophomore Hunter Fejes (PHX). The Anchorage, AK native is coming off of an excellent freshman campaign where he led all Tigers rookies with eight goals. He finished with 14 points in 41 games. Fejes possesses a very good first step, which allows him to get up to speed quickly and make plays without breaking stride. As Fejes strengthens his 6’1” frame, he could potentially be more of a dominant force for Colorado College.
“I think Hunter will continue to develop as a good power winger for us because he’s strong, fearless, can really skate, and goes hard to the net,” Owens said of Fejes. “I think Hunter just needs to continue to refine his skills. As he goes along (in his development) I think Hunter will have a good chance of playing at the next level.”
Another area that the Tigers will also need to address is their goaltending situation with starter Joe Howe having graduated. Senior Josh Thorimbert, who served as Howe’s backup last season, struggled to regain his sophomore form of two seasons ago. The Saskatoon, SK native finished his junior campaign with a 4-7-1 record in 16 appearances. Competing with Thorimbert this season are junior Courtney Lockwood, who did not play last season, and newcomer Tyler Marble.
Despite the losses of graduates Boivin and Joe Marciano, the defensive corps is shaping up to be Colorado College’s strength heading into the season. And they will be bigger, too, with six of the Tigers eight rearguards being 6’1” or taller.
Stoykewych is coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign where he posted 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 42 games. The Winnipeg, MB native made some good progress in development last season, most notably in his skating. He maintains better balance and his strides are smoother and stronger.
Like his freshman year, Harstad has continued to battle injuries. And along with battling mononucleosis, his playing time was limited last season. The Stevens Point, WI native played in 31 games, posting six points (two goals, four assists). If Harstad can stay healthy this season, he could become a significant contributor for the Tigers in a number of areas, including offensive production.
Stoykewych and Harstad are two of four NHL prospects on Colorado College’s blueline this season. The others are newcomers Gustav Olofsson (MIN) and Jaccob Slavin (CAR). Olofsson is a 6’3”, 190-pound defensive defenseman noted for his superb skating. Slavin is a 6’3”, 195-pound defenseman that is noted for his strong two-way play. As Owens notes, both can be immediate impact players.
“Olofsson and Slavin play with a lot of moxy and confidence. I think both of them can come in and contribute for us right away.”
University of Denver
NHL prospects: 7
The Pioneers opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Merrimack.
This season, a new era dawns on Denver as former NHL forward and University of Maine standout Jim Montgomery takes over the head coaching duties. Montgomery succeeds the long-time and successful George Gwozdecky, who was dismissed this past spring.
Montgomery inherits a Pioneers team that lost a number of key players due to graduation and early departure to the pros. While Denver will be predominantly young this season, the team is also shaping up to be quite good, so they make a push for the NCHC title.
One of the more fascinating positions to watch this season is in goal. The Pioneers lost three of last season’s four goaltenders, including All-American Juho Olkinuora, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Winnipeg Jets.
The lone returning netminder is senior Sam Brittain (FLA). The Calgary, AB native, who served as Olkinuora’s backup last season, will be looking to regain the magic he had in his freshman year three seasons ago. Brittain appeared in 13 games last season, posting a 5-7-0 record.
Brittain will be battling two newcomers for the starting job this season, including fellow Florida Panthers prospect Evan Cowley. The Arvada, CO native possesses size (6’4”, 185 lbs.) and is noted for his tremendous composure and demeanor.
With the uncertainty in goal to start the season, Denver will be looking to their defensive corps to help stabilize things on the back end. The Pioneers lost two key rearguards from last season’s team in graduate Paul Phillips and Scott Mayfield, who opted to forego his final two years to sign with the New York Islanders. While the two losses are significant, Denver’s blueline is shaping up to be an excellent one this season.
LaLeggia is coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign where he led Denver in defensive scoring with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 39 games. Interestingly, he is also the Pioneers’ top returning scorer. While LaLeggia continues to be an offensive force on the blueline, he has learned to balance that with a vastly improved defensive game. He utilizes his speed and great stick work more effectively in taking away time and space while also improved his positioning.
Didier is coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign where he posted seven points (all assists) in 31 games. The Littleton, CO missed eight games due to injury. Didier has blossomed into a tough, stay-at-home defenseman that nicely complements Denver’s smaller and more offensive-minded rearguards. He uses his powerful 6’2”, 215-pound frame quite effectively in shutting down players, especially around the net. There’s nothing fancy about Didier’s game, it’s just simple and very sound.
Of the Pioneers 11 newcomers, four are defensemen. One that many will be watching is Will Butcher (COL). The Sun Prairie, WI native isn’t big (5’10”, 200 lbs.), but he makes up for it with his exceedingly good instincts and superb puck-moving ability.
Another issue that the Pioneers need to contend with coming into the season is replacing the goal scoring that left with three of last season’s top five scorers in graduates Chris Knowlton and Shawn Ostrow, and Nick Shore, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Los Angeles Kings. The trio accounted for 32% of Denver’s goals last season.
Among those that the Pioneers will be looking to is junior Zac Larraza (PHX). The Scottsdale, AZ native is coming off of a superb sophomore campaign where he posted 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 36 games. One notable area where Larraza made great strides in his development was using his strengthened 6’2”, 200-pound frame more effectively in creating scoring opportunities. This was especially evident in his relentless drives to the net and ability to fend off opposing defenders.
NHL prospects: 5
The RedHawks opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th at Ohio State.
Miami is coming off of a successful 2012-13 campaign, claiming the final CCHA regular season title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. This season, the RedHawks will be a predominantly veteran group having graduated just six players, and are in good position to finish among the NCHC’s top teams. But there are also some issues that will need to be addressed.
The most pressing is on the blueline. Miami lost three of their top six defensemen in Steven Spinell, Joe Hartman and Garrett Kennedy. The three players were all key contributors to the RedHawks stingy defense of last season that finished second nationally, allowing an average of 1.74 goals per game.
Among those anchoring the Miami defense this season is sophomore Matthew Caito. The Coto de Caza, CA native is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign where he led all RedHawks defensemen with 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 42 games. Caito also led Miami with 81 blocked shots. His performance also earned him a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Caito is an offensive-minded defenseman with great hands and excellent puck-moving ability. But the area where he has continually improved has been on the defensive side; he uses his speed very effectively in transition, and his gap control is tighter.
The only position that Miami returns intact this season is in goal. The RedHawks have traditionally platooned their goaltenders, and that continues to be the case with their sophomore tandem of Ryan McKay and Jay Williams likely to split time again this season. Both players are coming off excellent freshman campaigns. McKay posted a 13-7-2 record that included four shutouts in 23 appearances, earning him a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Williams appeared in 21 games, posting a 12-5-3 record that included two shutouts. The duo combined to allow just 73 goals last season, which were the second fewest nationally.
The forward lines will be Miami’s strength this season. Despite losing Curtis McKenzie (DAL), Marc Hagel and Steve Mason, the RedHawks' lines will feature great depth and plenty of speed.
Miami possessed one of the nation’s most dynamic top lines last season, which was comprised of McKenzie, now-junior Austin Czarnik and now-sophomore Riley Barber (WSH). The trio accounted for 36% of the team’s total points last season.
Czarnik is coming off of a terrific sophomore campaign where he led Miami with 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 42 games. Czarnik’s stellar season earned him numerous honors, including being named the CCHA Player of the Year as well as earning a berth on the All-America West First Team. The Washington, MI native is always a threat whenever he’s on the ice and nowhere is he more dangerous than on the penalty kill. Last season, he led the nation with four shorthanded tallies. Czarnik will likely be among the most coveted free agents at season’s end. Among the NHL teams already showing interest is the Winnipeg Jets, whose prospect camp Czarnik attended this summer.
Barber is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign where he led the nation in rookie scoring with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) in 42 games en route to capturing the CCHA Rookie of the Year honor. One area where Barber really made his mark last season was in scoring timely goals. He led the RedHawks with five game-winners while also potting five power-play goals and one shorthanded goal. As good as Barber was last season, he could potentially be even better this season. Barber uses his combination of great hands, speed and vision exceedingly well in all three zones and those attributes will become more and more evident as his development and career moves forward. Barber was also one of two RedHawks that was a member of Team USA’s gold-medal winning squad at the U20 World Junior Championship last winter.
The other was Sean Kuraly (SJS). The Dublin, OH native played in 40 games last season, posting 12 points (six goals, six assists). Kuraly’s time and experience at the World Juniors paid big dividends for Miami in the second half. Where it was particularly evident was in his improved and more confident defensive play. Kuraly also has a physical element to his game and he’s learning to balance that with smart, disciplined play.
In addition to the returning veterans, Miami will also welcome six newcomers to the fold this season. One that many will be keeping an eye on is the diminutive Anthony Louis (CHI). At 5’7” and 150 pounds, he is among the RedHawks' smallest players. The Winfield, lL native is noted for his competitiveness, speed and creativity with the puck.
University of Minnesota-Duluth
NHL prospects: 7
The Bulldogs opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Michigan Tech.
Last season, Minnesota-Duluth was a predominantly young team that certainly went through their share of growing pains. The Bulldogs posted just four wins in the first two months of last season and went on to a disappointing ninth place finish. The good news for Minnesota-Duluth is that they are more experienced and return most of last year’s regulars. And, along with an outstanding group of newcomers, the Bulldogs are poised to be a much better team that could really shake things up in the NCHC this season.
The area where Minnesota-Duluth was hit hardest with offseason losses was on their blueline. The Bulldogs lost three of their top six defensemen in Wade Bergman, Drew Olson (TBL) and Chris Casto. Bergman and Olson both graduated. Casto opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Boston Bruins.
While the Bulldogs will have a predominantly young defensive corps again this season, it is also shaping up to be quite good.
Among those leading the defense this season is sophomore Andy Welinski (ANA). The local product is coming off of an excellent freshman campaign where he led all Minnesota-Duluth defensemen with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 38 games en route to earning a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Where Welinski really shone last season was on the Bulldogs power-play. Of his four goals, three came with the man-advantage. His great combination of smooth skating and tremendous offensive ability, along with his strengthened 6’2” frame, could potentially make Welinski one of the nation’s top-scoring defensemen this season.
Among the four new rearguards joining the Bulldogs this season is Carson Soucy (MIN). At 6’4” and 190 pounds, the Irma, AB native will add size to the team’s blueline. Soucy is noted for his skating and puck-moving skills.
Another key loss for Minnesota-Duluth was graduated top scorer Mike Seidel. The feisty Darrien, IL native led the Bulldogs in goals (17) and co-led in points (34). But where Seidel will be missed the most is on the power-play, where nine of his 17 tallies were scored. While Seidel’s loss is significant, Minnesota-Duluth’s forwards lines will have some very good depth that should be able to boost their overall point production this season.
The biggest reason is the sensational play of last season’s rookie class. The Bulldogs' freshmen, all of whom return this season, accounted for 37% of the team’s total offense last season.
Among those leading Minnesota-Duluth’s offensive charge this season is sophomore Tony Cameranesi (TOR). Cameranesi is coming off of a tremendous freshman campaign where he led Minnesota-Duluth with 20 assists and co-led with 34 points in 38 games en route to being named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Cameranesi centered the Bulldogs top line last season that for much of the season featured Seidel and now-sophomore Austin Farley. Interestingly enough, all three finished the year with 34 points. The Plymouth, MN native’s blend of great vision and creativity with the puck allows him to set up and finish plays from virtually anywhere. He is excellent in effectively utilizing open spaces. Cameranesi is one of two Toronto Maple Leafs offensive prospects on the Minnesota-Duluth roster this season.
The other is Dominic Toninato. The Duluth, MN native is one of eight new Bulldogs. Like Cameranesi, Toninato is also a center. Toninato is a player that has the potential to be a prolific scorer at the collegiate level and his offensive contributions this season will go a long way to help boost Minnesota-Duluth’s overall point totals.
The only position that returns intact for the Bulldogs this season is in goal. Sophomore Matt McNeely saw most of the playing time last season, posting a 10-11-3 record that included one shutout in 25 appearances. Senior Aaron Crandall posted a 4-7-2 record that included two shutouts in 14 appearances. Third-string sophomore Alex Fons posted one loss in two appearances. While McNeely could potentially be tapped as the starter this season, Crandall certainly won’t be out of the running for the job.
Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF