The NHL prospect-laden WCHA continues to get richer. This season, 68 drafted NHL prospects are expected to see action, the most of any of the six NCAA conferences. All 10 WCHA teams will have at least two drafted prospects on the rosters – a feat unmatched by any other conference. The University of Minnesota, which has 15 NHL prospects on their current roster, has the most of any team in the nation.
University of Minnesota
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 15)
The exceedingly high expectations for success never change at the University of Minnesota. It is only the blueprint and available personnel to meet those expectations that change every year. The Golden Gophers are coming off a 2006-07 season that saw them lay claim to both the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy as the WCHA’s regular season and post-season champions. Minnesota will look to return to the Frozen Four in hopes of bringing home their sixth national championship when they open their 2007-08 campaign on Oct.12 hosting RPI in the Icebreaker Tournament.
This season, the Golden Gophers will feature a roster that is completely comprised of Minnesota-born players. It is the first time since the 2000-01 season that such a phenomenon has taken place.
At the top of Minnesota’s priority list coming into the season is re-establishing their blueline. Nowhere else were the Golden Gophers hit harder with offseason losses. Three of their top six blueliners are gone. Mike Vannelli has graduated, while Alex Goligoski and Erik Johnson opted to sign NHL contracts with Pittsburgh and St. Louis respectively. The trio collectively accounted for an astounding 102 points. As head coach Don Lucia explains the losses are certainly going to be felt, but it will also present a great opportunity for other players.
"You don’t lose the quality of defensemen that we lost without it not having some type of impact. All three of them are very elite college defensemen and two of them were undergraduates that had eligibility remaining. So that was a significant hit for our blueline corps, but at the same time, that’s part of the process at the college level. You’re hoping that the returning guys can make another step in their development and it’s an opportunity for the young guys coming in to try and establish themselves right away."
One returning defensemen that Minnesota will be relying on to help fill the void left by the departures is senior Derek Peltier (COL). The Plymouth, MN native, who will serve as team captain this season, as blossomed into one of the Golden Gophers most reliable defensive players. Though he only chipped in four goals last season, his efforts away from the puck especially were invaluable to the team’s success.
With the huge losses on the blueline, consistent goaltending will be that much more important for Minnesota this season. Junior Jeff Frazee (NJ) will be battling talented newcomer Alex Kangas (ATL) for playing time. Last season, Frazee racked up a 14-3-1 record along with the nation’s second best winning percentage (.806). Despite posting good save percentage (.903) and his goals against average (2.35) numbers, neither ranked in the top 20 in the nation.
The greatest off-season news that the Golden Gophers received was the return of sophomore power forward Kyle Okposo (NYI). The St. Paul, MN native had the opportunity to sign with the New York Islanders, but opted to return, much to the delight of the Gopher nation. Okposo, a WCHA All-Rookie Team selection, completed his stellar freshman season second on the team in scoring with 40 points (19 goals, 21 assists).
With Okposo returning, Minnesota will have five of their top seven scorers back, including an astounding 81 percent of their goal scoring. The Golden Gophers traditionally have had great depth on their roster, particularly on their forward lines, and that isn’t likely to change this season.
Complimenting the tremendously deep forward lines are three excellent newcomers, including 2007 NHL Draft picks Patrick White (VAN) and Mike Hoeffel (NJ). The noticeably absent name is that of 2007 Washington Capitals draft selection Nick Larson.
"Right now, I don’t know," Lucia replied when asked about whether Larson would play this season. "I don’t even know if Nick’s going to play hockey anymore."
One controversial situation that the Golden Gophers had to contend with this offseason had to do with forward Jim O’Brien. The 2007 first-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators opted to leave the Twin Cities, which came as a bit of a surprise to the Minnesota hockey community, choosing instead to continue his hockey career in the WHL.
"Yeah, I was surprised. I just don’t think that it’s in anyone’s best interest to leave college to go play in Major Junior. Although, it’s disappointing, I think that it’s important for our program to have people who have both feet in the door. If he’s not 100 percent committed to being here, then he’s better off taking the route that he took," Lucia said.
University of Alaska-Anchorage
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 2)
For a program like Alaska-Anchorage, progress is measured in increments. While finishing last in your conference for the second consecutive year is nothing to get excited about, some positives did come out of the Seawolves play last season. They got off to a very good start and ended the season giving Minnesota just about all they could handle in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Seawolves will look to continue their progress when they open the 2007-08 season on Oct. 12 against Wayne State, hosting the Nye Frontier Classic.
The Seawolves saw their most significant off-season changes occur upfront. Justin Bourne, Charlie Kronschanbel and Nick Lowe have graduated and Jay Beagle opted to forego his final two years of eligibility to turn pro. He’s currently with the ECHL‘s Idaho Steelheads. With the departures of Bourne and Beagle, Alaska-Anchorage loses two of their top four scorers from last season, making the task of generating more offense this season that much more daunting.
Despite the losses however, the Seawolves will have a number of very good scorers back, led by the outstanding sophomore duo of Paul Crowder and Josh Lunden. The pair led Alaska-Anchorage in goal-scoring last season with 11 apiece.
With much of the offensive players returning, the question is how much can they all contribute. Unlike many of their WCHA counterparts, Alaska-Anchorage isn’t offensively wealthy. So having contributions from throughout their lineup is crucial to their success. Last season, the Seawolves tallied a WCHA-low 90 goals. Only four players notched 10 or more goals and only two of them – Crowder and Lunden return this season.
One player that Alaska-Anchorage is expecting big things from is senior Merit Waldrop. The Anchorage native has developed into not only a solid goal-scorer but an equally good, if not better playmaker. His superb passing ability and patience with the puck will serve the Seawolves well, particularly on their power play. Waldrop is also likely to fill much of the role left by Bourne. He posted 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 36 appearances last season.
The biggest concern for Alaska-Anchorage coming into the year is in goal. For starters, the Seawolves lost two of their three netminders. Nathan Lawson left the team and Mike Rossett transferred to Wisconsin-Superior. Towering sophomore Jon Olthius, who split time with Lawson last season, is expected to get the start between the pipes.
Inconsistency in goal, especially in the second half, was a big problem for Alaska-Anchorage last season and it was reflected in their numbers. The Seawolves allowed just over 3.30 goals per game, which ranked 45th in the nation. Neither Lawson nor Olthuis put up great individual numbers either. Both possessed save percentages that were below .900 and goals against averages over 3.00. The Seawolves are hoping that this year, there will be more consistency in goal. In the always-tough WCHA, that’s imperative for success.
The blueline may be the one position that Alaska-Anchorage will have the most stability this season. They did lose three defensemen this off-season. Chad Anderson and Mark Smith have both graduated and Ryan Berry transferred to Grant MacEwan College, which is located in Edmonton, AB. Nevertheless, the Seawolves return a rock solid group.
Imposing senior Luke Beaverson (FLA) will anchor the blueline. Beaverson, who will serve as team captain this season, has become both a force to be reckoned with and a stabilizing presence for the Alaska-Anchorage defensive corps. What he lacks in flash and dash, he certainly makes up for with his physical play, leadership and solid defensive zone play. Beaverson finished his junior campaign with nine points (five goals, four assists) playing in all 37 games.
Beaverson’s defensive partner, junior Mat Robinson also brings stability and strong leadership. He has developed into a solid two-way defenseman and should be even better this season. Robinson appeared in 37 games last season posting nine points (two goals, seven assists).
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 5)
Despite a fifth place finish in the WCHA, the 2006-07 season was one that Colorado College would like to put behind them. The Tigers had a very disappointing ending to a year that saw them win just one game in the last month. With the new season about to get underway, there is renewed optimism and a sense of anticipation in Colorado Springs. The Tigers hope to get things back on track when they open their 2007-08 regular season on Oct. 19 against conference foe Minnesota.
One of the biggest concerns coming into the season for Colorado College is in goal. Starter Matt Zaba (NYR) has graduated. The Yorkton, SK native was the Tigers stabilizing presence last season. He posted a 15-13-4 record that included three shutouts. Thanks in large part to Zaba, Colorado College possessed one of the nation’s top defenses, allowing an average of just 2.51 goals per game.
With Zaba’s departure, the goaltending duties will likely, at least in the beginning, fall to junior Drew O’Connell. The Anchorage, AK native saw limited time in goal with mixed results. He appeared in eight contests and went 3-3-0. O’Connell will get some serious competition for playing time from outstanding newcomer Richard Bachman. The 2006 draft selection of the Dallas Stars was a heavily recruited netminder that is coming off a very successful year with Cedar Rapids (USHL).
Compounding matters defensively for Colorado College this season is the fact that they also lost two warriors on the blueline in Lee Sweatt and Brandon Straub to graduation. The losses also mean that the Tigers will have a younger defensive corps.
With two of their top defensemen gone, Colorado College will need others to step up. One player they’ll be relying on is senior Jack Hillen. The Minnetonka, MN native has established himself as perhaps one of the Tigers most underrated defensemen. In 38 games last season, Hillen posted 15 points (seven goals, eight assists). Where he really made his mark was on the power play. Of his seven goals, six came on the man-advantage. As assistant coach Joe Bonnett explains, solidifying the defensive side as quickly as possible is paramount to the team’s success this season.
"With losing (Lee) Sweatt and (Brandon) Straub, not only were they good players, but they were also really good leaders and very good ingredients. Guys like Kris Fredheim (VAN), Brian Connolly and Nate Prosser really have to step up and support Jake Gannon, who should fulfill the physical role, and Jack Hillen, who’ll be the leader of the defensive corps.
The big question mark will be goaltending this year. It’ll be Drew O’Connell’s ball to run with out of the gate and we’re looking forward to some maturity, presence and leadership back there with him. He’ll be supplemented with Richard Bachman, who had a really good finish in Cedar Rapids."
Colorado College’s strength this season will be on their forward lines. The Tigers lost just three forwards in the off-season. Braydon Cox and Brandon Polich have graduated and James Brannigan left the team. The good news for Colorado College is that they return their four top scorers from last season. The bad news is they’ll be without the services of senior Jimmy Kilpatrick to start the year. Kilpatrick is recovering from off-season hip surgery. The Tigers are hoping to have him back in their lineup around Thanksgiving. Kilpatrick led Colorado College in scoring with 32 points (seven goals, 25 assists) last season.
Without the immediate services of Kilpatrick, the Tigers will have to look elsewhere to get offensive production. But the bigger issue that lingers with the forwards in particular is the need to generate more offense throughout the team. Colorado College have traditionally been one of the better offensive teams in the nation, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their production from last season. The Tigers 111 total goals are the lowest since the beginning of the millennium. Even more sobering is the fact that only two players – senior Scott McCulloch and junior Chad Rau (TOR) posted ten or more goals. Both are uncharacteristic of Colorado College hockey.
The Tigers return a lot of firepower this season, including a pair of excellent Chicago Blackhawks prospects in McCulloch and sophomore sensation Billy Sweatt. McCulloch is coming off of a season that saw his numbers dip, despite posting 24 points (18 goals, six goals). Sweatt battled mono that inhibited his first half performance but had a very strong finish, ending the season with 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists).
A trio of newcomers should also help to boost the Tigers offensive numbers as well in Alaska-Anchorage transfer junior Eric Walsky, and freshmen Tyler Johnson and Steve Schultz. Of the three, the one to keep an eye on is Johnson. The diminutive offensive dynamo is coming off of a collarbone injury he suffered last year but is ready to go this season and should be a fun player to watch.
University of Denver
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 8)
This year’s edition of the Denver Pioneers is going to look vastly different from the way last year’s did. With 12 newcomers, the Pioneers will have the largest incoming class in the WCHA this season. As head coach George Gwozdecky explains re-establishing the team will be a quite task but the foundation is already in place.
"I think developing into and becoming a team are going to be the biggest challenges that we’ll have, especially with so many new people and different people in leadership roles. I think that even though we’re predominantly freshmen and sophomores, we have experience in very critical positions. We have five guys in Peter Mannino, Chris Butler (BUF), Brock Trotter, Rhett Rakhshani (NYI) and Tyler Ruegsegger (TOR) that are pretty good building blocks for our team for this year and we have a senior in Andrew Thomas (WSH), who is a rock back on the blueline. So those are pretty good places to start for our freshmen to watch and learn from."
Denver, who will host to the 2008 Frozen Four, opens their 2007-08 season on Oct. 12 hosting Maine in a rematch between the two 2004 National Championship game participants.
Denver’s off-season changes impacted all three positions. Perhaps the most significant came upfront. J.D. Corbin, Mike Handza, Steven Cook, Ryan Helgason and the versatile Adrien Veideman were all lost to graduation. Geoff Paukovich and top goal-scorer Ryan Dingle both opted to forego the remainders of their eligibility to sign with the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks respectively.
While the losses are great, the Pioneers certainly won’t be lacking any experience up front. The exciting sophomore trio of Trotter, Ruegsegger and Rakhshani return to form the nucleus of what is shaping up to be another deep (and very young) group of fine forwards for Denver. The returning sophomores, along with junior defenseman Chris Butler, made up four of Denver’s top six scorers from last season and 48 percent of the team’s total offensive output. Trotter led the team with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists), while Butler led all defensemen with 27 points (10 goals, 12 assists).
In addition to their excellent returning group upfront, the Pioneers will also welcome six newcomers, including 2006 Atlanta Thrashers draft pick Jesse Martin. The one rookie to keep an eye on is the highly skilled Anthony Maiani. He is the younger brother of former Ohio State standout Dominic Maiani.
"Anthony is a very special player. He’s a very dynamic offensive player. Anthony is a terrific passer and a pretty strong skater. I think that people around Denver are going to love him while the people around the WCHA are probably going to hate him because he just flies around the ice and really gets a lot of things done from an offensive standpoint. I think that Anthony is going to be a very, very good player for us as time goes on and he’s going to be fun to watch," Gwozdecky said of Maiani.
The Pioneers blueline was not immune to losing key players either. The two players that did depart from the team, T.J. Fast (LA) and Keith Seabrook (CHI), both opted to leave Denver to play in the Canadian Major Junior League. Fast left at mid-season while Seabrook left in July. Despite the losses, Denver will have a good mix of veterans and rookies that should strengthen the Pioneers defensively as the season goes along. Anchoring the blueline will be two superb defensemen in Butler and senior team captain Andrew Thomas. Thomas’ intimidating yet calming presence and strong leadership are two attributes that will serve Denver well in helping to quickly stabilize the predominantly youthful team.
"Andrew is very wise, experienced and intelligent in the ways of the league and how the game needs to be played at this level. He’s very strong and powerful physically. Mentally Andrew is very strong. I think he’s going to provide us with terrific leadership and it’ll be another in a long line of great Pioneer captains," Gwozdecky said of Thomas.
Another key loss that Denver suffered came in goal. Glenn Fisher (EDM) and third-stringer Danny King have both graduated. Fisher and Mannino gave Denver one of the best goaltending tandems in the nation last season. While the loss of Fisher in particular is significant, they’ll still have outstanding senior Peter Mannino between the pipes this season. Mannino appeared 18 games posting an 8-6-2 record that included three shutouts. While his overall record may not have been all that impressive, his save percentage (.919) and goals against average (2.29) were as both ranked in the top 20 in the nation.
Michigan Tech University
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 2)
The Michigan Tech Huskies were one of the best feel good stories coming out of the WCHA last season. After finishing eighth in the conference in 2005-06, Michigan Tech finished last season tied for sixth in the WCHA and made an appearance in the Final Five. As good as the Huskies were last season, they could be even better this season. Michigan Tech suffered the least number of losses of any WCHA team. There were no early departures and just three graduates.
As exciting as things are up in Houghton, MI right now, head coach Jamie Russell says that there is still plenty of work to do and things to improve when the 2007-08 season opens on Oct. 12 versus Northern Michigan in the inaugural Superior Cup Tournament.
"Well expectations are very high here in Houghton and within the university. Collectively as a group, we really welcome that. It’s a little bit of a different challenge. We have a certain style of game that we play where we’re very aggressive and we really go after teams. We’re a very, very hard-working, blue-collar hockey team. This year, with the growth and maturity of some of our players that were juniors and sophomores last year, we’re going to score a little bit more. Hopefully, our power play will be a little bit more potent as well. I think we’ve got a high skill level and some very talented hockey players, but establishing our identity early is really going to be a focus for our program."
For Michigan Tech, it all begins with their sensational goaltending tandem of juniors Michael Lee Teslak and Rob Nolan. The duo were the backbone of a Huskies team that possessed one of the nation’s stingiest defenses and most effective penalty killing units. Both goaltenders put up fantastic numbers. Teslak, an All-WCHA Third Team selection, posted an 11-8-3 record that included four shutouts in 22 games. His 2.00 goals against average were the best in the WCHA and ranked third overall in the nation. Nolan saw action in 20 games, posting a 7-9-2 record with one shutout. While Nolan’s record wasn’t quite as impressive as Teslak’s, his sparkling save percentage (.910) and goals against average (2.26) almost mirrored that of his counterpart.
To put into perspective just how good Teslak and Nolan were last season, consider this. Of their 40 games, the Huskies allowed three or more goals in just 12 of them. The 87 total goals allowed were the fewest of any WCHA team.
Goaltending isn’t going to be the only area where Michigan Tech will be strong this season. Their top-flight defensive corps returns nearly intact. The lone and perhaps greatest loss was that of talented offensive defenseman Lars Helminen. The diminutive blueliner led all Michigan Tech defensemen in scoring with 21 points (two goals, 19 assists). While Helminen will be missed, particularly on the power play, the Huskies will have no shortage of experience on the blueline.
The player that is likely going to be counted on to fill much of the void that Helminen leaves, is junior Geoff Kinrade. The smooth skating Nelson, BC native is the Huskies top returning defenseman having posted 19 points (five goals, 14 assists). He was also one of five players to play in all 40 games last season.
While there are very few concerns about the defense coming into the season, the Michigan Tech offense is another story. The Huskies struggled mightily to generate scoring last season. They posted 90 total goals, which were the fewest in the WCHA and ranked 53rd overall in the nation. Only two players – returning seniors Tyler Shelast and Jimmy Kerr posted 10 or more goals for Michigan Tech last season.
The Huskies power play was equally as bad, if not worse. Michigan Tech’s efficiency rating was an atrocious 9.3 percent. That ranked them 57th in the nation. The Huskies 18 power play goals were not only the fewest in the WCHA but were also amongst the fewest in the nation. Only Providence and Merrimack tallied fewer on the man-advantage.
With nearly all of their forwards returning, Michigan Tech should be better offensively. They’ll also get some help from three incoming freshmen as well. However, the most highly anticipated arrival of the three, Casey Pierro-Zabotel (PIT), won’t be making his collegiate debut until December. As Russell explains, his rookie sensation has some unfinished business to tend to first.
"Casey is obviously very gifted offensively. He’s a big, strong power forward that can score goals. He’s upgrading his SAT score to get cleared through the NCAA Clearinghouse. He’s a great kid and I’m very proud of him for really sticking to his commitment to play college hockey. He’s had some obstacles and some adversity. It would’ve been very easy for him to take the easy path and say that I’m going to go play Major Junior hockey in the WHL. He certainly had the offers to do that but he’s very committed to getting an education, to being a student-athlete and we’re really looking forward to Casey joining us at the GLI," said Russell.
University of Minnesota-Duluth
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 8)
Since their Frozen Four appearance four years ago, Minnesota-Duluth has struggled to regain that magic. Despite a strong late season performance, the Bulldogs ended up finishing ninth in the WCHA. Minnesota-Duluth will try to build on the momentum of last season when they open their 2007-08 season on Oct. 12 hosting Lake Superior State in the Superior Cup Tournament.
Though the Bulldogs lost relatively few players to graduation, they did lose their top two players to the NHL. Leading scorer Mason Raymond opted to forego his final two years of eligibility to sign with the Vancouver Canucks, while top scoring defenseman Matt Niskanen did the same, signing with the Dallas Stars. In addition, the team’s top goal-scorer Bryan MacGregor has graduated. The losses are particularly painful for a Minnesota-Duluth team that averaged just 2.64 goals per game last season. As a result, the Bulldogs will have to find a way to replace the 37 percent of the offensive production that left with the aforementioned trio. Junior MacGregor Sharp, who enjoyed a very solid sophomore campaign, is the returning top scorer with 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists). Leading the group upfront is senior team captain Matt McKnight (DAL). Minnesota-Duluth is expecting the Halkirk, AB native to bounce back after battling through injuries last season that limited him to just nine points (four goals, five assists) – a collegiate career low.
Two players that Minnesota-Duluth anticipates having very good seasons this year are a pair of Los Angeles Kings prospects in senior forward Mike Curry and junior defenseman Josh Meyers. Curry posted a career-best 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) last season. He also led the Bulldogs with a plus-4 rating and 60 penalty minutes. The offensive-minded Meyers continues to do much of his damage on the team’s power play. The Alexandria, MN native returns as the team’s top scoring defenseman after having posted 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) last season. Of his 11 goals, nine came on the man-advantage – a team best.
Along with the returning group, the Bulldogs hope to re-establish offensive depth with incoming forwards Rob Bordson, Cody Danberg, Justin Fontaine, Mike Montgomery and Kyle Schmidt.
In addition to the loss of Niskanen, the Minnesota-Duluth blueline also lost the hard-working Ryan Geris to graduation. The departures leave two significant holes that the Bulldogs will have the daunting task of filling this season.
One defenseman poised to have a strong season this year is junior Jason Garrison. The White Rock, BC native was putting together a very promising sophomore campaign that ended up being marred by injuries. He appeared in 21 games posting just three points (one goal and two assists). If Garrison can stay healthy, it would go a long ways to fill the gaps left by the departed players.
Joining the Bulldogs defensive corps this season are a pair of newcomers in Evan Oberg and Chad Huttel. The one to watch is Oberg. The offensive-minded defenseman is coming off of a very good year with Camrose (AJHL). He possesses superb puck-handling skills and has the capabilities to quarterback the power play.
How the Bulldogs fare this season will depend a lot on how well sophomore Alex Stalock (SJ) performs in goal. The WCHA All-Rookie Team selection enjoyed a very good first half but struggled in the season half, posting only one win. He finished the season with a 5-14-3 record that included one shutout. One of Stalock’s more interesting stat is the fact that he led the nation in goaltender scoring with four assists. The 1363:30 minutes that he played were the most of any WCHA rookie netminder as well.
Minnesota State University, Mankato
(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)
With the strong finish of last season and the progress made, there’s a lot to look forward to this season in Mankato. While an eighth place WCHA finish may not be something to get excited about, the improvements and strong performances by a number of players are. With a new season however, come new challenges and some big changes. The Mavericks are hoping to build on last season’s growth when they open their 2007-08 season on Oct. 19 at conference rival Michigan Tech.
Arguably, the hardest hit area on the Minnesota State roster in the off-season came on the blueline. Stalwarts Chad Brownlee and Lucas Fransen have both graduated. The greatest loss however was that of top defenseman Steve Wagner, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with the St. Louis Blues. Nowhere will Wagner’s departure be felt more than on the Mavericks power play. The Grand Rapids, MN native finished second on the team in scoring with 29 (six goals, 23 assists). His 23 assists also led the team. Wagner’s stellar performance earned him a selection to the All-WCHA Third Team.
The losses also compound the matter of improving the team’s defense this season. Minnesota State ranked 48th in the nation last season in that category, allowing an average of just under 3.50 goals per game. Their 132 goals allowed were the most of any WCHA team. Furthermore, the Mavericks blueline will be predominantly young this season.
One of those young defensemen that began to emerge last season was sophomore Nick Canzanello. The Rochester, MN native enjoyed a strong freshman campaign posting eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 31 appearances. This season, the Mavericks are expecting bigger and better things from Canzanello, most notably to help fill some of the offensive void that Wagner has left.
An area where Minnesota State made significant strides last season was in goal. Junior Dan Tormey was off of to an excellent start when a wrist injury that he suffered in early December nearly halted his season. He ended up appearing in just 14 games, posting a 3-8-0 record. Tormey’s counterpart and fellow junior Mike Zacharias saw the lion’s share of work. The Plymouth, MN native appeared in 25 games, posting a 10-9-6 record with one shutout.
Minnesota State lost only two players at the forward position, but losing top scorer Travis Morin (WSH) will by far be the most difficult to replace. The All-WCHA Second Team selection enjoyed his greatest season in a Maverick uniform last year, leading the team in scoring with 39 points (17 goals, 22 assists). One area where Morin’s presence will be missed is on draws. He had the top winning faceoff percentage amongst the team’s top centermen, winning just under 50 percent. The Brooklyn Park, MN native also excelled on special teams with eight power play and three short-handed tallies.
The player who could eventually replace much of what Morin brought to the team is incoming freshman Andy Sacrison. The 2006 NHL draft selection of the St. Louis Blues has already drawn comparisons to the recently departed centerman in terms of style of play and potential. A top ten Mr. Hockey finalist last season, Sacrison is a player blessed with creative puck skills that thinks the game really well.
With the loss of Morin, junior Jon Kalinski will be one of the returning players who will lead the offensive charge for Minnesota State this season. Kalinski, a draft selection of the Philadelphia Flyers this summer, made tremendous strides in his growth last season. He was fourth on the team in scoring with 27 points (17 goals, 10 assists). The Lacorey, AB native developed a knack for scoring timely goals and nowhere was that more apparent than on special teams. Of his 17 goals, four each came on the power play and shorthanded. Kalinski’s three game-winning tallies also tied a team-best.
University of North Dakota
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 11)
Three consecutive trips to the Frozen Four and nothing to show for it is something that is simply unacceptable to the University of North Dakota and their fans. The Fighting Sioux are determined to bring their eighth National Championship title home this year, but it’s going to be a very difficult road that they’ll have to travel to get to Denver next spring. And that tough journey begins right from the get-go when they open their 2007-08 season on Oct. 13 hosting defending National Champion Michigan State in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.
Unlike a number of the top programs across the country, North Dakota lost relatively few players either to graduation or the NHL. Forwards Chris Porter (STL), Eric Fabian and Scott Foyt all graduated. All-American centerman Jonathan Toews and top defenseman Brian Lee chose to forego their remaining eligibility to sign NHL contracts with Chicago and Ottawa respectively.
Four of North Dakota’s top juniors – defensemen Taylor Chorney (EDM) and Joe Finley (WSH), and forwards T.J. Oshie (STL) and 2007 Hobey Baker Award recipient Ryan Duncan, also had opportunities to sign with NHL teams this off-season but all of them opted to return to North Dakota much to the elation (and relief) of the Fighting Sioux faithful. As head coach Dave Hakstol explains the message being sent by the foursome is loud and clear.
"The one thing that’s the most important here is the statement being made about how important the program is to these guys. Obviously, they have (professional career) goals in mind. They feel developmentally that another year at the University of North Dakota is going to be very good for them on an individual basis. Collectively, they’re coming back with a goal in mind and that really shows the importance of the program and what Fighting Sioux hockey means to them."
Upfront, the Fighting Sioux will have no shortage of talent, experience or depth, even with the losses. North Dakota returns five of their top seven scorers from last season. Overall the Fighting Sioux bring back an astounding 72 percent of their total offensive production. The 50-plus point producing duo of Duncan and Oshie leads the Fighting Sioux offense. Duncan, the WCHA Player of the Year, led North Dakota in scoring with 57 points (31 goals, 26 assists). His 31 goals led the nation, while his 21 power play tallies ranked second. Oshie, an All-WCHA Third Team selection finished second on the team with 52 points (17 goals, 35 assists). His 35 assists led North Dakota.
Amongst the newcomers joining the top-flight group upfront are a pair of 2007 NHL draft picks in Matt Frattin (TOR) and Brad Malone (COL). Frattin is an established goal scorer blessed with a great shot. Malone, who is the cousin of current Pittsburgh Penguin Ryan Malone, is a power forward noted for his physical play and ability to drive to the net.
With the exception of Lee, the North Dakota defensive corps returns completely intact. Along with Chorney and Finley, the Fighting Sioux also return senior Robbie Bina, junior Zach Jones and sophomore Chay Genoway. Bina led the team in scoring among defensemen last season with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists).
Goaltending will also be very strong for the Fighting Sioux. Senior Philippe Lamoureux got off to a bit of a shaky start in 2006-07, primarily due to injury, but was absolutely brilliant when the season ended. He finished the year with a 21-12-4 overall record that included three shutouts. Thanks in large part to Lamoureux, North Dakota were able to go 15-4-4 in the second half. Of the four losses the team suffered during that stretch, three were by just one goal.
With the immense depth and experience returning this season, along with the addition of an outstanding incoming freshman class, it is little wonder that many are predicting that North Dakota will win the National Championship this season. Hakstol is quick to point out that it all comes down to doing the work.
"Our job is to take it one step at a time and make sure that we do the work and give ourselves that chance for success. April is a long ways away but we’d sure love to be there in Denver. We’ll just have to see how it goes."
St. Cloud State University
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 6)
Last year was a very good season for St. Cloud State. The Huskies finished second in the WCHA and earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2003. This season, St. Cloud State will have to contend with some big challenges while trying to build on last season’s positives. The Huskies open their 2007-08 season on Oct. 12 hosting Canisius in the first ever meeting between the two schools.
The immediate concerns coming into the season for the Huskies are in goal and on the blueline. All-American goaltender Bobby Goepfert (ANA), along with the outstanding defensemen trio of Casey Borer (CAR), Justin Fletcher and Grant Clafton have all graduated. The four players comprised the heart of St. Cloud State’s stellar defensive corps that allowed an average of just under 2.50 goals per game. As head coach Bob Motzko explains, defense is a bigger concern than the team’s goaltending situation going into the new season.
"I think goaltending is going to be a scenario that’s going to play itself out and we’ll be just fine. Our biggest question marks are on defense because we lost half of our defensive corps. We come back with some guys that are going to be battling for spots and we have one newcomer that is going to be battling for a spot too. We’re moving Aaron Brocklehorst back to defense, where he played in his freshman and sophomore years. Defense is the position right now where we really need to solidify. It’s a wide-open deal and we’ve got to look for tandems. We want to continue to be a good strong defensive team like we have been for the last two years."
One player that the Huskies will be relying on to help guide the team’s overhauled blueline is senior team captain Matt Stephenson. The Midland, ON native co-led St. Cloud State in scoring among defensemen last season with 24 points (two goals, 22 assists). Stephenson is a wonderful two-way defenseman who has gradually grown into one of the Huskies most dependable and hard working players.
The goaltending tandem for St. Cloud State this season is big and young, but they will also be very good. Both are NHL prospects as well. Retuning sophomore Jase Weslosky (NYI) served as Goepfert’s backup last season. Though he didn’t see much action, he was quite good, going 5-1 in his six appearances. Weslosky also put up respectable numbers in his save percentage (.899) and goals against average (2.68).
Weslosky’s partner in goal this season is 2007 Washington Capitals draft pick Dan Dunn. At 6’5, he’ll be the tallest goaltender in the WCHA this season. What is perhaps the most impressive aspect about Dunn is his superb athleticism. For such a large young man, Dunn moves extremely well.
"We know that Jase has come back in tremendous shape from his conditioning and is much improved, which is what he needed to be. Dan is a little sturdier but is not going to be as experienced. Both are going to be very similar in that they’re athletic, tall, and butterfly type goalies. What both are going to have to do is adjust to the speed of college hockey. Jase has had a taste of that. Both just need to get experience and that’s the number one thing right now. We just need get these guys out on the ice and let them work through their experiences," Motzko said of his netminders.
St. Cloud State also lost some key contributors upfront as well, the most notable being top goal-scorer Andrew Gordon, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with Washington. He finished second on the team with 45 points (22 goals, 23 assists).
The Huskies will be very good upfront again this season. Leading the offensive charge will sophomore phenom Andreas Nodl (PHI). The HCA D-I and WCHA Rookie of the Year made quite a splash not only in the WCHA but on the national scene as well. He co-led the nation in rookie scoring with 46 points (18 goals, 28 assists) and finished second in points per game (1.15). Nodl is also coming off of a strong performance at the Philadelphia Flyers prospects camp over the summer as well.
In addition to the returning group of forwards, St. Cloud State also brings in a superb incoming freshman class. One of the newcomers whose situation is still unclear is Luca Cunti (TB). As of the beginning of the month, Cunti has still not been given clearance to play yet, but he is on campus. Whether he’ll be able to suit for the Huskies on opening night remains to be seen.
"We just have a little bit of a waiting game there with Luca. If he gets through the Clearinghouse, we’re expecting him to play. He’s a young player that has an enormous amount of talent. We’re just waiting patiently here before moving forward," said Motzko of Cunti’s situation.
University of Wisconsin
(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 9)
As last season’s defending national champions, Wisconsin didn’t quite have the ending that they had hoped for despite their late season push and a very strong finish. In Madison this year, there is a lot of electricity in the air and a great sense of anticipation. However, Wisconsin will get tested very early as their 2007-08 season opens against defending Mason Cup Champions Notre Dame at the Lefty McFadden Tournament in Dayton, OH.
The Badgers suffered a number of key losses. The most notable of which was former All-American Brian Elliott (OTT), who graduated. This season, the torch passes to junior Shane Connelly. Though the Cheltenham, PA native saw limited playing time last season, he was awesome when he did play. In his seven appearances, Connelly posted a 4-1-2 record that included an amazing three shutouts, along with a .952 save percentage and a 1.11 goals against average. Connelly will certainly see a lot more work this season but if what he showed last season is any indication, the Badgers will be just fine in goal.
Wisconsin brings in what is widely considered the nation’s best incoming freshman class, and it’s not difficult to see why. Nine new faces will be making their collegiate debut, including four 2007 NHL Draft selections. Of the group, none have generated as much buzz as offensive extraordinaire Kyle Turris. The third overall selection of the Phoenix Coyotes in this summer’s draft is coming off of an unbelievable performance at the Super Series, where he led Team Canada with seven goals. Turris will bring a number of things to Wisconsin, not the least of which is his exceptional ability to light the lamp – something that the Badgers could’ve used more of last season.
"Naturally, Kyle is one of those guys where we have a need for his gifts and as much as we can put him into those situations to be successful, we’ll do so. He has natural, God-given ability in terms of what he can do as an athlete. How that transpires on the ice? We hope that it’ll transpire in great ways but only time will tell us," head coach Mike Eaves said of Turris.
Turris’ arrival, along with that of Podge Turnbull (LA), Patrick Johnson and Sean Dolan comes at a great time for the Badgers. Wisconsin was hit hard upfront with the losses of Andrew Joudrey (WSH), Jake Dowell (CHI), Ross Carlson, Andy Brandt and most notably Jack Skille. All but Skille, who opted to forego his final two years to sign with Chicago, have graduated. With the departures, Wisconsin lost four of their top five players and 40 percent of last season’s offense. With the firepower that the newcomers possess and the expected improvement of the returning players, the Badgers should have little trouble boosting their sagging offensive numbers from last season.
Collectively as a group, the area where the Badgers may be the most impressive this season is on the blueline. Wisconsin lost stalwarts Jeff Likens and Matt Olinger to graduation. Joe Piskula chose to forego his senior season to sign with the Los Angeles Kings and Nigel Williams (COL) bolted for the OHL at mid-season last year. Of the likely six top defensemen that the Badgers will have patrolling the blueline, four are NHL prospects. The two newcomers – Ryan McDonagh (MON) and Brendan Smith (DET) are also two of the three 2007 NHL Draft first round selections on the Wisconsin roster. As Eaves proudly explains, the two young defensemen will bring many wonderful things to his team.
"Just a little side bar here is the fact that these young men that we’re bringing in here are as good of hockey players as they are great people. That’s a double blessing. Ryan McDonagh is an awesome young man that has good athletic ability that transpires into tremendous hockey potential. And being that the type of person, we hope that we can keep him for a while. He just works so hard and with the natural gifts that he has, those are a pretty nice combination.
Brendan Smith, as Coach Os (assistant coach Mark Osiecki) would kind of describe him as, is a bit of a mustang playing defense. He likes to get on his hind horse legs there and get up and play. He has that ability to skate and jump up in the play and wants to. That’s something that we’re going to build on and just try to fine-tune that. We definitely want him to go but let’s not go all the time because if you want to play at the next level, you have to have good decision-making in your hip pocket. Brendan has got some magic and ability back there with the puck. We hope that it’s going to help create some offense for us as well."
One newcomer that is also generating quite a bit of interest, specifically from the NHL scouting community, is defenseman Cody Golubef. With an 11/30/89 birthdate, Golubef is the youngest member of the Badgers this season. He is also eligible for next summer’s NHL Draft and is among the top current collegiate players available.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.