WCHA 2008-09 season preview

By DJ Powers

The talent-rich WCHA continues to get richer. This season, the WCHA features 67 current NHL prospects, the most of any conference. Each conference member team except Michigan Tech has at least one NHL drafted prospect on its current roster. The University of Minnesota leads the conference as well as the nation with a whopping 17 prospects on its roster.

University of Denver

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 8)

Despite a streaky second half, the Denver Pioneers ended their 2007-08 season with an impressive finish, capturing their 15th Broadmoor Cup as the WCHA Final Five Champions and along with it the WCHA’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. This season, they’ll look to successfully defend their Final Five title and earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 11 hosting Notre Dame in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game.

The biggest question coming into the season for Denver will be in goal. WCHA All-Third Team selection Peter Mannino has graduated. Last season, Mannino co-led the nation with six shutouts, posting a 25-14-1 record with a 2.26 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. Sophomore Marc Cheverie (FLA) takes over the starting netminder duties this season. Though he appeared in five games last season, Cheverie showed to be a competent goaltender when called upon. He posted his first and only collegiate win to date back on Jan. 26 versus Bemidji State. And as head coach George Gwozdecky explains, he has all the confidence in his sophomore netminder.

“One of the things that Peter gave our program last year, other than his great play, was the great example that he gave to sophomore-to-be Marc Cheverie. Marc is a very talented goaltender, and he’s really improved dramatically over the last 12 months. I know that he’s very excited and looking forward to the opportunity to be our No. 1 goaltender. He’s got the talent to do it, and the only thing that he lacks right now is the playing experience.”

Though the Denver blueline a big hit with the losses of Andrew Thomas and Chris Butler, the team does return a rock solid group of defenders led by seniors J.P. Testwuide, who will assume the captaincy this season, and the versatile Patrick Mullen. Thomas has graduated and Butler opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Buffalo Sabres.

Adding to the existing group of defensemen are two excellent freshmen in John Lee and Patrick Wiercioch (OTT). Lee, the younger brother of former North Dakota standout Brian Lee, will add size and toughness to the Pioneers blueline. Wiercioch, who was originally headed to the University of Wisconsin, was able to come to in primarily due to the retirement of David Carle (TB). Carle’s career came to a saddening end when he was diagnosed with a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Carle will serve as a student-assistant coach this season. Gwozdecky explains how Wiercioch was able to come to Denver this season.

“Patrick had called Wisconsin and said that he wanted to go to school in ’08 and if they decided that they didn’t want to bring him in until ’09, then he was going to see if anyone else needs a defenseman for ’08. And obviously with the relationship that he had with us, that was the first call that he made after he called Wisconsin. It just so happened that we wanted to bring in another defenseman to be able to fit into David’s role, but realized that it was going to be next to impossible to find a quality defenseman like David to play that kind of role. It was going to impossible at that time of the year. So then all of a sudden, Patrick calls and the rest is history.”

Denver’s greatest strength coming into the season will be up front. Six of the team’s top seven scorers return, led by junior assistant captains Rhett Rakhshani (NYI) and Tyler Ruegsegger (TOR). The Pioneers forwards bring not only tremendous skill, but also depth and balance as well. Denver will also welcome one of the most highly anticipated newcomers to college hockey this season in rookie sensation Joe Colborne. The 2008 first-round selection (16th overall) of the Boston Bruins joins the Pioneers after an impressive season with Camrose (AJHL).

“Joe is a very intelligent player. He has got tremendous offense skills and is a terrific playmaker,” said Gwozdecky. “I think his intelligence on the ice and the way he carries himself is very noticeable. He’s a guy who really pushes himself to get better and he listens. He’s tremendously coachable. Joe will log a lot of ice time and play in a lot of different situations. I think he’s going to fit in very well into our lineup.”

University of Alaska-Anchorage

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 1)

As the old saying goes, it is how you finish that matters most. And no truer are those words than for the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. For them, the first half isn’t so much the problem as the second half. Which may partly explain why they’ve dwelled in the WCHA cellar for the last three years. But with a new season, comes renewed optimism and for the Seawolves there’s only one way to go. They’ll look to getting things going in the right direction when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting UConn in the Kendall Hockey Classic tournament.

There are two issues that Alaska-Anchorage must address this season if they are to get out of the WCHA basement. The first is goaltending. Junior Jon Olthius returns as last season’s top netminder. He played in 32 of the team’s 36 games, primarily out of necessity. Freshman Bryce Christianson, who also returns this season, didn’t join the team until January, replacing the injured Matthew Gordon. Christianson played in four games, going 0-4-0. While Olthius is the more experienced of the two, the Seawolves No. 1 job between the pipes still remains a big question coming into the season.

The second issue to be addressed is finding offense beyond the top-scoring junior trio of Josh Lunden, Paul Crowder and Kevin Clark. The trio accounted for roughly one-third of the Seawolves entire offensive production last season. Lunden led the team in scoring with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists). Crowder and Clark co-led the team with 16 assists each. Adding to the problem is the fact that four key players in Merit Waldrop, Peter Cartwright, Blair Tassone and Chris Tarkir have all graduated.

One returning player who could provide some much-needed extra offense is sophomore Craig Parkinson. The Victoria, BC native led the Seawolves in rookie scoring with 16 points (seven goals nine assists). He showed glimpses of what he can do and if he can take that next step and improve on his numbers, it would go a long way in helping to improve Alaska-Anchorage’s scoring depth.

The area that looks to be the Seawolves strength coming into the season is on defense. Luke Beaverson the only player the team lost this off-season. But, he was Alaska-Anchorage’s best all-around defenseman. Seniors Shane Lovdahl and team captain Mat Robinson lead what should be an improved defensive unit this season. The lone addition to the blueline is the diminutive converted defenseman Curtis Leinweber. The Calgary, AB native comes to Alaska-Anchorage after an outstanding season with Okotoks (AJHL) last season, tallying 63 points (23 goals, 40 assists) that also included 10 power-play goals.

Colorado College

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 5)

Though they captured the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA Regular Season Champions, the Colorado Tigers’ 2007-08 season didn’t end as they hoped it would and will be looking to remedy that when they open their 2008-09 campaign on Oct. 10 hosting Alabama-Huntsville.

One of the Tigers’ strengths coming into the season was one of the their greatest strengths last season – goaltending. Sophomore sensation Richard Bachman (DAL) returns after a stellar freshman campaign that earn him both the WCHA Player and Rookie of the Year honors as well as a spot on the All-American West First Team. The Highland Ranch, CO native posted a 25-9-1 record that included four shutouts. He finished his freshman season ranked third in the nation in both goals against average (1.74) and save percentage (.931). There had been some speculation that the Dallas Stars would try to sign Bachman, but fortunately for Colorado College that didn’t happen.

“All three of our goalies return, which is a nice plus to have for us. Obviously Richard being back this year is just a key for us,” said head coach Scott Owens. “Dallas I’m sure had some discussions about it, but I think that they feel that he’s in a good place for his development. So hopefully he can build upon what he did and accomplished last year, and maybe we can give him a little bit more support this year so he doesn’t have to make quite as many saves as he had to last year. I think that’s key for our program.”

Another of Colorado College’s strengths entering the season will be up front. While the Tigers lost Jimmy Kilpatrick, Scott Thauwald and Derek Patrosso all to graduation, they return an impressive group led by senior All-American West Second Team selection Chad Rau (TOR). The Eden Prairie, MN native finished a superb junior campaign with 42 points (28 goals, 14 assists) that included a nation-best six shorthanded goals. The Tigers will also welcome back power forward Scott McCulloch (CHI), who was granted a fifth year of eligibility due to a medical hardship. Last season, McCulloch co-led the team with five game-winning tallies.

“Well, for Scott to be back help us,” said Owens, “he logs a lot of minutes and plays in a lot of different situations for us. Scott is a 200-pound veteran body so that helps us. We actually have two fifth-year seniors on our team this year with Eric Walsky being the other. That’s a rarity for Colorado College. They give us that experience up front.”

Complimenting the returning group of forwards are three newcomers in David Civitarese, Nick Dineen and Tim Hall. Dineen (no relation to the NHL Dineens) will miss the first month of the season while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.

“While it’s not a big class, I think that it’s a very good class that offers a lot of different things such as size, skill, grit, and character,” said Owens. “Nick is a good leader that’s gritty, and has the ability to score. He can also be very versatile too. Timmy Hall is a smaller, younger left-handed forward that has good skill and can be creative. David Civitarese is a big power forward that played in Alberta (Okotoks Oilers) last year.”

The area where the Tigers will have a significant hole to fill will be on the blueline. Jack Hillen (NYI), the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Year has graduated. Also gone is rookie Brian Wysopal, who unexpectedly left the program back in April. Hillen led the nation in scoring among defensemen last season, posting 37 points (six goals, 31 assists) in 41 games. Despite the loss of Hillen and Wysopal, Colorado College should be very sound on the blueline. Senior and team captain Jake Gannon and juniors Nate Prosser and Kris Fredheim (VAN) lead the returning group.

Added to the mix are the freshmen trio of Arthur Bidwell, Teddy Behrend and Gabe Guentzel. Guentzel will join his father Mike as part of the Tigers program this season. Mike Guentzel, formerly Don Lucia’s assistant at the University of Minnesota, replaces longtime assistant Norm Bazin, who left the program to assume the head coaching duties at D-III Hamilton College.

Michigan Technological University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 0)

After a promising start to their 2007-08 campaign, the Michigan Huskies didn’t have the finish that they wanted and when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 in Marquette to face off against Northern Michigan in the Superior Cup tournament, they’ll be looking to get things back on track with a very experienced returning group.

The most pressing issue for the Huskies coming into the season is replacing the production of their top three scorers from last season in Peter Rouleau, Tyler Shelast and Jimmy Kerr, all of whom have graduated. The trio accounted for nearly half of Michigan Tech’s offensive output last season. The team’s top two returning scorers are both defensemen. The top scoring returning forward is Malcolm Gwilliam, who had 14 points (five goals, nine assists). Senior Alex Gagne and sophomore Eric Kattelus, both of whom had very good years last season are two returnees that the Huskies will be looking to replace some of the scoring left by the graduates. Gagne finished up with nine points (five goals, four assists). Kattelus led all rookies with 10 points (two goals, eight assists).

Joining the group up front is an outstanding group of freshmen led by power forward Seth Soley and clutch scorer Brett Olson. Soley played for the Clark Cup Champion Omaha Lancers (USHL) last season, tallying 15 points (eight goals, seven assists). Olson captained the Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) and finished with 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists).

One area of Michigan Tech’s roster that many are looking at heading into the season is in goal. Michael Lee Teslak opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers and Kevin Hachey has graduated. The lone returning netminder is senior Rob Nolan. The Sherwood Park, AB native has split time in goal with Teslak the last three seasons. Nolan has proven to be a very reliable netminder and that isn’t likely to change this season. He appeared in 18 games last season, posting a 6-9-1 record with a 2.66 goals against average. Battling behind Nolan this season are two newcomers out of the USHL in Josh Robinson and Corson Cramer. Robinson comes to Michigan Tech after an impressive year with Sioux City, where he went 22-17-2 in the regular season and backstopped Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2007 World Junior “A” Challenge. Cramer played for the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets, where he posted a 10-13-2 regular season record.

Coming into the season, Michigan Tech’s strongest position will be on defense. Though Mark Malekoff and Jake Wilkens have graduated, they return an outstanding and experienced group led by senior team captain John Schwartz and top offensive defenseman in junior Geoff Kinrade. Kinrade returns as the top point producer from last season with 19 points (five goals, 14 assists). The lone newcomer to the Huskies defensive corps is towering physical defenseman Ricky Doriot, who split time between Sioux City (USHL) and North Iowa (NAHL) last season.

University of Minnesota

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 17)

With 12 incoming freshmen, the 2008-09 Minnesota Golden Gophers will be much younger and have quite a different look from last season when they open their 2008-09 campaign on Oct. 17 hosting WCHA rival St. Cloud State.

Coming into season, Minnesota will have several issues to address, most notably offensive production. The Gophers ranked 46th in the nation in total team offense, averaging a mere 2.42 goals per game. Equally as bad was their power play, which finished 50th in the nation, clicking at 13 percent. Minnesota’s roster featured only two players who posted 15 or more goals in Blake Wheeler (BOS) and Ben Gordon, both of whom are no longer with the team.

One answer to their offensive woes is also the best news coming into season for the Gophers when junior Ryan Stoa (COL) makes his long-awaited return. Stoa, who will captain this year’s squad, saw his season last year come to an abrupt halt almost as soon as it began when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan in the Icebreaker championship game back on Oct. 13.

“Actually, Ryan was ready to play in the NCAA tournament last spring, but we felt that it was unfair to put him in that position,” head coach Don Lucia said. “He was maybe physically ready, but I didn’t know if he was mentally ready. It’s not fair to be put in that type of venue and game in his first game back. So we elected to play it safe and not play him in that game. The extra four or five months have been real good for Ryan. It’s going on 11 months since he had the surgery. So he’s 100 percent healed. I think he’s looked good on the ice and he’ll play a major role on our success. I think one of the benefits that Ryan had last year was that he was able to sit back and observe things from the leadership standpoint. He could see things that we as coaches were talking about having sat up and watched games. I think he can use that to become a better leader this year. Ryan has worked himself back into a position to play and is probably more anxious than anyone else to get back out there.”

Along with the returning veterans, Minnesota will have seven newcomers up front. The one player to watch is Jordan Schroeder. The Prior Lake, MN native is considered one of the top players eligible for the 2009 NHL Draft. Many who followed Team USA at last year’s World Junior Championships will remember Schroeder on the right side of the Colin Wilson line. Schroeder will bring many things to the Gophers lineup, including explosive speed, a terrific set of hands and even some versatility.

“We’ll probably start the season with having Jordan play at center. He’s very smart and heady,” Lucia said. “I think it’s safe to say that Jordan is one player that is going to get significant minutes and play a very, very important role on our team this year. He’ll also help our chances for success because he does see the ice so well, is a smart and very skilled player. He can play wing too, but I think at the beginning of the year, we’ll play him at center.”

One player to emerge as perhaps the key to the Gophers success in the second half last season was sophomore Alex Kangas (ATL). The Rochester, MN native finished his rookie campaign with a 12-10-9 record. He also finished in the top ten nationally in both goals against average (1.98) and save percentage (9.30).

While Minnesota lost some toughness on the blueline with the departures of Derek Peltier (COL), who graduated, and Stu Bickel, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, they should be quite solid this season. They return much of last season’s corps led by junior David Fischer (MON) and sophomore Cade Fairchild (STL).

Joining the group will be a freshman trio led by 2008 Mr. Hockey recipient Aaron Ness (NYI). The dynamic young rearguard out of Roseau will provide Minnesota with many things, not the least of which is an element that they sorely lacked last season – an excellent puck-moving, offensive defenseman that can quarterback the power play.

University of Minnesota-Duluth

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 6)

The 2007-08 campaign was yet another season that was not so kind to the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Since earning a trip to the Frozen Four back in 2004, the Bulldogs haven’t made it back to the NCAA Tournament since. This season, they’ll be looking to remedy that when open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 traveling to Taffy Abel Arena to take on host Lake Superior State in the Superior Cup tournament.

The first and foremost issue that Minnesota-Duluth will have to address if they expect to finish higher than their eighth-place finish last season is generating much more offense. The Bulldogs ranked 57th in the nation in total team offense last season, averaging just over two goals per game. Their 74 total goals were the fewest in the WCHA. Among the 59 teams last season, only Alabama-Huntsville, Brown and Merrimack scored fewer than the Bulldogs did. Minnesota-Duluth also did not have a single player who posted 10 or more goals nor 20 or more points.

The good news for the Bulldogs is they return four of their top six scorers. Seniors MacGregor Sharp and Andrew Carroll return a very talented group up front that collectively need to find ways to generate some much-needed offense. Sharp returns as the team’s top scorer after posting 17 points (seven goals, ten assists). Carroll returns as the team’s top goal-scorer with eight. Another returning player that Minnesota-Duluth will be relying on to picks things up is senior Michael Gergen (PIT). Since his outstanding 22-point rookie season three years ago, Gergen has seen his numbers continually fall. He ended the 2007-08 season with 13 points (six goals, seven assists).

The Bulldogs also have some help on the way with the addition of four very good freshmen led by the national Junior Hockey Player of the Year in Jack Connolly. The diminutive local, who also garnered the USHL Rookie of the Year honor, comes to Minnesota-Duluth after a spectacular season with Sioux Falls, co-leading the USHL in scoring with 72 points (26 goals, 46 assists).

While the Bulldogs fared well on defense, they did lose two defensemen in Travis Gawryletz to graduation and Jason Garrison, who opted to forego his final year to sign with the Florida Panthers. Of the two, the loss of Garrison will be the most difficult to replace. The White Rock, BC native was one of, if not the best player on the Bulldogs roster last season. He co-led Minnesota-Duluth in scoring among defensemen with 14 points (five goals, nine assists). Seniors Jay Cascalenda and tri-captain Josh Meyers (LA) lead what is shaping up to be a very good defensive corps. Freshmen Scott Kishel (MON) and Brady Lamb are the newcomers to Bulldogs blueline.

Last season, Minnesota-Duluth held their opponents to an average 2.53 goals per game and had one of the best penalty-killing teams in the nation that clicked at 88.5%. A key reason behind those numbers was junior netminder Alex Stalock (SJ). The South St. Paul, MN native appeared in all 36 games last season. Though he posted a 9-14-5 record, Stalock still managed to post a very respectable 2.34 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. Stalock will start in net this season, but he will be challenged by the talented incoming freshman Brady Hjelle. The International Falls, MN native is the youngest player (May, 1990 birth date) on this year’s squad and comes to Minnesota-Duluth after a sensational season with Cedar Rapids (USHL).  Hjelle finished in the top five in the USHL in several goaltending categories including wins (22), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (3).

Minnesota State University, Mankato

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 2)

The Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks came oh so close to getting into the NCAA Tournament last season after playing in arguably the best post-season conference series versus Minnesota. This year, Minnesota State hopes to turn their fortunes around when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting in-state non-conference rival Bemidji State.

The Mavericks strength this season will be the same as last year -– goaltending. Senior Mike Zacharias, who was brilliant between the pipes, returns along with fellow senior goaltending partner Dan Tormey. Zacharias posted an 18-13-4 record that included five shutouts. He finished ninth in the nation with a 2.08 goals against average and was tied for 11th in save percentage at .924. Tormey appeared in five games last season, posting a 1-3-0 record.

Another area where Minnesota State looks to be very strong coming into the season is on defense. While losing stalwart R.J. Linder to graduation is a hole that will be difficult to fill, they do have players who can do so. Seniors Brian Kilburg and assistant captain Blake Friesen lead a terrific group on the blueline. One returning defenseman to watch is sophomore Ben Youds. The Brooklyn Park, MN native developed quite nicely during the course of the season and became one of the most reliable rearguards on Mavericks roster. He posted 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in 37 games.

Although Minnesota State lost few players in the off-season, they suffered most of their losses up front. Joel Hanson and Matt Tyree have both graduated and Jon Kalinski opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. The good news for Minnesota State is that they return the rest of their forwards pretty much intact, including six of their top seven point producers from a year ago. Senior and team captain Mick Berge and junior Trevor Bruess lead an excellent group up front. Berge led the Mavericks in goal scoring with 20, while Bruess led the team in scoring with 31 points (nine goals, 21 assists).

Adding to the mix up front are four newcomers led by Mr. Hockey finalist Justin Jokinen. The Carlton, MN native was a 2008 draft selection of the Buffalo Sabres (101st overall, fourth round). Jokinen comes to Minnesota State after a stellar season at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, where led the Lumberjacks with 43 points (22 goals, 21 assists). He is an excellent skating winger with size and versatility. He can play both wing and center almost equally well.

Two issues that Minnesota State will need to address are increased offensive production throughout their lineup and their power play. Minnesota State ranked 32nd in the nation in team offense last season, averaging 2.72 goals per game. Even worse was their power play, which ranked 47th with a 13.3 percent efficiency rating. Because the Mavericks do not have the high number of top-flight offensive players that some of their WCHA counterparts have, they will need to get their scoring by committee. Among the players they’ll be relying on include juniors Kael Mouillierat and Jason Wiley, and sophomore Andy Sackrison (STL). Mouillierat and Wiley finished tied for second in goal-scoring last season with 11. Sackrison led all Mavericks rookies in scoring with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists).

University of North Dakota

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 13)

The University of North Dakota capped their fourth straight season with a trip to the Frozen Four this past spring, but failed to come home with another National Championship. The Fighting Sioux are hoping to remedy that when they open their 2008-09 campaign on Oct. 10 at Agganis Arena against host Boston University in the Icebreaker Tournament.

There are a number of questions that face North Dakota coming into the season, the most pressing of which is in goal. Hobey Baker finalist Jean-Philippe Lamoureux has graduated.  Lamoureux will go down as one of the program’s greatest goaltenders. He co-led the nation with six shutouts and posted a 27-11-4 record. His .932 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average were second in the nation. Senior Aaron Walski, who served as Lamoureux’s backup last season is the lone returning netminder. Competing with Walski for playing time will be Brad Eidsness, one of two incoming freshmen. Eidsness, a 2007 draft selection of the Buffalo Sabres, comes to North Dakota after a stellar campaign with Okotoks (AJHL) that earned him the league’s MVP honor.

“I think we’re probably going to end up with quite a battle for playing time in net,” said head coach Dave Hakstol. “Aaron Walski, our returning senior, even though he hasn’t had a whole lot of time in net, has certainly put himself in a position to play and earn minutes this year. Brad Eidsness was recruited into our program to do the job. So we’re pretty confident that he’ll be able to develop into that role. It’s a matter of how much time it will take him to do just that, to develop into that No. 1 role.  But he’s certainly going to have every opportunity to compete for playing time.”

Another area where the Fighting Sioux lost significant players was at forward. Last year’s team captain Rylan Kaip (ATL) has graduated, while T.J. Oshie, opted to forego his senior year to sign with the St. Louis Blues. Both played crucial roles in the team’s success last season. But even without Kaip and Oshie, North Dakota still looks to be very deep and very balanced throughout their forward lines. 2007 Hobey Baker recipient and senior Ryan Duncan and much-improved junior Chris VandeVelde (EDM) lead the group of returning players.

Joining the veterans is an excellent quartet of incoming freshmen that include a pair of New York Islanders draft picks in Jason Gregoire and David Toews. Gregoire, who was selected in 2007, is coming off of an excellent season with the Lincoln Stars (USHL) where he amassed 81 points (40 goals, 41 assists). Toews, the younger brother of former Fighting Sioux standout Jonathan Toews and a 2008 draft selection, comes to North Dakota from Shattuck-St. Mary’s where he posted 100 points (44 goals, 56 assists) in 51 games.

“We have a very good mix across all four freshmen coming in,“ said Hakstol. “I think we really cover a lot of our bases with the different pieces to the puzzle that you need to have to be a successful team through those four guys. So they all bring something a little bit different to the table, but in their own ways, they’re all going to be significant contributors to our team this year. Gregoire is good at every part of the game. Toews is a different player than his brother, and brings competitiveness and great playmaking ability. Lamoureux is an absolute warrior and has great hockey sense. He’s going to bring a competitive edge. With Hextall, all you have to do is look at his bloodlines to understand his competitiveness and feel for the game. He’s going to bring an awful lot of leadership and ability to the table.”

Like at the forward position, the Fighting Sioux’s blueline also suffered some key losses, but still look to be very good. Stalwarts Robbie Bina and Kyle Radke have graduated. All-WCHA Second Team selection Taylor Chorney opted to forego his final year to sign with the Edmonton Oilers. Seniors Joe Finley (WSH) and Zach Jones and junior Chay Genoway will lead the Fighting Sioux defense this season.

Providing further depth to North Dakota’s blueline is a pair of excellent freshman rearguards in Ben Blood (OTT) and Corey Fienhage (BUF). Blood, brings a nice combination of size, skill and toughness to his game. Fienhage also brings size and toughness and is also noted for being an excellent skater with great agility.

St. Cloud State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 5)

The St. Cloud State Huskies generated quite a bit of buzz leading up to the post-season in 2007-08 only to see it end earlier than they hoped. The Huskies hope to better their post-season performance this year when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting Mercyhurst in the first ever meeting between the two schools.

Last season, St. Cloud State possessed one of the most potent and exciting offenses in the nation. And nowhere was that more evident than on their power play. The Huskies finished fifth in the nation, clicking at 22.5 percent. The explosive trio of Ryan Lasch, Garrett Roe (LA) and Andreas Nodl (PHI) all finished in the top 15 in the nation in scoring – a feat that was matched only by Boston College and Michigan. While Nodl as since opted to move on, signing with the Flyers back in April, both Lasch and Roe return to lead what is shaping up to be a very good Huskies team. Lasch, a Hobey Baker finalist, is coming off of a spectacular sophomore campaign that saw him lead the WCHA in scoring with 53 points (25 goals, 28 assists). Of his 25 goals, 13 came on the power play. That ranked him tied for fourth in the nation in that category. The equally dynamic Roe, a 2008 draft selection of the Los Angeles Kings, finished second in the nation in rookie scoring with 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists).

While Lasch and Roe will lead the Huskies offensive attack, they’ll also be looking to get contributions from other returning players as well, including sophomore Aaron Marvin (CGY). The Warroad, MN native enjoyed a very good rookie campaign that saw him play in many situations while finishing the year with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists). This season, the Huskies can continue that progress.

“Aaron had a very good freshman year for us last year, but his numbers don’t show that,” said head coach Bob Motzko. “He played a regular spot for us. He was one of our top penalty-killers, was on our second power-play unit and centered one of our top lines. We really felt that down through the playoffs, he was one of our best players. What he does add to all of that is the fact that Aaron does have a motor and plays hard every night. He had a tremendous off-season with strength training, which was something that he needed to do, and he is poised to take another step for us and we anticipate that happening.”

Joining the returning group up front are four freshmen led by the excellent playmaking Jared Festler and the offensively creative Drew Leblanc.

One of St. Cloud State’s strengths coming into the season is in goal. The towering tandem of junior Jase Weslosky (NYI) and sophomore Dan Dunn (WSH) will provide the stability that the Huskies will need this season. Weslosky is coming off of a stellar season that saw him go 16-13-2 with three shutouts. His .931 save percentage was tied for third in the nation, while his 2.11 goals against average ranked 11th. Dunn, who could see increased playing time this season, finished with a 3-3-2 record with a .910 save percentage and a 2.63 goals against average.

“Jase had his struggles in his freshman year, but got to play behind Bobby Goepfert. We believe that Jase learned a great deal from that experience, and we think that Dan had the same thing a year ago,” Motzko said. “Dan had some bright moments and some learning moments last year, but he comes back as a sophomore now and we think that he’ll be very similar in what Jase did a year ago. Dan seems to be on much more solid footing right now entering his sophomore year, there’s no question. We think that we have got a very good one-two punch there. We are going to develop both of them right from the beginning and make sure that they both get in there.”

Perhaps the biggest question coming into the season for the Huskies is on their blueline. The rock solid trio of Aaron Brocklehurst, Matt Stephenson and Chris Anderson has all graduated. The ever-reliable senior Garrett Raboin leads a good mix on the blueline that should improve as the season progresses. Adding to the defensive corps this season are freshmen Sam Zabkowicz and Danish-born Oliver Lauridsen, along with redshirted freshman Nick Rioux and Air Force transfer Chris Hepp. One attribute that all four rearguards will bring to St. Cloud State this season is great skating ability.

University of Wisconsin

(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 10)

Last season, the Wisconsin Badgers came into the NCAA Tournament a game below .500 and came within one goal of earning a return trip to the Frozen Four. This season, they hope to improve on that when they open their 2008-09 campaign on Oct. 10 at Conte Forum to face off against the reigning national champion Boston College Eagles in a rematch of the 2006 National Championship game.

There is a lot to look forward to in this season’s edition of the Wisconsin Badgers and no position is generating more buzz and excitement than on defense. Though Wisconsin loses Davis Drewicke (LA), Kyle Klubertanz (ANA) and the versatile Josh Engel to graduation, they may have the most talented, albeit young, defensive corps in the nation coming into the season. The Badgers top five defensemen are all NHL draft picks who were selected in either the first or second round of their respective draft years. Junior Jamie McBain (CAR), the lone upperclassman, leads the group. The Fairbault, MN native led the Badgers in defensive scoring last season with 24 points (five goals, 19 assists). Also returning are sophomores Ryan McDonagh (MON), Cody Goloubef (CBJ) and Brendan Smith (DET). Smith, who was limited to just 22 games last season due to a back injury, may end up being the most improved player at season’s end this year.

“If you go to the blueline, Jamie was probably one of our best defenseman at the end of last year. So we’re going to have to lean on him a little bit,” said head coach Mike Eaves. “Ryan McDonagh was out at the WJC camp and Coach Os happened to be out there helping out, and he said that Ryan was really good out there. The way that Cody Goloubef finished the season, we look for him to be able to continue that climb. Then you have Brendan Smith, who is just a mustang that wants to run and is a fantastic athlete. We’re hoping that he’ll be able to get right back on the horse and get going here.”

Joining the group are three newcomers, led by the rookie sensation Jake Gardiner. The Minnetonka, MN native was a first-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks in this past June’s NHL Draft. Because Gardiner is a converted defenseman and only stepped into the position a year ago, the adjustment and acclimation to his position at the collegiate level will be very crucial to his success. Eaves hopes that the adjustment will be made relatively quickly.

“Jake is a very gifted skater and player," he said. "I think it’s just a matter of seeing what his learning curve is and how quickly he can adapt to the speed and the pace, but with the way that he skates, we hope that it won’t take too long.”

Along with the defensive corps, another position that looks to be pretty set coming into the season for the Badgers is in goal. Senior Shane Connelly saw action in 37 of 40 games last season. And while his 15-16-5 record may not be all that great, his .913 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average are. Sophomore Scott Gudmandson, who saw action in only six games last season, should be able to step right in as needed.

The one player that Wisconsin will miss most this year is forward Kyle Turris. The phenom from Westminster, BC opted to give up the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Turris, a WCHA All-Rookie Team selection, led the Badgers in scoring with 35 points (11 goals, 24 assists). Also gone are Matt Ford, who has graduated and Zach Bearson (FLA), who has left the team, but remains at Wisconsin to finish up his degree.

Despite the loss of a player of Turris’ caliber, the Badgers looks to be a more balanced team from top to bottom this season. Leading the group of returning forwards are co-captains senior Ben Street and junior Blake Geoffrion (NSH), along with junior Michael Davies. The trio accounts for much of the returning scoring. Two returning players who could see improved seasons this year are sophomore Patrick Johnson (MON) and junior John Mitchell. Johnson led all Badgers freshmen in scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists). Mitchell saw his offensive production jump from three points in his freshman year to 13 in his sophomore year. Complimenting the veterans up front are newcomers Tom Bardis, a transfer from St. Lawrence and four freshmen, led by Derek Stepan (NYR), Chris Hickey (MIN) and Jordy Murray.