CCHA 2008-09 season preview

By DJ Powers

One of the biggest stories coming out of college hockey this off-season was the CCHA announcing that they were implementing the shootout in the vein of the NHL. The biggest question around college hockey however, particularly in the CCHA coming into season is how it will affect the Pairwise rankings, which determines the ten at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament as well as overall seedings. Michigan State head coach Rick Comley and Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson shared some of their views on the shootout.

“I think the value of the shootout is, one, it eliminates ties and keep people in buildings by adding some excitement,” said Comley. “Two, I think it’ll encourage teams to play harder to try to determine a winner prior to the shootout. So I think it’s good for the game and the shootout could define the champion.”

“Well I think the difference between 2, 3, 4, or 5 points that are generated in a shootout situation are going to have a pretty big impact on what ends up happening in our conference standings,” said Jackson. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I’m going to go at it cautiously as far as being supportive of the idea, but I think we’ll be supportive of it as the season goes along. I’d be curious to see how much of a real impact that it’ll have on our standings by the end of the year.”

This season, the CCHA will feature 55 NHL prospects. It is the only conference where all member schools have at least one prospect on their rosters.

University of Michigan

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

The University of Michigan Wolverines enjoyed a stellar 2007-08 campaign that ended sooner than they had anticipated. The Wolverines made it back to the Frozen Four since they last did it in 2003, only to suffer a heartbreaking 4-5 overtime loss to Notre Dame. They will look to remedy that and successfully defend their CCHA crowns (regular season and Mason Cup) when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting St. Lawrence.

Unlike this time last year, the Wolverines lost few players this off-season. However, most ofthe players that they did lose were significant contributors last season. In fact, they lost the entire top line. Hobey Baker Award recipient Kevin Porter (PHO) and  Chad Kolarik (PHO) have graduated. CCHA Rookie of the Year Max Pacioretty opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Montreal Canadiens. The trio alone accounted for 38 percent of the team’s total points and nearly one half of all goals scored. So replacing that much lost scoring is on the mind of head coach Red Berenson.

“Well, that’s our big question mark," he said. "We don’t have any returning 20-goal scorers. Palushaj, Rust, Caporusso, Hagelin and Turnbull are the five that hopefully, by committee, will improve their production significantly because last year both Porter and Kolarik scored over 30 goals. So we really need our freshmen from last year to step up. We’ll see where the goals come from this year, but that is a concern.”

The task, however, may not be as difficult as one might think. Michigan ranked second in the nation last year in team offense, averaging 3.95 goals per game. The 170 total goals that the team scored were the most in the country. And though the top line accounted for a big part of the overall scoring, the Wolverines were able to spread out their scoring extremely well. All of the regulars, including the goaltenders, posted points last season. And all but three regulars (not including goaltenders) – Chad Langlais, Tristin Llewellyn, and Scooter Vaughan have notched at least one goal. Between the many excellent returning players and the newcomers, the Wolverines should have little trouble replacing the scoring by committee. Sophomore Aaron Palushaj (STL) is the top returning point producer after racking up 44 points (10 goals, 34 assists) last season. Senior Travis Turnbull is the returning top goal scorer with 15. Freshman Robbie Czarnik (LA) is a proven high-end point producer who is expected to be a big contributor. Czarnik posted 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) last season with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP).

“I think Robbie will generate some offense, but not to the extent that Porter and Kolarik did,” said Berenson. “He’s a little bit like Kolarik. He’s a sniper and a skilled player. He’s also a good skater and I think Robbie will get off to a good start. Sometimes freshmen come in and take a while, but he looks like he’s ready to come in and make an impact right away. Robbie can play both wing and center, but I have him playing center right now.”

Aside from Kevin Quick’s (TB) dismal back in February, Michigan returns its blueline intact. Senior Mark Mitera (ANA) will serve as the Wolverines new captain this season leading a defensive corps that is expected to be as good as, if not better, than last season. Mitera led Michigan in defenseman scoring last season with 23 points (two goals, 21 assists).

Adding to the mix on the blueline will be two excellent defensemen in Greg Pateryn (MON) and Brandon Burlon (NJ). Pateryn brings some size and grit to the defense. With junior Chris Summers (PHO) moving up to play forward this season, Burlon should help generate some increased offense from the defense. The Nobleton, ON native is the latest former St. Michael’s player to don the maize and blue.

Coming into the season, no Michigan player will likely be as scrutinized as senior goaltender Billy Sauer (COL) will be. The Walworth NY native received a lot of criticism for his performance in the Frozen Four semi-final match against Notre Dame inspite of the fact that he was a major reason why Michigan was able to get to the Frozen Four in the first place. Sauer finished his junior campaign with a 30-4-3 record that included four shutouts and possessed the nation’s highest winning percentage (.851).

“Billy will be a part of our leadership corps whether he wears a “C” or not,” said Berenson. “I think in the last games of the last two years his performances weren’t good, but if you look at his last two seasons, I don’t think anyone can match his win-loss record. Billy’s motivation is to prove to himself that he’s a big-time college goalie and that he has to be able to win those final games. He’ll have an opportunity to do that again this year, but he’ll also have serious competition from Hogie (sophomore Bryan Hogan).”

University of Alaska (Fairbanks)

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

When the Alaska Nanooks open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 versus Northeastern in the Kendall Hockey Classic tournament in Anchorage, it will be a vastly different looking team that what was in place last season. For starters, former assistant Dallas Ferguson takes over the head coaching duties from Doc DelCastillo, who resigned back in April.

Between the graduates, early departures to the pros and transfers, there will definitely be some significant holes to fill on the roster. And nowhere is that more apparent than on defense. T.J. Campbell and Brandon Gawryletz have graduated. All-America West First team selection Tyler Eckford and fellow rearguard Jeff Penner both opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins respectively.

Senior Steve Vanoosten and junior Dustin Molle are the lone returning upperclassmen that have the daunting task of bringing together a very young Nanooks defense as quickly as possible. With the losses of two quality puck-moving defensemen in Eckford and Penner, one newcomer who could potentially help fill that role is Scott Enders. The smooth-skating rookie comes to Alaska after an outstanding season with Lloydminster, where he posted 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists).

With a predominantly youthful blueline, the Nanooks will be relying heavily on their goaltenders to stabilize the defense. Senior Chad Johnson (PIT) is the lone returning netminder for Alaska. Last season’s starter Wylie Rogers has graduated and third-stringer Erik Largen left the team. Johnson will be looking to bounce back and have a very solid final year after seeing action in only seven games last season, posting a 0-6-0 record.

Where the Nanooks appear to be strongest coming into the season is up front. However, they did lose CCHA All-Rookie team honorable mention Landon Novotney in the off-season when he signed with Grand Rapids (AHL). Novotney, along with junior Dion Knelsen and sophomore Dustin Sather made up not only Alaska’s top line, but also one of the most exciting line combinations coming out of the CCHA last season. The dynamic Knelsen led the Nanooks in scoring last year with 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists). Sather finished fourth on the team with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists). Though Alaska returns most of their top point producers last season, they’ll need to find a way to generate more scoring. The 60 goals scored by the team were the fewest in the CCHA last season. Only about half of that scoring returns this season.

Alaska will welcome five newcomers up front that should be able to help pick up the scoring, most notably Carlo Finucci. The Burnaby, BC native comes to Alaska after a stellar season with the Burnaby Express (BCHL), where he amassed 102 points (33 goals, 69 assists).

Bowling Green State University

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

After finishing in the CCHA basement for two consecutive years, the Bowling Green Falcons took some big steps forward, and the result was one of their strongest seasons in the last decade. When the Falcons open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting RIT, they’ll look to continue their upward climb in the conference standings.

Bowling Green suffered most of their losses at forward. The biggest hole to fill is that top scorer Derek Whitmore (BUF), who was one of three graduating forwards. The Rochester, NY native led the team with 37 points (27 goals, ten assists). In addition to his point production, he provided strong leadership and stability to the team as well.  The other three graduates were Jon Erickson, Ben Geelan and John Mazzei.

Despite the losses however, the Falcons return an outstanding group of forwards led by diminutive dynamo Jacob Cepis. The Parma, OH native led Bowling Green in rookie scoring with 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists). His 24 points in conference play was tied for third in freshman scoring and earned him a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie team.
Joining the group is an excellent quartet of newcomers led by Brennan Vargas and James McIntosh. The versatile Vargas comes to Bowling Green after a brief stint with Tri-City (USHL) where he posted six points (two goals, four assists) in 13 appearances. McIntosh comes to Bowling Green from Stouffville (OPJHL), where he posted 64 points (28 goals, 36 assists) in 44 games.

One of the keys to the Falcons success last year was their excellent goaltending tandem of senior Jimmy Spratt (CGY) and sophomore Nick Eno (BUF). Spratt has continued to develop quite nicely. He posted a 6-11-0 record and a 3.08 goals against average. Both his six wins and GAA were both career-bests. Eno, who was brought in earlier than anticipated due to Josh Unice’s (CHI) unexpected late summer decision to play in the OHL instead, made his impact felt almost immediately last season culminating with a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie team. The Howell, MI native posted a 12-10-0 record as well as a 2.79 GAA and a .905 save percentage. With both netminders returning, Bowling Green should be able to continue to strengthen the team defense this season.

The Bowling Green defensive corps should also be very good this season, despite Mike Hodgson and Mike Nesdill having graduated. Seniors Tim Maxwell and Kevin Schmidt lead the Falcons defense this season. Maxwell, who will serve as one of the team’s co-captains, posted 17 points (one goal, 16 assists) last season. Schmidt led Bowling Green in defenseman scoring with 25 points (four goals, 21 assists). His 21 assists also led the team.

The Falcons will also welcome two freshmen to their defensive unit in Nick Bailen and Dean Petiot. The versatile Bailen comes to Bowling Green from Indiana (USHL) after posting 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 58 games last season. Petiot comes to Bowling Green from Camrose (AJHL). Dean Petiot is the younger brother of former Colorado College defenseman Richard Petiot. And though the younger Petiot doesn’t have his older brother’s size, he does play a similar gritty style.

Ferris State University

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

The Ferris State Bulldogs put together a rock solid team that made a strong, late-season push to finish fifth in the CCHA last year. The Bulldogs will be looking to build on that when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting Canisius in the first ever meeting between the two schools.

Coming into the season, Ferris State doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, but they do have some holes to fill, most notably on the blueline. Stalwarts Adam Welch, Jim Jorgenson and Alex Spezia have all graduated. Chris Zarb has left the program and is now playing with the Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL). While the Bulldogs are much younger this season, they should also be quite good. The defense will be led by the outstanding sophomore duo of Scott Wietecha and assistant captain Zach Redmond. The duo emerged as one of the best up and coming defensive pairings coming out of the CCHA last season. Wietecha led the team with a plus-16 and finished with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists). Redmond, a 2008 draft selection of the Atlanta Thrashers, led Ferris State in scoring among defensemen with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists). He was also a CCHA All-Rookie team honorable mention.

Joining the Bulldogs this season are a quartet of freshman defensemen who include the powerful defensive defenseman Michael Trebish. The Yorkton, SK native played for his hometown team in the SJHL last season, posting 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) an 145 penalty minutes.

The Bulldogs goaltending situation looks to be in good hands with sophomore Pat Nagle as the likely starter coming into the season. Nagle served as Mitch O’Keefe’s partner in the Ferris State net last season and is the lone returning netminder. O’Keefe has left the program and is now playing with Iowa (AHL), and Derek MacIntyre has graduated. Nagle, a CCHA All-Rookie team honorable mention, posted an 8-7-0 record that included one shutout in 16 appearances. Competing against Nagle for ice time are two newcomers in Taylor Nelson and Jordan Barber. Nelson comes to Big Rapids from Humboldt (SJHL) and Barber comes to Ferris State from Grand Rapids (CSHL).

The area where Ferris State suffered the fewest losses was at forward with only Adam Miller and Matt Frank having graduated. Junior Cody Chupp and senior Brendan Connolly will lead an outstanding group on the forward lines. Chupp, who will serve as team captain this season, was the Bulldogs’ most consistent player last season. He led the team in scoring with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) and was tied for second on the team with a plus-14. The diminutive Connolly became a dangerous presence on Ferris State’s special teams. Of the 13 goals that he posted last season, seven came on special teams – five on the power play and two shorthanded. Connolly finished his 2007-08 season with 24 points.

The Bulldogs will also have two new additions to their forward lines that include the offensively creative Jordie Johnston. The Rosetown, SK native comes to Ferris State after a sensational season with LaRonge (SJHL), where he took the league Player of the Year honors after posting 88 points (35 goals, 53 assists).

With most of their forwards returning and two outstanding freshmen added to the mix, the Bulldogs should be able to better the 2.79 goals per game that they averaged last season.

Lake Superior State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 3)

The 2007-08 season was not so kind to the Lake Superior State Lakers. The team struggled mightily in the first half that resulted in just two wins. They went on to finish the season with 10 wins and ended up with a disappointing 10th place finish in the CCHA. The Lakers will look to get things back on track when they open their 2008-09 season tonight hosting Minnesota-Duluth in the Superior Cup tournament.

The good news for Lake Superior State is that they return most of their top scorers from last season. However, they’ll need to get some more consistent scoring from someone other than Nathan Perkovich (NJ). The Canton, MI native led the Lakers with 17 goals and finished with 15 points. While Zac MacVoy led the team in overall scoring last season with 27 points, he only scored eight goals. And with Dan Eves, Lake Superior State’s second-leading scorer last season having graduated, the need to establish more goal scoring is magnified. Aside from Perkovich, only sophomore Rick Schofield returns as players who posted ten or more goals last season.

A player that Lake Superior State is hoping to get more production out of this season is junior Carter Lee (SJ). The Brick, NJ native saw limited playing time last season partially due to some academic-related issues early in the season. Lee posted a goal and an assist in 17 games.

One problem that plagued the Lakers last season was goaltending. The stability that Jeff Jakaitis provided prior to his departure in 2007 was sorely missed last season. The tandem of junior Pat Inglis and sophomore Brian Mahoney-Wilson (SJ) split time in goal but neither emerged as real standouts. That could potentially change this season with a year (or in Inglis’ case another year) of experience under their belts. Both netminders posted GAAs of 3.00 or more and save percentages below .900.

Lake Superior State should also be an improved team on the blueline as well, but they will also be a bit thin with only seven defensemen listed on their current roster. The only loss to the defense was Justin Gutwald, who graduated. Juniors Simon Gysbers and Steven Kaunisto lead the Lakers defense. Gysbers led the team in defenseman scoring last season with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists). Kaunisto finished right behind Gysbers with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists).

The Lakers will have a pair of newcomers joining the existing defensive corps in Kyle Haines and Kyle Pobur. Haines, a smart, two-way defenseman, comes to Lake Superior State from Weyburn (SJHL) after posting 27 points (four goals, 23 assists) last season. Kobur is a walk-on that comes to Lake Superior State from South Shore (EJHL), where he posted 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) last season.

Miami University

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

The Miami RedHawks are coming off of a successful 2007-08 season that was capped by a strong second place finish in the CCHA and their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. When the RedHawks open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 at Ohio State, there will be a number of questions to be answered.

“We know that we’re young in certain areas and that we have to be patient and continue to work with them (younger players),” said head coach Enrico Blasi. “The nice thing about having young guys is kind of our mantra over the last few years has been to get better every day, and you actually see these young guys getting better every day. So it’s a work in progress, but we feel that we have a very talented group. We have got to continue to establish ourselves, our identity and who we are. Obviously this is a new team with a lot of new faces and different leadership. So the team will find their identity within our culture and in the way we do things. It’s just a matter of going out, improving daily, playing games and seeing where it leads us.”

Miami was one of the most balanced teams, both offensively and defensively, in the nation last year. The RedHawks led the nation with an offense that averaged 4.02 goals per game and limited their opponents to an average of 1.86 goals per game. They also possessed the nation’s best penalty-killing team that possessed a conversion rate of 89.8 percent.

Coming into this season, Miami suffered some key losses. And nowhere is that more obvious than in goal. The outstanding duo of Jeff Zatkoff and Charlie Effinger are both gone. Zatkoff opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Los Angeles Kings, and Effinger graduated. The lone returning netminder is junior Jon Whitacre, who did not see any game time last season. Joining Whitacre are two freshmen in the towering Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard. Knapp comes to Miami from the Junior Bruins (EJHL) and Reichard arrives from Fairbanks (NAHL).

“Having two young guys I think you have to develop them and give them an opportunity to play,” said Blasi of his freshmen netminders. “So I suspect that you’ll see both of them early. The nice thing is that we’ve been through this before a few times, so we have a little bit of a reference point on how to develop them over the course of the year. At some point one of them might emerge, but at this point both are doing a pretty good job and improving daily.”

Goaltending won’t be the only area on the RedHawks team that will need to re-establish itself. The defensive corps will need to as well. Stalwarts Mitch Ganzak, Charley Fetzer and Brad Robbins have all graduated. CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the Year Alec Martinez opted to join Zatkoff in leaving Miami early to sign with Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Miami does return a very solid group led by seniors Michael Findorff, Ray Eichenlaub and assistant captain Kevin Roeder.

Among the three newcomers joining the RedHawks blueline this season is Will Weber (CBJ). Weber, a 2007 draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, will bring some size and grit to the RedHawks defense. Weber came to Miami from Chicago (USHL), where he posted 18 points (eight goals, ten assists) and racked up 137 penalty minutes last season.

Where the RedHawks appear to be strongest coming into the season is up front. Despite the losses of Nathan Davis (CHI), Nino Musitelli and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Ryan Jones (NSH) to graduation, Miami returns most of their top scorers from last season. The returning top two are dynamic sophomore Carter Camper and senior Justin Mercier (COL). Camper returns as the top point producer with 41 (15 goals, 26 assists) — a remarkable feat considering he was limited to 33 games due to injury. After posting just 10 goals and 25 points two years ago, Mercier, a CCHA All-Conference team honorable mention, exploded for 25 goals and 40 points last season.

Two rookies join the veterans up front, including another Columbus Blue Jackets prospect in Trent Vogelhuber. The Dublin, OH native comes to Miami from Des Moines (USHL). Vogelhuber, a talented two-way forward, saw very limited time with the Buccaneers last season due to injuries.

Michigan State University

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

After winning the national championship in 2007, the Michigan State Spartans failed in their bid to not only defend their crown, but to make it back to the Frozen Four this past spring. The Spartans will look to change that when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 in Boston facing off against UMass in the Icebreaker tournament.

“We’ll obviously be a team that’s in a bit of a transition, especially because of the departures,” said head coach Rick Comley. “We really got zapped this year. But we’re obviously good in goal, and I think our talent level is pretty darn good too. Replacing the offense that we lost will be the big question for sure. We play as a team with good defense and balanced production. And I think we’ll have to have that again this year. We want to get better as the year goes on and try to finish in the top four in our league. I stress to all of my players, especially the freshmen, the importance of preparation and to try and win every game that we play.”

While many are viewing Michigan and Notre Dame to be the early favorites to win the CCHA this season, Michigan State shouldn’t be counted out. The biggest reason lies with their excellent, diminutive goaltender Jeff Lerg. The Livonia, MI native continues to both defy and silence his critics with his spectacular and steady play in net. Lerg, who will serve as the Spartans captain this season, was named a Hobey Baker finalist as well as to the All-America West Second team after posting a 24-12-5 record that included four shutouts. He also appeared in all 41 games. The 2464:14 minutes that he played last season were the most of any non-Frozen Four goaltender.

Despite three key losses, the Michigan State defensive corps should be very good this season. However, they’ll also be considerably younger too. Daniel Vukovic and Jeff Dunne both graduated. Mike Ratchuk opted to give up the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers. Returning this season to lead the defensive corps are senior assistant captain Brandon Gentile and CCHA All-Rookie team selection Jeff Petry (EDM). Gentile has quietly become one of Michigan State’s steadiest defensemen. He finished the year with nine points (all assists) and was third on the team with a plus-8. Petry began to emerge as one of the CCHA’s best young rearguards last season. He finished his freshman season leading the Spartans in rookie scoring with 24 points (three goals, 21 assists).

The Spartans blueline will also have three new additions in Tim Buttery, Matt Crandell and Brock Shelgren. Buttery and Crandell both played in the USHL last season with Chicago and Sioux City respectively. Shelgren comes to East Lansing from Fairbanks (NAHL).

The biggest concern that the Spartans will have to contend with coming into the season is replacing the five forwards that have left the program, specifically Tim Kennedy, Justin Abdelkader and Bryan Lerg (EDM). Kennedy and Abdelkader opted to forego their senior seasons to sign with the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings respectively. Lerg, along with Chris Mueller and Zac McClellan, have all graduated. The trio of Kennedy, Abdelkader and Lerg alone accounted for 31 percent of all the team’s points and 43 percent of the team’s entire goal scoring. Wiith Mueller having also departed, the Spartans lost four of their top five scorers from last season. Senior Tim Crowder (PIT) is the returning top scorer with 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists).

While Michigan State will be relying heavily on their returning forwards to pick up some of the offensive slack, the four newcomers also have the capability to make an immediate impact as well. The rugged Andrew Conboy (MON) comes to Michigan State from Omaha (USHL) and will be a sophomore this season. Trevor Nill  (STL) brings some size and strong penalty killing ability to the team. Brett Perlini, who will be eligible for the 2009 NHL Draft, comes to East Lansing from the Soo Thunderbirds (NOJHL).

But the rookie that all eyes will be on is Daultan Leveille. The 2008 first-round selection (29th overall) of the Atlanta Thrashers has caused quite a buzz around East Lansing. Leveille, depending upon how quickly he can adjust to the pace of the collegiate game, should be able to put up some big numbers for the Spartans this season.

“Daultan is very talented and he skates very well, but he’s also very young,” said Comley. “He has good skills and will be given opportunities. Daultan is one of our six or seven freshman forwards that is going to play every night and play a lot.”

University of Nebraska-Omaha

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

The 2007-08 season was certainly an interesting one for the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. When they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 17, hosting American International in the Maverick Stampede tournament, there will be more than a few questions that will need answers.

The biggest question is how to replace 35 percent of their points and 40 percent of their goal-scoring which left with graduates Bryan Marshall, Mick Lawrence and Brandon Scero. The trio made up one of the CCHA’s most potent lines last season. They also made up three of the Mavericks’ top four scorers. The trio also helped to make Nebraska-Omaha one of the top offensive teams in the country last season that also possessed the nation’s best power play that converted at 24 percent. While the Mavericks return a very good group of forwards, they will be counting on several players to step things up. Senior Dan Charleston, who will serve as one of the team’s assistant captains, is the returning top scorer with 37 points (12 goals, 26 assists).

Contributing to the forward lines this season will be four newcomers led by a pair of Californians in John Kemp and Alex Hudson. Kemp comes to Nebraska-Omaha from Indiana (USHL), where he among the league leaders in scoring with 72 points (13 goals, 59 assists). Hudson comes to Nebraska-Omaha from Tri-City (USHL) after posting 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) last season. Brent Gwidt (WSH), who was expected to join the Mavericks this season, has opted to return to Indiana (USHL) for the 2008-09 season.

While Nebraska-Omaha excelled on the offensive side last season, the defensive side was a completely story.

The Mavericks ranked 56th in the nation in team defense, allowing an average of 3.55 goals per game. The 124 total goals that they surrendered were the most in the nation. Interestingly, while Nebraska-Omaha possessed the CCHA’s top power play last season, they also surrendered the most shorthanded goals (9) in the conference as well.

One area where Nebraska-Omaha hopes to see great improvement is in goal. The Mavericks lost Eric Aarnio to graduation, but return the tandem of senior Jerad Kaufman and junior Jeremie Dupont. Kaufman, who started the majority of games last season, went 14-12-3. While his goals against average wasn’t bad (2.98), he’ll need to improve his .890 save percentage. After a promising freshman campaign two years ago, Dupont struggled mightily last season as a sophomore that resulted in diminished ice time. He saw action in nine games, posting a 1-6-0 record with a whopping 4.62 goals against average and a .816 save percentage. If Nebraska-Omaha hopes to improve their eighth place finish of last season, improved goaltending will be an absolute must.

Coming into the season, where the Mavericks are strongest is on the blueline. Aside from losing Bill Bagron to graduation and Juha Uotila (TOR) to the pros, Nebraska-Omaha returns all of their defensemen.

One of the best players to emerge from the team last season was sophomore Alain Goulet (BOS). The offensive-minded defenseman quickly established himself as a solid performer, particularly on the power play. He posted 14 points (six goals, eight assists), with all of his goals coming on the man-advantage.

Northern Michigan University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2007-08 roster: 3)

A strong second half where they only suffered two losses in the month of February saw the Northern Michigan Wildcats finish sixth in the CCHA. They followed that up with an outstanding showing in the CCHA playoffs, dispatching Michigan State to earn a trip to the Mason Cup semi-finals and defeating Notre Dame in the third place game. The Wildcats will look to move further up the CCHA standings when they open their 2008-09 campaign on Oct. 10 hosting Michigan Tech in the Superior Cup tournament.

“I think we’re going to be an improved team and what that translates into right now, I don’t know,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “We only really lost two seniors that were regulars in our lineup last season. So if we can redevelop the chemistry that we had a year ago, find the leadership in the room, and continue to work and improve what we did last year, then I think we’re going to be in good shape. I’m real happy with the talent level and depth that we have. Now it’s just a matter of waiting and seeing how the players all emerge.”

Northern Michigan returns almost all of their regulars from last season. The most significant losses occurred up front with Matt Siddall and Andrew Sarauer graduating. Siddall finished tied for second on the team in scoring with 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) and was among the nation’s leaders with 116 penalty minutes. In 40 games last season, Sarauer posted nine points (three goals, six assists).

Even without Siddall and Sarauer this season, the forward lines look to be quite good and more balanced with the addition of three newcomers. Sophomore Mark Olver (COL) and senior Nick Sirota lead the Wildcats attack. Olver, a CCHA All-Rookie team selection, provided a good deal of spark to the Northern Michigan offense last season. He led the team in a number of categories including points (38), goals (21) and power-play goals (8). Sirota, who will serve as one of the assistant captains this season, proved that he can be a clutch player scoring timely goals. He finished tied for second on the team with 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists). Of his 18 goals, half of them came on special teams. He scored five on the power play and four shorthanded.

Joining the group up front are four newcomers, including the towering Phil Axtell, a transfer from Michigan Tech and power forward Justin Florek, who comes to Northern Michigan from the USNTDP.

The Wildcats defensive corps returns intact. Junior T.J. Miller (NJ) and sophomore Erik Gustafsson lead what is shaping up to be a formidable group on the blueline. Miller continues to make very good strides in his development. In 42 outings last season, he posted nine points (two goals, seven assists). Gustafsson, who joined teammate Olver on the CCHA All-Rookie team, led the team in defenseman scoring with 27 points (all assists). This season, the sophomore will be looking to post the first collegiate goal of his career, and look past the fact that he wasn’t drafted by an NHL team.

“Well, I wasn’t really surprised at all,” said Kyle about Gustafsson not being selected in this year’s NHL draft. “I can tell you that at some point in Erik’s career, people are going to wish that they had drafted him. We think that he’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s going to be a guy that’s going to get a great opportunity to play in the NHL at some point in his career.”

Juniors Brian Stewart and Derek Janzen return to give Northern Michigan a rock solid tandem in goal. Stewart, last year’s starter, posted a 15-15-4 record that included three shutouts. Janzen saw action in eight games, posting a 1-1-0 record. Reid Ellingson, the third goaltender from last season’s squad, is currently playing in the USHL to get more playing time and to continue his development before returning to the team next fall.

University of Notre Dame

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

As good as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were during the regular season and in the CCHA post-season, they were even better in the NCAA Tournament. They dispatched New Hampshire and Michigan State in the West regional bracket then moved on to defeat top-ranked Michigan in the Frozen Four semi-finals, before falling to eventual champions Boston College in the National Championship game. When the Irish open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 11 at Magness Arena facing off against Denver in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game, they’ll be looking to bring back a national championship to South Bend.

One of the biggest stories to emerge from the 2008 Frozen Four had to do with the controversy surrounding the overturned goal that was scored by defenseman Kyle Lawson (CAR) that became the turning point of the contest for Notre Dame. That resulted in the NCAA clarifying the Kicking Rule in the off-season.

“It has everything to do with the difference between a deflection and kicking,” said head coach Jeff Jackson. “The issue with Kyle’s situation was more about it being off of the skate as a direct result of stopping. It was a pass and he stopped it with his skate. The puck then basically just rolled into the net, but from that, he did try to lift his skate and hit the puck, but he never made contact with it. Unfortunately it was a big turning point in that game. It created a lot of discussion at our coaches meetings.

"There’s always been a question mark about what the puck can go off of into the net. It’s about the goaltenders protected area, as well as deflections versus tip-ins. And then the big issue about the need to score more goals comes into play. The problem is that there’s really no exact rule to deal with that kind of a situation, so it would be nice to just have a clear-cut rule to where there isn’t all of that speculation.”

Coming into the 2008-09 season, Notre Dame will have much of last year’s team back, though they did lose forwards Mark Van Guilder and Evan Rankin, and defensemen Brock Sheahan and Dan VeNard all to graduation. And the best news of all is the return of Erik Condra (OTT). The Livonia, MI native suffered a season-ending knee injury against Ferris State in the CCHA playoffs this past spring. Condra, who will serve as team captain this season, led the Irish in scoring with 30 points (15 goals, 23 assists).

“Erik’s leg strength is at 95 percent at this point,” said Jackson. “I think his adjustment will be to get comfortable back on his new knee for the most part. And I think a lot of that will impact his game from an agility standpoint with his ability to cut and turn, change directions and starting and stopping. He’s been skating fairly regularly for about the last month with the captains. I think Erik will be probably close to 100 percent by the time we start the season.”

In addition to Condra, the Irish return a good mixture up front that include junior Ryan Thang (NSH) and senior Christian Hanson. Thang led Notre Dame in goal scoring with 18 and posted 32 points. Hanson was one of the team’s most improved players that became a dominating force, particularly on the defensive side. He finished last season with 22 points (13 goals, nine assists).

Joining the returning group up front is a quartet of excellent newcomers led by Billy Maday and Patrick Gaul. Maday comes to Notre Dame from Waterloo (USHL), where he was a former linemate of Ridderwall. Gaul comes to Notre Dame from the USNTDP.

The stingy Notre Dame defense that was in place last season should be there once again. Junior Kyle Lawson and sophomores Ian Cole (STL) and Teddy Ruth (CBJ) lead a stellar, albeit young defensive group. Lawson led the Irish in defenseman scoring with 26 points (five goals, 21 assists). Cole led all defenseman with four power-play goals and finished with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists). Ruth was tied for second on the team with a plus-13 and posted five points (two goals, three assists).

The Irish will also welcome three new additions to their blueline, including Sean Lorenz (MIN). The defensive defenseman from Littleton, CO comes to Notre Dame from the USNTDP.

In addition to a strong group on the blueline, the Irish should also be strong in goal as well. The superb tandem of senior Jordan Pearce and sophomore Brad Phillips (PHI) were both suppose to return for another year in the Notre Dame, but that changed recently when it was announced that Phillips would be out for the season due to a serious knee injury. Phillips saw limited action last season, but was sensational when he did. In five appearances, he gave up only seven total goals. He went 4-1-0 that included one shutout, along with a 1.53 GAA and a .923 save percentage. Pearce, who’ll likely have to carry much of goaltending, again this season, posted a 23-15-4 record that included two shutouts.

The Ohio State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 7)

The 2007-08 season was not so kind to the Ohio State Buckeyes. A sluggish start in the first half of the season was one of the reasons for their disappointing 11th place conference finish. This season, the Buckeyes look to get things going in the right direction when they open their 2008-09 season on Oct. 10 hosting in-state rival Miami.

While the Buckeyes lost several key players to graduation, the team returns many outstanding players that underachieved last season. The most notable of which was junior Joe Palmer (CHI). Consistency was one problem that plagued Palmer throughout the year. He finished the season with a 10-19-4 record that included one shutout. The 3.12 goals against average and dismal .888 save percentage that he posted illustrate Palmer’s struggles last season.

“I think Joe needs to have a better season because he was inconsistent with his play last year, “ said head coach John Markell. “Our goaltending has to be up above .900 and .888 is not going to get it done. Joe has realized that he needs to train differently and we’re excited for him. He understands that the past two seasons have not been good enough for both him and for us. He’s certainly not satisfied and neither are we. Joe went through a rebuilding process this summer, had a great prospect camp in Chicago from what I’ve heard and is ready to go. Now if he’s not, then we’re going to have to be able to put somebody else in. So hopefully that push from viable backups will push Joe to new heights. If that makes him play better, than that will not only benefit him, but we’ll benefit also. What I want to see out of Joe this year is more consistently good games from him, and I think he wants that too.”

Despite the losses of Jason DeSantis and Johann Kroll to graduation, the Buckeyes will field a very good group on the blueline, but they will also be very young. Senior Nick Biondo is the lone upperclassmen this season. Sophomores Shane Sims (NYI), Corey Toy and Chris Reed should be able to step things up a notch to help solidify the defense. Sims returns as the Buckeyes top scoring defenseman from last season, posting 11 points (one goal, ten assists).

Joining the returning group are four newcomers led by 2008 Florida Panthers draft selection Matt Bartkowski. The Pittsburgh, PA native comes to Ohio State from the Lincoln Stars (USHL), where he posted 41 points (four goals, 37 assists) and racked up 135 penalty minutes last season.

The forward lines may be the most intriguing area on the Buckeyes roster to watch this season. Ohio State lost four forwards, including top scorer Tommy Goebel to graduation. The returning group is a nice blend of youth and experience and should be better this season. Senior Zach Pelletier and sophomore Peter Boyd, who will both serve as co-captains, lead the Buckeyes offensive attack. Pelletier is a fifth-year senior who will be returning to the team after being sidelined last season with an ankle injury. Boyd is the returning top scorer after posting 24 points (ten goals, 14 assists).  Sophomore John Albert (ATL) is one to watch for a breakout year.  He had 21 points last season.

The team also welcomes five newcomers as well including the excellent playmaking Taylor Stefishen (NSH) and North Dakota transfer Hunter Bishop. Both players come to Ohio State after having played in the BCHL with Langley and Vernon respectively.

The player to watch however will be Zac Dalpe. The second-round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes this past June was being heavily pursued by the Canadian Hockey League. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Dalpe kept his commitment and will be donning the scarlet and gray this season. The Paris, ON native comes to Ohio State after a stellar season with Penticton (BCHL), where he posted 80 points last season.

“Well, obviously we’re very happy that Zac is here,” said Markell. “I think the (college) game itself will test his character, but that character was tested all through the summer. I think he can get to the NHL either way, whether it is through Major Junior or here at Ohio State. Zac will certainly develop here and I think that’s what he needs. And he’ll also give himself a chance to grow. Zac is coming in at a time when we’re very young and he’s the type of guy that you can build a program around. The best thing about Zac is the character and the passion that he has for the game and in the way he practices. I think that could be infectious to the rest of the team, and we need that. So I’m excited about that, along with his talent.”

Western Michigan University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2008-09 roster: 3)

The 2007-08 season was a real struggle for the Western Michigan Broncos. With only four conference wins and eight overall, it was not surprising to see them finish at the bottom of the CCHA. When they open their 2008-09 campaign tonight hosting defending CHA champions Niagara, the Broncos will be looking to get things moving in the right direction.

“We have nine new faces in our locker room, so the early part of this season has been to just make those connections with each other and build that team chemistry,” said head coach Jim Culhane. “We’re still working through that right now. One of the things that we looked for with this freshman class was that we wanted kids that have a motor and players that have had the ability to score. So we feel that we’ll be a faster team and we feel extremely confident that our group of players will be able to put some pucks into the net for us, contribute on the offensive side and win a number of hockey games.”

If Western Michigan is to make a push up the CCHA standings this season, the first issue that they’ll need to address is increased offensive production, particularly in conference play. The Broncos posted a CCHA-worst 53 total goals in conference play last season. Overall, Western Michigan ranked 53rd in the nation in team offense, averaging 2.16 goals per game. The good news coming into the season is that the team returns three of its top four scorers. The bad news is they lost roughly half of their goal scoring to off-season departures. Up front, the Broncos lost Jeff Pierce, Brian Bicek, and Mike Lesperance to graduation. In addition, they also lost Jeff LoVecchio and Matt Clackson when the two players opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers respectively.

A trio of outstanding players in senior Patrick Gallivan, junior Cam Watson and sophomore Max Campbell (NYR) will lead Western Michigan upfront. Gallivan, who will serve as an assistant captain this season, led the team in scoring last season with 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists). Watson led the team in goal scoring with ten and was the only player that posted goals in double digits. Campbell led Western Michigan in rookie scoring with 22 points (six goals, 16 assists).

Joining the group upfront are seven newcomers including Wayne State transfer Jared Katz. Katz will be entering his sophomore season after a very solid rookie campaign with the now-defunct Warriors program, posting 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) last season.

While the Broncos return all three of their goaltenders from last season, they will also be looking to give them a bit more support this season. Western Michigan netminders saw an average of 33.9 shots per game. The starting tandem of junior Riley Gill and sophomore Jerry Kuhn performed remarkably well last season facing as many shots as they did. Gill posted a 6-18-2 record with a .902 save percentage. Kuhn posted a 2-9-1 record with a .916 save percentage. Sophomore Matt Frederico did not see any action last season.

With much of the defensive corps returning, the Broncos should be able to provide more support for their goaltenders this season. Senior team captain Chris “The Tank” Frank (PHO) leads the Broncos defense this season.

There are few players in college hockey who are as intimidating as Frank. While he has long been noted for his tough, ultra physical style of play, Frank has also proven that he is much more than that. The leadership and stability that he provides to the team will be put to especially good use this season with Western Michigan’s large freshman class. He posted four points (two goals and two assists) in 37 games last season. Not surprisingly, he also led the team with 91 penalty minutes.

“I’m very proud of Chris,” said Culhane. “He has matured and has been on an incredible journey the whole time that he has been here at Western Michigan. He’s added a dynamic to our team and his leadership qualities are contagious in the locker room. He takes great responsibility and ownership of his teammates. I think that the entire group will rally behind Chris and follow his lead.”