WCHA 2011-12 season preview part one

By DJ Powers
Photo: Entering his freshman season with the Denver Pioneers, Scott Mayfield (NYI) is arguably the best defenseman coming into college hockey this season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

This season, the WCHA will feature the most NHL prospects of any NCAA conference with 74. All member teams except Alaska-Anchorage have at least one NHL prospect on their roster. The University of Minnesota leads both the WCHA and the nation with 17, followed by the University of North Dakota with 15, and the University of Denver with 10.

University of Minnesota-Duluth
Number of NHL prospects: 6

The reigning National Champions will look to successfully defend their crown when they open their 2011-12 season on October 7th hosting Notre Dame in a rematch of their Frozen Four semi-final game from last April.

For much of the 2010-11 season, Minnesota-Duluth weren’t the best team in the nation. But they were the best team in the nation when it mattered most – in the NCAA Tournament. After dispatching the surprising Union College Dutchmen and ECAC powerhouse Yale in the East Regional, the Bulldogs proceeded to take down perennial CCHA powerhouses Notre Dame and Michigan en route to claiming their first-ever national title.

Last season, Minnesota-Duluth featured the nation’s most prolific top line of Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly, and Justin Fontaine. The trio accounted for an unprecedented 171 points. The Bulldogs were also one of just two teams (Miami was the other) in the nation that sported three 50-plus point producers as well. The Connolly-Connolly-Fontaine line was the heart of an excellent Minnesota-Duluth offense that ranked 11th in the nation, averaging 3.40 goals per game. It was also the driving force behind the nation’s tenth-best power play that clicked at 82.6 percent. The Bulldogs’ 143 total goals were tied for second in the WCHA as well.

Coming into this season however, two-thirds of that phenomenal top line is gone. Fontaine, who finished second on the team in scoring with 58 points (22 goals, 36 assists) in 42 games, has graduated and signed with the Minnesota Wild. Mike Connolly, who led the team with 28 goals and finished with 54 points in 42 games, opted to forego his senior year to sign with the San Jose Sharks.

The lone returning player and catalyst on that line is Jack Connolly. The senior captain from Duluth, MN led the team with 59 points (18 points, 41 assists) in 42 games. His 59 points ranked third in the nation, while his 41 assists ranked second. Connolly’s sensational junior campaign earned him selections to the All-America West First Team and the All-WCHA First Team. He was also one of three WCHA players that was named a top ten finalist for last season’s Hobey Baker Award and is the early favorite to win the award this season. Connolly will be one of, if not the most-coveted collegiate free agent that will be available come spring.

"I think Jack has proven over his three years here what type of player he is," Head Coach Scott Sandelin said of Connolly. "Obviously, he’s very gifted offensively and has a high hockey IQ. With losing Justin and Mike, we’re going to need find some guys that can play with Jack and allow him to continue to be an offensive producer here. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I think that having Jack playing with guys that maybe play a little differently than Justin and Mike will make him a better player. Jack is certainly going to be a catalyst for us. He’s matured a lot, both physically and mentally, over about the last two years here. So I think he’s ready for that challenge of being our leader."

While the point production of Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine are going to be difficult to duplicate this season, two returning players that are more than capable of replacing at least part of it are sophomore J.T. Brown and junior Travis Oleksuk.

Brown, last season’s Frozen Four MVP, led all Minnesota-Duluth freshmen with 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists) in 42 games. His 37 points ranked sixth nationally among all rookies. Brown, who attended the prospects camp of the Minnesota Wild and the Philadelphia Flyers over the summer, is player that has generated a lot of NHL interest. He plays well in front of the net and is relentless in his puck pursuits.

"J.T. is one guy that we’ve got targeted to play with Jack this year. I’m hoping that he can start from where he left off and have a big year for us. J.T. had a good summer and was at a couple of prospects camps, which gave him a taste of what it’s like at the next level. I think the way that J.T. has come back will give him the opportunity to have a great year."

Oleksuk led the Bulldogs with seven game-winning goals last season. His seven game-winners were tied for second nationally as well. He finished the year with 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 42 games. Oleksuk has proven to be a valuable commodity on Minnesota-Duluth’s special teams as well as on face-offs. This past summer, he attended the Vancouver Canucks prospects camp.

"Travis has always been among our top six or nine forwards since he got here. He plays in a lot of key situations for us and for most last year was our best face-off guy. Travis is a guy that’s kind of flown under the radar a little bit, maybe because he hasn’t put up the kind of numbers that guys like Mike, Justin, and Jack have. Game in and game out Travis is effective in the way he plays and what he does for us."

In addition to losing Mike Connolly and Fontaine, Minnesota-Duluth also suffered significant losses on defense. Stalwarts Mike Montgomery, Trent Palm and Chad Huttel have all graduated. The Bulldogs’ first half top defensive pairing of Dylan Olsen, who left the team just after the World Junior Championships in January, and Justin Faulk opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks and Carolina Hurricanes respectively.

One returning veteran that will be counted on to help fill the massive defensive hole is senior Scott Kishel (MON). After appearing in just seven games and posting just one assist last season, Kishel could see significantly more ice time and an expanded role this season. In the seven games that he appeared in, Kishel saw primarily spot duty.

"Scott didn’t play a lot last year, but he’s a guy that we’re counting on this year to step up and play bigger minutes for us," said Sandelin. "He’s a good guy on the power play, so he’s probably going to get an opportunity there."

With the large number of losses on the blue line, Minnesota-Duluth will be relying heavily on their returning goaltending tandem of senior Kenny Reiter and sophomore Aaron Crandall to help stabilize things on the back end this season. Reiter was a key cog in the Bulldogs’ National Championship run. He appeared in 31 contests, posting a 16-7-5 record that included three shutouts. As good as Reiter was during the season, he was even better in the NCAA Tournament, where Minnesota-Duluth was outshot in three of their four games.

Crandall, who appeared in just 16 games, was outstanding in the backup role. He posted a 10-3-1that included two shutouts.

Speedy sniper Caleb Herbert leads an outstanding six-member incoming class for the Bulldogs this season. Herbert, a 2010 fifth round (142nd overall) selection of the Washington Capitals, is blessed with terrific hands and can put up some big numbers.

"Caleb will certainly bring a speed dynamic to our team," Sandelin said of Herbert. "He played at center much of last year, but we’ve had him on wing in practices so far. Where he’ll be playing this year remains to be seen. Caleb has got a lot of skill and is a very competitive player. We’re looking for him to be a big impact freshman on our team. I think Caleb will be among our top six or nine forwards that can bring some of that offensive dynamic this year that J.T. brought last year."

University of Alaska-Anchorage
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Seawolves will open their 2011-12 season on October 7th hosting Clarkson in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

After a slow start last October, Alaska-Anchorage finished last season winning eight of their last 13 games and earned a trip to the WCHA Final Five for just the second time in the program’s history.

One of the keys behind the Seawolves’ success, particularly in the second half, was their stifling defense. Alaska-Anchorage finished the season ranked 29th in the nation with a defense that allowed just 2.86 goals per game. The Seawolves were equally impressive on the penalty kill where they ranked 13th nationally with an 84.3 percent efficiency rating. Only North Dakota and Denver had better penalty killing teams in the WCHA last season.

With the exception of graduate Luka Vidmar and Drew Darwitz, who is no longer with the team, Alaska-Anchorage’s defense returns intact and will be the team’s strength heading into this season. While the Seawolves defense will be very good, they will also be quite young. There will be only three upperclassmen patrolling the blue line this season.

Among those leading the defensive corps this season is junior Scott Warner. Warner finished with ten points (three goals, seven assists) in 37 games. The local product was particularly good on the Seawolves power play, where two of his three goals were scored.

With a predominately youthful defense, Alaska-Anchorage will be relying on their returning goaltending tandem of juniors Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson to help stabilize the back end. The excellent play of Kamal was a big reason behind the Seawolves’ late season success last spring. He appeared in 15 games, posting a 9-5-1 record that included three shutouts. Kamal’s partner Gunderson saw the majority of games, appearing in 23 contests, posting a 7-13-2 record.

One area where Alaska-Anchorage will look to better this season is their offense. The Seawolves averaged just 2.41 goals per game last season, which ranked 48th nationally. Their 89 total goals were among the fewest in the nation. While the Seawolves didn’t put up many points, they did get points from nearly their entire roster. Alaska-Anchorage doesn’t possess the scoring depth that many other WCHA teams have, so getting scoring by committee is essential to their continued success.

The challenge of increasing point production this season is compounded by the fact that the team graduated three of their top five scorers from last season. The most notable of the group is Tommy Grant. The North Vancouver, BC native led the Seawolves with 32 points (16 goals, 16 assists) playing in all 37 games. He also led the team in shots (114), game-winning goals (5), and co-led with four power play goals. This past spring, Grant signed with the New York Rangers.

One player that will be relied on to help boost the Seawolves’ offensive numbers this season is sophomore Matt Bailey. With a plethora of excellent rookies in the WCHA last season, Bailey has flown a bit under the NHL radar, but he’s a player that is well worth watching this season. He’s relentless in puck pursuits and is very good around the net. The Winnipeg, MB native returns as the team’s top goal-scorer and is the only returning player that posted ten or more goals last season. He posted 20 points (ten goals, ten assists) in 30 games. Bailey’s outstanding freshman campaign was cut short due to a knee injury.

Alaska-Anchorage welcomes nine newcomers this season and one player to keep an eye on is Sam Mellor. The Cranbrook, BC native is a 5’10 180lb centerman noted for his offensive prowess and is a player that has the potential to become a big time offensive contributor for the Seawolves as well.

Bemidji State University
Number of NHL prospects: 1

The Beavers will open their 2011-12 season on October 7th at Miami.

Despite going winless in their final four regular season games last season, Bemidji State made it all the way to WCHA Five Final semi-finals with a talented veteran group. While the Beavers return most of those players this season, they did suffer some significant losses.

Nowhere will the losses be felt more than upfront. The Beavers lost four forwards to graduation including two-thirds of their top line in captain Matt Read and Ian Lowe. Read, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers at the end of last season, led the team with 22 goals and finished with 35 points in 37 games. He also led Bemidji State with eight power play goals. Lowe finished third on the team with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) and was one of only six players on the roster to play in all 38 games.

What makes the losses noteworthy is the fact that the Beavers were one of the lowest scoring teams in the country last season, despite getting production throughout their lineup and having one of the nation’s best power plays. Bemidji State ranked 50th in the nation, averaging 2.34 goals per game. The 89 total goals were the second fewest in the WCHA. Furthermore, the Beavers top line accounted for 43 percent of the team’s offensive production.

The good news for the Beavers heading into this season is they return top scoring junior Jordan George. The speedy winger posted 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 38 games last season and leads Bemidji State’s offensive charge this season.

One returning player that the Beavers will be looking to get increased point production from is sophomore Radoslav Illo (ANA). The Bystrica, Slovakia native made some great strides in his development last season. He played in 37 games, posting six points (four goals, two assists). He finished tied for third on the team with a plus-3. One notable area that Illo has developed is his overall strength, and that has enhanced his skating and his ability to protect the puck.

Junior Ben Kinne makes his much-anticipated return to the Beavers lineup this season after missing all of the 2010-11 campaign due to a stroke he suffered prior to the season. The St. Paul, MN native will serve as one of the team’s tri-captains this season. Aside from leadership, Kinne will add some good offensive depth to Bemidji State’s forward lines as well as be a contributor on the Beavers’ power play.

Despite graduating two defensemen, the Bemidji State blue line looks very good heading into the season. It will also be quite young. Leading the Beavers defensive corps is offensive-minded senior Brad Hunt. The Ridge Meadows, BC native led the team in defenseman scoring last season with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 38 games.

Senior starter Dan Bakula returns in goal for Bemidji State. The Calgary, AB native was stellar between the pipes last season, posting a 14-13-4 record that included three shutouts. This summer, he attended his hometown NHL team’s prospects camp.

Joining Bemidji State’s returning veterans are eight newcomers.

The two players to watch are defenseman Sam Windle and dynamic center Danny Mattson. Windle brings some much-needed size (6’4, 201lbs) to the Beavers blue line, as well as the ability to generate offense. A Mar. 1992-born player, Windle was passed over in last June’s draft, but will be eligible again in 2012.

Mattson, who originally committed to North Dakota, possesses blazing speed, some terrific hands and great vision. While he is no longer draft-eligible, Mattson is still very much on the NHL radar. And if he can continue to develop his terrific skill set and round out his game while at Bemidji State, Mattson could become a highly sought-after free agent down the road.

Colorado College
Number of NHL prospects: 4

The Tigers will open their 2011-12 season on October 14th hosting Bemidji State.

After missing the NCAA Tournament the previous two years, Colorado College returned to the big dance last season. The Tigers success can be attributed to their very balanced scoring, strong goaltending and aggressive defense. This season, Colorado College is poised to make another successful run not only into the NCAA Tournament, but potentially to the Frozen Four as well.

The Tigers possessed a high-powered offense last season that averaged 3.21 goals per game. Their 143 total goals tied them with Minnesota-Duluth for second-most in the WCHA. What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact that Colorado College got significant offensive contributions throughout their lineup. With the exception of goaltenders Josh Thorimbert and graduate Tyler O’Brien, every player on the Tigers roster last season posted at least one point.

As good as Colorado College’s offense was last season; it looks to be equally good, if not better this season.

Leading the Tigers offensive attack is sophomore sensation Jaden Schwartz (STL). Few players in college hockey generated as much excitement as Schwartz did last season, and he more than lived up to expectations. Schwartz finished second in the nation in rookie scoring with 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) in 30 games. He averaged 1.57 points per game, which ranked third in the nation overall. His 47 points and 30 assists both ranked tied for 17th overall nationally. Schwartz missed 15 games due to participation in the World Junior Championship and an ankle injury he suffered while with Team Canada. He capped a terrific freshman campaign with a selection to the WCHA All-Rookie team.

Head coach Scott Owens says that while Schwartz will continue to be Colorado College’s go-to guy, he would like to see some of the offensive burden taken off of his star player this season.

"Obviously Jaden is a key part of our team and will continue to be a key part of our team this year. But we’ve also got to really help take the burden off of him by getting some production from other players. Jaden just has that elite hockey sense and has a knack for being in the right place and doing the right thing at the right time."

Schwartz was the catalyst on one of the most explosive top lines in all of college hockey last season. The line, which included his brother, Rylan, and Stephen Schultz, combined to post 130 points. Schultz finished second on the team with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 43 games. Rylan Schwartz posted 38 points (ten goals, 28 assists) in 41 games. This season, that line will look slightly different due to the graduation of Schultz.

Although the loss of Schultz, along with fellow graduate Tyler Johnson are significant, Colorado College returns a stellar group of forwards this season that should be able to fill the holes left by the aforementioned players.

One returning player that the Tigers could have playing with the Schwartz brothers this season is junior Scott Winkler (DAL). The Asker, Norway native made some great strides in his development last season, despite a wrist injury that limited him to just 26 games and nine points (three goals, six assists). Two areas where Winkler has made improvements are in his on-ice awareness and utilizing his size and strength more effectively, particularly around the net.

"Scott is a big kid that’s got quick hands and moves well," said Owens. "He has looked good in the early going and we’re expecting him to step up for us this season. He’s one of the guys that we’re looking at to replace Stephen on our top line with Jaden and Rylan. Scott was here over the summer. He’s come back looking stronger and looks more confident. Last year, Scott got off to a pretty good start before injuring his wrist. The wrist has healed and he’s 100 percent now. We want Scott to engage (offensively) more and I feel that he’s more than capable of doing that. We’re hoping that he’ll remain injury-free and be able to pick things up this year because we feel that this is the year that Scott can put it all together."

Three newcomers join the veteran group of forwards this season, and the one to keep an eye on is Scott Wamsganz. At 6’4 and 200 pounds the Anchorage, AK native is certainly going to bring some added size up front to Colorado College. But what has scouts really taking notice of Wamsganz is his potential and what he’ll be able to do once he strengthens and fills out his enormous frame. An April, 1992-born player, Wamsganz was passed over in last June’s draft, but he’ll be eligible again in 2012.

"Scott is a big power forward and his feet are good for his size. He is someone that we’re going to count on this year. As long as he keeps his game simple and works really hard, he’ll be extremely effective. Scott has a lot of potential and is a player that’s just going to get better and better."

One of Colorado College’s strengths last season is one of them again this season – goaltending. The Tigers excellent tandem of junior Joe Howe and sophomore Josh Thorimbert both return. After a stellar freshman year, Howe followed it up with an equally impressive sophomore campaign. The Plymouth, MN native appeared in 36 games last season, posting an 18-15-2 record that included three shutouts. One of Howe’s best performances came in the NCAA Tournament West Regional semi-final versus then-reigning National Champion Boston College. In that contest, Howe stopped 39 of 43 shots to backstop the Tigers to a stunning 8-4 win over the Eagles.

Despite seeing action in only 13 games in the backup role last season, Thorimbert was rock solid. He posted a 5-4-1 record that included one shutout and sported a .906 save percentage.

Another of the Tigers’ strengths heading into this season is their defense. Colorado College allowed 2.91 goals per game last season, which ranked 32nd in the nation. And with their defensive corps returning nearly intact this season, the Tigers should be able to better those numbers.

Leading Colorado College from the blue line is senior Gabe Guentzel. The Woodbury, MN native has become the cornerstone of an aggressive Tigers defensive corps and was one of the most reliable defensemen coming out of the WCHA last season. Guentzel, who will serve as one of Colorado College’s alternate captains this season, led the team in defensemen scoring with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) playing in all 45 games. He also averaged upwards of 25 minutes per game of ice time as well.

"Gabe is a guy that plays with passion and he plays the game the right way" Owens said of Guentzel. "He’s a mobile, skilled defenseman. He’s another player that has come back this year looking stronger and more confident. Gabe will be one of our leaders on the blue line and he leads by example."

Joining the returning defensive group are three newcomers, including a pair of Winnipeg Jets prospects in Aaron Harstad and Peter Stowkewych. Harstad, a seventh round (187th overall) selection of the Jets this past June, has size (6’1, 200lbs) and possesses a bomb of a shot. Stowkewych, a 2010 seventh round (199th overall) selection of the then-Atlanta Thrashers, also has good size (6’3, 200lbs) and possesses solid defensive fundamentals.

University of Denver
Number of NHL prospects: 10

The Pioneers will open their 2011-12 season on October 14th at Boston College.

Denver made their 22nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season, but failed to make it to the Frozen Four for the sixth consecutive year. This season, the Pioneers hope to remedy that.

Denver possessed a wonderfully balanced team last season that returns nearly intact. The Pioneers finished in the top 25 nationally on offense, defense and special teams. And they were especially good on the penalty kill, where they ranked seventh in the nation with an 85.8 efficiency rating.

Denver featured eight players that finished with 25 or more points last season. One notable area where the Pioneers were able to spread the wealth was on their power play. 12 players on the Denver roster posted at least one goal on the man-advantage.

And as good as the Pioneers were last season, they could be even better this season.

The big story coming out of Denver to begin the 2011-12 campaign is the absence of sophomore goaltender Sam Brittain (FLA). The Calgary, AB native had offseason knee surgery and is expected to be out for the next four to six months. Brittain suffered the injury in the WCHA Final Five championship versus North Dakota back on March 19th. He was able to finish the 2010-11 season despite the injury and capped a superb rookie campaign with a 19-9-5 record and a selection to the WCHA All-Rookie team.

"Sam’s surgery went well and his rehab is going well," head coach George Gwozdecky said of Brittain’s status. "He’s on course (to return) for what the physicians and his surgeons said would be his timeline and we are expecting Sam to stay on that same timeline. So it’s all good and positive."

Brittain’s partner, junior Adam Murray will begin the new season as the go-to guy between the pipes for the Pioneers. The Anchorage, AK native appeared in 11 games, posting a 6-3-0 record. Although he saw limited time last season, Murray is very capable of providing some excellent goaltending for Denver this season.

The Pioneers lost seven players from last season’s squad. The most notable is defenseman Matt Donovan, who opted to forego the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the New York Islanders. Donovan led the team in defenseman scoring last season with 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) playing in all 42 games and earned a spot on the All-WCHA Second Team.

With the exception of Donovan, the Pioneers return all of their top defensemen, including sophomore David Makowski. The Wildwood, MO native returns as the team’s top scoring defenseman from last season, after posting 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) in 41 games and earning a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie team. His 24 assists also led the team. He is an excellent skating defenseman who moves the puck really well and can quarterback the power play. Makowski’s great freshman campaign hasn’t gone unnoticed by the NHL either. One team that has taken a closer look at Makowski is the Minnesota Wild, whose prospects camp he attended this past summer.

Of Denver’s stellar ten-member incoming class, four are defensemen. And the one everybody will be watching is Scott Mayfield. Mayfield, a second round (34th overall) selection of the New York Islanders this past June, is probably the best defenseman coming into college hockey this season. The St. Louis, MO native possesses size (6’4, 200lbs), great skating ability, and can be a dominating force at both ends of the ice.

"Scott is a big, strong guy who can be effective from the defensive standpoint," Gwozdecky said of Mayfield. "I think he prides himself on his defensive game and in handling things in his own zone. He’s got a great reach and he likes to get involved physically. Scott will make us much stronger and give us much more strength on the blue line. He also has that ability to create offense and jump up into the play as well. Scott is a great addition to our lineup."

Where Denver will be exceedingly deep this season is on their forward lines. While the Pioneers did graduate three forwards, they will still be a very lethal group.

Leading that group this season are junior Drew Shore (FLA) and sophomores Jason Zucker (MIN) and Beau Bennett (PIT). Shore, who will serve as team co-captain this season, is coming off of a stellar 2010-11 campaign that earned him a spot on the All-WCHA Second Team. He led Denver with 46 points (23 goals, 23 assists) in 40 games. His 46 points ranked tied for 18th nationally. Where Shore has proven to be particularly dangerous has been on the Pioneers special teams. Of his 23 goals, eight came on the power play and one came shorthanded. Shore is also considered an early candidate for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award as well.

Zucker is coming off of a sensational freshman season that saw him capture the WCHA Rookie of the Year honor. The Las Vegas, NV native finished third in the nation in rookie scoring with 45 points (23 goals, 22 assists) in 40 games. He also led the Pioneers with seven game-winning goals as well. And as good as Zucker was last season, he could potentially be even better this season.

"I know that Jason is a guy that is very hungry to continue to improve," Gwozdecky noted of Zucker’s development. "He knows that as good a year as he had last year, there are still some things that he wants to get better at, whether they are defensive things or offensively. Jason’s worked extremely hard this summer in working with the puck in tight and in traffic. He’s also worked a lot on his shot, which has definitely improved, especially in one-timing the puck. You can see the effort that Jason is making in getting better at his defensive awareness as well. Those are such little things, but for someone who is as gifted as Jason is, to want to become a more complete player, that’s a very mature approach to his game. And you can tell that he’s going to have a profound effect on our lineup this year."

Bennett is coming off an outstanding freshman year where he posted 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 37 games. After missing five games due to a knee injury that he suffered last December, Bennett’s production really took off in the second half of the season. 15 of his 25 points were scored after he returned to the lineup in mid-January. This season, the Pioneers are expecting bigger and better things from Bennett.

"From what I’ve seen so far, you can see a difference in his size and strength on the ice," Gwozdecky said of Bennett’s development. "He is much more confident with his ability to go into traffic. And I think part of that is not only the experience that Beau gained last year, but also what he has done in the offseason. He’s just physically stronger. Tie that into the package of skills that Beau has, and we’re all certainly expecting him to be able to make another big step forward in his development. We’re also relying on him from an offensive standpoint in a big way this year too."

Michigan Technological University
Number of NHL prospects: 1

The Huskies will open their 2011-12 season on October 7th hosting American International.

Michigan Tech started the 2010-11 season with a 3-0-2 record last October before the wheels fell off. From late October to the end of the season, the Huskies posted just one win and two ties. One contributing factor to Michigan Tech’s demise last season was the rash injuries that plagued the team. If the Huskies can stay healthy, they could really shake things up in the WCHA this season.

The biggest offseason change for Michigan Tech was the hiring of new head coach Mel Pearson, who replaces the departed Jamie Russell. Pearson, who comes to Michigan Tech after serving as the long-time associate head coach at the University of Michigan, is considered one of college hockey’s best recruiters. And that should help bring more high-end talent to Houghton in the future. Among the many former Wolverines that he recruited that have moved on to the NHL include Eric Nystrom (MIN), Max Pacioretty (MON), and Brendan Morrison (CGY). Pearson will have the monumental task of not only rebuilding the Huskies program, but also making the team consistently competitive in the high-powered WCHA.

That rebuilding process begins this season with a Michigan Tech squad that struggled in many areas and finished up with just four wins last season, which tied them with Alabama-Huntsville for the fewest in the nation.

Nowhere did Michigan Tech struggle more last season than on offense. The Huskies averaged just 1.97 goals per game, which ranked 56th nationally. Their 75 total goals tied them with Providence College for the second fewest in the nation. To make matters worse, Michigan Tech also lost one of their best players and top scorers in defenseman Deron Cousens to graduation. The Georgetown, ONT native was a cornerstone on the Michigan Tech blue line last season. He was among the team’s three players with 21 points (two goals, 19 assists), which led the team, and was one of only six Huskies to play in all 38 games.

While the Huskies had great difficulty in generating points last season, one thing that the team did remarkably well was getting point production by committee. With the exception of third-string netminder Corson Cramer, every player on the Michigan Tech roster posted at least one point.

The good news heading into this season for Michigan Tech is that much of the team returns intact. Among the returning forwards that will be relied upon to help boost the team’s offensive production is sophomore Ryan Furne. The Oakdale, MN native returns as the Huskies’ co-leading scorer from last season. Furne posted 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 38 games. Where he was particularly dangerous was on the power play. Half of his 12 goals came on the man-advantage, which led the team. Furne was part of Michigan Tech’s outstanding all-freshman top line last season that also consisted of Milos Gordic and Jacob Johnstone. The trio accounted for 31 percent of the team’s point production.

In addition to their returning players, the Huskies will also be looking to their six newcomers to provide some added scoring punch. Leading the group is the team’s lone NHL prospect in Blake Pietila. A fifth round (129th overall) selection of the New Jersey Devils this past June, Pietila is a defensive forward who thinks the game really well. He’s a player that can not only provide some good offensive depth for the Huskies, but he can also play in any situation as well.

Another area that Michigan Tech will be looking to improve this season is their defense, specifically penalty killing. The Huskies surrendered an average of 4.45 goals per game last season, which ranked 57th in the nation. The 169 goals that they allowed were the second most in the NCAA. Only Sacred Heart gave up more goals. Equally as bad was the team’s dismal penalty killing. The Huskies also ranked 57th in that category with an efficiency rating of 74.5 percent. The 11 shorthanded goals that they allowed tied them with Colorado College for the most nationally.

Michigan Tech returns all of their netminders from last season. And while their numbers may not reflect it, the Huskies did get solid goaltending from their starting tandem of Kevin Genoe and Josh Robinson last season. Genoe posted a 3-17-2 record in 24 appearances. Robinson posted a 1-13-2 record in 20 appearances.