2012-13 CCHA season preview

By DJ Powers

Anders Lee - Notre Dame

Photo: New York Islanders prospect and Notre Dame University forward Anders Lee and his Fighting Irish teammates will be one of the CCHA teams looking to unseat Western Michigan as that conference's top team (courtesy of Steven King/Icon SMI)

This is the final season for the CCHA. The 11 member schools will be scattered among four conferences when the NCAA landscape undergoes its massive change next season. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State will make up half of the newly formed Big Ten (Hockey) conference. Miami and Western Michigan will become members of the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). Notre Dame will move to Hockey East and the remaining five teams will move to the revamped WCHA.

This season, the CCHA features 44 NHL prospects representing seven member teams. Notre Dame leads the conference with 12 prospects, followed by Michigan with 11 and Ohio State with six.

Ferris State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Bulldogs open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at RPI.

2011-12 proved to be a magical season for Ferris State. The Bulldogs reached the Frozen Four for the first time in team history and fell just short of winning the national title. It also marked the first time in school history that any Ferris State team has contended for a national championship. The Bulldogs also won their second CCHA regular season crown and first since 2003.

In order to achieve the same success they did last season, the Bulldogs will have some big holes to fill left by their graduated players.

The team’s most significant losses were on the back end with the departure of two All-Americans in goaltender Taylor Nelson and defenseman Chad Billins. The Bulldogs also lost two of their other top six rearguards, Brett Wysopal and Aaron Schmit.

Nelson was the backbone of the stifling Ferris State defense last season. The Regina, SK native posted a 21-7-3 record that included three shutouts in 31 games. His .726 winning percentage was third in the nation while his 2.10 goals against average ranked ninth.

Nelson’s successor this season is sophomore C.J. Motte. The St. Clair, MI native posted a 5-5-2 record that included two shutouts in 12 outings last season. Motte is an agile goaltender that plays with great composure and has sound fundamentals. As head coach Bob Daniels explains, Motte’s learning experience last season has helped better prepare him for the challenges he faces this season.

“What C.J. had to do last year was learn how to work hard and learn what it takes to be successful. I think Taylor was the perfect goalie for C.J. to come in and learn from because of the way that Taylor approached games and practice. And I think for C.J. that was a very good learning experience for him. I think there were areas of his game where C.J. has improved. He’s down 17 lbs. coming into this season and he’s really made some improvements in his conditioning and work habits. I know that C.J. can do a great job for us.”

Top scoring defenseman Billins anchored an excellent Ferris State defensive corps last season. The Marysville, MI native posted 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) playing in all 43 games. Where Billins proved to be particularly dangerous was on the Bulldogs’ power play, where five of his seven goals were scored.

With the losses of Billins, Wysopal, and Schmit, Ferris State will be very young on the blueline this season. One defenseman to watch is junior Scott Czarnowczan. The Macomb, MI native is the Bulldogs’ lone upperclassman among their defensive group. Czarnowczan posted 21 points (two goals, 19 assists) in 43 games as Billins’ defensive partner. He also led Ferris State with a plus-17. Czarnowczan is an outstanding two-way defenseman that really excelled on the team’s penalty-killing unit and was one of the Bulldogs’ top shot-blockers last season.

Although Ferris State lost top scorer Jordie Johnston to graduation, they do return the rest of their top forwards this season. And the Bulldogs’ forward lines will be its strength this season.

Among those leading the Bulldogs’ offensive attack this season is senior team captain Kyle Bonis. The Lindsay, ON native finished the year second on the team with 19 goals and a plus-12, and third with 30 points. Bonis is a winger that possesses really nice hands and is very good around the net. He also has excellent finishing ability and proved that he can step up in big games as well. This summer, Bonis attended the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp.

“I think Kyle’s dramatic impact on the team will continue and his leadership will be important to us this year,” said Daniels. “The thing that we really like about Kyle is that he’s an unbelievably hard worker in practice, and I think that has rubbed off on the team. His work ethic has carried over into our games too. He competes and can play both ends of the rink really well. He just loves to play the game and just loves to compete. And I think the combination of both is what makes Kyle special.”

In addition to the returning veterans, Ferris State also adds an eight-member freshman class this season. One new Bulldog that is well worth a look is forward Matt Robertson. The Rohnert Park, CA native is a raw 6’0”, 161-pound winger that has the potential to blossom into a top scorer.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks
NHL prospects: 1

The Nanooks will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus Air Force in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

After a strong start last season, Alaska struggled mightily in the second half, posting just five wins after the holiday break. This season could be as challenging, if not more so, due to the many key losses that the team suffered in the off-season.

The biggest losses were on the back end, particularly in goal. Scott Greenham, who has been the backbone of the Nanooks’ outstanding defense since taking over the starting job three years ago, has graduated. The Addison, ON native posted a record of 11-18-4 that included three shutouts in 33 appearances. While the Nanooks do return senior Steve Thompson and sophomore Sean Cahill, the duo saw little playing time behind Greenham. The two returning netminders combined to play just over 183 minutes over four games last season. This season, Thompson and Cahill will be competing with newcomer John Keeney for the starting job.

The two other key losses on the back end were the Nanooks’ top defensemen in Aaron Gens and Scott Enders, who have also graduated. While Alaska’s blueline will be young this season, it should also be quite good.

One reason is highly touted newcomer Colton Parayko. The St. Albert, AB native is the first NHL-drafted player that Alaska has had on their roster since goaltender Chad Johnson was drafted in 2006. The St. Louis Blues selected Parayko in the third round (86th overall) in this past June’s NHL Draft. Parayko brings two assets that will greatly benefit his Alaska team – size (6’4”, 195 lbs.) and ability to generate offense from the blueline.

The Nanooks’ greatest strength coming into this season will be their forward lines. However, they’ll need to get increased secondary scoring to successfully match up against other CCHA teams. Alaska averaged just 2.33 goals per game last season, which ranked 50th in the nation.

Much of the Nanooks’ offense was generated by their excellent returning top line, comprised of juniors Cody Kunyk and Colton Beck, and senior Andy Taranto. The trio accounted for 38 percent of Alaska’s total points last season. Kunyk returns once again as the Nanooks’ top scorer. He led the team in several categories, including points (32), goals (15) and power play goals (7) in 36 games. The Sherwood Park, AB native is the team’s offensive catalyst. He’s got excellent offensive instincts, hands and vision.

Both Beck and Taranto made great strides in their development last season. Beck enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign, finishing the season with 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. Like Kunyk, Beck also has good offensive instincts. Last season, he also showed a knack for scoring timely goals as well, posting three power play tallies and three game-winners.

Taranto, who has been on the NHL scouting radar since his sensational freshman season three years ago, has blossomed into a strong, multi-dimensional player. The most notable area of his development has been in his physical maturity. Over the course of his career at Alaska thus far, Taranto has filled out his 6’0” frame quite well and uses his added size and strength quite advantageously, whether it’s in protecting the puck or on the forecheck.

The Nanooks will be looking to not only their other returning veterans, but also their newcomers for increased offensive production as well. Among the team’s six new forwards, the one to keep an eye on is Nolan Huysman. The Ponoka, AB native is a 6’1”, 202-pound power forward noted for his scoring ability and strong play around the net.

Bowling Green State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Falcons opened their 2012-13 season on Oct. 6 against Niagara.

Bowling Green became the best story coming out of the CCHA (Mason Cup) Tournament last season. After finishing at the bottom of the conference standings in the regular season, the Falcons put together an impressive post-season run, defeating Northern Michigan before pulling off a stunning upset of top-seeded Ferris State. Their season came to end in the Mason Cup semi-finals in the thrilling series with Michigan in which both games went to extra sessions.

Bowling Green, who was one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, returns nearly all of their regulars this season.

The one area where the Falcons struggled mightily last season was on offense. Their 1.93 goals per game ranked at the bottom of the CCHA. Bowling Green’s anemic power-play clicked at just 8.9 percent, which ranked 55th nationally. But those numbers should rise this season with a more experienced group returning.

Diminutive sophomore Dan DeSalvo and junior co-captain Cam Wojtala are among those leading Bowling Green’s offensive attack this season. DeSalvo led the Falcons with 14 goals and a plus-4, and finished second on the team with 25 points in 35 games last season. He also set a new CCHA record with ten post-season tallies. DeSalvo is a fun player to watch. He’s quick and possesses some really nice hands.

Wojtala finished with 23 points (ten goals, 13 assists) in 42 games. The Trenton, MI native has blossomed into a dependable two-way forward. Wojtala utilizes his 6’2”, 190-pound frame quite effectively in both protecting the puck and in his strong play along the boards and corners. Last season, he excelled on the power play, leading the team with four power play tallies. Wojtala has been on the NHL radar for quite some time and he continues to draw interest from scouts. This summer, he attended the Washington Capitals' prospect camp.

While Bowling Green struggled on offense, they fared quite well on defense. And the main reason was the brilliant goaltending of returning senior Andrew Hammond. The Surrey, BC native was one of the nation’s workhorses last season, starting in all 44 games for Bowling Green. He finished with a 14-25-5 record that included two shutouts and a very respectable .903 save percentage. Hammond also led the nation in minutes played (2615:18). He is an athletic netminder who moves remarkably well for a man of his size (6’3”, 190 lbs.). Hammond also plays with a great deal of composure and confidence, two assets that helped make the Falcons successful in the post-season last year.

Senior Ryan Peltoma anchors a very solid and bigger Falcons defensive corps this season. The Brainerd, MN native was limited to just 28 games and three assists due to injury last season. Peltoma is an excellent skating, 6’2”, 195-pound defensive defenseman who is also one of Bowling Green’s best shot-blockers.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Falcons also welcome six newcomers this season. One that will be absent from the lineup to begin the season is Ralfs Freibergs. The Riga, Latvia native was handed a 33-game suspension by the NCAA after having played in a Latvian pro league with his junior team. Freibergs will be eligible to play in late February or he could chose to red-shirt this season.

Lake Superior State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Lakers will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 11 hosting Michigan Tech.

Lake Superior State got off to a roaring start to 2011-12 with a 9-1 record in the opening month, but couldn’t quite find that same level of consistency the rest of the season. But with only six players departing from the program in the off-season, the Lakers look to be in a good position to shake things up in the CCHA this season.

Lake Superior State suffered their most significant losses on the blueline. Kyle Kobur and Kyle Haines both graduated. Last season’s top goal-scoring defenseman Zach Trotman opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the Boston Bruins. The trio accounted for 61 percent of the offense generated by the defense last season. Haines led all Lakers blueliners with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 40 games. Trotman, who was the team’s best defenseman last season, finished with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 40 games.

As a result of the losses, Lake Superior State’s defense will be a predominately young corps this season. Among those heading the group is sophomore Kevin Czuczman. The Port Elgin, ON native returns as the top scoring defenseman after posting 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 40 games last season. Czuczman was Trotman’s defensive partner for much of the season, both in even strength and power-play situations. And he is a player well worth following. Czuczman is an outstanding puck-moving defenseman that has size (6’2”, 195 lbs.) and skates very well.

With a young blueline coming into this season, the Lakers will be relying heavily on their returning junior tandem of Kevin Kapalka and Kevin Murdock to stabilize things on the back end. Kapalka, who played the majority of the games, provided some rock solid goaltending for Lake Superior State last season. He finished his sophomore campaign with a 17-14-5 record that included two shutouts in 37 outings. Murdock posted a 1-3-0 record in five appearances.

In addition to losing three defensemen, the Lakers also lost three forwards. Fred Cassiani and Brian Cooper graduated. Kyle Jean opted to forgo the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the New York Rangers. Furthermore, Lake Superior State will also be without the services of forward Nick Shkreli, who is out indefinitely due to injury.

Even without Shkreli and the departed forwards, the Lakers will still have lots of experience returning upfront this season. And they will be exceedingly big, as well, with three players that are 6’5” or taller. But the team will also need to find a way to increase scoring throughout their lineup after finishing last season averaging 2.55 goals per game, which ranked 43rd in the nation.

One of the veterans that Lake Superior State will be looking to for more offensive production and one to keep an eye on is towering junior Kellen Lain. At 6’6” and 221 pounds, the Oakville, ON native is hard to miss. Lain posted 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 38 games last season. Five of his nine goals came on the power play and he also led the team with 59 penalty minutes. Lain uses his size, strength and reach quite effectively, particularly in his play along the boards. In addition to his enormous frame, Lain also possesses some good hands and a great stick. This summer, he attended the Detroit Red Wings' prospect camp.

This season, the Lakers will welcome six newcomers. Among them is forward Daniel Vernace. The Toronto, ON native is noted for his speed, hands and outstanding scoring ability.

Miami University
NHL prospects: 5

The RedHawks will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 hosting Colgate.

No CCHA team lost as many key players this off-season as did Miami. To say that the RedHawks will be in retooling mode this season is probably an understatement.

One of the biggest issues that Miami will have to contend with heading into this season is their goaltending. For the first time in four years, neither Connor Knapp nor Cody Reichard will be in goal. They, along with third-stringer Ben Saska have all graduated. Knapp would go on to sign with the Buffalo Sabres.

During their time at Miami, Knapp and Reichard gave the RedHawks both top-notch goaltending and consistency on the back end. This season, Miami will feature two newcomers that will be vying for the starting job in Jay Williams and Ryan McKay. Sophomore Anthony Jacaruso, a walk-on (non-scholarship athlete), will serve as the team’s third-string goaltender.

The other major issue that the RedHawks will have to contend with this season is filling the big hole left by Reilly Smith. The Mimico, ON native opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the Dallas Stars. Smith was one of the nation’s most potent offensive players last season. He led Miami with 48 points (30 goals, 18 assists) in 39 games. His 30 goals ranked second nationally. Where Smith really made his mark was on special teams, where 11 of his 30 goals were scored (nine power-play goals and two shorthanded). His sensational season earned him numerous honors, including being named a Hobey Baker Top Ten finalist and a selection to the All-America West First Team.

Smith wasn’t the only player the RedHawks lost to an early departure. Tyler Biggs opted to forgo the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Cincinnati, OH native literally made his presence felt last season. He finished the season with 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) in 37 games. His 63 penalty minutes were second most on the team.

With the departure of Smith and Biggs, Miami will be looking to both their excellent returning veterans and talented newcomers to help pick up the slack. Among them are sophomore Jimmy Mullin (TBL) and freshman Sean Kuraly (SJS).

Mullin led all RedHawks freshmen with 11 goals and finished with 26 points in 37 games last season. The Cincinnati, OH native was the right wing on Miami’s speedy top line that also included Smith and returning sophomore Austin Czarnik. Mullin has begun to establish a reputation as one of the CCHA’s peskiest players. Throughout last season, he made life miserable for Miami’s opponents and it was a role he thrives in. But Mullin is also a gifted offensive player with blazing speed.

Newcomer Kuraly holds the distinction of being the first son of a former RedHawk to don the red and white. Kuraly is the son of former Miami standout Rick Kuraly. The younger Kuraly is noted for his outstanding two-way game and can play both center and wing equally well.

The RedHawks’ youth movement won’t only be in goal, it’ll also be on their blueline this season as three of their top six rearguards from last season in Will Weber, Chris Wideman and Cam Schilling have all graduated. The trio went on to sign with Columbus, Ottawa and Washington respectively.

Senior Steve Spinell, who will serve as team captain this season, anchors the very young Miami defensive corps. The Vernon Hills, IL native tallied 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) and was just one of three players to play in all 41 games last season. He is a stay-at-home defenseman with size (6’2”, 216 lbs.) that was also one of Miami’s best shot-blockers last season. Spinell, who has already garnered some interest from NHL teams, attended the Chicago Blackhawks' prospect camp this summer.

University of Michigan
NHL prospects: 11

The Wolverines will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 11 hosting RIT.

After reaching the Frozen Four in 2011, Michigan was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Cornell in the Midwest Regional semi-final last season. The Wolverines hope to remedy that this season. But, In order to do so, Michigan will have some significant holes to fill.

The Wolverines lost just five players this off-season. The most notable was that of goaltender Shawn Hunwick, who has graduated. The Sterling Heights, MI native posted a 24-12-3 record that included six shutouts in 39 outings last season. Hunwick was also named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

With the loss of Hunwick, establishing a new starting netminder will be at the top of Michigan’s list this season. Returning junior Adam Janecyk, who played just 132:18 minutes over five games last season, will be competing against talented newcomers Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine for the top job. However, as head coach Red Berenson explains, Rutledge could miss the season opener due to an eye problem.

“Rutledge is an incoming freshman who we recruited to be our starter and we’re expecting him to be our starter. But we also recruited a starter/backup in Steve Racine. Steve is a little older than Jared, but Rutledge is the up and coming starting goalie. Racine is a bit of an unknown and we want to see where he is. Janecyk could be our backup goalie and a potential starter down the road. In the meantime, Jared has had a setback with an eye issue. It’s not an injury, but a condition that has taken him off the ice the last two weeks. I don’t think Jared is going to be ready for our regular season opening series. So we’re going to be looking at either Racine or Janecyk to start those games.”

With the uncertainty surrounding their goaltending situation coming into the 2012-13 campaign, the Wolverines will be relying on their prospect-laden defensive corps to provide some stability on the back end. Although Michigan lost Greg Pateryn (MTL) to graduation, the Wolverines defense will still be a lethal one and among the nation’s best this season. Among those heading the stellar Michigan blueline are junior Jon Merrill (NJD) and highly touted newcomer, Jacob Trouba (WPG).

After serving a 22-game suspension to start last season, Merrill returned to the Michigan lineup in January. He finished the season with 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 19 games. In the off-season, Merrill was offered a contract by the New Jersey Devils but instead opted to return to Michigan this season.

“I think one of the reasons why our team had a better second half than first half was because of Jon,” Berenson said of Merrill. “When he was in the lineup we were a better team and everyone seemed to play better. Jon made a commitment to come back and he’s trying to do the right things with both the team and the school. Jon loves Michigan and he made a clear decision last spring that he was coming back because he wanted to come back.”

Merrill's contributions to Michigan’s fortunes will be delayed, however, as he has suffered an injury that will keep him out of the lineup for six weeks.

No incoming freshman this season has garnered more attention than Trouba. The Rochester, MI native was the highest selected collegian, incoming or otherwise, in the 2012 NHL Draft when the Winnipeg Jets took him with the ninth overall selection. As Berenson explains, Trouba could potentially fill the role that Pateryn had with the Wolverines last season.

“I think Trouba can give us a lot of the things that Pateryn gave us. The only thing that is missing for Trouba is his (collegiate) level experience. He’s physical, moves the puck well and jumps up the ice. We will have to work with Jacob as far as getting him to play good, solid defensively, but I think he’s going to be an impact player.”

Michigan also lost three forwards this off-season. David Wohlberg and Luke Glendening have both graduated. Chris Brown opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. While those losses are significant, Michigan will continue to have great depth in their forward lines this season.

Sophomore Alex Guptill (DAL) returns after co-leading the Wolverines with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) while playing in all 41 games. Last season, the Newmarket, ON native led all freshmen with 25 conference points (13 goals, 12 assists) en route to earning the CCHA Rookie of the Year honor.

“This time last year, I would’ve said that Alex was the least ready of all of our incoming freshmen based on what he did before he came to Michigan,” Berenson said of Guptill. “But he ended up becoming our best freshman. Alex was a typical freshman last year because he was up and down. But in the second half when we put him with Wohlberg and Brown, Alex really emerged as a pure scorer. He’s had a good summer and I think Alex could be a better player this year.”

Michigan State University
NHL prospects: 4

The Spartans open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at Minnesota.

Last season, Michigan State made their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2007-08. This season, the Spartans hope to make a return trip, but they will do so with a very different looking roster.

Michigan State lost nine players this off-season and nowhere were their losses felt more than on their blueline. Four key defensemen from last season’s squad have departed and the most notable among them is Torey Krug, who opted to forgo his final collegiate season to sign with the Boston Bruins. The Livonia, MI native was one of the nation’s best and highest scoring defensemen last year. He finished the season leading the Spartans with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 38 games. He also led the team with a plus-17. Krug was one of the few defensemen in the nation last season that was the offensive catalyst for their team. His outstanding season earned him numerous honors including garnering the CCHA Player of the Year and Best Offensive Defenseman honors, being named a top ten Hobey Baker finalist and earning a selection to the All-America West First Team.

Krug’s loss also leaves a huge hole on the Spartans power play. One veteran who could potentially fill that hole this season is junior Jake Chelios. The Bloomfield, MI native played exclusively on the blueline last season, after alternating between forward and defense as a freshman. Chelios made some great strides in his development last season, most notably in simplifying his game and making smarter decisions. He has also added some strength to his 6’2” frame. This summer, he attended the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp.

“I think Jake really made a huge step in his game last year,” said head coach Tom Anastos. “He wanted to be a defenseman, we put him back there and Jake made just a ton of progress. We thought, without a doubt, that Jake was one of our most improved players. He’s worked hard in the off-season and we have the expectation that he’s going to take another big step this year. He can defend, has good size and competes physically. Jake also has good offensive instincts too. He certainly has the potential to be one of the guys that can step up and take on some of that offensive responsibility.”

With four freshmen among the six new defensemen coming in, Michigan State will also be quite young on their blueline. Among their newcomers is Rhett Holland (PHO). As Anastos explains, Holland will be able to fill a much-needed role for the Spartans this season.

“We have really high expectations for Rhett. He’s a big, strong, physical kid and it’s an element that we need on our team. Rhett is part of our group of freshman defensemen that I think will all be good players, but it’s just a matter of time.”

Goaltending will be key in stabilizing the young Spartans defense this season. Drew Palmisano and Will Yanakeff were a very solid tandem between the pipes last season. But with Palmisano having graduated, Yanakeff will be the go-to guy that Michigan State will be leaning on this season. The Jerome, MI native posted a 13-9-1 record in 23 appearances last season. The 6’2”, 211-pound Yanakeff plays with a great deal of confidence, which steadily grew last year. This summer, he attended the Vancouver Canucks' prospect camp.

“We have high expectations for Will this year,” said Anastos. “He was another player that took a big step last year in his maturity, and in improving his game and compete level. Will earned a lot of the playing time that he got last year, including playing in the post-season. He’s worked hard in the offseason and has come back eager to establish an even higher standard for himself. We feel that Will is very capable of becoming an elite player for us.”

Upfront, the Spartans lost four players to graduation. The most notable was that of top scorer Brett Perlini, who went on to sign with the Anaheim Ducks. The Sault Ste. Marie, ON native finished second on the team with 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) playing in all 39 games last season.

A player who could eventually fill the role that Perlini has left is newcomer Matt DeBlouw (CGY). The Chesterfield, MI native was one of three Spartans freshmen that were taken in the 2012 NHL Draft, going to the Calgary Flames in the seventh round (186th overall). DeBlouw, who is noted for his speed, excellent skating and puck skills, had a strong showing at the NHL Combine that was held prior to the Draft.

“I think Matt can be an impact player for us,” Anastos said of DeBlouw. “So far, he looks like he’s going to be able to make a nice adjustment to this level.”

Northern Michigan University
NHL prospects: 0

The Wildcats will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus Wisconsin at the Resch Center in Green Bay, WI.

Even though they finished in the middle of the CCHA standings, Northern Michigan was actually a better team last season than their record might indicate. But the team really struggled away from the Berry Events Center, their home arena, posting just six road wins. This season, the Wildcats will look to improve their road record and their conference finish.

The most pressing issue facing Northern Michigan coming into the season is filling the big holes left by the graduation of three of the team’s top goal-scorers from last season – Justin Florek (BOS), Tyler Gron and Andrew Cherniwchan. The trio accounted for 43 percent of the Wildcats goals and 32 percent of the team’s total points.

Junior Stephan Vigier is the lone returning player from last season’s top line that included Florek and Cherniwchan. And he’ll be among the veterans that the Wildcats will be relying on for increased scoring this season. The Notre Dame, MB native finished with 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 37 games. Vigier is a small (5’8”, 161 lbs.) center that plays with a lot of energy and competes.

In addition to graduating three of their top forwards, Northern Michigan also graduated two netminders in Reid Ellingson and Devan Hartigan. However, the Wildcats will return junior Jared Coreau. The Perth, ON native split time with Ellingson last season but will be the go-to guy between the pipes this season. Coreau finished his sophomore campaign with a 12-7-2 record that included one shutout in 23 appearances.

The attribute that immediately jumps out when watching Coreau is his sheer size. At 6’5”, 208 pounds, it’s hard to miss him. Coreau plays with a good deal of composure and tracks play quite well. Two areas where he has steadily improved have been in developing more flexibility in his movements and his ability to steer pucks away from the net. This summer, Coreau attended the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers prospect camps.

Pushing Coreau this season will be newcomer Michael Doan. Doan, like Coreau, is very big (6’5”, 230 lbs.), giving the Wildcats the biggest goaltending tandem in college hockey this season. Northern Michigan’s other incoming goaltender, Mathias Dahlstrom, has been ruled ineligible to play.

A solid defensive corps has been the cornerstone of Northern Michigan hockey and this season will be no different. In fact, it will be the Wildcats’ greatest strength as their entire blueline returns intact. Two well worth watching this season are juniors C.J. Ludwig and Wade Epp.

Ludwig, the son of former NHL defenseman Craig Ludwig, has developed into a very solid and reliable defensive defenseman. He finished his strong sophomore campaign with six points (one goal, five assists) in 36 games.

Epp posted ten points (one goal, nine assists) in 36 games last season. He also led Northern Michigan with 81 penalty minutes. The Chilliwack, BC native is a rugged 6’4”, 202-pound defenseman that possesses a good stick and uses his size, reach and strength quite effectively, particularly in one-on-one situations. The one area he will need to improve, however, is limiting the number of unnecessary penalties that he has taken. Epp has also gained some NHL interest as he attended the Washington Capitals prospect camp in 2011 and attended the Edmonton Oilers prospect camp this summer.

In addition to two new goalies, Northern Michigan will also feature seven new skaters this season. One newcomer to keep an eye on is Robert Lindores. The Port Alberni, BC native is a budding power forward noted for his offensive prowess and hard shot.

University of Notre Dame
NHL prospects: 12

The Fighting Irish will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus Maine in the Icebreaker Tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas, MO.

Notre Dame lost just six players in the offseason. The most notable was forward Riley Sheahan, who opted to forgo the remainder of eligibility to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Sheahan finished his 2011-12 campaign with a career-high 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 37 games.

The loss of Sheahan, along with graduate Billy Maday, leaves two holes upfront that Notre Dame will need to fill. But with the prospect-laden group of forwards that the Fighting Irish will have this season, those holes are certain to be filled. Juniors T.J. Tynan (CBJ) and Anders Lee (NYI) lead Notre Dame’s offensive attack. While Tynan’s numbers last season were down from the previous season (54 to 41 points), he continues to be the motor that drives the Fighting Irish offense.

Lee, who will serve as team captain this season, turned down a contract offer from the New York Islanders to return to Notre Dame. Like Tynan, Lee also saw his point production drop from 44 points in 2010-11 to 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 2011-12. As head coach Jeff Jackson explains, Lee’s move back to center this season could be beneficial to both Lee and the team.

“Anders certainly is a great player for us and he goes beyond that to be a great leader too. He’s a solid young man. I knew that his intention was to stay in school. I know that Anders is committed to being here at Notre Dame and that’s the most important thing to him right now. We’re making the move with Anders to center this year. He’s had great chemistry with T.J., but now is his time to lead his own line and be a factor. He’s a guy that I expect to take a big jump this year as far as being responsible without the puck. We also want to see his numbers grow too. So hopefully Anders will be able to get back to the goal-scoring prowess that he had in the first half of last year.”

In addition to Tynan and Lee, the Fighting Irish also bring in four terrific freshman forwards, including Mario Lucia (MIN), that can add a lot of firepower and help boost the disappointing 2.52 goals-per-game average that the team sported last season.

The much-anticipated collegiate debut of Lucia was recently put on hold after he suffered a broken leg in off-season practice with the Fighting Irish. He is expected to be out for three months and could potentially miss the upcoming 2013 World Junior Championships, as well. The Plymouth, MN native is the youngest son of current Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, who is also a Notre Dame alumnus. The younger Lucia has size (6’3”, 195 lbs.), elite scoring ability, and is blessed with phenomenal hands.

“Mario could possibly miss the first half, but he could also be back in mid-November, so that’s what we’re hoping for,” said Jackson. “He had some ligament damage in his ankle that had to be repaired. It was basically like a high-ankle sprain. We certainly know that Mario can benefit us in a number of ways, but the biggest way is to help us offensively.”

The forward lines won’t be the only area where Notre Dame will be deep this season. The Fighting Irish also sport tremendous depth among their defensive corps as well, despite losing Sean Lorenz to graduation.

Among those to watch on the blueline this season is sophomore Robbie Russo (NYI). The Westmont, IL native was quite impressive as a rookie last season. He finished second on the team in defensive scoring with 15 points (five goals, ten assists) in 40 games and was selected to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. One area where Russo made notable strides last season was in his continually improving defensive zone play. This was evident in his reads and reactions to developing plays. Jackson notes that while Russo had made progress in his development, there is still work to do.

“Robbie certainly made an impact for us last year. His poise and his understanding of the game is what made him a good player for us. Robbie certainly helped us on the power play, too. I think he made good strides in recognizing situations, but the biggest challenge for Robbie is going to be learning how to be consistent. Robbie has improved his game away from the puck defensively. He showed signs of it when he was engaged physically that he could be a really good defenseman. So hopefully this year Robbie can take another step.”

Notre Dame also returns their goaltending tandem of senior Mike Johnson and junior Steven Summerhays this season. Johnson appeared in 26 games, posting a 9-10-3 record. Summerhays fared slightly better, posting a 10-8-0 record in 20 appearances. He also posted both of the team’s shutouts last season.

Ohio State University
NHL prospects: 6

The Buckeyes will open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at Minnesota-Duluth.

After an excellent first half last season, the wheels seemed to fall off for Ohio State in the second half, as they posted just one win after the holiday break. The team hopes to remedy that this season.

Ohio State lost just five players this off-season, but they were all significant losses.

The most notable was of top goaltender Cal Heeter, who graduated and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. The St. Louis, MO native was a crucial part of the Buckeyes’ first half success last season. He finished his final year posting a 13-11-5 record that included two shutouts in 32 appearances.

Vying for the starting job coming into this season are returning senior Brady Hjelle and highly touted newcomer Collin Olson (CAR). Hjelle, who served as Heeter’s backup last season, posted a 2-4-0 record that included one shutout in eight appearances.

Olson, one of the best incoming goaltenders this season, enjoyed great success while with the US National Team Development Program, particularly in international competition. He has size (6’3”, 200 lbs.) and is noted for his sound fundamentals.

Ohio State also suffered key losses on the blueline. Sean Duddy, one of the Buckeyes’ most reliable defensemen last season, has graduated. Ben Gallacher (FLA) has left Ohio State and will be playing with the Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) this season. There had been some speculation that Gallacher would play for his father’s team, the Portland Winterhawks, who hold the younger Gallacher’s WHL rights.

Despite losing Duddy and Gallacher, the Buckeyes defensive corps is shaping up to be very good this season. They will also be quite big. Five of the team’s eight defensemen are 6’2” or taller.

Among those anchoring Ohio State’s defensive corps this season is junior Curtis Gedig (NJD). The West Kelowna, BC native was rock solid on the blueline last season, despite playing through much of the second half with a shoulder injury. Gedig led all Buckeyes defensemen with 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 34 games. The one notable aspect in his development last season has been in rounding out his game. While Gedig has always been strong in his defensive zone play, he has also begun to really develop his offensive side as well. And where this has been particularly evident has been in his improved puck moving ability and decision-making.

One area where Ohio State will be looking to improve this season is their offensive production. The Buckeyes averaged 2.40 goals per game last season, which ranked 42nd nationally.

While Ohio State returns most of their forwards this season, the Buckeyes did lose two of their most reliable ones in Danny Dries and Cory Schneider to graduation. Junior Chris Crane (SJS) leads the team’s offensive charge this season. The West Chester, OH native co-led Ohio State last season with 24 points (14 goals, ten assists) playing in all 35 games. Crane’s combination of grit and hard work, particularly around the net makes him an effective playmaker and finisher. But it is Crane’s smarter decisions both with and without the puck that have really helped to elevate his play last season.

In addition to Olson, the Buckeyes welcome five other newcomers this season. One player to watch is defenseman Sam Jardine (CHI). The Lacombe, AB native had a very good prospect camp with the Chicago Blackhawks this summer. Jardine has size (6’1”, 196 lbs.) and is noted for his grit and ability to move the puck.

Western Michigan University
NHL prospects: 5

The reigning CCHA Mason Cup champions will look to successfully defend their post-season conference crown when they open the 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 hosting St. Lawrence.

Under first year head coach Andy Murray, the Broncos made their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance last season. This season, Western Michigan will look to extend that streak.

While the Broncos lost just six players this offseason, the departures were all key components in the team’s successful run last season. The most notable loss was that of Matt Tennyson, who opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the San Jose Sharks. Tennyson was also the only loss that Western Michigan suffered on the back end. The Pleasanton, CA native led all Broncos defensemen in scoring last season with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 41 games and earned a spot on the All-CCHA Second Team.

Even without Tennyson, Western Michigan will sport one of the nation’s best defensive corps this season. Returning junior Dan DeKeyser, who was heavily pursued by all 30 NHL teams last season, anchors the Broncos’ superb blueline. The Clay Township, MI native posted 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) playing in all 41 games last season. He also co-led the Broncos with a plus-15. De Keyser earned the CCHA’s Best Defensive Defenseman honor and capped the year with a selection to the All-America West Second Team. DeKeyser has blossomed into one of the nation’s most complete defensemen who is certain to be among the most highly sought-after collegiate free agents available once again at season’s end.

In addition to DeKeyser, another defenseman to watch this season is sophomore Garrett Haar (WSH). The Huntington Beach, CA native posted eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 36 games last season. Interestingly, his lone goal came shorthanded. Haar could likely see increased ice time, including on the power-play, this season. But that will be predicated on whether he can stay healthy. He missed time due to injury midway through last season and suffered a hip flexor at the Capitals’ prospect camp this summer. Haar could also potentially miss time later this season if he is selected to play for Team USA in the 2013 World Junior Championship.

In addition to a superb defensive corps, the Broncos will also have terrific goaltending this season. Sophomore Frank Slubowski returns as Western Michigan’s go-to guy between the pipes. The Prince Rupert, BC native enjoyed a sensational freshman campaign last season posting a 17-11-4 record that included three shutouts. Slubowski’s excellent season also earned him a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie Team as well. Slubowski is a goaltender that possesses great athleticism and composure. Although he is on the small side (5’11”, 195 lbs.), Slubowski makes excellent use of his frame in covering the net.

The most pressing issue that Western Michigan will need to address heading into this season is generating secondary scoring. While the Broncos do return their excellent top line of juniors Chase Balisy (NSH) and Shane Berschbach and senior Dane Walters, they did lose depth players Greg Squires, Ian Slater, Derek Roehl, Kyle O’Kane and J.J. Crew to graduation. The five graduates accounted for 22 percent of the team’s offensive production last season that will need to be replaced this season.

The Bertschbach-Balisy-Walters line accounted for 31 percent of the Broncos scoring last season. Balisy, the catalyst of Western Michigan’s offensive attack, led the team in several categories, including points (37), assists (24) and game-winners (five). One of the most notable improvements in Balisy’s game last season has been his presence around the net. While he can create plays in many ways, Balisy’s willingness to pay a price in front of the net has added yet another dimension to his offense-generating arsenal.

Among the players that Western Michigan will be looking at to help provide some offensive depth is newcomer Colton Hargrove (BOS). The Rockwall, TX native was a seventh round pick (205th overall) of the Boston Bruins this past June. Hargrove is a power forward that brings a nice mix of size (6’2”, 216 lbs.) skill and toughness to the Broncos lineup.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF