2012-13 WCHA season preview, part 1

By DJ Powers

Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula - University of Minnesota

Photo: University of Minnesota forwards Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula hope to be celebrating a national championship after losing in the semi-finals of the NCAA Frozen Four back in April (courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

This is the final season of the WCHA as we know it. The conference will undergo a sweeping change next season, with eight members exiting the WCHA. Minnesota and Wisconsin will be joining the newly formed Big Ten (Hockey) conference. Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State will comprise much of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). The remaining teams will be members of the revamped WCHA.

This season, the WCHA features 74 NHL prospects, the most of any NCAA conference. All member schools except Alaska-Anchorage have at least one prospect on their roster. Minnesota leads both the WCHA and the nation with 15 prospects. They are followed by North Dakota with 14 and Wisconsin with 9.

University of Minnesota
NHL prospects: 15

Last season, Minnesota reached the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005. And as good as the Golden Gophers were last season, they could potentially be even better this season.

The most pressing issue for Minnesota heading into the season is in goal with the loss of WCHA top goaltender, Kent Patterson. The Plymouth, MN native, who graduated and signed with the Colorado Avalanche, led all NHL-drafted netminders with 28 wins and co-led the nation with seven shutouts. He finished his sensational senior campaign with a 28-14-1 record playing in all 43 games en route to earning a selection to the All-America West Second Team.

The lone returning goaltender is junior Michael Shibrowski, who saw just 20 minutes of playing time last season. Competing with Shibrowski for the starting job this season is talented freshman Adam Wilcox (TBL). The South St. Paul, MN native is a 6’0”, 186-pound netminder that is noted for aggressively challenging shooters, and for his adept stick-handling.

“Adam is very athletic, he’s got sound fundamentals and really competes,” associate head coach Mike Guentzel said of Wilcox. “ He and Shibrowski have looked very good in the early going. We’ll play both of them to start, probably for the first month and see where it goes from there.”

With the limited experience in goal, Minnesota will be relying on their talented blueline to help solidify things on the back end this season. Senior Seth Helgeson (NJD) and junior Mark Alt (CAR) are among those anchoring the Golden Gophers defensive corps.

Helgeson, the lone senior on the team’s roster, completed a rock solid junior campaign with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) playing in all 43 games last season. Helgeson’s strong leadership was a stabilizing element on the Golden Gophers blueline last season and will be again this season. One notable area in the Fairbault, MN native’s development is his offensive game. While Helgeson will likely never be a prolific scorer, he’s demonstrated a willingness to be more involved in creating offensive opportunities and even jumping into plays. None of it has come at the expense of his aggressive style or his excellent defensive zone play. As Guentzel notes, Helgeson’s more disciplined play has greatly helped the team.

“Seth has been very solid on defense for us. He’s more disciplined in that he’s not taking as many penalties and that’s made him more effective. We expect that to continue this year.”

Alt returns this season after posting 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 43 games last season. One notable area of Alt’s development last year was in his improved puck-moving ability. While Alt has always had great puck skills, his confidence with it at the collegiate level has grown significantly. That has allowed him to be more poised and patient in moving with the puck as well as making quicker decisions with it.

“The thing that Mark has done really well is improved his positioning,” Guentzel said of Alt. “He’s a great skater and he’s using that to better position himself defensively. He’s also shooting the puck more accurately and we expect him to take another step this year.”

In addition to the returning veterans, the Golden Gophers defense will also feature two new NHL-drafted rearguards. And all eyes will be on Brady Skjei (NYR). The Lakeville, MN native is part of a stellar freshman class for Minnesota this season and is one of the nation’s best incoming freshman rearguards this season. He is noted for his superb skating and hockey sense. As Guentzel explains, Skjei will bring many great things to the team.

“We think Brady will make an immediate impact for us. He’s looked good and looks ready to play at this level. He’s big (6’3”, 200 lbs.), mobile, agile and has great gap control.”

The best news that Golden Gophers got in the offseason was the return of junior Nick Bjugstad (FLA). The Blaine, MN native turned down a contract offer by the Florida Panthers to return to the Twin Cities this season. Bjugstad, an early candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, led Minnesota with 25 goals and finished with 42 points in 40 games en route to earning a selection to the All-America West Second Team last season. Bjugstad might be the most complete and NHL-ready player in the NCAA this season. Simply put, he dominates the game the way that few other collegians can and is literally a man among boys.

“There’s no question that Nick will be able to play at the next (pro) level,” Guentzel said of Bjugstad. “We’re really happy that he’s back and we know that he wants to be here at Minnesota. He’s a big, strong presence around the net. He works and competes very, very hard and is just very skilled. Nick will be one of our assistant captains this year and I think that will be good for him and our team.”

Bjugstad is only one cog in Minnesota’s NHL prospect-laden offensive machine. Among the other returning veterans leading the Golden Gophers offensive charge this season are sophomore Kyle Rau (FLA) and junior Erik Haula (MIN). Rau is coming off of a phenomenal freshman campaign where he posted 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games. His 43 points finished second among all rookies nationally last season. Haula returns after leading Minnesota with 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) playing in all 43 games last season.

One returning Golden Gopher to keep an eye on is junior Nate Condon (COL). The Wausau, WI native is just one of three Colorado Avalanche prospects playing in the NCAA this season. He capped a stellar sophomore campaign with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) playing in all 43 games last season. Condon has developed into one of the nation’s best defensive forwards. His excellent speed and transition game have made him lethal in penalty killing situations. Last season, he led Minnesota with four shorthanded tallies.

University of Alaska-Anchorage
NHL prospects: 0

After moving up in the WCHA standings two seasons ago, Alaska-Anchorage found itself back in the conference basement last season. One reason could be attributed to the many injuries that plagued the team, especially to their forward lines. While the Seawolves are healthy heading into this season, they will have several issues to address, especially given the team’s many offseason departures.

The biggest concern is offense. Alaska-Anchorage averaged 2.36 goals per game last season, which placed the team 48th nationally. The 85 total goals that the Seawolves scored were the fewest in the WCHA. Improving those numbers this season is further challenged by the fact that Alaska-Anchorage lost three of last season’s four top scorers in Curtis Leinweber, Mitch Bruijsten and Eric Scheid. The trio accounted for 21 percent of the team’s offense in 2011-12. Leinweber has graduated. Bruijsten was dismissed and Scheid has left the program, returning to the USHL. Because the Seawolves lack elite-level scorers, their offensive production will have to come by committee. So establishing some offensive depth will be crucial in their quest to move up the WCHA standings.

Junior Matt Bailey returns after leading Alaska-Anchorage with 17 points (10 goals, seven assists) in 34 games last season. The Winnipeg, MB native was also the only Seawolves player to post goals in double-digits. Bailey is one Alaska-Anchorage player that is well worth watching this season. He possesses really nice hands and a very good shot. Bailey’s noticeably stronger, 6’1”, 196-pound frame is used quite effectively in the difficult areas, whether it’s battling for loose pucks or fighting for position.

One player that could potentially have a breakout year this season is returning sophomore Scott Allen. The Edmonton, AB native posted nine points (three goals, six assists) in 28 games last season. Allen is a 6’3”, 201-pound winger that really excels around the net. He has shown a willingness to pay a price in front of the net and can wreak havoc on opposing goaltenders. He possesses a good stick and skates quite well. Although Allen is not an overly physical player, he’s not afraid to deliver a check when needed.

In addition to the returning veterans, Alaska-Anchorage will also be looking to their three new forwards for increased point production this season. One player to keep an eye on is Blake Tatchell. The Battleford, SK native is a 5’10”, 162 pounds center noted for his on-ice vision and offensive prowess.

Another issue that the Seawolves will need to address this season is getting more consistency in goal. Alaska-Anchorage returns their netminding tandem from last season in juniors Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson. And while both goaltenders played well, neither was able to give the Seawolves the consistently sound goaltending that was needed to compete in the always-tough WCHA. Kamal posted a 4-13-0 record in 21 appearances. Gunderson posted a 5-10-2 record that included one shutout in 20 games.

Competing with Kamal and Gunderson for playing time this season is newcomer Michael Matyas. At 6’3”, 180 pounds, he is the biggest of the three goaltenders. The Calgary, AB native is noted for his great work ethic and sound fundamentals. If Alaska-Anchorage can get consistent goaltending this season from any or all of their netminders, it will go a long way towards a successful year.

Solid goaltending will also be key in stabilizing the team’s predominately young defense corps. The Seawolves have just two upperclassmen on their blueline this season, including returning senior Scott Warner. The local product led Alaska-Anchorage in defenseman scoring last season with 15 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 32 games.

The one veteran defenseman to watch this season is returning sophomore Derek Docken. The Northfield, MN native posted 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 31 games. Despite being a freshman, Docken was one of Alaska-Anchorage’s best rearguards last season. He has the makings of an excellent two-way defenseman. He’s an outstanding skater with good puck-moving ability that is also very sound in the defensive zone. Docken is also a disciplined player. He was one of the least penalized players that played all or most of the games in the WCHA last season.

Of Alaska-Anchorage’s nine defensemen this season, four are freshmen. And the one to keep an eye on is Chris Williams. The Pottstown, PA native is a gritty, 6’2”, 216-pound rearguard noted for his strong work ethic and great skating. Williams, who is beginning to get some looks from NHL teams, had a very good showing at the Philadelphia Flyers prospect camp this summer.

Bemidji State University
NHL prospects: 1

The 2011-12 campaign was an interesting one for Bemidji State. While the Beavers played exceedingly well at mid-season, it was their disappointing start and finish that led to their ninth-place conference finish. While the Beavers return most of their top players from last season, there are some big holes that will need to be filled this season.

One of the notable key players that Bemidji State lost was top defenseman Brad Hunt, who graduated and went on to the sign with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. The Ridge Meadows, BC native was the best defenseman in the WCHA that almost nobody talked about last season. Hunt led the team in defensive scoring with 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) playing in all 38 games. His 26 assists also led the team. Where Hunt will be especially missed this season will be on the Beavers power play, where 10 of his 26 points were scored.

Sophomore Matt Prapavessis is Bemidji State’s top scoring returning defenseman after a solid freshman campaign where he posted 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) also playing in all 38 games. The Oakville, ON native is a 6’1”, 195-pound rearguard that plays a smart two-way game. He has excellent puck-moving ability and makes really good outlet passes. He is a very good skater and transitions well. Prapavessis also has the potential to put up some good offensive numbers and could fill the quarterbacking role that Hunt has left.

Another sophomore defenseman to watch this season is Sam Windle. At 6’4”, he is the tallest player on the Beavers roster this season. The Maple Grove, MN posted just one goal in 32 games last season. Although Windle was never drafted and is no longer draft-eligible, he is still getting interest from NHL teams. Windle moves remarkably well for a big man. He skates with smooth yet powerful strides that will be more evident as he fills out his large frame. Like Prapavessis, Windle also has excellent puck-moving ability.

Another key loss that Bemidji State suffered on the back end was of starting netminder Dan Bakala, who has graduated. The Calgary, AB native posted an 11-13-2 record that included one shutout in 28 appearances.

Bakala’s successor this season is returning sophomore Andrew Walsh. The Dawson Creek, BC native was excellent between the pipes as Bakala’s backup last season. He finished with a 6-4-1 record that included two shutouts in 11 games. Walsh is a 6’2”, 190-pound goaltender that is blessed with terrific puck-handling ability. He has sound fundamentals and plays with great composure and focus. This summer, Walsh attended the Vancouver Canucks prospect camp.

One big challenge for the Beavers this season will be increasing their point production throughout their lineup. Bemidji State averaged 2.66 goals per game last season, which finished tied for 38th nationally. Furthermore, the team had only three players that posted 10 or more goals. One of them, Shea Walters, has graduated. Walters, along with Hunt and graduated forward Jamie McQueen accounted for 24 percent of the Beavers point totals last season that will need to be replaced this season.

Leading Bemidji State’s offensive attack this season is senior Jordan George. The Madison, WI native led the Beavers in scoring for the second consecutive year, posting 31 points (19 goals, 12 assists) playing in all 38 games. George is a fun player to watch. He’s a small (5’8”, 155 lbs.) shifty winger that played the right side on Bemidji State speedy top line that also featured now-seniors Ben Kinne and Aaron McLeod. One area where George really excels is in the transition game.

Another returning veteran that the Beavers will be looking to for stepped up offensive production this season is junior Radoslav Illo (ANA). The Bystrica, Slovakia native enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign last season, posting 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 30 games. The 17 points he racked up was nearly triple of what he posted as a freshman (six points). Illo continues to make great strides in his development, too. The most notable is how he is using his stronger, 6’0”, 190-pound body. The added strength has made him a more effective player, especially in his battles along the boards and in the corners. It has also improved his skating; his strides look more powerful and he has also developed a bit more foot speed.

In addition to the returning group, Bemidji State also brings in an outstanding seven-member freshman class. One player to watch is Cory Ward. The Las Vegas, NV native is the youngest player on the Bemidji State roster this season. He is a 6’0”, 190-pound forward noted for his great shot and goal scoring ability. Ward began attracting the attention of a number of NHL teams including the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New Jersey Devils while in juniors. Although he was passed over in 2012, Ward will be eligible again for the 2013 NHL Draft.

Colorado College
NHL prospects: 4

After a strong start in 2011-12, Colorado College struggled in the last two months of the season, posting a 4-7-1 record in February and March. This season, the Tigers will look to remedy that in hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament. But first, Colorado College will need to fill the holes left by seven key departures in the off-season.

Among the four forwards lost, none was greater than that of Jaden Schwartz, who opted to forgo the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the St. Louis Blues. The Wilcox, SK native was the motor that drove the Tigers’ excellent offense last season. Schwartz led Colorado College with 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in 30 games en route to being selected to the All-America West First Team.

The other Schwartz brother, Rylan, returns as the Tigers’ top scorer this season. Schwartz finished with 40 points (23 goals, 17 assists) in 35 games as a junior last season. Where he really made his mark was on the team’s power-play. Of his 23 goals, 11 came on the man-advantage. His 11 power-play tallies also finished tied for first nationally. Schwartz possesses great hands and terrific finishing ability, and he is lethal below the dots. This summer, he attended the San Jose Sharks prospect camp. As head coach Scott Owens explains, even without brother Jaden, Rylan Schwartz will continue to be a dominant player on the Tigers roster this season.

“There’s no doubt that Jaden helped Rylan last year, but I think they helped each other. I feel confident that, once we get a lineup set, there will be (other) players that can compliment Rylan. The challenge we’ll have is making sure that he’s getting the puck in good spots. And that’s one of the things that we’re trying to work out right now. Rylan wants to continue rounding out his game. He’s already got the base, but there are just a couple of little areas that he really needs to fine tune on that. Rylan is smart, so he can see situations being in the middle. He’s a goal-scoring center but he’s capable of moving the puck at the right time too.”

In addition to Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College also lost three depth forwards in Nick Dineen, David Civitarese and Tim Hall all to graduation. And while the trio didn’t get as much attention as the Schwartz brothers did, the crucial roles that they filled last season will need to be replenished this season.

One veteran that the Tigers will be looking to is senior Scott Winkler (DAL). The Asker, Norway native nearly tripled his point production last season, finishing with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 31 games. Winkler has made some great progress in his development thus far. He uses his strengthened 6’3”, 212-pound frame more effectively on both sides of the puck and his defensive game has come a long way. But the most notable growth has been in his confidence level, as he is playing with much more assertiveness. But Winkler’s success will be predicated on whether he can stay healthy, given his history of injuries.

“I think Scott may have a breakthrough year for us and we’re hoping he can stay healthy,” Owens said of Winkler. “He’s very determined and very focused. He’s had a great summer and I think that he’s at a point now where he has a ton of confidence. Scott is a player that can play a lot of minutes and we’ll give him that opportunity. He’s an important piece to our team and we think Scott could have a very good year for us.”

The remaining three losses that the Tigers suffered this offseason were on the blueline with Gabe Guentzel, Arthur Bidwell and Ted Behrend having all graduated. Of the three, the most significant loss was that of Guentzel. The Woodbury, MN native led all Tigers defensemen with 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) playing in all 36 games and was Colorado College’s best rearguard last season.

Where Guentzel’s loss will be particularly felt will be on the Tigers power-play, which he quarterbacked. One veteran that could potentially take over that role this season is senior Mike Boivin. The Delta, BC native is the top returning defenseman after posting 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 33 games last season. Boivin is a 6’2”, 183-pound puck-moving defenseman who is very mobile, moves very well with the puck and possesses a great stick.

A returning defenseman that could potentially have a breakout year this season is sophomore Aaron Harstad (WPG). The Stevens Point, WI native enjoyed a solid freshman campaign, posting six points (all assists) in 29 games last season. Although Harstad has played in a shutdown role for Colorado College, he does have some offensive abilities in that he moves the puck well and has a very good shot. One notable area where Harstad was very effective was on the Tigers penalty kill. He is an excellent shot-blocker and his defensive zone positioning is quite good.

“Aaron had a very good summer and he’s come back in great shape,” said Owens. “He’s a big boy that can move pretty well. He’s got a hard shot that still needs to get refined and translated into points.”

Goaltending will be a strength of Colorado College coming into the season with the outstanding tandem of junior Josh Thorimbert and senior Joe Howe both returning for another year. Thorimbert, who took over the starting job around mid-season last year, posted a 13-8-1 record that included two shutouts. Howe posted a 5-8-1 record in 16 appearances.

In addition to their returning veterans, the Tigers will also welcome six newcomers this season. One player to keep an eye on is Samuel Fejes (PHX). The Anchorage, AK native is noted for his strong puck skills and speed.

“We really like Hunter and we think he can be an impact player for us,” Owens said of Fejes. “He’s got a little bit of man-child in him. He’s young and baby-faced, but every once in a while you could see that power forward in him and the breakaway speed that he has. Hunter just needs to keep maturing and developing. He can play like a bull when he wants to. His speed is going to be noticeable, especially if he continues to get confidence at this level.”

University of Denver
NHL prospects: 7

Injuries to key players took a toll on Denver last season, but the resilient Pioneers were still able to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. With the dawning of a new season, Denver will once again have some big challenges to face on the road to this year's NCAA Tournament.

The biggest issue facing the Pioneers is replenishing the scoring that left with six departed forwards. Drew Shore, Jason Zucker and Beau Bennett all opted to forgo the remainder of their eligibility to sign with the Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, and Pittsburgh Penguins respectively. Luke Salazar, Dustin Jackson and Nate Dewhurst have graduated. The six players combined to account for 39 percent of the Pioneers’ total points that will need to be replaced this season.

Of the six departed forwards, the most notable are Shore, Zucker and Bennett. Shore led Denver with 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 42 games. His 11 power play tallies finished tied for first nationally. Zucker co-led the Pioneers with 22 goals and finished with 46 points in 38 games en route to earning a selection to the All-America West Second Team. Bennett posted 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 10 games in an injury-shortened season.

Junior Nick Shore (LAK) returns as Denver’s top scorer after a stellar sophomore campaign, posting 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists). He was one of only four Pioneers that played in all 43 games last season. The local product continues to make great strides in his development. His defensive game has continually improved and his decisions both with and without the puck are smarter. His noticeably stronger, 6’0”, 190 -pound frame has been effective in fending off opposing players. And as good as Shore was last season, he could potentially be even better this season.

While Nick Shore won’t be playing with older brother Drew this season, he will be playing with younger sibling Quentin. The youngest Shore is part of Denver’s small but superb freshman class. Quentin Shore is a 6’0”, 180-pound center noted for his sound defensive game and clutch goal-scoring. After being passed over this past June, he will be eligible again for the 2013 NHL Draft.

One returning forward who could see an expanded role this season is sophomore Zac Larraza (PHX). The Scottsdale, AZ native saw primarily spot duty last season, finishing with five points (one goal, four assists) in 26 games. Despite seeing limited ice time, Larraza made the most of the time that he did see. One notable attribute was his work ethic; the few points that he accumulated last season came from his hard work. While Larraza is still very much a work in progress, he showed glimpses of what he is able to bring to the Pioneers that could become more evident this season.

In addition to six forwards, Denver also lost two stalwart defensemen in John Lee and John Ryder to graduation. And while the loss of both players is significant, the Pioneers blueline is shaping up to be an excellent one this season.

The good news for Denver is that junior David Makowski will be healthy to begin the season. The Wildwood, MO native was limited to just 20 games and 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) due to severe migraines last season. Makowski, one of the Pioneers’ top offensive defensemen, was a key cog on the team’s power-play prior to his season-ending ailment.

Makowski’s likely power-play partner this season is sophomore phenom Joey LaLeggia (EDM). The Burnaby, BC native enjoyed a sensational freshman campaign, leading Denver in defensive scoring with 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists) playing in all 43 games, earning him both the national and WCHA Rookie of the Year honors. His 38 points finished third nationally among all defensemen and were tied for fourth among all rookies. Like Makowski, LaLeggia is an offensive defenseman. Aside from their size difference, both players are similar in many ways. Both possess really good hands and vision, and are excellent skaters. The one area that LaLeggia has continually worked to improve is his defensive zone play.

While Makowski and LaLeggia provide much of Denver’s offense from the blueline, sophomore Josiah Didier (MTL) provides the muscle and strong defensive zone play. The Littleton, CO native will likely see an expanded role on the team this season, particularly with the losses of Lee and Ryder. Didier played in 41 games last season, posting just three assists.

Another of the Pioneers’ strengths this season is in goal. Denver returns all three of their netminders from last season in junior Sam Brittain (FLA), senior Adam Murray and sophomore Juho Olkinuora. All three goaltenders played quite well, despite Brittain and Murray battling injuries last season. Olkinuora, who saw much of the work last season playing in 22 games, will not be available to start this season due to a four-game suspension for team rules violation.

The starting job could potentially fall to Brittain. The Calgary, AB native was limited to just 14 games last season due to recovering from off-season knee surgery in 2011. In the limited time he did play, Brittain was very good, posting an 8-4-0 record that included one shutout. Brittain made his 2011-12 debut last January. And while it took some time to shake the rust off, he didn’t miss a step. Brittain’s athletic form, confidence and focus didn’t seem to have diminished. Now completely healthy, Brittain should not only be better but could wind up as one of the nation’s top-performing goaltenders by season’s end.

Michigan Tech University
NHL prospects: 3

Michigan Tech was one of the best stories coming out of the WCHA last season. Under first year head coach Mel Pearson, the Huskies went from a 4-30-4 team two seasons ago to a 16-19-4 team that nearly reached the WCHA Tournament semi-final last spring. Michigan Tech looks to build on that this season, but will have some holes to fill.

One area will be in goal with starter Josh Robinson and third-stringer Corson Cramer having both graduated. Robinson was brilliant between the pipes, finishing with a 15-14-4 record that included three shutouts in 35 appearances last season. Cramer saw just 9:50 minutes of ice time.

The lone returning goaltender is senior Kevin Genoe. The Qualicum, BC native served as Robinson’s backup last season, posting a 1-5-0 record in seven games.

Genoe will be competing with a pair of newcomers for the starting job this season and the one to keep an eye on is Jamie Phillips (WPG). The Caledonia, ON native is one of two incoming freshman netminders this season taken by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2012 NHL Draft, having been selected in the seventh round (190th overall). While Phillips kind of flew under the radar of many NHL teams prior to the Draft, he does have the potential to develop into an elite-level collegiate goaltender. Phillips has good size (6’3”, 175 lbs.) and is noted for his athleticism.

Another issue facing Michigan Tech this season is replacing the scoring left by graduates Brett Olson, Jordan Baker, Alex MacLeod and Bryce Reddick. The foursome accounted for 21 percent of the Huskies’ point production last season. Of the four departed players, the most notable is Brett Olson. The Superior, WI native led Michigan Tech with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) playing in all 39 games last season.

Sophomore David Johnstone returns as the Huskies top scorer after an outstanding freshman campaign, finishing with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) playing in all 39 games. Where he really made his mark last season was on the team’s power-play, where seven of his 11 goals were scored. Johnstone is a player well worth watching. He’s quick and plays the game with a ton of energy. He has great finishing ability, as well.

Another returning sophomore to watch this season is Blake Pietila (NJD). The Milford, MI native came to Michigan Tech last season and didn’t disappoint. He capped his terrific rookie year with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) playing in all 39 games. And as good as Pietila was last season, he could be even better this season. One notable area where his development progressed quite nicely was in allowing the plays to come him. At times last season, especially early on, Pietila tried to force plays that simply weren’t there. As he settled into the Huskies lineup that became less evident, and both his offensive positioning and opportunities significantly improved.

In addition to their returning veterans upfront, Michigan Tech welcomes four new forwards to the lineup this season. One player certain to be watched very closely is Jujhar Khaira (EDM). At 6’3”, 195 pounds, the Surrey, BC native brings some much-needed size to the Huskies’ forward lines. Khaira is a power forward that is noted for his superb puck skills and being a tough competitor.

Michigan Tech’s strength will be their outstanding defensive corps that returns intact this season. Senior Steven Seigo and junior Daniel Sova are among those leading the Huskies defense.

Seigo returns after leading the team in defensive scoring last season with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 39 games. The Edenwold, SK native is an offensive defenseman blessed with great hands and a great shot. He is an excellent skater and transitions really well. Since arriving in Houghton four years ago, Seigo has generated growing interest by NHL teams. This summer, he attended the Washington Capitals prospect camp. Barring injury or anything unexpected, Seigo could potentially become a hot commodity available on the free agent market by season’s end.

Sova is coming off of a rock solid sophomore campaign, posting 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 39 games. Interestingly, all three of his goals came on special teams (two on the power-play and one shorthanded). The Cottage Grove, MN native is a player definitely worth watching this season. He has an NHL-size body (6’4”, 225 lbs.) and possesses one of the hardest shots in all of college hockey. Sova moves remarkably well for a big man and his skating has come a long way since coming to Michigan Tech three years ago. While Sova isn’t an offensive defenseman in the traditional sense, he does have the ability to put up some good numbers.

2012-13 WCHA season preview, part 2

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF