2012-13 WCHA season preview, part 2

By DJ Powers

Derek Forbort - University of North Dakota

Photo: Los Angeles Kings defensive prospect Derek Forbort leads a talented group of defensemen for the University of North Dakota heading into the 2012-13 season (courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

Continuing our look at how the 2012-13 season will shape up for the remaining teams competing in the NCAA's WCHA conference.

University of Minnesota-Duluth
NHL prospects: 7

After winning the National Championship two seasons ago, Minnesota-Duluth fell just short of reaching the Frozen Four last season. This season, they hope to change that. In order to do so, they will have some significant holes to fill.

One issue is their offensive production. The Bulldogs lost four of their top five players, three of whom were graduates Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk (SJS) and defenseman Brady Lamb (CGY). Minnesota-Duluth also lost J.T. Brown, who opted to forgo the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The quartet accounted for a whopping 48 percent of the team’s offense that will need to be replaced this season.

Of the four losses, the most notable were that of Connolly and Brown. Connolly was named the WCHA Player of the Year and the recipient of the 2012 Hobey Baker Award after finishing with 60 points (20 goals, 40 assists) playing in all 41 games last season. He was also selected to the All-America West First Team. Brown was one of the most sought-after free agents this past spring, and with good reason. The Burnsville, MN native led Minnesota-Duluth in goal scoring (24) and finished third on the team with 47 points in 39 games last season. Brown also led the nation with a plus-29 rating. He capped the year with a selection to the All-America West Second Team.

Sophomore Caleb Herbert (WSH) and junior Mike Seidel return as the Bulldogs’ top scoring players. Herbert is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign where he posted 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 41 games. Although the Bloomington, MN native is primarily a center, he did see time on wing last season and was effective at both positions. Herbert possesses a nice combination of puck skills, speed and grit. And he uses these assets quite well in transition and in battles for loose pucks. As head coach Scott Sandelin explains, Herbert’s offensive contributions will be especially important this season due to the team’s losses of Connolly, Brown and Oleksuk.

“We’re expecting Caleb to be one of our top offensive guys for us this year. Early in the year last year, we had him as a third line center and I thought Caleb did well there. Once we kind of switched the lines around, we moved Caleb up to play wing with Travis (Oleksuk) and J.T. (Brown). I think it was a good situation for him because he just went with it and didn’t have to be “the guy”. Caleb is a tremendous skater and can shoot the puck. He plays the game with a little bit of an edge, too. What I’d like to see out of Caleb this year is to continue to use those strengths and be a little more consistent in his play. We want Caleb to build up what he did last year and just play his game. If he does that, he’ll be fine.”

Seidel returns as Minnesota-Duluth’s top goal-scorer after posting 17 goals and 30 points in 41 games last season. The Darien, IL native is player well worth watching. He’s not big (5’10”, 175 lbs.), but he packs quite a punch. Seidel has great speed and quickness. He’s feisty and possesses a junkyard dog mentality around the net.

The other big issue for the Bulldogs heading into the season is in goal. Starter Kenny Reiter, who has graduated, was excellent between the pipes last season for Minnesota-Duluth, posting a 23-9-6 record that included three shutouts.

Junior Aaron Crandall is the lone returning netminder after seeing limited time last season. The Lakeville, MN native posted 2-1-0 record in four appearances. Crandall will be battling a pair of freshmen, including the highly touted Matt McNeely, for the starting job this season. McNeely has size (6’3”, 200 lbs.) and noted for his athleticism. After having been passed over back in June, McNeely will be eligible again for the 2013 NHL Draft.

With the uncertainty in goal, the Bulldogs will be looking to their stellar defensive corps to solidify things on the back end this season. While Minnesota-Duluth’s defense will be young, it’ll also be very good. Senior Drew Olson (CBJ) anchors the Bulldogs’ blueline this season.

Olson, who will serve as one of the team’s assistant captains this season, is coming off of a rock solid junior campaign where he posted eight points (one goal, seven assists) playing in all 41 games. One notable area where Olson has made great strides in his development has been in his confidence with the puck. While he’ll likely never be a high-scoring defenseman, Olson has begun to get more involved with the offensive side of the game. And it hasn’t come at the expense of his great defensive side either.

“I think Drew took a big step last year,” said Sandelin. “His overall play with the puck got better. Drew is probably our best skater. He’s a powerful skater. He can get the puck up the rink in a hurry. We need Drew to continue to do that, but also bring that physical presence on the blueline. He sees the ice really well and likes the physical part of the game. I think over the last three years, Drew has played with a little more control and is not playing as recklessly. We do want Drew to chip in more offensively so long as it doesn’t take away from the other parts of his game.”

Two newcomers that will add some great depth to Minnesota-Duluth’s squad this season are forward Tony Cameranesi (TOR) and defenseman Andy Welinski (ANA). Welinski has size (6’1”, 200 lbs.) and is noted for his vision and strong defensive zone play. Cameranesi is noted for his superb skating and playmaking ability. Sandelin notes that both players could make significant impacts on the team this season.

“Andy has really developed his game and has a pretty good head on his shoulders. I think one of his strengths is that he sees the ice real well. He can shoot the puck and he’s very smart. The things that Andy has to get used to are the (college) pace and playing the game with a little more urgency. But that’s going to come. We expect Andy to be able to contribute right away because of the type of player that he is. He’s going to get every opportunity to play a lot of minutes for us and will probably be a guy that will play on and run our power-play.

The first thing you notice about Tony is his great skating ability. He’s pretty tenacious on the puck too. Tony is certainly a player that we’re expecting to really help us this year. Andy and Tony are both nice additions to our group.”

Minnesota State University-Mankato
NHL prospects: 2

No WCHA team relied more heavily on their freshmen last season than Minnesota State-Mankato. The Mavericks were also the only conference team whose top two scorers were rookies. While Minnesota State-Mankato will be quite young again this season, they will be more experienced under a new head coach.

The biggest change for the Mavericks heading into the season is behind their bench. After 12 years at the helm, head coach Troy Jutting has stepped down. His successor is former Nebraska-Omaha associate head coach Mike Hastings. Interestingly, Jutting has moved on to become an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha.

Hastings inherits a Minnesota State-Mankato team that’s on the rise. But it is also a team that has some big holes to fill due to seven players that have graduated.

The most notable is starting goaltender Austin Lee. The Bloomington, MN native was the Mavericks go-to guy between the pipes for much of last season. Lee posted a 5-16-1 record that included one shutout and a .910 save percentage.

Battling to succeed Lee this season are returning senior Phil Cook and sophomore Evan Karambelas. Cook, Lee’s backup last season, posted a 7-8-0 record that included one shutout in 17 appearances. Karambelas, the third-string netminder, posted one tie in his lone outing.

Cook and Karambelas will get some serious competition from newcomer Stephon Williams. The Fairbanks, AK native adds size (6’2”, 190 lbs.) to an already-big goaltending group and is noted for his ability to step up in big games. Williams, a 1993-born player, enters his final year of draft eligibility in 2013.

With the goaltending situation still up in the air to begin the season, Minnesota State-Mankato will be looking to their solid returning defensive corps to stabilize things on the back end. Among those patrolling the Mavericks blueline this season are senior Tyler Elbrecht and sophomore Zach Palmquist.

Elbrecht is coming off of a shortened junior campaign due to a broken arm. He posted six points (one goal, five assists) in 25 games. The Edwardsville, IL native was the glue that held Minnesota State-Mankato defensive corps together last season and that’s not likely to change this season. Elbrecht is a 6’4”, 210 -pound shutdown defenseman that thrives in the physical game. He’s a hard-nosed competitor and possesses great leadership qualities.

Palmquist is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign where he led all Mavericks defensemen with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) playing in all 38 games. The South St. Paul, MN native isn’t a NHL-drafted player, but he’s certainly generating some interest. He had a very good showing at the Philadelphia Flyers prospect camp this summer and NHL teams will likely be watching him more closely this season. Palmquist is a superb puck-moving defenseman with great wheels. He’s a smart player that makes good decisions with the puck and transitions really well.

Palmquist was one of several sophomores that made significant impacts as freshmen last season. Two others were forwards Jean-Paul Lafontaine and Max Gaede (SJS).

Lafontaine co-led the Mavericks with 13 goals and finished with 28 points playing in all 38 games last season. The Oxford, MI native, who is the nephew of former NHL star Pat Lafontaine, also earned a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team. The younger Lafontaine is a winger who is offensively creative and blessed with great hands. One area where he was particularly dangerous last season was on the power-play, where eight of his 13 goals were scored.

Of all the players on Minnesota State-Mankato’s roster last season, Gaede looked the most promising as far as pro potential is concerned. The Woodbury, MN native posted seven points (three goals, four assists) in 30 games. Gaede is a power forward who thinks the game really well. He uses his 6’3”, 200-pound body very effectively in front of the net and along the boards. One notable area where Gaede really shone last season was in cycling the puck. With continued development, Gaede could become a dominant force both at the collegiate and pro levels.

This season, Minnesota State-Mankato features eight newcomers and the one to watch is Teddy Blueger (PIT). The Riga, Latvia native, a second round selection (52nd overall) of the Pittsburgh Penguins in this past June’s NHL Draft, is the youngest player on the Mavericks' roster. Blueger had a strong showing at the Penguins prospects camp this summer and could be quite an impact player for Minnesota State-Mankato this season. Blueger is noted for his tremendous hockey sense and offensive prowess.

University of Nebraska-Omaha
NHL prospects: 7

After earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2010-11, Nebraska-Omaha didn’t make it there last season. Two reasons can be attributed to mounting injuries and being a very young team. But, with a healthy lineup and more experience under their belts heading into this season, the Mavericks hope to make a return trip to the Big Dance this season. While Nebraska-Omaha suffered few off-season losses, there are still some holes that will need to be filled this season.

The most notable is up front with the early departures of Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna. Both players opted to forgo the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively. The players were two of the Mavericks’ top three scorers last season, accounting for 24 percent of the team’s total points.

Among those that Nebraska-Omaha will be relying on to pick up the slack this season are junior Matt White and sophomore Josh Archibald (PIT). White returns after leading the Mavericks last season with 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) playing in all 38 games. White is a player that is well worth watching. The center from Whittier, CA is an excellent playmaker with really nice hands. He possesses great vision and has little difficulty finding open spaces and teammates. This summer, White attended the Winnipeg Jets prospects camp.

Archibald is coming off of a strong freshman campaign, finishing with 15 points (10 goals, five assists) in 36 games. The Brainerd, MN native is a fierce competitor and thrives in the physical play. He plays quite well around the net and as he strengthens his 5’10” frame, Archibald will become a more dominant and tougher player for opposing players to compete against.

In addition to the returning veterans up front, the Mavericks will also feature three new forwards this season. The one to keep an eye on is Tanner Lane (WPG). When the then-Atlanta Thrashers selected the Detroit Lakes, MN native in 2010, few knew of him outside of the state of Minnesota. Lane now comes to Nebraska-Omaha no longer an unknown. He has good size (6’2”, 190 lbs.) and is noted for his grit and excellent shot.

The Mavericks’ other losses were on the back end. Stalwart defensemen Kyle Ensign and Matt Smith have both graduated. Goaltender Ryan Massa opted to take the season off due to personal reasons.

Massa’s loss is the most notable here. The Littleton, CO native was very good in goal last season, posting a 7-8-2 record that included the Mavericks’ lone shutout. While Nebraska-Omaha will be without Massa this season, the team does return senior John Faulkner and sophomore Dayn Belfour. Faulkner split time with Massa last season, posting a 5-9-2 record. Belfour, the son of former NHL goaltender Ed Belfour, played in just six games and posted a 2-1-2 record.

Faulkner and Belfour will get some serious competition from highly regarded newcomer Anthony Stolarz (PHI). The towering Jackson, NJ native was a second round selection (45th overall) of the Philadelphia Flyers in this past June’s NHL Draft. At 6’5”, 220 pounds, Stolarz is among the biggest netminders in the NCAA this season. He plays a butterfly style and is noted for his athleticism.

Despite losing Ensign and Smith, Nebraska-Omaha looks very good on the blueline this season. And it will also be amongst the nation’s biggest too, with only two defensemen under 6’2”.

One of defenders to watch is newcomer Brian Cooper (ANA). At 5’10”, 185 lbs., Cooper is the smallest rearguard on the Mavericks roster. He is noted for his great skating and high level of competitiveness.

Cooper is one of two Mavericks defensemen whose NHL rights are held by the Anaheim Ducks. The other is 6’6”, 200 pound Jaycob Megna. The Northbrook, IL native played quite well in his freshman campaign, posting five points (two goals, three assists) in 35 games as returning senior Bryce Aneloski’s (OTT) defensive partner for much of the season. Megna is a work in progress, but he has begun to make some strides in development. Two notable areas of improvement were in the more effective use of his size and reach, and the simplification of his game. The biggest issue for Megna is adding strength to his enormous frame, which will make him a more effective and dominant player.

As tall as Megna is, he isn’t the tallest player on the Nebraska-Omaha roster. That distinction goes to Andrej Sustr. At 6’8”, 225 pounds, Sustr is not only the tallest player on the Mavericks squad, but he’s also the tallest player in the NCAA this season. The Plzen, Czech Republic native is coming off of a strong sophomore campaign, posting 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 33 games. Sustr is primarily a defensive defenseman, but he began to show flashes of some offensive ability with his increased poise and patience with the puck. Sustr has been on the NHL radar since his arrival in Omaha three years ago. This summer, he attended the prospect camps of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. If Sustr can continue to develop and round out his game, he’ll become a coveted free agent sooner rather than later.

University of North Dakota
NHL prospects: 14

North Dakota was one of the nation’s most resilient teams last season. The team fought through a myriad of injuries to key players to claim their third consecutive Broadmoor Trophy as the WCHA Tournament champions. But with the new season getting underway, North Dakota will have to fill some big holes left by six departures.

The biggest is in goal with Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness having graduated. Dell posted an 18-10-2 record that included two shutouts in 33 appearances. Eidsness played in 15 games, posting an 8-3-1 record that included 1 shutout.

While North Dakota loses Dell and Eidsness, they won’t necessarily be inexperienced in goal. Junior transfer Clarke Saunders was excellent in goal for Alabama-Huntsville last season, despite posting only two wins. And the experience that he brings will be especially valuable at the beginning of the season.

Competing with Saunders is talented newcomer Zane Gothberg (BOS). The Thief River Falls, MN native is a sizable (6’2”, 198 lbs.) netminder noted for his athleticism and great puck-handling ability. As head coach Dave Hakstol explains, the battle in goal will be a good one to watch this season.

“I think we have a competitive situation in goal. Clarke and Zane have good talents and are extremely hard working and we’re going to let the competition play out. They’re going to have great opportunities to play minutes and we’ll allow the situation to dictate itself as to which one will play more minutes. Zane has very good mobility and he’s taken the right steps developmentally to have a successful freshman year with us.”

The good news heading into the 2012-13 campaign for North Dakota will be getting back red-shirted freshman sensation Rocco Grimaldi (FLA). The Rossmoor, CA native was limited to just four games and two points (a goal and an assist) due to a season-ending knee injury.

“Rocco’s healthy and we expect a good year,” Hakstol glowingly said of Grimaldi. “He missed a year of hockey, so he’s going to have to work his way back into game shape and game sharpness. But with Rocco’s work ethic, I’m sure that it won’t take him too long to do that.”

Grimaldi’s return will also help replace the offensive production of three departed forwards, including Brock Nelson, who opted to forgo the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the New York Islanders. The Warroad, MN native led North Dakota last season with 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists) playing in all 42 games. His 10 power-play tallies finished tied for sixth nationally.

Senior Danny Kristo (MTL) returns as the team’s top scorer after posting 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 42 games last season. However, Kristo’s 2012-13 debut will be delayed due to a two-game suspension he was handed prior to the start of the season.

Two sophomore forwards who are expected to play in the regular season opener are Mark MacMillan (MTL) and Michael Parks (PHI). MacMillan returns after leading all North Dakota rookies in scoring with 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 42 games. Parks led all North Dakota freshmen with 12 goals last season and finished with 22 points in 42 games. The St. Louis, MO native was recently injured in an exhibition game and his status is still up in the air.

“I think Mark and Michael along with the rest of the sophomore class will be a real key for us in the first half of this year and will determine our success early,” Hakstol said of his two sophomores. “Both of them, along with Carter Rowney became our most effective line in the last two months of last season. Mark and Michael have gained confidence and experience, so those are important. Mike is an elite skater and he’s outstanding in protecting the puck and getting pucks to the net. He’s also a natural scorer and I think all of those areas have improved over time. As for Mark, his game is based on speed and playmaking. Right now, he’s playing with such a high level of confidence that he’s become a dangerous player. He takes a lot of pride in being a complete player and that’s evidenced by the fact that he’s one of our key penalty killers.”

One of North Dakota’s strengths this season will be on their talent-laden blueline. Aside from losing Ben Blood (OTT) to graduation, the defensive corps returns intact. Among those leading North Dakota’s defense this season are juniors Derek Forbort (LAK) and Dillon Simpson (EDM).

Forbort finished his excellent sophomore campaign posting 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 35 games. He has made some significant strides in his development, most notably in his improved defensive zone play and the increasing confidence that he exudes skating with the puck.

Like Forbort, Simpson is also coming off of a great sophomore year. The Edmonton, AB native played in all 42 games last season, posting 18 points (two goals, 16 assists). The most notable improvement in Simpson’s development was evident in his decisions with the puck. Simpson showed more patience and was able to move the puck more quickly.

“We couldn’t be happier with Dillon’s development,” Hakstol said of Simpson. “This year, we’ll have an expanded role for him five-on-five and potentially into some penalty killing as well. He already played a key role for us on our power-play last year and that will be continuing. Dillon is a very intelligent player with very good puck poise and hockey sense. He’s very calm on the ice and can really keep everything in perspective. But it’s all a matter of his physical maturity continuing to move in the right direction and we’re seeing very good things.”

In addition to the returning veterans, North Dakota will also welcome five new skaters. The newcomer everyone will be watching is defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (STL). The Verona, WI native is a 6’2”, 190 -pound offensive-minded defenseman noted for his superb skating and puck-moving ability.

“Jordan is another one of those guys that has taken great developmental steps,” said Hakstol. “He’s a very talented individual. I expect Jordan to play a significant role for us both in even strength situations as well as on our power-play. I expect good things from Jordan and from what I’ve seen thus far, it has been all that.”

St. Cloud State University
NHL prospects: 5

Injuries took a heavy toll on St. Cloud State last season with only six players playing in all 39 games. And while the team is healthy heading into the season, there are some big holes to fill left by seven departures.

The good news for the Huskies is that the team will have red-shirted senior Drew Leblanc back in the fold. The Hermantown, MN native was limited to just 10 games and 12 points (two goals, ten assists) due to a season-ending leg injury he suffered last November. Leblanc, who will serve as one of the Huskies co-captains this season, brings some excellent offense-generating ability that will help to replace the lost point production left by four departing forwards.

Of those losses, the most notable are Jared Festler and David Eddy. Festler, who has graduated, finished with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) playing in all 39 games last season. Eddy opted to forgo his senior year to sign with the Calgary Flames. He finished with 25 points (nine goals, 14 assists) also playing in all 39 games last season.

Leading St. Cloud State’s offensive attack this season is senior co-captain Ben Hanowski (PIT). The Little Falls, MN native led the Huskies with 43 points (23 goals, 20 assists) in 39 games last season. Hanowski continues to be the driving force behind St. Cloud State’s outstanding offense, which averaged 3.06 goals per game in 2011-12. The most notable aspect of Hanowski’s development has been in his maturity. He has become a more-rounded player and grown into a strong leader. While his offensive prowess continues to be his trademark, Hanowski has made progress in other areas, as well, such as his much-improved defensive game.

Two returning juniors that have also made significant strides in their development are Los Angeles Kings prospects Nic Dowd and defenseman Kevin Gravel.

Last season, Dowd played at wing and center and proved to be equally adept at both positions. His noticeably stronger 6’2” frame has improved his effectiveness in the difficult areas and has allowed him to better protect the puck. Dowd finished last season with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 39 games. And this season those numbers could potentially rise.

Gravel is gradually developing into one of the nation’s premiere defensive defensemen. The Kingsford, MI native posted eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 37 games last season and was the Huskies most dominant rearguard. One notable area where Gravel has made great progress is in his ability to move with the puck. He is more confident and has shown great poise and patience with it. While Gravel isn’t likely to become a big time scorer, his offensive side is expanding.

While Gravel dominates on the defensive side for St. Cloud State, fellow junior Nick Jensen (DET) has become the Huskies best offensive defenseman. The Rogers, MN native led the team in defensive scoring with 32 points (six goals, 26 assists) playing in all 39 games last season. His 26 assists also led St. Cloud State. Part of what makes Jensen such a wonderful player is his superb ability to move the puck. And what has made him even better is his quicker and smarter decisions with it, particularly on the Huskies power-play.

Jensen and Gravel are part of an outstanding returning group on St. Cloud State’s back end that lost just two players in the off-season.

The most notable of the two departures was that of goaltender Mike Lee. The Roseau, MN native opted to forgo his final year to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Despite being limited to 16 games due a hip injury, Lee was quite good posting an 8-6-2 record that included one shutout.

Lee split time last season with returning sophomore Ryan Faragher. The Fort Frances, ON native stepped in and played remarkably well, finishing with a 9-11-3 record that included one shutout and a .915 save percentage. Faragher is a player that is well worth watching this season. He possesses size (6’2”, 205 lbs.) and excellent reflexes. His calm demeanor in goal gave the Huskies some nice stability, particularly in Lee’s absence.

In addition to the returning veterans, St. Cloud State will feature five newcomers. The player to watch is forward Joey Benik. The Andover, MN is noted for his prolific scoring prowess. But Benik’s collegiate debut was recently put on hold after suffering a broken leg in practice.

University of Wisconsin
NHL prospects: 9

The youth movement in Madison went through its growing pains last season, finishing tenth in the WCHA. But with a more experienced group returning, few off-season departures and a talented freshman class, the Badgers should fare better this season.

Three of the four players departing the program in the off-season were defensemen, including WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Justin Schultz, who opted to forgo the final year of his eligibility to sign as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers. The West Kelowna, BC native led the nation in defensive scoring with 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) playing in all 37 games and was a vital cog on the Badgers’ outstanding power-play. Schultz’s stellar junior campaign earned him numerous honors including being named a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and earning a selection to the All-America West First Team.

One player who benefited greatly playing alongside Schultz in power-play situations last season was Jake McCabe (BUF). The Eau Claire, WI native is one of two Buffalo Sabres prospects on the Wisconsin roster this season. McCabe was hampered by injury early last season, but is gradually developing into an elite college defenseman. He finished his excellent rookie campaign posting 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 26 games. And as good as he was as a freshman, he could be even better as a sophomore. As head coach Mike Eaves explains, McCabe will be a crucial part of the Badgers’ success this season.

“Jake took a big step at the end of last year and showed what he can do. I think what happened (in Denver) with Jake last year in terms of really making a name for himself was his ability to play at a high pace and at that next gear. We wanted him to understand that he needed to play at that pace, do things quicker and get back to the puck right away and taking that first option. So he came to understand that and I think it became a big part of Jake’s improvement. He’s going to be a key factor in all facets of our game this year. Whether Jake is going to be the quarterback on our power-play remains to be determined, but he’s going to be a key factor on that first unit. Jake will get lots of ice time, there’s no question about that.”

In addition to the returning veterans, the Badgers will also have two new defensemen patrolling the blueline this season. The one to watch is Ed Wittchow (FLA). The Burnsville, MN native will add some size (6’4”, 205 lbs.) to the Wisconsin defensive corps and is noted for his superb skating ability and gritty play.

“The first thing you notice about Eddie is that he’s a big, young man,” Eaves said of Wittchow. “He’s got a great reach and big body. And for a big body, he has pretty good feet. Now, Eddie just needs to learn the game at this level. He’s certainly going to be playing a lot for us and we’re excited about that.”

Up front, the Badgers look very good coming into the season. Wisconsin lost just one regular forward in the off-season in Jason Clark. In a somewhat surprising move given his limited playing time and bouts with injuries, Clark opted to forgo the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the New York Islanders. The Eden Prairie, MN native posted just one assist in 21 games last season. Eaves notes that Clark’s decision to leave Wisconsin came as a surprise to him as well.

“Well, there was a surprise level in it for us. Jason came to me over the summer after the Islanders prospect camp. We talked about all the facets of his decision and the bottom line for Jason was that this is what he felt in his heart that he had do. When you make big decisions, sometimes you have to go with your heart and take that risk. So that’s what Jason did.”

The loss of Clark pales in comparison to potentially not having the services of incoming freshman phenom Nic Kerdiles (ANA) this season. The Irvine, CA native was recently ruled ineligible for the 2012-13 season by the NCAA for reported violation of amateurism rules. Wisconsin is appealing the ruling.

While being without Kerdiles is significant, the Badgers will still be quite good throughout their forward lines this season. Junior Mark Zengerle leads Wisconsin’s offensive charge. The Rochester, NY native is the NCAA’s top returning co-leading scorer this season. Zengerle enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign, racking up 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists) playing in all 37 games. He has also garnered considerable NHL interest, which will likely intensify this season.

One veteran that the Badgers will look to step up this season is junior Michael Mersch (LAK). The Park Ridge, IL native returns as the team’s top goal scorer after posting 14 goals and 30 points last season. One notable improvement that Mersch made last season was in his skating. His footwork is noticeably better and his edges are smoother. And with his strengthened 6’1”, 210-pound frame, his strides are also more powerful.

Another forward making good progress in his development last season was Joseph LaBate (VAN). The Eagan, MN native finished his outstanding rookie campaign leading all Wisconsin freshmen with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) in 37 games. LaBate was utilized as both a center and winger last season and played quite well at both positions. His confidence level grew over the course of the season and where this was particularly evident was in his willingness to take calculated risks to create plays.

“We’re absolutely hoping that Joe will have a breakout year for us,” Eaves said of LaBate. “He’s a skilled forward that’s really competitive and has learned the (college) game. Joe was put in a lot of situations that maybe he probably wouldn’t have played in if we weren’t so young last year. The only situation that he didn’t play in for us was on the penalty kill. Joe wants to get better and he’s willing to do what’s necessary to get the job done. He has come back bigger and stronger, but he’s still got a lot of room for improvement there because his body is not physically mature yet. But he’s still working hard at it and Joe is going to play in a lot of situations for us this year.”

Goaltending was a big concern for the Badgers at the start of last season. But by season’s end, it was a position that solidified quite well. Returning sophomores Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson blossomed into a reliable goaltending duo. Rumpel appeared in 26 games and posted a 12-12-2 record that included three shutouts. Peterson posted a 5-6-0 record in 13 appearances.

2012-13 WCHA season preview, part 1

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF