CCHA 2006-07 season preview

By DJ Powers

The CCHA is shaping up to be a conference that is sure to provide some suspense and more than a few surprises once again. This season, the CCHA features 54 current NHL prospects representing all 12 member schools. The University of Michigan leads all conference schools with 12 prospects.

Michigan State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 7)

The 2005-06 edition of the Michigan State Spartans could best be summed up as a tale of two teams. After an inconsistent start, Michigan State caught fire in the second half of the season and went on to claim their first Mason Cup Championship since 2001. Michigan State is off to a good start to their 2006-07 season having beaten Western Michigan on Friday.

Coming into this season, the Spartans will have some significant holes to fill. Of all the players lost, Drew Miller (ANA) may be the most difficult to replace. The CCHA’s Defensive Forward of the Year led the Spartans in scoring last season with 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) and was a key part of the Michigan State penalty-killing unit.

Despite the early departure of Dominic Vicari, goaltending looks to once again be one of Michigan State’s strengths with the return of sophomore sensation Jeff Lerg. The CCHA Rookie of the Year was spectacular between the pipes last season, posting a 17-6-6 record that included three shutouts. His 1.96 goals against average ranked third in the nation while his .928 save percentage ranked seventh.

One area where Michigan State looks to have some considerable depth this season is up front, where they are led by juniors Bryan Lerg and Jim McKenzie (OTT). Lerg returns as the Spartans top scorer from last season, posting 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists). The imposing McKenzie continues to make his presence felt, posting 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) and 85 penalty minutes.

The must-watch line combination for the Spartans is the sophomore trio of Justin Abdelkader (DET), Tim Kennedy (BUF) and Tim Crowder (PIT). The “’09 Line” as they are called, was one of the nation’s most exciting rookie lines last season. The trio combined for 71 points (31 goals, 40 assists), along with 17 power play goals.

Senior assistant captain Tyler Howells leads an excellent Michigan State defense this season. The Eden Prairie, MN native led all defensemen in scoring last season with 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists). He also led the team with a plus-21.

Adding depth to the Spartans lineup are two talented newcomers that were drafted this summer. The versatile Ryan Turek (STL) is noted for his excellent skating and can play at both the forward and defense positions. Michael Ratchuk (PHI) is an offensive-minded defenseman known for his tremendous agility.

University of Alaska

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

The University of Alaska looks to change more than just their athletics name this season. The Nanooks will also try to better last year’s (tied for) eighth place finish in the CCHA. They’re off to a good 2006-07 start to achieve that goal after defeating Air Force at home on Friday.

Alaska’s goaltending looks to be their strength this season. Junior Wylie Rogers and sophomore Chad Johnson (PIT) gave the Nanooks one of the nation’s best goaltending tandems last season and both look to be even better this season. Rogers posted a 12-9-1 record that included three shutouts in 25 games last season. Johnson, a CCHA All-Rookie Team honorable mention, posted a 6-7-4 record in 18 games. Both netminders also posted save percentages over .910.

Sophomore Tyler Eckford (NJ) will help lead a very solid and more experienced Nanooks defensive corps this season. The Langley, BC native enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, leading all Alaska freshmen and defensemen in scoring with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) and earned a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie Team.

One area where the Nanooks struggled mightily last season was in offensive production. Alaska ranked 51st in the nation on offense, averaging 2.36 goals per game. Imposing junior Kyle Greentree, who will serve as one of the assistant captains, returns as the Nanooks top scorer from last season with 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists). Greentree was one of only three players last season to post 20 more points.

Two sensational newcomers that are more than capable of helping Alaska boost their offensive numbers and well worth keeping an eye on are a pair of 2007 NHL Draft eligible centers in Dion Knelsen and Jeff Lee. Head coach Tavis MacMillan feels that both players will have an immediate impact on the team.

“Dion is a special, special player. He’s very cerebral and sees the ice so well. As a 17-year-old, Dion is going to be an impact player for us. He’ll provide an immediate spark and immediate impact for us offensively, both five-on-five and on the power play,” said MacMillan. “Dion has a great head for the game and understands the different aspects of it. He’s very demanding of himself and pursues excellence constantly. Dion plays the game at a high speed with two hands on his stick.”

“Jeff a big player (6’2/210) for an 18-year-old but he can absolutely fly. He just moves all the time. He’s got an unbelievable work ethic and determination about him. If he can find his confidence here, Jeff can become a very dangerous offensive player. He’s a kid that can influence the game without anyone noticing him,” said MacMillan.

While the Nanooks suffered through offensive woes last season, where they were at their best was on the penalty kill. Alaska was the CCHA’s best penalty-killing team last season that also ranked third in the nation with an 88 percent efficiency rating.

Bowling Green State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

After finishing in the CCHA basement last season, Bowling Green is looking to get things turned around. However, they’ll have to do it with a younger team. The Falcons look like they’re headed in the right direction after beating UConn on Friday to open their 2006-07 season.

Bowling Green lost few players in the offseason and nearly all of them were to graduation. Their biggest loss however was that of top scorer Alex Foster (TOR), who opted to leave Bowling Green early to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Foster, an All-CCHA Second Team selection, led the Falcons in scoring last season with 51 points (11 goals, 40 assists).

With Foster having departed, Bowling Green will need to find a way to replace the offensive production that he leaves. One player that the Falcons will be relying on is junior Jonathan Matsumoto (PHI). The Orleans, Ont. native, who will serve as one of Bowling Green’s assistant captains this season, returns as the Falcons’ top scorer with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists). Matsumoto’s 20 goals also led Bowling Green. Last season, Foster and Matsumoto alone accounted for 109 (33 percent) of Bowling Green’s 334 points.

Two returning players that could help restore some of the offensive production that left with Foster are senior James Unger and junior Derek Whitmore. Unger finished with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) and led the Falcons with 73 penalty minutes. Unger’s start this season will be delayed due to a wrist injury. Whitmore finished third on the team last year with 13 goals, over half (8) of which came on the power play.

Bowling Green brings in a very good recruiting class this season. Two notable centermen who can certainly provide a big boost to the Falcons offense and ones to watch are a pair of 2007 NHL Draft eligible players in James Perkin and Kai Kantola. Perkin, who played at Lincoln (USHL) and with the AJHL’s Calgary Canucks before that, is player noted for his tremendous scoring ability. Kantola, from Fargo-Moorhead (NAHL), is a tall, lanky player noted for his superb puck skills and instinctive play.

While the Falcons look to be very solid up front, defense could be another story. Bowling Green finished a dismal 55th in the nation in team defense, allowing an average of 3.87 goals per game.

The area where the defensive improvements will have to start is in goal. Sophomore Jimmy Spratt (CAL) returns this season after struggling through a rookie season that saw him go 4-10-1 and posting a dismal .855 save percentage. Bowling Green is hopeful that Spratt will come into this season with more confidence and ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Bowling Green will also need the leadership and guidance of senior Jeremy Bronson, and juniors Michael Hodgson and Mike Nesdill to not only stabilize the Falcons defense but will go a long way to helping Bowling Green better their 12th place conference finish of last season.

Ferris State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

Last season, the Ferris State finished tied for sixth in the conference with Lake Superior State and look to better that this year. After being swept by visiting Union College in the season opening series last weekend, they bounced back against Mercyhurst on Friday.

Ferris State returns much of their team intact but did lose key some players in forwards Greg Rallo and Matt Stefanishion (WSH). Rallo graduated while Stefanishion opted to forego his final two years of eligibility to sign with the Washington Capitals. While the losses are significant, the Bulldogs have the personnel who can replace the offensive production that the departed players leave.

Up front, Ferris State looks quite good. Senior and assistant captain Mark Bomersback and dynamic sophomore Dan Riedel lead a Bulldogs forward group that looks to be even better this season. Bomersback returns as the team’s top scorer, posting 32 points (16 goals, 16 assists). In the season opening series last weekend, Bomersback suffered a broken leg and could be out of the lineup for some time.

Riedel, a CCHA All-Rookie Team selection, was perhaps the best story coming out of Ferris State last year. The Rochester Hills, MI native enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign that saw him posted 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists), despite a bout with mononucleosis that limited him to 34 games.

The Bulldogs also look set in goal with the return of sophomore Mitch O’Keefe and junior Derek MacIntyre (SJ). O’Keefe, who won the starting the job last season, capped a superb season with a 14-12-7 record that included two shutouts. He has started the 2006-07 season but has posted a 0-2-0 thus far.

Ferris State is looking for bigger and better things from MacIntyre this season. Last year, the Stanwood, MI native posted a 3-3-1 record in eight appearances. His most memorable game came in the Wells Fargo Denver Cup back in December when he posted 43 saves to preserve an official 3-3 tie against Boston College. The Eagles went on to win the shootout and the tournament.

The blue line looks to be the Bulldogs strength this season. Ferris State features a well balanced and very experienced defensive corps led by junior and team captain Adam Welch. The Hastings, MN native is perhaps one of the nation’s most underrated defensemen. His quiet leadership combined with his calming influence and reliable positional play makes his an invaluable asset to his Bulldogs team. Welch finished last season with 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) and was the only defenseman to play in all 40 games last season.

One defenseman poised to have an impact season is sophomore Chris Zarb (PHI). The Waterford, MI native saw regular duty on the Ferris State blue line last season, posting ten points (all assists) in 29 games. Zarb comes into the 2006-07 season bigger and stronger. He has increased his weight to a robust 215 lbs. The added size and strength will make the 6’4 Zarb not only more imposing but more effective as well.

Lake Superior State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 1)

One of the best stories coming out of the CCHA last season was the Lake Superior State Lakers. LSSU fought their way to a (tied for) sixth place finish in the conference. This season however, LSSU will be in rebuilding mode as they lost 12 players. The new look Lakers are looking for their first 2006-07 win after dropping a heartbreaker at Ohio State on Friday.

The good news for LSSU is that senior goaltender Jeff Jakaitis is back. The Rochester, MN native has become one of the nation’s finest and hardest-working netminders. Jakaitis posted a 14-14-7 record last season that included four shutouts. His 2.22 goals against average ranked 12th in the country while his 920 save percentage ranked 17th. How the Lakers fare this season will depend largely on how well Jakaitis backstops them.

Jakaitis’ return will also help stabilize the very young LSSU blueline. Senior Barnabas Birkeland, who will serve as team captain, and junior Derek Smith will be relied upon to help solidify the defense. Both players return as the Lakers top scoring defensemen from last season after tallying 10 points each.

One defenseman to watch this season is newcomer Simon Gysbers. The Richmond Hill, ON native comes to LSSU from Stouffville of the Ontario Provincial Junior “A” league (OPJRA) and is noted for his size (6’4/185), great work ethic and strong positional play.

Up front, the Lakers are younger but they return much of last year’s top point producers. Three of LSSU’s top four scorers are back. Senior Trent Campbell led the Lakers in scoring with 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists). Sophomore Troy Schwab, a CCHA All-Rookie Team honorable mention, led all LSSU rookies in scoring with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists). Senior Dominic Osman rounds out the top-returning trio with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists).

In addition to their returning group, the Lakers also bring in a very good incoming freshman class that can greatly help improve the team’s 41st-ranked offense of last season and its 2.58 goals per game average. The two most notable are right wing Nathan Perkovich (NJ) and left wing Matt Martello. The towering Perkovich is a 2004 draft selection of the New Jersey Devils (eighth round, 250th overall). The Canton, MI native is noted for his great hands and offensive ability. The highly regarded Martello comes to LSSU from Vaughan (OPJHL) and is noted for his tremendous puck skills and scoring touch. The Lakers won the recruiting battle to get the much sought-after Martello, who was also being pursued by the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.

Miami (OH) University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 7)

The CCHA regular season champions ran away with the league during the season, only to see the Mason Cup Championship elude them in postseason. Nevertheless, the Miami RedHawks have a lot to be proud of and look forward to with the new season now underway. After splitting in the Icebreaker Tournament last weekend versus Denver and Vermont, Miami got back on the winning track on Friday after defeating Canisius at the Goggin Ice Center.

The big question surrounding the team entering this season was who is going to fill the monumental hole that Andy Greene’s (NJ) departure leaves. The answer, according to head coach Enrico Blasi isn’t going to be just one player, but rather by committee.

“We have a lot of confidence in our defensive corps and it’s not going to be one person stepping up, it’s going to be a collective group playing solid defense every night. This was a plan of ours right from the beginning,” said Blasi. “All of them are capable of putting points on the board. I’m not concerned about whether they can do it or not. It’s giving them the opportunity to do it and putting them in the right situation. Andy did a great job of helping them prepare for the challenge this year and I know that these guys will be able to take it to the next level.”

Junior Mitch Ganzak, along with sophomores Alec Martinez and Ray Eichenlaub will be among the players being relied on to fill the role. Ganzak, Greene’s defensive partner last season, returns as the top scoring defenseman with 31 points (two goals, 29 assists). Martinez and Eichenlaub made up Miami’s other top defensive pairing last season and finished with 11 and 13 points respectively.

Goaltending is where Miami’s strength lies. The dynamic goaltending duo of junior Charlie Effinger and sophomore Jeff Zatkoff (LA), who made up the nation’s best goaltending tandem last season, are back to do it again. Effinger, an All-CCHA Second Team selection, posted a 12-4-3 record that included one shutout. His 1.83 goals against average and .931 save percentage both ranked second in the nation last season. Not to be outdone, Zatkoff was equally impressive. The CCHA All-Rookie Team honorable mention posted a 14-5-1 record that included three shutouts. His 2.02 goals against average ranked fifth in the nation, while his .928 save percentage ranked sixth.

Miami will also have an excellent compliment of returning forwards led by high-flying juniors Nathan Davis (CHI) and Ryan Jones (MIN) that look poised to be even better this season. Davis led the team in scoring last season with 40 points (20 goals, 20 assists). The CCHA All-Conference First Team selection was lethal on specialty teams last season. Of his 20 goals, 11 came on special teams. Jones, who will serve as team captain this year, finished second in scoring with 35 points (22 goals, 13 assists). He also led the team in shots (133).

One returning player poised to have a big year this season is senior Marty Guerin (LA). After posting 34 points in his sophomore season, Guerin’s numbers dipped last season to 16 (eight goals, eight assists). While his numbers may have diminished, his contributions to the team didn’t. Guerin became a mainstay on Miami’s stellar penalty-killing unit and saw his role expand to being one of the team’s leaders and support players.

“Marty has been an all-league player for us in the past. He had an off year last season but I think he’s ready to go and he looks great. A lot of people have forgotten about him and Matt (Christie), but I think those two guys will have real good senior years this season,” said Blasi.

University of Michigan

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 12)

After a third place finish in the CCHA last season, Michigan made their 16th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wolverines look to extend that streak and it got started with a huge win over Alabama-Huntsville on Friday to open the 2006-07 season.

The one question that many people have coming into this season is whether or not sophomore Billy Sauer (COL) is ready to be Michigan’s main man in goal. The Walworth, NY native posted an 11-6-4 that included one shutout. Sauer struggled with both confidence and consistency last season, but with a year of experience now under his belt, he could end up silencing his critics when all is said and done.

Michigan’s strength this season will be their blueline. Senior and team captain Matt Hunwick (BOS) leads a high-powered, NHL-prospect laden group that includes sophomore Jack Johnson (LA) and newcomer Chris Summers (PHO). Hunwick led all defensemen in goal scoring with 11 and finished with 30 points. Johnson led all Wolverines defensemen in scoring last season with 32 points (ten goals, 22 assists). He also led the nation with 149 penalty minutes. The rookie Summers adds another excellent skating defenseman with some offensive potential to the Michigan blue line.

Few, if any players in college hockey generated more buzz this offseason than Johnson did. After Carolina failed in their numerous attempts to sign Johnson, they shipped his rights to the Los Angeles Kings. Contrary to many reports (and prior to the Kings trade), Johnson had been looking forward to playing with Carolina. However, as Michigan head coach Red Berenson is quick to point out, Johnson was going to do it on his own terms.

“Carolina has been trying relentlessly to sign Jack all summer. He told them that he gave Michigan his word that was he coming back and didn’t think that he was ready for the NHL. You can’t fast forward a kid’s development, maturity and certainly his education just because he’s a high draft pick,” said Berenson. “Jack had made it clear to Carolina that he’d love to play for them. It would be an honor for him to play for them and in the NHL, but his lifelong dream as a kid has been to play at Michigan. Now that he’s here, he is trying to become the best player that he can be. Jack is what he is and he’s not swayed by the system.”

Despite the various losses at forward, including that of the highly-touted Trevor Lewis (LA), Michigan will once again field a talent group up front headed by senior T.J. Hensick (COL) and sophomore Andrew Cogliano (EDM). Hensick, who will serve as assistant captain, led the Wolverines in scoring last season with 52 points (17 goals, 35 assists) and could garner serious consideration for the 2007 Hobey Baker Award.

“T.J. has been our offensive go-to player. This being his final season, T.J. debated a little bit this summer as to whether or not it was in his best interest to come back to Michigan but he came up with the right decision,” said Berenson. “T.J. is excited to be back and should have his best season this year.”

The electrifying Cogliano went through a bit of scoring-trouble last season, posting 28 (12 goals, 16 assists). Berenson hopes that Cogliano will be able to step up and have an even better sophomore year.

“He’s one of the guys that has to step it up for us to have a better year. We really need him to play like an experienced upperclassman and lead our team as well, even though he’s only sophomore. He had a great first half but kind of hit a wall in the second half. We’re hoping that Andrew will bounce back and have a great year,” said Berenson. “We’ve talked a little bit about putting him on wing if we had the right combination, but I’m hoping that he’ll have success as a centerman.”

University of Nebraska-Omaha

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 1)

Last season, the University of Nebraska-Omaha made their first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. While their stay in the tournament was short-lived, it provided a glimpse into the many wonderful things that lie ahead for the program. This year, the Mavericks will look to return to the NCAA Tournament. They opened their 2006-07 season posting a 2-2 on Friday with Colorado College in the Nye Frontier Classic up in Anchorage, AK.

The best news that Nebraska-Omaha received in the offseason was the return of top scoring senior Scott Parse (LA). Last season’s CCHA Player of the Year is also an early candidate for the 2007 Hobey Baker Award. Parse finished third in the nation in scoring last season with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists). His 41 assists ranked second in the nation, while his 1.49 points per game ranked fourth. As impressive as Parse’s numbers were last season, they could conceivably go higher this season.

“Obviously for us, it was a wonderful break,” said head coach Mike Kemp. “To have a player of Scott‘s caliber returning is just huge for our program going into the season, not just because of what he does on the ice but because of his leadership and the quality human being that he is.”

What Parse and the Mavericks will have to do without this season is Bill Thomas (PHO). The Pittsburgh, PA native opted to leave Nebraska-Omaha during the offseason to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. His 50 points (27 goals, 23 assists) will need to be replenished by the returning players and newcomers. While he has left the university, Kemp believes that Thomas plans to continue working towards his degree.

“The day after our season ended, Billy and I sat down and talked. What I was most pleased with about him was that he had nearly completed three-quarters of his (sophomore year) classes, which brought him closer to completing his degree,” said Kemp. “We were able to work it out so that he could go to Phoenix and be able to complete three of the four classes that he needed by distance learning. When Phoenix’s season ended, Billy was able to come back here and take his final exams to complete those classes. So I give a lot of credit for doing that. I strongly believe that Billy wants to and has the intention of finishing his degree and I think he’ll do that.”

With the loss of Thomas along with other key graduates, the Mavericks will have a variety of roles to fill. Among the returning forwards who’ll be relied upon to help pick up the offensive slack is junior Bryan Marshall. The Livonia, MI native posted 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists) last season. Marshall is expected to play along Parse again this season.

The Mavericks also return sophomore Jerad Kaufmann in goal this season. Kaufmann, who won the starting job last season, played remarkably well considering the fact that Nebraska-Omaha scrambled to fill the goaltending duties this time last year when Chris Holt (NYR) left the team very late in the offseason. Kaufmann posted a 17-11-6 record that included two shutouts. Highly-regarded newcomer Jeremie Dupont will be battling Kaufmann for the starting job and playing time. Dupont comes to Nebraska-Omaha from the OPJRA’s Aurora Tigers, where he played for his father, former NHLer Jerome Dupont. Jeremie Dupont holds the distinction of being the youngest player (born 12/18/88) to play for the Mavericks in the history of the program. He will also be eligible for the 2007 NHL Draft.

Senior Dan Knapp and junior Phil Angell lead a solid and experienced Mavericks defensive corps that return nearly intact.

Northern Michigan University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 9)

Northern Michigan turned in another strong finish last season with a 22-16-2 record and fourth place in the CCHA standings. This season, the Wildcats look poised to be a strong contender for the Mason Cup, despite being off to a winless start after a loss and tie to Wisconsin last weekend and a loss at Michigan Tech on Friday.

While Northern Michigan lost Dirk Southern and Andrew Contois to graduation, they return an excellent group up front led by their talented top line of seniors Pat Bateman and Darin Olver (NYR), and junior Mike Santorelli (NSH). Bateman, who will serve as team captain this season, posted 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) and led the Wildcats with 87 penalty minutes. The exciting Olver, who will serve as one of the assistant captains this year, led Northern Michigan in scoring last season with 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists). He also led the team with five game-winning tallies. Santorelli finished third on the team in scoring with 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) and was one of only three Wildcats to play in all 40 games last season. As good as this top line was last season, they could be even better this season.

One forward that has made significant strides in his overall development since coming to Northern Michigan is senior Dusty Collins (TB). The Gilbert, AZ native posted 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 34 appearances. While Collins’ numbers aren’t all that impressive nor will likely never be, he has become a valuable part of the Wildcats team in other ways. The progress in his development can best be seen in his maturity, confidence and in his defensive contributions. Collins has learned to smartly and effectively use his 6’3/210 lbs. frame. As a result, it has given Northern Michigan another solid defensive-minded forward that the opposition has to deal with.

A newcomer worth keeping an eye on is center Matt Butcher (VAN). The Bellingham, WA native is the son of former NHLer Garth Butcher. The younger Butcher could become an immediate impact player for the Wildcats with his tremendous puck skills and scoring capability.

Senior goaltender Bill Zaniboni gives the Wildcats a strong and reliable presence in goal this season. The Plymouth, MA native posted an 18-12-2 record last season that included three shutouts.

Defense will be where much of Northern Michigan’s biggest concerns are. The outstanding pairing of Nathan Oystrick (ATL) and Geoff Waugh have graduated, leaving some huge holes to fill on the blue line. Senior and assistant captain Zach Tarkir (NJ) leads a predominantly young and somewhat inexperienced group that could potentially be rock solid by season’s end. Tarkir returns as the Wildcats’ top scoring defenseman from last season. He posted 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 39 games. Amongst the players who could eventually fill some of the roles that Oystrick and Waugh leave is newcomer T.J. Miller (NJ). The offensive-minded defenseman is noted for his scoring touch and his mobility.

University of Notre Dame

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 4)

The inaugural season of the Jeff Jackson era at Notre Dame was, by most accounts, a success. Though one would never know it by just looking at their 13-19-4 record and their (tied for) eighth place CCHA finish. This year, the Fighting Irish have gotten off to a strong start to their 2006-07 season by defeating Minnesota State-Mankato on Thursday.

A big part of Notre Dame’s success last season can be attributed to the brilliant performance of senior netminder David Brown (PIT). The Stoney Creek, ONT native posted 9-15-4 record that included two shutouts. While Brown’s record may not be all that impressive, both his goals against average (2.47) and save percentage (.915) were. This season, the Irish are hoping to get another great year out of Brown.

Backing up Brown in South Bend this season are a solid group of experienced defensemen led by a trio of seniors in Wes O’Neill (NYI), Noah Babin and Tom Sawatske. The towering O’Neill, who will serve as one of the assistant captains this season, led all Irish defensemen in scoring last season with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). The Essex, ON native has steadily made great strides in his development since arriving at Notre Dame and the Irish are looking for even bigger and better things from O’Neill this season.

The strong-skating Babin finished with 15 point (three goals, 12 assists). Sawatske, the former Wisconsin Badger, posted four points (two goals, two assists) in 32 outings last season.

One defenseman to watch this season is newcomer Kyle Lawson (CAR). The New Hudson, MI native comes to Notre Dame from Tri-City (USHL) and is noted for his great on-ice vision and hockey sense. Lawson’s ability to chip in some points will help make him an invaluable addition to the Irish defense.

Goal scoring was a problem that plagued Notre Dame last season and an area they look to vastly improve this season. The outstanding puck-moving sophomore Erik Condra (OTT), a CCHA All-Rookie Team selection, returns as the Irish’s top scorer from last season after posting 34 points (six goals, 28 assists). Senior Josh Sciba led Notre Dame in goal scoring with 17 and is the only returning player who posted ten or more goals last season.

Two forwards that could become impact players this season are from Notre Dame’s stellar freshman class in Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang. The diminutive Deeth posted 54 points for Green Bay (USHL) last season and is noted for his quickness. Thang posted 52 points last season with Sioux Falls/Omaha (USHL) and is noted for his outstanding play around the net.

The Ohio State University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 5)

The 2005-06 season was tough on Ohio State. Injuries took a huge toll on the Buckeyes as they struggled to a tenth place finish with an 11-14-3 record. This year, Ohio State looks to turn things. They opened their 2006-07 season with a win over Lake Superior State on Friday.

The new season begins with more questions than answers. One of the biggest issues that the Buckeyes will have to contend with is not having junior Tom Fritsche (COL) in the lineup to start the season. The team announced last month that Fritsche is battling ulcerative colitis and could potentially miss the entire season. Fritsche led Ohio State the last two seasons in scoring, having finished 2005-06 with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists).

Without the services of Fritsche, the Buckeyes will need to have other players such as seniors Andrew Schembri and Mathieu Beaudoin, and juniors Matt McIlvane (OTT) and Domenic Maiani pick up the slack. Schembri led the Buckeyes with 12 goals last season. Beaudoin and Maiani are both coming off of injury-shortened seasons, posting 16 and 18 points respectively. McIlvane, who will serve as one of the team’s assistant captains along with Beaudoin, posted 13 points (three goals, ten assists) in 37 games.

Goaltending will be another issue that Ohio State will have to resolve, as last season’s top two netminders are gone. Dave Caruso (ATL) has graduated and Ian Keserich (COL) has left the team and is currently playing with the Tri-City Storm (USHL).

Joe Palmer (CHI) will be one of two newcomers that will be battling for the starting job. Palmer, a 2006 draft selection of the Chicago Blackhawks (fourth round, 96th overall), comes to Ohio State from USNTDP and is noted for his size (6’1/205) and excellent lateral movement.

With inexperienced goaltending to start the season, the Buckeyes will be relying heavily on the experience and leadership of their defensive corps. Seniors Sean Collins, Matt Waddell and Tyson Strachan (CAR) will be counted on to help stabilize the defense. Collins, the Buckeyes team captain, led all defensemen in scoring last season with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) and is one of only two returning players who played in all 39 games last season. Waddell finished with 14 points (eight goals, six assists) and racked up 70 penalty minutes. Strachan is coming off of a season cut short due to a wrist injury. He posted six points (two goals, four assists) in 23 games.

The lone newcomer to the Ohio State defense is another USNTDP product in Kevin Montgomery (COL). The Rochester, NY native is noted for his strong skating and ability to make excellent outlet passes.

Western Michigan University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 2)

It’s a brand new season and for the Western Michigan Broncos it’s time to get things back on track and make a move up the CCHA standings. They’ll be trying to bounce back from the 2006-07 season-opening loss at Michigan State on Friday.

There wasn’t much that seemed to go right for the Broncos last season. This season, Western Michigan will be looking to make some big improvements/adjustments. One will be generating more offense and replenish the scoring that left with graduated forward Brent Walton. The Broncos finished tied for 48th in the nation in offense, averaging just 2.36 goals per game. Walton led Western Michigan in scoring with 42 points (25 goals, 17 assists). His 25 goals accounted for nearly one-quarter of the Broncos entire goal scoring output last year.

Senior Paul Szczechura and sophomore Jeff LoVecchio will be two players who will be counted on to step up their offensive production. Szczechura returns as the team’s top scorer finishing second on the team in scoring with 36 points (10 goals, 26 assists). Szczechura and Walton were also the only two Broncos last season that posted 20 or more points and 10 or more goals. LoVecchio led all Western Michigan rookies in scoring with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists).

Workhorse junior Daniel Bellissimo returns in goal for the Broncos but could use more support this season. He posted a 9-22-6 record that included two shutouts in 38 appearances. His 2226:56 minutes played ranked fourth most among goaltenders in the nation last season. What makes the feat even more remarkable is the fact that he faced an average of just over 33 shots per game.

The biggest concern that Western Michigan has to deal with is improving the team defense. As bad as the Broncos were offensively, they were even worse on defense. Western Michigan ranked tied for 57th in the country defensively, allowing an average of four goals per game. Only American International had a worse defense in the nation last season. Senior and team captain Ryan Mahrle leads a Broncos team that will have a good mix of veterans and underclassmen with size and toughness this season, but the question still looming is how much better will they be in their own end. Mahrle led all Western Michigan defensemen in scoring last season with 18 points (three goals, 15 assists).

One returning defenseman well worth watching this season is punishing sophomore Chris Frank (PHO). The Lynnwood, WA native was a bit of a surprise at the 2006 draft when he was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the seventh round (188th overall). Frank appeared in 38 games last season posting four points (two goals, two assists) and finished second in the nation with 127 penalty minutes. Frank’s hard-hitting style and solid positional play earned him regular playing time last season. As a result, he became arguably the team’s most consistent and reliable defenseman. This year, Western Michigan hopes that he and the rest of the defensive corps can step things up to not only provide some support for Bellissimo but also help the Broncos be more a disciplined and sound defensive team as well.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.