2013-14 WCHA season preview, part 2

By DJ Powers
Stephon Williams - Minnesota State Mankato

Photo: Minnesota State Mankato goaltender and New York Islanders prospect Stephon Williams will be an important piece in the Mavericks’ run at a conference title in the newly revamped WCHA (courtesy of Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)


Hockey's Future looked at half of the 10 teams that make up the revamped WCHA conference in the first part of our conference preview. In part two, we preview the remaining five schools for the 2013-14 season.

Ferris State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Bulldogs open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 5 at Colgate.

Ferris State finished fifth in the CCHA last season and is poised to potentially finish at or near the top of the WCHA this season.

One reason is the Bulldogs’ stifling defense. Ferris State has traditionally been a superb defensive team, and last season was no different. The Bulldogs defense finished 14th nationally, allowing an average of 2.41 goals per game. This season, they could be even better, returning their top two goaltenders and virtually their entire defensive corps.

Junior C.J. Motte returns as Ferris State’s go-to guy between the pipes after a terrific sophomore campaign that saw him post a 15-15-5 record that included three shutouts in 35 appearances. The St. Clair, MI native is a goaltender who plays with great composure and has become one of the nation’s most adept puck-handlers. Motte is poised to have a career year and could finish among the nation’s best netminders by year’s end. As head coach Bob Daniels explains, Motte came a long way in his development last season and hopes to expand on it this season.

“I think C.J.’s development from the previous year to last year was monumental,” explained Daniels. “From his conditioning to his approach to practice, it was a completely different player for us. I think C.J. did a good job of really learning how to practice and battle from Taylor (Nelson) in the previous year. I don’t think you’re going to see that monumental jump in his game again this year because he played at such a high level last year. The area C.J.’s very good at is moving the puck. It’s not something that we really coached a year ago because of the defensemen that we had turned over and knowing the challenges that we had with that. This year, we’re going to look to allow him to utilize that skill that he has and I think that’s one of the things that will really change not only for C.J. but for our entire team as well.”

With the exception of Nate Milam, the Bulldogs blueline returns intact. One notable aspect of Ferris State’s defense is their excellent mobility. It’s an attribute that senior Scott Czarnowczan and junior Jason Binkley, two of the Bulldogs anchors, possess. Czarnowczan returns after a myriad of injuries limited him to 22 games and six assists last season. Binkley led all Ferris State rearguards with 20 points (two goals, 18 assists) in 37 games. This summer, Binkley attended the Detroit Red Wings' prospect camp.

“Scott is 100% healthy now,” Daniels said of Czarnowczan. “He’s had a good summer, the time to really heal, and I think that’s going to help him. Scott will be our captain this year and he’s a very good leader. He’s a got a good sense and a good pulse of the team.”

“Jason was one of the sophomores that we leaned heavily on last year as freshmen,” Daniels said of Binkley. “He saw different situations, logged a lot of minutes for us, and was very productive. One of the things that we’ve tried to caution Jason about is not expanding his game so much that it hurts us. I think as long as he continues to play to his strengths and within the realm of the game plan, then we should be fine. Jason is very offensive-minded and he can create offense for us, which is what we need him to do.”

With their blueline and goaltending set heading into the season, Ferris State will be looking to fill some significant holes up front. The Bulldogs graduated four of their top forwards, including two of their top three goal-scorers in Kyle Bonis and Travis Ouellette. The two combined for 30 goals, including 13 of the team’s 27 power-play goals last season.

Senior Garrett Thompson is one of those returning veterans that the Bulldogs will look to for increased offense this season. Thompson is coming off a strong junior campaign, finishing with 26 goals (11 goals, 15 assists) in 37 games. The sturdy winger from Traverse City, MI played in all situations and showed a knack for scoring timely goals. Of his 11 goals, five came on special teams – four on the power-play and one shorthanded. This summer, Thompson attended the Chicago Blackhawks' prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veterans, Ferris State will also welcome seven newcomers. One player to keep an eye on is forward Seth Adams. The Big Rapids, MI native will add size (6’2”, 180 lbs.) and grit to the Bulldogs lineup. Adams is also eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

Lake Superior State University
NHL prospects: 0

The Lakers open their 2013-14 season hosting Robert Morris on Oct. 11.

After a fairly good start last season, Lake Superior State struggled in the second half and ended up finishing ninth in the CCHA. While the Lakers return much of last season’s team, there are some issues that will need to be addressed if they intend to make a run for the WCHA title this season.

The biggest is generating more offense. Lake Superior State ranked 48th in team offense last season, averaging 2.36 goals per game. The task of increasing their offensive output is further challenged by the fact that the team graduated their two top scorers in Domenic Monardo and Nick McPartland, and lost towering forwards Kellen Lain and Buddy Robinson to early departures. Lain signed with the Vancouver Canucks and Robinson signed with the Ottawa Senators.

Among those that the Lakers will look to for stepped up offensive production this season are junior Chris Ciotti and senior Dan Radke.

Ciotti is the top returning goal scorer for Lake Superior State after posting 11 last season. The Oxford, MI native finished his outstanding sophomore campaign with 19 points in 38 games. He was also one of only two Lakers that posted 10 or more goals last season. Ciotti is a 5’11’, 180-pound center who possesses great hands and vision. And where he really made his mark last season was on the power-play. Of his 11 goals, five came with the man advantage.

Radke returns as Lake Superior State’s top scorer. The Orinda, CA native is coming off of a great junior campaign where he finished third on the Lakers squad with 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 38 games last season. Radke is a 5’9”, 182-pound winger who is all about quickness. He plays the game at a high tempo and possesses superb puck-moving ability. Radke also has a very good shot and a quick release.

One forward that the Lakers sorely missed much of last season was Colin Campbell. The now senior from Pickering, ON was limited to just nine games and three assists due to injury. Campbell is a 6’1”, 203-pound power forward who knows what to do with the puck when it’s on his stick. Campbell has been on the NHL radar for quite some time and this summer he attended the Tampa Bay Lightning's prospect camp.

Of the Lakers eight newcomers, seven are forwards. One to keep an eye on is Alex Globke. At 6’3” and 206 pounds, he is the biggest of the team’s freshman class and could eventually fill the role left by Kellen Lain. Globke is also the younger brother of former Notre Dame standout and one-time Florida Panthers' prospect, Rob Globke.

Another area where Lake Superior State hopes to improve this season is their consistency in goal. Senior Kevin Kapalka will look to bounce back from a disappointing junior campaign while competing with fellow senior Kevin Murdock. Kapalka and Murdock split time in goal last season. Kapalka posted a 7-9-1 record that included three shutouts in 21 appearances. Murdock played in 23 games, compiling a 10-12-0 record that also included three shutouts. Senior Niels-Erik Ravn, who did not see any action last season, is also in the mix.

The Lakers’ strength this season will be on their blueline. Lake Superior State returns all of their top defensemen, including junior Kevin Czuczman. The Port Elgin, ON native was named the Lakers' Most Valuable Defenseman after a stellar sophomore campaign that saw him post 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 38 games last season. His two goals were both game-winners. While Czuczman’s offensive numbers may not be all that impressive, his overall play is. One notable area of his development was in his ability to use his 6’3”, 205-pound frame more effectively in the defensive zone and in shutting down opposing players. Not surprisingly, Czuczman has been closely watched by a number of NHL teams. Among them are the Buffalo Sabres and the Winnipeg Jets, whose prospect camps he attended this summer.

Michigan Tech University
NHL prospects: 3

The Huskies open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Minnesota-Duluth.

After a sensational 2011-12 season, Michigan Tech fell back a bit in 2012-13, finishing 10th in the WCHA. But with a more experienced veteran group returning and a very good incoming class, the Huskies are poised to have a much better conference finish this season.

Michigan Tech lost five forwards this past offseason, with no loss being greater than that of Jujhar Khaira. The Surrey, BC native left Houghton in early August to sign with the Edmonton Oilers. Khaira made an immediate impact for Michigan Tech last season. He finished his lone collegiate season collecting 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 37 games.

Despite the losses, the Huskies look to be in great shape with the return of most of their top scorers from last season. And the depth of the forward lines will also be one of Michigan Tech’s strengths this season. Sophomore Alex Petan and junior Blake Pietila (NJD) are among those leading the Huskies' offensive charge.

Petan, a WCHA All-Rookie Team selection last season, led Michigan Tech with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 37 games. The Delta, BC native was particularly dangerous on Michigan Tech’s power-play, where six of his 15 goals were scored. Petan, the brother of Winnipeg Jets prospect Nic Petan, is a small (5’9”, 180 lbs.), elusive winger who is fun to watch. His combination of quick feet, great vision and hockey sense makes him a difficult player to slow down.

Pietila, who will serve as team co-captain this season, finished second on the Huskies roster last season with 14 goals and fourth with 24 points in 35 games. He also helped guide Team USA to a gold-medal at the 2013 U20 World Junior Championship last winter. Pietila’s time with Team USA significantly helped his development at Michigan Tech in the second half. Nowhere was that more evident than in his vastly improved defensive game. While Pietila will continue to put up very good offensive numbers this season, he could also become a key defensive component for the Huskies, particularly on the penalty kill.

Competing with the returning veterans for playing time up front this season are six freshmen. One to keep an eye on is Tyler Heinonen. The Delano, MN native is a 6’0”, 185-pound forward noted for his great scoring prowess, which should give Michigan Tech some extra firepower. Heinonen is also eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

Another area where Michigan Tech suffered key losses was on their blueline when Steven Seigo and Carl Nielsen graduated. While the losses are significant, the Huskies look to have an excellent defensive corps this season. Anchoring Michigan Tech’s defense is senior Brad Stebner. The Fort McMurray, AB native played in 35 games last season, posting 11 points (one goal, 10 assists). Stebner is a defensive defenseman with size (6’4”, 200 lbs.) who uses his size and strength effectively in shutting down opposing players.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Huskies blueline will also feature three newcomers. Among them is the highly regarded Cliff Watson (SJS). The Appleton, WI native is a former Ohio State recruit that was a late addition to Michigan Tech’s incoming class. Watson is a shutdown type of defenseman with good size (6’2”, 185 lbs.) who could help fill the holes left by Seigo and Neilsen.

One position well worth watching this season will be in goal. With Kevin Genoe having graduated, the Huskies goaltending duties will fall to two excellent sophomores in Phoenix Copley and Jamie Phillips (WPG). Copley saw the most playing time last season, appearing in 24 games and posting an 8-15-1 record that included three shutouts. His rookie campaign was highlighted by back-to-back shutouts in the Great Lakes Invitational last December.

Although he saw action in just six games last season, Phillips was quite good and is poised to compete for the starting job this season. He posted a 2-2-0 record that included a stellar, 22-save shutout win over Colorado College on March 8th.

Minnesota State University-Mankato
NHL prospects: 4

The Mavericks open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Providence College.

Minnesota State-Mankato was one of the best stories coming out of the WCHA last year. The Mavericks are coming off a stellar 2012-13 campaign that saw them reach the NCAA Tournament, and expectations will be higher this season. Minnesota State-Mankato returns most of their top players and could be the team to beat in the WCHA.

One of Minnesota State-Mankato’s strengths this season will be in goal. Sophomore Stephon Williams (NYI) is coming off of a sensational freshman season that culminated with the WCHA Rookie of the Year honor. He posted a 21-12-4 record that included four shutouts in 35 appearances. His calm demeanor and ability to keep his team in games were crucial parts to Minnesota State-Mankato’s success last season. Head coach Mike Hastings says that Williams simply needs to continue to push himself and continue the maturation process this season.

“As a goaltender that had the season that he had a year ago, the thing that I most appreciate about Stephon is he’s not easily satisfied,” said Hastings of his starting goaltender. “I think one of Stephon’s strengths is that he’s a great self-evaluator without going overboard. His calmness combined with his competitiveness is what I think what separates Stephon [from other goaltenders]. We just need Stephon to continue to push himself and mature. He’s got himself in a position now where I think he feels expected to go out there and be our number one night in and night out.”

Despite the loss of Tyler Elbrecht and Evan Mosey to graduation, the Mavericks blueline is shaping up to be another outstanding group this season. Junior Zach Palmquist leads Minnesota State-Mankato’s defensive corps. The South St. Paul, MN native has continued to develop into one of the nation’s top offensive defensemen. Palmquist led all Mavericks' defensemen in scoring with 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 41 games last season. This summer, he participated in the San Jose Sharks' prospect camp.

Up front, Minnesota State-Mankato will once again be a force to be reckoned with, despite having graduated top scorer Eriah Hayes (SJS). Among those leading the Mavericks' offensive attack this season are junior Matt Leitner and sophomore Teddy Blueger (PIT).

For the second season in a row, Leitner led Minnesota State-Mankato in scoring, finishing with 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) in 41 games. The Los Alamitos, CA native has blossomed into one of the WCHA’s top playmakers who is particularly dangerous on the power-play.

Last season, Blueger centered the Mavericks’ outstanding second line and added a new dimension to his game. The Riga, Latvia native played in 37 games, posting 19 points (six goals, 13 assists). One notable area of Blueger’s development last season was the grittiness that he added to his game, an attribute that was particularly evident in his play along the walls. As Hastings explains, it’s something that both he and the Pittsburgh Penguins organization would like to see more of this season.

“Over the second half of the year, Teddy had this real focus on the puck-battle areas and was really a lot more intense at that point,” said Hastings. “I had a chance to talk with Pittsburgh over the summer after Teddy had gone to their camp and we discussed a couple of things that Teddy can be really focused on this year. And that intensity in those areas was one of them. So we’ll be focusing on helping Teddy continue to get better in those areas because I really believe if he does that, combined with his added strength and the confidence he now has, Teddy will have a great year.”

Minnesota State-Mankato’s forward lines will get a boost from three newcomers, led by the highly touted Zach Stepan (NSH). Stepan, who originally committed to Ohio State, is a huge coup for the Mavericks and could wind up being among the nation’s top scoring rookies by season’s end. Stepan is known for his tremendous hockey sense and ability to play bigger than his 6’0”, 165 -pound frame. Hastings says that getting the coveted center to come to Mankato all began with word of mouth.

“When we asked Zach why he wanted to come to Minnesota State, he said that he liked what he’d heard from his friends,” explained Hastings. “That, combined with family being nearby and what he feels we have to offer here I think helped him make a decision to come take a look. Once Zach came for a visit, he said that this is the place that he’d like to be. Zach’s got a healthy confidence where every time he goes out on the rink, he wants to be the best player out there. And he’s not afraid to do the work that will give him those opportunities.”

Northern Michigan University
NHL prospects: 0

The Wildcats open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Wisconsin.

After finishing 10th in the CCHA last season, Northern Michigan will look to get things back on track this season, and they will have some major issues that will need to be addressed.

One of the biggest concerns coming into the season is in goal. Last season’s starter, Jared Coreau, opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Coreau was one of only two CCHA netminders that started all of his team’s games last season. Towering sophomore Michael Doan, who was Coreau’s backup last season, is the lone returning goaltender with collegiate playing experience coming into the season. The Sault Ste. Marie, ON native appeared in five games last season in relief and had no decisions. Doan will be battling redshirted freshman Mathias Dahlstrom, sophomore Aaron Beutenmiller, and newcomer Derek Dun for the starting job.

With the uncertainty in goal, Northern Michigan will be looking to their blueline to help stabilize things on the back end. Despite losing Scott MacAulay and Kyle Follmer to graduation, the Wildcats’ experienced defensive corps is shaping up to be outstanding this season, with a nice mix, of size, toughness and some speed. It will be a definite area of strength for the Wildcats.

Among those anchoring the blueline is junior Jake Baker. The Port Moody, BC native is coming off an excellent sophomore season, posting three points (one goal, two assists) in 36 games. At 6’5” and 223 pounds, Baker is the biggest player on Northern Michigan’s roster this season. Using his enormous frame more effectively and making better decisions with the puck were two areas that Baker vastly improved last season, and will benefit Northern Michigan greatly this season. Baker has also been on the NHL radar, having attended the Edmonton Oilers’ prospect camp this summer.

Another issue that the Wildcats will have to contend with heading into this season is generating more scoring throughout their lineup. Northern Michigan finished 49th in the nation last season with an offense that averaged just 2.37 goals per game.

The good news for the Wildcats is they return most of their top point producers from last season, although they did lose top scorer Matt Thurber to graduation. Nevertheless, Northern Michigan’s forward lines look very good and should be more productive this season.

Leading the Wildcats offensive attack is junior Reed Seckel. The Melvin, MI native is coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign where he led the team with 13 goals and finished with 25 points in 35 games last season. He also led Northern Michigan with 71 penalty minutes. Seckel is a fiery competitor that seems to always be around the net. He uses his speed effectively in getting to loose pucks and driving the net. And he isn’t one to back down from a challenge, either. This summer, Seckel attended the San Jose Sharks' prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Wildcats will also feature nine newcomers, including two Northeastern transfers in defenseman Luke Eibler and forward Joe Manno. Eibler is expected to play when the season opens, while Manno is eligible to join the team in January. Both will bring valuable experience and superb skill packages to Northern Michigan this season.

One area where the Wildcats will need to improve if they hope to seriously contend for the WCHA title this season is their special teams play. Northern Michigan finished 49th in the nation last season with a power-play that clicked at just 13.7%. Furthermore, the 13 shorthanded tallies that they surrendered were the most in the NCAA. The Wildcats penalty kill wasn’t any better, finishing 50th and clicking at 77.8%. What compounded matters for Northern Michigan was the fact that they were also one of the most penalized teams in the nation last season. The 576 total penalty minutes that the Wildcats racked up were the most of any CCHA team.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF