2013-14 NCHC season preview, part 2

By DJ Powers
Jonny Brodzinski, Ryan Faragher and Nic Dowd - St. Cloud State University

Photo: St. Cloud State University made an improbable run to the Frozen Four in 2012-13 on the efforts of players like Jonny Brodzinski (L), Ryan Faragher (C), and Nic Dowd (R), but they should be looked at as one of the teams that could take the inaugural NCHC crown in 2013-14 (courtesy of Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)


Hockey's Future has taken a look at four of the eight teams from the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in part one of our 2013-14 season preview of that conference. In part two, we preview the remaining four clubs in what is expected to be a hotly-contested conference.

University of Nebraska-Omaha
NHL prospects: 6

The Mavericks opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Bentley.

This past off-season was a tumultuous one for Nebraska-Omaha that saw numerous player departures due to graduation, dismissals, or pro signings. As a result, it has created several issues that the Mavericks will need to address this season if they expect to win the NCHC crown.

The most pressing issue is goaltending. Of the four netminders that the Mavericks pressed into service last season, only junior Ryan Massa returns this season. The Littleton, CO native joined the team in the second half after sitting out the first for personal reasons. He appeared in just three games, posting a 0-2-0 record. Massa will be looking to regain his freshman form of two years ago, but he will get some competition for the starting job from newcomers Reed Peters and Kirk Thompson.

Another area where Nebraska-Omaha saw significant losses was on their blueline, with three of their top six defensemen from last season having left. Bryce Aneloski (OTT) graduated, while Andrej Sustr and Tony Turgeon opted to forego the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to turn pro. Sustr signed with the Tampa Bay Lighting and Turgeon signed with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage.

Among those patrolling the Mavericks blueline this season is a pair of Anaheim Ducks prospects in towering junior Jaycob Megna and sophomore Brian Cooper.

At 6’6” and 210 pounds, Megna is the tallest among Nebraska-Omaha’s big defensive group. The Northbrook, IL native is coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign where he posted seven points (two goals, five assists) in 38 games. He also finished second on the team with a plus-21. Megna was paired with Sustr last season, comprising the NCAA’s biggest defensive tandem. Two notable areas where Megna has made great strides in his development were in his positioning and the more effective use of his enormous frame and long reach. These areas were especially evident in his ability to take away lanes and stripping pucks off opposing sticks.

Cooper, who is the smallest of the Mavericks defensemen at 5’11” and 187 pounds, is coming off of an injury-shortened rookie campaign in which he played in 32 games and posted just two assists. The Anchorage, AK native missed six games due to an ankle injury. Although Cooper is a defenseman, he saw some playing time as a forward last season. Cooper is a player that is poised to have a very good season in 2013-14. He showed glimpses of his excellent foot speed and nifty puck-moving skills last season. Now, with a year under his belt, Cooper could take a significant step as a sophomore.

Despite the loss of five players, the Mavericks forward lines are shaping up to be quite good, making it their strength this season. Much of the depth that Nebraska-Omaha had up front last year returns this season.

Leading the Mavericks offensive attack are senior Ryan Walters and junior Josh Archibald (PIT).

Walters is coming off of a phenomenal junior campaign where he finished tied for second nationally with 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists) in 39 games. The Rosemount, MN native also finished second in the nation with a plus-26. Walters’ performance earned him numerous honors including selections to the All-America West Second Team and All-WCHA First Team, as well as being named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Walters has also caught the attention of NHL teams as well and could potentially become one of the top free agents available at season’s end.

Walters’ linemate Archibald is coming off of a stellar sophomore campaign that saw him more than double his freshman point totals of two years ago. The Brainerd, MN native finished second on the Mavericks roster with 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists) in 39 games. What made Archibald so good last season was the fact that he was beginning to round out his game. His defensive side continually got better as the season went along and he was making smart decisions both with and without the puck. All of these attributes, along with his strengthened 5’11” frame will make Archibald not only a better player, but potentially among the best this season.

Archibald is one of two Pittsburgh Penguins prospects on Nebraska-Omaha’s roster this season. The other is newcomer Jake Guentzel. The Woodbury, MN native is one of eight freshmen on the Mavericks roster. He is also the son of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel. The younger Guentzel is a 5’10”, 160-pound center noted for his quickness and ability to consistently generate offense.

University of North Dakota
NHL prospects: 15

North Dakota opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Vermont.

Last season, North Dakota came within one game of reaching the Frozen Four before eventual national champion Yale dashed their hopes. This season, they hope to remedy that with an exceedingly deep and talent-rich lineup that is poised to finish at or near the top of the NCHC.

North Dakota’s roster features more NHL prospects than any other team in the NCAA. One interesting note is that this season marks the first time in North Dakota’s storied history that the team will feature prospects of the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators on their roster.

North Dakota lost seven regulars in the offseason. One area where the losses will be felt most is up front. Last season’s top ten Hobey Baker finalists Danny Kristo (NYR) and Corban Knight (CGY) along with Carter Rowney have all graduated. The trio accounted for 39% of the team’s goal scoring last season. North Dakota was one of two teams (St. Lawrence was the other) that featured a pair of top ten Hobey Baker finalists last season. While the aforementioned losses are significant, North Dakota will have plenty of firepower this season that can help replenish the lost scoring.

Leading North Dakota’s elite group of forwards this season are redshirted sophomore Rocco Grimaldi (FLA) and junior Mark MacMillan (MTL).

Grimaldi returns as North Dakota’s top scorer after finishing his sensational freshman campaign with 40 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 40 games en route to earning a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Last season, the Rossmoor, CA native was the motor that drove North Dakota’s excellent second line that also featured Rowney and now-sophomore Drake Caggiula. One notable aspect of Grimaldi’s development is how he utilizes his strengthened 5’6” frame. This is particularly evident in his greater leg strength, which has allowed him to drive harder to the net and fend off opposing defenders more effectively without coming at the expense of his quickness.

MacMillan is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign after co-leading the team in rookie goal scoring (13) and finishing with 25 points in 43 games. Where the Penticton, BC native really made his mark last season was on North Dakota’s special teams. Of his 13 goals, five came on special teams – three on the power-play and two shorthanded.

Of North Dakota’s eight newcomers this season, six are NHL prospects. One that many will be watching is Adam Tambellini (NYR). The Port Moody, BC native is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Jeff Tambellini. At 6’3”, the younger Tambellini is the tallest player on North Dakota’s roster. He is noted for his superb puck skills and high-scoring ability.

“Adam is a very talented, focused player,” North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol noted of Tambellini. “I expect him to come in here and be a good, reliable, hard-working teammate. And that’s where I want him to start. He can play both center and left wing. Which position Adam plays this season will be based on his performance and those guys around him.”

Another position where North Dakota suffered significant losses was on the blueline with the graduation of Andrew MacWilliam (TOR) and Joe Gleason (CHI). The team also lost Derek Forbort, who opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Los Angeles Kings. While the trio will be missed, North Dakota should be able to replace most of their contributions this season with their NHL prospect-laden defensive corps. Of North Dakota’s eight defensemen, six are NHL draftees.

Anchoring North Dakota’s blueline this season is senior captain Dillon Simpson (EDM). The Edmonton, AB native is coming off of a stellar junior campaign where he led all North Dakota defensemen with 24 points (five goals, 19 assists) in 42 games. One area where Simpson really established himself last season was on the power-play, where three of five tallies were scored. As Hakstol explains, the respect Simpson has earned from his teammates will make him the ideal team captain this season.

“Dillon was named captain by his teammates and I think that says it all right there. I think it tells you the level of respect that he’s built amongst his teammates. Dillon goes about his every day business in the right way and I think that speaks to why he was voted by his teammates to be our captain.”

Goaltending is expected to be one of North Dakota’s strengths heading into the season as the tandem of senior Clarke Saunders and sophomore Zane Gothberg (BOS) return. Saunders, who saw slightly more playing time last season, making 26 appearances, finished with a 13-9-4 record that included both of the team’s shutouts. Gothberg posted a 9-4-3 record in 17 appearances. Both goaltenders were very good in their own right last season and could potentially split time again this season.

St. Cloud State University
NHL prospects: 5

The Huskies opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Bemidji State.

St. Cloud State was one of the best stories coming out of the WCHA last season. After winning a share of the MacNaughton Cup as conference regular season co-champions, the Huskies advanced all the way to their first Frozen Four appearance. With much of last season’s team returning this season, St. Cloud State will once again be in a good position to make another conference championship run as members of the NCHC.

While the Huskies only lost four players in the offseason, they were all significant contributors to the team’s success last season.

The area that the losses will be felt most is up front with the graduation of Ben Hanowski (CGY) and 2013 Hobey Baker Award recipient, Drew LeBlanc (CHI). The duo accounted for 21% of the team’s scoring last season. While their offense will be missed, the Huskies will have plenty of returning veterans that can help replace the lost scoring.

One reason for the positive offensive outlook is the production of their freshman forwards last season. The group accounted for 30% of the team’s scoring last season with all returning this season.

Leading that group is sophomore Jonny Brodzinski (LAK). The Blaine, MN native is coming off of a tremendous freshman campaign where he led the nation in both plus/minus (+28) and rookie goal-scoring (22). Brodzinski finished tied for third on the Huskies roster with 39 points in 42 games last season.

“Jonny is an extremely hard-working player that just has an NHL-type shot,“ Huskies' head coach Bob Motzko said of Brodzinski. “When he gets it off, he finds a way to score. That’s what Jonny’s whole career has been like. When he’s on the rink and given a chance, Jonny is going to score goals. He’s had a terrific summer. Jonny looks bigger, stronger, and most importantly he looks quicker. I think that was a big step for him to take and he’s done that.”

One sophomore that is poised for a breakout year this season is Joey Benik. The Andover, MN native missed the first half of last season due to a broken leg he suffered just prior to the season opener. Benik returned to the lineup in late December and went on to have his best outing in the NCAA Tournament. He finished the year with 12 points (eight goals, four assists) in 24 games. During his high school days, Benik established himself as an offensive machine and could do the same for St. Cloud State.

The other two key players that the Huskies lost were defensemen Taylor Johnson and All-American Nick Jensen. Johnson graduated and Jensen opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. The loss of Jensen is especially noteworthy, in part because of the offense he provided from the blueline last season. While the departed duo will be missed, the team’s defensive corps is not only is shaping up to be very good, but they also have the ability to contribute offensively.

Anchoring the St. Cloud State defense this season is senior co-captain Kevin Gravel. The Kingsford, MI native is one of three Los Angeles Kings prospects on the Huskies roster this season. Gravel isn’t known for his offense, but his point production has steadily risen since coming to St. Cloud State four years ago. He finished his excellent junior campaign with 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in 42 games. While Gravel won’t match Jensen’s numbers, his improved point-producing ability will help replace at least part of the offense that left with Jensen.

Of the Huskies five newcomers this season, two are defensemen. The one many will be keeping an eye on is the towering Ben Storm (COL). At 6’6” and 220 pounds, Storm is the tallest player on the St. Cloud State roster this season. The Laurium, MI native is noted for his mobility and physicality.

“I think Ben has tremendous upside and room to grow,” Motzko said of Storm. “He’s going to need time to grow and continue to get better. He’s a shutdown type of defenseman that will have size and strength, but it’s going to take Ben some time to develop into that and be sort of that brick wall back there for us.”

The only position that the Huskies return intact this season is in goal. Junior Ryan Faragher is coming off of a superb sophomore campaign as St. Cloud State’s go-to guy. The Fort Frances, ON native was a workhorse between the pipes last season, appearing in 40 games and finishing with a 24-14-1 record that included three shutouts. While Faragher will likely be tapped as the starter again this season, he will also get some competition for playing time from sophomore Rasmus Reijola and junior Joe Phillippi, and newcomer Charlie Lindgren.

Western Michigan University
NHL prospects: 4

The Broncos opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th at Notre Dame.

Western Michigan is coming off of a strong third place finish in the CCHA's final season. While the Broncos are poised to be serious contenders for the NCHC crown this season, they have some issues that will need to be addressed first.

The biggest area of concern is on their blueline after the loss of three of their top six rearguards. Luke Witkowski (TBL) graduated, and All-American Dan DeKeyser opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Garrett Haar (WSH) was dismissed in the offseason and is now with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

While replacing the trio’s contributions will be difficult, the Broncos defensive corps will have an outstanding mix of seasoned veterans and promising newcomers that could eventually replenish much of what left with the departed players.

Among those anchoring Western Michigan’s blueline this season is sophomore Kenney Morrison. The Lloydminster, AB native is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign where he led all Broncos defensemen with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 38 games. Morrison is a mainstay on Western Michigan’s power-play, where six of his seven goals were scored last season. He is an offensive-minded defenseman with size (6’2”, 205 lbs.) and wonderful puck-moving skills. But Morrison’s greatest attribute may be his cannon-like shot. Simply put, he can really fire the biscuit. This summer, Morrison attended the Edmonton Oilers' prospect camp. As Broncos head coach Andy Murray notes, Morrison has great pro potential.

“We have four solid defensemen coming back this year and Kenney is among them. He really put himself on the map last year because he came in rather unheralded. Kenney has put himself in a position where he is a highly recognized pro candidate now.”

Of Western Michigan’s ten newcomers, four are defensemen. One that all eyes will be on is the towering Mike McKee (DET). At 6’5” and 250 pounds, the Newmarket, ON native will certainly add size to the Broncos blueline this season. McKee will also add some toughness to the Broncos' back end.

With a predominantly young defensive corps, Western Michigan will be relying on their goaltenders to help solidify things in the defensive zone.

Junior workhorse Frank Slubowski returns as the Broncos go-to guy between the pipes this season. The Prince Rupert, BC native is coming off of another stellar season after posting a 19-11-8 record that included four shutouts in 38 games. Slubowski was one of only two CCHA netminders that appeared in all of his team’s games last season.

Up front, Western Michigan will feature some great depth this season, but the team will also be looking for stepped up offensive production throughout their forward lines. The Broncos finished 51st nationally last season with an offense that averaged 2.29 goals per game. The 87 total goals that Western Michigan scored were tied for the fewest in the CCHA last season. If the Broncos hope to win the NCHC crown this season, increased offensive production throughout their lineup will be crucial.

Of the seven forwards that Western Michigan lost, the two most notable were last season’s top scorer Dane Walters and top incoming recruit Mike McCarron (MTL). Walters graduated and McCarron opted to forego his collegiate career to sign with the Montreal Canadiens before winding up with the OHL’s London Knights.

Leading the Broncos offensive charge this season is senior captain Chase Balisy (NSH). The Santa Margarita, CA native is coming off of an excellent junior campaign where he co-led Western Michigan with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 38 games. Balisy has steadily become one of the Broncos’ most complete players. Where he made some of the greatest contributions last season was on the defensive side and in his leadership.

“Chase is our captain this year,” Murray said of Balisy. “He’s also a part of the seven-man leadership group that we’ll have. We think that Chase and the rest of the group will establish a good leadership core that will do a really great job of leading the team this year.”

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF