2009-2010 WCHA Season Preview

Or, it's non-SEO title: 10 Chances for Me to Look Dumb, 1000s of Chances for People to Be Mad

I've toned things down a bit from the full previews I've done in the past. You can probably find the traditional "Who Left, Who's New, Key Players" type of thing at about a hundred other places. But what it does have is where I think each of the 11 teams in the WCHA will finish the season and a short explanation on why.

Here's how I have each team finishing:

1. North Dakota

2. Denver

3. Wisconsin

4. Minnesota

5. Minnesota-Duluth

6. St. Cloud

7. Colorado College

8. Minnesota State

9. Alaska-Anchorage

10. Michigan Tech

You can find the explanations why after the jump:


1. North Dakota

The Sioux are the defending MacNaughton Cup champs, and had it not been for a couple terrible starts to their season, they would probably have two or three more in recent years.

Last year North Dakota was a bit different from previous Sioux teams in that they didn’t have much in the way of superstar NHL prospects—it’s probably telling that nobody left school early for the pros last summer—but they were a much deeper team, and that seemed to serve them better over the long haul of the season(though it also produced their shortest postseason run in years).

This year’s North Dakota team looks similar, though they’ll probably have less scoring at the top, and more scoring throughout the rest of the lineup. Chris VandeVelde is one of the strongest players in the WCHA, but probably isn’t going to score at much than a point per game pace. Jason Gregoire could be due for a breakout season as a sophomore.

On defense, they return Chay Genoway, who some thought was the WCHA’s player of the year last season, and they have a solid goalie in Brad Eidsness.

They’re going to be a tough, physical team from top to bottom, and hopefully more consistent than in year’s past. It might take more points to win the league than it did last season, but with their goaltending situation settled, and a more experienced lineup, I don’t see North Dakota having the struggles they did early last season.

2. Denver

I read Mike Chambers blog, so I’m well aware that this is supposed to be the greatest hockey team ever assembled. But things rarely seem to work for WCHA teams anointed in September. ColoradoCollege was the heavy favorite last season and finished with a disappointing year. There were people that legitimately thought the 07-08 North Dakota team would only lose one or two games and they finished four points behind ColoradoCollege. The last team to really live up to their billing was Minnesota way back when they used to be good.

What does all that have to do with a team so good they spend their free-time driving around with the ScoobyDoo gang solving mysteries? Maybe not much. But I do think there are a few minor cracks in the armor. The defense is talented, but very young, and I think the impact of some of the new guys, at least initially, has been overstated a bit.

Offensively, they look pretty great on paper, but Tyler Ruegsegger’s health history and Luke Salazar’s second half disappearance are minor causes for concern. Anthony Maiani will have to adjust to being more of a focal point defensively after scoring 41 points last year.

Of course, these are all pretty minor concerns, and in the grand scheme of things, this should be one of the best teams in the country. They play North Dakota four times this season, and those games should be wars, and will probably have a huge outcome on who finishes first in the league.

3. Wisconsin

The last two seasons have been relatively disappointing for Wisconsin. They missed the NCAA tournament last season, and should have missed it the year prior.

That said, they were pretty good last season after a very rough 0-6-1 start, going 20-10-3 over their last 33 games. Their league schedule gets a little easier this year too, trading two games against Denver for two games against Michigan Tech. Denver won all four games against Wisconsin last season, and if the Badgers had managed even three points in those games, they would have finished in second place in the WCHA.

There aren’t a lot of big names at forward, but the Badgers have a lot of guys that can really grind along the boards, led by senior Blake Geoffrion, and have an emerging superstar in Derek Stepan at forward.

Defense is the cornerstone of the team, with five defensemen drafted in the first two rounds of the NHL Draft, and Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, and Cody Goloubef all being upperclassmen, after taking some lumps their first two years.

The big question mark is in goal. Scott Gudmanson has been inconsistent in spot duty the past two years, and Brett Bennett was impressive in the USHL last year, but there are also memories of him holding back what was obviously a pretty talented BU team.

The goaltending probably causes some ugly stretches that may keep them from really competing for one of the top two slots and putting them on the NCAA tournament bubble again, but overall, this team is too talented to not be pretty good.

4. Minnesota

Last year I picked Minnesota to finish pretty high in the league, hedging that they’d been too good too long for the previous season to be anything other than a fluke. But after another down year by their standards, maybe there’s something more to it.

To understand the Gophers over the past couple of seasons and why they struggled, you have to break them down into three groups. Group A was the group of uber-talented NHL prospects they brought in a few years ago that included guys like Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Kyle Okposo, and Blake Wheeler. They were good, but left early, and when they should have been upperclassmen, there was nothing(aside from Wheeler who stayed for his junior year, and was great, but pretty much all alone). Minnesota has the recruiting clout to make that work, but since those players leave so early, you have to bring in comparable players every single year to make it work.

That brings us to Group B, which includes guys like David Fischer, Pat White, and Jimmy O’Brien, and Mike Hoeffel who all came in around the same time. They were all fairly high NHL Draft picks, but not top 10 guys like Group A, and for the most part, they failed to even live up to their late first/early second round draft status.(At least so far. Fischer, White, and Hoeffel still have time to really turn things around, and Hoeffel looked especially promising by the end of last season.)

Group C is the freshman class that was brought in last season—minus Jordan Schroeder. It was a group of very solid hockey players with guys like Jake Hansen, Nico Sacchetti, and Taylor Matson, that showed promise, but was going to take some time to mature and really become effective, and there was no one above them to carry the load while they developed.

Add up A+B+C and you’ve got a decent team, but one that just barely makes home ice in the playoffs and doesn’t make the NCAA tournament. It goes to show that chemistry is a delicate thing and one that’s pretty difficult to recruit for. This year’s freshman class adds another interesting dynamic. It’s tough to tell where they fall in, but probably somewhere between Group C and Group A.

The other mystery will be in goal. The Gophers looked set in goal after Alex Kangas’ freshman season, but his confidence seemed destroyed by the end of last year. But if he falters, Kent Patterson should be able to pick up the slack in goal.

5. Minnesota-Duluth

It’s always interesting how four games at the right time can change people’s perspective about the season. Lost in UMD’s amazing playoff run last season was that they still finished with a losing record in WCHA league play. That said, this year’s team could be even better than last year’s.

Alex Stalock is a huge loss in goal, but Brady Hjelle should be just fine taking his place. The real revelation for UMD last year was the way that their offense transitioned from a bunch of big plodding guys trying to bang in rebounds in front of the net, to a faster, more skilled offensive game with playmakers like Justin Fontaine, Mike Connolly, and Jack Connolly.

They’ll be young and inexperienced on the blueline, but players like Mike Montgomery and Brady Lamb showed promise during their late run last year and they add the top freshman in the country with Dylan Olsen. They may not have the depth to compete with the very top of the league, but they’ll be a tough team to play.

6. St. Cloud

The Huskies bring in one of their best recruiting classes ever, and didn’t lose much from last season, but the problem is that those new recruits seem to reinforce areas the Huskies’ were already great at, and not improving their weakest areas. Ben Hanowski and David Eddy can score goals in bunches, but scoring goals hasn’t been a problem for St. Cloud. Mike Lee is an upgrade over Jase Weslosky in goal, especially when it comes to bigger games, but Weslosky wasn’t exactly an anchor holding the team back.

The big issue for the Huskies in recent years has been on the blueline, and unless some already-pretty-old guys suddenly take their game to another level, it will probably continue being an issue that keeps them from moving to the upper echelon of the league.

7. Colorado College

This could be a very rough year for ColoradoCollege after a number of really strong years. Looking down the roster, it’s hard to come up with what will be the real strength for this team. Thirty percent of their goals last season came from Eric Walsky and Chad Rau, who are now gone. On the blueline, they lost Brian Connelly and top incoming recruit John Moore to the pros. In goal, they’ll have two true freshmen trying to match the numbers Richard Bachman put up last year.

CC struggled last year because they had a few good players, but no real depth. This year, those good players are gone.

8. Minnesota State

A lot is going to be made of the fact that MSU doesn’t have any goalies with NCAA experience, which is true, but clouds the bigger issue. There’s enough talent in goal that they should be able to find someone who can stop pucks. The real problem will be on the blueline.

They return two pretty solid, albeit more offensive-minded, D in juniors Kurt Davis and Ben Youds, and they’ll probably get more ice time than they can handle. Another junior, Channing Boe seems to have recovered nicely from getting his leg broken by Brian Schack last season and should help too. But the depth looks shaky at best. Competing for the 6th D spot will be freshmen Tyler Elbrecht and Evan Mosey from the NAHL and converted forward Joe Schiller. MSU had great goaltending last year, but a defense that could never break the puck out of the zone, and it looks like it could be more of the same this year.

The good news is that MSU has one of the most experienced groups of forwards in the league and they should put up a lot of goals. But it’s always tough to try and win offensive shootouts.

9. Alaska-Anchorage

Only Michigan Tech’s utter futility snapped Anchorage’s record streak of last place finishes last season. They’ve still never had a winning season since joining the WCHA, and I don’t see this being the year to break the trend.

They’re improving, and they’ve got some talent but it’s probably not enough to move them ahead of some of the other teams in the conference. Blame it on the WHL’s expansion, or the USHL being granted Tier I status, or the fact that the CHL has little to no influence in the upper Midwest; the simple fact is that the WCHA has evolved to the point where it’s near impossible for a team that recruits almost exclusively out of western Canadian junior leagues to be competitive. The gap in depth between the BCHL and USHL has gotten too wide.

There’s some offense on this year’s team. Josh Lunden and Tommy Grant are two of the league’s better pure goal-scorers, and Kevin Clark is one of the league’s biggest pests, but there are still some question marks on the blueline and goalies Jon Olthuis and Bryce Christianson are decent goalies that are going to see enough quality shots to highlight any deficiencies they might have.

10. Michigan Tech

Last season was a nightmare for Michigan Tech, with only six victories, and only two wins in conference. A freakish string of injuries can be blamed for some it, but even if everyone stays healthy, that gives another what, three or four wins, maybe?

The Huskies will try rebuilding with a pretty nice freshman class, but the type of rebuilding they have to do can’t be done in just one year, and none of the new guys seem like the type to immediately make a huge contribution. It’s probably another long, painful season for Michigan Tech.
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