WCHA Preview: Defense

One of those guys is Denver's Matt Donovan. He's pretty good.

We continue our season previews by ranking the WCHA's defensive groups:

1. North Dakota

2. Denver

3. Minnesota-Duluth

4. Wisconsin

5. St. Cloud

6. Minnesota State

7. Minnesota

8. Colorado College

9. Bemidji State

10. Nebraska-Omaha

11.Alaska-Anchorage

12. Michigan Tech

You can read the explanations of the picks after the jump.

1. North Dakota

Most of the attention for this group will focus on the return of Chay Genoway, who was one of the WCHA's top offensive defensemen when healthy, but he seems to be a wild card at best with his health problems.

Even if Genoway can't stay healthy, North Dakota has an amazing group of defense to rely on. They've got four very experienced, proven returnees in Derrick Lapoint, Andrew MacWilliam, Jake Marto, and Ben Blood, and added two of the top defensive recruits in the country in Derek Forbort and Dillon Simpson. They could be a very exciting group to watch.

2. Denver

The Pioneers lost superstar defenseman Patrick Wiercioch to the pros over the summer, and lost Cody Brookwell to graduation, but otherwise, the Pioneers return an extremely tough, stellar group.

Matt Donovan was exceptional as a freshman, and will likely provide most of the Pioneers offense from the blue line this season. Incoming freshman David Makowski also showed some offensive abilities in the USHL last season.

But what makes Denver so tough is the number of unheralded, but tough, experienced defensive defensemen they have like John Lee, Jon Ryder, Chris Nutini and William Wrenn. It's a group that should help make their young goal tending duo more successful.

3. Minnesota-Duluth

The Bulldogs return their top defensive pairing from last season in Mike Montgomery and Dylan Olsen. With Olsen, a first round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, having a year of college hockey under his belt, that could turn out to be the best pairing in the WCHA this season. Junior Brady Lamb is a very underrated player, and incoming freshman Justin Faulk could provide some extra spark to an already dangerous powerplay. Depth is a bit of a concern, though the Bulldogs top four should be able to eat the majority of key ice time.

4. Wisconsin

Wisconsin finds themselves rebuilding after losing three major pieces off one of the greatest assemblages of blue line talent in college hockey history. It's crazy to think that losing Hobey Baker finalist Brendan Smith may not even be the most difficult loss to overcome, but the Badgers will definitely feel the loss of the rock-solid defensive play of Ryan McDonagh.

With the departure of Brendan Smith, Cody Goloubef, and Ryan McDonagh to the pros, the Badgers will count on the other three defensive regulars to fill their roles, and at least on paper, they seem to do so quite nicely. Justin Schultz takes over for Smith as the high-scoring power play specialist. Jake Gardiner plays quiet, but effective two-way hockey like Goloubef, and John Ramage takes on McDonagh's role as defensive stopper. The real question is who fills in the other three defensive spots. Craig Johnson, Ryan Little, and Eric Springer have all seen very limited action, and newcomers Frankie Simonelli, Chase Drake, and Joe Faust will compete for ice as well.

5. St. Cloud

There will be a significant changing of the guard on the Husky blue line this season. On one hand, the team lost the heart and soul of their defense in Garrett Raboin, who practically carried a shaky group for the past two seasons, but on the other hand, the Huskies welcome in a significant upgrade in talent on defense with promising NHL draft picks Kevin Gravel and Nick Jensen.

Meanwhile, gigantic Danish defender Oliver Lauridsen was one of the WCHA's most improved players last season and could be a legitimate top pairing defenseman.

6. Minnesota State

It's not necessarily a positive sign for the team as a whole, but it does say something for Minnesota State's defense that defenseman Ben Youds led the Mavericks in scoring last season, while fellow senior Kurt Davis tied for the team lead in points two years ago.

Those two aren't just offensive threats, but also two of the better skating defensemen in the league, and they'll likely be doing plenty of skating again this year for a thin group of Maverick defensemen. The real key will be the play of the Mavericks two big defensive defensemen Channing Boe and Tyler Elbrecht. Boe is coming off a very bad junior season, while Elbrecht had a quiet, but effective freshman season last year. If noth are effective, that would give the Mavericks two solid pairings they could rely on.

7. Minnesota

The Gophers defense will have a much different look this year, after losing David Fischer, who, for better or worse, logged a lot of ice time last year, and losing their most promising young defenseman in Nick Leddy to the pros. The end result is that the Gophers will have a talented, but very young and inexperienced group this year; a formula that hasn't exactly worked smoothly the past few years.

The leader of the defense should be senior Cade Fairchild, who put up nine goals and 33 points as a sophomore before dipping in production last year. It will also be imperative that Aaron Ness and Seth Helgeson step up and get closer to showing the promise they did prior to coming to Minnesota.

8. Colorado College

The Tigers will have to deal with the loss of top defenseman Nate Prosser to graduation last summer. Prosser never really received much attention as one of the league's top defensemen, but after finishing up a solid 28-point senior season, Prosser immediately signed with the Minnesota Wild and found his way into three NHL games, which gives some idea of the high level he was playing at.

Prosser was the latest in a fairly impressive line of smooth play-making defensemen that goes from Prosser to Brian Connelly to Jack Hillen to Lee Sweatt to Brian Salcido to Andrew Canzanello to Tom Preissing to Paul Manning. They cover a ten-year span where only once did a defenseman fail to register over 20 assists in a season for the Tigers.

Who will step up to be the next in line? Junior Gabe Guentzel is the most likely candidate having hit 20 assists last season. Senior captain Ryan Lowery is a player that could step up and have a great year in his final season as well. The dark horse candidate is freshman Eamonn McDermott, who lacks size, but is an exciting playmaker that should really move the puck around the ice.

9. Bemidji State

Defense is one of the areas where Bemidji State's lack of depth may really show the difference between playing in the CHA and the WCHA.

The Beavers return a spectacular offensive defenseman in junior Brad Hunt, a power play specialist with a cannon for a shot, who should have a great year. The concern is how the defensemen in the lower pairings will hold up, having to face second and third lines that are legitimate scoring threats, as opposed to life in the CHA, where even the best teams usually only have one line that is a serious scoring threat.

The good news for the Beavers is that they're bringing in a talented group of three freshmen defensemen in NAHL alums Kyle Brodie and Sam Rendle and European Anton Racklin, who may take some lumps as freshmen, but should develop into very solid WCHA players.

10. Nebraska-Omaha

The most obvious thing that stands out about Nebraska-Omaha's defense is that they are big. The Mavericks have eight different defensemen that are 6'2" or bigger and weigh more than 200 lbs, including 6'8" freshman Andrej Sustr. They certainly won't be a group that gets pushed around, which is a nice luxury to have. Of course the downside of that is that any time you have players that size that don't draw major attention from the next level--Bryce Aneloski is the only NHL pick of the group, a 7th round selection--there has to be some serious questions about their skating ability.

The Mavericks will only play eight games on Olympic-sized ice this year, which is just under a quarter of their schedule, so perhaps playing a more physical style of hockey won't be impossible, but depending on the unpredictable and confusing whims of the league's officiating, they could often find themselves in serious penalty trouble throughout the year.

11. Alaska-Anchorage

One wouldn't expect losing players to the pros to be a huge concern on a team that finished second to last in the league in defense last year, but the Seawolves lost sophomore-to-be Lee Baldwin to the New York Rangers over the summer. Baldwin struggled mightily as a freshman, but showed potential to be the type of top defenseman the Seawolves have lacked for years.

The good news for Alaska-Anchorage is that they return two experienced, solid seniors in Kane Lafranchise and Luka Vidmar. The Seawolves will really rely on their experience and leadership, as they have only five other upperclassmen on their roster.

12. Michigan Tech

Similar to their goal tending, Michigan Tech's defense wasn't exactly terrible, but the Huskies spent so much time in the defensive zone last season that cracks in the armor were bound to happen.

Steve Seigo finished second among WCHA freshman defenseman in scoring last season, and showed promise as a standout defenseman, though he also finished with the league's worst plus/minus rating. The Huskies will also need a great year from senior Deron Cousens.


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