I'll finish up my preview of the Oversize Consonant by ranking the best forward groups in the league this year.
2. St. Cloud
3. North Dakota
7. Bemidji State
9. Colorado College
12. Minnesota State
Explanations are after the jump.
The choice for the top spot was a toss-up between Minnesota-Duluth's impressive top line and St. Cloud State's depth. The talent drops off pretty significantly after the top three forwards for UMD, but it's hard to ignore what those three are capable of. Only five of the top 17 scorers in the WCHA return from last season, and three of them come from Minnesota-Duluth. Justin Fontaine, Mike Connolly, and Jack Connolly all finished in a three-way tie for third in league scoring last year. Those three are among the most dynamic forwards in the league this season, and should create nightmares for teams all season long.
The question becomes who will emerge behind those three players to provide some secondary scoring for the Bulldogs? The top returning forwards are Travis Oleksuk, who had a respectable 24 points, and Kyle Schmidt who had 11 goals, but only two assists.
It also wouldn't be out of the question for someone unexpected to emerge. Last year, Rob Bordson put up 40 points, despite scoring none the year prior. It's rare to see that type of improvement ever, let alone regularly, but of Bordson's 40 points, 23 came on UMD's high-powered power play, and 22 of those points came with a Connolly or Fontaine getting on the scoresheet with him. Who ever gets plugged into that spot on the power play, and gets ice time with those skilled players is likely to see a big increase in scoring this year.
2. St. Cloud State
Much like on defense, the Huskies only had one departure of note over the summer, but it was a big one. Ryan Lasch, the Huskies all-time Division I leading scorer, graduated, but otherwise, the Huskies make very little changes to the group that finished tied with Denver for second in offensive output in the WCHA last year, despite only having an average at best power play.
It's difficult to know what to make of the departure of Lasch. He was basically a fixture on the left side of the goalmouth for the Huskies for four years and averaged 46 points a year. That said, Lasch did very little creating of any offense for the Huskies. His specialty was always being in the right place to finish off plays. It's unlikely anyone will be able to fill that role as well as Lasch did, but it doesn't seem out of the question that someone could fill that role adequately in his absence.
The main catalyst for the Husky offense will be Garrett Roe, who, I can only guess, turned down a contract offer from Italian soccer club Juventus to return for his senior season. After three consecutive 40+ point seasons, Roe enters the year just 41points behind Lasch for the school's all-time scoring mark, and while unlikely, with 58 points, could reach the extremely rare, and getting rarer, 200-point club.
What should separate this group from the rest of the WCHA is the depth the Huskies will have. Even without the services of David Eddy for the first half of the season, the Huskies have a number of forwards that, while not necessarily top line threats, are capable of scoring in the 20-30 point range such as Ben Hanowski, Jared Festler, Drew Leblanc, Tony Mosey, and Travis Novak. In a year where a lot of defensive lineups start to look shaky after the first pairing of defensemen, the Huskies are bound to give teams match-up difficulties five-on-five.
3. North Dakota
The past two years have marked a bit of a change for North Dakota to a deeper, more evenly balanced group of forwards rather than one that relies on big name superstars. In each of the past two seasons, the Sioux have not had a forward reach the one point per game mark, something that hadn't happened in the past ten years--and probably more beyond that if I could find the records.
While the Sioux will once again have a very tough, deep group of forwards, they also have two forwards that seem primed for breakout years, and capable of scoring over a point per game in Jason Gregoire and Danny Kristo. Also in the mix is senior forward Matt Frattin, who returned to the team after Christmas break, after head coach Dave Hakstol chose to review his dismissal from the team at the midway point of last season, and scored 19 points in 24 games. The other breakout star for the Sioux could be Corban Knight, who scored just one point in his first 19 college games, and then 12 points in the final 18 games of his freshman season.
As is the case most years, the Gophers find themselves trying to reload after losing their top two scorers from last season. The good news, if you can call it that, is that those two leading scorers, Tony Lucia and Jordan Schroeder, each only had 28 points last season, so it's not like they left huge shoes to fill.
The Gophers also lost Mike Carman and Ryan Flynn to graduation; two NHL draft picks who never came close to fulfilling the potential they came to Minnesota with. They'll be replaced by a cavalcade of other NHL draft picks that have had disappointing careers to date like Pat White, Jake Hansen, and Nico Sacchetti.
Despite all the problems surrounding the program, there are still a lot of positives to draw from for the Gophers here. Mike Hoeffel may not be the highest scoring forward, but could be one of the WCHA's most physically dominant players, and provide effort and leadership the team has sorely lacked for years. Bowling Green transfer Jacob Cepis was also exciting in his half season with the Gophers last year and should provide an offensive spark and some edge that the Gophers have also sorely missed. Sophomore Zach Budish also showed flashes of dominance during his freshman season.
It's strange to start talking about Denver's forwards and not mention the amazing skills of Rhett Rakhshani, and the hopes that Tyler Ruegsegger can stay healthy. After four years of greatness from that duo, the Pios are finally starting over offensively. To make matters worse, Joe Colborne started to reach his enormous potential a semester too early for Pioneer fans. The Joe Colborne that skated in the second half of last year, could have potentially carried this team offensively.
Instead, the Pioneers will rely heavily on three seniors who have quietly been very good in the shadows of Rakhshani and Ruegsegger for the past three seasons in Anthony Maiani, Kyle Ostrow, and Jesse Martin. Maiani is one of three players, Justin Fontaine and Garrett Roe are the other two, to finish inside the top 20 in WCHA scoring in each of the past two years. The Pioneers have also loaded up on some promising young offensive talents like sophomore Drew Shore, his freshman brother Nick, and NHL first round pick Beau Bennett, all of whom have the potential for big offensive output.
The Mavericks return five players who scored ten or more goals last year, a feat only UMD, SCSU, and UND can match, but lack the type of dynamic scorer that can score 20+ goals and really carry a team, and are facing an upgrade in the quality of defensive competition this year.
Matt White replaces John Kemp as the academically-troubled, but offensively excellent play maker. They'll need him, along with senior Joey Martin to play set-up man to goal scorers like Alex Hudson, Terry Broadhurst, and Matt Ambroz.
7. Bemidji State
Matt Read. Maybe some other guys. But pretty much Matt Read.
Read has reached 40 points in each of the last two seasons and has been one of the most impressive players in college hockey. Another strong year, this time playing in a major conference, and he could draw Tyler Bozak-like attention on the NHL free agent market.
The problem is that of a supporting cast. Jordan George and Ian Lowe both had years last season, and while it's not fair to say their production was entirely because of Read, they both benefited immensely from playing with him.
But to compete in the WCHA this year, the Beavers will likely have to find some type of secondary scoring. The top scoring forward from their second line, Ben Kinne, suffered a stroke over the summer, leaving his status questionable. Older incoming freshman Jeff Jubinville and Anaheim Ducks draft pick Radoslav Illo are good building blocks as the team adjusts to the WCHA, but might have difficulty carrying the load as Read receives extra attention from teams.
The Badgers had the league's best offense by a wide statistical margin last season. The only problem is that when you look down their stats from last year, and start crossing off the guys that are now gone, you find they only return two forwards that managed to crack double digits in points last season.
Sophomore Craig Smith had a very good freshman season, scoring 33 points, but it will likely be difficult for him to reach that number again, with odds being good that the Badgers won't have four players above him reaching 50 points.
There's other potential reasons for promise, including Jordy Murray's 12 goals last year, Derek Lee putting up 8 assists in limited time due to some clearinghouse issues, and incoming freshman Mark Zengerle, who could be a big scorer. But the Badgers just lost so much off of last year's team that it could be difficult for even them to replace all that talent.
9. Colorado College
Last year, the Tigers' offense was carried by the senior leadership of Billy Sweatt and Mike Testwuide. This year, the Tigers will need to the Schwartz brothers to carry a relatively young offensive team.
Rylan Schwartz had an impressive freshman season, especially considering he was the less heralded brother, and was coming straight from Notre Dame Prep. He scored four goals in his first nine games, but just two after that, and the Tigers will need him to pick up more of the goal-scoring load. Meanwhile, his brother comes in as a first round NHL draft pick after tearing up the USHL. The Tigers will hope he makes a quick adjustment to the college game, and can help carry the team from day one.
Meanwhile, after the graduation of Brian McMillin and Addison DeBoer, two Minnesotans who came to CC straight from Minnesota high school hockey and had marginal success in college, the Tigers bring in two new freshman straight from the Minnesota high school ranks in Archie Skalbeck and Mike Morin.
Tim Hall and Tyler Johnson are both very fast players that could break out offensively this year.
The Seawolves lost Kevin Clark to graduation, after an impressive senior season where he tallied 23 goals, and 89 penalty minutes, a combination I'd be willing to bet is rarely reached in the WCHA. Somewhere, the Kevin Stevens of 1991-1992 wipes away a single tear in admiration.
Like everywhere else, the Seawolves are a young team at forward this season, but do return a very under-rated goal scorer in senior Tommy Grant, who only tallied 9 last year, but hit 15 goals as a sophomore. Meanwhile, senior Sean Wiles has shown steady improvement in each of his first three years, and could handle more of the scoring load this year. The Seawolves also have a group of six sophomore forwards, at least some of whom, should be able to make a jump in scoring production in their second year.
11. Michigan Tech
11th may not seem great, but it would be a huge step up for a Michigan Tech team that has finished dead last in WCHA offensive production the past two seasons.(Side note: Three years ago, their 1.96 goals per game tied them for 8th in conference scoring. Truly the dark ages for the WCHA in terms of obstruction)
Reasons for optimism include Brett Olson, who broke out last year with an 18-goal 30-point performance. His 18 goals were the most by a Husky since Chris Conner's 25 in 03-04. Joining Olson is the under-rated Jordan Baker, who took a step backwards as a junior last season, but scored 16 goals as a sophomore, and is a very tough, speedy offensive player. The biggest problem for the Huskies has been the complete lack of scoring from anyone beyond the first line in recent years, and unless a number of players have surprising breakout years, that could be the case again.
12. Minnesota State
There's not a lot of good news here.The Mavericks lost six senior forwards off of last year's team that accounted for 40% of the team's goals. The offensive slack was expected to be picked up by sophomore Tyler Pitlick and incoming freshman Matt Leitner. Neither player found a way to get academically eligible for this season, and Pitlick has since left to play in the WHL.
That leaves a rather unappealing assortment left for the Mavericks. Rylan Galiardi and Mike Louwerse are power play specialists. Mike Dorr played well in half a season last year after transferring from Minnesota, and Eriah Hayes is a legitimate NHL free agent candidate, but they form a rather underwhelming top line.
Incoming freshmen Corey Leivermann, Chase Grant, and Zach Lehrke should provide some spark to the lineup, but they're likely more building blocks for the next generation than the final missing pieces on this year's team.