Now that the summer is over, school has started everywhere, and the Chicago Blackhawks can't possibly sign any more players out of college, we can finally start turning our attention to this upcoming season.
My strategy is to start things off by breaking things down by position and ranking how strong each team is within their conference. We'll start things off with a look at the WCHA's goaltending.
I'll post my ranking, and then provide some explanation of my picks after the jump.
Here's how I've got them ranked:
1. St. Cloud State
2. North Dakota
3. Bemidji State
6. Colorado College
10. Michigan Tech
11. Minnesota State
1. St. Cloud
The Huskies return one of the most talented goaltending duos in the country in senior Dan Dunn and sophomore Mike Lee. The biggest concern for St. Cloud in goal will be deciding how to rotate the two goalies.
Dunn seemed destined to fade out of the picture in favor of the highly-touted Lee last season, but while Lee battled inconsistency at times, Dunn was a much more consistent goalie than he had been in his two previous seasons, and the Huskies seemed to play better with him in net at times. He'll earn his fair share of playing time, but Lee will likely be the starter in big games.
Lee had an enigmatic first year of college hockey. He's perhaps best remembered for being pulled before the midway point of the three biggest games he played last year: the World Junior gold medal game, Final Five championship, and NCAA regional final, but what often gets lost is how brilliantly he played in the World Junior quarterfinals, and semifinals, the three great playoff games he played to get St. Cloud into the Final Five championship, and perhaps most importantly, the amazing game he played against Northern Michigan to get St. Cloud their first NCAA tournament win. One can only imagine how long and uncomfortable Bob Motzko's rant about St. Cloud's tournament record would have been this year if Lee hadn't made a sprawling breakaway save in overtime of that game.
With a year of experience in college hockey, and likely a stronger defense in front of him, Lee seems poised to take the next step in his game and produce those stellar shutdown performances on a more regular basis.
2. North Dakota
Brad Eidsness has played over 40 games in each of his first two seasons and his workload seems unlikely to decrease this year. Back-up Aaron Dell made it into five games as a freshman and only compiled a 1-3-1record. He did put up a GAA below 2.00, but those numbers are a bit skewed with 30% of his minutes coming against Alaska-Anchorage.
Heading into last season, the discussion was whether Eidsness or DU's Marc Cheverie would be the league's top goalie. I sided with Eidsness, and while he was more than respectable, finishing second in conference games in GAA and third in SV%, Cheverie was near unbeatable last season. With Cheverie gone, Eidsness could be heir to the WCHA's goaltending throne. He may not have the high-end ability to steal a game in the same way that Mike Lee can, but he's proven himself to be more consistent and capable of back-stopping a talented team.
3. Bemidji State
A big catalyst for Bemidji's success the past three years has been their outstanding goal tending, starting with Matt Climie, who put together a great senior season and parlayed that into a nice career as an NHL back-up. He was followed by Matt Dalton, whose NCAA tournament performance that helped lead the Beavers to the Frozen Four earned him a pro contract from the Boston Bruins. Last year, the reins were handed to Dan Bakala, who measured up to his predecessors high standards. Backing him up is solid sophomore Mathieu Dugas, who earned a nice win at Mariucci Arena last season. He'll likely only start occasionally ahead of Bakala, but is capable of winning when he does.
The major increase in difficulty of schedule for Bemidji this season will likely cause their numbers to drop a little, but Bakala was seriously underrated last season, and could give opponents headaches this year.
Goal tending has actually been one of the few areas not to give the Gophers major problems over the past three seasons. Some fans felt that head coach Don Lucia relied a little too heavily on Alex Kangas last season instead of giving more playing time to talented back-up Kent Patterson, but Kangas actually rebounded quite nicely from a disastrous sophomore season and had the second best save percentage in conference play last year. Patterson has shown flashes of brilliance, but not enough consistency to seriously challenge Kangas for the starting role.
Kangas' biggest problem last year was the play of the team in front of him, which kept his GAA and winning percentage fairly pedestrian despite a very good save percentage. With question marks about the defense and scoring in front of him again this year, it could be the same story again for Kangas.
The duo of Scott Gudmanson and Brett Bennett were almost the exact opposite of Alex Kangas last season. Scott Gudmanson, who eventually won the starting role over Bennett, finished 8th in the conference in save percentage during conference play, but thanks to playing with the league's highest scoring offense, he led the WCHA in goaltender winning percentage. The same is true for Bennett, who had an abysmal save percentage, but still had a .500 conference record.
Gudmanson and Bennett were presumed to be the weak links on a loaded Badger squad last year, and with many of the big guns from last year's team now in the pros, this year may provide a more accurate picture of just how good they are. Gudmanson will likely see most of the action, and while it may be a stretch to expect him to be great this season, he is a senior goalie that has led his team to the NCAA tournament final before. He should be capable of at least keeping the Badgers competitive this year.
6. Colorado College
Joe Howe started out his freshman season last year on fire, winning the starting job over fellow freshman Hudson Stremmel, and leading CC to a very surprising start in the first half of the season. Stremmel saw Howe becoming entrenched as the starter and bolted for the WHL(and he's since given up hockey completely). But in the second half of the season, be it fatigue from the grind of the WCHA schedule, or just CC's lack of talent catching up with them, Howe struggled in the last half of the season, giving up three or more goals in 10 of his last 12 games.
Unless late summer addition Josh Thorimbert from Saskatchewan greatly exceeds expectations, the Tigers will pretty much live and die based on Howe. If he can replicate his first half of last year, CC could be a surprise team this year. If he plays more like he did in the second half, the Tigers could be battling it out in the bottom half of the league.
If any team in the WCHA could have a major surprise in goal, it's likely the Pioneers, who are loaded with talent, but also extremely untested.
The goaltending race for the Pioneers is still wide open. Sophomore Adam Murray was very highly-touted when he committed to the Pioneers, but after a shaky final year with the NTDP, he was nightmarish in a few early season starts while Marc Cheverie was out with a leg injury. He looked much better by the end of the season, but there's still reason for concern. Battling it out with him for the starting job will be highly-touted incoming freshman Sam Brittain. Brittain was a 4th round pick of the Florida Panthers this past summer, but most of his praise are due to his measurables(6'3" 215 lbs.) and his excellent than what he's done on the ice. His statistics for Canmore in the AJHL last year weren't spectacular. The Pioneers perhaps would have preferred he played another year of junior hockey rather than having to learn on the job at Denver, but Marc Cheverie's departure for the pros kind of forced their hand.
The two will likely split starts at the beginning of the season, and George Gwozdecky has shown a willingness to play two goalies throughout an entire season if one doesn't emerge as the clear-cut starter. Murray and Brittain are both extremely talented, but their youth could cause some inconsistency throughout the year.
The Bulldogs are in a fairly unique position, in that all three goalies on their roster were recruited as walk-ons. After spending two years on the bench without seeing any playing time, Kenny Reiter emerged last year and took the starting role from the talented but inconsistent Brady Hjelle, who decided to return to the USHL. With NTDP goalie Matt McNeeley scheduled to join the Bulldogs next year, UMD decided not to add anyone else to compete with Reiter for the job.
Reiter's back-ups are Aaron Crandall, the goalie who committed to Wisconsin at a young age, but was disastrous in junior hockey and ended up losing his scholarship offer. Duluth decided to throw him a bone and let him be their third-string goalie last year. Crandall's younger brother Justin committed to UMD a few months later. Their third option is freshman walk-on Christian Gaffy, who played Minnesota HS hockey last year for Forest Lake. Gaffy was roughly above average for high school hockey, but would have had a hard time finding consistent playing time on even an NAHL roster.
So it's pretty much going to be all Reiter, all the time for UMD this year. Last year, Reiter struck me as kind of "ugly, but effective" leaving lots of big rebounds that never found opposing sticks. But perhaps that was part of some greater genius I'm not privy to. He does have the age and maturity which play a big role in goaltending, but I think he'll show more than a few cracks in the armor over the course of a full season.
For all of his success, Dean Blais has been remarkably similar to mere mortal coaches in that his teams tend to struggle when he doesn't have stellar goaltending. He missed the NCAA tournament at North Dakota the year a senior Andy Kollar decided he wasn't that interested in hockey anymore, and he was stuck with a freshman Brandt/Siembida duo.(He had weak goaltending the next two years, his final two in North Dakota, but that was offset by the Bochenski/Parise duo, which is a rare exception to say the least.). He had success in the USHL based on Mike Lee's stellar play, and then last year, only managed a sixth place finish in the CCHA, with average play in net. It's perhaps a stretch, but you could even extend that to his lack of success in Columbus, where it's figuratively impossible to name a Blue Jackets goalie, and literally impossible to name a playoff series they've won.
With all that being said, Blais' return to the WCHA doesn't look all that promising with John Faulkner returning in goal for the Mavericks, backed up by two freshmen from the NAHL in Mike Taffe and Fredrik Bergman. Faulkner is extremely talented, and could be due for a big improvement in his second full year as starter, but he's got a long ways to go from last season, when he didn't crack the 90% save percentage mark in conference play.
10. Michigan Tech
Kevin Genoe and Josh Robinson both split time last year, with Genoe emerging as the starter and getting the majority of playing time in conference games. Genoe wasn't necessarily bad last year. He finished with a good, but not great .903 save percentage in conference play, but because of the shots his team gave up, that tied him for the worst goals against average in WCHA play last year.
With some of the deficits the Huskies face in other areas on the ice, they'll need their goal tending to be far above average if they want to have a chance at being competitive in the WCHA this year.
11. Minnesota State
Walk-on Phil Cook earned the starting role for Minnesota State, on the back of some nice non-conference starts against Bemidji State and RIT, but his 3.24 GAA and .890 save percentage would have put him 12th in the WCHA in both categories if he had played enough minutes to qualify. Even in last year's playoff series against St. Cloud, which some considered Cook's finest moment, he let in 3 or more goals in all three games, failed to stop 90% of his shots in all three games, and lost third period leads in games two and three of the series.
Backing him up will be redshirt sophomore Austin Lee, who was serviceable for the Mavericks, but never played strong enough to hold onto the starting role. In perhaps the most incredible stat ever, Lee played in four overtimes last year, and had an 0-4-0 record, with a .333 save percentage., and a GAA of roughly 18.5
The wildcard is walk-on Evan Karambelas, who comes in much like Cook did last year, hoping to find playing time if either of the two other unproven options don't pan out.
The Seawolves return all of 40 minutes of goal tending experience in the form of third-string walk-on Dusan Sidor, who played two periods of mop-up duty last season. With Jon Olthuis graduating, and Bryce Christianson feeling his .848 save percentage deserved more respect and leaving school, the Seawolves will rely on the freshmen duo of Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal. Gunderson was 14th in the AJHL in save percentage last season with a .900 total, while Kamal was 5th in the NAHL in save percentage. Both are bound to see lots of shots this year, and it could be a very difficult year.