It was a tumultuous off-season for the WCHA, to say the least. The league made some excellent decisions on the administrative side. A new playoff format that gives the higher seed home ice advantage throughout the entire league playoffs is a switch college hockey has been long overdue to make. A new overtime format should be an improvement on last season, when one out of every six league games ended in a stalemate.
But those decisions were overshadowed by questions about the membership of the league. A state budget crisis has one or both of the Alaska schools teetering on the edge of dropping their hockey programs. Minnesota State applied, unsuccessfully, to join the NCHC in 2018-2019. Meanwhile, Atlantic Hockey upped their number of scholarships per team to ward off any attempts by the WCHA to siphon off some of their teams.
When the day comes, whenever it might be, to remember back on this version of the WCHA, that’s how it should be remembered: trying its’ best, but in an impossible, unsustainable situation for the teams in the league.
On the ice, this should be an entertaining conference season. Last year, it was all about the ‘big 3’ of Bowling Green, Michigan Tech, and Minnesota State battling it out atop the league with the rest of the conference a tier or two behind. This year, those three teams should be the class of the conference again, but Ferris State made a strong run at the end of last season, and looks poised to join those other three at the top of the league standings as the top tier of the league.
I went back-and-forth on how I ordered those top four on my media poll ballot a number of times over the course of two weeks before finally just closing my eyes and hitting submit. I think I had each of the four teams in first place and each one in fourth place at some point over that time period, and I don’t think there’s any order that would surprise me.
Having those teams so closely clustered shows the real genius of the WCHA’s switch in playoff format. Not only are teams playing for the MacNaughton Cup, but it’s a pretty big deal to finish in second place instead of third place in the regular season. Last year, the difference between second and third place was what jersey color you wore in a single-elimination neutral site game. Now, the higher seed earns a huge home ice advantage in the semifinal round, and with a 2nd/3rd-place WCHA team almost guaranteed to need to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament, it should make the final weeks of the season extremely compelling.
Will the WCHA put more than just the conference tournament champion in the NCAA Tournament this year? I could see two of the top four teams playing well enough in non-conference to have a shot at receiving an at-large bid. But more likely, those teams in the middle tier will steal enough games from the top tier that one bid for the NCAA tournament will be up for grabs in the final game of the WCHA playoffs.
Here’s how I voted in my preseason media poll ballot, with the bonus of a second all-league team and an all-rookie team.
- Michigan Tech
- Bowling Green
- Ferris State
- Minnesota State
- Lake Superior State
- Northern Michigan
- Bemidji State
And my preseason all-league teams:
First Team All-WCHA
F-Dominik Shine, Northern Michigan
F-Gerald Mayhew, Ferris State
F-Joel L’Esperance, Michigan Tech
D-Mark Friedman, Bowling Green
D-Matt Roy, Michigan Tech
G-Chris Nell, Bowling Green
Second Team All-WCHA
F-CJ Franklin, Minnesota State
F-Corey Mackin, Ferris State
F-Brandon Hawkins, Bowling Green
D-Jordan Klimek, Northern Michigan
D-Carter Foguth, Minnesota State
G-Gordie Defiel, Lake Superior State
F-Parker Tuomie, Minnesota State
F-Collin Peters, Northern Michigan
F-Marc Michaelis, Minnesota State
D-Cameron Clarke, Ferris State
D-Mitch Reinke, Michigan Tech
G-Angus Redmond, Michigan Tech
MVP: Dominik Shine, Northern Michigan
Rookie: Mitch Reinke, Michigan Tech