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2016-2017 WCHA Season Preview: The Teams

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On Monday afternoon, I posted my preseason WCHA media poll ballot, including my picks for where each team would finish in the 10-team league. Today, I take a stab at defending those picks with a few thoughts on reasons for optimism and some causes of concern for each team as we head into the season.

Here’s my thoughts on each of the ten teams in the league this year.

  1. Michigan Tech

What I Like: The Huskies are probably the deepest team in the league top-to-bottom. They have to replace the scoring from WCHA player of the year Alex Petan, but that shouldn’t be a problem with all the experienced upperclassmen they have coming back. This will be one of the few teams in the league that can threaten to score with their third and fourth lines, which is a huge advantage. The defense should be spectacular, bringing back a very good top six from last year, and adding a great puck-moving offensive defenseman in Mitch Reinke.

What I Don’t Like: The only reason I hesitated in putting at the top of the league was that the goalie position is an unknown right now. Freshman Angus Redmond will likely get every opportunity to earn the full-time starting job. A lot of people will say the WCHA is a goaltender’s league, but Redmond will have the advantage of watching the puck on the other team’s end of the ice the majority of the time, which should ease his transition.

2. Bowling Green

What I Like: Offensively, they’re very similar to Michigan Tech. They lost their leading scorer from last year, but have a boatload of upperclassmen returning to help pick up the slack. Their defense is lead by the best defenseman in the league in junior Mark Friedman and sophomore Adam Smith was so impressive in the half-season he played for Bowling Green last year that he was selected in this summer’s NHL Draft.

The Falcons also have, for my money, the best goalie in the league in Chris Nell, and add a very good back-up in Ryan Bednard this year as insurance. There are no glaring holes in this team.

What I Don’t Like: From a roster standpoint, there’s really nothing to hate about this Bowling Green team. They have the talent to win the league. It’s just a matter of playing consistently enough to do it. Two years ago, they were a thousandth of a percentage point from getting into the NCAA tournament, and last year, there was hope they could capitalize on that momentum with a really good team, but they weren’t able to to do it. This year, they’ll have to prove they can play consistently enough to win a league title.

3. Ferris State

What I Like: The end of last season, when Ferris State won twice at the WCHA Final Five to make the NCAA tournament, then stunned St. Cloud State in the NCAAs wasn’t a fluke. Every three or four years, the Bulldogs seem to put together a really tough, older, veteran team that is among the better teams in the country. This year’s team just got started a little early, showing what they could do at the end of last season.

Gerald Mayhew is one of the more underrated players in college hockey, and the emergence of Chad McDonald and Corey Mackin last year mitigates the effect of losing Kyle Schempp early to the pros. For a team that is going to rely on tough defensive play to win games, having a solid goalie is a must, and Darren Smith proved he was a very strong last year as a rookie.

What I Don’t Like: The Bulldogs had big turnover on the blue line, losing three regulars to graduation. They replace that group with some high talent, led by NHL pick Cameron Clarke and a few USHL veterans, but they’ll have to adjust quickly.

4. Minnesota State

What I Like: Now entering his fifth season in Mankato, head coach Mike Hastings has the Mavericks in a position where they’re a contender in the WCHA every year. They’re bringing in enough talent every year that even when they have to replace some key players, there’s enough talent coming up behind them to still be a strong team.

The Mavericks absolutely dominated possession last year, outshooting opponents by the largest per-game average in the country. Not nearly enough of those shots went in, since they finished 35th nationally in total offense, but over the long run, controlling play like that should lead to success.

What I Don’t Like: There is a lot to replace from last year’s team after the graduation of a big class and the loss of Casey Nelson to the NHL. The Mavericks will have to rely on a big rookie class to produce right away. That won’t be easy with a very front-loaded schedule that has Michigan Tech, a big non-conference series with St. Cloud, a never-easy trip to Fairbanks, and Ferris State in the first month of the season.

The Mavericks will also likely need stronger play in goal this season than they had last year from the duo of Cole Huggins and Jason Pawloski. It’s a testament to how much MSU dominated possession that both goalies had goals against averages under two goals a game while ranking 35th and 60th respectively in save percentage nationally.

5. Lake Superior State

What I Like: Since hiring Damon Whitten two years ago, the Lakers have been a program on the rise. They showed major improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, and should be even better this year. The top scoring senior they have to replace had six points last year, and seven different freshman had more points than that. There was some real skill in last year’s freshman class, and with another year to get a little stronger and adjust to the physicality of the college game, they could be a special group. Freshmen Luke Morgan and Max Humitz were skilled playmakers in the USHL and should be an improvement on the players they’re replacing too.

The Lakers also have a rock in goal in Gordie Defiel, who has stolen some big wins for the Lakers over the past two years, and his back-up Nick Kossoff is a solid player too.

What I Don’t Like: There’s still a pretty wide gap between the top tier of the league and the middle and I don’t think the Lakers are quite ready for that top tier yet. It’s tough to win relying on freshmen and sophomores in this league.

And while they’ve made big upgrades at forward, it’s been slower going trying to rebuild the defense. The additions of Kris Bindulis and Collin Saccoman should be a huge help, but there’s still a long ways to go before they’re ready to skate up-and-down with the faster teams in the league.

6. Northern Michigan

What I Like: Northern Michigan’s top line can skate with anybody, led by my preseason player of the year Dominik Shine. They’ll have to replace Shine’s linemate Darren Nowick, who was great last year, but freshman Collin Peters is a very good player, and a perfect fit for the style of hockey Northern Michigan plays.

But what will win Northern Michigan the majority of their games this year is their incredible defensive discipline. The Wildcats do a great job backchecking, getting sticks into lanes and making the game as frustrating as possible for the other team.

What I Don’t Like: There’s just such a limited ceiling to the style of hockey Northern Michigan plays. Hoping the first line outscores the other team’s first line and the other three lines block 50 shots a game works often enough to be competitive, but isn’t a sustainable strategy to win enough games and challenge for a league title.

7. Bemidji State

What I Like: The Beavers have some decent pieces to work with, including the Fitzgerald triplets, who showed big improvement from their freshmen to sophomore seasons and should be better as upperclassmen. They’re always a well-coached team that is going to be disciplined defensively and not make a lot of big mistakes.

They also return a solid goalie in junior Michael Bitzer, and 6’5” freshman Jack Burgart is very intriguing as a back-up.

What I Don’t Like: I don’t see the high-end talent or depth to compete regularly with the top four teams in the league this year. On a good night, they’ll be able to keep scoring low and have a chance at stealing points, but they don’t have the firepower to blow teams away.

8. Alabama-Huntsville

What I Like: The Chargers actually made strides in terms of possession numbers last year compared to the previous season. But since they went from atrocious to merely bad, it was tough to notice. The Chargers were a very young team last year, and with most of last year’s key contributors returning, they should continue that trend. They still likely won’t have the talent to win a lot of games, but they should definitely be a more competitive match-up on a consistent basis.

What I Don’t Like: Nobody on their team hit double digits in goals last year. Even with steady improvement from their underclassmen, it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to score enough to win consistently. They’ll have to grind out low-scoring wins and ties to pick up league points.

9. Alaska-Fairbanks

What I Like: Footspeed is a little lacking, so they may have trouble on bigger ice, but Fairbanks has some very solid, tough defensive defensemen, led by Montreal draft pick Nik Koberstein. Freshmen Tyler Cline and Aaron Herdt should add some speed to their lineup.

What I Don’t Like: The Nanooks have to replace their top three scorers from last season, including Peter Krieger, who left the program to transfer to Minnesota Duluth. And budget issues due to the greater expense of playing in the WCHA has made it difficult for UAF to reload with talent. It’s tough to see where the goals are going to come from this year.

In addition, the goaltending numbers from the duo of Davis Jones and Jesse Jenks weren’t spectacular last year, and this is a team that will need standout goaltending to be successful.

10. Alaska-Anchorage

What I Like: The Seawolves have a decent junior class, and the addition of Quinnipiac transfers Nathan and Jonah Renouf should help offset the loss of last year’s top forward senior Blake Tatchell. Goalie Olivier Mantha is more talented than the statistics he has put up suggest due to the lack of support in front of him.

What I Don’t Like: I just don’t see much improvement from a team that was pretty bad last year. They’ll maybe have a chance to compete for that last playoff spot, but it’s hard to see them making any more improvement than that.