Another college hockey season is already technically underway with a handful of games last weekend, but begins in earnest next week with a full slate of games. In advance of the full start of the season, here’s a list of 30 thoughts I have on the upcoming season.
1. Denver comes into the season as really heavy favorites to be the best team in college hockey, and for good reason. They received 48 of 50 first place votes in the preseason USCHO poll, the second-most in the opening week in the poll’s history. But it’s worth remembering that only one preseason #1 has gone on to actually win the national title.
If I had to pick any single team to win the national championship this season, I would pick Denver. But if it was Denver vs. the rest of the field, I’d take the field without hesitation. The NCAA tournament is far too fluky and it’s really tough to get magic to strike twice.
2. I read through the Star-Tribune’s preview of major storylines for the Big Ten favorite Golden Gophers and noticed not a single mention of undrafted freshman forward Brannon McManus. Apparently 14-year-old recruits are less essential to the process than they were two weeks ago.
3. I watched Minnesota defeat Canadian off-brand Clarkson on Sunday night. My big takeaway was that the Gophers have anywhere from five to seven forwards, depending on your personal preferences, that could play on the first line of any team in the country. That’s a serious weapon to have. There aren’t going to be that many teams capable of going two or three lines deep with legit scoring threats like Minnesota.
4. The problem for Minnesota is that I don’t think they have the defensive depth they’ve had in past years. I think there might be a greater appreciation for what Jake Bischoff did on the Minnesota blue line last year by the end of this year than there is now.
5. The Gophers don’t seem to be alone in that regard. Picking preseason all-Big Ten forwards and defensemen were equally challenging tasks for opposite reasons. There were too many good forwards to choose from, and hardly any defensemen that felt worthy of the honor. I don’t know that that will necessarily lead to a ton of goals in the conference like two seasons ago, but there’s definitely more talent up front than on the back-end.
6. Same goes for the NCHC, which was hit hard by early departures. It goes to show how tough it is to find quality veteran defensemen in college hockey.
7. St. Cloud State has rightfully gotten a lot of attention as a team to watch this season. Many have keyed in on the fact that they return a large majority of their scoring from last season. Generally, I think the “percentage of scoring returning” stats are really overrated. But in St. Cloud State’s case, for a team that missed the tournament last year, they were really close to being a very good team. They put themselves in a big hole early on before Jeff Smith settled into the starting goalie job in the second half of the season. But by that point, it was too difficult to make up ground against a brutal schedule against the likes of Minnesota Duluth, Denver, and North Dakota. The Huskies came close though, and had it not been for a 2-6-2 overtime record, they probably would have made the tournament.
8. The Huskies will also make a key addition this year. If I had to guess at a sleeper for NCHC rookie of the year, I’d look at Blake Lizotte(Okay, I wrote this before Lizotte scored a hat trick in SCSU’s exhibition game. Not much of a sleeper anymore, I guess). Lizotte was overlooked throughout his youth career because he’s tiny, has a late birthday, and comes from the middle of nowhere. But he has excelled where ever he has been. Early returns look good, as Bob Motzko mentioned him as a player that could be special at NCHC Media Day, and SCSU has the type of offense where a small playmaker like Lizotte could really put up huge numbers.
9. An interesting dark horse for WCHA rookie of the year is Alaska-Fairbanks goalie Anton Martinsson. Martinsson sat out last year due to academic ineligibility, but the Nanooks are really excited about what they’ve seen from him in practices over the past year, and people that saw him in the NAHL agree he has the potential to be outstanding.
10. Another interesting Fairbanks note: On the WCHA preseason conference call, new head coach Lance West said Justin Woods won the team’s weight-lifting competition, which is noteworthy because Woods sat out the entire year two years ago while receiving treatment for bone cancer. Woods was named captain of the Nanooks this year.
11. It’s no secret who is likely to be the Big Ten’s top newcomer. But also keep an eye on Michigan freshman Josh Norris, who will give the Wolverines a true 1C that they were sorely lacking last year. He’ll be matched up with sophomore Will Lockwood, who was a pleasant surprise last season, and could be a breakout player this year. Add in a second line with Cooper Marody at center using his speed to create space for a good shooter in Tony Calderone, and the Wolverines have two decent lines. Depth is still a concern, but there’s enough there for Michigan to at least be competitive again this year.
12. It’s going to be strange seeing Michigan take the ice this year without Red Berenson behind the bench. To add to the visually jarring changes, for the first time in program history, Michigan players will wear jersey numbers greater than 39(though Wolverines did offer to let Eric Lindros wear his favorite number 88).
13. Minnesota State was picked as the heavy favorite in the WCHA. A couple pieces fell into place for the Mavericks this summer to put them in a position to make a serious run this year. The biggest was Daniel Brickley deciding to come back to school, despite drawing considerable interest from NHL teams as a free agent. The deciding factor was that Brickley has just one year of school left to finish his degree. Equally as important for the Mavericks, and almost a bigger surprise, was that CJ Suess opted to return to Mankato for his senior season, rather than sign with the Winnipeg Jets.
14. While Brickley will rightly get a ton of attention as an NHL free agent this season, freshman defenseman Connor Mackey will likely draw a lot of interest as well. Multiple people mentioned to me prior to this summer’s NHL Draft that it was too bad Mackey was too old to be selected because an NHL team holding his rights might have kept him in the NCAA a year longer.
15. The narrative of the Mavericks’ season will likely be determined in this first month. They open with a home game against St. Cloud State on Saturday, then a road trip to Boston University the following weekend. Odds are those are three of only six games they’ll play against NCAA tournament teams, making them critically important. They’ll follow that up with two of their toughest WCHA league series at Bowling Green and home against Michigan Tech.
16. I know travel considerations dictate some of these and some of these are multi-year agreements, but Penn State’s non-conference schedule this year: one each vs. Clarkson/St. Lawrence, and series vs. American International, Mercyhurst, Arizona State, and Robert Morris. Woof.
17. Ferris State goalie Justin Kapelmaster is a name that could draw interest as an NHL free agent if he follows up a strong rookie year with another good season. Ferris State struggled in the first half of last season, killing what they had hoped would be a very good year, but were a really good team in the latter half of the year. Part of that was because they were extremely young on the blue line with three freshman and only one upperclassman among their regulars. Part of it was Kapelmaster taking the starting job and playing really well. The Bulldogs lost a lot of scoring from last year, especially senior Gerry Mayhew, but they’re going to be a very tough team to score on this season.
18. It’s going to be tough for Western Michigan to match last year’s success after losing three forwards early to NHL contracts, and another top scorer to graduation. They’ll likely go as far as the scoring from the Pembina Valley duo of Colt Conrad and Wade Allison can take them. I see them as very similar to Miami this year in that they’ve got enough firepower for one really good line, but probably not the depth to compete with the top teams in the league.
19. I was a little surprised the general consensus wasn’t more bullish on Ohio State. They have to replace 45 goals from Nick Schilkey and David Gust and perhaps most importantly, start fresh in goal, which can always be an unknown. But I see a lot of pieces back from a team that made the NCAAs last year and was a bad beat away from upsetting Minnesota Duluth. Namely, I think Mason Jobst is one of the more underappreicated playmakers in the country and Dakota Joshua plays a heavy, responsible two-way game that doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. They’ll be in the mix in the Big Ten.
20. I’m not sure there’s a team I’ve heard bigger disagreement on for this season than Notre Dame. On one hand, Anders Bjork and Cal Petersen were really the driving forces that carried their team last year. On the other, there is still a decent amount of talent remaining. They’re a fairly young team, so it may take time to gel, but I think they’ll be a pretty good team by the end of the year.
21. Minnesota Duluth is loaded up and down their line-up with young talent, but the most important newcomer may be Fairbanks transfer Peter Krieger. Krieger was the top line center for the Bulldogs in their exhibition game, and if there’s one area where I think UMD is really weak, it is up the middle.
22. The Bulldogs will also play four freshmen on the blue line likely every night. That can be a scary proposition, and there might be some rough nights early, but it’s hard to imagine a better group of four young defensemen to have in the line-up. Dylan Samberg has received the most hype as the highest NHL Draft pick, and while early signs are that he may be ahead of schedule, it’s worth remembering he was supposed to be in the USHL this year had it not been for Neal Pionk’s departure, so he may acclimate a bit slower. But Mikey Anderson has always been a player that has played beyond his years, and Scott Perunovich may end up as the player that gets the most attention by the end of the season for his ability to run a power play. They’re going to be a really fun group to watch.
23. It’s hard to believe Bemidji State’s Fitzgerald triplets are already seniors. One minute they’re Baby Geniuses, the next they’re the old guys on the block.
24. It will be interesting to see how the Olympics affects the college hockey season. I’m not sure anybody knows for sure what it will look like, but there’s a strong likelihood of some very good teams losing key players during an important stretch of the season, which could have an impact on conference races.
25. Big Ten Network will air 20 regular season hockey games this year, CBSSN will show 11 regular season NCHC games. Both are certainly better than nothing, but it’s always worth remembering that conference realignment was sold as being worth the sacrifice to any sort of geographical logic because television deals would get college hockey double-headers on every night of the season. That hasn’t happened.
26. Here’s the NCAA’s points of emphasis video for this year. That still seems like such a bizarre concept to me. Is there any other sport anywhere where they’re like, “We’ve got way too many rules, so here’s five of them that we’re actually going to call”?
27. With those points of emphasis, it’s likely we see yet another year of everything being called in October, and nothing called in March again this year. The problem with the October version of the rules is that refs try to call everything, which is impossible, and the end result is a lot of arbitrary weak calls that just frustrate people. I’d just like to see a concerted effort towards policing the front of the net better. That’s a major problem, even in October, and there’s little room for complaint when a team that puts themselves in that position gets called for a penalty. College hockey would be much better off if they took away incentives for parking three or four defenders in the goal crease at all times.
28. It hasn’t officially been announced yet, but all indications are that the first Great Lakes Invitational held at Little Caesar’s Arena will be held Monday January 1st and Tuesday January 2nd. That’s going to be a tough sell for a tournament that has traditionally relied on an audience that is off work the week between Christmas and New Year’s. But with the arena now having to schedule around the Detroit Pistons, as well as other events, it’s going to be tougher to justify a prime date for the GLI.
29. I didn’t get a vote in any preseason media polls, but here are my conference standings predictions for each conference:
NCHC: 1.Denver 2. St. Cloud State 3. North Dakota 4. Minnesota Duluth 5. Miami 6. Western Michigan 7. Omaha 8. Colorado College
Big Ten: 1. Minnesota 2. Ohio State 3. Penn State 4. Wisconsin 5. Notre Dame 6. Michigan 7. Michigan State
WCHA: 1. Minnesota State 2. Michigan Tech 3. Bowling Green 4. Bemidji State 5. Ferris State 6. Lake Superior State 7. Alaska-Fairbanks 8. Northern Michigan 9. Alabama-Huntsville 10. Alaska-Anchorage
30. Teams from the west I see making the NCAA tournament this year: Denver, Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame, WCHA playoff champion