Here's the reason college hockey's whole realignment got started. The Big Ten is kicking off their first season of hockey play as a full-time conference, and it should be an interesting experiment to watch. Most interesting, might be the fact that the Big Ten is only playing a 20-game conference schedule, with almost all of it backloaded into the second half of the season.
It's unlikely to happen, but with conference playing only taking up about 50% of the schedule as opposed to about 75% like it used to, it's at least plausible that conference rankings at the end of the year could look drastically different than the national rankings. Add in the fact that it only takes one good, three-win weekend for any team to snag the conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid, and there should be a lot of craziness in the Big Ten conference.
Here's how we see the Big Ten shaking out at the end of the year:
This is basically a make-or-break year for the Badgers. They return a large percentage of the talent from last year's team which finished the season as arguably one of the best teams in college hockey in the second half of the year. But the Badgers have eight seniors on their roster this year, and at least three underclassmen that seem very strong bets to sign NHL contracts next summer. The Badgers need to have a lot of success this year, because it might be a few years before they're in this position again.
Leading the way for the Badgers is the deepest group of forwards in the league. Michael Mersch basically carried the entire offense in the early part of last season en route to a 23-goal season. A big part of the reason for Wisconsin's early season offensive struggles were due to missing Mark Zengerle to injury and Nic Kerdiles to NCAA suspension. Both were point-per-game producers when they returned to the lineup. Tyler Barnes and Jefferson Dahl provide some depth to the lineup with very gritty, two-way play.
The Badgers also return one of the top defensemen in college hockey in Jake McCabe, and the goaltending duo of Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson is solid, with both putting up save percentages of .920+ last year. Top to bottom, it's a very solid lineup for the Badgers, and one that should be as good as any in the country.
The Gophers were hit hard by NHL departures last season. Nearly all the departures were expected, however, and the Gophers had time to line up an impressive recruiting class to replace them. The new, late-starting Big Ten conference may play to Minnesota's advantage, giving their freshman class time to acclimate to college hockey before conference points are on the line.
Kyle Rau is a pest with an impressive knack for picking up garbage goals, and senior Nate Condon is one of college hockey's more underrated players, but ultimately, the success of the Gophers, at least offensively speaking, will rest on if, and how quickly, freshman like Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos can adjust to the college game, and show the impressive scoring prowess that they did as junior players.
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time over two decades last year, the Wolverines are looking to bounce back to the level they're accustomed to. An incoming freshman class led by JT Compher and Tyler Motte will add some skill to their forwards, but more importantly, should add some hard work and grit that was sorely missing for the Wolverines last year, and could jumpstart talented, but enigmatic forwards like Alex Guptill and Phil DiGiuseppe.
The problem for the Wolverines will be on the back end of the ice. After senior captain Mac Bennett, the Wolverines don't really have another quality defenseman unless one or more of their freshman are a huge surprise. In goal, Steve Racine was good down the stretch for Michigan, and freshman Zach Nagelvoort will compete for time, but at this point, there's still a big question mark in goal as well.
Michigan should be good enough to separate themselves from the bottom half of the league, but not quite on the level of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and probably on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA tournament again.
4. Michigan State
Tom Anastos still hasn't completely rebuilt Michigan State after taking over from Rick Comley, a testament to how bad Comley's last few years in East Lansing were, but the Spartans at least seem headed in the right direction. Michigan State doesn't have the depth to compete for much other than being best of the Big Ten's also-rans, but being best of that group is at least a small step forward while the Spartans wait on some of the bigger name recruits they've signed to arrive on campus.
Leading the way for the Spartans should be sophomore goalie Jake Hildebrand, who was excellent as a freshman last season. The Spartans have an elite level forward in Matt Berry and an elite level defenseman in John Draeger, but unfortunately, both will out the first two months of the year after offseason surgeries. If MSU can survive the first two months of the season, they should be much better once Big Ten season rolls around.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes had a tumultuous off-season, firing head coach Mark Osiecki, despite the fact that it seemed like he had the program headed in the right direction, and spending the rest of the summer bleeding recruits. Most of those recruits wouldn't have had an impact until future years--though Zach Stepan likely would have liked nice in this lineup--but the turmoil did lead to some questions about just how serious Ohio State is about the future of their program.
Meanwhile, on the ice, there was another departure Ohio State will have to deal with this year, after senior goalie Brady Hjelle graduated last year. Hjelle will be replaced by a tandem of Collin Olson and Matt Tompkins, two big, prototypical NHL draft picks. They should be good, but it's going to be difficult to replace a goalie that registered a .935 save percentage last year.
Trying to make up for those extra goals they should allow this year, the Buckeyes have one of the top lines in the league with Ryan Dzingel, Tanner Fritz, and Max McCormick, but the rest of the lineup will likely keep them competing with Michigan State for the best of the bottom half of the league.
6. Penn State
Penn State comes into the Big Ten conference in just their second year as a varsity-level program. On any given night, it would not be terribly surprising to see Penn State come away with a victory, but over the course of a full season, the Nittany Lions are probably going to end up losing more than they win. They just haven't had the time to build up the depth necessary to compete at that level, though some promising results last year seem to indicate that they are at least headed in the right direction.