The NCHC will kick off their inaugural season this year, and as many expected, this looks like it could be the deepest conference top-to-bottom in the country. Teams like Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, and Colorado College look like they could be down compared to previous seasons, but even those teams look pretty decent compared to the bottom end of the other conferences. Long-term, it remains to be seen if some of these programs can maintain that if they're forced to withstand a few years at the bottom of the conference, but for now, the NCHC looks like it should be one of the most entertaining conferences to watch.
Here's how we see the NCHC shaking out this year:
Miami starts the season as the league favorites. Offensively, they're led by the dominating duo of Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber. There's not a ton of scoring punch behind those two, but when a team plays defense like the RedHawks do, a lot of scoring isn't as essential.
Ryan McKay and Jay Williams split time in goal last season, in large part because McKay missed a good chunk of time to injury, and both were really good, with McKay putting up a 1.39 GAA and .946 save percentage. The defense in front of them will be extremely young, but their history under Rico Blasi suggests their success is more a product of system than individual talent. That defense will be put to the test on a more consistent basis in the NCHC this year, but Miami should be able to withstand it.
2. North Dakota
After losing three of their top four scorers from last year due to graduation, this North Dakota team won't be as star-studded as last year's team, but this is a very deep team that should be strong from the net out with the goal tending duo of Zane Gothberg and Clarke Saunders returning, and a very good defense that is adding two or three players that should immediately contribute. The offense should be led by Rocco Grimaldi, with a number of solid contributors behind him. This isn't one of North Dakota's best ever teams, but it should be a team good enough to be ranked among the best in the country.
3. St. Cloud
Many people seem to be expecting a drop-off for the Huskies after their historic run last season, in large part due to some massive holes left by the departures of Drew Leblanc, Ben Hanowski, and Nick Jensen. The good news is that St. Cloud seems to have some suitable replacements lined up. Nic Dowd scored 39 points as the team's second line center last year, and would seem to plug in nicely in Leblanc's top line center role. After missing the first half of last season with a broken leg, Joey Benik showed the potential to be a big-time goal scorer in the same way Ben Hanowski was. And Andrew Prochno seems poised to step into the top defenseman role of Nick Jensen. The bigger question is if the next wave of talent can step up behind those guys to give St. Cloud the same depth they had last season.
Returning goalie Ryan Faragher is solid and consistent while incoming freshman Charlie Lindgren gives the Huskies a goalie with the potential to steal games. Other than Jensen, the Huskies also return a good chunk of the blueline that was so effective last season.
4. Western Michigan
To give some idea of the style of hockey Andy Murray wants Western Michigan to play, the Broncos only scored 4+ goals in a game five times last year. In two of those games, they needed an empty-netter to hit four. The other three came against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, and Bemidji State. And yet, it took some weirdness is various conference tournaments and some surprise autobids to keep the Broncos out of the NCAA tournament last year.
That defense is likely to be tested much more heavily this year by the likes of North Dakota and St. Cloud, as opposed to some of the generally lower-scoring outfits Western Michigan saw in the CCHA, but they should be up to the task. Finding some secondary scoring will be a key for the Broncos if they want to make it to the NCAA tournament.
It's difficult to know what to expect from Nebraska-Omaha, because they've developed a reputation the past few seasons of a team whose talent far exceeds their actual performance. Even with Matt White being kicked off the team late this summer, the Mavericks return a ton of scoring depth, led by Ryan Walters and Josh Archibald, but also including the likes of Dominic Zombo and incoming freshmen Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega. On defense, there's a lot of very big, rangy guys that are either NHL draft picks or potential free agent targets, but it was a group that never added up to more than the sum of its' parts last year.
In goal, the usual Dean Blais goalie rotation is in full effect. Ryan Massa was supposed to redshirt last year, but burned it late in the year when UNO was desperate for goaltending. He'll compete with incoming freshmen Kirk Thompson and Reed Peters. Judging by Blais' past history, it's likely all three will get ample opportunities to play, and it will be a huge surprise if all three are on the UNO roster by this time next year.
Jim Montgomery's first season behind the bench, taking over for legendary coach George Gwozdecky could be a difficult one. The Pioneers might have the best blue line in the league, led by big scorers Joey LaLeggia, David Makowski, and Nolan Zajac and adding puck-moving freshmen Will Butcher and Matt VanVoorhis this summer. That group should put up a lot of points, and they will have to, because the Pioneers lack any players that one would consider true top-line NCAA forwards.
In goal, the Pioneers will have to hope Sam Brittain rebounds from a rough season last year after coming off a knee surgery. His back-up, freshman Evan Cowley is loaded with potential, but still only two years removed from playing high school hockey in Colorado, and there could be a steep learning curve if he's pressed into action too early.
There's certainly talent on this roster, with the likes of Austin Farley and Tony Cameranesi up front, and sophomore defenseman Andy Welinski, but the Bulldogs also have one of the ugliest goaltending situations in the league, and lost a big chunk of their defense from last year. This new league should be pretty unforgiving to a team that struggles to keep the puck out of the net like that.
8. Colorado College
With the departure of Rylan Schwartz to graduation, the Tigers will need senior Alex Krushelnyski to carry even more of the scoring load than he did last year, because the Tigers look to be thin offensively this year.
In goal, Josh Thorimbert showed promise two years ago as a sophomore, but had a terrible stat regression last year as a junior. He'll compete with incoming freshman Tyler Marble for playing time. That duo will need to far exceed expectations to keep the Tigers out of the bottom of the league.