2013-2014 ushers in a new era for the WCHA. All of the big names left, but what's left should be some fun and interesting hockey. Minnesota State has been everybody's favorite heading into the year, but what stands out most in trying to put together a preseason ranking is just how close and how competitive all of these teams are. Teams 2-9 seem pretty tough to peg, and usually, that leads to some exciting hockey.
Here's how we see the WCHA shaking out this year:
The Mavericks were the only new WCHA team to make the NCAA tournament last season, and after returning a good chunk of last year's team, are just about everybody's favorite to run away with the league this year. The biggest concern for Minnesota State will be finding a player or players to step up and fill the leadership void left by outgoing senior captains Tyler Elbrecht and Eriah Hayes, whose contributions far exceeded what ended up on the stat sheet. The last minute loss of Zach Lehrke, a hard-working senior with some scoring punch, to a medical condition won't help either.
But the Mavericks have more offensive firepower than any team in the league, with three of the league's top offensive centers in Matt Leitner, Jean-Paul LaFontaine, and Teddy Blueger, and one of the league's top offensive defensemen in Zach Palmquist. Their defense isn't exciting, but their solid, conservative play helps goalie Stephon Williams look exceptional.
2. Ferris State
The new WCHA seems tailor-made for Bob Daniels' Ferris State program. The Bulldogs play a tough, physical brand of hockey, and are never outworked. There's the potential for them to become a year-in year-out power in the league, rather than a team that only competed at the top of the league every few years when they had the right mix of veteran players.
Ferris State will need to replace a lot of offensive from last year's team, but does have a veteran group ready to step up and take over that role. They're probably not going to need much scoring either, because this team shouldn't give up that many goals this year.
3. Michigan Tech
Michigan Tech is a team that should really benefit from the move to the new WCHA. The Huskies have a pretty good offense, which scored about 3 goals per game last year. That was about average in the old WCHA, but exceptional when compared to what new WCHA teams averaged last year.
The big problem for Michigan Tech last year was that they were atrocious defensively. But sophomore goalies Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips are now a year older and more experienced, and playing in the new WCHA, defensive mistakes aren't likely to be punished as harshly.
Alaska has had success in recent years playing a grinding, defensive style that leaned heavily on shot-blocking and excellent goaltending. Last year's team, however, showed more signs of opening things up and playing a more offensive style of hockey. The trio of Cody Kunyk, Colton Beck, and Tyler Morley should give the Nanooks some nice scoring punch. If goalie John Keeney can make a statistical jump from his freshman to sophomore season, Alaska could be a team competing for the league title.
5. Bemidji State
Expectations for the Beavers have seemed pretty low so far this preseason, and probably for good reason. The Beavers struggled mightily last year, and lost most of their scoring punch from last season in outgoing seniors Brance Orban and Jordan George.
There are some positives for Bemidji, however. Namely, they return goalie Andrew Walsh. Walsh recorded a .916 save percentage last year, which is fairly remarkable when you consider his 5-14-6 record. The Beavers also have some potential breakout scorers in junior Danny Mattson and sophomore Cory Ward. But most importantly, while the Beavers struggled to adjust to the faster pace and high talent level of the old WCHA, the new WCHA, which should feature a more defensive, grinding style of hockey plays into the strengths of a Tom Serratore-coached team.
6. Bowling Green
Chris Bergeron has done an excellent job rebuilding a Bowling Green program that was near the brink of collapse when he took over, and this year, the expectation seems to be that they're ready to take that next step towards a more competitive program.
Complicating matters for the Falcons is that they have one of the less settled goaltending situations in the league after starting goalie Andrew Hammond graduated last year. Sophomore Tommy Burke had less-than-stellar numbers as a freshman last season. Incoming freshman Tomas Sholl is very young by NCAA goalie standards--he doesn't turn 20 until next August--and could be a bit of a wildcard.
The good news is that Bowling Green returns all four of their top four scorers from last season, including Ryan Carpenter, who scored 18 goals last year. That offensive firepower may be enough to overcome a few extra goals allowed over the course of the season.
7. Lake Superior
The Lakers have the best goaltending tandem in the league with Kevin Kapalka and Kevin Murdock both returning after putting up incredible numbers last year. The real question is who will score goals for the Lakers this year. Junior Chris Ciotti scored 11 goals last year, and is a pesky offensive threat, but there's very little behind him in terms of firepower. The Lakers will be very tough to play against, and will likely grind out a lot of low-scoring wins, but they likely won't score consistently enough to compete with the top of the league.
If there is one team in the league that could really surprise people this year with a much higher-than-expected finish, it could be Alaska-Anchorage. The Seawolves were dreadful last year, no doubt, but they played a lot of close games against very good teams that they lost late when their opponents were able to take things into an extra gear and pull out a win. I'm not sure the teams in the new WCHA have that same extra gear they way the likes of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Denver do.
Add in the infusion of some fresh blood into the program with new head coach Matt Thomas, and the Seawolves could look like a very different hockey team. After hitting rock bottom this past summer with an embarrassing coaching search that led to all of the program's dirty laundry being aired, there may finally be reason for optimism about the UAA program.
9. Northern Michigan
The Wildcats really struggled last season, finishing the year second-to-last in the CCHA, and after losing top scorer Matt Thurber to graduation, and starting goalie Jared Coreau to a pro contract, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of room for significant improvement this year.
Reed Seckel will be one of the more underrated forwards in the league, and the duo of freshman Derrek Dun and redshirt freshman Mathias Dahlstrom could provide close to what Coreau did in goal, but somebody has to miss the playoffs, and the Wilcats are likely one of the safer bets to do so.
Hey, they're just happy to be here. It's going to take Alabama-Huntsville a few years to dig out of the hole the last few years have put them in, but hopefully there's now a bit of stability in the program with new head coach Mike Corbett and a (probably) stable conference home that will allow them to build the program back to respectability.