The results of this year's WCHA Preseason Media Poll will be released on Monday. I got a vote in the poll this year, so like I did with my NCHC preseason ballot, I'll post how I voted.
I'm not doing full team previews on the WCHA this year, so I'll give a few comments on why I voted each team where I did as a means of previewing the league. Much like last year, there are a lot of teams bunched up in the middle, although this year, I think the middle-of-the-pack is like spots 4-8 this year, as opposed to 3 through 9 like last year.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Minnesota State
Some early season struggles last year cost Minnesota State the MacNaughton Cup, but by the end of the year, they lived up to their preseason billing, going 14-1-1 in their last 16 WCHA games. This year's Minnesota State team is in much the same position. At least on paper, they look like a top ten team nationally. Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine are two of the best scorers in college hockey, and the Mavericks have good scoring depth behind them. Cole Huggins was excellent in goal as a freshman. The Mavericks lack of depth on defense--especially with the loss of Jon Jutzi, at least until midseason--could be a problem against the better teams in the country, but if they're playing up to their capability, they should be stronger than any WCHA team they play.
2. Michigan Tech
Head coach Mel Pearson got a contract extension last week, but this has the feel of a make-or-break year for him at Michigan Tech. There's been small success over the course of Pearson's tenure, and there's no doubt that on paper the team is much better than when he took over. But he hasn't had the kind of success to make Michigan Tech nationally relevant. This year's team has the potential to do that. Nearly all of their big contributors from last year are back, and have an extra year of experience under their belt. If the Huskies can't compete for a league title with this roster, it might be time to start questioning if they ever can.
3. Ferris State
The Bulldogs MacNaughton Cup last year came as a bit of a surprise--especially the way they dominated the league in the first half of the year. Many are predicting similar success from the Bulldogs this year, and while they should be good, it's not the same team that was so good last year. Graduated seniors Garrett Thompson and Cory Kane combined for 30 goals, which was about 22% of their total offense last year. Top defenseman Scott Czarnowczan was extremely underrated as well, and will be missed.
The good news is that goalie CJ Motte returns, and that the Bulldogs are consistently one of the hardest-working teams and one of the toughest teams to play against. They'll grind their way to the top of the middle-of-the-pack, but don't quite have the firepower this year to compete with the top two teams in the league.
Replacing the scoring of Cody Kunyk and Colton Beck will be very difficult for the Nanooks. But the Nanooks were a +26 on goal differential despite some pretty average goal tending. That was in large part because they took a lot more shots on goal than their opponents. Those numbers mean that Alaska could regress quite a bit offensively, and still end up with just as good a record, especially if they get stronger play in nets. Losing Justin Woods to cancer treatments is a huge blow, but they've got the most talented player in the league in Colton Parayko back on the blueline, and incoming freshman Zach Frye should be a suitable replacement for Woods muscle on the back end.
5. Bowling Green
The Falcons return a pretty strong group from last year's team, and made an effort over the summer to get faster, especially on the blue line. Tommy Burke earned the starting job in goal last season, and between him and incoming freshman Chris Nell, that should be a position of strength. They've got a couple strong, veteran forwards in Dan DeSalvo and Adam Berkle and underclassmen like Kevin Dufour, Matt Pohlkamp, Ben Murphy, and Mark Cooper were decent last year, and should give the Falcons good scoring depth.
Alaska-Anchorage got an immediate bump with the arrival of new head coach Matt Thomas, and had their first winning season in 20 years. Maintaining that positive momentum will be the challenge in his second year. The Seawolves will start fresh in goal this season after both of their regular goalies graduated, and lost over a quarter of their offensive production from last year with the graduation of Matt Bailey and Jordan Kwas. The offensive duo of Blake Tatchell and Scott Allen should help cover that loss though.
7. Northern Michigan
Mathias Dahlstrom was arguably the best goalie in the WCHA last year, but on a team that gave up about 130 shots on goal more than they took, it was difficult for him to put up the type of numbers CJ Motte or Cole Huggins were putting up. Fellow sophomore John Siemer was equally as exciting, joining the team about midway through the year, but still finishing as the team's fourth-leading scorer. But the Wildcats are likely still to thin elsewhere in the lineup to seriously compete with the top of the WCHA.
8. Bemidji State
The Beavers return their junior duo of Cory Ward and Markus Gerbrandt who will lead the team's offense. Senior goalie Andrew Walsh really struggled in his junior campaign last year after an impressive first two seasons. Freshman Michael Bitzer may come in and take the reins in goal. Though the Beavers barely finished in eighth last year, there wasn't all that much keeping them from home ice in the playoffs. Strong play by Bitzer and an improvement on the blueline may be enough to get them into home ice territory.l
9. Lake Superior State
New head coach Damon Whitten has a tough task ahead of him. The Lakers missed the playoffs last year, and lost arguably the biggest strengths on their team with the graduation of goalies Kevin Kapalka and Kevin Murdock, and .top goal scorer Colin Campbell. Last year, even with a pretty decent goalie duo, the Lakers finished -20 in goal differential, in large part because they gave up about 230 more shots on goal than they took. If none of the Lakers new goalies can really step up and play well, there is potential for things to get really ugly.
The rebuilding process continues in Huntsville. The Chargers cut loose a lot of players after last season in hopes of turning over the talent on their roster quicker, and brought in a nice freshman class to replace them. Some of those players didn't make it into school which has left UAH very thin at forward, but they should still be more competitive than last season. It's going to take two or three more recruiting classes like this one before UAH is competitive with the rest of the league, but they appear headed in the right direction.
Player of the Year: Colton Parayko, Alaska-Fairbanks
Newcomer of the Year: Peter Krieger, Alaska-Fairbanks
First Team All-WCHA
F-Matt Leitner, Minnesota State
F-Jean-Paul LaFontaine, Minnesota State
F-John Siemer, Northern Michigan
D- Colton Parayko, Alaska
D-Shane Hanna, Michigan Tech
G-CJ Motte, Ferris State
F-Tyler Morley, Alaska
F-Cory Ward, Bemidji State
F-Dan DeSalvo, Bowling Green
D-Zach Palmquist, Minnesota State
D-Trevor Campbell, Alaska
G-Cole Huggins, Minnesota State
F-Peter Krieger, Alaska
F-CJ Franklin, Minnesota State
F-Mason Blacklock, Michigan Tech
D-Brett Beauvais, Bemidji
D-Mark Friedman, Bowling Green
G-Olivier Mantha, Alaska-Anchorage