I already gave my spiel on the importance of goaltending in college hockey in my Big Ten goalie preview. The good news for the WCHA is that they have quite an impressive crop of goalies this year. While some, like Jamie Phillips and Michael Bitzer have received well-deserved plaudits for their sparkling statistics, there are a number of very good goalies such as Mathias Dahlstrom, Carmine Guerriero, Gordy Defiel, and Olivier Mantha that don't receive as much recognition because their teams are not as successful, but are as good as any goalie in the country.
So here is a look at the goaltending situation at all 10 WCHA schools. 2014-2015 statistics are listed in parenthesis with the reminder that 32 goalies had a save percentage of .920 or better last season, so that's a good baseline for what is considered "average".
Carmine Guerriero, JR (29 games .928/2.56), Matt Larose, JR(11 games .890/4.20)
Guerriero and Larose have split duties through their first two seasons, but as last season progressed, Guerriero become the clear number one, and for good reason. What Guerriero did last year was nothing short of brilliant, highlighted by his playoff performance at Michigan Tech when he stopped 76(!) shots in a 1-0 3OT loss.
The Chargers made a big jump last year, winning eight games; a solid improvement from the two they won in 2013-2014. Some of that was because the team got better in their second season under head coach Mike Corbett. But much of that improvement came from Guerriero stealing a few games for them and making them look better than they were.
The Chargers finished dead-last in college hockey in shots on goal/game margin, giving up 16.47 more shots per game than they took. That's better than the -21.74 margin they had in 2013-2014, but there's still a long ways to go for UAH to reach the middle of the pack. The good news is that if they can even stay close with a team, Guerriero gives them a good chance to win the game. It's been a tough transition as the Chargers try to rebuild their program after years of uncertainty, but Guerriero has made that transition a little less painful.
Olivier Mantha, SO(29 games, .914/2.90)
If there was one bright spot in an otherwise awful season for Alaska-Anchorage last year, it was freshman goalie Olivier Mantha. Mantha finished the season with a .914 save percentage, which isn't mind-blowing, but when you factor in that he was a freshman, playing on a last place team, averaging over 30 shots against per game, many of them high quality, that number looks pretty impressive. Mantha looks to be a legit goalie and nice building block for the Seawolves down the road.
The bad news is that the team in front of him likely won't be significantly better this coming season, which means he should see high volume and high quality again this year. So while Mantha should be solid once again, it's tough to see his numbers getting much above the .910 mark.
Davis Jones, JR(17 games, .896/2.54), John Keeney, SR(2 games, .860/3.63), Jesse Jenks. FR
Last year's Alaska team was the perfect example of how difficult it is to be a good team without strong goaltending. The Nanooks had the third-best shots on goal margin in the country. The rest of the top ten in that stat has some impressive names: WCHA leaders Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, Boston University, Providence, Miami, Minnesota. But averaging an extra seven shots more than their opponents per game only yielded a +0.32 goals/game average for the Nanooks, good for 25th in the country. That's what happens when your goalies combine for a .904 save percentage for the season.
What's worse is those bad numbers were somewhat propped up by senior goalie Sean Cahill, who saw about half of his team's minutes last year and posted a .919 save percentage. Now that Cahill is gone, the situation looks grim for the Nanooks. Davis Jones was given every opportunity to be the starter early last season, but saw his playing time dwindle as the season progressed because Cahill was so obviously the better option.
Freshman Jesse Jenks is the wildcard. His statistics at the junior level in the BCHL were nothing special, but he'll likely get an opportunity at some point and if the Nanooks could get even average play in goal, that would be a huge boost.
Getting better goaltending will be crucial for the Nanooks because of the losses they suffered this offseason on the blue line. In addition to losing the WCHA's best defenseman in Colton Parayko to the NHL, they also lost veteran defenseman Trevor Campbell to graduation, an under-the-radar, but very big loss. On the positive side, they add an NHL Draft pick in Nik Koberstein and should get a boost from the return of Justin Woods, who missed all of year while receiving cancer treatment.
Michael Bitzer, SO(28 games, .929/1.80)
Michael Bitzer won sensational as a freshman for the Beavers, beating out senior incumbent Andrew Walsh to become the team's full-time starter about midway through the season, making the Beavers one of the toughest teams to beat in the country in the second half of the season.
Bitzer is a fantastic goalie and should be good once again, but it should be noted that the Beavers will have to replace three very good senior defensemen in Matt Prapavessis, Sam Windle, and Sam Rendle. A big part of Bemidji State's success in the second half was that trio's shot-blocking and effectiveness in breaking the puck out of their zone. That might put a small dent in Bitzer's numbers, but he should be in consideration for the WCHA's top goalie this coming year.
Tommy Burke, SR(23 games, .920/2.18), Chris Nell, SO(13 games, .917/2.32), Tomas Sholl, JR(5 games, .909/2.58)
Incumbent starter Tommy Burke faced heavy pressure for his starting job from freshman Chris Nell last season. Nell got off to a blazing hot start to begin his rookie season, compiling a 6-0-1 record, but cooled off as the season progressed, going 0-4-1 in his final five starts of the season.
Those two will likely be competing for the starting role again this year. Burke has shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons at Bowling Green--mirroring the steady rise of Bowling Green's program--and is likely the favorite to see the majority of playing time, unless the younger Nell makes a big jump in development in his sophomore year.
Charles Williams, SR
Charles Williams will be tasked with the difficult job of replacing senior goalie CJ Motte. Motte was a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior, then essentially matched those numbers again as a senior, though with less fanfare on a team that absolutely could not score goals. Motte's success and high value to his team meant there was little ice time available to Williams. He saw action in just five games in each of his first two seasons and didn't make it into a game at all last year.
So it's tough to tell how Williams will do in the full-time starters role, but Ferris State's track record with goalies suggests he'll probably do well. Maybe not as dominant as CJ Motte could be, but good enough. It helps that he'll have Bob Daniels' tough-minded defensive system playing in front of him. Ferris State's offense should improve a little this year as well as some of their underclassmen mature a bit, which should take some of the pressure off Williams to be fantastic every night.
Lake Superior State
Gordy Defiel, SO(36 games, .915/3.08), Nick Kossoff, FR
Gordy Defiel was a late add by the Lakers last summer as one of the first recruits signed by head coach Damon Whitten after he was hired. That turned out to be a pretty good move, as Defiel ended up making more saves than any other goalie in college hockey last season. It was a tough transition year for the Lakers in their first season under Whitten where they only managed eight wins and an 9th place finish in the WCHA, but it could have been an unmitigated disaster without Defiel.
In addition to Defiel, the Lakers also add freshman Nick Kossoff, who had a promising season in the NAHL last year. If nothing else, he should be able to take some of the pressure off Defiel, who will likely see a ton of shots again this year. The Lakers are still a couple recruiting classes away from really turning things around, but when they do, they should have the solid goaltending necessary to be a strong team.
Jamie Phillips, SR(41 games, .933/1.74)
There was no player in college hockey that made a bigger jump from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015 than Jamie Phillips. Phillips was recruited with high expectations, but his first two seasons were a tremendous disappointment. He barely saw the ice as a freshmen and was bad when given the opportunity to play as a sophomore. So there was reason to be concerned when Phillips was given the starting role after the early departure of goalie Pheonix Copley to the pros.
But the hire of assistant coach Joe Shawhan, who also served as goalie coach, last season made a huge difference for Phillips. Better technique and more confidence turned Phillips into arguably the best goalie in college hockey. He was sensational in his junior season and helped carry Michigan Tech to their best season in a long time.
There's no reason to expect he won't be that same great goalie again this year. Tech should be in the middle of a very tight three-team race with Bowling Green and Minnesota State for the WCHA title this season and having a difference-maker in goal like Phillips could be what separates the Huskies from the other two.
Cole Huggins, JR (9 games, .864/2.50), Jason Pawloski, FR, Aaron Nelson, SO
Minnesota State is tasked with finding a replacement for starting goalie Stephon Williams who departed Mankato a year early for a contract with the New York Islanders.
The leading candidate is junior Cole Huggins. Huggins was terrific two years ago as a freshman when he won the starting job from struggling incumbent Stephon Williams. Huggins not only made the WCHA All-Rookie Team, he was also named second team All-Conference. But last year, like Williams before him, Huggins hit a terrible sophomore slump. Huggins had four bad starts to begin last season and saw only sparing playing time after Williams regained his freshman form. If Huggins can regain his confidence and play like he did as a freshman, the Mavericks will be fine in goal. If he continues to play like he did last year, they'll have to look elsewhere.
Elsewhere in goal starts with freshman Jason Pawloski. Pawloski was a big recruiting win for the Mavericks, committing to MSU as a 17-year-old after a stellar rookie season in the NAHL. From there, he had one good season in the USHL on a very good team, and one meh season on a very meh team. What that means for him at the college level is tough to say, but he'll likely at least get an opportunity or two this season to get in goal and see if he can run with the job.
A third option is sophomore Aaron Nelson, who didn't see the net as a freshman last year. Nelson was overlooked by most schools because of his diminutive size, but had a very solid junior career in the NAHL. If nothing else, he provides a third option if Huggins continues to struggle and Pawloski has difficulty with the jump to college hockey.
None of the three goalies looks like a clear-cut standout heading into the season, but with three different guys that all have a decent chance at being good, the odds say at least one of them will work out and take control of the job.
On the blue line, the Mavericks will have to replace All-American Zach Palmquist, who logged a ton of ice time last season, and a very solid veteran defender in Brett Stern. But they still have a strong core returning with some good new additions like Alec Vanko and Daniel Brickley that could make an immediate impact. The overall talent level and performance on the blue line has increased steadily under Mike Hastings, and, minus the loss of some offense from losing Palmquist, it should continue on that upward trend this season.
Mathias Dahlstrom, JR(21 games, .924/2.18), Michael Doan, SR(19 games, .915/2.98)
Mathias Dahlstrom found a way to improve his numbers from a very good freshman season last year, even though, due to multiple injuries, he spent much of the second half of the season tied to the goalposts like Milhouse.
The split in Dahlstrom's numbers last year show the effects of his many injuries. From the beginning of the season through the second weekend of November, Dahlstrom's numbers were .970/0.74. From that point on, he was .900/3.19 when he was even able to play at all.
If he's healthy this year, expect something much closer to the goalie we saw in those first eight games than the one that slogged through those final 13 appearances. Obviously he won't sustain a sub-one goals against for the entire year, but Dahlstrom is an exceptional goalie and could be a real difference-maker for Northern Michigan as they battle things out in the tight middle of the WCHA standings.