Ballots were due on Friday for the annual WCHA Pre-Season Media Poll, generously put together by Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer. Ballots include a predicted order of finish, player of the year, newcomer of the year, and one all-WCHA team.
Here's the ballot I submitted this year, along with a few explanations on my inevitably wrong choices.
Predicted order of finish
1. Bowling Green
2. Michigan Tech
3. Minnesota State
4. Bemidji State
5. Ferris State
6. Northern Michigan
9. Lake Superior State
The numerical ranking system really does no favors here. I see the league breaking down into three distinct groups with the teams interchangeable within their respective group.
The top group once again is Bowling Green, Michigan Tech, and Minnesota State. I don't think any of the three will be the top team in the country like Minnesota State was for much of the back half of last season, but I do think all three will make the NCAA Tournament this year.
So why Bowling Green for the top spot? Both Minnesota State and Michigan Tech lost some big pieces at forward from last season that really carried their team last season. The Falcons lost some decent forwards as well, but by the end of the season, it was really the underclassmen that were driving the team for Bowling Green. Again, it wouldn't be a surprise to see those three finish in any order, and the final order will likely come down to just one or two games, but I'll bet on the Bowling Green team that I think is moving forward and getting better as opposed to the two teams that will have a tough time maintaining what they did last season.
The next group is 4-6 with Bemidji State, Ferris State, and Northern Michigan. All three teams should be extremely sound defensively, but without the offense needed to seriously push the top three. I shuffled Northern Michigan to the bottom of this group, but they could be the one that really surprises with a healthy Mathias Dahlstrom back and a lot of young scoring returning from last year.
Alaska-Fairbanks is the one team that doesn't really fit into a category. With a first line of Tyler Morley and Marcus Basara, they'll be dangerous on any given night, but I have serious concerns about the goaltending being consistent enough for them to make any serious noise. They're either at the bottom end of the middle group or top end of the bottom group.
Alabama-Huntsville, Lake Superior and Alaska-Anchorage round out the bottom group once again this year. All three teams have fairly new head coaches that are still trying to turn over their rosters with more players that they have recruited. Each year should help them get a little closer to competing with the rest of the league, but there is still a deep hole to dig out of.
Player of the Year: Alex Petan, Michigan Tech
Newcomer of the Year: Anthony Nellis, Lake Superior State
There is an incredibly deep class of goalies in the WCHA this year, so it seems silly not to pick one. If anybody in that middle pack of teams makes a push for the top three of the league, it's almost a guarantee that the goalie off that team wins the award. I ended up going with Petan though. He's quietly been one of the better players in the WCHA now for the past three seasons, and this should be the season that he finally starts to get his due. I expect him to be in the 40-50 point range and in contention for the Hobey Baker Award like Tanner Kero was for Michigan Tech last season.
Newcomer of the Year in the WCHA is always a tricky one. Very few NHL Draft picks and true 18-year-old freshmen play in the league; Lake Superior's Owen Headrick and Bowling Green's Matthew Ferrari are the only 1997-birthdates playing in the WCHA this year. So there is very little hivemind to go off of in making a pick. And it can be difficult to pick which overage junior player will see his skills translate at the college level and which won't. I decided to go with Nellis, who had a tremendous season in the CCHL, a league which has put out some very nice NCAA players in recent years, and should get every opportunity to shine on a Laker team that will likely be desperate for goals.
F-Alex Petan, Michigan Tech
F-Brandon Hawkins, Bowling Green
F-Tyler Morley, Alaska
D-Casey Nelson, Minnesota State
D-Mark Friedman, Bowling Green
G-Jamie Phillips, Michigan Tech
Petan and Morley were no-brainers for me at forward. The third forward was a tough call. It was tough not to choose Bryce Gervais, something I suspect nearly everyone else will do. Gervais is a master of finding open areas on the ice for goal-scoring opportunities. But in the absence of Matt Leitner, it's likely there is much less open space for him this year, and the puck finds him much less frequently in those areas. That's not to say he'll completely disappear; you don't score 50 goals at the NCAA level by accident. But I think there will be enough drop-off that I didn't feel bad about picking Hawkins over him.
Defense felt somewhat straight-forward. Nelson established himself as one of the top offensive defensemen in the league last year and his role should only grow in the absence of Zach Palmquist. Friedman wasn't the biggest scorer last year, but he was a player just beginning to scratch the surface of his talent last year and should only get better. He's one of the top pro prospects in the league.
Goalie was a tough call because there are so many plausible directions to go. I went with the best goalie out of the top three teams. It's fair to question whether Jamie Phillips incredible turnaround last season was a one-year fluke, but given that it came after a switch of goalie coaches, I'm inclined to think the light just popped on for him. But like I said, if a team from the middle of the pack gets into the top three, their goalie will win the award. If a team projected in the bottom three sneaks into the top three, their goalie gets to be President of the United States.
Nate Wells also voted in the WCHA preseason poll, and in the interest of transparency, wanted his ballot posted as well. Here is who Nate selected:
Predicted Order of Finish: