There are plenty of unanswered questions heading into the third season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, a league that sent six teams to the NCAA tournament a year ago.
And there’s a recurring theme: the teams with an established goaltender feel like they can contend for the league title and beyond, and the teams with question marks between the pipes will be searching for answers.
Minnesota-Duluth (Kasimir Kaskisuo, career record of 20-15-5), Denver (Tanner Jaillet, 16-9-0), Miami (Ryan McKay, 32-27-7), St. Cloud State (Charlie Lindgren, 24-22-2), Western Michigan (Lukas Hafner, 21-19-8), and Colorado College (Tyler Marble, 5-20-2) all appear to have their goalie situations solidified, while North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha are dealing with the losses of Zane McIntyre (58-24-9) and Ryan Massa (32-27-9), respectively.
There are two main reasons why goaltending is more important now than ever. The first is that games are more tightly contested than ever before, with most league games decided by one or two goals. And the second is that teams will rely on their netminders (especially early in the season) as new and returning players adjust to new roles and new linemates.
On the offensive side of the ledger, four top-tier teams lost more than 40 percent of their goal scoring from last season, while Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha have more than 80 percent of their offense returning.
Here’s how the teams ended up last season, the second year of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (goals returning, total goals last season, % of offense returning)
1. North Dakota (69 of 138, 50.0 percent)
2. Miami (57 of 130, 43.8 percent)
3. Nebraska-Omaha (97 of 105, 92.4 percent)
4. Denver (72 of 131, 55.0 percent)
5. Minnesota-Duluth (94 of 115, 81.7 percent)
6. St. Cloud State (56 of 109, 51.4 percent)
7. Western Michigan (64 of 98, 65.3 percent)
8. Colorado College (52 of 74, 70.3 percent)
And here are the combined league records for each school over the first two seasons of the NCHC:
1. North Dakota 31-15-2-0 (95 points)
2. Nebraska-Omaha 25-17-6-4 (85 points)
3. St. Cloud State 26-18-4-0 (82 points)
4. Minnesota-Duluth 23-20-5-2 (76 points)
4. Denver 23-21-4-3 (76 points)
6. Miami 20-26-2-2 (64 points)
6. Western Michigan 17-24-7-6 (64 points)
8. Colorado College 8-32-8-2 (34 points)
What follows is my prediction for the league standings, from #8 all the way up to #1 (media prediction in parenthesis). For the first time, my predictions are identical to the final preseason poll.
#8 Colorado College (#8 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Mike Haviland (2nd season at CC, 6-32-3, .183)
2014-15 Season: 6-26-3 overall, 2-19-3-1 NCHC (8th)
Team Offense: 2.11 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.89 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 20.0% (26 of 130)
Penalty Kill: 77.9% (106 of 136)
Key graduation losses: F Scott Wamsganz (8-11-19), F Charlie Taft (4-4-8), D Peter Stoykewych (3-8-11)
Early departure: D Jaccob Slavin (5-12-17)
Key returning players: Senior F Cody Bradley (10-20-30), Senior F Hunter Fejes (5-14-19), Junior F Sam Rothstein (6-8-14), Junior F Luc Gerdes (4-8-12), Sophomore D Teemu Kivihalme (5-6-11), Sophomore D Garrett Cecere (0-3-3), Junior G Tyler Marble (5-18-2, 3.48 GAA, .896 SV%, 1 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Trey Bradley, F Trevor Gooch, F Mason Bergh, D Andrew Farny, D David Radke
2015-16 season outlook: Mike Haviland has had success in the coaching ranks, but he’ll have to do it with 14 freshman and only four seniors on his roster. Netminder Tyler Marble has appeared in 30 career games and could keep the Tigers competitive, but I don’t see much here that leads me to believe that Colorado College will climb out of the basement.
#7 Western Michigan Broncos (#7 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Andy Murray (5th season at WMU, 75-61-25, .543)
2014-15 Season: 14-18-5 overall, 6-13-5-4 NCHC (7th)
Team Offense: 2.65 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.89 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 20.0% (29 of 145)
Penalty Kill: 81.0% (145 of 179)
Key graduation losses: F Justin Kovacs (6-20-26), F Will Kessel (7-13-20), D Matt Stewart (2-4-6), G Frank Slubowski (3-6-0, 3.55 GAA, .884 SV%)
Early departures: F Colton Hargrove (14-14-28), D Kenny Morrison (5-10-15)
Key returning players: Junior F Sheldon Dries (14-15-29), Senior F Nolan LaPorte (11-12-23), Sophomore F Frederik Tiffels (11-10-21), Junior D Chris Dienes (3-14-17), Senior G Lukas Hafner (11-12-5, 2.42 GAA, .914 SV%, 1 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Griffen Molino, F Colt Conrad, F Matheson Iacopelli, D Oliwer Kaski, D Corey Schueneman
2015-16 season outlook: Western Michigan is perhaps the most physically intimidating team in the league, but can they score enough and kill enough penalties to be relevant in the NCHC? Andy Murray’s club will be miserable to play against, but three goals will be enough to top WMU on most nights.
#6 St. Cloud State Huskies (#6 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Bob Motzko (11th season at SCSU, 208-157-41, .563)
2014-15 Season: 20-19-1 overall (NCAA West Regional finalist), 11-12-1-0 NCHC (6th)
Team Offense: 2.73 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.42 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 23.7% (37 of 156)
Penalty Kill: 80.3% (94 of 117)
Key graduation losses: F David Morley (17-12-29), F Joe Rehkamp (5-14-19), F Nick Oliver (3-2-5), D Andrew Prochno (3-12-15), D Tim Daly (1-7-8)
Early departure: F Jonny Brodzinski (21-17-38)
Key returning players: Senior F Joey Benik (16-23-39), Senior F Kalle Kossila (6-20-26), Sophomore F Patrick Russell (10-15-25), Senior D Ethan Prow (4-19-23), Junior G Charlie Lindgrem (19-18-1, 2.26 GAA, .919 SV%, 2 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Robby Jackson, F Mikey Eyssimont, F Jacob Benson, D Jon Lizotte, D Jimmy Schuldt
2015-16 season outlook: After winning back-to-back conference titles, the Huskies fell to 6th place in the NCHC last year. While SCSU consistently scored with the man advantage, the rest of the offense suffered. St. Cloud State only scored 1.65 even strength goals per game in 2014-15 after posting a much more respectable 2.42 goals per game in the same category two seasons ago. If Bob Motzko’s crew wants to contend for an upper-division finish, balanced scoring is key.
#5 Miami RedHawks (#5 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Enrico Blasi (17th season at Miami, 354-232-58, .595)
2014-15 Season: 25-14-1 overall (NCAA East Regional semifinalist, 14-9-1-1 NCHC (2nd)
Team Offense: 3.25 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.50 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.5% (33 of 169)
Penalty Kill: 83.6% (138 of 165)
Key graduation losses: F Austin Czarnik (9-36-45), F Blake Coleman (20-17-37), F Cody Murphy (13-11-24), F Alex Wideman (7-11-18), D Ben Paulides (3-7-10)
Early departure: F Riley Barber (20-20-40)
Key returning players: Junior F Anthony Louis (9-27-36), Senior F Sean Kuraly (19-10-29), Senior F Kevin Morris (5-9-14), Senior D Matthew Caito (4-20-24), Sophomore D Louis Belpedio (6-13-19), Senior G Jay Williams (19-8-0, 2.04 GAA, .917 SV%, 5 SO)
Potential impact freshman: F Jack Roslovic, F Josh Melnick, F Keifer Sherwood, D Grant Hutton
2015-16 season outlook: Miami lost more goal scoring from last season than any other team in the league, as last year’s seniors and Riley Barber accounted for 73 of the RedHawks 130 goals a year ago. Who is going to pick up the slack? I can’t quite put Miami in the top half of the conference just yet, but Jay Williams (five shutouts in 2014-15) could provide all the support they need.
#4 Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (#4 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Dean Blais (7th season at UNO, 117-99-24, .538)
2014-15 Season: 20-13-6 overall (NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist), 12-8-4-3 NCHC (3rd)
Team Offense: 2.69 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.31 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.3% (28 of 145)
Penalty Kill: 83.7% (113 of 135)
Key graduation losses: F Dominic Zombo (5-9-14), G Ryan Massa (14-8-6, 1.96 GAA, .939 SV%, 2 SO)
Early departures: none
Key returning players: Junior F Jake Guentzel (14-25-39), Junior F Austin Ortega (20-17-37), Sophomore F Jake Randolph (5-21-26), Junior F Justin Parizek (13-8-21), Junior D Ian Brady (5-16-21), Senior D Brian Cooper (5-11-16), Junior G Kirk Thompson (5-5-0, 2.70 GAA, .905 SV%, 1 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Fredrik Olofsson, F Steven Spinner, F Ryan Galt, D Lukas Buchta
2015-16 season outlook: UNO has almost everyone back from last season’s Frozen Four team. But there are still some question marks: How will the Mavericks respond to heightened expectations and a brand-new arena? Will goaltender Kirk Thompson be able to carry the load now that Ryan Massa has graduated? And finally, UNO was outshot in twenty games last season but won 13 of those. Can that trend continue?
#3 North Dakota (#3 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Brad Berry (1st season at UND, 4-0-2, .833)
2014-15 Season: 29-10-3 (NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist), 16-6-2-0 NCHC (1st)
Team Offense: 3.29 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.24 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 20.4% (34 of 167)
Penalty Kill: 84.0% (142 of 169)
Key graduation losses: F Michael Parks (12-20-32), F Mark MacMillan (16-9-25), F Brendan O’Donnell (13-8-21), F Connor Gaarder (10-10-20), D Nick Mattson (4-17-21)
Early departures: D Jordan Schmaltz (4-24-28), G Zane McIntyre (29-10-3, 2.05 GAA, .929 SV%, 1 SO)
Key returning players: Senior F Drake Caggiula (18-18-36), Sophomore F Nick Schmaltz (5-21-26), Junior F Luke Johnson (11-13-24), Junior D Paul LaDue (5-17-22), Sophomore D Tucker Poolman (8-10-18), Junior D Troy Stecher (3-10-13)
Potential impact freshmen: F Brock Boeser, F Chris Wilkie, F Shane Gersich, D Christian Wolanin, G Matej Tomek
2015-16 season outlook: Before the season started, the question was whether Cam Johnson or Matej Tomek would take over the crease from Mike Richter Award winner/Hobey Baker finalist Zane McIntyre. And now both Tomek and Johnson are injured. The job is left (for now) to junior walkon Matt Hrynkiw, and he’s been up to the challenge so far. But league games are a whole different story. If North Dakota can score enough goals until someone solidifies the goaltending position, Brad Berry’s club might be looking at back-to-back Penrose Cups.
#2 Denver Pioneers (#2 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (3rd season at DU, 47-31-8, .593)
2014-15 Season: 24-14-2 overall (NCAA East Regional finalist), 13-10-1-1 NCHC (4th)
Team Offense: 3.27 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.48 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 22.1% (32 of 145)
Penalty Kill: 82.3% (107 of 130)
Key graduation losses: F Daniel Doremus (11-23-34), F Zac Larraza (12-8-20), F Ty Loney (10-6-16), D Joey LaLeggia (15-25-40), D Josiah Didier (3-8-11)
Early departures: none
Key returning players: Sophomore F Danton Heinen (16-29-45), Junior F Trevor Moore (22-22-44), Senior F Quentin Shore (10-16-26), Senior D Nolan Zajac (5-21-26), Junior D Will Butcher (4-14-28), Junior G Evan Cowley (9-6-2, 2.16 GAA, .924 SV%, 3 SO), Sophomore G Tanner Jaillet (15-8-0, 2.35 GAA, .917 SV%, 1 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Logan O’Connor, F Jarid Lukosevicius, F Dylan Gambrell, D Blake Hillman
2015-16 season outlook: Denver went 15-5 at home last season but struggled to a 9-9-2 record on the road and at neutral sites. In order to make a deep playoff run again, the Pios will need to improve away from Magness Arena. DU has the luxury of two proven netminders and should make a push for the league title.
#1 Minnesota-Duluth (#1 in the media poll)
Head Coach: Scott Sandelin (16th season at UMD, 270-262-72, .507)
2014-15 Season: 21-16-3 overall (NCAA Northeast Regional finalist, 12-9-3-0 NCHC (5th)
Team Offense: 2.88 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.42 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 18.4% (29 of 158)
Penalty Kill: 81.6% (124 of 152)
Key graduation losses: F Justin Crandall (13-10-23), F Adam Krause (7-10-17), D Derik Johnson (1-4-5)
Early departures: none
Key returning players: Senior F Tony Cameranesi (9-21-30), Junior F Dominic Toninato (16-10-26), Junior F Alex Iafallo (8-17-25), Senior F Austin Farley (8-16-24), Senior D Andy Welinski (9-12-21), Junior D Willie Raskob (4-13-17), Junior D Carson Soucy (6-8-14), Sophomore G Kasimir Kaskisuo (18-14-3, 2.30 GAA, .917 SV%, 1 SO)
Potential impact freshmen: F Adam Johnson, F Parker Mackay, D Neal Pionk
2015-16 season outlook: Duluth is a legitimate title contender this year, with almost all of the key pieces returning. The Bulldogs tightened up defensively last season and could be even better this time around. If UMD stays healthy, they will have their most successful season since 2011, when Scott Sandelin hung a national championship banner inside the DECC.
So there you have it. Do you agree? Disagree? Who do you have coming out on top? Feel free to post your predictions below, and check back in December for a midseason report.