NCHC 2014-15 Season Preview and Predictions

There’s plenty of intrigue headed into NCHC 2.0, the second season of the nation’s newest college hockey conference.

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.

Miami (junior Ryan McKay, 23 career victories), Nebraska-Omaha (senior Ryan Massa, 18), and North Dakota (junior Zane McIntyre, 29) appear to have their goalie situations solidified, with Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, and St. Cloud State dealing with the losses of Josh Thorimbert, Sam Brittain, Aaron Crandall, and Ryan Faragher, respectively.

And at Western Michigan, there’s a race developing between Junior Lukas Hafner and senior Frank Slubowski, but will it really matter if the Broncos can’t score?

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.

Here’s how the teams ended up last season, the inaugural campaign for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference:

1. St. Cloud State
2. North Dakota
3. Nebraska-Omaha
4. Minnesota-Duluth
4. Western Michigan
6. Denver
7. Colorado College
8. Miami

What follows is my prediction for the league standings, from #8 all the way up to #1. (Media prediction in parenthesis)

#8 Western Michigan Broncos (#7 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Andy Murray (4th season at WMU, 60-42-19, .574)

2013-14 Season: 19-16-5 overall, 11-11-2-2 NCHC (t-4th)
Team Offense: 2.58 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.65 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 13.3% (24 of 181)
Penalty Kill: 84.8% (178 of 210)

Key losses: F Chase Balisy (13-24-37), F Shane Berschbach (16-22-38), D Dennis Brown (2-11-13), D Jordan Oesterle (2-15-17)

Key returning players: Junior F Colton Hargrove (11-13-24), Senior F Justin Kovacs (13-20-33), Junior F Josh Pitt (9-9-18), Senior F Will Kessel (6-6-12), Junior F Nolan LaPorte (11-13-24), Sophomore D Chris Dienes (2-3-5), Junior D Kenny Morrison (4-15-19), Junior G Lukas Hafner (9-6-2, .2.06 GAA, .925 SV%, 2 SO) Senior G Frank Slubowski (10-10-3, 2.86 GAA, .905 SV%)

Potential impact freshmen: F Aidan Muir, D Scott Moldenhauer

2014-15 season outlook: Question marks abound with this team. There’s uncertainty in net (Hafner appears to have overtaken Slubowski as the team’s #1), and the Broncos lost their top two scorers from last season. 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.

#7 Colorado College (#8 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Mike Haviland (1st season at CC)

2013-14 Season: 7-24-6 overall, 6-13-5-1 NCHC (7th)
Team Offense: 2.00 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.27 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 12.2% (17 of 139)
Penalty Kill: 78.6% (110 of 140)

Key losses: F Alexander Krushelnyski (11-13-24), F Archie Skalbeck (6-9-15), F Jeff Collett, (3-7-10), D Eamonn McDermott (0-5-5), G Josh Thorimbert (7-23-6, 3.17 GAA, .895 SV%, 1 SO)

Key returning players: Junior F Cody Bradley (6-10-16), Junior F Peter Maric (1-1-2 in 12 games), Junior F Alex Roos (10-7-17), Sophomore F Sam Rothstein (6-14-20), Sophomore D Jacob Slavin (5-20-25), Senior D Peter Stoykewych (1-8-9), G Tyler Marble (no official statistics)

Potential impact freshmen: D Garrett Cecere, D Duggie Lagrone, D Teemu Kivhalme, G Chase Perry

2014-15 season outlook: Will a coaching change lead to improvement all over the ice? Because that’s what the Tigers need. A shaky goaltending situation and lack of proven scoring has many doubting the Tigers’ chances at an upper-division finish. But Mike Haviland has had success in the coaching ranks and could be just what the doctor ordered in Colorado Springs.

#6 Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (#6 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Dean Blais (6th season at UNO, 92-87-18, .513)

2013-14 Season: 17-8-2 overall, 13-9-2-1 NCHC (3rd)
Team Offense: 3.16 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.24 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 20.4% (37 of 181)
Penalty Kill: 80.8% (147 of 182)

Key losses: F Josh Archibald (29-14-43), F Ryan Walters (7-27-34), F Zahn Raubenheimer (6-5-11), F Johnnie Searfoss (4-8-12), F Brock Montpetit (14-19-33), D Nick Seeler (4-6-10), D Michael Young (3-19-22)

Key returning players: Senior F Dominic Zombo (17-17-34), Sophomore F Austin Ortega (9-10-19), Sophomore F Jake Guentzel (7-27-34), Sophomore D Ian Brady (4-17-21), Junior D Brian Cooper (2-7-9), Senior G Ryan Massa (11-9-1, 2.74 GAA, .899 SV%, 1 SO)

Potential impact freshmen: F Jake Montgomery, F Avery Peterson, F Jake Randolph, F Tyler Vesel, D Luc Snuggerud

2014-15 season outlook: UNO needs to replace the most talented group in program history, and they just might have the new recruits to do it. Ryan Massa will need to play well enough in net to keep Dean Blais’ squad competitive over the first half of the season until the pieces start to come together for the Mavs. Otherwise, the hole might be too deep to crawl out of.

#5 Denver Pioneers (#4 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (2nd season at DU, 20-16-6, .548)

2013-14 Season: 20-16-6 overall (NCAA Northeast Regional semifinalist), 10-11-3-2 NCHC (6th)
Team Offense: 2.67 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.33 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.8% (34 of 172)
Penalty Kill: 86.6% (149 of 172)

Key losses: D David Makowski (10-14-24), G Sam Brittain (19-14-6, 2.22 GAA, .929 SV%, 5 SO)

Key returning players: Sophomore F Trevor Moore (14-18-32), Senior F Ty Loney (11-15-26),Junior F Quentin Shore (7-18-25), Senior F Daniel Doremus (9-15-24), Senior F Zac Larraza (10-10-20 in 34 games), Senior D Joey LaLeggia (12-13-25), Junior D Nolan Zajac (5-18-23)

Potential impact freshmen: F Tanner Jaillet, F Danton Heinen, D Tariq Hammond

2014-15 season outlook: Denver has all of the ingredients to have a successful season: veteran leadership, a strong set of blueliners, and top-end talent. All of the ingredients, that is, except a proven netminder. Sam Brittain was everything for the Pios, and his absence leaves a huge void. Will Evan Cowley or Greg Ogard take the reins and lead this team to the NCAA tournament? If so, the sky’s the limit for DU.

#4 Minnesota-Duluth (#5 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Scott Sandelin (15th season at UMD, 248-246-67, .502)

2013-14 Season: 16-16-4 overall, 11-11-2-2 NCHC (t-4th)
Team Offense: 2.89 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.89 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 15.8% (26 of 165)
Penalty Kill: 81.7% (147 of 180)

Key losses: F Caleb Herbert (12-19-31), F Joe Basaraba (8-10-18),F Max Tardy (1-1-2), G Aaron Crandall (14-12-3, 2.76 GAA, .900 SV%, 1 SO)

Key returning players: Junior F Tony Cameranesi (7-14-21), Senior F Justin Crandall (14-13-27), Sophomore F Alex Iafallo (11-11-22), Sophomore F Kyle Osterberg (14-13-27), Sophomore F Dominic Toninato (7-8-15), Junior D Andy Welinski (5-14-19), G Matt McNeely (2-4-1, 2.82 GAA, .894 SV%)

Potential impact freshmen: F Brett Boehm, F Karson Kuhlman, F Jared Thomas, G Kasimir Kaskisuo

2014-15 season outlook: There’s a lot to be hopeful for in Duluth. Scott Sandelin has a stable of forwards who are poised to make a jump in scoring this season. The Bulldogs will need to solidify their goaltending situation if they hope to secure home ice for the playoffs, and I think they’ll get just enough out of McNeely and Kaskisuo to do just that.

#3 St. Cloud State Huskies (#3 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (10th season at SCSU, 185-137-40, .566)

2013-14 Season: 22-11-5 overall (NCAA West Regional finalist), 15-6-3-0 NCHC (1st)
Team Offense: 3.58 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.82 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 25.3% (37 of 146)
Penalty Kill: 76.9% (93 of 121)

Key losses: F Nic Dowd (21-20-41), F Cory Thorson (9-11-20), D Kevin Gravel (10-13-23), G Ryan Faragher (20-9-4, 2.79 GAA, .905 SV%, 1 SO)

Key returning players: Junior F Jonny Brodzinski (21-20-41), Junior F Kalle Kossila (13-27-40), Senior F David Morley (9-23-32), Junior F Joey Benik (12-15-27), Junior F Kimmy Murray (13-12-25), Sophomore F Ryan Papa (6-16-22), Senior D Andrew Prochno (3-16-19), Sophomore D Niklas Nevalainen (2-6-8), G Charlie Lindgren (2-2-1, 2.42 GAA, .905 SV%, 1 SO)

Potential impact freshmen: F Judd Peterson, F Patrick Russell, F Blake Winiecki, D Mika Ilvonen, D Nathan Widman

2014-15 season outlook: Bob Motzko has strung together back-to-back conference titles on the back of Ryan Faragher, but now the job is left to Charlie Lindgren and Rasmus Reijola. The Huskies will once again have a world-class power play, but will there be enough 5 on 5 scoring and depth at the center position to win the close games?

#2 North Dakota (#1 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (11th season at UND, 261-134-40, .646)

2013-14 Season: 25-14-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist), 15-9-0-0 NCHC (2nd)
Team Offense: 3.02 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.43 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.2% (32 of 186)
Penalty Kill: 83.4% (146 of 175)

Key losses: F Rocco Grimaldi (17-22-39), F Derek Rodwell (5-5-10), D Dillon Simpson (7-16-23),

Key returning players: Junior F Drake Caggiula (11-13-24), Sophomore F Luke Johnson (8-13-21), Senior F Michael Parks (12-18-30), Senior F Mark MacMillan (10-16-26), Senior F Brendan O’Donnell (7-11-18), Junior D Jordan Schmaltz (6-18-24), Senior D Nick Mattson (4-19-23), Sophomore D Paul LaDue (6-15-21), Junior G Zane McIntyre (20-10-3, 1.99 GAA, .926 SV%, 3 SO)

Potential impact freshmen: F Nick Schmaltz, D Tucker Poolman

2014-15 season outlook: North Dakota is built to win this year. Dave Hakstol has all of the tools at his disposal: scoring depth, leadership, a wealth of talent and playmaking ability, outstanding goaltending, the best defensive corps in the country, and motivation after last season’s abrupt ending. But will the weight of pre-season expectations prove to be too much for the boys from Grand Forks?

#1 Miami RedHawks (#2 in the media poll)

Head Coach: Enrico Blasi (16th season at Miami, 313-196-53, .592)

2013-14 Season: 15-20-3 overall, 6-17-1-1 NCHC (8th)
Team Offense: 2.92 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 3.03 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 21.6% (35 of 162)
Penalty Kill: 80.5% (136 of 169)

Key losses: F Max Cook (1-8-9), F Byron Paulazzo (3-2-5 in 22 games)

Key returning players: Senior F Austin Czarnik (13-34-47), Junior F Riley Barber (19-25-44), Senior F Blake Coleman (19-9-28 in 27 games), Junior F Sean Kuraly (12-17-29), Sophomore F Anthony Louis (12-13-25), Senior F Alex Wideman (7-9-16), Junior D Matthew Caito (3-13-16), Sophomore D Matt Joyaux (1-4-5), G Ryan McKay (10-13-3, 2.70 GAA, .913 SV%, 4 SO)

Potential impact freshman: D Louie Belpedio

2014-15 season outlook: Miami struggled for much of last season, with injuries playing a factor. The RedHawks also lost 12 one-goal games a year ago, and in order to reverse that trend, the defensemen will need to add scoring (only nine goals and 45 total points in 2013-14). Coach Blasi has virtually his entire team back, but can they go from worst to first? If there’s a roster that can do it, this is it.

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.

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