by Dave Berger/SiouxSports.com
Senior Night at the rink is one of my favorite nights of the season. The celebration gives me an opportunity to applaud mightily and remember vividly the four years we have spent together, as it were, as player and fan. I enjoy watching a player progress from freshman to senior, growing in skill and leadership and dedication to the program. This celebration has become even more meaningful to me during recent years, as it seems fewer and fewer players are competing for four years at the college level.
If Senior Night is one of my favorite times of the year, the off-season is my least favorite. In addition to the obvious (no hockey!), it is also the period of time where I cross my fingers and hold my breath as pro teams come a’calling, snatching blueliners, lamp-lighters, and puck-stoppers before their time. No team is immune from the early-departure bug, and this off-season was no exception, as more than a dozen WCHA players gave up their remaining eligibility for pro contracts.
I know that these two points are related. The teams in our conference attract top-end, NHL-caliber players, and the coaches and programs have come to accept that those players will play, in most cases, two or three seasons. Potential recruits notice that WCHA schools produce professional hockey players, and the cycle continues. Overall, the talent level is higher than ever, and the trade-off is, as I mentioned above, that we as fans do not get to spend as much “time” with any one particular player.
And it makes the conference race very difficult to predict.
Let’s begin by recapping last season. Records are for conference games only (28 games).
WCHA 2006-07 Final Standings
St. Cloud State……..14-7-7…..35
And now, on to this year. Before I begin breaking down the teams and predicting their order of finish, I want to discuss the conference schedule. Many of you know that the WCHA uses an unbalanced schedule, because there aren’t enough games in the season to play each conference opponent 4 times (that would make 36 conference games, and that’s too many!). The conference schedule consists of 28 games, and the breakdown is as follows:
4 games (2 home, 2 away) versus designated rival team
When this schedule was introduced (2001-02), the teams were assigned “rivals”. Some were natural (Colorado College and Denver, for example), and some were somewhat forced (Alaska-Anchorage and MSU-Mankato comes to mind, but as the last two teams to join the league, they deserve each other, in a way). The six remaining schools were a bit more difficult to pair up, and the decision was for Minnesota and Wisconsin to be rival schools (Big Ten). Minnesota-Duluth and Michican Tech were paired up (close travel), and North Dakota and St. Cloud State were put together (both were Division II schools [North Central Conference] in every other sport at the time).
4 games (two home, two away) versus four teams = 16 games
2 games (home) versus two teams = 4 games
2 games (away) versus two teams = 4 games
A four-year cycle determines the number of games against each opponent. For example, in 04-05, North Dakota played Minnesota twice at home. In 05-06, they played home and away (four games). Last season, Minnesota hosted North Dakota (two games), and this season, the teams will again play home and away (four games). Or put more simply, Minnesota plays at North Dakota three out of every four years, and UND travels to Minnesota three years out of every four. Some schools choose to play a home and home series (one game at each school), but the idea is the same.
I bring this up for two reasons. First of all, I took a look at the unbalanced schedule when predicting the conference race, as some teams have fewer games against top opponents. I admit that we don’t yet know how the teams are going to finish, but the top two teams going in are Minnesota and North Dakota, and therefore the fact that Colorado College plays only two games against each of them (@ North Dakota, vs. Minnesota), while Denver plays North Dakota and Minnesota four times each, is significant.
The second and more important reason I bring up the schedule is this: stop complaining about it. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone whine that North Dakota doesn’t play Minnesota four times every year, I could pay Michael Vick’s legal bills. The schedule is what it is, and it’s not changing in the forseeable future, so move on. I for one like the fact that for any future season, the number of games against every opponent, and where the games will be held, is already decided. This system prevents a member school from bringing pressure on the league office to schedule more home games against higher-profile teams in an effort to increase attendance.
I’m thinking to myself that I could have, or, rather, should have, devoted an entire column to league scheduling, but it fit just as well here…
On to the summaries. All statistics are for conference games only (28 games, unless otherwise noted) and teams are listed in order of predicted finish.
#1 University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Last year’s record: 13-10-5 (3rd)
Last year’s statistics: 3.32 goals scored/game (1st), 2.68 goals allowed/game (7th)
Key returning players: Junior F Ryan Duncan (22 goals-17 assists-39 points; Hobey Baker winner, WCHA Scoring Champion, WCHA Player of the Year, All-WCHA 1st Team), Junior F T.J. Oshie (10-16-26; All-WCHA 3rd Team), Senior D Robbie Bina (5-15-20), Junior D Taylor Chorney (5-14-19; All-WCHA 2nd Team), Senior G Phillippe Lamoureux (10-8-4, 2.30 goals against average, .915 save percentage)
Early departures: F Jonathan Toews (8-20-28 in 22 games; All-WCHA 2nd Team) and D Brian Lee (1-17-18) sign pro contracts after two years at UND.
Key graduation loss: F Chris Porter (7-9-16) played in a WCHA record 175 consecutive games.
The question marks: Who will replace the “T” from last year’s prolific “D.O.T.” line (Duncan, Oshie, and Toews)? Will the Sioux find more balanced scoring? Will this team start strongly enough to contend for the McNaughton Cup?
The bottom line: All the pieces seem to be in place for a conference title run. The four games against Minnesota might very well decide the race.
#2 University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last year’s record: 18-7-3 (1st)
Last year’s statistics: 3.25 goals scored/game (2nd), 2.39 goals allowed/game (3rd)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Kyle Okposo (12-18-30; All-WCHA 2nd Team, All-WCHA Rookie Team), Sophomore F Jay Barriball (10-14-24), Junior F Blake Wheeler (7-12-19), Senior D Derek Peltier (2-9-11), Junior G Jeff Frazee (8-1-1, 2.56 GAA, .904 SV)
Early departures: D Erik Johnson (2-11-13; All-WCHA Rookie Team) goes pro after one season, D Alex Goligoski (4-16-20; WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, All-WCHA 1st Team) forgoes his senior season.
Key graduation losses: D Mike Vannelli (8-9-17; All-WCHA 2nd Team), G Kellen Briggs (10-6-2, 2.21 GAA, .912 SV)
The question marks: Will the Gophers’ D be able to keep them in games? Can Jeff Frazee handle the work load between the pipes?
The bottom line: The Gophers will contend for the McNaughton Cup. As above, the four games against North Dakota could prove the tipping point in the race.
#3 University of Wisconsin Badgers
Last year’s record: 12-13-3 (tied for 6th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.11 goals scored/game (10th), 1.89 goals allowed/game (1st)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Michael Davies (7-9-16), Junior F Ben Street (6-5-11), Sophomore D Jamie McBain (3-10-13; All-WCHA Rookie Team), Senior D Kyle Klubertanz (1-4-5)
Early departures: F Jack Skille (6-8-14) leaves after his sophomore campaign, D Joe Piskula (0-2-2) gives up his final year of eligibility
Key graduation losses: F Andrew Joudrey (5-14-19), F Ross Carlson (5-12-17), F Jake Dowell (11-5-16), D Jeff Likens (1-2-3), G Brian Elliott (11-12-2 1.94 GAA, .930 SV; WCHA Goaltending Champion, All-WCHA 2nd Team)
The question marks: Can junior goaltender Shane Connelly (1-1-1. 0.98 GAA, .963 SV) play at a high enough level to keep the Badgers in games? Will Kyle Turris (or any of the other highly touted recruits) light the lamp for a team desperately in need of scoring?
The bottom line: The Badgers lose half of their goal production from last year’s squad, which finished last in the league at just over 2 goals per contest. The nation’s top recruiting class must contribute and Connelly must be steady for Wisconsin to secure home ice for the conference playoffs. I might have them too high here, but call it a hunch.
#4 Colorado College Tigers
Last year’s record: 13-12-3 (5th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.82 goals scored/game (5th), 2.64 goals allowed/game (6th)
Key returning players: Junior F Chad Rau (13-11-24), Sophomore F Bill Sweatt (8-14-22), Senior F Jimmy Kilpatrick (3-18-21), Senior F Scott McCulloch (10-5-15), Senior D Jack Hillen (6-5-11)
Early departures: none
Key graduation losses: F Brandon Polich (3-12-15), Braydon Cox (4-6-10), D Lee Sweatt (7-13-20; All-WCHA 3rd Team), G Matt Zaba (12-9-3, 2.39 GAA, .917 SV)
The question marks: It’s really just one – what do we make of Drew O’Connell? Will the junior netminder (1-3-0, 3.95 GAA, .850 SV) be good enough?
The bottom line: The Tigers have enough scoring depth and defensive experience to win a lot of games, and could easily find themselves in the top three.
#5 Saint Cloud State University Huskies
Last year’s record: 14-7-7 (2nd)
Last year’s statistics: 3.18 goals scored/game (3rd), 2.50 goals allowed/game (4th)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Ryan Lasch (13-19-32; All-WCHA Rookie Team), Sophomore F Andreas Nodl (11-20-31; WCHA Rookie of the Year; All-WCHA 3rd Team, All-WCHA Rookie Team), Senior F Nate Dey (5-13-18), Senior D Matt Stephenson (2-16-18)
Early departure: F Andrew Gordon (15-13-28; All-WCHA 1st Team)
Key graduation losses: F Dan Kronick (9-8-17), F Nate Raduns (5-4-9), D Justin Fletcher (5-13-18), D Casey Borer (2-6-8), G Bobby Goepfert (11-6-7, 2.19 GAA, .929 SV; Hobey Baker Finalist, All-WCHA 1st Team)
The question marks: Which defenseman will step into the roles vacated by Fletcher, Borer, and Dan Clafton? Will sophomore G Jase Weslosky (3-1-0, 3.76 GAA, .861 SV) give the Huskies the outstanding goaltending they have come to expect?
The bottom line: St. Cloud had better win games early in the season, or a tough second half (10 games against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Colorado College in ’08) could have them climbing uphill.
#6 Michigan Tech University Huskies
Last year’s record: 11-12-5 (tied for 6th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.46 goals scored/game (7th), 2.29 goals allowed/game (2nd)
Key returning players: Senior F Peter Rouleau (5-19-24), Senior F Tyler Shelast (11-8-19), Senior F Jimmy Kerr (9-5-14), Junior D Geoff Kinrade (4-11-15), Junior G Michael-Lee Teslak (6-5-3, 1.99 GAA, .918 SV; All-WCHA 3rd Team), Junior G Rob Nolan (5-7-2, 2.41 GAA, .906 SV)
Early departures: none
Key graduation losses: F Tyler Skworchinski (5-7-12), D Lars Helminen (1-15-16)
The question marks: If this team figures to be much the same as last year, then which Michigan Tech team is the real one? The team that ended the year sweeping Wisconsin, splitting at Minnesota, and winning two of three at Colorado College to advance to the Final Five? Or the team that went 3-11-2 during a 16 game stretch during the season?
The bottom line: There is reason for optimism in Houghton. The Huskies played ten overtime games last year and won only two. If some of those games tip the other way this year, this team will surprise. A top-five finish is within reach.
#7 University of Denver Pioneers
Last year’s record: 13-11-4 (4th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.61 goals scored/game (6th), 2.61 goals allowed/game (5th)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Tyler Ruegsegger (10-15-25), Sophomore F Rhett Rakhshani (8-17-25), Sophomore F Brock Trotter (11-13-24), Junior D Chris Butler (7-13-20), Senior G Peter Mannino (7-3-2, 2.22 GAA, .920 SV)
Early departures: F Ryan Dingle (15-9-24; All-WCHA 3rd Team) and F Geoff Paukovich (6-7-13) leave Denver after their junior seasons; D Keith Seabrook (2-8-10) forgoes his final three seasons of eligibility
Key graduation loss: G Glenn Fisher (6-8-2, 2.77 GAA, .907 SV)
The question marks: Can the trio of super sophs continue their scoring pace? Will Mannino be able to shoulder the load after splitting the duties last season?
The bottom line: After the way last season ended (only three wins in their last 13 games), I’m not sure what to expect from the Pioneers. With 14 games against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Colorado College, Denver will have to do well against the bottom teams in the conference if they hope to earn a top-five finish. A final weekend home and home series with Colorado College could have major implications.
#8 Minnesota State University-Mankato Mavericks
Last year’s record: 10-13-5 (8th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.89 goals scored/game (4th), 3.54 goals allowed/game (9th)
Key returning players: Senior F Joel Hanson (11-12-23), Junior F Jon Kalinski (13-6-19), Junior F Mick Berge (9-5-14), Junior G Mike Zacharias (8-8-5, 3.02 GAA, .893 SV)
Early departure: D Steve Wagner (5-18-23; All-WCHA 3rd Team) forgoes his senior season
Key graduation losses: F Travis Morin (13-15-28; All-WCHA 2nd Team), F Kurtis Kisio (3-7-10)
The question marks: Can a team that gave up 3 or more goals 17 times, and 5 or more goals nine times (in 28 league games), tighten up defensively and continue to score?
The bottom line: The Mavericks, who only won three one-goal games in the conference last year, are going to have to start winning more tight contests. The run-and-gun, “first team to six goals wins” approach hasn’t been working for them.
#9 University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
Last year’s record: 8-16-4 (9th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.29 goals scored/game (8th), 3.00 goals allowed/game (8th)
Key returning players: Junior F MacGregor Sharp (5-9-14), Junior F Michael Gergen 5-8-13), Sophomore G Alex Stalock (3-12-2, 3.16 GAA, .889 SV; All-WCHA Rookie Team)
Early departures: F Mason Raymond (10-16-26; All-WCHA 1st Team) and D Matt Niskanen (5-13-18; All-WCHA 1st Team) give up their final two seasons of eligibility
Key graduation loss: F Bryan McGregor (12-9-21),
The question marks: Who will score? (Only one returning Bulldog, junior D Josh Meyers, scored more than five WCHA goals last season, and he had seven.) Will Sandelin still be the head coach at this time next year?
The bottom line: The losses of Raymond and Niskanen were a brutal one-two punch to the Bulldog faithful. What looked to be a promising 07-08 campaign now shapes up as another difficult season in Duluth.
#10 University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves
Last year’s record: 8-19-1 (10th)
Last year’s statistics: 2.21 goals scored/game (9th), 3.61 goals allowed/game (10th)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Paul Crowder (6-11-17), Sophomore F Josh Lunden (8-8-16), Junior D Mat Robinson (2-6-8), Senior D Luke Beaverson (3-2-5)
Early departures: F Jay Beagle (6-6-12) gives up his final two seasons; G Nathan Lawson (6-14-1, 3.28 GAA, .890 SV) leaves after his junior season to pursue professional opportunities.
Key graduation losses: F Justin Bourne (8-12-20), D Chad Anderson (5-7-12), D Mark Smith (4-5-9)
The question marks: As is the case with so many teams in the conference, the question mark is between the pipes. I’m not sure many were expecting Lawson to leave; can sophomore Jon Olthuis (2-5-0, 3.83 GAA, .883 SV) handle the netminding duties?
The bottom line: The Seawolves doubled their WCHA win total from 05-06 to last year, but they won’t double again. A sweep against North Dakota and an overtime win against Minnesota in the first round of the WCHA playoffs last year have fans excited for the upcoming season, but they’ll be in the bottom half of the standings yet again.
So there you have it. My humble predictions and overall outlook on what promises to be an eventful and exciting race for the McNaughton Cup. For an in-depth look at UND’s senior class, click here. I welcome your questions, comments, concerns, and criticisms. Drop the puck!