Alabama Huntsville Chargers
2017-18 record: 12-23-2 (overall), 10-16-2-1 (WCHA- 7th place); advanced to the WCHA Playoffs quarterfinals
Predicted 2018-19 finish: 9th (Coaches' Poll); 7th (Media Poll)
Mike Corbett still cringes when you talk about it. Now skating into his 6th season as the University of Alabama in Huntsville head men's hockey coach, when talking about the 2017-18 campaign, it's hard not to be asked- at least once (more like 20 times) about the grueling Chargers schedule that left them living out of a suitcase for weeks on end.
UAH started the season with their first eight games on the road before coming back home to play six. From there they embarked on a longer road trip where they played 12 games in a row away from the Von Braun Center. Gone from December 1st through January 13th (at least on the weekends); making matters worse for Corbett was the fact that during that December-January stretch the Chargers tangled with some of the top teams in the WCHA, including Northern Michigan, Bowling Green and Minnesota State. As the miles racked up, so did the injuries and team fatigue. Huntsville began the year 1-6 and during the month of December the Chargers stumbled to a 1-5-1 record. They rebounded nicely during the second half of the year, going 5-7 over their final 12 games of the regular season. Four of those seven losses were by one goal. Ultimately UAH's season came to end in the WCHA Quarterfinals after losing to Northern Michigan in three games.
"We will never have that again. Nobody in college hockey will ever have that all home or all road; six weeks on the road there at Christmas time, so I'd like to say it's going to be a heck of a lot easier," chuckled Corbett when asked about their 2018-19 season schedule. "It's going to be easier this year- like with all of our teams; teaching the boys once again how to take care of themselves and avoid the sicknesses and things like that. I think that experience last year will only help us moving forward."
Okay….now the good news. Time on the road challenged the Chargers and in the process, Corbett and his staff began to see the bond within the UAH locker room grow stronger. Before he knew it, numerous players on his roster began to jump into leadership roles that his squad hopes to benefit from as they roll into the 2018-19 season. Yes, gone are the names of Josh Kestner, Brennan Saulnier and Jordan Uhelski, but taking their place are a group of players who have picked up the torch and have not just grabbed it but skated away with it. Among them include now-seniors Kurt Gosselin, Hans Gorowsky, John Teets, Cam Knight and Madison Dunn. Throw in Christian Rajic, who finished fourth on the team in scoring last season as a freshman, and Corbett finds himself with five players to build around. Aside from Knight, who missed just three games last season, the other five mentioned suited up for all 37 games in 2017-18.
"What I really like right now about our team is our leadership group. We have John Teets and Kurt Gosselin and Madison Dunn and Hans Gorowsky as our big leadership group as our four seniors and four players who we are going to rely on heavily moving forward," remarked Corbett. "We have Kurt Gosselin who I believe can be an all-league player, John Teets and Cam Knight as three senior defensemen who are a big part of our program. That's where our experience is: On the back-line. Then you have guys like Sean Rappleyea (junior) and Connor James (junior) who have played games and are ready to make a step. We could have five upperclassmen in our six or seven if we choose to do that moving forward into our first weekend."
That leadership comes at a perfect time for Corbett because in net, UAH is anything but game-tested. Last season's number one netminder, Jordan Uhelski, started 32 of the Chargers' 37 games. He has since graduated, leaving the space between the pipes to be filled by returning sophomore Mark Sinclair, John Astorino or incoming transfer Jake Theut. The early report card would indicate that the job will most likely fall on the blocker pad of either Sinclair or Theut. Theut, a transfer from Northeastern, was a roommate to last season's Hobey Baker Award winner Adam Gaudette and already has a sense of what it takes to become a perennial winner.
"I have confidence in both of them. Mark Sinclair was one of our guys for us last year and is going to be a sophomore and knows what it's like to be in the WCHA, and Jake is a kid who comes in here from Northeastern and comes from a winning program," stated Corbett. "He (Theut) brings a very unique perspective into our program that has really helped our guys throughout the preseason. He's a vocal guy and he's a good leadership himself. That aspect, as much as it might be unproven on paper; I've liked what I have seen so far moving forward."
The Chargers begin the season with four non-conference battles in a row on the road; all against teams from the NCHC in Miami (two), Colorado College (one) and Denver (one). UAH then returns home for a two-game series with Arizona State before kicking off their WCHA schedule with Lake Superior State on October 26th and 27th.
Alaska Anchorage Seawolves
2017-18 record: 4-26-4 (overall), 4-21-3-3 (WCHA- 10th place)
Predicted 2018-19 finish: 10th (Coaches' Poll); 10th (Media Poll)
The reset button has been pushed in Anchorage and with that, a renewed feeling of excitement has begun to fill the hallways and locker rooms of Sullivan Arena. If you think that might be a dramatic exaggeration you may want to sit down and have a conversation with first-year head coach Matt Curley and some of his returning players. The basic formula is this- after finishing tenth last season, bringing in a new coach and coaching staff, returning only one player with 15 or more points from last year and losing the best goaltender in the history of the program to graduation…..the Seawolves feel as though they have nothing to lose. Everyone likes surprises. Curley and company can't for them to be the surprise of the 2018-19 campaign.
"I think there are a lot of guys in this locker room who are looking to prove they are better than what they have been and they take a lot of pride in what they do," stated Curley. "At the foundation of any sort of success in our league and throughout the country is the foundation or work and compete. If we can do that and establish it early and stay with it from now until hopefully sometime in March I think that will be the number one priority."
So let's start with the elephant in the room. Basically from the time Olivier Mantha tightened his first skate on campus at the University of Alaska Anchorage he was the man in net for the Seawolves. Last season alone Mantha was between the pipes 87 percent of the time. The all-everything goalie started 31 of Anchorage's 34 games last year, and in the process, stopped 90 percent of the shots he saw. The remaining 13 percent in net was handled by now-sophomore Brody Claeys, who will be looked at as one of three possible replacements along with Kris Carlson and Kristian Stead.
"It's wide open like everything else; whether it's on the back-end or up front," mentioned Curley. "Kristian Stead had missed most of last year due to a knee injury. He's come back strong and has looked fantastic. Brody Claeys, who battled for time last year with Olivier, is back for his sophomore year and looks strong. Kris Carlson is a young man who came in late right before school here so we feel very confident that our goaltending is a position of strength for us and I think with the depth and competition that we have between the pipes someone will rise. It's inevitable; I'm not sure who it's going to be."
Anchorage has options. When dissecting the 2018-19 version of the Seawolves, the one thing that quickly jumps out is that the UAA cupboard certainly isn't bare. Throughout the roster players are battling for positions and playing time. That level of internal competition is something Curley and his staff believe will translate onto the ice every Friday and Saturday night this season. Each and every player seems to be ready to play the role of the underdog and prove the critics wrong.
Among the players writing that narrative will be Nicolas Erb-Ekholm, who returns this season for his senior campaign. The Seawolves top returning scorer (8G-7A-15 points in 2017-18), Erb-Ekholm is among a group of seniors who Curley hopes will help UAA rewrite the script. Joining Erb-Ekholm will be Jeremiah Luedtke, Nils Rygaard and Cam Amantea (just to name a few). Also back are a host of juniors and sophomores who gained significant WCHA experience last season and are back with more to prove. A season ago, four sophomores and 11 freshmen saw playing time. All but three of those players are back this year, meaning that balance looks to be one of their early strengths for the Seawolves heading into the WCHA grind.
So far, so good. Curley and his squad kicked off their 2018-19 schedule last weekend with a 5-1 exhibition win over Simon Fraser. In that game five different players scored and all three goalies not only played, but played well.
The next time they take the ice it will be for real. This weekend Anchorage officially gets going with a home series against Colorado College before taking a two-week break. The Seawolves conference schedule kicks off with a road trip to Ferris State on October 26th and 27th.
2017-18 record: 11-22-3 (overall), 9-17-2-1 (WCHA- 8th place)
Predicted 2018-19 finish: 8th (Coaches' Poll) 9th (Media Poll)
Like their Anchorage brothers to the south, the Alaska Nanooks are also working through a coaching change and, like the Seawolves, the change has brought new wrinkles and added excitement to an already rising program. After serving as an assistant coach for the past two seasons, Erik Largen was handed the keys to the bus this past spring. Just 31 years old, Largen played his college hockey for Alaska and has watched, and coached, hockey programs from across the country. When the Fairbanks native was asked to come back home in August of 2016 to serve as an assistant coach for his Nanooks it was a no-brainer. Now more than two years later, the first-year Division I head coach is looking to build on the momentum from last year. While Alaska was limited to 11 wins, their roster showed flashes of excellence at times last season; especially on the offensive side of the puck. Five players scored 20 or more points and three of those five players are back this year. In total 12 different players registered at least 10 points a season ago. Only three of them were seniors. Still, despite the numbers that appear on paper Largen is looking to put his stamp on the program. He is expecting even more.
"I think the biggest thing for us is that some of the details need to be better; we need to be a more disciplined group overall," commented Largen. "Stylistically there are always some things that will change but I think our foundation is in a good spot."
That foundation begins with senior Nikolas Koberstein. The Montréal Canadiens draft choice will be roaming the blue line for another season, helping the Nanooks absorb the loss of all-league defenseman Zach Frye and fellow D-man Justin Woods, who both graduated. Junior Tristan Thompson will also be depended on for minutes and a timely goal or two. Both defensemen finished with double-digit points last season to go along with logging critical minutes for Alaska late in games. Koberstein played in all 36 games last year. Thompson suited up for 35 of them.
Up front, coming off a freshman campaign that led to him being named to the WCHA All-Rookie team, Steven Jandric is back for his sophomore season. As a freshman, Jandric tallied 23 points in 36 games and finished fourth in the league in assists among rookies. Colton Leiter (9G-11A-20 pts), Kylar Hope (8G-12A-20 pts), Chad Staley (4G-14A-18 pts) and Troy Van Tetering (7G-11A-18 pts) are also back. All four of them scored 18 points or more last season; Leiter tied for the team lead in goals scored with nine. And don't forget about the incoming talent skating into Fairbanks this season as well. Largen anticipates consistently seeing at least five freshmen in the line-up this year, which means each class will be well represented.
Finally, in goal, the Nanooks have the unusual scenario of four goalies on the roster. Junior Anton Martinsson is expected to get nod early. Martinsson played in 32 games last season, with a save percentage of nearly 89 percent and a goals-against average of 3.17. Niko DellaMaggiore will also battle for playing time. DellaMaggiore played in 10 games last year and started four of them. Newcomer Gustavs Grigals and sophomore Tony Rehm will also be in the mix. Grigals is from Latvia and comes from Shreveport of the NAHL. All three goalies played for the Nanooks this past weekend in their 13-1 exhibition win over Simon Fraser. In that same game, 15 different UAF players scored at least one point, including Koberstein, who tallied one goal and added five assists.
The season starts for real for Largen and company this weekend. The Nanooks begin with a road series at Arizona State before returning home for a two-game series against St. Cloud State. The path doesn't get any easier after that. The Nanooks then travel to Denver before opening up their WCHA schedule against Minnesota State on October 26th and 27th.
Bemidji State Beavers
2017-18 record: 16-14-8 (overall), 13-9-6-4 (WCHA- 4th place); advanced to WCHA Playoffs quarterfinals
Predicted 2018-19 finish: 5th (Coaches' Poll); 5th (Media Poll)
During last week's annual WCHA media day, Tom Serratore probably listened to Alaska Anchorage's Matt Curley talk about the challenges of losing Olivier Mantha to graduation and shook his head in agreement. Matt Curley most likely smiled as Tom Serratore described the impact that Michael Bitzer had on the Bemidji State program during his four years in net and how the Beavers would need to replace him. If they haven't done it already, the next time the two WCHA head coaches see each other they will probably give each other a hug and cry on one another's shoulder. Losing a good goalie is tough. Losing an all-everything goalie is historic.
If you list out all of Bitzer's records on paper, the 2018-19 season would be halfway completed by the time the typing stopped. He was good; check that…he was great. For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the best goaltender in the history of the Bemidji State men's hockey program will be missing from between the pipes for Serratore and his squad. Also gone are a handful of senior skaters who were staples in the BSU line-up from the time they first walked on campus, including Kyle Bauman (148 career games played), Gerry Fitzgerald (139 career games), Jordan Heller (134 career games), Leo Fitzgerald (126 career games) and Myles Fitzgerald (114 career games). Throw in Bitzer's experience (138 career games played) and that means Bemidji State lost more than 799 career games played through graduation. Picking out the number one story for BSU as they skate into the upcoming season was pretty easy.
"We all have that one cycle that you kind of don't know where you are at, and that's probably this year with us," commented Serratore. "It seemed like Mike Bitzer, the Fitzgerald triplets, Kyle Bauman; (they) had never-ending eligibility. They came here, they started as freshman and they were big puzzle pieces. Bitz took over the reins probably halfway through his freshman year and he played 138 games for us over the course of four years. The Fitzgeralds and Kyle Bauman; they just played so much hockey for us. They are gone. It's going to be interesting."
Interesting is a good word. Exciting is another. While on one hand having a known commodity is a gift every coach at every level cherishes, the uncertainly behind a new chapter can also bring a locker room full of potential, as Serratore looks to hand the torch to a new crop of stars who one day might make the same impact on the program that Bitzer and company did. Players like Adam Brady, Jay Dickman, Charlie Combs and Justin Baudry. Both Dickman and Baudry were recognized by the media and received votes as all-league performers when the most recent 2018-19 WCHA preseason awards were announced. Dickman led the team in goals last year with 15. Combs was right behind him with 13 markers.
On the blue line, the Beavers are stacked with nine different players who can crack the line-up each and every night. Along with Baudry, Ian Janco, Dillon Eichstadt, Tommy Muck, Dan Billett, Brad Johnson, Tyler Jubenvill, Darby Gula and Tyler Vold will all see game action in 2018-19. Jubenvill and Gula are both freshmen. BSU's depth on the backend will undoubtedly be the strength of the team. Playing behind that talented group will be three goaltenders who will try to get the Beaver fans to forget Mike Bitzer's name; at least during the season. Jack Burgart (junior), Henry Johnson (sophomore) and Zach Driscoll (sophomore) will battle each other for playing time. Burgart and Johnson both saw limited playing time last season (Burgart two games played, Johnson one game played). Driscoll suits up for the Beavers after transferring to the program from St. Cloud State University. Driscoll played in 14 games for SCSU during the 2016-17 season. Last year Driscoll starred for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, helping the Lancers to a 23-9-1-1 record.
"We have good goalies right now; we've always had good goalies and I think that's going to continue on and that's the way you want things to play out, but it's just different. There is no question, it's just different," added Serratore when asked about moving forward without Bitzer. "It's time for somebody else to take over. It's exciting for these guys to take over and I know they are excited too, to challenge each other."
The Beavers will be challenged right away as they open their 2018-19 schedule with a home and home series with North Dakota on October 12th and 13th. From there, BSU travels to Northern Michigan and Alaska Anchorage. On January 18th, 2019, BSU will take part in the "Hockey Day Minnesota" festivities by hosting Michigan Tech. The battle won't just be a heavyweight fight between two of the power teams in the conference game, the game will be played outside on a rink overlooking Lake Bemidji.
Bowling Green Falcons
2017-18 record: 23-12-6 (overall), 17-6-5-2 (WCHA- 3rd place); advanced to the WCHA Playoffs semifinals
Predicted 2018-19 finish: 3rd (Coaches' Poll); 2nd (Media Poll)
Producing an All-American is a point of pride for any college hockey program. Having a returning All-American is a large piece to any team's puzzle; Bowling Green has one in junior defenseman Alec Rauhauser. Named to the preseason All-WCHA first team by both the coaches and media, the Bismarck, N.D. native is just one of the reasons why Bowling Green is expected to be one of the teams challenging Minnesota State and Northern Michigan for the WCHA crown in 2018-19. Rauhauser, last season's WCHA Defenseman of the Year, tied for first in the league in assists among D-men and finished second in points. With 39 points overall, the Falcons' defenseman ranked sixth in the country in scoring among blueliners in 2017-18 and, on the other side of the rink, Rauhauser tied for fourth nationally among d-men in plus/minus.
And he's just the tip of the iceberg.
The Falcons find themselves littered with returning talent, making them one of the most dangerous teams in the conference. Along with Rauhauser, the Brown and Orange return three freshmen who were named to the All-WCHA Rookie team last season, seven of their top eight scorers in 2017-18 and both of their goaltenders. Yes, the sting of losing all-everything Mitch McLain to graduation cannot go unnoticed, but the returning talent can't be overlooked either.
"It's probably the deepest team we have had in terms of competition at all three positions and it's going to take people being at their best to play – and that's a good thing," commented Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron, now in his ninth season behind the bench.
Every class will be represented on the ice for the Falcons this season. Back for their senior seasons will be players like Stephen Baylis and John Schilling. Along with Rauhauser, juniors Frédéric Létourneau and Lukas Craggs will roam up front, and sophomores Brandon Kruse, Max Johnson and Cameron Wright all hope to build on freshman campaigns where they each scored 18 or more points. Sophomore Connor Ford, Sam Craggs and Justin Wells are also back. Each one of them played 37 or more games last year. Behind everyone will be the dynamic duo of Ryan Bednard and Eric Dop in net. Both players finished last season with a save percentage of over 90 percent and a goals-against-average of 2.52 or lower. Bednard, the Florida Panthers draft pick, got the majority of time in goal, rolling to a 15-8-4 record last year. Dop added a record of 8-4-2 and was named to the All-WCHA Rookie team.
After notching 23 wins in 2017-18 and taking into account the players returning for the Falcons, many in Bowling Green believe that their championship window is fast approaching. Bergeron agrees.
"As far as expectations go we feel it's time. We have been close and around here close isn't good enough," stated Bergeron. "We feel it's time for us to kick that door down and really compete for a regular season or playoff championship. We are hoping this team has the capabilities of doing that."
In order for that to happen, the Falcons must hold their own against the top teams in the league. This season, Bowling Green will see Northern Michigan right away. After nonconference games against Mercyhurst, Western Michigan, Robert Morris and Ohio State, the Falcons host the Wildcats during the first week of November. Minnesota State appears on the schedule on December 14th and 15th.