2018-19 WCHA Men's League Preview - Part 2
By Andrew Vitalis for WCHA.com
photo
Ferris State senior defenseman Ryker Killins

Ferris State Bulldogs

2017-18 record: 14-23-1 (overall), 11-16-1-0 (WCHA- 6th place); advanced to the WCHA Playoffs quarterfinals

Predicted 2018-19 finish: 6th (Coaches' Poll); 6th (Media Poll)

Bob Daniels has seen it all and even he is perplexed when it comes to how this 2018-19 WCHA season is going to work out.

"I have always found them difficult to do - not sure what they always mean," stated Daniels, when asked about the annual preseason predictions. "This year though, what it does mean is that our conference is really, really tight. It was very difficult for me to fill those out. You look at where we were selected, I think for both the media and coaches polls we were picked for sixth. I feel we are a better team than that, but then again, when I look at the list it's hard to argue. Who are we going to climb over? I just know we want to be higher than that."

That's 26 years of coaching experience telling the rest of the WCHA coaches, players, fans and media personnel that this year's conference race is going to be wide open. That's not something to take lightly.

Like most of the other teams in the conference, Daniels has a lot of reasons to be optimistic. When it comes to his squad, Ferris State looks to be more balanced than they have been in the past. Of their top 15 scores on last year's team, only two were seniors. The Bulldogs top returning point-getter will be senior Corey Mackin (10G-15A-25 points last season). Senior and all-league defenseman Ryker Killins also returns. The Wawa, Ontario native finished third on the team in scoring in 2017-18 with eight goals and 14 assists. Also joining the Bulldogs on the ice this season will be two new additions in transfers Oskar Andren and Frankie Melton. Andren comes from Boston University, where he suited up for BU nine times during the 2016-17 season. Melton joins the team after sitting out last year as well. Melton made goalies look foolish early and often in the NAHL during the 2016-17 season. Playing for Shreveport, Melton scored 58 points in 55 games.

On the back end, Ferris State will be led by seniors Killins and Zac Tierney, along with juniors Cameron Clarke, Joe Rutkowski, Nate Kallen and Zach Yoder. Justin Kapelmaster will most likely get the call in net. The 2016-17 All-WCHA and College Hockey News All-Rookie Team selection started 16 games last year as a sophomore.

"Probably this team we have has the most depth and experience we've had in quite some time and on defense that is certainly true," remarked Daniels. "Just a couple of years ago we went into the season with four freshmen defensemen and three sophomores. These guys have played a lot of minutes; they have seen a lot of hockey and we are very confident in the depth we have on defense."

There is excitement in the air for who the Bulldogs have coming into their program as well. Joining the Bulldogs as a freshman is phenom Cooper Zech, who hails from South Lyon, Michigan. Zech is coming off a junior hockey career playing for the Wenatchee Wild in the BCHL. Named the BCHL Defenseman of the Year last season, Zech led the league in assists and scored 69 points in 58 games. Already with a reputation as a game changer, Zech was named the WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year by league coaches. Daniels knows he has a diamond. Now it's just a matter of helping it sparkle.

"We have high hopes for Cooper. He is an offensive defenseman. We are going to allow him to play that style. I think there are going to be adjustments, like there is for all players as the season unfolds," commented Daniels. "He's got to explore what he can and what he can't get away with and I'm sure there are going to be a few hiccups along the way, but what we hope is, as he's exploring his offensive potential, he's able to learn what he can and can't get away with."

The nation will get their first look at Zech and the Bulldogs the weekend of October 12th and 13th when they play a home-and-home series with Western Michigan. The conference season starts for Ferris State in late October when the Bulldogs host Alaska Anchorage. In November, Daniels and his squad play a series with Michigan State before back-to-back series showdowns with both Michigan Tech and Minnesota State. Let the games begin.


photo
Lake Superior State senior forward Diego Cuglietta

Lake Superior State Lakers

2017-18 record: 10-22-4 (overall), 8-17-3-0 (WCHA- 9th place)

Predicted 2018-19 finish: 7th (Coaches' Poll); 8th (Media Poll)

Lake Superior State will roll into this 2018-19 campaign with three senior forwards driving the Zamboni and, according to Lakers head coach Damon Whitten, the pace of the season will start and end with them. Tasked with the mission of finding more offense, judging by the career numbers associated with the trio of Diego Cuglietta, Anthony Nellis and Gage Torrel, it seems like a logical solution to a complicated problem.

"They will each have an outside shot of getting 100 career points, but they will all be among our top two or three scorers over the last 12 to 15 years in their careers here at Lake State. As we have tried to generate more offense and play a little more up-tempo, a little bit more of a skilled game, they certainly have done that. We expect them to have a real good leadership role for us and help us prove some people wrong and have a big step," mentioned Whitten.

If the Lakers plan on proving people wrong, this might be the year. Picked to finish seventh and eighth in the coaches' and media preseason polls, Whitten and company believe that this season is going to be different. To start, the Lakers return all three of their goalies and five of their top six defensemen from last year. Between the pipes, senior Nick Kossoff and sophomores Mareks Mitens and Roman Bengert will audition for the starting spot. Kossoff and Mitens played for Lake State last season, with Kossoff getting the majority of the time in net (7-12-2 record). The Lakers also added assistant coach Zack Cisek, who spent last season working in the same capacity at Notre Dame – where he tutored 2018 Mike Richter Award Winner and Big Ten Player of the Year Cale Morris. Cisek brings a strong background related to goaltender development with him; an asset that Whitten believes could make his trio of goalies go from good to great.

Believe it or not, but most of the returning experience for Lake Superior State comes up front. Despite losing last year's leading scorer J.T Henke to graduation, the Lakers bring back eight of their top nine point-getters from last season. In addition to Cuglietta, Max Humitz returns and is coming off a sophomore season where he scored 23 points in 36 games (including his second-straight 13-goal campaign). Whitten also has several freshman forwards who bring a natural scoring touch with them to battle for playing time.

Showing just how deep the Lakers are after losing only one senior forward and one senior defenseman who contributed on a regular basis from last year's squad; Whitten expects this new core of freshmen to finally be able to do something rookie classes before them haven't been able to do in quite some time- learn the college game as opposed to being thrown to the wolves right away. It's one of the many benefits that go hand-in-hand with team depth. It's also one of the many reasons why the Lakers feel they could make some noise in the WCHA.

"We're not worried about the outside perception of where we are ranked, but internally we do believe we have the make-up to make a big jump," replied Whitten. "Originally our plan was that last year would have been the big jump year. We certainly got rocked by early departures a year ago with a couple NHL signees, a transfer and an OHL departure, so it set us back a little bit and we saw that last year. Now, we think this year can be a big step forward."

Lake State begins this weekend with a nonconference road trip to Merrimack, before locking horns with UAH in late October for the league opener. The Lakers' biggest test will come in November when they face Michigan during the first weekend of the month, followed by Alaska. After that, LSSU travels to Bowling Green, before returning home to play Northern Michigan and Minnesota State back-to-back.


photo
Michigan Tech senior forward Jake Lucchini

Michigan Tech Huskies

2017-18 record: 22-17-5 (overall), 12-11-5-2 (WCHA- 5th place); won 2nd-consecutive WCHA Postseason Tournament; advanced to NCAA East Regional Semifinal; ranked No. 16 in final polls

Predicted 2018-19 finish: 4th (Coaches' Poll); 4th (Media Poll)

Michigan Tech fans knew they were going to lose a lot through graduation already. It was a flip of the coin whether or not they were going to lose then-sophomore Mitch Reinke too. On March 25th, 2018 the Huskies received the news that the all-league defenseman was not returning either; on March 31st, Reinke made his National Hockey League debut with the St. Louis Blues. From that point forward, Tech head coach Joe Shawhan began preparing for the 2018-19 season knowing that his team was going to be plugging holes from the very beginning. Sure- every team has to replace bodies from one season to the next, but not a group like that.

"It will be hard to replace our leadership core from last year. It will be hard to replace Reinke. It will be hard to replace Brent Baltus; we got a career year out of him (last year)," remarked Shawhan. "Dane Birks did a great job for us. Those seniors all did a fantastic job."

Honestly, how can you argue with the results? Last year alone, after finishing fifth in the WCHA, the Huskies skated into Bemidji State for the first round of the conference playoffs and upset the Beavers in two games. Next Tech took down top-seeded Minnesota State in three on the road. Far from finished, Michigan Tech concluded their historic postseason run by defeating Northern Michigan in the WCHA tournament championship game. It was the second-straight playoff championship for the Huskies. Despite losing to Notre Dame in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament, fans from across the country couldn't help but to jump on the Tech train. There was no doubt that the Huskies experience was a major reason- if not the biggest reason- why they were able to once again find that March magic.

"Anytime you have a chance to play in a playoff series and get that experience- that do-or-die elimination type experience; its growth and when you can do it for basically three series it gives you a lot of growth," commented Shawhan. "What you get out of it is you get the experience and having a better awareness of how your athletes will perform when they are needed to be at their best."

Now ready to kick things off once again, Tech fans look to the next group of leaders hoping they will be able to find the same success their predecessors did. Topping the list of returners will be Jake Lucchini, who led the Huskies in scoring last season with 16 goals and 23 assists. The sniper is back for his senior season and was recently named to the All-WCHA preseason second team by the media. Other players back up front include Gavin Gould (14G-15A-29 points in 17-18), Dylan Steman (7G-12A-19 pts), San Jose Sharks prospect Jake Jackson (13G-13A-26 pts) and Alex Smith (8G-14A-22 pts). On defense, with Reinke, Birks and Auk now gone; Shawhan looks to replace the tremendous trio with several players who got important late-season experience last year, including sophomores Seamus Donohue, Mitch Meek and Cooper Watson. During the 2017-18 campaign the three freshmen each played pivotal minutes for Tech down the stretch. Meek and Donohue each played 40 games or more. Also roaming the blue line will be junior Keegan Ford, who played in 21 games as a sophomore.

In net, Patrick Munson showed everyone how important a goaltender can be last season in the WCHA Playoffs. Munson is back in 2018-19 as part of a quartet of impressive Huskies netminders. Redshirt-senior Devin Kero returns after grabbing eight wins and starting 14 games last year. In addition, sophomore Robbie Beydoun is also back (4-3-1 record in 2017-18). Tech also brings in Matt Jurusik, who comes to Houghton after spending two seasons in Madison playing for the Wisconsin Badgers (50 games). Last season, Jurusik starred in the USHL for the Sioux City Musketeers compiling a GAA of 2.89 and a save percentage of over 90 percent.

Last, but certainly not least, Tech also brings in a group of freshmen who have a scoring pedigree behind them. Most notably, Trenton Bliss and Alec Broetzman join the program after excelling in the USHL. Bliss finished 10th in the USHL in scoring last season (55 points) while playing with Green Bay. Broetzman comes to Houghton after skating for Madison last year. In 59 games the Hudson, Wis. native scored 50 points.

Tech will go back to work beginning next weekend against the defending national champs- Minnesota Duluth. Following a trip to Wisconsin to face the Badgers in late-October, the Huskies open up their conference schedule at Alabama Huntsville the first weekend in November.


photo
Minnesota State junior forward Marc Michaelis

Minnesota State Mavericks

2017-18 record: 29-10-1 (overall), 22-5-1-0 (WCHA- 1st place); advanced to the WCHA Playoffs semifinals; advanced to the NCAA West Regional Semifinal; ranked No. 9 in final polls

Predicted 2018-19 finish: 1st (Coaches' Poll); 1st (Media Poll)

It reads like an all-star team. Well, actually- it basically was. C.J Suess (2017-18 WCHA Player of Year and Offensive Player of the Year)…Daniel Brickley (2017-18 All-WCHA Second Team)…Zeb Knutson (2017-18 All-WCHA Third team)…Connor LaCouvee (2017-18 All-WCHA Third team)….

While coaches, media and opposing players from around the country gush over the talent coming back to play for Minnesota State this season, Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings wants to first slam on the brakes and remind everyone who they lost. Throw in Brad McClure and missing from last year's roster will be 142 points and a netminder who started 31 games. Not surprisingly that same core of pucksters helped Minnesota State to a WCHA regular season crown and a ticket to the NCAA tournament last season. MSU lost to the eventual national champs, Minnesota Duluth, in overtime at the West Regional.

"They are guys who played significant roles for us last year but they are gone so we are going to be a different team," commented Hastings. "We need some individuals to step up and fill those roles."

Fast forward several months and the Mavericks are once again tagged as the preseason favorite to win it all in the WCHA heading into the 2018-19 campaign. Hastings and his squad also picked up numerous individual pre-season honors, including two players who were named as preseason All-WCHA First Team selections in Marc Michaelis and Jake Jaremko (preseason media poll). Michaelis finished third on the team in scoring last season (18G-22A-40pts) and was named to the All-WCHA first team. Jaremko was named the 2017-18 WCHA Rookie of the Year after ranking second among NCAA freshmen with 39 points (15G-24A) – the most ever by a Mavericks' D-I freshman. Also returning for the Mavericks include defenseman Ian Scheid (2017-18 All-WCHA Second Team), Reggie Lutz (2017-18 All-WCHA Rookie Team), Connor Mackey (2017-18 All-WCHA Rookie Team) and Parker Tuomie (9G-28A-37 pts). For yet another season, the pieces appear to indicate that Minnesota State will continue to expand on their historic run over the past six seasons, one which has left the Mavericks as the winningest D-I hockey program in the nation. Hastings knows, however, that numbers only tell a portion of the story. Statistics can change overnight. Experience and leadership is much harder to put a number on.

Up front, in addition to Michaelis, Jaremko, Lutz and Tuomie; senior Max Coatta and sophomore Jared Spooner will also be looked at to light the lamp for a Mavericks team who outscored their opponents 153-84 last season and operated their power play at a rate of nearly 28 percent. On the blue line, Minnesota State is stacked once again. Yes, the loss of Brickley to the NHL will be felt throughout the lineup, but filling the void will be a host of D-men who are already considered game-changers, including Scheid, Mackey and Riese Zmolek. If there is a question mark in Mankato, it's between the pipes. LaCouvee roamed the net for 31 games last season and in the process stopped 91 percent of the shots he saw. Now graduated, the loss of LaCouvee means the blocker will be passed to a group of three goalies; all with limited experience. Senior Mathias Israelsson, freshman Dryden McKay and freshman Jacob Berger will fight for the right to be the Mavericks' number one. Israelsson comes from Northern Michigan, where he played three seasons with the Wildcats before transferring.

"Class-wise, with only having three seniors, we are going to have to have some guys who have to carry more of the leadership role that haven't been here for three years, and that's okay," remarked Hastings. "I think it gives some of these guys an opportunity to grow in a way that maybe they are going to be pushed into it, but we need them to grow in a hurry."

The clock is ticking for a variety of reasons. Not only will the Mavericks embark on yet another brutal journey taking them from one rink to the next against some of the best competition in the country, closer to home, most agree that the WCHA will be more competitive than ever before. Northern Michigan, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech are all predicted to give the Mavericks a run for their money.

"We will take that and are very appreciative of it (selected to finish first), but I know I'm not sleeping very well going with the idea of having to compete against the groups that we have in our league. You look at what Northern Michigan is bringing back and I think you see it in the accolades as far as first team (selections), you look at the underclassmen who are being brought back by Bowling Green as well as their upperclassmen. When you can bring an All-American back at the blue line there and have the depth that they have in goaltending and consistency," continued Hastings. "You are starting to see Tech continue to build their model and we are trying to learn from that and what they have done on how they start a season, how they finish a season and they continue to build and play their best hockey at the most important time of the year. I say this year in and year out; whoever comes out of our league and makes it to the NCAA tournament is going to be battle tested."

After an exhibition game with Mount Royal this weekend, Minnesota State gets ready to face Boston University during the first week of the season. The Mavs then travel to North Dakota for two more before returning home to face-off with Alaska. Minnesota State also locks horns with the University of Minnesota during the first weekend in November. Also of note, Hastings, the two-time WCHA Coach of the Year, is serving as the head coach of the U.S. national team that will compete at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver/Victoria Dec. 26, 2018 – Jan. 5, 2019.


photo
Northern Michigan senior forward Adam Rockwood

Northern Michigan Wildcats

2017-18 record: 25-15-3 (overall), 19-7-2-2 (WCHA- 2nd place); advanced to WCHA Championship; ranked No. 20 in final polls

Predicted 2018-19 finish: 2nd (Coaches' Poll); 3rd (Media Poll)

During the annual preseason media conference call in late-September, coaches from around the league tried not to gush too much about the firepower Northern Michigan was returning this season, but it wasn't exactly easy. Do you blame them? If you take a chance to review the leader boards from a season ago, you will see that Northern Michigan was well-represented. You will also see that the top two scorers in the league, Adam Rockwood (who led the nation with 40 assists) and Troy Loggins, are back this season for their senior years. In addition, the number five scorer (All-American Phillip Beaulieu) and the number 14 scorer (Darien Craighead, who led the country with six game-winning goals) are also back. Following suit, Rockwood was tabbed as the coaches' preseason Player of the Year pick and Loggins was named the preseason Player of the Year by the media. Both players were named to the preseason All-WCHA first teams. Oh yes; don't forget about Atte Tolvanen. The 2017-18 WCHA Goaltender of the Year returns for his senior season in net and was also honored by both the coaches and media as a preseason All-WCHA performer. All of the talent will be led back onto the ice by the 2017-18 WCHA Coach of the Year Grant Potulny. As stated earlier- it's hard not to gush.

"We are going to rely heavily on our seniors," commented Potulny. "We have a large senior class and if you look at the history of college hockey and teams that have been successful, most of the times they have seniors and most of the time their seniors have great years, so that's going to be very important for our group."

For Potulny and his squad, it's all about the end result as opposed to the beginning. Coming off a second-place conference finish last season (six points behind Minnesota) and a 25-win season that came to a close after a 2-0 loss to Michigan Tech in the WCHA championship game, the Wildcats were picked to finish second according to the coaches' preseason poll and third in the preseason media poll. The 'Cats know that in order for their title dreams to become reality, their core of playmakers will need to be strong right out of the gates. Last season Northern Michigan started their conference schedule with a nice 7-4-2 mark through their first 13 games, before exploding in the second half of the season; rolling to a 12-3-0 record against WCHA teams to close out their year. After two stiff non-conference opponents in Michigan State and St. Cloud State to start the year, NMU battles Bemidji State and Bowling Green in late-October and early-November. Both BSU and Bowling Green will also be expected to make a push this season as the teams race for the WCHA crown.

"When you talk about our team, I'm excited about our group. Our depth is there. I think we have some guys in the top of the lineup that can make some plays and can generate some offense for us. That being said, I am excited about where our group is, but if you look at the history of the league- and I think history is very important in any facet of life- it kind of tells you the story of where you have been; our league has been dominated by one team. Minnesota State has won five championships (regular season and playoffs combined) in five years. There is a reason why they have been so successful," stated Potulny. "Michigan Tech has three championships, Ferris State has two and Bemidji has one, so as much as I am excited about our group, until the rest of us win a championship, the guys at the top have earned their right on the mantle and they are going to stay up there until someone else can win a championship and join that group."

In addition to the players already mentioned, Northern Michigan's talent is evident from top to bottom; including a group of newcomers who plan to add their names to the already long list of all-stars skating in Marquette. Players like senior captain Denver Pierce, freshman Griffin Loughran and freshman Jackson Charlesworth. Loughran scored 40-plus points last season in the USHL. Charlesworth, who also has raised eyebrows in the USHL, will join the team after Christmas. In addition, on defense, Tony Bretzman joins the team as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame. Along with game experience, Bretzman also brings postseason experience after playing in three NCAA tournaments and a Frozen Four with the Irish.

"Our depth has improved. I think we have some freshmen who are going to come in and compete for some ice. There have been days, like all freshmen, that they look like the players you recruited and you are very excited about them, and then there are days they look like freshmen. We are going to have to bring them along a little bit," replied Potulny. "Up front, I like where our group is at. We will definitely have much more competition this year. I think at times last year, maybe some guys got some ice because of where our numbers were; maybe not as much as I would have liked them to earn that ice and this year, that's not the case. Those two groups are improved and having Atte back is obviously a huge piece to our team."

Potulny has gone all-in when it comes to building his team's résumé for the postseason. In addition to WCHA opponents, the Wildcats will face-off with three of the four number-one seeds from last year's NCAA tournament (SCSU, Cornell and Notre Dame).