Head Coach: Mike Corbett (5th season)
2016-17: 9-22-3 (9-16-3-0), finished ninth in the WCHA.
Four seasons ago, Alabama Huntsville head coach Mike Corbett's team won two games. The next two seasons; eight wins and seven wins, respectively. Last season….nine wins. It's been a slow, yet steady, climb up the ladder for Corbett, who enters his fifth season behind the Chargers' bench. This season, the trend upward is expected to continue, as UAH skates into their opening series with Notre Dame with arguably their most talented roster yet. Packed with experience and sprinkled with newcomers who will undoubtedly contribute right away, don't be surprised if Alabama Huntsville finally becomes the hunter as opposed to be the hunted.
Expect Alabama Huntsville to make their biggest impact on the defensive side of the puck. Returning for their junior campaigns to patrol the blue-line are Kurt Gosselin and Cam Knight, both of whom finished in the top four in scoring last season for the Chargers. Throw in seniors Brandon Parker, Cody Champagne and Richard Buri, along with junior John Teets, and UAH will have six D-men with considerable experience. Furthermore, net-minder Jordan Uhelski also returns for his senior season after posting a GAA of 2.78 one season ago.
"One of the biggest things that we are keying on is our D-group. We have six to seven defensemen returning. Kurt Gosselin is an all-league player. Cam Knight and Brandon Parker are two of the upper echelon defensemen in this league, so that's going to be an area of strength for us," commented Corbett. "Everyone in our league primarily tries to play a puck possession game and a lot of it depends upon your D-core as far as I'm concerned. With roughly three seniors and three juniors in our night-to-night D-core, we believe we can do a lot of positive things, starting with them."
The experience will be needed on and off the ice. In a scheduling fluke, the Chargers will start the season with their first eight games on the road followed by six at home. Then, beginning on December 1st, UAH embarks on 12-straight on the road before returning home to finish the regular season with eight-straight. That means that, including the Christmas break, some of the Chargers' players could be spending more than a month away from campus. It's a logistical challenge for Corbett, who has the overwhelming task of keeping his players sharp (including eight freshmen). It's a hiccup the Chargers cannot take lightly. Last season Alabama Huntsville was 7-11-2 before the Christmas break. After returning to play, UAH finished the season 2-11-1 over its' final 14 regular season games.
Head Coach: Lance West (1st season)
2016-17: 12-20-4 (11-13-4), finished sixth in the WCHA and lost to Minnesota State in the quarterfinals of the WCHA Playoffs.
In his first year as head hockey coach for Alaska (10th season total with the program), Lance West finds himself with an unusual problem. It's a good problem but a problem nonetheless. This season the Nanooks skate into the year with nine returning defensemen who have playing experience. Yes….nine. In addition to a handful of senior and junior blue-liners, Alaska is one year removed from a huge freshman class who wasted little time adapting to the college game. Headlining the group are seniors Justin Woods and Zach Frye; both of whom received All-WCHA pre-season votes. Frye finished second on the team in scoring one year ago, right behind Nanooks sniper Chad Staley. Woods, just two seasons removed from missing the 2014-15 campaign after being diagnosed with cancer, returned for his senior season in the best shape of his career. Woods broke the team pre-season lifting record prior to lacing up the skates and is poised to improve on his 12-point performance last year. Other D-men returning include Danny Kiraly (24 GP last season), Nikolas Koberstein (31 GP last season), Tristan Thompson (31 GP last season), Nick Hinz (25 GP last season) and James LaDouce (25 GP last season) – just to name a few.
"You look around the league and a lot of teams are returning outstanding D-cores and I think ours is pretty good too," said West. "We return nine guys on the backend and we don't have any freshmen defensemen coming in. We have nine returning D who have all played a significant role at some point in their career. The hardest part is getting them all the minutes and trying to keep all those guys involved; we have nine guys who have all been involved at some point, so that's probably going to be one of the biggest challenges for me, but I will take that because we have so many guys who have played minutes back there."
And that "problem" could not have come at a better time. Gone from last year are goalies Davis Jones and Jesse Jenks, meaning the Nanooks have zero minutes back between the pipes. That does not mean they don't have options. Both goalies who will skate into the nets this season have experience with their team, as both skated last season during practice – just didn't play any games. Anton Martinsson is expected make a strong push at the starting spot, battling with sophomore Niko DellaMaggiore.
Certainly, how quickly the experienced blue-line gels with the inexperience between the pipes will play a huge role in determining whether or not Alaska improves on their 12 wins from a season ago.
The other area that will most likely be a factor in whether or not the Nanooks make a push is the performance of a huge sophomore class, who returns to the ice with a year of experience under their breezers. Leading the way will be forwards Troy Van Tetering, Tyler Cline and Colton Leiter. All three wings scored in double figures in points during the 2016-17 season and all three, along with Staley, will be looked at to light the lamp early and often for the Nanooks. Scoring proved to be elusive for Alaska last season. As a team they averaged just 2.19 goals per game. As a matter of fact, 14 of their 20 losses came when Fairbanks failed to score three goals in a game. When they scored at least four in a game, the Nanooks were 5-0-1.
Head Coach: Matt Thomas (5th season)
2016-17: 7-21-6 (6-16-6-2), finished in 10th place in the WCHA.
When dissecting last season, the major flaw for Alaska Anchorage stood out like a hockey player playing with a beach ball. Simply put; the Seawolves couldn't score. Consider this – after last year's leading goal-scorer, NHL-bound Mason Mitchell with 12, the next-best goal scorer had five markers. Actually, UAA had three players score five goals last season. Still, as a team, UAA averaged just 1.7 goals per game and were outscored by their opponents 102-59. The biggest reason for the Seawolves' lack of firepower had to do with the injury bug, which bit early and often. That, along with uncertainty surrounding the hockey program, led to a perfect storm of instability that plagued Alaska Anchorage from the first drop of the puck.
"The first half we had a real hard time staying healthy up front. We played multiple games without the full complement of forwards that you are allowed to play and the second half we only had six defensemen that were even available to us the whole second half," said Matt Thomas, who is entering his fifth year behind the UAA bench. "That was a little challenging, because a bunch of them were freshmen. Guys got beneficial minutes, but it was something that made it difficult for us to keep the foot on the gas pedal when we were playing and kept us from being that veteran type of team."
If the Seawolves' inexperience slowed them down last season, this year, UAA can finally put their racing helmet on. For the first time since Thomas can remember, he and his coaching staff will skate into the season with a slew of upperclassmen to go along with underclassmen who were thrown into the deep end of the pool one season ago and asked to swim. Throw in a huge – and talented – freshman class and last year's last-place finish is quickly becoming a distant memory. Despite losing last season's leading scorer, Mitchell, to the Washington Capitals., UAA returns 11 of its top 13 scorers to go along with three-time team MVP and all-everything goaltender Olivier Mantha.
"We have a senior class for the first time since I've been here," remarked Thomas. "The last couple years we haven't had much depth and/or top-line impactful players in our junior and senior class and this year we boast a senior class of six. Five of the six have been impactful and everyday players for us since the moment they came to campus".
Along with Mantha, back is two-time captain Matt Anholt (5G-17A=22) along with Tad Kozun (5G-14A-19) and defenseman Jarrett Brown (5G-10A=15). Also coming to town is a host of freshmen talent that will make any team blush. Highlighting the group of newcomers are a trio of blue-liners, including Mason Anderson, providing support for Mantha. It seems that, on paper, Thomas finally has the balance he's been looking for; however, paper doesn't win hockey games. The Anchorage faithful will get their first look at their present, and future, this weekend with a two-game tilt against ranked North Dakota.
Head Coach: Tom Serratore (17th season)
2016-17: 22-16-3 (20-6-2-2), won the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions; defeated Northern Michigan in the quarterfinals of the WCHA Playoffs, before falling to Bowling Green in the semifinals.
If fans threw a hat onto the ice for every post season 2016-17 award, or, every pre-season 2017-18 accolade associated with Beavers senior goalie Michael Bitzer, the Moorhead native would be able to open his own apparel store. AHCA All-American first team selection in 2016-17. An All-WCHA first team selection. A Hobey Baker top 10 finalist. A 2016-17 Mike Richter Award finalist. A 2017-18 Pre-season All-WCHA first team selection. Pre-season WCHA Player of the Year (received votes in 2017-18 Mankato Free Press coaches poll and 2017-18 UAHHockey.com pre-season poll). The list is about as long as a college literature term paper discussing the influence of Shakespeare. There is no question that while Tom Serratore's team is talented across the board, if the Beavers want to repeat as WCHA championships, Bitzer is the key. Oh yes….don't forget about the core of defensemen Bemidji State brings back as well. All six blue-liners who played for Serratore during the WCHA playoffs last season also return, making the Beavers one of the strongest defensive teams (at least on paper) in the country. With that said, through his 16 seasons as head coach, Serratore knows that paper rosters don't win titles.
"We approach things the same way every year. I think as a coach you better not talk a lot. The bottom line is that it's a new year. You have to do your thing; you have to get your team prepared for the opening weekend. Their personality is their personality," commented Serratore. "Obviously it was nice winning last year and we won a lot of close games. You hope that your guys can take the next step."
Bemidji State will need to find a way to replace firepower lost through graduation – namely Phillip Marinaccio, Brendan Harms and Charlie O'Connor. The trio finished in the top-five in scoring on last year's squad, which means Serratore and his offense loses a combined 69 points that will have to be absorbed by others. If your answer to the question of "by who?" is Fitzgerald then you are on the right track. The Fitzgerald brothers all return for their senior campaign and bring with them 61 points from their junior season (Gerry- 26 points, Myles- 18 points, Leo- 17 points). Also returning is senior Kyle Bauman, who finished third on the team in scoring last season with 23 points; right behind Marinaccio and Gerry Fitzgerald. Both Gerry Fitzgerald and Bauman received pre-season honors by receiving votes to become all-league players for the upcoming season.
Predicted to finish second in the conference, Bemidji State knows that there is little time to waste. Thanks in large part to a strong early-season start last year (12-0-1 through their first 13 league games), BSU notched 20 WCHA wins; finishing a full 10 points ahead of second-place Michigan Tech. The Beavers feel that in order to make a run at the conference crown again, they must repeat the effort.
The wild card for Serratore and his program (and the rest of the WCHA) will be a talented group of freshmen who will skate into their college careers with well-established resumes. Leading the pack is Brendan Harris, who received pre-season votes for WCHA Freshman of the Year honors. Over the last two seasons while playing for the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL, Harris scored 154 points in 114 games. "Brendan Harris is awfully skilled, there is no question (and) he has stood out early. He's going to be a big puzzle piece for us," commented Serratore. "He's going to eat up some minutes early and he's going to play some vital minutes. Charlie Combs, he scored some big goals last year, he had over 50 goals last year in the BC Junior League. You see stretches of that in practice. Then Ethan Somoza has been very good for us, very consistent in the skates and then Tyler Vold and Brad Johnson; two defensemen who are coming in and we really like them, they just add to our depth in our defensive core," Serratore continued.
"You're not going to know what you have until they start playing real hockey. Again, we like our depth but everyone likes their depth this time of year. Everyone is pretty excited and pumped up about what they have but pretty soon we are going to start playing Friday night and Saturday night, and that's what's going to show you where you are at."
Head Coach: Chris Bergeron (8th season)
2016-17: 21-18-2 (14-13-1-1), finished fourth in the WCHA, defeated Ferris State (quarterfinals) and Bemidji State (semifinals) in the WCHA Playoffs, before falling in the WCHA Championship.
The 2016-17 hockey season was about as up and down as an ocean wave in a storm for Bowling Green. The Falcons began the season by going 2-6-1 through their first nine games. They then responded by posting a 6-1-1 record during the month of November. From there, their next 10 games resulted in a 5-5 record, followed by a final stretch of 10 games to close out the season where Bowling Green went….yep….5-5. Then it happened. Plagued by inconsistency all year, Chris Bergeron's team rallied off three-straight wins to end the regular season and became the picture of efficiency in the WCHA playoffs, dispatching Ferris State in two games in the quarterfinals (outscored them 11-4) and rolling past Bemidji State in two games in the semifinals. Before Bergeron knew it, his squad was facing off with Michigan Tech for the Broadmoor Trophy. Ultimately the Falcons lost to the Huskies in double overtime 3-2. Still, it was an amazing – and, perhaps somewhat unexpected – way for Bowling Green to close out their season.
"I just thought it was a huge positive for our program, to finally break through that semifinal and get to that final game, and I hope it leaves a taste in our players' mouths that first of all, we want to make amends for that and do better next time; but, secondly we want to get back there," replied Bergeron. "We know it's going to take some effort; it's definitely a marathon season, but we want to put ourselves in a situation where maybe we play those games right here at BG (Bowling Green). Those are the takeaways, but all in all, it was a really good run and a good experience for us."
The winds of momentum were blowing but then the winds of change chilled the air. After the final puck dropped on the 2016-17 season, Bergeron soon learned that he was losing goalie Chris Nell to the New York Rangers and defenseman Mark Friedman to the Philadelphia Flyers. Throw in key losses through graduation (Kevin Dufour, Sean Walker, Matt Pohlkamp) and, suddenly, the Falcons found themselves plugging holes heading into the 2017-18 campaign. Fortunately for Bergeron, the eighth-year head coach had plenty of talent to lean on. Leading the pack and returning for his senior season is Mitch McLain, who is coming off a 33-point season which ranked him fourth in the league in scoring last season. Also back is senior Tyler Spezia, who scored 30 points last year and finished tied for seventh in the conference in overall scoring. In addition, the Falcons return a host of blue-liners who each played in at least 28 games in 2016-17, including sophomore Alec Rauhauser. McLain was named to the preseason All-WCHA team by the league coaches. In addition, the media tabbed McLain as a pre-season Player of the Year candidate and All-WCHA First Team performer. Spezia and Rauhauser also received pre-season All-WCHA mentions by the media. Both the coaches and the media picked Bowling Green to finish fourth in the conference this year, not bad for a team who lost their starting goaltender along with over 100 points in offense through professional contracts and graduation.
"We're not really focused on the people we don't have but the people we do," remarked Bergeron. "I'm looking forward to see how some of our guys returning can take their games to another level and some of the new guys, to see how they can contribute."
Will the losses ground the Falcons or will they fly once more? We are all about to find out.
Head Coach: Bob Daniels (26th season)
2016-17: 13-19-5 (12-12-4-2), finished in fifth place in the WCHA before falling to Bowling Green in the quarterfinal round of the WCHA Playoffs.
Bob Daniels had been behind the bench for a long time; 25 seasons as Ferris State head coach, to be exact. His hairline was already thinning, but the way the Bulldogs kicked off the 2016-17 season was threatening the remaining strands he had left. Packed with freshmen throughout the roster – including four on the Bulldogs blue-line – Ferris State limped to a 0-7-1 record out of the gates. Those who have been around the WCHA long enough know that a slow start can bury a team.
"We knew we were going to go through some growing pains early, didn't think it was going to be nearly that difficult," chuckled Daniels.
But towards the second month of the season, the veteran head coach started to see glimpses of his future. After Ferris State picked up their first win in late October, the Bulldogs went 4-2 in November and pushed their record to 7-10-1 in early December after a key home win over Minnesota State. However, as everyone knows, the WCHA season is long with a battle every night. Daniels didn't have the luxury of a veteran team and Ferris State went 1-6-3 over their next 10 games; officially eliminating them from the conference championship race. Still, Daniels' squad continued to improve, closing out their regular season with a 5-1-1 record over their final seven games. Before his eyes, the inexperienced blue-line turned into a group of vets. In total, 10 freshmen played minutes for Ferris State during the 2016-17 season to go along with another seven sophomores. What does that mean for the 2017-18 season? Daniels hopes the growing pains won't be quite as obvious this time around when the Bulldogs kick off the season this weekend.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the Bulldogs strength will be in two areas. The good thing about having so many freshmen play on the back end is that after spending a season licking their wounds, those Bulldogs wounds have now turned into scars – battle scars. Ferris State returns a strong group of defensemen, including four sophomores who played big minutes in 2016-17. Leading the way will be Joe Rutkowski and Cameron Clarke. Rutkowski scored 20 points last season and was honored by the media before the season (pre-season media poll) by being receiving votes as an all-league performer. In addition, Daniels will be adding a fifth sophomore to the blue-line in Zach Yoder, who transferred from the Air Force Academy and sat out all last year due to transfer rules.
From there, the Bulldogs will also return two veteran goalies, including sophomore Justin Kapelmaster. As a freshman, Kapelmaster played in 19 games, posting a record of 10-4-3 to go along with a GAA of 2.22 and a save percentage of 93 percent – earning College Hockey News Freshman Goaltender of the Year accolades for his efforts. Junior Darren Smith, the 2016 CHN Freshman Goaltender of the Year, also returns. Smith split time with Kapelmaster between the pipes last season, playing in 21 games and finishing the year with a GAA of 2.96. Two of his three wins were shutouts. Despite the wide gap in wins between Kapelmaster and Smith, both goalies skated away with positive feedback.
"We didn't score goals when Darren (Smith) was in net. While he would play really well, what would end up happening is we wouldn't score, we would go into the third period, we would be down a couple goals and now we have to press; we're giving the other team some opportunities and some odd-man rushes so his numbers kind of got skewed," recalled Daniels. "As we go into this year, I can't help but to look back at Darrin's freshman year. We're going to go into it, going to split them to start and we'll let them battle it out."
The second reason why Ferris State was picked to finish fifth in the conference this year is named Corey Mackin. Okay, it's not just Mackin, but the junior is pretty good. Mackin returns with numerous pre-season accolades already under his belt. The Philadelphia native was named to the pre-season All-WCHA First Team by the media, and for good reason. Mackin, the 2015-16 WCHA Rookie of the Year, scored 13 goals and added 13 assists as a sophomore and is the Bulldogs top returning scorer. Also returning up front for Daniels is Mitch Maloney, Craig Pefley, Andrew Dorantes and Jason Tackett. It's true; the Bulldogs lost serious firepower through graduation, including three of their top five scorers, but with Macklin and company returning, along with four incoming freshman forwards, the Bulldogs hope their early-season adjustment will be smoother this time around. Helping the cause is the fact that despite losing some veteran forwards, all the Bulldogs centers are back, which will stabilize the transition.
The Bulldogs will play seven of their first 10 games on the road. Ferris State kicks off their season with a home and home series with Western Michigan this Friday and Saturday night.
Lake Superior State
Head Coach: Damon Whitten (4th season)
2016-17: 11-18-7 (8-13-7-4), finished in seventh place in the WCHA before falling to Michigan Tech in the quarterfinals of the WCHA Playoffs.
While most teams across the WCHA will sport rosters loaded with upperclassmen, Lake Superior State will once again be the exception. After having just one senior on the roster in 2016-17, the Lakers have four seniors on the team this season. But don't feel sorry for LSSU just yet; the four seniors returning are good….really good. Leadership isn't always about the number of bodies you have but instead what the players you have represent. Back in 2017-18 for their final season will be J.T. Henke, Ryan Renz, Kyle Chatham and Aidan Wright.
"We've got some leadership in-house that we haven't had the last couple of years, from our numbers as we've gone through from inheriting this program as we (now) go through year four, so we're excited that we have four seniors," stated Damon Whitten, Lake Superior State head coach. "They are going to provide a real strong leadership base for our program that we haven't had the last couple years."
Henke looks to be the headliner on offense. With over 50 points in his Laker career, Henke scored 30 of his 50 points last year alone, including 10 goals and 20 assists. Named as a pre-season All-WCHA performer going into the year, the Trenton, Mich. native will try to help Laker fans forget about the losses of Mitch Hults and Kris Bindulis. Hults, a high-scoring forward, signed with the Anaheim Ducks, while the Lakers lost defenseman Bindulis to the Washington Capitals.
"We would rather see them back in a Lake State uniform next year but excited for them. They come to our programs to make it to the NHL, so we are glad we played a small piece in their development and they'll be missed here," stated Whitten. "Still, we return all of the key pieces to have a chance at a great year."
Whitten will also look for some of those pieces within a strong junior and sophomore class, hoping they will continue to build on their previous success. The group includes juniors Diego Cuglietta, Gage Torrel and Anthony Nellis, as well as sophomore Max Humitz. All four players finished in the top-seven on the team in scoring last season. In all, eight of the top 10 point-getters from last year return for Lake Superior State.
If Whitten has a concern (and every coach does), it's going to center around goaltending. Gordon Defiel is gone after a superb collegiate career, which means the Lakers will be looking for someone to absorb the 34 games that he started last season in net. Back is junior Nick Kossoff (six games played in 2016-17), along with Cooper Lukenda. Kossoff will be looked at to regain his edge that he possessed in goal as a freshman for the Lakers, when he posted three shutouts in 13 games. If that does not happen, the Lakers have options after bringing in Roman Bengert and Mareks Mitens; two extremely talented freshmen with impressive résumés. Both were named Goalies of the Year in their respective leagues while playing junior hockey (Bengert in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Mitens Goalie of the Year and Player of the Year in the NAHL). Talent will not be the issue but consistency might be; at least early on.
The Lakers, picked to finish sixth in the conference by the coaches and media, face-off with conference foe Northern Michigan right out of the gates beginning this weekend. After the home-and-home series with the Wildcats, the Lakers will tackle Michigan Tech at home for two. After starting the season 6-1-1 last season, Whitten would love a repeat performance from his squad this time around.
Head Coach: Joe Shawhan (1st season)
2016-17: 23-15-7 (15-7-6-3), finished second in the WCHA, defeated Lake Superior State in the quarterfinals of the WCHA Playoffs, outlasted Minnesota State in a three-game quarterfinal series and won the Broadmoor Trophy with a 3-2, double-overtime victory over Bowling Green in the WCHA Championship; fell to eventual national champion Denver in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal.
So, let's do the math. Last season, Michigan Tech started the season 1-5-2 through their first eight games. There was even a point where the Huskies scored just four goals in their first four games and were shutout twice. Fast forward to late in the 2017 season, prior to the playoffs and you would see that Tech finished off their regular season schedule with a 2-4-1 record over their final seven regular season games. During those seven games they were held to two or fewer goals three times. The point to this? Despite their hiccups, the Huskies still finished with 23 overall wins and still finished second in the WCHA. It means that at times last season Tech played like a powerhouse; including in the WCHA Tournament, where Michigan Tech went 5-1 en route to the 2017 Broadmoor Trophy and a berth in the NCAA tournament. That ability to turn it on in spurts has made, and continues to make, their WCHA opponents leery as they skate into the 2017-18 season. The Huskies have been picked to finished second in the conference by the coaches and the media, but with their ability to turn on the switch, Tech has its sights on the conference crown under first-year head coach Joe Shawhan (who spent the last three years on the MTU bench as an assistant coach).
Returning this season for the Huskies are a pair of blue-liners who will help stir the drink in senior Mitch Reinke and sophomore Mark Auk. Both players were named by the media to the All-WCHA Second Team. Also named to the All-WCHA Second Team was forward Joel L'Esperance, who, with 28 points in 44 games last year, is the Huskies' leading returning scorer. Now-sophomore Gavin Gould also returns after scoring 23 points in 33 games, including a hat trick in game one of the WCHA Semifinals. However, L'Esperance and Gould are the only two returning scorers who cracked the team's top six in points last year, meaning Shawhan has some mixing and matching to do.
"We are coming off a Broadmoor Trophy win with an extremely veteran team led by an extremely strong defense; as good as I ever had the opportunity to be around. Many of those players moved on," remarked Shawhan. "We had a number of seniors and we had one player sign early (Matt Roy), so we are the team who will have those three, four or five freshmen that will be in line-up this year and earning minutes, and we are trying to do things and tweak things that allow them to be effective right away."
As to what might be tweaked and changed to the Huskies' overall style under the new bench boss? Well, not much, as Shawhan believes the program he inherits – and has helped mold into the nation's fourth-winningest team during his time in Houghton – is just fine, thank you.
"As far as changes, we're not looking to do things that different; maybe there will be some tweaks in the way we run practice, but I think we need that with the group we have – as you get a group a little more established, especially the young D and things, then you can try to change it up a little bit," Shawhan replied. "But, we're not looking to change anything. I've been here for three years and I believe in the way it's done. I believe in the way the job was done prior to me and my goal is to continue in the same fashion. We're not looking to complicate things; we're looking to stay as status quo as we can. Maybe be a little bit more aggressive in some areas, but we're not looking to make major changes."
And, why should anything change? There might be some speed bumps early as the Huskies face a challenging season-opening stretch on the road, while breaking in a new goaltender (transfer Patrick "Packy" Munson joined the team in late-summer, while junior Devin Kero has only 14 games of collegiate experience under his belt). But, with three-straight, 20-win seasons behind them and plenty of talent on this year's roster, Michigan Tech fans know that, come March, there's a good chance for more celebrations in Copper Country.
Head Coach: Mike Hastings (6th season)
2016-17: 22-13-4 (15-9-4-2), finished third in the WCHA; defeated Alaska in the quarterfinals of the WCHA Playoffs before falling in a three-game semifinal-round series to Michigan Tech.
The energy surrounding Minnesota State hockey is at a fever pitch – and rightfully so. Arguably the biggest challenge for head coach Mike Hastings; at least until the puck drops, is to keep things in perspective.
That may be difficult even for a seasoned vet like him. After leading the WCHA in team scoring last season, the Mavericks finished the year with three scorers in the top-five in the league. Positioned at the top was then-freshman Marc Michaelis, who not only won WCHA Freshman of the Year honors but finished seventh in the nation in rookie scoring. Tied for fifth in the scoring race was defenseman Daniel Brickley who, for his efforts, was named WCHA Defensemen of the Year. Throw in C.J Suess, who also finished tied for fifth in the league in scoring one season ago, and you start to understand why the Mavericks' opponents were waking up with night sweats the night before a game.
Fast forward six months later and the night sweats have turned into downright nightmares. Michaelis is back for his sophomore season, while Brickley (junior) and Suess (senior) also return, along with Brad McClure (14G-14A=28 pts last season), Zeb Knutson (15G-10A=25 pts last season) and Ian Scheid (8G-16A=24 pts). Both Brickley and Michaelis received pre-season votes (coaches' poll) for WCHA Player of the Year honors (four votes each). Brickley was also tabbed as the pre-season favorite for WCHA Player of the Year by the media. Along with Brickley and Michaelis, Hastings sees his squad's on-ice experience as the key to the Mavericks' success; namely his senior class.
"We are going to lean on some guys who have been around the block for us. We are going to look to our senior leadership and up front we have three guys that hopefully will be able to continue some of the success that they have had up to this point for their senior years in C.J Suess, Brad McClure and Zeb Knutson. At different times in their three years prior to this year, they have stepped up and been leaders for us," said Hastings. "We are going to rely on that group to hopefully provide offensive output and direction for a group of young guys. And, hopefully Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie will build on their freshman year now as sophomores."
There is certainly a rock-solid foundation to build from – and the foundation continues to get stronger. In addition to the returning firepower, MSU also adds freshmen Jake Jaremko, Reggie Lutz and Connor Mackey to the mix. All three received pre-season votes for WCHA Freshman of the Year honors. Jaremko; a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner, scored 46 points in 59 games last season as a member of the Clark Cup champion Chicago Steel.
And even with all the documented firepower who will be suiting up for the Mavericks this season, believe it or not, according to Hastings, he sees his team's real strength at the blue-line. In addition to Brickley, Scheid and Mackey, senior Clint Lewis also returns, giving Minnesota State a solid core of D-men who will be expected to protect a trio of goalies led by junior Jason Pawloski.
"We hope that allows us to play the type of style we want to play as far as getting up and down the rink. I'm hoping that group is something we can lean on immediately and provide support for our goaltenders," replied Hastings.
If you had to find a chink in the Mavericks armor is might be their schedule; at least early in the season. MSU plays eight of their first 11 games on the road, including six league games away from the Verizon Center against Bowling Green, Northern Michigan and Bemidji State. Picked to finish first in the WCHA and looking for their first regular season conference crown since the 2015-16 season, Maverick fans hope that all the pre-season predictions come true.
Head Coach: Grant Potulny (1st season)
2016-17: 13-22-4 (10-15-3-1), finished eighth in the WCHA and dropped a three-game quarterfinal-round series to top-seeded Bemidji State in the WCHA Playoffs.
It might be Grant Potulny's first season as head coach, but it's amazing how much respect the name already demands. When he opens his mouth; even though he has only been a part of the Northern Michigan program since last April, people listen. From one hockey circle to the next, everyone knows the name. He's a professional. He's a players' coach. He's a proven winner.
Everyone inside of the Northern Michigan locker room knows his résumé. A two-time college champion with the University of Minnesota during his playing days. The Gophers' only three-time captain since 1947. After a stint playing at the professional level, eight seasons as an assistant coach for the U of M. Everywhere he goes, and everywhere he has gone, leadership is one of the first things hockey fans talk about when asked about the aura that surrounds the Grand Forks, N.D. native. Now the 37-year-old begins a new chapter in his hockey coaching career with the same attitude that has helped him build his reputation ever since he first put on skates; a winning attitude.
"There are lots of different ways to play the game and you can be successful with any one of them. The only way that I know how to coach the game is on your toes. I use the analogy to play like Chicago (Blackhawks) and Pittsburgh (Penguins), where they are always putting pressure on guys with their feet; and, our guys have done a really good job of that (in practice)," commented Potulny. "There is always a learning curve and there are always things you are going to work on and tweak, but I've been really impressed and excited about the energy and attitude they have brought to practice every day."
Attitude is everything, but players sure do help. Potulny and his staff will look to plug the holes left by a solid group of graduating senior forwards right out of the gates. Of their top six scorers from last season, three are gone and three return. The three departures include leading scorer Dominik Shine, Gerard Hanson and Brock Maschmeyer. Not only did the trio provide leadership of their own, but they also produced 80 total points. Their biggest loss will be felt in the special teams department. Last year Northern Michigan scored 26 power play goals, with Shine, Hanson and Maschmeyer accounting for 13 of them.
With Shine gone, senior Robbie Payne becomes the Wildcats' leading returning scorer. Shine posted 13 goals and added 16 assists in 2016-17; second on the team in goals scored and points. Sophomore forward Darien Craighead also returns (7G-18A=25 last season) along with senior forward Zach Diamantoni. As a group, the Wildcats will have just four seniors on the roster, making Potulny's crew one of the most inexperienced teams in the conference.
Picked to finish seventh in the league by the coaches and media, the Wildcats strength will be on defense, including five significant returners at the blue-line and two goalies that have seen their fair share of big-game situations in juniors Atte Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson. Tolvanen played in 38 of the Wildcats 39 games last year, including a record-setting run in net in which he set the WCHA mark and tied the all-time NCAA Division I men's standard with five-straight shutouts between Jan. 21 and Feb. 11 (his 339:05 scoreless streak is a league record and second-longest in NCAA D-I men's history). Tolvanen was named to the preseason All-WCHA Second Team by the media and is expected to be relied on heavily.
"That's the strength of our team this year, no question. They have both looked outstanding. Really, really good in practice; they have been really, really impressive," commented Potulny.
At the freshman level, Potulny and his staff will have the opportunity to groom six newcomers, including highly touted forward Joseph Nardi. A big winger from Edmonton, Nardi played the last three seasons with the Whitecourt Wolverines of the AJHL, scoring 136 points in 161 games.
The Wildcats begin the year with eight of their first 12 games within the conference. It is a brutal stretch of games that will help determine Northern Michigan's conference fate. Potulny knows that his squad must avoid those in-season slumps that plagued the Wildcats in 2016-17, including stretches where Northern Michigan went 0-7-1 from November 5th through December 2nd and 0-5-0 from December 9th through January 6th.