Commentary

2009-10 WCHA preview

Updated: October 9, 2009, 9:42 PM ET
By Inside College Hockey

The Skinny

The 10 (soon to be a dozen) coaches of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association might have taken a moment to look around the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C., in April, noticed the dearth of league members there and realized that they were a long way from Columbus.

The 2005 affair in central Ohio was the notorious all-WCHA Frozen Four, which was cheered nearly everywhere west of Jefferson County, Wis., and was jeered pretty much everywhere else. In sharp contrast, for just the fourth time in Frozen Four history (1993, 1998 and 1999 being the others) there was no WCHA team at the 2009 Frozen -- although the strongest league-backers will claim future member Bemidji State's run to D.C. ought to count. Not likely.

Denver

But the 2008-09 doldrums went beyond a rough patch in Rounds 1 and 2 of the NCAA playoffs. As evidenced by the fact that just one WCHAer (league MVP Jamie McBain from Wisconsin) made the list of Hobey Baker Award finalists and the fact that for the second year in a row, the MacNaughton Cup champion (this time, North Dakota) ended the season on a 0-3 streak, it was clearly a down year for the WCHA.

The Fighting Sioux, who had made four straight trips to the Frozen, were literally within the blink of an eye (one-tenth of a second) from an NCAA tourney win when they were denied by New Hampshire. A talented but beat-up Denver team finished quietly with losses in both of the Twin Cities, as the Pioneers fell in St. Paul in the WCHA Final Five title game and a week later saw their season end in the NCAA West Regional in Minneapolis.

Minnesota-Duluth finished seventh in the regular season, but went 5-0 in the WCHA playoffs, becoming the first team to win three games at the WCHA Final Five to claim the Broadmoor Trophy. And the Bulldogs' run almost got them to the Frozen when they pulled off the "Miracle at Mariucci" a week later in the NCAAs, rallying from two goals down in the final 40 seconds of regulation to beat Princeton in overtime, before falling to Miami University the next night.

So if it's possible for an entire league to have a chip on its collective shoulder, look for the WCHAers to take the passion up a notch in 2009-10.

Loaded Denver is the one "sure thing," which, if history is a guide, means a kind of kiss of death for the Pioneers. But with significant questions elsewhere, and few questions needing to be answered at Magness Arena, the Pioneers are the consensus choice by coaches and the media.

After the WCHA-free 1999 Frozen Four in Anaheim, the league went on a run of six NCAA titles in seven seasons and won the Hobey six consecutive seasons (2002-07).

That's not to predict a similar resurgence in the next decade, but if the WCHA has proven anything in the past, it's that 10-team dry spells usually don't last long.

Breakthrough Team

Two of the league's top four scorers from last year (Ryan Lasch and Garrett Roe) are back on campus at St. Cloud State, along with one of the league's top veteran defensemen (Garrett Raboin) and a hot young goalie (Michael Lee, see below). Still, is the hype a little much considering the Huskies' sixth-place finish and quiet 0-2 exit from the league playoffs? Well, consider St. Cloud State's 0-6-0 record versus rival Minnesota last year and the fact that winning just one of those games would have meant that the Huskies would have hosted the Gophers in the playoffs.

SCSU

Veteran offensive talent is not a question, with the likes of Aaron Marvin, Jared Festler and Drew LeBlanc playing key roles a year ago, and impact freshmen like Ben Hanowski joining the mix. Lee's adjustment to college hockey will be a mystery, but we've seen the past two MacNaughton Cup champs ride rookie goalies to the title. And with veteran Dan Dunn (owner of a respectable .904 save percentage in nine games last season) also in goal, the Huskies have a formidable tandem.

Primed for a Fall

There was disappointment at Colorado College when would-be Tigers defenseman John Moore (drafted 21st overall by the Blue Jackets in June) opted to skate for a paycheck and put off school until later. Moore's non-arrival, coupled with the early departures of goaltender Richard Bachman (who backstopped the Tigers' WCHA title two seasons ago en route to league MVP honors) and would-have-been senior defenseman Brian Connelly (and the graduation of top scorers Chad Rau and Eric Walsky) means there are big holes to be filled at World Arena.

After winning the MacNaughton Cup but finishing the 2007-08 season on a 0-3 run in the playoffs, the Tigers were picked by many, including INCH, to repeat atop the WCHA. Instead, they never really got the hang of series openers last season -- the Tigers were 3-7-7 on Fridays and 13-5-3 on other days of the week -- en route to a third-place finish and an early exit from the WCHA playoffs when they were upset by Minnesota-Duluth in the first round.

The potential good news for CC fans comes in the form of a sizable freshman class, at least when one measures from the ice to the top of the helmet. Of the nine rookies on the Tigers roster, six of them are 6 feet or taller, meaning that Pikes Peak won't be the only thing towering over visitors to Colorado Springs in 2009-10.

Pressure to Perform

Among some WCHA fan bases, a top-half finish, a first-round playoff sweep of your nearest geographical rival and a trip to the WCHA Final Five would be satisfying. For Minnesota fans, players and coaches, it clearly wasn't enough.

Minnesota

So after seeing their streak of eight consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament snapped in March, most Golden Gophers players stayed near the Minneapolis campus much of the summer, lifting weights at 7:30 every morning and skating a few times a week in an extra effort to get back to national prominence in 2009-10. With only one early departure (Ryan Stoa) in the offseason and just four freshmen added to a veteran team, they're positive that the extra work will pay off.

"We wanted everybody to be together as a team and work together on the ice and in the weight room," said Gophers senior forward Jay Barriball. "Last year was pretty bitter for us and none of us want it to happen again, so we were pretty serious. If you wear the M, you've got to be the best, and for the last few years, we haven't done that."

Toughest Act to Follow

The last time Minnesota-Duluth won a WCHA regular-season title, in 1992-93, future NHLer Derek Plante led the way with more than 90 points, and linemate Chris Marinucci chipped in with 77. The question the following year, with Plante wearing Buffalo Sabres blue, was could Marinucci do it alone? And despite a drop in the standings, Marinucci notched more than 60 points, won league MVP honors and became, to date, the only Hobey winner on a sub-.500 team.

That may remind some of the challenge facing Bulldog junior forward Justin Fontaine this season. After scoring just a dozen points as a freshman, Fontaine's numbers saw a four-fold increase in 2008-09 as he finished tied for second in the WCHA scoring race (behind since-departed teammate MacGregor Sharp). Fontaine plays right wing and was on the team's second line much of last season. Now, Sharp is not there to carry an offensive load and deflect opponents' defensive attention.

A move to the top line, and a likely pairing with talented sophomore center Jack Connolly, means that Fontaine could have everything he needs in place to become the Bulldogs' next great offensive star. Whether or not he's ready for that role is the great mystery on the shore of St. Louis Bay.

Best Player

Jordan Schroeder, Minnesota

[+] EnlargeJordan Schroeder
Scott A. Schneider/Getty ImagesJordan Schroeder is expected to be great in what could be his final collegiate season.

Radio color man and unabashed Gophers lover Glen Sonmor has seen plenty of hockey in his time, from coaching stints at Ohio State and Minnesota to directing the Minnesota North Stars to the 1981 Stanley Cup Finals and serving as a pro scout for the past decade. Ask him what he likes most about Gophers sophomore forward Schroeder and he makes a quick comparison to the teammates Schroeder has had here, there and everywhere.

"On every team that Jordan has been a part of, he's been the best player on the ice," Sonmor said, claiming that notion holds true not only at Minnesota and at suburban St. Paul prep power St. Thomas Academy (where Schroeder was the team's leading scorer as a ninth grader) but also at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan, and on the American entry at the last World Junior Tournament.

After finishing just one point off the Gophers' scoring lead as a WCHA rookie, Schroeder was a first-round pick (22nd overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2009 NHL draft, leading some to believe that barring a severe case of the sophomore jinx, his second season in the WCHA could be a farewell tour.

Impact Newcomer

Michael Lee, St. Cloud State

New St. Cloud State goaltender Lee already knows a fair amount about high-pressure situations. Having led his Roseau (Minn.) High School team to a state title as a sophomore and to an undefeated regular season as a junior, he faced the small-town peer pressure head-on and opted for a USHL season with the expansion Fargo Force. All he did last season was win the league's award for top goaltender and the USA Hockey award for top goalie in the nation.

Never known for his patience with goalies, new Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais was Lee's coach in Fargo last season and said the newest Husky's biggest strength is his size and position.

"Mike stays on his feet for the most part and doesn't make things look spectacular," Blais said. "He's very good on the first shot and he doesn't give up rebounds. If you're going to beat him on the first shot, it's going to have to be something."

Unsung Player

If you were asked to name the WCHA's top four returning goal scorers, we think your average fan could name Ryan Lasch and Chris VandeVelde (18 goals each last year) and probably wouldn't be surprised to know that Garrett Roe was next with 17. But would it surprise the average fan to learn that Minnesota State senior Kael Mouillierat also lit the lamp 17 times?

Opponents who have seen the senior from Edmonton on the other side of the ice for the past three years say that you underestimate Mouillierat at your peril.

"He's a slippery player," said Minnesota forward Ryan Flynn. "He doesn't really stand out among guys in the WCHA, but every time we play against him, he always seems to do something. He's got good scoring instincts and is tough to play against."

Those 17 goals last season came despite Mouillierat's missing eight games with a nagging shoulder injury. A full year of health and Kael might not by unsung much longer.

Burning Questions

 

1. Will they have to shovel between periods in Madison on Feb. 6? Maybe outdoor stadium games are getting to be a bit of old news in college hockey, but we congratulate Wisconsin on becoming the first program to host two of them. After beating Ohio State at Lambeau Field in Green Bay en route to the 2006 national title, the Badgers will host Michigan at 80,300-seat Camp Randall Stadium in Madison in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game. We're still waiting for Minnesota to play at TCF Bank Stadium and Denver to hit the ice at Mile High.

2. Will they still be talking about the nickname when Ryan Duncan's grandkids are skating for North Dakota? This scribe has covered the WCHA for some media outlet or another since 1988 and "to Sioux or not to Sioux" has seemingly been the question in Grand Forks for much of that time.

It looked like things would come to some conclusion on Oct. 1, when the most recent "final" decision on the nickname was supposed to be handed down by the state of North Dakota's education higher-ups. Instead, we got yet another delay and another month of hand-wringing and "hostile and abusive" talk. No matter where one stands on the issue, many are past the point of caring how this Fighting Sioux saga will end; they just want a final punctuation at the end of the sentence.

3. What could we learn about life in the WCHA from the well-traveled Lee Greseth? For one more year, while the WCHA remains a 10-team league, new Minnesota equipment manager Lee Greseth can provide the inside info on half of the league's hockey programs.

Greseth, who came back to his home state after the retirement of longtime Gophers equipment man Harry Broadfoot at the end of last season, is in his second stint with his alma mater, having worked for Doug Woog as a student. Since then, he's also held equipment jobs at Colorado College, North Dakota, Alaska-Anchorage and most recently Denver for nine seasons. He even had a two-year hitch with the now-defunct hockey program at U.S. International University in San Diego. We're currently in negotiations to ghostwrite his book.

Mark It Down

Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season.

1. There's suddenly much less job security for goalie coaches at Wisconsin. Bill Howard had been the master of all things goaltending for the Badgers for three decades when he left the job prior to last season, helping create a kind of "goalie factory" in Madison that produced numerous NHLers and college All-Americans. Former Badgers goalie Mike Valley was Howard's replacement, albeit briefly, last season. Now former CC star and Madison native Jeff Sanger is taking over the position. With little-used Scott Gudmandson (nine appearances in two seasons) the heir apparent in goal, Sanger may have some work to do right away.

2. Dylan Olsen's father will be paying close attention to his son's second collegiate game. On Sunday, Northern Michigan visits Minnesota-Duluth, in what will be the second on-ice appearance for highly touted Bulldogs freshman defenseman Dylan Olsen. A first-round draft pick by the Blackhawks in June, Olsen is the son of former NMU star Darryl Olsen, who manned the blue line for the Wildcats in the late '80s and helped spark Northern's WCHA playoff title in 1989. The younger Olsen is the latest in a long line of Camrose (Alberta) Kodiaks to head to Duluth for college hockey, following the likes of Mike Connolly, Mason Raymond, MacGregor Sharp, Matt McKnight and Evan Oberg.

3. Michigan Tech will feature the only sixth-year senior in the WCHA, and likely in all of college hockey. Big (6-foot-2, 215 pounders) winger Malcolm Gwilliam got a medical redshirt for his second year of college hockey after an injury kept him out of action in 2005-06. He was expected to be done with college hockey at the end of last season, but didn't get that far, after suffering a season-ending stroke before a game at Minnesota in November. It takes an extraordinary situation for the NCAA to grant a player a second medical redshirt, but the good people in Indianapolis apparently determined that a stroke was plenty extraordinary. So look for Gwilliam wearing the No. 9 sweater, and the captain's C, for the Huskies this season.

4. Fans in Alaska will look up to the Seawolves, literally. With the addition of two freshman who stand at 6-foot-4 (before the skates go on), Alaska-Anchorage remains the tallest team in the WCHA. And coming off their best season (14-17-5) under coach Dave Shyiak, the Seawolves and their fan base are excited about the possibilities. There are 17 returning letter winners on the roster, which is the most since the 2002-03 season. That sounds like a good thing, until one recalls that the Seawolves were 0-22-6 in WCHA play that season. But with three of their top four scorers and two experienced goalies in the fold in Anchorage, there's justified reason for optimism.

5. In Denver, college is all about preparing for a career -- especially if that career involves pucks and hockey tape. Going back as far as the late Keith Magnuson's star turn with the Blackhawks, there has been a nice line from Denver to the NHL. That line may get a bit longer in the coming few years if things work out like a few NHL scouts envision. The 2009-10 version of the Pioneers' roster features a school-record 13 NHL draft picks, including a trio of second-rounders (sophomore Patrick Wiercioch and rookies William Wrenn and Drew Shore) and Joe Colborne, the sophomore forward who was plucked 16th overall be the Bruins in the 2008 draft. When you're looking to capture a WCHA title and you're favored to do so, that much talent is a nice place to start.

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