With the summer temperatures still going strong, it might not seem like hockey season yet, but here we are. Time to make room on a shelf full of high school and college football for my favorite sport. Without further ado, here’s my 2015-16 college hockey preview.
Just four years ago, the Frozen Four was in Tampa for the first time. This year, it’s back. Last time, Boston College won its fifth national title, its third in five years, and the Eagles are No. 1 to start this season. It may seem like the Eagles are destined to win title No. 6, but that’s not the case. Even though the Eastern schools have been the teams to beat the last few years, winning the last four titles, the west is starting to gain some ground again and that’s where I’ll start off.
Let’s begin with the WCHA, the conference that I cover and know the most about. The league had a strong season last year, pulling several upsets and almost sending three teams to the NCAA Tournament (Bowling Green got beat out by eventual national champion Providence for the last spot).
Just like last season, there’s a lot of parity in the league with each team capable of beating each other. During the WCHA teleconference a few days ago, the coaches mentioned how each team has improved and how competitive the league has become. Nevertheless, the three teams at the top last year are still the teams to beat this season.
1. *Minnesota State: The No. 6 Mavericks always shine during the regular season, then get upset in the NCAA tournament. There’s a chance that could happen again this year. The Mavs lost a great scorer in Matt Leitner and a solid goalie in Stephon Williams. MSU is still stacked offensively. The media’s preseason player of the year — he was my pick — is Bryce Gervais, who scored 27 goals and nine on the power play last year. Casey Nelson, who was named to the preseason All-WCHA team, anchors the defense. The glaring weakness is in net. Williams was a key piece to MSU’s success last year, so Cole Huggins will have a lot of pressure on him out of the gates to play well. MSU head coach Mike Hastings seemed less than enthused about having Huggins as his No. 1 goalie, so that’s never a good sign. Nevertheless, the Mavs are too good to be kept out of the tournament. They probably won’t go far.
2. *Michigan Tech: The No. 15 Huskies finally arrived on the national stage last season, making the NCAA tourney for the first time in more than 30 years (they were eliminated in an overtime loss to St. Cloud State). Head coach Mel Pearson has completely turned the program around. Tech looks awesome offensively despite losing Hobey Baker finalist Tanner Kero, with Alex Petan and Malcolm Gould leading the attack. The Huskies also look good on defense with Shane Hanna and a talented goalie in Jamie Phillips. The conference title is going to come down to the final weekend. I think MSU will edge out Tech for the MacNaughton Cup, though it could very easily be the other way around. I also think that if Phillips can have the type of season that he had last year, Tech has a better chance to make it to Tampa.
3. Bowling Green: As I mentioned earlier, the No. 16 Falcons just missed out on missing the NCAAs last season and this year, I think they’ll make it in. BGSU has a balanced scoring attack led by Brandon Hawkins, Matt Pohlkamp and Pierre-Luc Mercier and a quality defenseman in Mark Friedman. The Falcons have an asset that the other two teams ahead of them do not and that’s two talented goalies in Tommy Burke and Chris Nell. If one goes down, the other is more than capable to stepping in. Tech doesn’t have that luxury and goaltending is already a big concern in Mankato. Bottom line is that BGSU is a good team and that they’ll pick up their first tourney bid in 26 years.
4. Northern Michigan: The Wildcats aren’t going to make the NCAAs unless they win the Final Five, but they’re the team I cover, so I have to include them in the preview. NMU was primed to make a big step last season. They raced out of the gates and were briefly ranked in the national polls. However, the Wildcats were hit hard by injuries with the largest being a season-ending knee injury to star goalie Mathias Dahlstrom and they ended up getting bounced in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Dahlstrom is back this year and head coach Walt Kyle says he’s looking good. NMU also returns the majority of its players from last year and its now junior class has a talented scorer in Dominik Shine and a good offensive defenseman in Brock Maschmeyer. They also brought in USHL Playoff MVP Troy Loggins this year as a freshman, so the Wildcats should score more goals, which were hard to come by last year. I think NMU is still a year away from contending for the league title, but the Wildcats are progressing nicely.
5. Bemidji State
7. Ferris State
10. Lake Superior State
After ending it with a Michigan school, let’s move on to the conference where the rest of the Great Lakes State’s schools are, the Big Ten Conference. The Big Ten had a less than stellar 2014-15 season, only getting one team into the NCAA tourney: Minnesota, which was upset in the first round by former rival Minnesota-Duluth. Minnesota should be good as always, but they aren’t my pick this year.
1. Michigan: After making the NCAA Tournament for a record 22 straight seasons, the No. 13 Wolverines haven’t made the big dance since 2012. I think that’ll end this year. Michigan returns two good forwards in J.T. Compher and Kyle Connor as well as a solid defenseman in Zach Werenski. Werenski had 25 points last year and finished with a plus-9 rating. From what I’ve heard, he looked great on the power play. Michael Downing is another defenseman to watch. He was All-Big Ten Second Team member and anchors Michigan’s penalty kill. The Wolverines split time between goaltenders Zach Nagelvoort and Steve Racine, and both are capable netminders. Michigan looks good and playing in a weak conference will get it back to the NCAAs.
2. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers lost a lot (three 40-point scorers), but are ranked No. 9 heading into the season and are bringing back some good players. Justin Kloos, who has had back-to-back 32-point seasons and was third on the team in goals, will lead the offense along with Hudson Fasching. Minnesota’s goaltending is suspect with Adam Wilcox no longer on the team. I think that the Golden Gophers have enough talent to get by in the Big Ten, but it could be another early exit for them in the NCAAs.
3. Michigan State
4. Penn State
5. Ohio State
The next conference is the last one from out west. The NCHC was seen as the power conference last year, when it sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament and two made the Frozen Four (North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha). I don’t think six will make it this year, but five is a definite possibility.
1. *Minnesota-Duluth: The Bulldogs look great coming into 2015-16. Duluth blew out Minnesota in the first round of the NCAAs and gave arguably the best overall team, Boston University, a good battle in the regional final. The Bulldogs return lots of experienced players including center Tony Cameranesi (30 points), winger Ian Iafallo and goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo (possibly the coolest goaltender name ever). Adam Welinski is also a good offensive defenseman with nine goals. He was named to the NCHC preseason team after making the Second Team last year. This could be Duluth’s year to bring home another title and I see them going to Tampa.
2. North Dakota: It was an interesting offseason for the No.4 Fighting Sioux. Head coach Dave Hakstol moved on to be bench boss for the Philadelphia Flyers. Several talented players, including goalie and Hobey Baker finalist Zane McIntyre, and 32-point scorer Michael Parks, moved on as well. The thing that sets UND apart from other schools is that they don’t rebuild, they reload. New head coach Brad Berry still has 36-point man Drake Caggiula and defenseman Troy Stecher, who finished with a plus-11 rating and gathered 13 points despite missing eight games with an injury. McIntyre was a big loss in net, so goaltending will be a question mark for the Sioux. My prediction is that UND will make it into the tournament but won’t have the weapons to go far.
3. Denver: The No. 5 Pioneers were once a national title contender. Now they’re a program that’s always in contention but doesn’t accomplish much. Still, Denver is talented enough to make it to the NCAAs. The Pioneers lost defenseman Joey LaLeggia, but returning forward Trevor Moore is coming off a 44-point and 22-goal season that made him a Second Team All-American. Danton Heinen, and 45-point forward, is back too. Denver also has two talented goalies in Evan Cowley and Tanner Jaillet. I think the Pioneers will make a regional final but will come up short of the Frozen Four.
4. Miami: The Redhawks are another good team that unfortunately plays in arguably the toughest conference. Miami lost two star players in Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik along with 37-point scorer Blake Coleman. However, Anthony Louis, who picked up 36 points last year, is returning along with 29-point man Sean Kuraly. Solid senior goalies Jay Williams and Ryan McKay provides some stability in net, so Miami should get into the NCAAs. The ‘Hawks have the potential to win in the first round but probably not after that.
5. Nebraska-Omaha: Dean Blais’ Mavericks finally got into the Frozen Four last season and UNO looks good going into this season. Jake Guentzel, who picked up 39 points, returns. Austin Ortega is also back after notching an NCAA-record 11 game-winning goals last season as well as 37 points. Like a lot of the teams in the conference, the Mavs have some inexperience in net now that Ryan Massa has left, so that will hinder them from doing much in the postseason. They’ll get a NCAA bid but will probably get bounced quickly.
6. St. Cloud State
7. Western Michigan
8. Colorado College
Hockey East has produced two of the last four national championships and has built up a reputation for fast-paced hockey. The conference is going to be good again, but not quite as strong as the NCHC. I’m thinking Hockey East gets three teams in with the potential for four.
1. *Boston College: The Eagles are No. 1 and they’re stacked. For some reason, every even-numbered year, BC goes from good to national title-caliber good. Leading scorer Alex Tuch (28 points) is back and the Eagles have a balanced scoring attack with fellow 20-point men Adam Gilmour, Ryan Fitzgerald and Zach Sanford also returning this year. BC also has a great goalie in Thatcher Demko, so this could be a great year for the Eagles. They’ll make it to Tampa and, odds are, will be battling for their sixth national title.
2. *Boston University: The Terriers were the team to beat last year. They almost pulled it off, had it not been for pesky Providence. BU lost the best college player in the country, Jack Eichel, who is now with the Buffalo Sabres, along with 61-point scorer Evan Rodrigues, but the Terriers are still talented. Danny O’Regan racked up 50 points last year; he’s back as well as 38-point men Ahti Oksanen and Matt Grzelcyk. What keeps BU from overtaking BC is goaltending. Star netminder Matt O’Connor is gone. Still, the Terriers are a force to be reckoned with and I think they will join the archrival Eagles in Tampa.
3. Providence: One year after winning their first national title, the Friars look primed for another deep run. Nick Saracino (38 points) and Trevor Mingoia (31 points) are back along with Mark Jankowski (27 points) and offensive defenseman Tom Parisi. Providence’s problem like BU is between the pipes. NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Jon Gillies has moved on, so the Friars are vulnerable there. I think the defending champs make it into the NCAA Tournament, but will struggle to get past a regional final.
4. UMass Lowell
5. New Hampshire
6. Notre Dame
The ECAC has made a name for itself frequently as Yale and Union have won national titles recently, and its teams can hold their own against the powerhouse programs. This year, I think two of them will make it to the NCAAs and they both have the potential for an upset.
1. Harvard: Harvard is seen by many as the best university in the country and its hockey team is now seen by some as the best in the league, at least this year. The Crimson return Hobey Baker finalist Jimmy Vesey, who led the nation with 32 goals and was third in points with 58. Vesey has a good supporting cast with Kyle Criscuolo (48 points) and 30-point man Alexander Kerfoot. Harvard’s weakness is in net as they lost senior Steve Michalek, so that could hinder the Crimson as they try to advance during the postseason. I think they’ll make it into the NCAAs, but probably not past a regional final.
2. Yale: While Harvard is seen as the premier school in the nation, Yale often has to settle for second-best. That’s the case for the ECAC this year. Don’t get me wrong, the Bulldogs are good. They have the best goalie in the league in Alex Lyon, who had the best GAA in the land and was tied for save percentage. Defenseman Rob O’Gara (21 points) was a preseason All-American. Whereas the Crimson’s weakness is defense, Yale’s is offense. The Bulldogs had only three players break the 20-point mark, but the good thing is all three are back. The question is if anybody else will be able to step up. I think Lyon will lead the Bulldogs to the NCAAs, but the lack of offense will cause them to lose in the first round.
5. St. Lawrence
The last conference on the list is Atlantic Hockey, which is known for its unpredictability. Atlantic’s teams will go into the NCAAs looking woefully overmatched on paper, but will somehow upset a national title contender. The conference isn’t good enough to get more than one team in this year, but with this league, who knows what might happen.
1. Robert Morris: In the last couple years, it’s been a fight between the Colonials and RIT for the league title and that should be the case again. RMU lost Hobey Baker finalist Cody Wydo, but they still have some talented scorers like Zac Lynch, who racked up 40 points last year, along with 20-point scorers Brady Ferguson and Brandon Denham. Goaltending will also be a strength for the Colonials, as the two-some of Dalton Izyk and Terry Shafer is back. It’s going to be a good year for RMU.
5. Sacred Heart
6. Air Force
8. Holy Cross
11. American International