NCAA hockey preview: It’s going to be a wild season

NCAA men's ice hockey

It’s that time of year again.

The puck dropped on the college hockey season this weekend. After months of waiting, I can say that it’s about time.

I’m guessing that those of you still reading my hockey columns after all these years are probably thinking along the same lines. I didn’t write a season preview last year. I got too bogged down with things at work and by the time I found some free time, the season was two weeks in and I felt like dispensing my predictions at that point would be kind of pointless.

However, this year I decided to do it – and that was due to popular demand. Family members, relatives and friends have wondered why I don’t write as much for this site anymore. The primary reason is that life has gotten a little crazy, especially with my wife going back to school full-time. When I went back to Minneapolis a couple weeks ago, some people told me that I needed to get back to writing this stuff on a regular basis and that they look forward to reading them. After hearing that, I realized that I needed to do it again this year. I’m glad I did.

Speaking of doing it again, that’s what No. 1 Minnesota Duluth did last year. After coming up short in the NCAA title game in 2017, the Bulldogs were the last team in NCAA Tournament in 2018 and pulled off four straight upsets to reach their second national championship. With that title, UMD became the third team in the past five years to win it all after barely making it into the field, joining Yale in 2013 and Providence in 2015.

I was at that Frozen Four in St. Paul back in April. If you’ve never been, you should definitely make sure to put it on your bucket list. It’s something else. Duluth winning a surprising championship was the main story; the other story from that weekend was how strong the Big Ten has become. When the conference was created, people were upset because it tore the WCHA and CCHA apart and basically killed most of the longstanding rivalries within the leagues. Not only that, the CCHA completely dissolved. The remaining non-Big Ten programs joined the new WCHA, the NCHC, or in the case of Notre Dame, a brief fling with Hockey East before finding its true soulmate int the Big Ten.

The Ben Ten was a joke for quite a while. Many hockey fans delighted in the fact that this new conference that turned the hockey world upside-down was failing, not only in the NCAA Tournament, but in attendance as well. This was probably the most obvious at 3M Arena (formerly Mariucci). Golden Gophers fans were reluctant to attend games against Ohio State and Penn State after having fun watching their favorite team tangle for years with North Dakota, a heated rival. Fans didn’t like the Big Ten at first and maybe they still don’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that the league has gotten significantly better. Three of its teams were in St. Paul with the Bulldogs (Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State).

So it’s in the Big Ten where I’ll start with my predictions.

In the seven-team conference, five will make it to the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes will be at the top. A few years ago, OSU wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar for a national title, but here it is. The Buckeyes are good on both ends of the ice. The majority of last year’s No. 3 defense is back along with goalie Sean Romeo, a quality netminder who looked bad against UMD. OSU also returns two 40-point forwards in Tanner Laczynski and Mason Jobst, so they should be a force this year.

Michigan will also be up there. The Wolverines have been down for a bit as a program – good, but not great. However, in Mel Pearson’s first season at the helm, he took UM to St. Paul, so it’s clear that things are getting back to normal in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines lost three vital forwards, but still have Jake Slater (15 goals, 27 points) and two newcomers in Jimmy Lambert and Jack Olmstead. Quinn Hughes is back to anchor the blue line and Hayden Lavigne provides good stability in net. Teams usually build on trips to the Frozen Four the following year, which should be the case for UM.

OSU and UM are pretty solid locks for the NCAAs, while the other three are more of a question mark. I think they’ll all get in, but each team has glaring flaws. First, there’s the Fighting Irish, who lost a ton of talent from last year and that would normally kill a program’s chances for a postseason bid. However, ND still has two strong forwards in Cal Burke and Cam Morrison. Cale Morris is the best goalie in the conference and a Hobey Baker candidate. The Irish will be a little down this year, but still good so I think they’ll make it in. Next is Minnesota, which made a big coaching change in the offseason when former St. Cloud State bench boss Bob Motzko replaced longtime coach Don Lucia. The Gophers lost forward Casey Mittelstadt, but still have Rem Pitlick (31 points), Brent Gates Jr. and Tommy Novak (26 each) and Tyler Sheehy (25). The offense looks good, but the defense is young and inexperienced. Their ability to learn quickly will determine if Motzko will get a tourney bid his first year on the job. The final Big Ten team I have on the list is Penn State, who has featured the most powerful offense in the land the past couple of years. However, the Nittany Lions are notoriously weak on defense and Peyton Jones is a hit-or-miss goalie. The offense itself should be enough to get PSU in, but how far it goes will depend on its defense.

With defense, let’s go to the NCHC, where Duluth will be making its title “defense” (see what I did there). The Bulldogs lost key upperclassmen Karson Kuhlman and Jared Thomas, but they have a strong incoming class and defenseman/St. Louis Blues draftee Scott Perunovich returns with the majority of the team. If UMD can stay consistent with its offense and goalie Hunter Shepard can play up to his level, there might be another trophy coming back to the north shore. St. Cloud will also be in the mix for the conference title and the Huskies will be eager to redeem themselves after getting bounced in the first round of the NCAAs last year by Air Force. SCSU returns the majority of its offense including 42-point scorer Robby Jackson and defenseman Jimmy Schuldt (38 points), as well as two reliable netminders in David Hrenak and Jeff Smith. The question with the Huskies is whether they can overcome the loss of Motzko, who built the program into a consistent NCHC title contender. If they can adapt quickly, they should be fine. The other team that should move into the tournament is a program that is a national powerhouse, but missed out on the big dance last year. North Dakota, the 2016 national champs, had its long streak of tournament bid snapped in 2018, but looks on paper like it’ll get back there. Losing Shane Gersich hurts, but the Fighting Hawks still have Nick Jones (30 points) and defenseman Colton Poolman (29). Sophomore Grant Mismash could also take some steps after a solid freshman campaign. The biggest question for UND is in net as goalie Cam Johnson has moved on. Peter Thome, who was Johnson’s backup last year, put up decent numbers, but he’ll have to come up big if the Hawks want to get far in the postseason.

The three schools I just mentioned all used to be in the WCHA, so let’s go there next. This is the league with which I’m most familiar. The school I cover, Northern Michigan, is in it and the Wildcats are the team to beat this year. NMU sort of came out of nowhere last year. Most people thought it would be a rebuilding year for the Wildcats, especially with a new head coach in Grant Potulny. His new style of offense emphasized speed and improvisation. At the start of the year, Northern showed improvement, but it wasn’t until after Christmas break that it started to really come together. By the time the season was done, Northern had its best season in eight years and its best record since 2002. It also made it to the WCHA Championship game, had six all-conference winners, the league’s goaltender of the year in Atte Tolvanen and an All-American in defenseman Phil Beaulieu. Potulny not surprisingly also was named coach of the year. Almost everybody every player returns this year, too. The ‘Cats lose star forward Robbie Payne to the AHL, but the blue line is stable with Beaulieu in charge. Meanwhile, NMU has a stellar top line with the nation’s assist leader Adam Rockwood, WCHA preseason player of the year Troy Loggins (he split the vote with Rockwood), and team captain Denver Pierce. Darien Craighead is also a WCHA third-teamer; he could very easily make the First Team this year. With all that talent, the Wildcats are set for an NCAA bid. They could be good for a while.

The WCHA’s other participant will most likely be Minnesota State, which has locked down the conference title the last few years. Last year, the Mavericks had the best offense in the country. They were the preseason pick by both the WCHA media and coaches, and they’re going to be good as usual. Junior forward Marc Michaelis (40 points), last season’s rookie of the year Jake Jaremko (39), and Parker Tuomie (37) lead the way. Ian Scheid will lead the defense and MSU landed NMU’s former backup goalie, Mathias Israelsson, to be its starter. The regular season title will probably come down to those two squads, and both will probably make the NCAA Tournament.

Now that we’ve done the Midwest, let’s head east to Hockey East. The team to watch for here is Providence, which lost by one to the Irish in the East Regional. The Friars lost star Erik Foley to an NHL deal, but almost everyone else is back from last year’s squad, including Josh Wilkins (31 points) and Kasper Bjorkqvist (23). The Friars also have two good offensive defensemen in Jacob Bryson and Ben Mirageas, along with a good goalie in Hayden Hawkey. As long as they stay healthy, it should be a good year in Providence. The Friars’ main competition will be from Boston College, which won the Hockey East regular season title but missed the NCAAs. The Eagles are primed for a big year. They return almost their entire roster, including Logan Hutsko (31 points) and also have a strong freshman class led by first-round NHL draft pick Oliver Wahlstrom. If everything clicks, BC will get the NCAA bid it missed out on last year. The other potential Hockey East NCAA participant is the Eagles’ rival, Boston University. The Terriers lost Jordan Greenway and Brady Tkachuk to the pros along with head coach David Quinn. However, they have enough talent to make up for all of that. Dante Fabbro and Chad Krys will anchor the blue line, while Bobo Carpenter (35 points) and Shane Bowers (32) lead the offense. BU also has one of the best goalies in the nation in Jake Oettinger, so it should be in good shape come tournament time.

Then there’s the ECAC, where two Ivy League schools, Cornell and Princeton, will battle it out for the league title. The Big Red lost its top three point scorers, but still return 20-point man Mitch Vanderlaan and Morgan Barron at forward and defenseman Yanni Kaldis. Goalie Matthew Galajda is also back after a 1.50 GAA season, so Cornell is in great shape there. Meanwhile in New Jersey, Princeton returns its turbo-powered offense led by 55-point scorer Max Veronneau. He’ll have support from Jackson Cressey (38 points) and defenseman Josh Teves (33). Starting goalie Ryan Ferland is also back in net, so the Tigers look secure in every area. I’m giving the edge to the Tigers for the league title, but both will probably get into the NCAAs.

The final spot in the tournament will go to the Atlantic Hockey representative, who will most likely pull an upset in the first round. Last year that was Air Force, which took down SCSU and came within a goal of making it to St. Paul. Even though the Falcons lost a lot, they also return a lot of experience as head coach (and press conference soundbite legend) Frank Serratore had to use his whole roster after his squad was bit hard by the injury bug. AF will get a good fight from Canisius and 2018 conference player of the year Dylan McLaughlin, but it will be the last one standing – appropriate since it’s a military academy.

So there you have it. Another season is ready to start and another preview is published. It’s going to be a fun year and it’s about time it gets started.

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