2008-09 CCHA Hockey Preview
James V. Dowd
The coaches say Notre Dame and the media says
Michigan, but everyone agrees there’s not much difference
between the natural rivals in the upcoming season’s
race for the CCHA title. The two teams have lost just four
and three regulars from last year’s Frozen Four squads,
respectively, and with two college hockey coaching legends
behind the benches, it’s hard to imagine either squad
There is, however, a small twist to this year’s
campaign: the shootout.
Ever aiming to be a pioneer in opening up the
game for skill players and making it more exciting for the
fans, CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos was the first leader to
jump at the chance to prevent teams from kissing their sisters
when the NCAA rules committee made the shootout available
this past offseason.
Mark Mitera posted a plus-minus rating of +30 last season
for Michigan, which won both the CCHA regular-season and
Many of the league’s coaches voted against
the idea, concerned that each extra point earned in a shootout
would have a proportionately larger effect on the standings
in the 28-game conference season than the 82-game NHL marathon,
and that it might cost their team a chance at the regular-season
championship or home ice for a given round in the CCHA playoffs.
But most everyone agrees that ties need to go, and without
an efficient alternative like there is available in football
and basketball, it’s the only viable method to guarantee
that someone goes home a winner.
While the results of a shootout won’t
factor into the Rating Percentage Index and NCAA tournament
selection process directly, there’s a good chance the
results may just be the difference between Michigan and Notre
Dame — both would have been faced four shootouts last
year. Factor in that the fifth through eighth seeds in last
year's CCHA standings were separated by just two points, and
playoff matchups, and therefore results, may have changed
What’ll the impact be? Hard to say, but
it’ll make an already compelling CCHA race even more
Northern Michigan opened some eyes last year
with an extended run in the conference tournament that was
kept alive by an overtime upset at Michigan State and culminated
with a win over Notre Dame in the third-place game. While
they won’t exactly sneak up on people this year —
the coaches ranked them fourth and the media fifth —
a strong start could throw the ‘Cats into the championship
Sophomore Mark Olver is a dynamic puck handler
who might be the league’s best player if he stays healthy,
and he has a strong supporting cast with nine of the team’s
top ten scorers returning. Rearguard Erik Gustafsson contributed
27 assists last year and plays an important role in spreading
puck throughout the offensive zone and in the transition game.
Combine that with reliable netminder Brian Stewart, and the
Wildcats should be making noise throughout the season rather
than just in February and March.
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Miami was one of the nation’s
top teams throughout all of last year, and was an overtime
goal away from knocking off eventual national champion Boston
College in the NCAA Northeast Regional final. While key scorers
Carter Camper and Justin Mercier are back this season, the
loss of several critical contributors will be tough to overcome.
Ryan Jones was the heart of the team and Alec
Martinez was a rock on the blue line, but the toughest player
to replace will be netminder Jeff Zatkoff, who led the nation
with a 1.72 goals against average. Freshmen Connor Knapp (who
stands at an impressive 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds) and Cody
Reichard will split time until one wins the job outright.
The hope in Oxford is that Miami can duplicate the second
-place finish last time the RedHawks used two freshman netminders
— Brandon Crawford-West and Steve Hartley in 2003-04,
or the championship with rookie Zatkoff and untested sophmore
Charlie Effinger in 2005-06. Unlike Zatkoff's freshman year,
however, there's no Andy Greene to lead the troops in front
of Reichard and Knapp.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
Ohio State boasts seven NHL
draft picks and a revamped coaching staff that is scarlet
and gray through and through, but might just have a fan-driven
mutiny on its hands if it can’t improve the on-ice results.
The Buckeyes have found themselves mired in tenth, seventh,
and, most recently, eleventh place in the CCHA standings over
the past three seasons — this stretch followed three
straight top-four finishes from 2002-03 to 2004-05 and the
2004 league playoff title.
Junior goaltender Joseph Palmer had a strong
showing at the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp this
summer, and, as one of only three upperclassmen on the roster,
needs that success to carry over into the season after a mediocre
sophomore year. There are a few exciting players up front,
including Peter Boyd, Kyle Reed, and freshman Zac Dalpe, who
will score points, but the name of the game in Columbus will
be finding the chemistry coach John Markell’s recent
clubs have lacked.
Charleston and his Nebraska-Omaha teammates will be hard
pressed to duplicate last season's power play, which led
the country with a 23.9 percent success rate.
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
Nebraska-Omaha’s power play was
tops in the nation last year, converting 23.9 percent of its
opportunities with a unit everybody thought would falter each
of the last two seasons. Most wondered whether Bryan Marshall
could get the job done without Bill Thomas and Scott Parse,
but Marshall, Mick Lawrence and Brandon Scero picked up the
slack and combined for 30 of the Mavericks' 53 power play
markers last year.
Returning defensman Eddie Del Grosso and forward
Dan Charleston played key roles in Nebraska-Omaha’s
successes last year and the Mavericks return their entire
second power play unit. And while coach Mike Kemp consistently
puts out exceptional power-play brigades, he admits there’s
no secret formula and says its up to DelGrosso, Charleston,
and others to find the opportunities outside of the X’s
and O’s drawn up in the locker room.
Michigan’s Mark Mitera
does it all. He has become the team’s unquestioned leader
on the ice and in the locker room. Heading into last season,
the Wolverines’ defensive corps was decimated, but Mitera,
according to coach Red Berenson, played an integral role in
molding Chad Langlais, Tristin Llewellyn, and Scooter Vaughan
into reliable players who contributed to the Wolverines’
Mitera’s ability to mentor young defenseman
develop gives Berenson the ability to move Chris Summers to
forward and count on freshmen Brandon Burlon and Greg Pateryn
to step in quickly with Mitera’s mentorship.
Don’t be fooled though, Mitera’s
more than a selfless feel-good story. He finished with a plus-minus
rating of +30 last year, and uses size, strength, and powerful
skating to dominate opponents in Michigan’s own zone.
Combine these aspects with the aforementioned leadership abilities
and the Anaheim Ducks, the team that used a first-round selection
on Mitera in the 2006 NHL Draft, must be drooling over the
prospect of adding him to the lineup when the Wolverines'
season ends, as he will be a big part of their future plans.
Michigan State’s Daultan Leveille
was anything but your typical first-round NHL draft
pick this past June. Leveille became the first-ever opening-round
selection from Canada's Junior B ranks after his blazing speed
and great offensive abilities caught scouts’ eyes. The
catch with Leveille is that his hockey sense may not be as
polished as someone who came from a higher-profile league,
but you can still expect to hear his name early and often
on a Michigan State team that lost a lot of skill over this
Leveille’s a classic example of a player
who can take great advantage of his college years to develop.
This year, his speed will help him generate opportunities
and, more important, he’ll begin to tack some weight
on his 5-foot-10, 163-pound frame. As he gets bigger and more
intelligent on the ice, he should emerge as one of the league’s
top players. In the meantime, coach Rick Comley should become
a big fan of the newly-implemented fourth on-ice official,
who will catch some of the hooking and holding a skinny rookie
like Leveille isn’t strong enough to fight through.
Ferris State’s Cody Chupp is
a hometown hero in Big Rapids who will give Bulldogs’
fans plenty to cheer for this year. You’re not likely
to hear his name mentioned in a debate about the top players
in the CCHA and he didn’t receive any votes for the
preseason all-conference teams, but Chupp led his team with
11 goals and 19 assists as a sophomore and was named captain
for this year. The Bulldogs could be a dark horse in the fight
for a top-four spot, and Chupp will be the catalyst to make
1. Which Billy Sauer will Michigan
see this season — the cool, calm, consistent one who
played very well all year long to lead Michigan to the Frozen
Four, or the erratic, inconsistent one from his first two
seasons and the loss to Notre Dame in Denver?
2. Can the Jeffs (Lerg and
Petry) put Michigan State on their collective back and keep
the Spartans in the league’s top four despite so many
important graduations and defections this summer?
3. Will Dallas Ferguson finally
bring some stability to an Alaska program that will be dealing
with its third coach in as many years?
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in the CCHA this season
• At least one coach will cry foul at
the end of the year when his team gets the short end of the
stick with respect to a title or a home-ice playoff berth
because of the extra points given in the shootout.
• MSU's Rick Comley will become the fourth
coach in NCAA history to reach 750 total wins, as he starts
the season with 739 victories.
• Michigan’s strong secondary scorers,
including Travis Turnbull, Matt Rust, Carl Hagelin, and Louie
Caporusso will easily transition into primary roles —
as has happened with countless generations of Wolverines’
• For the fourth season in a row, four
CCHA teams will make the NCAA tournament
• If you don’t know the names already,
you’ll know Zach Redmond and Scott Wietecha of Ferris
State by the end of the year as they emerge as one of the
league’s most defensively reliable and offensively productive
||The defending champions lost their
top line of Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik, and Max Pacioretty.
But they pick up four strong freshmen, return all seven
defensemen, and have a solid backup netminder in Bryan
Hogan if Billy Sauer falters.
||Once the Frozen Four rolled around,
the Irish got the best of Michigan. But they also lost
some key cogs from last year's team, and didn’t
show the consistency needed to take the regular-season
title last year
||An exciting bunch that has a good
chance to upset the CCHA hierarchy; expect an up-tempo
offense that will be difficult for many teams to contain.
||The Spartans took a huge hit during
the off-season, losing some major offensive firepower,
but they still have their trump card in goaltender Jeff
||Whether Miami contends for a first-round
bye depends on just how well their freshman goaltending
tandem adapts and the reliability of the defensemen front
||The Bulldogs are another team that
hopes to jump into the top four and might finally have
the offensive capability to do it with 14 of their top
15 scorers returning
||With such a young team, it’s
hard to know how far the underclassmen will be able to
carry the Buckeyes, but they have enough talent to stay
competitive every night.
|Lake Superior State
||Coach Jim Roque is counting on juniors
Nathan Perkovich and Zac MacVoy to improve their offensive
totals and help the Lakers avoid their 2-11-1 start from
a year ago.
||Dan Charleston should become the ninth
Maverick to reach the 100-point mark for his career —
he enters the season with 89 career points.
||The graduation of Derek Whitmore will
cost the Falcons 27 goals, but the team didn’t lose
much more than that. Jimmy Spratt and Nick Eno will team
up again in goal and can keep games close.
||Goaltender Wylie Rogers graduated,
but Chad Johnson has proven adequate when called upon.
Freshman forward Carlo Finucci has potential to be an
exciting scorer, but there isn’t a lot of depth
on the roster.
||The goal-starved Broncos' leading
scorer last season was Cam Watson with 10, and while some
key contributors have another year under their belt, Western
Michigan will struggle to keep pace offensively.