2008-09 WCHA Preview
No, North Dakota is not gunning for the NCAA
title with the senior quartet of T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews,
Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney leading the way. And no, Minnesota
will not be unstoppable thanks to the senior duo of Blake
Wheeler and Phil Kessel, with juniors Kyle Okposo and Erik
Johnson coming over the boards. Super sophomore Kyle Turris
will not be answering any questions you might have about the
Wisconsin offense. And by the way, Minnesota Duluth's drive
for an NCAA playoff invite will not be led by seniors Mason
Raymond and Matt Niskanen.
Early departures have quickly become old news
in the WCHA, where the debate rages in some programs: Is it
better to have a four-star player for a year, or a two-star
player (with room for growth) for four years? Golden Gophers
coach Don Lucia acknowledges fan dissatisfaction with his
team's seventh-place finish last year, then notes the 11 early
departures that he's endured in the past three seasons, and
says that with that in mind, 2007-08 was "a great success."
In a bit of a change from that trend, Colorado
College's defending league champs return mostly intact, top
talents like North Dakota's Ryan Duncan and Joe Finley return
for a fourth year, and an upperclassmen-laden Minnesota State
looks to make a northerly move this season. There's suddenly
some sentiment that experience, not youth and flash, may be
re-gaining value in the volatile college hockey market.
Wisconsin Badger Kyle Turris, like many other former WCHA
stars, has left college early to play professional hockey.
Tigers coach Scott Owens says at least two of
his underclassmen, maybe more, had opportunities to turn pro
over the summer, and chose to return to school. He thinks
that part of that has to do with the disappointing end to
the Tigers' 2007-08 season, and a drive to finish in April,
not March, this time around.
"Maybe that's a trend we'll see,"
said Owens. "Maybe guys won't be as hot to get out as
quickly as they have been. And maybe they'll better position
themselves for that second contract."
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement makes
all rookie contracts roughly the same, with some flexibility
regarding bonus money. So a player's second NHL contract,
which can mean the difference between a lucrative, long-term
hockey career and an avenue toward civilian life, is something
about which players are learning.
"When the new CBA came out and all those
kids left early the first few years, some of us said wait
and see how it plays out. Some kids are a little bit more
educated about it now," said Minnesota Duluth coach Scott
Sandelin, who stresses the importance of being ready to make
a pro impact right away, with an eye toward that second pro
contract. "When I was playing for Gino (Gasparini) at
North Dakota, he used to tell us that anybody can get that
first contract. It's the second and third ones that really
set you up for life."
With the tide of early departures perhaps waning
just a bit, coaches like Sandelin and Michigan Tech's Jamie
Russell say now is the time, more than ever, to stress college
hockey as a developmental league, both on the ice and in the
classroom. The idea is to give players four years of on-ice
and off-ice development, so whether or not that second contract
comes, with an education to fall back on, they'll be set for
"The challenge at a place like Minnesota
or Wisconsin is different than it is at Michigan Tech, where
we don't get a lot of first-round NHL draft picks," said
Russell. "But we have our own strengths, and we pride
ourselves on our ability to develop players."
As for what develops on the ice between October
and March, when the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy will
be awarded, Colorado College was the clear favorite as picked
by coaches and the media. That's an acknowledgement of the
Tigers' solid returnees like defending league MVP and rookie
of the year, goalie Richard Bachman. It's as much an acknowledgement
of the significant weak spots in nearly every other team's
Denver and North Dakota are prime examples of
the "holes" theory, with both in possession of tons
of offense, but plagued by questions about goaltending. Wisconsin
has assembled an amazing array of defensive talent, but may
need more scoring to contend. Minnesota is awash in young
talent, but it's more about potential until their 12 freshmen
prove themselves. St. Cloud State is blessed with scoring
talent and solid goaltending, but one wonders how that lethal
Husky power play will function without Andreas Nodl.
Those are questions that can't be answered over
the Internet or on paper. Thankfully, the 10 ice sheets in
the league's home rinks have lots of seats around them, so
we can watch as the pop quizzes, the midterms and the final
You won't find many Minnesota State
players looking for positive spin when they describe the abrupt
end of last season.
"It was brutal," said junior forward
Kael Mouillierat, after his team played five overtime periods
and fell at home to Minnesota in the opening round of the
WCHA playoffs. "It was a devastating loss. We despise
The Mavericks got home ice by finishing the
regular season on a 9-4-0 run, and just missed the NCAA Tournament
after the selection criteria determined that sub-.500 Wisconsin,
not 19-16-4 Minnesota State, got an invite. All but three
Mavericks from last year return to an upperclassmen-laden
team that looks to benefit from experience, and from the bitter
taste left in their mouths last March.
"They got to the point where they were
close, but they learned close doesn't count," said Mavs
coach Troy Jutting. "A lot of these kids are juniors
now and have played a lot of important college hockey games.
This group knows what it takes, they just haven't achieved
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Dakota doesn't have any superstars, unless you count a
former Hobey Baker winner.
The words sound like a sports cliché,
until you remember that the guy uttering them has a Hobey
on his resume.
"There are no superstars on our team this
year," said North Dakota senior forward
Ryan Duncan, who took home the game's top individual award
as a sophomore. "There's a different team aspect here
than in previous years."
The list of would-be Fighting Sioux who have
elected to take a paycheck instead of a fourth (or in some
cases, a third) year of college hockey is impressive. What
remains in Grand Forks is a close-knit group of seven seniors
determined to lead North Dakota on a fifth straight Frozen
Four trip, and to win two more games than they have in previous
years. Still, there are myriad questions to be answered about
defense, goaltending (returning senior Aaron Walski has less
than two full games worth of playing time in his college career)
and who will lead the offense. Duncan welcomes the challenge,
and invites opponents to make him the center of attention
at their peril.
"If you're going to concentrate on me,
you're going to have a whole heap of trouble from other guys,"
said Duncan, who is the team's top returning scorer with 40
points last season. "I'm just one piece of the puzzle,
so if they want to focus on me, that's fine."
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
Four years ago, life could hardly have been
better for Scott Sandelin and his Minnesota Duluth
Bulldogs. They'd just gone to the Frozen Four, they
were ranked number one in the league and in the nation, a
top-end recruiting class was on its way to the Twin Ports,
Sandelin had the Spencer-Penrose award in his office, and
his name was mentioned as the next hot coach in the game.
Then a cold snap hit Duluth, and the Bulldogs
haven't made a trip to the NCAAs, or finished in the top half
of the WCHA, since. Sandelin has two years remaining on his
contract, and acknowledges that on-ice results this season
may be a determining factor in the possibility of an extension
at the end of the 2008-09 campaign. There's a new rink on
the way, along with a new assistant coach, a new equipment
coordinator and a new video coordinator in Duluth this year,
so Sandelin heads into the season hoping to change the environment
around Bulldog hockey a bit.
"Expectations have to be higher,"
he said. "If you set your goal to be in the top five,
it's not good enough."
Sandelin's boss, athletic director Bob Nielson
(who also coaches the nationally-ranked Bulldog football team),
understands the importance of hockey to UMD and to the community.
He said he won't put any specific expectations on Sandelin
this season, but admits that in the wins and losses department,
they hope to be better.
"We will likely talk about a contract extension
sometime before the final year of the current contract, but
right now the focus is on this year," Nielson said. "I'm
a firm believer that the program is close to where we want
it to be."
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves begins every season
by telling his players that there's a mountain to climb, and
only one team (the eventual NCAA champion) weathers all of
the storms to reach the summit. But this season, for the first
time in nearly four decades, the Badgers will be making the
climb without one of their key sherpas.
In August, renowned goaltending coach Bill Howard
resigned from the program after helping produce scores of
netminding All-Americans, NCAA champions and NHLers for Wisconsin.
Eaves has handed the reins to former Badger goaltender Mike
Valley, who will work with Shane Connelly and Scott Gudmandson
off campus a few times a week.
"One of the most difficult things in life
is knowing when to step away," said Eaves. "But
this was the right time. Bill was an important part of this
program for 36 years and had at least a finger in all the
Eaves said that Valley, who studied under Howard
as a player, will utilize many of the traditional goaltending
coaching methods Howard employed. The notable difference will
be Valley's tendency to focus on a goaltender's current strengths,
rather than breaking their game down and teaching them new
methods of stopping the puck, as Howard did.
College forward Chad Rau scored 28 goals last year as
a junior and earned All-American recognition.
Some coaches have to remind their forwards to
shoot the puck when they have a chance. Colorado College coach
Scott Owens has never had that problem with Chad Rau.
As a junior, as the Tigers marched to the MacNaughton Cup,
Rau's assist numbers actually fell from previous years, but
his goals doubled, from 14 to 28, leading the WCHA en route
to being named a second team All-American.
The success is nothing new for Rau, who was
the USHL's rookie of the year one season, and the Tigers rookie
of the year the next. Owens marvels at Rau's complete game,
and his aggressive style that has him creating danger for
the opponents even when the Tigers are out-numbered.
"He's so skilled and so tenacious, and
he definitely does not like to be denied," said Owens.
"Chad brings all of that, but still within a team framework,
which is not easy to find. He's a gamer, and loves to take
advantage of others' mistakes."
Critics accuse Rau of cherry-picking, and the
coach acknowledges that his star forward loves to jump the
play when the Tigers are short-handed. Of course in this time
of elections and positive spin, the kind of player Tiger-haters
would call a "cherry-picker" is labeled an "opportunist"
They know a little bit about impact freshmen
at Wisconsin (see: "Turris, Kyle") and there looks
to be another great one in the fold in Madison. Jumping directly
from high school to college doesn't scare Badgers
rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner, who will take his
place alongside Jamie McBain, Cody Goloubef, Brendan Smith
and Ryan McDonagh on one of the most talented blue line units
in the nation.
"The way he skates, he can be one of our
best breakout players," said Badgers coach Mike Eaves,
who notes that the Badgers defensemen were among the top-scoring
rearguards in the nation last season, and he expects more
of the same this year. "I always want our defensemen
to be the second wave of offense, and we have a young, talented
A converted forward, Gardiner averaged nearly
two points per game last season as a high school senior in
Minnetonka, Minn., and was named the Twin Cities metro area's
player of the year by the Minneapolis paper. Those accolades
were just a warmup to the June NHL draft, when Anaheim plucked
Gardiner with the 17th overall pick.
"Jake is one of those unique players with
unbelievable speed and skills," said David McNab, the
Ducks' assistant general manager. "That's a tough combination
at any level of sports. You can teach a player a lot of things,
but it's very hard to teach exceptional speed."
One year ago, the most coveted position in
college hockey was being the "other guy" on North
Dakota's top line, with Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie. For much
of the second half of last season, that anonymous forward
was Andrew Kozek. But instead of just keeping
his stick on the ice and trying not to get in the way of the
two superstars, Kozek elected to shoot the puck a few times,
and ended up tied for the team lead with 18 goals by the end
of the season.
"He has a natural ability to score goals,
be opportunistic and always be able to find a hole,"
said Oshie, now in training camp with the St. Louis Blues.
"It seems like he's always going 100 miles an hour on
the ice and loves to shoot the puck."
Kozek says he scored quite a few goals in junior
hockey, but came to college in more of a checking mind-set.
He admits benefiting from the attention opponents paid to
Oshie and Duncan last season, and thrives with open ice.
"If you don't have guys all over you, it
makes it a lot easier to do stuff with the puck," Kozek
said. "I live for odd-man rushes and anywhere I can find
some space on the ice."
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Is this one of those years that Denver
misses the WCHA Final Five, or will the Pioneers win it again?
In the past seven seasons, the league's post-season tournament
has been a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition for Denver.
Since 2002, the Pioneers have only made three trips to the
Xcel Energy Center for the nation's best-attended college
hockey tournament, but they've captured the Broadmoor Trophy
all three times – in 2002, 2005 and 2008. If you believe
there's a pattern developing there, look for the Pioneers
to next visit St. Paul, and leave with the trophy, in 2011.
2. Do scouts from the New York Islanders
dare set foot on Minnesota's campus?
With the mid-season departure of Kyle Okposo to the New York
Islanders last year, and general manager Garth Snow's subsequent
unkind words about Okposo's development (or lack thereof)
as a Golden Gopher, there hasn't been this much anti-Isles
sentiment in the Twin Cities since the 1981 Stanley Cup Finals.
Did Snow take it up a notch in June, when he drafted Minnesota
freshman Aaron Ness in the second round? Not really, according
to the Gophers' coach. "They're looking out for their
interests, and they got a very good hockey player," said
Don Lucia, who seems to have found peace with the Okposo affair.
"They were looking to do what they thought was right
for Kyle, and so was I."
3. Is there life after New Year's in
More than one of us has certainly risen to face the first
morning of a new year feeling sluggish after a particularly
harsh New Year's Eve bender. But at Alaska Anchorage, those
post-New Year's hangovers have been lasting for months recently,
and that's trouble for the Seawolves. Last season a 6-7-5
mark on Jan. 1 gave way to a 1-14-3 finish. The past two seasons
combined, the Seawolves are 16-15-7 before Jan. 1 and 4-27-4
after they hang up the new calendar, finishing last in the
10-team league both years. With four trips to the Lower 48
in the second half of the 2008-09 campaign, the pressure is
on to turn that trend around.
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season
• Write whatever nasty things
you want about Don Lucia in your blog or on that message board.
He doesn't read it, and doesn't care. After an uncharacteristic
playoff road trip last season, and the departure of long-time
assistant coach Mike Guentzel, the partisan grumbling has
sometimes threatened to drown out the football stadium construction
noise near Mariucci Arena. Gopher coach Don Lucia, who has
won two-thirds of the games he's spent behind the Minnesota
bench, acknowledges the dissatisfaction of some vocal fans,
and meets it head on. "I've been here nine years, and
in that time we've won more banners than any team in the league,
so I take it with a grain of salt," said Lucia, noting
that the season concluded with an eighth-consecutive trip
to the NCAA tournament. "I'll put our record up against
• There are significant climate
differences between Florida and Illinois in January.
Players and fans from Minnesota Duluth, including a host of
snowbirds who spend their winters in the Florida sun, were
looking forward to the Bulldogs playing in the Lightning Classic
in Tampa on January 2-3. Then in August, Notre Dame coach
Jeff Jackson called UMD to let them know that all four teams
(Union and UMass-Lowell round out the field), were moving
to the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago for what's now known
as the Shillelagh Tournament. But there still might be some
unique fun to be had, as the teams may get an invite to the
Chicago Blackhawks' outdoor game on New Year's Day. "Jeff
called and told me instead of sitting on a beach with palm
trees, we might have you sitting at Wrigley Field freezing
your butt off," said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.
• Rob Nolan's time as "the
guy" in goal for Michigan Tech is something he's been
waiting for. For much of his career in the WCHA,
Nolan (a senior from Sherwood Park, Alberta) has watched Michael-Lee
Teslak play on Friday, then gotten the call on Saturday. "He's
split most of his college career, and at times he's struggled
with that aspect of things," said Huskies coach Jamie
Russell. "There were times when Robbie would get himself
wrapped up in what (Teslak) did on Friday night. I needed
to remind him that his job was to beat the guy at the other
end of the ice." Russell has two freshmen who he thinks
will challenge Nolan, but says that if all goes according
to plan, the senior should play three-fourths of the Huskies'
games. After allowing just one goal while taking top-ranked
Michigan to double overtime at last winter's Great Lakes Invitational,
Nolan already knows a little bit about the spotlight.
• If Garrett Roe claims he doesn't
know where the 2009 Frozen Four will be played, he's feeding
you a line. The native of Vienna, Va. (16 miles from
the Verizon Center) says that even before he committed to
St. Cloud State, and made a huge splash as a rookie with 45
points for the Huskies, he was hearing from friends and family
about how cool it would be to lead a team to DC. "My
dad said he would do anything at all that I'd ever ask him
to do if I helped get him tickets to watch his son play at
the Frozen Four in Washington," Roe said, claiming that
despite the hype, he's focusing on the tasks at hand in October,
not April. "It still seems like a far-fetched idea, and
it's a long way away. But you kind of do think about it from
time to time."
• In two WCHA towns, there's no
sweeter smell than the aroma of freshly-poured concrete.
Despite a looming state budget deficit, legislators came through
with significant arena money in Minnesota last spring, meaning
construction begins soon on a new arena for Minnesota Duluth,
upgrades to the National Hockey Center at St. Cloud State.
After getting $38 million from the state, city leaders in
Duluth are hoping for a gala opening of the new 6,800-seat
home of the Bulldogs on Dec. 31, 2010. Another $6.5 million
was sent to St. Cloud, where they're raising more money before
kicking off a project that will add a huge lobby, team offices,
a pro shop and suites to the Huskies' home rink. And with
another $20 million headed to Bemidji to help with the construction
of a new 4,000-seat home for Bemidji State hockey, don't think
the Beavers' burning desire to join the WCHA is going to abate
||Yes, Jack Hillen is gone. But so many
formidable elements return as the Tigers seek their fourth
MacNaughton Cup in the past seven seasons.
||Rakhshani and Ruegsegger (with a hefty
helping of Bozak) make the Pioneers as hard to stop as
they are to spell. The lone question is in goal.
|St. Cloud State
||Good goaltending and great offense
return to the fold, as Husky fans swear this is the year
they'll be playing in April, in Roe's backyard.
||With Gardiner joining McBain, Smith,
Goloubef and McDonagh on the back side, the Badgers have
arguably the most defensive talent in the nation.
||The political world isn't the only
place where you'll find hard-working Mavericks who talk
about the importance of veteran experience.
||Thirteen members of the Gopher roster
didn't play college hockey last year. A dozen of them
are freshmen, and one, thankfully, is Ryan Stoa.
||A lack of proven talent in goal is
the big question for the Sioux. Of course, we had similar
thoughts about CC last year, and that turned out fine.
||The offensive depth and the goaltending
are the bright spots at the DECC. But defensive questions
need answers for the Bulldogs to move up.
||The duo of Nolan in goal and Kinrade
on the blue line is a good place to start. But the Huskies
need goal-scorers to stay in the home ice race.
||The trio of Lunden, Crowder and Clark
combined for 73 points last season. Beyond them, well,
did we mention that you can see Russia?