1 , 2006
2006-07 WCHA Preview
To get the new season started off on the right
skate, the folks who run the INCH Midwest Headquarters invited
last season’s top-10 scorers from the WCHA to a big
shindig at Duke's Bowl in Abbotsford, Wis. Inside Duke's they
drink Miller Lite, eat hot beef sandwiches and (we like to
think) they have a continuous video loop playing Robbie Earl’s
get-upended-at-the-blue-line, limp-toward-the-bench, and abruptly-crash-the-net-to-score-the-tying-goal
move from last season’s NCAA title game.
The trouble was all 10 of the invitations we
sent to WCHA campuses came back marked “address unknown.”
Since nobody worth noting misses an INCH party, we did a little
research and learned that of last season’s top-10 scorers
(in order: Ryan Potulny, Joe Pavelski, Brett Sterling, Paul
Stastny, Matt Carle, Phil Kessel, Earl, Marty Sertich, Drew
Stafford and Travis Zajac), here’s how many will be
playing college hockey this season: zero.
Klubertanz (pictured) and Jeff Likens form one of the
best defense pairings in the WCHA, where the Badgers will
need to defend well to offset question marks up front.
A glance down nearly every WCHA roster reveals
plenty of talent in all areas, but the real depth and experience
has shifted abruptly from forward to defense and goaltending.
In Madison, where they’re preparing to hang a banner
and defend a NCAA title, there’s no question in goal,
where the nation’s top netminder, Brian Elliott, is
back for another go. But there are plenty of questions about
offense with Earl and Pavelski gone.
The story is strangely similar in a place like
Mankato, where the Mavericks will battle for respectability
with an expected sure thing (Dan Tormey) in goal and plenty
of question marks at forward. In Denver and Colorado Springs,
ditto. The Pioneers’ Peter Mannino has a NCAA title
ring, and the Tigers’ Matt Zaba is one of the more experienced
goalies in the game, but with the likes of Carle, Stastny,
Sterling and Sertich gone, offense is suddenly the question.
Interestingly, about the only places where we
see the opposite situation (questions in goal and sure things
on offense) are on the two teams we expect to battle for the
league title -- North Dakota and Minnesota. Both had massive
offensive losses via underclassmen bolting for the pros, but
both are blessed with offensive depth. And both will need
consistent goaltending from either an unknown source (like
highly-touted Sioux freshman Anthony Grieco) or sources that
are well-known and have something to prove about consistency
(Gopher netminders Kellen Briggs and Jeff Frazee).
These are potentially strange and transitional
times for the conference that is on a historic run of success
(with five consecutive Hobey winners and five consecutive
NCAA titles to its credit). But when you start getting no-shows
at an INCH party, you know something strange is afoot.
During his tenure as an assistant coach at Minnesota,
Bob Motzko played a big role in recruiting a hulking Austrian
named Thomas Vanek to play for the Gophers. And Motzko was
a big part of the celebration when Vanek, as a freshman, led
the Gophers to the NCAA title in 2003. Now entering his second
season as the head coach at his alma mater, St. Cloud State,
Motzko is apparently hoping to replicate what he did in Minneapolis
and is bringing in a highly-touted Austrian freshman to provide
offense for the Huskies this season. Andreas Nodl was second
in the USHL in goals last season, and looks to light it up
on the National Hockey Center’s big ice sheet. His offense,
added to the defense led by Casey Borer and the goaltending
of Bobby Goepfert, and Huskies fans are suddenly thinking
about the program making it’s fifth NCAA trip since
Backes signed with the St. Louis Blues and had 12 points
in 15 American Hockey League games last spring.
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Not even a house full of fans chanting, “One
more year!” last February could keep Minnesota State
Mankato star David Backes in school for his senior year, with
the siren’s song of NHL money calling his name. Then
high-scoring Ryan Carter and top defenseman Kyle Peto followed
Backes’ lead, and suddenly there were gaping holes to
fill in the Mavericks lineup. The good news comes in goal,
where budding star Dan Tormey returns. But with one bona-fide
scorer (Travis Morin, who led the team with 20-22—42 last season) next to many,
many question marks on the Mavs’ roster, Troy Jutting’s
seventh season in Mankato has the potential to be a long one.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
The plummet has been fast and far for Minnesota
Duluth, which has gone from a Frozen Four trip in 2004 to
the lower half of the league in 2005 to one spot out of the
WCHA cellar last year. Inconsistency in goal has the biggest
problem, with some saying that four-year starter Issac Reichmuth
never recovered from his team’s third-period collapse
versus Denver in Boston. Enter exciting freshman Alex Stalock,
who was a first-team all star in the USHL last season. Stalock
plays an aggressive high-risk game, often acting like a third
defenseman as he handles the puck, comes way out of the net,
and feeds passes up ice. He says he’ll be more selective
as he transitions to the faster college game, but his coach
has no plans to rein in the rookie. “He’ll cost
us four or five goals by coming out of the net,” says
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin. “But he’ll get
us 12 or 13 by feeding the puck up ice and starting plays.”
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
WCHA fans are used to good things that come
in pairs. That could mean back-to-back NCAA titles, like those
seen recently at Minnesota and Denver, or top-notch pairs
of forwards, like Pavelski and Earl at Wisconsin or Sterling
and Sertich at Colorado College. In a normal year, budding
star teammates like North Dakota’s T.J. Oshie and Jonathan
Toews would be looked upon as sophomores with promise and
would be expected to learn under the tutelage of upperclassmen.
Instead, just 18 months out of high school, Oshie is the WCHA’s
top returning scorer (with 24 goals and 45 points last season)
and Toews is just one step away from an NHL career (after
the Chicago Blackhawks made him the third overall pick in
last summer’s draft). Amid the speculation about their
nickname’s future and the preparation for an all-sports
move to Division I, there are high expectations for the men’s
hockey team in Grand Forks. We see Oshie and Toews avoidance
of sophomore slumps as they key to fulfilling those expectations.
Between October and January of last season,
Brian Elliott did all anyone could ask between the pipes for
the Wisconsin hockey team, leading the Badgers to an 18-2-2
record and a seemingly insurmountable lead in the WCHA standings.
A month later, when he returned from an injury suffered in
practice, the Badgers’ league title hopes were dashed
and the team had hit what the players called “rock bottom.”
All Elliott did in the season’s final six weeks was
lead the Badgers to a 9-1-0 mark and an NCAA title, with five
shutouts. His .938 saves percentage, and 1.55 goals-against
average were almost enough to make him the third goalie to
win the Hobey, but he got the trophy he really wanted after
the title game, and danced around the ice in his goalie pads
with a look of euphoria that we won’t forget anytime
soon. Many are surprised that Elliott’s back for his
senior year. But with the Badgers looking to become the league’s
third consecutive back-to-back NCAA title winners, the quest
for a repeat starts in the Kohl Center’s home goal.
Minnesota rookie defenseman Erik Johnson’s
parents started bringing him to Mariucci Arena about the time
he first learned to walk. Johnson would stare at the massive
portrait of his great uncle, Ken Yackel, on one of the arena’s
murals, and marvel at the on-ice feats of star blueliners
like Mike Crowley, Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard.
Johnson (6-4, 222, with amazing skating skills) was contacted
by several other schools inside and outside the WCHA looking
to recruit him. He visited none of them, knowing that a recruiting
trip to anywhere else would be a waste of time. When the St.
Louis Blues made Johnson the first overall pick in last summer’s
NHL draft, many wondered whether Johnson would ever don a
Minnesota jersey, but he says he’s committed to his
dream of being a Gopher for “this year and however long
after.” It goes without saying that Johnson hopes his
first skate in the Blues’ home rink comes in April at
the Frozen Four.
Quick, name the three most interesting recent
things about the Denver Pioneers. Most will mention Carle’s
Hobey, Stastny bolting for the pros, the playoff upset by
Minnesota Duluth, their bizarre exclusion from the last NCAA
tourney and the return of phenom Brock Trotter to the lineup
this season. Lost amid all of that hype and hyperbole is the
fact that the league’s top returning goal-scorer will
skate for the crimson and gold this season. Ryan Dingle, from
that hockey hotbed of Steamboat Springs, Colo., had 27 goals
last season and was an All-WCHA third-teamer, but was often
overlooked among the bigger names and bigger happenings in
and around Magness Arena. With a few promising freshmen forwards
suddenly looking his way for guidance (and passes) Dingle
has a chance to be the star of a high-scoring show in Denver.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Do the Badgers need more offense
to repeat? Wisconsin, aided by an army of red-clad
fans, needed just one goal (in that three-overtime marathon
with Cornell) to win the Midwest Regional in Green Bay and
just two goals to beat BC for the title in Milwaukee. With
the league’s best player in goal, and a defense-first
system that works, their off-season losses at forward might
not be a huge problem.
2. Just liked we asked last year, will
there be enough pucks to go around in Minneapolis?
Recently, Don Lucia watched an NHL first-rounder walk out
the door when Phil Kessel decided to make college hockey a
nine-month gig, then watched three more NHL first-rounders
(Johnson, Kyle Okposo, and David Fischer) walk in the door.
There was a lot of talk about unrest (much of it attributed
to Kessel) inside the Gopher dressing room last season. Peace,
and goaltending, are the keys to success this year in Dinkytown.
3. Will they play Three Dog Night’s
1969 hit “Eli’s Coming” over the Michigan
Tech p.a. system this season? Michael-Lee Teslak
is the latest in a string of talented goalies that has thus
far failed to be enough to get the Huskies into the league’s
upper half. Enter highly-touted rookie defenseman Eli Vlaisavljevich,
who averaged nearly a point per game in the USHL last season.
Along with senior Lars Helminen, coach Jamie Russell suddenly
has impressive depth at a position where the Huskies have
been young and vulnerable for the past few seasons.
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season
1. Fans will see the future of college
hockey during the exhibition season. With heavyweights
like Lethbridge, Windsor, Lakehead and the University of Calgary
doing their annual early fall tour of the WCHA, the league
is experimenting with a few rules changes designed to bring
a more open, “new NHL” style to the game. They’re
using two refs and two linesmen, not allowing shorthanded
teams to ice the puck, and not allowing substitutions after
icing. With USA Hockey changing the rules to bring a more
open, obstruction-free game to all levels of the sport, the
days of the “Western Clutch and Hold Association”
2. Five members of the Alaska Anchorage
hockey team don’t get spooked easily. Over
the summer, Seawolves Chris Tarkir, Nathan Lawson, Luke Beaverson,
Mark Smith and Blair Tassone found a great deal on a five-bedroom,
two-bath home, in Anchorage’s Midtown neighborhood less
than two miles from the UAA campus and a five-minute drive
from Sullivan Arena. It turns out the rent was so cheap because
a woman had been stabbed to death by her husband there in
April. Undaunted, the five moved in.
3. Chemistry students were very disappointed
by an early departure at St. Cloud State. Before
announcing that he was forgoing his final year of college
eligibility, former Huskies goalie Tim Boron had considered
having some fun with numbers this season. Boron was planning
to wear number 53 as a senior (he’d worn number 1 previously).
Those with a periodic chart can tell you that 5 is the number
for the element Boron. The goalie planned the 3 as a backwards
E for “element.” Those of us who majored in journalism
thought that “The Fifth Element” was just a bad
Bruce Willis movie.
4. Plenty of Sioux fans will be displaying
“purple pride” this season. In April,
the president of Holy Cross spoke at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis,
telling the crowd of alumni that since the Crusaders’
historic upset of Minnesota in the NCAA tournament, the amount
of Holy Cross Hockey merchandise being sold over the Internet
had skyrocketed. Interestingly, school officials noted that
a large portion of the hats, t-shirts and sweatshirts were
being sent to addresses in North Dakota. Luckily for the Gophers,
they have no trip to Grand Forks on their 2006-07 regular
5. Hotels in Mankato will feel the financial
loss from a few visiting teams who don’t stay overnight
this season. Home-and-home series used to be a bit
of a novelty in the far-flung WCHA. At Minnesota State Mankato,
they’re becoming the rule, not the exception. The Mavericks
will play two home-and-home series with Minnesota, two more
with St. Cloud State, and one with Notre Dame this winter.
We think it takes a true lover of bus travel to play the Irish
in South Bend on a Thursday, then play them nine hours down
the road on Saturday.
||Offensive depth gives the Sioux an edge as third-year
coach Dave Hakstol looks to go three-for-three in Frozen
||The defending conference champs need consistent goaltending
to quickly erase the memory of their upset loss in the
||The Badgers lost a lot of offense in the wake of their
NCAA title. With a defense-first system and the nation’s
top goalie, will it matter?
|St. Cloud State
||With a great goalie, veteran offense, size on defense,
promising freshmen and a boost of confidence, the elements
are in place for the Huskies.
||Ryan Dingle is the league’s top returning goal
scorer. The Pioneers will need all of his offense, and
more, to right the wrong of their NCAA un-vitation.
||After two seasons of underachievement, Bulldog fans
look for a risk-taking rookie goalie to make them more
||With the most dynamic offensive pair in the league now
in the famous alumni category, Matt Zaba’s goaltending
means more than ever.
||There’s potentially great goaltending by Michael-Lee
Teslak, but too many questions elsewhere to pick the Huskies
|Minnesota State Mankato
||The Secret Service doesn’t follow Dubbya as closely
as Travis Morin will be shadowed by opponents this season.
||Dave Shyiak’s summertime housecleaning among his
coaching staff shows he’s serious about the future.
The present is a challenge.