2007-08 CCHA Preview
James V. Dowd
the teams in the CCHA have proven one thing over the past
few years it's that you can never quite know what to expect
out of the league. From Michigan State's surprising national
title, showing that the CCHA can indeed compete with Hockey
East and the WCHA, to Lake Superior State's challenge to the
Spartans in the league tournament's third place game last
March, it's not unusual to see things go awry in the CCHA.
Over the past several years, coaches have talked
about parity throughout the conference, and it has been shown
with surprise runs by Alaska, Nebraska-Omaha in the regular
season and playoffs, and on any given night with strange upsets
like Michigan State's home loss to Bowling Green at the end
of last regular season.
This season, however, as teams prepare to drop
the puck, it appears that Miami and Michigan State are poised
to run away from the pack with teams with a lot of experience,
clutch goal scorers and strong net minders.
Last season's regular season and playoff champ
Notre Dame returns several key cogs in the form of Erik Condra,
Kevin Deeth and Ryan Thang, as well as members of its defensive
corps, but the loss of David Brown in the goal crease is one
that will be tough for coach Jeff Jackson and the Fighting
Irish to overcome.
In addition, traditional powerhouse Michigan
suffered heavy losses to its squad this past summer, with
several defections to the NHL and many key seniors leaving
as well. With an arsenal carefully restocked by coach Red
Berenson and his assistants Billy Powers and Mel Pearson,
perhaps the only thing keeping the Wolverines out of the race
is time to mature as a team and a consistent goaltender.
Although these four teams appear to be the top
threats for the league title, it has yet to be seen what a
team like Ohio State which appears healthy and more mature,
or Lake Superior State with a new goaltender and a strong
returning class might be able to do as the race unfolds.
And, most certainly, never count out scrappy
Northern Michigan and Ferris State teams which have both made
runs to Joe Louis Arena in the past decade.
Despite these challenges from all programs in
the conference, look for the talent and experience of verterans
and the coaching savvy of Enrico Blasi and Rick Comley to
help Miami and Michigan State steady the ship and create an
exciting title race before once again giving the league greater
notoriety with strong performances in the NCAA tournament.
healthy Tom Fritsche can help Ohio State get back near
the top of the CCHA standings.
After failing to meet public and team expectations
over the past two seasons, look for Ohio State as a potential spoiler team in the CCHA race to the top this
season. The Buckeyes finished just 12-12-4 in the league last
season, but looked strong later on, finishing the campaign
with wins in four of their last six regular-season contests
before being swept by Northern Michigan in the first round
of the CCHA playoffs.
One major reason for the Buckeyes' struggles
was the loss of Tom Fritsche for the majority of the season
after he was hospitalized while suffering from ulcerative
colitis. After returning, however, Fritsche looked strong,
scoring 13 points in just 19 games. He is joined in the forward
corps by Tom Goebel who notched 26 points last season.
At the other end of the ice, Ohio State is lead
by senior blue liner Jason Desantis, who is also known for
his offensive upside, and goaltender Joseph Palmer who allowed
2.96 goals per game — just tenth best in the CCHA — last season
but has shown signs of improvement with an admirable performance
at the United States Junior National Team evaluation camp
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Simply take a look at the players who graduated
from Michigan or left the Wolverines early this past summer,
and there is no doubt the Maize and Blue may be hard-pressed
to stay in the race for the CCHA title with racehorses like
Miami and Michigan State leading the way.
Jack Johnson left the team after its first-round
loss in the NCAA tournament to join the Los Angeles Kings
and has become an everyday player in their lineup and a cult
hero among fans. North of the border, former Michigan speedster
Andrew Cogliano was just named to the Edmonton Oilers' opening
night lineup. On top of that pair of first round picks, T.J.
Hensick and Matt Hunwick just narrowly missed making the Colorado
Avalanche and Boston Bruins, respectively.
Hensick and Cogliano were the anchors of Michigan's
first two lines, and Hunwick and Johnson often ate up as much
as half of the game as the team's top defensive pair. And
while first-round picks Chris Summers and Mark Mitera remain
on the blue line and Max Pacioretty — one of the Montreal Canadiens'
top picks — joins last year's league-leading scorer Kevin Porter
in the lineup up front, it's hard to argue that, after losing
this much talent, Michigan will not fall out of the top tier
of CCHA teams ... at least temporarily.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
While Bowling Green can't fall any
lower than 12th place in the CCHA standings, the pressure
is certainly on head coach Scott Paluch, now in his sixth
season at the helm. Paluch is the first former Falcon player
to serve as the head coach and must do his best not to disappoint
the administration and fans he once delighted as a member
of CCHA title-winning teams in the 1980s.
This year's Falcons team brings back 23 players
from last season, including goaltender Jimmy Spratt and leading
scorer Derek Whitmore. Paluch labeled Spratt as the most improved
player during the course of last season, and he will likely
continue to evolve as he matures in his role as a starting
Having seen the potential of the Falcons during
a close first-round playoff series against Nebraska-Omaha and an upset of Michigan State at Munn in the regular season
finale, Bowling Green supporters have to be getting anxious
to see more consistency out of Paluch's squad.
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said that last year's success
won't affect his team's preparation this season.
If there is one thing that anyone learned last
season, it was to take note of what Notre Dame coach Jeff
Jackson says. And of all the words which have come from Jackson
this preseason, perhaps the most notable were a simple few
at CCHA Media Day: "Last year is behind us."
The Fighting Irish won their first-ever CCHA
regular-season and playoff titles last year in a magical run
where they controlled the league standings from the onset.
And while returning forwards Erik Condra, Kevin Deeth and
Ryan Thang played an integral role in the offense, and blue
liners Kyle Lawson and Kevin Deeth were key cogs in holding
the fort, the loss of seven regulars in the Irish lineup will
make it tough to keep pace.
Perhaps the greatest pressure of all is on netminders Jordan Pearce and Brad Phillips. Of all the outstanding
performances by any number of Irish skaters last season, the
most important piece of Notre Dame's success was the play
of the team's most valuable player, goaltender David Brown.
Pearce, a junior, will be counted on immediately
and has performed admirably in limited action during his first
two years. If Pearce were to falter, Phillips has shown flashes
of brilliance with the United States National Team Development
Program, with a particularly solid performance in Ann Arbor
last year when he made 36 saves in a 3-2 loss against Michigan
at Yost Ice Arena.
Although Michigan State netminder Jeff Lerg
is a close second in this race, all eyes are locked on Miami’s
Nathan Davis heading into this season. Davis has earned many
accolades throughout his storied career, not the least of
which was a Hobey Baker finalist nomination and an appearance
on the United States’ senior national team at the IIHF
World Championships last summer.
Davis notched 50 points last season, placing
him in the top ten nationally and the top five in the CCHA.
Should he improve upon this number, which should be the case
seeing the fact that he has 19 of his teammates returning,
Miami should have no problem competing for the league title.
While it was sad day for the CCHA to say goodbye
to a coach who made a name for its northernmost squad —
former Alaska coach Tavis MacMillan — the Nanooks were
excited to announce that his replacement came from inside
the conference family. After MacMillan headed to the Twin
Cities to join his wife in her career ventures, Alaska athletic
director Forest Karr named Nebraska-Omaha assistant Doc DelCastillo
to the post.
Before working the bench with Mike Kemp for
the Mavericks, DelCastillo served as an assistant at St. Cloud
State, and gained head coaching experience in the USHL During
his tenure at Nebraska-Omaha, he was known as a top recruiter,
and, according to the Alaska website, helped to bring in major
scoring threats like Scott Parse and Bill Thomas.
Perhaps the player most notably absent from
the CCHA Preseason All-Conference first and second teams was
Michigan State forward Bryan Lerg. During last year's run
to the national championship, Lerg led the Spartans with 23
total goals and led the entire NCAA with eight game-winning
If there is one thing more valuable than a pure
point scorer, it is one who can play well in the clutch, and
come up with the opportunistic play when his team needs it
both. Over the past several years, you would be hard pressed
to find a player who has taken advantage of more opportunities
to take his squad upon his own shoulders than Lerg.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Who is James V. Dowd?
I am the new CCHA beat writer for Inside College
Hockey after spending the past two-plus seasons covering University
of Michigan hockey while working at the University’s
student paper The Michigan Daily. While covering
the Wolverines, I took road trips with fellow writers to arenas
all over the Midwest and even made the trek to Fairbanks when
Michigan visited the Nanooks in October 2005. In the coming
season, I am looking forward to taking a more conference-wide
perspective to my coverage, while also working in Options
trading at the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
2.Can Rick Comley and the Michigan State
Spartans carry over momentum from last season’s NCAA
playoff run and give themselves a chance to compete for the
CCHA regular season and playoff titles?
The Spartans finished just fourth in the CCHA
race last season and faltered greatly against Michigan at
Joe Louis Arena during the league playoffs, leaving them on
the bubble for the national tournament. Lucky for them, the
selection committee found a spot and the rest is history.
Comley’s words after that loss to Michigan lit a fire
under the Spartans for the national tournament, but can he
do the same to ensure that his team gets a chance to defend
its title in March and April?
3. Will Lake Superior State’s
new scheduling arrangement, which allows them to play Michigan,
Michigan State and Northern Michigan in their own building
rather than on the road or at a neutral site, give the Lakers
a chance to make some noise in the league race?
According to head coach Jim Roque, season ticket
sales have doubled this year at an already raucous Taffy Abel
Arena quite a hostile atmosphere. Can the Lakers make their
fans ring the Hoholik Victory Bell a few times too many, knocking
their downstate rivals out of title contention?
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in the CCHA this season
1. Jeff Lerg will be “that good”
once again. He may be so small that opposing fans can’t
quite figure out how he takes up so much of the Michigan State
net, but Lerg will continue to carry the Spartans on his back
despite the loss of some key defensemen. Lerg has a good handle
on his angles and knows how to play the position. His goals
against average may rise, but only due to the presence of
2. Michigan will continue to score goals, even
without Hensick and Cogliano, but will struggle to keep goals
against down. Although Michigan loses some top scorers, and
many perceive Kevin Porter’s numbers last season to
be a product of Hensick’s magic, the Wolverines will
continue to score. Porter’s game will change, but his
talent allows him to become more of a focal point. Also, as
veteran sniper Brandon Naurato matures, look for him to find
the back of the net more often, and rookies Pacioretty and
Carl Hagelin, who arrives in Ann Arbor all the way from Sweden,
should help pave the way to a prolific offense. At the other
end of the ice, Billy Sauer has yet to show the consistency
necessary to keep goals out in a league chock-full of high
scorers and rookies Bryan Hogan and Shawn Hunwick are unproven
in net. The loss of four of the team’s six defensemen
will also hurt the team’s goals against totals.
3. Miami will compete for the league title.
Each and every year, the RedHawks get mentioned as one of
the top teams in the conference, and last season they faltered
and never really found themselves truly in the race as Notre
Dame ran away from the pack. With names like Davis and Ryan
Jones as preseason first team all-leaguers and Alec Martinez
and Mitch Ganzak, first team and honorable mention, respectively,
at the blue line, Miami will have plenty of fire to win before
even getting to Jeff Zatkoff, who may compete with Lerg for
honors as the league’s top net minder.
4. There will be upsets and they will play a
role in the championship race. Although Miami and Michigan
State are the clear class of the league and Michigan and Notre
Dame occupy a fairly solid second tier this year, look for
upstart teams like Western Michigan, Lake Superior State and
Alaska, who can play a more physical game to knock the top
four off a few times throughout the year. Withstanding these
bids for upsets will determine who ultimately ends up with
the league crown.
5. Jeff Jackson will turn out to be Notre Dame’s
version of Scotty Bowman rather than hockey’s version
of Charlie Weis. Much like the Fighting Irish’s struggling
football coach, Jackson earned accolades quickly by turning
around a struggling program. Like Weis, one of the keys to
early success was getting his players to buy into his system,
which in turn put out a golden (no pun intended) product for
the Irish’s desperate fans. Jackson will successfully
continue to earn this respect from his players and build a
juggernaut like Bowman did at any number of stops in the NHL,
rather than end up a flash in the pan like Weis appears to
||The RedHawks own one of the league’s
best offenses, best defenses and best netminders. Is
more explanation necessary?
||The Spartans enter the season as the
defending national champion, but struggled to compete
in the regular season. Look for the Spartans to compete
for a playoff title, but the loss of a few heart and soul
players from last year’s squad will keep them a
step behind Miami.
||The Fighting Irish won their first
ever league and playoff titles last season, and still
have some of the league’s top names in their lineup,
but without David Brown at the back, look for the Irish
to falter a few extra times where Brown would have kept
them in last year.
||Michigan’s young talent might
not add up to that which left after last season, but don’t
count the Wolverines out of the race. Perhaps the departure
of players looking ahead to the NHL will give Michigan
a chance to focus more on collegiate prizes. Until Sauer
or his replacement in net show more consistency and young
defenders prove themselves, the Wolverines will be fighting
for a first round bye rather than a league championship.
||With Tom Fritsche and Goebel leading
the way up front and net minder Joseph Palmer shoring
up the back, look for the Buckeyes to give Michigan a
run for the rights to sit back and relax during the opening
round of the CCHA playoffs.
|Lake Superior State
||The Lakers looked strong during the CCHA playoffs last
year, due in large part to the play of departed senior
goaltender Jeff Jakaitis. With a few solid prospects to
take over in net and a few extra home games on their schedule,
Lake State should add a few more games at Abel Arena when
the host a first-round series in the league playoffs.
||Although the Mavericks bring back
a great deal of talent with Bryan Marshall, Brandon Scero,
Ed Del Grosso and Jeremie Dupont, the loss of Scott Parse
after last season and Bill Thomas the year before will
keep Nebraska-Omaha from making a jump in the standings.
||Western Michigan never seems to make the jump into the
top half of the league standings, but the Broncos have
been known to notch a few upsets in their day. The loss
of Mark Letestu, Paul Szczechura, and Ryan Mahrle will
hurt their chances of winning unexpectedly, a solid defensive
core and goaltending will produce another solid season.
||Towards the end of last season, the
Bulldogs were the class of the CCHA, winning six of eight
in February. They have solid goaltending and defense,
but will struggle to score goals at the other end of the
||The upcoming season will be an interesting one for the
Wildcats who are in complete flux with respect to everyday
personnel. Even their older players haven’t played
as regularly as the veterans on other teams, and there
are 17 freshman and sophomores on the roster. With coach
Walt Kyle at the helm, the Wildcats seem to find a way
to compete every night.
||The Nanooks have the most unenviable
position in the CCHA with their grueling travel schedule,
and are adjusting to new coach Doc DelCastillo, who will
undoubtedly shake things up, as he has already notched
a few surprise recruits for next year. Three pairs of
brothers will make for interesting chemistry and Chad
Johnson and Wylie Rogers are solid in net, but this will
be a year of growing pains for a program in transition.
||Bowling Green has a high percentage of players returning
from last season, when they struggled all year long, winning
only seven games. Unless something drastic happens with
their team chemistry and a few bounces go their way, the
Falcons will occupy the league cellar once again.