2007-08 WCHA Preview
an early summer conversation with North Dakota coach Dave
Hakstol, the man who has had the Fighting Sioux playing in
April in all three of his seasons behind their bench joked
just a little about a unique and impressive recruiting tool
in his arsenal.
The Grand Forks school boasts a beautiful tree-lined
campus, fine academic programs and the most opulent hockey
arena in the world. But Hakstol was reminded that he had something
that no other hockey coach could offer a potential recruit:
the chance to play on a line with defending Hobey winner Ryan
Duncan and potential Hobey favorite T.J. Oshie.
“We have many exciting opportunities for
the young man that’s interested in the University of
North Dakota,” Hakstol deadpanned, and you could almost
hear the sly smile through the phone.
Despite the streak of consecutive NCAA titles
won by teams from this league ending last April, there are
plenty of smiles to be found between Houghton and Anchorage.
Coaches and players widely acknowledge that North Dakota is
the clear favorite, not just in the WCHA but in the nation
if you believe in the credibility of the polls. But there’s
also a sense than unlike in previous years, where you could
easily pencil four or five WCHA teams into the NCAA field
before Halloween, there aren’t clear-cut obstacles that
are insurmountable for plucky teams looking to make a run.
“Last year our league had a lot of good
teams, but not a lot of great teams,” said Minnesota
Duluth coach Scott Sandelin. “I think that showed at
the end of the year with our streak being broken. I think
the league is going to be even tighter this year, from top
to bottom, by the end of the season.”
Between now and March, we’re likely to
see a near photo-negative of last season, when the league
was filled with teams strong in goal but uncertain of who
would score. The 2007-08 version of the WCHA is stacked with
offensive talent (some old, some young) but defense and goaltending
questions abound, especially on anticipated NCAA contenders
like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado College and St. Cloud
"The top five is up for grabs,” said
Alaska Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak. “North Dakota has
got a great hockey team, but there are plenty of chances for
other teams to surprise people.”
The “big games” start early, with
defending NCAA champ Michigan State visiting North Dakota,
Colorado College visiting New Hampshire, Denver visiting Notre
Dame, Wisconsin facing Notre Dame and Minnesota facing either
Boston College or Michigan within the season’s first
few weeks. In other words, the picture of who’s for
real and who’s got issues should be much clearer well
before anyone is thawing a Thanksgiving turkey.
But for teams looking to make unexpected noise,
or looking to return to late March hockey for a crack at the
Frozen Four, there are exciting opportunities, and not just
on the top line for that talented team from the Peace Garden
“There’s room at the top there,”
said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko when asked about the
overall WCHA picture. “It’s just a matter of who’s
ready and willing to take it.”
Even if it was only for one cold Thursday night
last March, Michigan Tech players and fans got a taste of
the good life, and they liked it.
"The players have very high expectations,
and there are even higher expectations within the community,”
said Huskies coach Jamie Russell, who shared the WCHA’s
coach of the year award last season after his team upset Colorado
College in the playoffs and made its first trip to the Xcel
Energy Center. “We would certainly like to earn home
ice in the playoffs and make it back to the Final Five.”
Alas, the Final Five appearance was brief, as
Brian Elliott shut out the Huskies in St. Paul. But the return
of top-shelf defense, one of the nation’s best penalty-kill
units and an experienced goaltending tandem means that at
least some of the necessary elements are in place for the
Huskies. Russell says that if players like Peter Rouleau,
Tyler Shelast (who led the team with 15 goals last season)
and Alex Gagne can take the next step and increase their offensive
production, he likes their chances for a top-five finish.
PRIMED FOR A FALL
Golgoski skated off to the professional ranks. He signed
a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
Talk to the coach and the players at Minnesota
and they mention defying expectations and rising to the challenge
of being the league’s two-time defending regular season
champs. But all of that aside, the fact remains that the Golden
Gophers lost a huge quantity of blue line talent in the off-season
when Mike Vannelli graduated and Alex Goligoski and Erik Johnson
left early for pro contracts. There will be three freshmen
in the Minnesota defensive corps at the start of the year.
"Obviously we’re going to have to
have some of the freshmen come in and contribute right away,
and that’s going to take time,” said Gopher coach
Don Lucia, who admitted that he’s considering occasionally
moving a forward to the point during power plays. The defense
will be backed up by junior goalie Jeff Frazee, who led the
league in winning percentage last season, but struggled to
crack the WCHA’s top 10 in saves percentage and goals
against average. In other words, there may be opportunities
to see lots of goals on both sides of the Mariucci Arena scoreboard.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
There are plenty of untested goalies in the
WCHA this season, but likely none with as much on their shoulders
in terms of their team having everything else in place for
a run than the junior and the rookie wearing the big pads
at Colorado College. The Tigers are sound defensively and
return almost all if their scoring from a year ago, but the
play of Drew O’Connell and Richard Bachman will likely
determine if CC will have a chance to play in their home rink
during the NCAA West Regional in March.
"This is the first time since I’ve
been here that we don’t have a tested, proven goalie,”
said Tigers coach Scott Owens – himself a former CC
netminder. “We rode (Matt) Zaba pretty hard last year,
and that’s something we’ll have to deal with this
year.” O’Connell was 3-3-0 last season, while
Bachman struggled at the start of the season in the USHL but
was one of that league’s most feared goalies by the
TOUGHEST ACT TO FOLLOW
In a league where questions about goaltending
abound, goalies who wear red may be in the harshest glow of
the spotlight right away. Sophomore Jase Weslosky at St. Cloud
State and junior Shane Connelly at Wisconsin both look to
replace big names in their respective creases, for teams where
fan expectations are high.
Connelly was thrust into action as a rookie
when Brian Elliott missed time due to an injury, and played
well in spot duty last season while learning from goalie coach
Bill Howard. “Shane knows it’s his time now, and
he’ll face the same questions we had with Brian two
years ago about whether he can go in back-to-back games and
how good he can be,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said.
Weslosky backed up two-time WCHA first-team
selection Bobby Goepfert last season, going 5-1-0, and will
be the number one guy right away as the Huskies seek a return
trip to the NCAAs and another crack at the program’s
first national tourney win.
With a well-deserved nod to that “other
guy” on North Dakota’s top line, who happens to
have a Hobey on his mantle already, it’s the junior
from Seattle by way of northern Minnesota who has Fighting
Sioux fans buzzing. T.J. Oshie lit up the ice in St. Louis
last April and again over the summer when he attended the
Blues rookie camp. As late as September, the Blues were trying
to convince Oshie to leave early and join the pro ranks, but
that move would be in clear violation of the pact the forward
made with a few teammates early in the summer.
“I knew I still needed to grow as a player,
and I thought, what better place to do it than North Dakota,
with our facilities and whatnot,” Oshie said. “I
talked to (Ryan) Duncan and (Taylor) Chorney and (Joe) Finley
a little bit. We got together and decided that if we all stayed
we could do something pretty special. We didn’t sign
anything, but we shook hands and got pretty excited.”
If Oshie can repeat or improve on his 52-point
sophomore year and get the Sioux back into the Frozen Four,
many are thinking that North Dakota will join Maine and Minnesota
Duluth as the only schools with back-to-back Hobey winners.
Turris has impressed coaches, scouts, and opponents in
a variety of showcase events over the last three seasons.
This year he takes the ice in the WCHA.
Anyone looking for a second opinion about whether
or not Wisconsin freshman forward Kyle Turris is as good as
is warranted by the Coyotes picking him third overall in last
summer’s NHL draft can get gushing reviews in both English
and Russian now. Skating for Team Canada in late August and
early September, Turris had seven goals and an assist in an
eight-game series featuring the best young players from Canada
and Russia. That was part of a well-traveled summer for the
rookie, who also braved the intense heat of the Arizona desert
to attend the Coyotes rookie camp.
"He’s a dynamic player and he’s
lightning fast,” said Minnesota forward Blake Wheeler,
who skated alongside Turris in Phoenix over the summer. "He’s
definitely got all the tools. He’s a little raw going
in, but he’s very talented so he’ll be a match-up
problem for anybody who faces him.” Turris’ mother
was a track and field star in his home county, and his father
is a member of Canada’s lacrosse hall of fame, so that
pairing producing an athletic son isn’t a huge shock.
Perhaps “unsung” isn’t the
perfect description for St. Cloud State sophomore forward
Ryan Lasch. After all, the diminutive Californian was named
to the league’s all-rookie team last year alongside
much more heralded folks like teammate Andreas Nodl and Minnesota
scoring wonder Kyle Okposo. Those names were expected, but
Lasch and the 39 points he recorded in his first season were
Huskies coach Bob Motzko says that Lasch has
an almost psychotic obsession with finding the back of the
net. “And if for whatever reason he doesn’t score
on Friday night, look out on Saturday,” Motzko said.
Lasch has been in central Minnesota long enough
to know that the big game is a visit by the Gophers, and the
Gophers have seen enough of Lasch to know they’ll have
their hands full when he comes over the boards. “He’s
shifty and crafty, and he works hard,” said Minnesota
captain Derek Peltier. “He’s a great skater and
he’s not easy to win a battle against the way he fights
for the puck.”
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Will the WCHA start a new streak
of titles when the Frozen Four in Denver comes to a close?
The last time they played for the NCAA title
on a rink in Colorado, in 1976, it was Herb Brooks and the
Minnesota Golden Gophers beating another WCHA team (John MacInnes
and his Michigan Tech Huskies) for the crown. More than one
WCHA coach, fan and league official was stung just a little
bit on that Thursday night last April when North Dakota’s
semifinal loss to Boston College spelled the end of the league’s
run of five straight national championships. With North Dakota
ranked atop the national polls, regionals being played in
Wisconsin’s and Colorado College’s home rinks
and the Frozen being played a few minutes from Denver’s
campus, opportunities abound.
2. Will 2008 finally be the year that
the new rink in Duluth becomes a reality?
Two years ago, Scott Sandelin was talking about
this possibly being his team’s final season in the WCHA’s
oldest arena (which turned 40 last winter). Instead, they’re
still waiting to break ground on the proposed waterfront rink,
while political wrangling in St. Paul keeps the construction
crews quiet. Last spring the necessary funding to get the
project started was passed by the state legislature but vetoed
by Minnesota’s governor. In the mean time, the DECC
is getting older, fans are getting more impatient, and thanks
to rapid inflation in the cost of building materials, the
projected cost of the new doghouse keeps rising. And pessimists
fear that in the wake of the Interstate-35W bridge collapse
in Minneapolis, state funding for sports facilities may be
delayed yet another year as Minnesota taxpayers pick up the
tab for a new span over the Mississippi instead.
3. Can the Mavericks make noise before
Last October’s upset of Notre Dame aside,
Minnesota State has a reputation for starting slowly. Not
content to go with what we’ve been told, we had the
crack staff of statisticians at the INCH World Headquarters
crunch the numbers and learned that the Mavs are 3-21-3 in
October over the previous five seasons. In a tight league,
that’s a tough hole to dig out of right away, and with
nine of their first 10 games on the road this season, the
biggest challenge in Mankato is to win some games early.
MARK IT DOWN
Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season
1. In addition to recruiting their future
stars, many WCHA coaches will be recruiting their current
stars. A hot topic of conversation among league coaches
and administrators recently has been increased efforts by
the Canadian major junior leagues to keep top players in-country,
and recruit top American talent away from the college ranks.
That means that college coaches are seeing the need for stepped-up
efforts of their own.
“We’ve got to do a better job on
both sides of the border as far as showcasing what we have
and what we can offer in the college game,” said Michigan
Tech coach Jamie Russell. Those efforts need to include work
to ensure that dissatisfied, but promising players don’t
make a run for the border in the middle of the season. “Recruiting,
in terms of keeping players committed, never ends,”
said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves.
2. Alaska Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak
will have his players focusing on the good news after a rollercoaster
campaign. By the middle of January last season, things
were looking up at Sullivan Arena. The Seawolves had a .500
record, had won their early-season tournament and had captured
the Governor’s Cup (the trophy they battle in-state
rival Alaska for each year) for the first time. Then came
a 1-8-0 run to finish the regular season, before the Seawolves
won a game at Mariucci Arena in the WCHA playoffs. Shyiak
said he’s disappointed to see the league coaches pick
his club for the basement once again, but says that they move
forward by building on the positives, determined to prove
that last season’s first half, and their above-.500
finish at home, we the start of something good.
3. They’d be wise to run "previews
of coming attractions" before early-season games in Colorado
Springs and Houghton. Fans of the Tigers and Huskies
start the season excited about the players they have, and
even more excited about the players they will see later in
the season. Colorado College’s top returning scorer,
Jimmy Kilpatrick, is hoping to be back on the ice by Nov.
1 after having surgery to repair a hip muscle in August. And
Tech fans may have extra incentive to make the 10-hour drive
to Detroit for the Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas,
as highly-touted forward Casey Pierro-Zabotel will make his
debut for the Huskies then.
4. Denver goaltender Peter Mannino will
not be intimidated by many surroundings his final season.
While nearly every WCHA team will have to deal with an inexperienced
goalie who’ll be forced to sink or swim in intimidating
opposing rinks, the Pioneers have a senior who has started,
and won, a NCAA title game in goal. “Like anybody else,
we look to our goalie first,” Pioneers coach George
Gwozdecky said. “Peter Mannino has the capability to
backstop us to a lot of success. He and Glenn Fisher were
great friends and great teammates, but I know Peter is excited
about being our number one guy.”
5. There’s no need for anti-xenophobia
protesters to picket outside Mariucci Arena. The
Golden Gopher roster is 100 percent Minnesotans this season
for the first time since North Dakota native Grant Potulny
arrived on campus in the fall of 2000. But Lucia insists there’s
not going to be a return to the Minnesotans-only policy that
existed under previous coach Doug Woog, it’s just a
one-season anomaly. As proud as Minnesotans are about the
talent in the State of Hockey, when one looks at the list
of recent “imports” to skate for the Gophers,
it would be hard to argue that bringing in Grant Potulny,
Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen, Thomas Vanek, Phil Kessel, and
Kellen Briggs was a mistake.
||They’re erecting guard posts
at Red River border crossings to ensure the injury bug
doesn’t come to visit. If healthy, the Sioux have
everything they need for a run at an eighth NCAA title.
||Barring an appearance of the sophomore
jinx, that talented Trotter, Rakhshani, Ruegsegger trio
should have the Pioneers back in the NCAA playoffs.
||Much of the Tigers’ offense
returns, which puts the pressure on the young goalies
to prove they’re ready to shoulder a big load.
||There’s another exciting freshman
class in Dinkytown, but youth and inexperience on defense
have some Gopher fans concerned.
|St. Cloud State
||These Huskies don’t play outside
of Minnesota until Nov. 9, giving home-staters plenty
of chances to see if the holes on defense and in goal
will be properly filled.
||The Huskies made noise without much offense last season.
More power in the power play this year could bring the
long-awaited return of home playoff games to Houghton.
||The defense is top-notch, but rookies
will have to bear plenty of the scoring load if the Badgers
are to follow their red-hot finish from a year ago.
||With last season's top three scorers gone, there's even
more pressure on goalie Alex Stalock to live up to Bulldog
fans' sky-high expectations.
||John Kalinski's potential for offense,
and two veteran goalies, have the Mavericks hoping they
can take a step forward. But Travis Morin's departure
||The sophomore trio of Paul Crowder, Josh Lunden and
Kevin Clark has plenty of scoring to do if the Seawolves
are to make a northerly move.