MINNESOTA DULUTH BULLDOGS
Head Coach: Scott Sandelin
2009-10 Record: 22-17-1 overall, 16-11-1 WCHA, (5th)
Who's Back: Jr. F Jack Connolly (18-31--49), Sr. F Justin Fontaine (21-25--46), Jr. F Mike Connolly (14-26--40), Sr. F Rob Bordson (12-28--40), Jr. D Brady Lamb (11-13--24), Jr. F Travis Oleksuk (10-14--24), Sr. G Kenny Reiter (13-10-0, 2.36, .912).
2010-11 Outlook: The Bulldogs appear primed and loaded for a return run to the Frozen Four this season. In addition to a dynamic group of forwards, which return each of its top six scorers, the Bulldogs have a trio of experienced defensemen back to eat plenty of ice time and a goalie who put up good stats after assuming the starting job midway through the season last year. Up front, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly or Justin Fontaine walk away with the league's Player of the Year Award. All three scored at least 40 points last season. Rob Bordson also scored 40 points a year ago, a 40-point improvement from a year before. All four thrive on a potent Bulldog power play, which may be the best in the country. Brady Lamb and Mike Montgomery are back on the blueline, as is sophomore Dylan Olsen, who looks primed for a breakout year. Kenny Reiter is the undisputed No. 1 entering the year, but the Bulldogs will need another one of their goaltenders to step up and provide him with the opportunity for some rest every now and then. UMD will open a new arena Dec. 30, which should give the team a nice lift heading into the second half of their schedule. "The last couple of years, we've had more success," said Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin. "The Connollys and Fontaine are the guys who are going to carry us, but we're going to need more guys to step up and we'll see if some of our young guys can fill those holes. We didn't lose a whole lot, so we are an older team."
Prediction: With a new arena opening and a reason for optimism on the North Shore, everybody knew nobody of note was going to leave the Bulldogs early. Turns out, nobody did. Now the expectations are high, and with nothing guaranteed following this season, the window of opportunity for UMD is wide open, but for how long? Clearly one of the top three teams in the WCHA, the Bulldogs could find themselves in St. Paul come early April.
MINNESOTA STATE MAVERICKS
Head Coach: Troy Jutting
2009-10 Record: 16-20-3 overall, 9-17-2 WCHA, (8th)
Who's Back: Sr. D Ben Youds (3-23-26), Sr. F Rylan Galiardi (11-14--25), Sr. D Kurt Davis (5-18--23), Jr. F Michael Dorr (5-11--16), So. F Eriah Hayes (8-6--14), Sr. F Mike Louwerse (7-6--13), So. G Phil Cook (8-6-2, 2.59, .908).
2010-11 Outlook: If just one aspect of your team was going to be young, forward would be the place to be. That's the case for Minnesota State this season. The Mavericks have a bunch of experience and offense on the blueline, where both Ben Youds and Kurt Davis return. Fellow senior Channing Boe and sophomore Tyler Elbrecht played a ton of games last season and give the Mavericks both size and a defensive presence. In goal, MSU entered the season with limited experience last season but have plenty back this year. In goal, Phil Cook needs to continue the progress he made last season and improve his play against conference opponents. Up front, the Mavs return Rylan Galiardi, and that's about it. Like Minnesota's Jacob Cepis, Michael Dorr provided the Mavs with a nice second half boost, scoring 16 points in 22 games. Now he will be counted on to help carry the load for a whole season. MSU will also need bounce back years from Mike Louwerse and Andy Sackrison, who both showed promise early in their careers. Jutting is high on his group of freshman forwards, who all showed the ability to put the puck in the net, many in the USHL, a year ago. But this isn't the USHL. "The strength of our team is definitely on the blueline," Jutting said. "We have three seniors back there and two of them have led our team in scoring. But we have a lot to mix in. We have eight freshmen, five of them up front and those five kids are going to have to play quite a few minutes for us this year."
Prediction: The Mavericks had a slew of forwards back a year ago and it didn't translate into the type of season they hoped for. Now loaded with a solid crew of freshman forwards, MSU could be a team to keep an eye on in the second half, especially if Cook continues to improve. Home ice contention may be a bit of a reach this season, but Minnesota State won't be as bad as some are predicting.
Head Coach: Dean Blais
2009-10 Record: 20-16-6 overall, 13-12-2 CCHA*, (6th)
Who's Back: Sr. F Rich Purslow (14-13--27), Sr. F Joey Martin (10-16--26), Jr. F Alex Hudson (14-11--25), So. F Terry Broadhurst (13-11--24), Sr. F Matt Ambroz (10-14--24), Sr. D Eric Olimb (2-18--20), Jr. G John Faulker (13-10-4, 2.60, .905).
2010-11 Outlook: While not as accomplished as fellow newcomer conference Bemidji State, Nebraska-Omaha could have an easier go of it early on because it played in the CCHA last season. What the Beavers have though is top-end talent. While the Mavericks are working to that end, they do have a number of solid players that should prevent this season from being a total bust. UNO has six players back from a year ago that scored at least 20 points, but none scored 30. The Mavericks are also very thin on the blueline, where contending teams in the WCHA have reigned supreme in recent years. The defensive group for the Mavericks is also very big, which could create potential penalty problems -- especially with the notoriously fickle WCHA officials early in the season. John Faulkner will need to make a major jump from last season when his save percentage in conference games was sub 90 percent. The talented but inconsistent junior will be the main man in net, especially early, because of the lack of experience behind him. The Mavs bring in a pair of players -- Ryan Walters and Brock Montpetit -- once slated to play at Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively. Should Dean Blais continue to pull in that kind of talent, UNO could be among the conference elite in just a few short years. "I hope we're fast and the furious," Blais said when asked about style of play. "We try to play with a lot of speed. I think our forwards, with their speed, will really be the success of our team."
Prediction: A few solid forwards, size but no experience on defense and an inconsistent goaltender could make for a tough first season back in the WCHA for Blais. While the team's CCHA experience will make the Mavericks competitive from day one, the major question facing UNO is whether they have enough firepower to overcome better competition in the WCHA. This season, that might be tough.
NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX
Head Coach: Dave Hakstol
2009-10 Record: 25-13-5 overall, 15-10-3 WCHA, (4th)
Who's Back: Jr. F Jason Gregoire (20-17--37), So. F Danny Kristo (15-21--36), Sr. F Evan Trupp (8-26--34), Jr. F Brett Hextall (14-12--26), Sr. F Brad Malone (11-14--25), Sr. D Chay Genoway (4-6--10), Jr. G Brad Eidsness (24-10-4, 2.11, .914).
2010-11 Outlook: North Dakota loses just one of its top eight scorers and regains the services of perhaps the best college hockey player in the land in Chay Genoway. The loss of Chris VendeVelde isn't a small one -- he led the Fighting Sioux in scoring last season (16-25--41). But his loss should be covered by returning forwards Jason Gregoire, Danny Kristo, Evan Trupp and others, along with a full season of senior Matt Frattin, who returned for the second half last season and scored 19 points in 24 games. If that's not enough, sophomore Corban Knight looks primed for a breakout sophomore campaign and freshman Brock Nelson could make an immediate impact. On the blueline, Genoway is back after a horrific concussion cost him most of last season. He is joined by fellow senior co-captains Jake Marto and Derrick LaPoint, junior Ben Blood and freshman phenom Derek Forbot to form perhaps the best defensive corps in the country. And oh yeah, UND also has one of the best goaltenders in the country in Brad Eidsness, a junior who was among the conference leaders in just about every category last season. "Instead of looking at the predictions and the polls, our goal is to get our team back to the level they were playing at at the end of last season," said Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol. "We found that we could be a tough team to play against if we had everyone playing within their role and at a very high intensity level."
Prediction: North Dakota is the preseason favorite of the league's coaches and media for a reason -- they are loaded at every position. There really appears nothing that can slow them down, especially if UND can avoid its traditional slow starts. Look for the Fighting Sioux to challenge for the MacNaughton Cup, the Broadmoor Trophy and the National Championship this season.
ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES
Head Coach: Bob Motzko
2009-10 Record: 20-11-5 overall, 15-9-4 WCHA, (3rd)
Who's Back: Sr. F Garrett Roe (20-29--49), Sr. F Tony Mosey (14-26--40), Jr. F Drew LeBlanc (6-25--31), Jr. F Jared Festler (11-13--24), So. F David Eddy* (12-11--23), So. F Ben Hanowski (9-10--19), So. G Mike Lee (12-9-3, 2.80, .917).
2010-11 Outlook: The Huskies lose their best forward and their best defenseman and are still among the league's favorites for the league title. That's thanks primarily to an explosive group of returning forwards, including Player of the Year candidate Garrett Roe. While Ryan Lasch broke a school scoring record that had stood for over two decades, he may hold the record for just a year, as Roe starts the season just 41 points back of Lasch's record. While 41 points is a challenge for most, Roe has eclipsed the 40-point mark in each of his first three seasons in St. Cloud. Joining Roe are explosive forwards Tony Mosey, Drew LeBlanc and Jared Festler, as well as sophomore Ben Hanowski. David Eddy, out because of academic issues, is set to rejoin the team at Christmas break. In goal, the Huskies return a pair of starting caliber netminders in sophomore Mike Lee and senior Dan Dunn. Both would start on a majority of teams in the league, and both are effective in their current roles. Mike Lee will likely get the first look, but both will see plenty of ice time. If there is a weakness of this current SCSU team, its on the blueline. The loss of Garrett Raboin, the heart and soul of SCSU's teams the last few seasons, will be tough to fill. Senior Oliver Lauridsen has become a quality defenseman in the WCHA and freshmen Nick Jensen and Kevin Gravel will be counted on right away to make impacts. "North Dakota's in front and we're in that group chasing them," said Huskies head coach Bob Motzko. We have eight freshmen to blend in with a strong returning group and that's our challenge right now. We have a lot of guys fighting for some key positions but we come back with two strong goaltenders and I think that bears well for us."
Prediction: The lack of quality defensemen would be a concern with most teams, but with two stud goaltenders and an almost unlimited supply of quality forwards, the Huskies should be OK. With the weight of gaining their first NCAA Tournament victory already lifted, don't be surprised if SCSU makes a deep playoff run in 2011.
Head Coach: Mike Eaves
2009-10 Record: 28-11-4 overall, 17-8-3 WCHA, (2nd)
Who's Back: So. F Craig Smith (8-25--33), So. D Justin Schultz (6-16--22), Jr. F Jordy Murray (12-9--21), Jr. D Jake Gardiner (6-7--13), So. D John Ramage (2-10--12), So. F Derek Lee (1-8--9), Sr. G Scott Gudmandson (20-5-4, 2.34, .913).
2010-11 Outlook: In addition to losing six of their top 11 returning scorers to graduation, Wisconsin also lost four players to early departure. Gone is Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion, the physical and emotional leader of the national runner-up Badgers. Also gone are top two defensemen Brendan Smith and Ryan McDonagh. as well as leading scorers Derek Stepan and Michael Davies. Losing one or of these guys would make a major difference for any team, but losing them all at once might be too much for Wisconsin to overcome, at least this season. Mike Eaves does a better job of recruiting defensemen than perhaps any coach in the country, so the losses of Smith and McDonagh will be helped by returning blueliners Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner and John Ramage. All have the ability to be top of the line defensemen. The defense will also be helped by a pair of seniors in goal in Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett. Last season started as a rotation between the two, but as the season went on Gudmandson established himself as one of the best goalies in the country. The major question remains this: Can Wisconsin score enough? "We have 10 freshmen coming in, so we're going to be a really young team," said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves. "We have two senior goalies we will need to play well early so our young forwards can get some experience. Up front, we're really going to have to figure things out as we go along here finding where the chemistry lies and what kind of roles guys are going to have. "
Prediction: Wisconsin has suffered more major losses in one offseason than any team in recent memory, and perhaps more than any team since the "Early Departure Era" really began about 10 years ago. Eaves is a great coach, UW always has good goalies and the Badgers have some good defensemen. That should be enough to keep them in the race for home ice in the playoffs.