When the annual Grand Forks Herald college hockey preview section comes out tomorrow, it will contain all sorts of predictions and lists — top 10 players, top 10 recruits, all-WCHA and predicted finish of each conference.
For an early warmup, here’s my all-WCHA ballot with reasoning for my picks.
Note: Defending league champs have most players back. Everyone is questioning the goaltending, but Kent Patterson put up very average, if not below average, numbers for much of last year (.894 save percentage from Thanksgiving on). The new goalie won’t see a lot of rubber and shouldn’t have a difficult time replicating that.
2. North Dakota.
Note: Like Minnesota, nobody has a clue what to expect from UND’s goaltending. Defensively, UND should be pretty solid. Up front, UND needs to stay healthy and needs the sophomore forwards to take a step in their games. If so, this team could be pretty good. Look for Rocco Grimaldi to be among the league’s best forwards.
3. St. Cloud State
Note: I’m surprised how low some people are picking the Huskies. I think this team could be in the mix to compete for a league title. Drew LeBlanc was one of the league’s best forwards before he got injured. Ben Hanowski developed into one of the league’s best forwards at the end of the season. Sure, the Huskies disappointed everyone two years ago, but that defensive corps wasn’t even close to as good as this one, led by Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno.
Note: Yes, the Pioneers sustained major losses up front with three players signing NHL deals early. But Denver has one of the top defensive crews with Scott Mayfield, Joey LaLeggia and David Makowski manning the blue line. Sam Brittain is a top-notch goalie, too. They will have enough scoring to get by.
Note: The Badgers should be back in the mix in the top half of the WCHA this season. Their younger players improved quite a bit as the season progressed last year. Tyler Barnes could be one of the league’s breakout players. Wisconsin may be one year away from being a top-five team nationally, but the Badgers should inch closer this season.
Note: The Bulldogs sustained significant losses at every position. There is some good news for Duluth fans. The Bulldogs bring in some recruits who will impact their season immediately. Defenseman Andrew Welinski is the Herald’s No. 2 incoming recruit. Forward Austin Farley is very dynamic and could be on a top line right away.
Note: The Mavericks have some question marks up front. They need some players to step up and fill the void left by the early signings of Jayson Megna and Terry Broadhurst. But I have a feeling that Dean Blais, known for his high flying offenses, will switch to a defensive style based on Omaha’s strong blue line and highly touted goalie Anthony Stolarz.
Note: Minnesota State is this year’s Michigan Tech. There’s a new coach in town, but the old coach left the cupboard full. The Mavericks have some very dynamic players in J.P. Lafontaine, Matt Leitner and Zach Palmquist. Add in one of MSU’s most highly touted recruiting classes, featuring Shattuck’s Teddy Bluegar, and they will be the “surprise” team in the league this season.
9. Michigan Tech
Note: Michigan Tech was the surprise of the league last season. And while it does have a lot of key players returning it did lose Brett Olson, Jordan Baker and Josh Robinson. Highly touted recruit Jujhar Khaira should replace some of the offense, but goaltending may be a larger question mark.
10. Colorado College
Note: It’s very weird picking the Tigers down here, but they had a tough ending to the season and lost most of their top scorers. Rylan Schwartz is a star, but he needs help from others, who didn’t step up last season.
11. Bemidji State
Note: Jordan George is arguably one of the league’s most underrated players. But like Schwartz and Colorado College, depth scoring is a must. The Beavers won’t have Dan Bakala anymore in the net. Still, they won’t be an easy out for anyone they play.
12. Alaska Anchorage
Note: Some top players have left school. Another got kicked off the team last season. Not much good has come out of that program recently. That being said, injuries were a major problem for the Seawolves last season and if they are able to stay healthy this year, I think their record will improve.
Player of the year – Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
Note: Bjugstad is tough to knock off the puck and has scoring touch. Now that Minnesota has a bunch of prolific offensive defensemen, that should help him rack up the points.
Rookie of the year – Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota
Note: Although he only played four games, and was not healthy for them, we saw some glimpses of what Grimaldi is capable of doing last season.
F — Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
F — Danny Kristo, North Dakota
F — Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
D — Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
D — Scott Mayfield, Denver
G — Sam Brittain, Denver
Note: Forwards were pretty straight-forward. Corban Knight could have slipped into one of those spots. Jensen was an easy one on defense. I know everyone else has Joey LaLeggia at the other spot, but he made so many bad turnovers at the Final Five and at the end of the year. I thought Mayfield was their best D-man by the end. I also thought about Andrew MacWilliam here, as he’s the league’s best physical defenseman, and Nate Schmidt, who put up a bunch of points last year and will again this year.
All right, tell me where I screwed up. I know you want to.