Each week, we'll talk about Minnesota's college hockey teams in this space. This week, it's a bit of a season preview, with a quick look at all five Division I schools in the state, all of which start regular season play this weekend.
It's been six months since Minnesota Duluth completed a climb to the top of the college hockey mountain. While Bulldog fans have (rightfully) been basking in the glow ever since, the rest of the State of Hockey has been counting the days until the Bulldogs could be beaten on the ice.
That day has almost arrived, as the college hockey season starts with a slew of non-conference games this weekend.
While UMD tries to re-stock its core of forwards and top defenseman -- a group riddled by graduation and early departures -- Minnesota's four other WCHA teams are ready to take their shot at the long climb.
The reward for four fortunate college hockey teams this year? An April trip to Tampa, home of the 2012 NCAA Men's Frozen Four.
The Bulldogs are defending champions, but head coach Scott Sandelin has talked a lot about the need for this year's team to develop its own identity. It's important, because you can't live in the past, even if everyone else is.
When UMD plays a game this season, expect the opponent to play its best game possible. That's the norm when you are dealing with a defending champ. That's the team that won it all last year, and teams want to beat that team to prove how good they are.
Meanwhile, the defending champion needs to move on. It's a different year, a different team, and a different identity. How quickly UMD is able to move on and work on its own identity will largely determine how successful the Bulldogs can be.
Up front, Jack Connolly returns, now as a team captain. He's the only Connolly on the team now, as longtime running buddy Mike Connolly (did you know they're not related?) signed a free-agent deal with San Jose. Jack Connolly is considered a top Hobey Baker Award candidate after making the list of ten finalists last spring. His chances will probably come down to how quickly UMD develops two linemates to produce around him.
One of those guys will be sophomore J.T. Brown, at least for now. Brown spent a good chunk of last season on the top power play unit, so he has skated with Connolly. Five-on-five, Brown excelled on UMD's second line last year, working with Travis Oleksuk and Kyle Schmidt. Oleksuk returns to center the second line.
On defense, it's a hodge-podge of largely inexperienced players. Senior assistant captain Brady Lamb and junior Wade Bergman return, as do junior Drew Olson and senior Scott Kishel. Lamb and Bergman will be the top pair, and freshmen Luke McManus, Derik Johnson (father Jim played at UMD and spent 13 years in the NHL), and Chris Casto will vie for ice time.
UMD plays ten of 14 at home to start the season, then isn't home for two months. If the Bulldogs are still in the NCAA hunt when mid-January rolls around, it could be very interesting around Duluth.
Star Matt Read departs, but the Beavers built this program to Division I around hard work, goaltending, and speed, and they have some of all those things this year.
Guys like Brad Hunt, Shea Walters, Jamie MacQueen, and Jordan George give the Beavers some skill and skating ability, and all of them have the experience in Tom Serratore's system to give opponents fits at both ends of the rink. Goalie Dan Bakala might not have had an impressive won-loss record, but he flat-out stole the Beavers' playoff series at Nebraska-Omaha, and he's capable of that type of performance every time he plays.
All the talk about Don Lucia, and he's back. All the talk about John Hill, and he's not. The embattled assistant departed, and longtime Lucia aide Mike Guentzel returned. That's a boon for the Gophers, especially on the blue line. Guentzel is good with defensemen, and with a lot of inexperience but a lot of talent back there, Minnesota might surprise with the production you see from their D.
Up front, I expect big things out of guys like Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, and senior Jake Hansen, who popped 11 goals last year. Minnesota has a lot of talented freshmen, led by Kyle Rau and Seth Ambroz up front, and Ben Marshall on the blue line.
The key player is goalie Kent Patterson, an all-WCHA caliber player who posted huge numbers after taking over for Alex Kangas last year.
I expect Minnesota will be a home-ice team this season, and Lucia could be a Coach of the Year candidate if they make it to the top four of the league, something I think they're fully capable of.
It was a huge struggle for the Mavericks last year, and it doesn't look to get much better this time around. Defensive stalwarts Kurt Davis and Ben Youds are gone, as are forwards Rylan Galiardi and Andrew Sackrison. MSU will lean heavily on former Gopher Michael Dorr, who led the team with 12 goals last season. Junior Justin Jokinen will be looked at for an offensive breakout.
Co-captain Tyler Elbrecht leads the way for the defense, which had its moments last year on a team that couldn't score much. Without Davis and Youds, it could be argued MSU will be even worse, and they were 11th in the league in scoring defense last season.
St. Cloud State
After being picked near the top of the league in the preseason polls, the Huskies floundered, finishing ninth before giving UMD a heck of a battle in the first round of the playoffs.
(UMD needed triple overtime to dispatch SCSU in the Saturday game.)
The Huskies lose Garrett Roe, which should slow down the diving jokes from opposing student sections. Captain Drew Leblanc should be a top-line guy all season, and young defenseman Nick Jensen has a load of potential.
Goalie Mike Lee is the unquestioned No. 1 guy, and he was great in that two-game playoff series last year, especially in the first overtime of the Saturday game. If he can play anywhere remotely close to that level for the entire season, the Huskies will surprise a lot of people with how good they could potentially be.