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Collegiate Wilderness: Midwest Preview Edition

The NCAA hockey season is about to begin. What can we expect from our friendly neighborhood college hockey programs in 2015 - 16?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA hockey is back underway tonight and tomorrow with a few games on the schedule. Along with it is a new feature here on Hockey Wilderness. Over the course of the season, I’ll be contributing a few articles each week to keep Wild fans up to date with college hockey around the midwest. For now, I’ll be covering teams regionally, but that could change if there’s interest in other teams or conference-specific coverage down the line. In any case, the teams I’ll be looking at to start the season are Bemidji State University, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State University, the University of North Dakota, the University of Minnesota - Duluth, the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, and the University of Wisconsin. Collectively, these teams represent three different Division I Conferences and one small area of the country, once again reminding me why I really, really miss the old WCHA format.

Each week, I’ll run one article containing the best news and clips from around the region. I’ll also run a brief matchup preview for each of the teams on that list as well as a more comprehensive preview for one team on that list, rotating from week to week as a sort of highlighted, premium matchup. From time to time, you can also expect to see more in-depth pieces about players, teams, and programs. Stories about things like Hudson Fasching’s dedication to hockey and family as well as the ongoing UND nickname debacle will pop up from time to time. If you’re interested in the NCAA’s growing pipeline of players to the NHL, college athletics, and maybe some kind-of cool articles about really interesting people, take a look at my articles when they pop up.

I’ll be live-tweeting three games tomorrow. At 7:00PM, check in on Twitter with @Real_JackVT  as the Gophers take on Vermont and the MSU Mavericks shuck some corn against the University of Nebraska - Omaha also Mavericks (wait, seriously? They’re both Mavericks? Cool). At 10:00PM the St. Cloud State Huskies take on the University of Alaska - Anchorage Seawolves (seriously, what’s a Seawolf?). I’ll keep things managed there using hashtags for each game, so it shouldn’t be too messy to follow.

In the meantime, let’s take a look around the midwest and check in with the college hockey programs in and around the State of Hockey.

Bemidji State Beavers

Preseason Ranking: NR

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

The Bemidji State Beavers’ 16-17-5 year ended with a back-breaking triple OT loss to Ferris State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, capping one of their worst records as a Division I hockey team. This isn’t to say anyone expected BSU to take Ferris State out of the tournament, but the late loss after a surprisingly-close matchup marked a missed opportunity to close out a season of missed opportunities. Over the course of the season, BSU’s young core couldn’t quite gel and fell to fifth place in the WCHA, good for a bid in the WCHA tournament which ultimately led nowhere. The team, led by Senior Graeme McCormack and Head Coach Tom Serratore, will need its core of upperclassmen to keep improving in order to provide opportunities and time for their younger players to find their places.

Subtractions: Phil Brewer, Mitch Cain, James Hansen, Matt Prapavessis, Sam Rendle, Andrew Walsh, Sam Windle

Additions: Justin Baudry, Dan Billett, Jay Dickman, Dillon Eichstadt, Ian Janco, Adam Lovick, T.J. Roo, Mike Soucier

Players to Watch: Brendan Harms, Graeme McCormack, T.J. Roo

Season Preview:

With a healthy core of sophomores and juniors maturing into their roles, BSU’s first task is to avoid the struggles of the past season and integrate the eight incoming freshmen on the squad. Freshman T.J. Roo has played well in the Beavers’ exhibition matchups and if he gets reasonable ice time, he could develop into a bigger role on the team over the course of the season. Early returns for Junior Brendan Harms are also positive, and could give the Beavers a better, more aggressive forward corps to make up for big losses on defense. Graduated Seniors like Matt Prapavessis and Sam Rendle provided solid playmaking and physicality on the Beavers’ blueline. In a lot of ways, the fate of MSU’s 2015 - 16 season is tied to their ability to patch over the gaps on defense with a maturing and more dynamic offense. Given their troubles last season, I’m skeptical that they can take that next step, but if the right players step forward, the Beavers’ could steal a few games away from the more talked-about members of the WCHA.

University of Minnesota - Duluth Bulldogs

Preseason Ranking: 2

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

At 21-16-3, it’s hard to find much to criticize on the surface of Head Coach Scott Sandelin’s 2014 - 15 Bulldogs squad. Their forwards pressed into the corners, their defense protected Freshman goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo (though, he may not have needed much protection, anyway), and scoring was shared evenly across the roster.

A rash of injuries to Senior Adam Krause and Sophomores Alex Iafallo and Dominic Toninato gave the Bulldogs and their fans a few excuses for struggles over the course of the season. In the end, their season ended at the hands of Boston University’s Evan Rodrigues at the tail end of one of UMD’s 3 penalties. However, the Bulldogs leaned heavily on Kaskisuo down the stretch and had no real emergent offensive studs. Without a true, game-breaking scoring threat, it may be difficult for the Bulldogs to repeat their bounceback 2014 - 15 season.

Subtractions: Brett Boehm, Justin Crandall, Alex Fons, Derik Johnson, Adam Krause

Additions: Billy Exell, Nick Deery, Adam Johnson, Parker Mackay, Neal Pionk

Players to Watch: Tony Cameranesi (TOR), Kasimir Kaskisuo, Karson Kuhlman, Carson Soucy (MIN), Dominic Toninato (TOR), Andy Welinski (ANA)

Season Preview:

It’s easy to forget that the team that bounced the Gophers in the NCAA tournament also finished 16-16-4 in 2013 - 14. Whether last year was an anomaly or not largely depends on the performance of UMD’s offense and goaltending. If the Bulldogs can put up better numbers on offense and identify an elite scorer and if Kasimir Kaskisuo can continue his strong play in the crease, they have a serious chance to make waves in the NCAA tournament. As it stands, those are two big if’s. Regular readers of Hockey Wilderness know all too well how unpredictable goalie development can be and often is. If Kaskisuo’s SV% regresses to even the NCAA average, this could limit the prospects of a team which relied on him heavily to stay competitive in 16 one-goal or closer games over the course of the season. Similarly, if the Bulldogs don’t identify more true scorers with elite-level skills, their scoring could regress dangerously. It’s a mixed bag in northern Minnesota, and while that might keep fans uneasy, it will also keep them hopeful over the course of the year.

Minnesota State Mavericks

Preseason Ranking: 6

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

The MSU Mavericks had a pretty solid 2014 - 15 season, taking home the MacNaughton Cup with a 21-4-3 conference record. Junior Stephon Williams (NYI) provided rock solid goaltending, only allowing 55 goals, good for a .925 SV%. Junior Bryce Gervais provided a solid punch on offense, as well, dropping 27 goals in 40 games in the difficult WCHA. MSU outscored its opponents at nearly a 2:1 pace, which gave them plenty of room to allow younger players to develop.

Subtractions: Nick Buchanan, Max Gaede (SJS), Chase Grant, Jean-Paul Lafontaine, Matt Leitner, Zach Palmquist (MIN #OneOfUs), Brett Stern, Stephon Williams (NYI)

Additions: Daniel Brickley, Max Coata, Steen Cooper, Clint Lewis, Chandler Madry, Jimmy Mullin (TBL), Jason Pawloski, Ryan Schwalbe, Alec Vanko

Players to Watch: Michael Eyssimont, Robby Jackson, Bryce Gervais, Tyler Morley

Season Preview:

Despite a strong season in 2014 - 15, a great deal of roster turnover could present some interesting challenges for the Mavericks. Integrating 9 freshmen while losing many of their strongest players, their netminder, and their best leaders could mean the Mavericks struggle to make their place in the WCHA. Senior Dylan Margonari will be sidelined for at least the first six weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his leg, which could tamper with their plans early on. Nevertheless, expectations for MSU are high and probably right where they should be. In the past season, MSU has proven they can fill the net, which helps soften the blow of Williams’ departure for the AHL. For many teams who rely heavily on their goaltender, a drop in SV% could spell disaster. However, for MSU, which suppressed shots and protected Williams’ crease well (though Williams could maybe have done some of this bare-handed. Seriously), even average NCAA goaltending will suffice behind the potent offense of their top lines.

Despite the losses of Williams and other veteran leaders, the Mavericks’ roster still includes some of their best players like Seniors Teddy Blueger (PIT) and Bryce Gervais. If they are able to maintain their elite scoring pace, the Mavericks should end the season near the top of the WCHA. Preseason rankings keep MSU in the NCAA tournament conversation, but what voice they will bring to that conversation is largely dependent on the leadership of their remaining players.

St. Cloud State Huskies

Preseason Ranking: 17

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

The Huskies ended their 2014 - 2015 season at 20-19-1 with losses to the Miami Redhawks in the NCHC Championship and the University of North Dakota Fighting the Inevitables in the NCAA West Regional Final. They were carried on offense by Juniors Jonny Brodzinski, David Morley, and Joey Benik. Sophomore Charlie Lindgren provided solid goaltending, posting a .919 SV%, which allowed the Huskies to steal a few tight, evenly-shot games. If Lindgren continues to develop, he could be a real asset for a Huskies team in desperate need of continuity year-over-year.

Subtractions: Brooks Bertsch, Jonny Brodzinski (LAK), Tim Daly, Garrett Milan, Nick Oliver, Joe Phillipi, Andrew Prochno, Jarrod Rabey, Joe Rehkamp

Additions: Jacob Benson, Will Borgen (BUF), Mikey Eyssimont, Robby Jackson. Clark Kuster, Jon Lizotte, Patrick Newell, Jimmy Schuldt, David Zevnik

Players to Watch: Mikey Eyssimont, Robby Jackson, David Morley, Ben Storm

Season Preview:

With a young blueline, St. Cloud State will either need better goaltending or more goalscoring to remain competitive in the standings this year. Their USCHO rankings put them in the picture for an NCAA tournament bid, but with Junior Niklas Nevalainen sidelined this week, I’m not convinced they’d rank as highly with an updated poll. Nevalainen went head-first into the boards last weekend and has what seems like an upper-body injury at best and a concussion at worst, leaving half of the Huskies’ upperclassmen defense injured. This could become a serious issue to start the season, and Sophomores Mika Ilvonen and Nathan Widman will need to step up as leaders on defense to fill the void. The biggest loss for SCSU is Forward Jonny Brodzinski’s move to the AHL. Brodzinski brought a consistent scoring touch in his three seasons with the Huskies, and while exhibition matchups haven’t really shown it, it’s hard to picture who emerges as an elite goal-scorer for the Huskies in Brodzinski’s stead. While their exhibition matches have featured tons of shots on goal, they haven’t faced the kind of shot suppression that upper-echelon teams will offer. With some real uncertainty on offense, I don’t imagine the Huskies end the season in the rankings where they are now.

University of Wisconsin Badgers

Preseason Ranking: NR

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

With a 4-26-5 showing in 014 - 2015, Head Coach Mike Eaves’ UW Badgers didn’t really impress anyone. Outside of some dependable showings from Joel Rumpel (SJS), the fans of the UW had few reasons to cheer. Despite Rumpel’s overall quality, the team simply couldn’t suppress shots, allowing 1243 shots over the course of the season. What was worse, the Badgers only managed to put 59 goals in against opponents at a mediocre 6.8 SH%. The Badgers finished outside every discussion of the NCAA tournament and have a lot of questions to answer going forward.

Subtractions: Jack Dougherty (NSH), Chase Drake, Joseph LaBate (VAN), Brad Navin (BUF), Matt Paape, Landon Peterson, Joel Rumpel (SJS), Morgan Zulinick

Additions: Tanner Barnes, Matthew Freytag, Will Johnson, Matt Jurusik, Luke Kunin, Seamus Malone, Patrick Sexton, Peter Tischke, Jarod Zirbel

Players to Watch: Grant Besse (ANA), Cameron Hughes (BOS), Adam Parsells, Matthew Freytag, Eddie Wittchow (FLA)

Season Preview:

A slew of departures from Madison has left Wisconsin’s cupboard bare for the upcoming season. Returning scorers Grant Besse and Cameron Hughes are the lone bright spots on a roster otherwise filled with question marks. The loss of Joel Rumpel (SJS) is a tough loss for the Badgers, who depended on him throughout the year for strong goaltending. In his wake, Rumpel leaves a tug-of-war for the cage, with Freshmen Gabe Grunwald and Matt Jurusik and Junior Adam Miller vying for starts. It’s tough to imagine that Eaves will have an easy job identifying where the talent truly lies if the Badgers can’t come up with a semblance of a system. In conditions of such massive uncertainty, the climb up from the bottom of the Big Ten standings looks more difficult than ever for the UW. If the Badgers want to make forward strides in the standings, they’ll have to prove to their best players that there are reasons to stay and mentor their newest recruits. If Mike Eaves wants to hold onto his post with the Badgers, he’ll have to make sure that mentoring happens sooner rather than later.

University of North Dakota Fighting the Inevitables

Preseason Ranking: 4

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

Despite a slow start and struggles clicking on offense, North Dakota’s forwards eventually clicked under the laser-focus of Head Coach Dave Hakstol, whose gaze is probably somewhere between a Darth Vader force choke and the time your middle school science teacher glared at you because you laughed at the word "Uranus." Down the stretch, UND put in impressive five-game winning streaks, with Junior Zane McIntyre putting up an impressive .923 SV% after the turn of the year and contributing to a 29-10-3 record on the year. Ultimately, UND lost in both its NCHC 3rd Place matchup with Denver and fell to Boston University in the NCAA Frozen Four.

Subtractions: Connor Gaarder, Mark MacMillan (MTL), Nick Mattson (CHI), Zane McIntyre (BOS), Wade Murphy (NSH), Brendan O’Donnell (TBL), Andrew Panzarella, Michael Parks (PHI), Stephane Pattyn, Jordan Schmaltz (STL)

Additions: Ryan Anderson, Brock Boeser (VAN), Danys Chartrand, Rhett Gardner, Shane Gersich (WSH), Mike Gornall, Joel Janatuinen, Hayden Shaw, Matej Tomek (PHI), Chris Wilkie (FLA), Christian Wolanin (OTT)

Players to Watch: Brock Boeser (VAN), Christian Evers, Tucker Poolman (WPG), Paul LaDue (LAK), Nick Schmaltz (CHI)

Season Preview:

There’s probably no team in this preview whose off-ice concerns mirror their on-ice concerns as much as UND. In May, longtime UND coach Dave Hakstol became the first NCAA head coach to make the leap from the NCAA to the NHL in over three decades when he replaced not-terrible Craig Berube with the Philadelphia Flyers. Over the course of the spring and summer, Juniors Zane McIntyre and Jordan Schmaltz signed contracts with Boston and St. Louis, respectively. While the poaching of talent in North Dakota helps its reputation with recruits and speaks to the level of development under Hakstol, it does little to bolster the net and goal-scoring of the team. The influx of 11 freshmen on the UND roster, combined with the departure of staples like McIntyre, Schmaltz, and Hakstol present a very serious identity problem for the team. If no one emerges and defines that identity, it could be a rocky start of the season in North Dakota. Add to this an injury to Senior Colten St. Clair, and the hurdles for UND continue to line up. Nevertheless, UND is stocked with talent and while it’s easy to imagine a down year after losing a strong head coach, the team should find its footing sooner rather than later.

For the record, I’m not all that interested in the debate around UND’s new nickname. There’s been plenty of talk about the importance of tradition and identity, but too little of respect and understanding that, when harmless alternatives exist, we should opt to do as little harm as possible. It’s obvious that UND will eventually have to select a new nickname, one which respects the tradition of the past while honoring the current identity of their students, faculty, and fans. In that spirit, I’ll be using the "Fighting the Inevitables" as the UND nickname until they select a new official title. It fits UND’s recent tradition of willful obtuseness to the fact that their nickname will change as well as their current struggles to reassert the old brand they’ve used in the past. When UND agrees on a nickname, I’ll happily retire the not-particularly-offensive Fighting the Inevitables mascot.

University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

Preseason Ranking: 9

2014 - 15 Year in Review:

Don Lucia’s (the real one) Golden Gophers went 23-13-3 in 2014 - 15 and took the Big Ten Championship over Michigan on a game-winner by 1015 - 2016 Captain Justin Kloos.

Thanks for all your help over the years @FakeDonLucia. I'll take it from here.

While Senior Kyle Rau made a return for a fourth season in maroon and gold to settle "unfinished business," the U of M ultimately fell to the UMD Bulldogs in the NCAA Northeast Regional Semifinal. Over the course of the season, the Gophers played strong offensive hockey in front of Junior Adam Wilcox, putting up over 25 shots per game over the course of the season. The prototypical mobile, offensive-defenseman that has become a trademark of Don Lucia’s system resulted in opponents pouring on nearly around 33 shots per game on Wilcox and Freshman Nick Lehr. The Gophers’ success over the course of the year was mostly due to strong, consistent backstopping by Wilcox and an efficient forecheck which produced opportunities down low and opened up mobile defenders.

Subtractions: Seth Ambroz (CLB), Travis Boyd (WSH), Christian Isackson (BUF),  Ben Marshall (DET), Kyle Rau (FLA), Mikey Reilly (MIN),  Brady Skjei (NYR), Sam Warning, Adam Wilcox (TBL)

Additions: Brent Gates Jr. (ANA), Brock Kautz, Tommy Novak (NSH), Jack Ramsey (CHI), Darian Romanko,  Jack Sadek (MIN), Eric Schierhorn, Curt Simonson, Mike Szmatula

Players to Watch: Leon Bristedt, Taylor Cammarata (NYI), Hudson Fasching (BUF), Justin Kloos, Jack Sadek (MIN)

Season Preview:

With the departures of prominent Gophers like Kyle Rau (FLA), Adam Wilcox (TBL) and some of their strongest defenders like Mikey Reilly (MIN #OneOfUs) and Brady Skjei (NYR), the Gophers have some large voids to fill throughout their lineup. Largely, the offensive system under Don Lucia has rolled through lineup changes with ease, but they’ll need players like Hudson Fasching to continue to develop in order to make a splash in the NCAA this season. They'll also rely on Junior Captain Justin Kloos' leadership to maintain continuity to previous seasons and help new players develop into a fast-paced Gophers system. More than anything, they'll need Kloos to show someone else how to score pretty, weird, clutch goals, as the Gophers find themselves in a pinch from time to time.

So pretty.

More than in previous seasons, the mobility of defensemen in the U of M system could allow a few too many odd-man rushes on inexperienced Gopher goaltenders. However, if Junior defensemen like Jake Bischoff (NYI) and Michael Brodzinski (SJS) can make the system manageable for emerging blueliners, the Gophers should make a solid bid for the Big Ten title and the NCAA tournament.

***                             ***

That’s it for now in college hockey. Like I mentioned above, if you’re interested in one of the three games I mentioned, hop on Twitter tomorrow evening a few minutes before gametime and join the stream with @Real_JackVT . If you have ideas about features you’d like to see on college hockey, players you’d like to see covered more, or even just want to share your opinion, drop a comment below or find me on Twitter. It’s going to be a good season, and like college hockey, it’s always better when you’re in the stands with the rest of us.