With the Minnesota Wild drafting Luke Kunin, the New York Rangers landing Jimmy Vesey, and the Gopher's women's team winning yet another national title, there's a good argument to be made that the state of college hockey and its players has never been more important, particularly for fans in Minnesota. I mean, #OneOfUs is a thing for a reason and it applies particularly to Erik Haula, born in Pori, Finland and not Lakeville or something like that, for a reason.
So if you're trying to get into college hockey, or just looking for a refresher before tonight's much anticipated first game of the exhibition season between Simon Fraser and Alaska Anchorage (for a minute I genuinely thought there was just one guy named Simon Fraser taking on an entire D1 team), then I'm here to help.
Let's check in with a few of the teams we'll be watching this year to see where they stand. In the interest of space, I'll only cover three of these teams today and will follow up on Tuesday with the rest.
First up, your Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Despite their status as a perennial powerhouse of college hockey, there's been something of a gravity shift in recent years toward teams on the east coast, and it's looked like the Gophers have been left behind. And despite the continued success of the Gopher's women's team, who are pretty amazing and who we'll talk about a lot this season, the Gopher's men's team has done little to shake concerns about the quality of their leadership over the past few years. Nevertheless, the Gophers have won 3-straight Big Ten titles, which have given them autobids to the tournament, so things aren't so bad, right?
Well, yes and no.
The departure of Hudson Fasching for the NHL this past year (he's looking great) has left a vacuum in the scoring on the lineup, and while there's still a core of good veterans, it's hard to replace Fasching's shot, flair, and ability to look skillful while playing for the Buffalo Sabres (I'm starting to think Kyle Okposo might be really good on that team).
In any case, the steady march of time means that the Gophers have brought in new blood to help replace the old. The six freshmen the Gophers have brought in are among the elite of young hockey prospects. That group is bolstered by defenseman Tyler Nanne, whom I watched play for the Madison Capitols USHL team this past season and is already a draftee of the Rangers. He's got a booming shot, is steady in his own zone, and looked miles ahead of some of his teammates, which should bode well for his transition.
But enough about the Gophers, what about the Wisconsin Badgers?
Well, 2015-2016 was a characteristically tough season for the Badgers, who have played a beleaguered, lost game for the past few seasons. The Badgers have been historically a solid club, and that's reflected in their ability to pull in players like Kunin as recruits. But their recent struggles have resulted in them also pulling in cheap-ish players like Burnsville-native and Panthers draftee Eddie Wittchow. The difference here is their ability to cope with adversity. Kunin, who plays a tenacious and speedy game, was a rock alongside Cameron Hughes all season for the Badgers, while Wittchow would falter at times and let his immaturity get him into really stupid situations like this:
It's legitimately bothersome that this hit, which earned a sizable suspension for Wittchow, is posted as him "blowing up" Bristedt, when in truth it's a cheap, meaningless shot at the end of a game the Badger's lost when he stepped on the ice.
At the end of the day, the solution to this issue is exactly what the Badgers have done, which is to bring in old leadership for the new in the form of Tony Granato, who played 13 NHL seasons and served as an assistant coach in Colorado and Pittsburgh, bolstering their defenses with a consistency the Badgers desperately need. Whether their current talent can produce that is yet to be seen, but the improvement of the coaching staff should lead to a more disciplined team that will grow its game and cultivate the talent they already have.
Last, but certainly not least, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
The big story with the Bulldogs is one that starts off bad but ends up promising. Last season, I wrote a lot about one player in particular, Kasimir Kaskisuo, a sophomore goaltender who was rock-solid between the pipes and was a surprise success for the Bulldogs. I also wrote about Tony Cameranesi (though only in passing), a Senior and smallish Center who was also great for UMD. And lastly I wrote a little about Dominic Toninato, the left-shot Center who was taken #126 overall in 2012. In addition to being human hockey players about whom I could write, these players were also draftees of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and at season's end, it seemed clear they'd all end up in Toronto alongside Auston Matthews and a burgeoning team on the edge of a comeback.
That was true, until Toninato decided to come back.
"Unfinished business" is something you hear a lot of. It's as cliché as it is true in that you hear it all the time and, I don't know, there's always a next game until there isn't. Which means that finishing what you started is just as important to many players as it is to start something new and promising. It can cause players to make mistakes (think Kyle Rau sticking with the Gophers one extra season, which was both good and bad), slow their development, and commit to teams that just can't do it.
But for Toninato and the Bulldogs, there's a sense that the 2015-2016 season was an underperformance of sorts, one where they had so much they could have done and yet didn't.
It's hard to imagine that success is impossible to top, which bodes well for Toninato's insistence that the Bulldogs can and will be better. But it's also hard to imagine that a squad lacking so many key components from that past group can be the one to top it.
In the end, it's up to the Bulldogs who take the ice to prove that they can take that next step.
All these questions about the Gophers, Badgers, and Bulldogs can't be answered easily or quickly, and that's exactly why we at the Hockey Wilderness follow college hockey and as many teams as we do. We'll be giving updates, live-tweeting games, and doing some analysis on teams and stats and more as the year goes on. Check back on Tuesday when I break down the remaining teams in our area.