Reigning Sioux-preme

With the top two-scorers in the conference returning for another campaign, North Dakota is a strong favorite to bring home the McNaughton Cup.

Brian Deutsch

1. North Dakota

Last Season: (24-14-5 overall, 13-10-5 WCHA)
3rd in the WCHA
Coach: Dave Hakstol (3rd season)

Seven of the 10 WCHA coaches picked the Sioux to win the conference this year and with good reason.

North Dakota gets back the top-two scorers in the WCHA in Ryan Duncan and T.J. Oshie, but the duo lose line-mate Toews, who was tied for third most points in the conference.

After dropping a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota in the Final Five Championship game and a 6-4 loss to Boston College in the opening round of the Frozen Four, the Sioux will likely compete for their first NCAA title since 2000.

2. Minnesota

Last Season: (33-10-3, 18-7-3)
1st in the WCHA
Coach: Don Lucia (9th season)

The Gophers lost three of their best defensemen from last year in Alex Goligoski, Erik Johnson and Mike Vannelli, leaving doubts about Minnesota’s blue-line crew in their wake.

But the top-three point-getting forwards return from last year’s team, which led the WCHA in scoring with 161 goals and averaged 3.66 goals a game.

Combined with a strong group of incoming freshmen and an experienced goaltender in junior Jeff Frazee, Minnesota might once again rain on North Dakota’s parade come March.

3. Colorado College

Last Season: (18-17-4, 13-12-3)
5th in the WCHA
Coach: Scott Owens (9th season)

Coming into this weekend’s opening series against Minnesota, Owens is just five wins away from his 200th victory with the Tigers – he already has the most in program history with 195.

Colorado College has perhaps the hardest schedule in the nation over the next three weeks – taking on the No. 3 Gophers this weekend in Colorado Springs before hitting the road to play eighth-ranked New Hampshire and No. 1 North Dakota.

It’s early but if they can pick up a few wins over the next six games, the Tigers may be on pace to return to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.

4. Denver

Last Season: (21-15-4, 13-11-4)
4th in the WCHA
Coach: George Gwozdecky (14th season)

The Pioneers are one of the youngest teams in the conference this year with 13 freshmen among the team’s 28 players.

Many of the newcomers will fit into Denver’s forward lines, which are already filled with six sophomores and only one junior and a single senior.

The Pioneers will be a little more experienced on the other end of the ice with senior goalie Peter Mannino “carrying the mail” according to coach George Gwozdecky.

Denver also returns two of its top defensemen from last year in senior captain Andrew Thomas and preseason All-American junior Chris Butler.

5. Wisconsin

Last Season: (19-18-4, 12-13-3)
Tied-6th in the WCHA
Coach: Mike Eaves (6th season)

Unlike most WCHA teams, Wisconsin lost most of its offensive firepower from last season.

Among the departed are last year’s leading point-getter Andrew Joudrey and former first-round draft pick Jack Skille.

The Badgers will likely be revamped by a talented class of incoming freshmen including forward Kyle Turris.

Turris was selected third overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in last year’s NHL Entry Draft.

After losing Brian Elliott to graduation, the Badgers will look to junior Shane Connelly to fill in between the pipes.

Connelly has only appeared in 16 games for Wisconsin, but he has recorded four shutouts in those games.

6. St. Cloud State

Last Season: (22-11-7, 14-7-7)
2nd in the WCHA
Coach: Bob Motzko (3rd season)

The Huskies lost only six players from last year’s squad that reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 and placed second in the WCHA – the highest ever finish by the team.

Unfortunately, five of the departing Huskies accounted for nearly 35 percent of the team’s goals and the sixth man, Bobby Goepfert, was a Hobey Baker Award top-ten finalist and was the only netminder in the conference to make over 1,000 saves last season.

Leading scorer and sophomore forward Andreas Nodl will need to have another big year if Motzko is going to earn his third straight WCHA Coach of the Year.

7. Michigan Tech

Last Season: (18-17-5, 11-12-5)
Tied-6th in the WCHA
Coach: Jamie Russell (5th season)

The Huskies might be one of the only teams in the conference that is weaker on offense than defense this season.

They lost three forwards from last year’s squad, which

finished last in the WCHA with just 2.25 goals per game, and

top-defenseman Lars Helminen.

Of Tech’s top five scorers last season, Helminen, who was third on the team in points, is the only player not on this year’s squad.

The Huskies also have positives in the conference’s best penalty killing unit last season with an 87.3 percent killing percentage and the team gave up the second fewest goals in the WCHA at 87.

8. Minnesota-Duluth

Last Season: (13-21-5, 8-16-4)
9th in the WCHA
Coach: Scott Sandelin (8th season)

The Bulldogs haven’t won a regular season championship since the 1992-1993 season, and judging by all the talent they lost after last year, the 2007-2008 campaign won’t bring the McNaughton Cup back to Duluth this season either.

Minnesota-Duluth lost its top-three point-getters from last season as well as goaltender Josh Johnson, who graduated, taking many of the school’s records with him.

To replace Johnson, the Bulldogs will turn to senior Nate Ziegelmann and sophomore Alex Stalock.

Stalock led WCHA first-year goalies in most categories while Ziegelmann is virtually untested in conference play.

9. Minnesota State

Last Season: (13-19-6, 10-13-5)
8th in the WCHA
Coach: Troy Jutting (8th year)

A trend is starting to develop this season with many WCHA teams losing their top scorer, and the Mavericks are no different – losing forward Travis Morin along with five other players.

But Minnesota State, like most conference teams, should be able to make up for the lost contributor – the Mavericks will have a bigger problem filling in the hole on the blue-line.

The team lost three of its top defensemen with only four skaters returning to the corps.

The four returning blue liners along with four incoming defensemen will need a steep learning curve if the Mavericks want to improve on last season’s conference-worst 132 goals allowed.

10. Alaska-Anchorage

Last Season: (13-21-3, 8-19-1)
10th in the WCHA
Coach: Dave Shyiak (3rd year)

The Seawolves haven’t had a winning season since joining the WCHA in 1993-1994, and this season isn’t likely to be their first.

However, last year’s record was seven games better than the previous year and the team posted its first winning record at home (9-8-1) in six years, showing that Alaska-Anchorage is at least on the right path.

The Seawolves return six of their top-ten scorers from last season including the program’s career leader in points, senior forward Merit Waldrop.

But the team lost its top scorer from last season in Justin Bourne, who graduated after posting 31 points in his senior season.


Hobey Hopefuls:

Junior forward Ryan Duncan, North Dakota:
It’s easy to see why the Sioux are slated to be the top team in the WCHA with last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner coming back. Duncan led the conference and was fourth in the country with 57 points (31 goals and 26 assists) last year.

Junior forward T.J. Oshie, North Dakota:
Playing on the same line as Duncan last season, Oshie led the WCHA in assists with 35, and his 52 points were second only to Duncan.

Sophomore forward Kyle Okposo, Minnesota:
Okposo’s last name means “thunderstorm” in Arabic, and he created quite a storm when he put the NHL on hold to return to the “U” for another year.

Sophomore forward Andreas Nodl, St. Cloud State:
With 46 points, Nodl led conference freshmen and was tied for third most overall in the WCHA. His performance garnered him WCHA Rookie of the Year and the Hockey Commissioner’s Association Division I Rookie of the Year awards.

Sophomore goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak, Michigan Tech:
Splitting time with fellow sophomore Rob Nolan didn’t stop Teslak from leading the WCHA with a goals against average of 2.00 last season. Both netminders are back this season and will try to help the Huskies capture their first WCHA regular-season championship since 1976.


Dangerous Departures:

Alex Goligoski, Minnesota:
Goligoski tied with teammate Mike Vannelli for most points among defensemen in the WCHA with 39. But the Grand Rapids native traded in his maroon and gold jersey to join the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organization.

Brian Elliott, Wisconsin:
The glue that held the Badgers together through last year’s fall from the peak of the WCHA mountain, Elliott was a dominating presence in goal. The school leader in career save percentage (.931) and career goals against average (1.78) will dress for the Binghamton Senators, an AHL affiliate of the Ottawa Senators, this season.

Mason Raymond, Minnesota-Duluth:
One of the WCHA’s leading point-getters who wasn’t a member of the Sioux, Raymond notched 46 points in his sophomore season. This year, he’ll skate for the Vancouver Canucks.

Bobby Goepfert, St. Cloud State:
Goepfert led the WCHA with his .924 save percentage. The 2001-2002 USHL Player of the Year was named first team All-WCHA in his senior season.

Jonathon Toews, North Dakota:
Despite playing in just 34 games last year, Toews notched 18 goals and 26 assists. He’s already recorded three points in his first three games as a forward for the Chicago Blackhawks.