WCHA junior class lacks scoring punch; seniors carry load

Jeff Sherry

When Wisconsin hosts the Gophers hockey team this weekend, the seniors from each team will be playing in their final WCHA regular-season series. And following tradition, both teams have looked to those players to provide scoring and emotional leadership.
But it appears that when the junior class takes over next season, it will do so more in the locker room than on the ice. Across the WCHA, few of this year’s juniors have developed into premier, blue-chip players.
“For some reason there aren’t a lot of guys playing from that class who are really impacting the league,” said Gophers coach Doug Woog.
Look no further than the teams in the Dane County Coliseum this weekend. The Gophers’ Nick Checco, Dan Woog, Dan Hendrickson and Brian LaFleur have combined for 18 goals in 115 games this season. LaFleur, the only defenseman of the group, actually has the most goals with six.
The Badgers have a solid junior goalie in Kirk Daubenspeck, but their other juniors — Darren Haley, Erik Raygor and defenseman Tim Krug — have a combined 16 goals in 98 games.
A look at the WCHA scoring statistics shows these aren’t isolated cases. Of the top 16 scorers in the WCHA, only three are juniors.
A closer look at those players, and where they are from, suggests that the cause of this trend may come from Minnesota’s poor high school recruiting class of 1993. WCHA teams annually draw heavily from Minnesota talent, but the pickings were slim three years ago.
Checco, who won Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award in 1993, has struggled this season. He has currently gone 19 games without a goal and has yet to meet the high expectations the Gophers had for him.
None of the other finalists that year — Notre Dame defenseman Tim Harberts, St. Cloud State’s Mike Maristuen, Minnesota-Duluth’s Rick Mrozik and Harvard’s Stuart Swenson — have made huge impacts.
“That was a flat year in terms of blue chip-type players,” Woog said.
Probably the top talent to come out of Minnesota in 1993 is Colorado College defenseman Scott Swanson, who is a favorite for WCHA freshman of the year this season. Swanson wasn’t highly regarded as a senior at Park Cottage Grove High School but blossomed in two seasons in the USHL.
So it makes sense that the top juniors in the league this year came from places other than Minnesota. The top two scorers, Denver’s Antti Laaksonen and Erik Andersson, are from Finland and Sweden, respectively. Alaska-Anchorage’s David Vallieres, who has 38 points this year, is an Alaska native.
One position the junior class is strong at, however, is goaltender. Colorado College goalies Judd Lambert and Ryan Bach have ranked among the league’s top three goalies most of the season. And six other junior goaltenders rank among the top 15 in the WCHA.
So while the league should have strong senior goalies next year, seniors at other positions will probably not be the ones grabbing the headlines.
“The thing you run into is that if they haven’t been that dominant, their roles as seniors aren’t going to be that dominant either,” Woog said. “And are they going to be able to accept the fact they could be a third-line checking player or penalty-killer? If they’re going to contribute they will have to be real dedicated players.”
All this could make for an unusual 1996-97 season in the WCHA.
“The seniors are the guys who usually get the job done for you,” Sauer said. “Next year is going to be interesting because the teams that come through with the best underclassmen are going to be in pretty good shape.”
Notes: The Gophers and Badgers are streaking in opposite directions from when they met last month in Minneapolis. Minnesota has lost three straight road games, while the Badgers are unbeaten (5-0-2) in their last seven games. Woog has moved Checco to third-line center — between Casey Hankinson and Mike Anderson — for tonight’s game.