Can it get any better?

Chris Lempesis

What do you get for the conference that has everything?

In 2004-05, the WCHA had perhaps the best single year of any conference in the history of college hockey.

The conference produced both the best team (Denver, national champions for the second year in a row) and player (Hobey Baker winner Marty Sertich of Colorado College) in all the land. WCHA teams (Denver, North Dakota, Colorado College and Minnesota) also pulled off the unprecedented feat of holding all the spots in the Frozen Four.

It couldn’t get any better than this, right? Well, maybe it could, according to Minnesota coach Don Lucia.

“I think in many ways that the league should be and may be better this year,” he said. “I think the influx of talent within the league is as good as it’s ever been, and certainly in my 12 years in the league.”

As the teams head on the road to Milwaukee, site of this year’s Frozen Four, here’s how the conference looks this season.

1. Denver
(32-9-2 in 2005, 19-7-2 WCHA)
While the Gophers are tops in every current poll in the country, the Pioneers earn the No. 1 spot here because to top the champs, you have to knock them out. That, and Denver still has enough talent returning to consider them the team to beat.

Denver, owners of the nation’s second best offense last season (4.05 goals per game), returns its top three scorers from last season, including first team preseason All-American defenseman Matt Carle, a player Lucia said “might be the best defenseman in college hockey.”

Coach George Gwozdecky’s bunch will also welcome back Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player, sophomore goaltender Peter Mannino (18-4-1, 2.19 GAA).

2. Minnesota
(28-15-1, 17-10-1)
The story of the 2005 Gophers has as much to do with who’s coming in as who’s still at Mariucci Arena.

Lucia scored arguably the nation’s best recruiting class, led by standout forward Phil Kessel. Look for forwards Blake Wheeler and Ryan Stoa and goalie Jeff Frazee to make quick impacts as well.

As for returnees, Minnesota brings back almost everyone, including high-scoring junior forwards Danny Irmen (24-19-43) and Ryan Potulny (24-17-41).

The Gophers will no doubt score a ton of goals, and if the defense, injury-plagued last season, can stay healthy, they might be at the top when all is said and done.

3. Colorado College
(31-9-3, 19-7-2)
The Tigers are in an interesting situation heading into the season. On one hand, the team returns the lethal duo of senior forwards Marty Sertich (27-37-64) and Brett Sterling (34-29-63). The pair were the top two scorers in all of college hockey last season.

But Colorado definitely has some holes to fill, as it is minus a pair of defensive stalwarts from last season, defenseman Mark Stuart (early departure) and 2004-05 All-WCHA first-team goalie Curtis McElhinney (graduation).

Still, there was enough left in the cupboard to impress Lucia. The former Colorado coach said he gave the Tigers the top vote in the WCHA preseason coaches’ poll.

4. Wisconsin
(23-14-4, 16-9-3)
It would be hard to find another team in the country, let alone the conference, that heads into the season as offensively intact from last season as the Badgers.

Wisconsin has its top 16 scorers back and should be one of the more dangerous offensive clubs in the conference.

The offense will have to be strong, especially early on. The Badgers look to replace departed goalie Bernd Brückler (17-12-3, 2.40 GAA) with a junior, Brian Elliot, who has played in all of 15 games in his first two seasons.

Lucia said he’s not expecting a big drop-off for the Badgers in between the pipes.

“Somebody said, ‘well, they lost their goaltender’,” he said. “I said, ‘well, when’s the last time Wisconsin didn’t have a good goalie?’ “

5. North Dakota
(25-15-5, 13-12-3)
Last year’s national runners-up are almost the exact opposite of the team ranked just ahead of them: It would be hard to find a team experiencing more turnover this season.

North Dakota lost almost a third of its 2004-05 roster to graduation. The early departures of junior defenseman Matt Greene and sophomore forward Brady Murray only further depleted the Sioux. UND will have 13 freshmen on its 2005 roster.

One player not lost, however, is junior goalie Jordan Parise (17-7-3, 2.13 GAA). Parise was especially strong in UND’s playoff run, allowing just 16 goals in eight games.

Parise’s return, factored in with some talented newcomers in the large freshmen class, should keep the Sioux competitive.

6. Minnesota-Duluth
(15-17-6, 11-13-4)
Not to sound like a broken record, but the Bulldogs are in much the same predicament as the Sioux. That is to say, a young one.

Last year’s edition had more senior depth than ever before for the school – 11 to be exact. There was considerable talent in that group as well, including All-WCHA second team forward Evan Schwabe (19-26-45). How quickly the youngsters can find their way should determine how much bite these Bulldogs will have in 2005.

Lucia said he sees some similarities between Duluth this season and his own team at the start of last year.

“We lost that great senior class (after the 2003-04 season),” he said. “But all of a sudden all those new freshman faces come in and that enthusiasm is infectious.”

7. St. Cloud State
(14-23-3, 8-19-1)
A new, yet familiar (at least for Gopher fans) era begins for the Huskies as former Minnesota assistant Bob Motzko takes over behind the bench for Craig Dahl, who stepped down in August after 18 years at the university.

Motzko will definitely have his hands full in 2005. St. Cloud was near the bottom in the WCHA in most of the major statistical categories and it only gets worse when you factor in the loss of the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, forward Dave Iannazzo (16-16-32).

One player that could ease the pain is junior goalie Bobby Goepfert, who joins the team after sitting out last season because of his transfer from Providence, where he had a pair of solid seasons.

8. Minnesota State-Mankato
(13-19-6, 8-16-4)
The 2004-05 season was a reverse of the old cliché for the Mavericks. In their case, no defense loses games.

No team in the WCHA had a worse defense in 2004-05 than the Mavericks. Minnesota State-Mankato allowed an average of 3.89 goals per game.

While the Mavericks’ defense looks to improve, their offense – which put up an average of almost three goals a game in 2004-05, good for sixth in the conference – should continue to be productive.

A big reason for this is a trio of juniors, all of whom are coming off strong seasons. The group is led by forward David Backes (17-23-40).

Still, until it learns to stop anyone, Minnesota State-Mankato may be relegated to the lower ranks of the WCHA yet again.

9. Alaska-Anchorage
(12-19-6, 9-15-4)
The departure of head coach John Hill, who left to become an assistant with the Gophers, left a vacancy for the Seawolves. Longtime Northern Michigan assistant Dave Shyiak was tapped as Hill’s replacement.

Shyiak’s squad is well-stocked in the experience department. And although it is also a team whose top returning scorer, junior forward Justin Bourne, posted just 12 goals and 11 assists in 2004-05, the team has a strong goalie combo of senior John DeCaro and sophomore Nathan Lawson.

Lawson especially had a good first year last season, posting a 3.32 GAA in being named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team.

10. Michigan Tech
(8-25-4, 7-19-2)
Although the Huskies’ record was almost exactly the same in his second year as his first, coach Jamie Russell’s team made some big strides in 2004-05, especially late in the year. Michigan Tech went 7-7-3 to end the regular season.

It’s tough to say if more small steps will be made this season.

The team returns a solid core of scorers from last season, including junior defenseman Lars Helminen and senior forward Chris Conner.

But Tech will have to replace top forward Colin Murphy (11-42-53) and goalies Cam Ellsworth and Bryce Luker, and quickly, if it expects to give the fans in Houghton, Mich., more than eight wins in Russell’s third year.