Conference preview: Minnesota leads pack in final WCHA season

After this year, the Gophers and Wisconsin will move to the new Big Ten conference.

Drew Claussen

This is the last year for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — or at least as it’s known now.

Minnesota and Wisconsin will join Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State in 2013-14 to create the Big Ten hockey conference.

Current WCHA members Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State will join Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan to create the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The new-look WCHA will feature current members Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State-Mankato. The conference will add Alaska-Fairbanks, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan.

The conference looks to be going out with a bang this season, with six teams ranked in the top 20 of the first USCHO.com poll. Four other teams received votes, as well.

“The league will be very competitive, as it always is,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “I think everybody is looking forward to this last year in the WCHA before we begin Big Ten play a year from now.”

The general consensus is that the Gophers, like last season, will be the class of the league in 2012-13. Here is a preview of their competition (last year’s records in parentheses):

North Dakota (26-13-3, 16-11-1 WCHA)

With the suspension of its four captains in the offseason, North Dakota has already made a lot of noise off the ice this year.

Andrew MacWilliam, Corban Knight, Danny Kristo and Carter Rowney will all sit out UND’s opener because of behavior at a team party in mid-September.

Once Knight, Kristo and Rowney hit the ice, they’ll be the key to UND’s offense this season. The trio ranked behind only Brock Nelson in scoring last year.

The departure of Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness leaves a large vacancy in the net this season that Alabama-Huntsville transfer Clarke Saunders and freshman Zane Gothberg will attempt to fill.

Denver (2011-12: 25-14-4, 16-8-4 WCHA)

Drew Shore and Jason Zucker have moved on to professional ranks, but that is no reason to sleep on the Pioneers this year.

With the addition of Quentin Shore to accompany brother Nick Shore, Denver will still have a sibling connection on the roster. Nick Shore was third on the team in scoring last season with 13 goals and 28 assists.

With Kent Patterson no longer at Minnesota, goalie Sam Brittain is likely to be the most reliable goaltender in the conference. Brittain came back from a knee injury midway through last season and finished 8-4, which included a stellar game in the Pioneers’ WCHA Final Five victory over Minnesota-Duluth.

Minnesota-Duluth (25-10-6, 16-7-5 WCHA)

It’s not easy when a team loses its top-three scorers from the previous season, but Minnesota-Duluth will have to deal with that this season.

With Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown moving on, this year’s offense will be led by sophomore Caleb Herbert, who lit the lamp 14 times last year.

UMD will also have to replace consistent goaltender Kenny Reiter. This year junior Aaron Crandall and freshman Matt McNeely will battle for the spot between the pipes for the Bulldogs.

Wisconsin (17-18-2, 11-15-2 WCHA)

The Badgers were in a very unfamiliar place at the end of last season — 10th in the conference standings.

Wisconsin lost an extremely talented defenseman in Justin Schultz but returns a solid defensive corps. Mark Zengerle, who had 13 goals and 37 assists last year, will once again lead the offense.

Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes also scored double-digit goals for the Badgers last year.

After splitting time early last season, Joel Rumpel stole the starting goaltender spot and finished the season with a 12-12-2 record. He will again man the crease for the Badgers this year.

Colorado College (18-16-2, 15-12-1 WCHA)

One team that could digress in 2012-13 is Colorado College. Jaden Schwartz, Nick Dineen and Gabe Guentzel have all departed — the trio accounted for 93 points last season.

While the team still has Rylan Schwartz, it will need to rely on its freshmen to step to succeed this season.

Goaltender Josh Thorimbert ended last season as the starting goaltender, but senior Joe Howe will fight to regain the role he once held.

St. Cloud State (17-17-5, 12-12-4 WCHA)

St. Cloud State could make some noise atop the conference standings this season.

Because of injuries last year, sophomore Ryan Faragher received some playing time as a freshman and showed flashes of brilliance. Faragher should be the club’s main goaltender, while two freshmen will battle it out for the backup spot.

Offensively, the Huskies will be aided by the return of Drew Leblanc, who redshirted last season after he suffered a broken leg. Ben Hanowski, who scored 23 goals last season, also returns for his senior campaign.

Nebraska-Omaha (14-18-6, 11-12-5 WCHA)

Sophomore goaltender Ryan Massa will take this season off due to personal reasons, leaving senior John Faulkner as the Mavericks’ most experienced goalie this season. Faulkner was 5-9-2 in the net last season.

Two of Omaha’s top-three scorers from last season left, but the team returns leading scorer Matt White, who had 17 goals and 23 assists last year.

Michigan Tech (16-19-4, 11-13-4 WCHA)

Michigan Tech was far and away the surprise team in the WCHA last season, winning 16 games compared to four the year before. Head coach Mel Pearson will try to continue that improvement in his second season at the helm.

Michigan Tech was a balanced team in terms of scoring. It had five players who scored 10 or more goals, so losing two of its top-five scorers shouldn’t hurt the team too much.

But the loss of Josh Robinson, who started all but four games for the Tigers, will hurt. Senior Kevin Genoe, who saw his playing action drop significantly last season compared to his first two, will again have the opportunity to be the top man in the net.

Minnesota State, Mankato (12-24-2, 8-18-2 WCHA)

With a new head coach in Mike Hastings and a strong corps of young players, Minnesota State-Mankato will look to mimic Michigan Tech’s performance last year this season.

Hastings, who served as an assistant coach for UNO last season, will get to work with two of the WCHA’s top-10 scoring freshmen from last season in Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul Lafontaine. The duo combined for 24 goals last season.

The Mavericks also boast a strong recruiting class that features Shattuck-St. Mary’s product Teddy Blueger.

For the Mavericks to be successful, they will need to stay healthy and have consistent goaltending. Senior Phil Cook, sophomore Evan Karambelas and freshman Stephon Williams will all look to fill that role.

Bemidji State (17-18-3, 11-14-3 WCHA)

The Beavers had a semi-competitive year last season, finishing ninth in the WCHA, but they look prone to return to the conference’s cellar this season.

Jordan George, who tallied 19 goals and 12 assists last year, returns. However, a lack of depth will hinder BSU this year.

Dan Bakala, whose saves kept the Beavers in many games last season, is gone, leaving goaltending duties to sophomore Andrew Walsh.

Alaska-Anchorage (9-25-2, 5-22-1 WCHA)

Alaska-Anchorage’s 2011-12 season started poorly when leaking water from a corroded pipe hindered efforts to make ice at the team’s home rink. The problem should be fixed by the Seawolves’ season opener.

On the ice, Alaska-Anchorage lacks the scoring depth and consistent goaltending to be a factor in the conference. Matt Bailey led the team with just 17 points last season.