WCHA season preview: Denver comes in as the favorite

A look at where each team stands heading into the 2009-10 season.

by Max Sanders

One week away from the start of the regular season, its time to look at the WCHA Conference heading into the 2009-10 menâÄôs hockey season. Favorite No. 1 Denver Picked by both the media and WCHA coaches as the best team in the conference, Denver is returning 21 letter winners from last yearâÄôs squad that entered the 2008-09 NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed but lost to eventual runner-up Miami, Ohio in the opening round. Senior forwards Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger lead the Pioneers this season. Rakhshani surpassed the career 100-point milestone last year, and Ruegsegger has 40 goals and 42 assists in his collegiate career. Junior goalie Marc Cheverie started every game for Denver last year, posting a .921 save percentage on his way to being named to the All-WCHA second-team. While Denver will have a tough squad in 2009-10, the preseason coachesâÄô favorite has only finished the season on top two of the past eight years. Contenders No. 6 North Dakota The reigning MacNaughton Cup Champions lost a huge portion of last yearâÄôs 24-win team, highlighted by the departure of former Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan . For the Sioux, this season will come down to how they play with the conferenceâÄôs largest freshman class (10) and smallest senior class (three). If UND can find a balance with the incoming freshmen and the veteran leadership, they will be strong contenders to repeat as conference champions. No. 13 Wisconsin The Badgers overcame a horrific start last season, 0-6-1, with a victory at North Dakota that started a streak of 10-1-2 for Wisconsin, who rebounded to finish the year third in the WCHA with 14 conference wins. This year the Badgers return both top goal scorers from last season, Blake Geoffrion and John Mitchell , but lose goalie Shane Connelly and top points producer Jamie McBain . The key for Wisconsin this year is getting production from a balanced roster that features 16 upperclassmen and six freshmen. ConnellyâÄôs replacement, junior Scott Gudmandson , will have to be a solid player between the pipes to help provide the Badgers with stability in dealing with the loss of McBain. No. 9 Minnesota The Gophers return a solid foundation from last yearâÄôs team, a team eager to erase the 2008-09 season from Minnesota hockey fansâÄô memories. While the loss of All-American Ryan Stoa does hurt the Gophers, sophomore Jordan Schroeder and some of the incoming freshmen, especially Minnesota Wild first round pick Nick Leddy , will be counted on to pick up the scoring left by StoaâÄôs departure. No. 15 St. Cloud State Led by head coach Bob Motzko , the Huskies finished No. 6 last year in the conference and look to improve on that finish with a mixture of veterans and newcomers. Heading the team of returning players is senior forward Ryan Lasch. Lasch finished last year with 42 points on 18 goals, good for first-team All-WCHA honors. Leading the crop of newcomers for the Huskies is WCHA preseason rookie of the year Mike Lee. A goalie, Lee is a 2009 third-round draft pick that figures to immediately provide stability for St. Cloud in the nets. Pretenders No. 18 Minnesota-Duluth A repeat of last seasonâÄôs postseason performance, in which the Bulldogs captured the WCHA Final Five title despite a regular season seventh place finish, appears unlikely. UMD enters this season having lost nine players, including an All-American goalie in Alex Stalock , a two-time team scoring leader in MacGregor Sharp , and a third-team All-WCHA defenseman in Josh Meyers. This year is likely to be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs Minnesota State-Mankato While the Mavericks return five of last seasonâÄôs top six team scorers, itâÄôs the goalie play that has this team headed towards the bottom of the conference. After allowing 3.21 goals against last season, good for 46th in the nation, Mankato loses its veteran goalies, in two-time team MVP Mike Zacharias and Dan Tormey . The Mavericks are left with three goalies that have yet to see collegiate action to take over at the position, and with such young players at such a crucial position, it could be a long year for Mankato. Colorado College Coming off a surprising third place conference finish last season, the Tigers lose nine letter winners from last yearâÄôs squad. Colorado College will rely on Bill Sweatt , who had 23 points in 2008-09, to pick up the scoring in the wake of those departures. Cellar Dwellers Alaska Anchorage This is a Seawolves team that finished with just nine conference wins and 14 overall wins, good for ninth in the conference. It has been six years since the Seawolves last made the WCHA Final Five tournament, and with three of last seasonâÄôs top 10 scorers gone, it looks to be at least a few more seasons before Alaska Anchorage makes a run for the title. Michigan Tech Two conference wins and a .196 conference win percentage. A disastrous 2008-09 season for the Huskies, undoubtedly, but with senior Malcolm Gwilliam back after missing all of last season due to injury, Michigan Tech should rebound to post a few more wins in both conference and non-conference play. It still may not be enough to make the Huskies a factor for the 2009-10 season.