NCHC Preview: SCSU the Favorite in a Challenging Conference

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St. Cloud, MN – It was a watermark season for the St. Cloud State University Huskies in 2020-21. Battling the pandemic, a disjointed season, and a schedule with hollow arenas, the Huskies persevered and advanced to the NCAA Championship game in Pittsburgh in April. It was not the most wins in a season but the deepest the program has gone in the NCAA tournament in its 34 years of Division I play.

Therefore, it was not a surprise to see the Huskies tabbed as the favorite in the annual NCHC preseason media poll which was released as part of the NCHC Media Day on Wednesday, September 16th. SCSU received 20 possible 25 first-place votes and totaled 195 points overall. Minnesota Duluth was narrowly picked to finish as the runner-up with 143 points, only one more than North Dakota, which came in third with 142 points. UMD collected three first-place votes, while UND garnered one. Denver claimed the final first-place vote and was fourth in the poll with 123 points. Omaha was fifth with 114 points, while Western Michigan landed sixth with 105 points. Miami was predicted to place seventh (45 points) and Colorado College rounded out the poll with 33 points.

This marks St. Cloud State’s first time being the preseason favorite in the NCHC, despite the fact the Huskies have won three Penrose Cups previously (2013-14, 2017-18, 2018-19). Last year, SCSU finished second in the NCHC and was the runner-up in both the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and NCAA Tournament. The Huskies return nearly their entire team, led by Preseason All-NCHC picks sophomore forward Veeti Miettinen and senior defenseman Nick Perbix.

2021-22 NCHC Preseason Media Poll

    1. St. Cloud State – 195 points (20 first-place votes)
    2. Minnesota Duluth – 143 (3)
    3. North Dakota – 142 (1)
    4. Denver – 123 (1)
    5. Omaha – 114
    6. Western Michigan – 105
    7. Miami – 45
    8. Colorado College – 33

2021 NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team

F – Veeti Miettinen, So., St. Cloud State – 22 votes
F – Noah Cates, Sr., Minnesota Duluth – 18 votes
F – Chayse Primeau, Sr., Omaha – 13 votes
D – Ronnie Attard, Jr., Western Michigan – 22 votes
D – Nick Perbix, Sr., St. Cloud State – 13 votes
D – Jake Sanderson, So., North Dakota – 13 votes
G – Ludvig Persson, So., Miami – 10 votes

NCHC Preseason Capsules and Predictions

In a wide-open and competitive conference like the NCHC, It would probably be futile to try and predict the final league standings and as an alternative, I’m going to merely give you my predictions of the “top four” and “bottom four” at season’s end. As such, here are my predictions listed in alphabetical order with a brief capsule of each team:

Top Four (Alphabetical)

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Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

With all the success the Bulldogs have had in the last decade, they are still looking for their first Penrose Cup. They finished third in the league in 2020-21 and advanced to the NCAA tournament defeating North Dakota 3-2 in a classic five-overtime game in the Midwest Regional and suffering a 3-2 overtime loss to Massachusetts in the Frozen Four semi-finals.

Numbers-wise, the Bulldogs only lost three players from their 2020-21 squad but they were the top three goal scorers and point producers. Nick Swaney, Jackson Cates, and Cole Koepke all signed pro contracts and combined for 39 goals, nearly 50 percent of the team total.  Kobe Roth is a proven scorer and Koby Bender and Noah Cates can bury the puck but unless they get breakout seasons from players like Quinn Olson, Blake Biondi, Luke Loheit, Tanner Laderoute, and Miami transfer Casey Gilling, the offense could take a step backward this season. The team adds three experienced junior hockey forwards in Kyler Kleven, Dominic James, and Carter Loney.

The Bulldogs are fully intact on the blue line with one of the league’s best in sophomore Wyatt Kaiser, a third-round draft choice of the Chicago Blackhawks. Matt Anderson is a fifth-year senior and has logged 139 career games for the Bulldogs. Connor Kelley is another NHL draft choice and had an outstanding freshman season with five points and +10 in 25 contests.  Louie Roehl seems like he’s been around forever, is an assistant captain and a solid, experienced blueliner as is senior Hunter Lellig. Newcomers Owen Gallatin and Will Francis will both vie for ice time.

Goaltending is a strength with two reliable goaltenders in Ryan Fanti, 2.36 GAA, and .907 SV% and Zach Stejskal, 1.83 GAA and .929 SV%. The Bulldogs have the luxury of having confidence in both goaltenders.

Notes: As long as the Bulldogs can get their offense rolling they should battle for a top-four position in the league.

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North Dakota Fighting Hawks

The Fighting Hawks leveraged their success in the Pod and on the road to outlast the Huskies for the Penrose Cup. They also defeated the Huskies on home ice for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff Championship. Their season ended in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final in a five-overtime 3-2 loss to the UMD Bulldogs.

This is a team that was decimated by pro-signings following the 2020-21 season. Gone are seven of their top eight-point producers that posted 161 points or sixty percent of the team’s offense. Gone are Jordan Kawaguchi, Collin Adams, Shane Pinto, Jasper Weatherby, Matt Kierstad, Grant Mishmash, and Jacob Bernard-Docker. Further complicating things was the pro signing of goaltender Adam Scheel and the transfer of backup goaltender Peter Thome to the University of St. Thomas.

As a result, the team hit the transfer portal hard adding defensemen, Brady Ferner (RPI) and Chris Jandric (Alaska), forwards Ashton Calder (LSSU), and Connor Ford (Bowling Green), and goaltender Zach Driscoll (Bemidji State). They also have a large class of first-year players adding two goaltenders, five forwards and two defensemen.

Much like the Bulldogs, it’s a question of who will step forward and supply the needed goal scoring on the team. Riese Gaber, for one, is a certainty as he added nine goals and 17 points his freshman season and was one of the league’s top rookie forwards. If veterans Gavin Hain, Mark Senden, and Judd Caulfield can’t make that step forward then more pressure will be on WCHA transfers Calder and Ford who were top scorers in that league. Likely candidates in the freshman include Jake Schmalz (53 points), Nick Portz (37 points), and Jackson Kunz (43 points) all good point producers in the USHL.

The defense is outstanding with super sophomores Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven and the addition of veteran transfers Ferner and Jandric. Ethan Frisch and Cooper Moore will be in the mix and NHL draftee Brent Johnson is expected to contribute as well.

Goaltending hinges on the ability of Zach Driscoll to make a successful transition from the WCHA to the weekly grind of the NCHC. Driscoll, who will turn 25 during the season first entered the league with the SCSU Huskies in 2016 and logged 14 games. He subsequently transferred to Bemidji State playing three seasons before transferring to North Dakota. His career numbers of 2.19 GAA and .920 SV% are outstanding. But again, the question remains how he transitions to a deeper more potent conference. Beyond Driscoll, the Fighting Hawks will have to rely on untested Swede Jakob Hellsten or Harrison Feeney who has played one career game or Kaleb Johnson who had a 3.12 GAA in the North American Hockey League. Bets are on Hellsten if Driscoll can’t get the job done.

Notes: It’s a wait and see but I suspect the Fighting Hawks have brought in enough forwards to replace some of the departing offense. On paper, the goaltending looks good. The defense is solid, however, if Driscoll does not perform as advertised, they may have an issue at that position.

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 St. Cloud State Huskies

Things fell into place for the Huskies who made a run all the way to the NCAA championship game falling to the University of Massachusetts 5-0 in Pittsburgh, PA. The Huskies utilized a combination of veteran players, good goaltending down the stretch, and the impact of the freshman/sophomore line of Veeti Miettinen, Jami Krannila, and Zach Okabe to push enough offense to win key games and finish second in the NCHC. Despite being edged 5-3 by the UND Fighting Hawks in the Frozen Faceoff, the Huskies roared back to sweep Boston powerhouses Boston University and Boston College in the Northeast Regional and in-state rival Mankato in a nailbiter in the Frozen Four semi-finals to reach the championship game.

Unlike North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, departures were minimal although they did lose blue-collar players Will Hammer and Jared Cockrell who were part of a highly successful checking line and provided respite for the top three lines. Otherwise, the entire team is back sans defenseman, Tyler Anderson who logged 15 games. Team additions have outweighed the departures and that’s what gives a great deal of optimism for the 2021-22 season.

On offense, the top eight goal scorers and point producers return including the aforementioned Miettinen, Krannila, and Okabe who produced a combined 28 goals and 69 points. Also returning is senior Nolan Walker who had a breakout year on offense with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points. Easton Brodzinski finished the season as the team’s top goalscorer with 13 goals but sustained a fractured femur in the Boston College semi-final and although currently skating his return to competition is unknown. Fifth-year senior Kevin Fitzgerald returns and is a key component of the offense and special teams. Seniors Micah Miller and Sam Hentges are two others that will be key contributors. Newcomers Mason Salquist and Robert Morris transfer Aiden Spellacy will be vying for ice time as well.

The defense is deep and talented and led by senior captain Spencer Meier and NCHC preseason all-league team pick and senior Nick Perbix. Perbix had a breakout season in 2020-21 posting 7 goals and 16 assists and was plus-eight. Seamus Donohue, Brendan Bushy, Ondrej Trejbil, and Brady Ziemer are all experienced veterans that bolster the strength of this defense. Newcomers include two-year USHL veteran Josh Luedtke and Minnesota Wild draft choice Jack Peart. Both are puck movers and will change the dynamics and personality of this defense.

Goaltending continues to be a strength with veterans David Hrenak, Jaxon Castor, and Joey Lamoreaux all returning. Hrenak returns for his fifth season and his career includes 115 games, 2.44 GAA, .908 SV%, and 11 shutouts.

Notes: An already strong defensive unit is bolstered by the addition of Peart and Luedtke. Missing Brodzinski for the start of the season is a blow and they sorely need his scoring in the lineup. The offense should be improved and the ultimate success of this team could rest on the shoulders of the goaltending.

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Western Michigan Broncos

Were it not for a horrendous start to the season losing 8 of their first 12 games the Broncos could have been a contender for a top-four finish. The Broncos won eight of their last thirteen games including a five-game win streak that was ultimately ended by the UMD Bulldogs in a 5-4 overtime loss in the quarterfinals of the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

The biggest change for the team was the resignation of Andy Murray, the only head coach the team has known in the NCHC era. Taking over the reigns is assistant Pat Ferschweiler, a native of Rochester, MN who is a former player and captain of the Broncos and an assistant at WMU for the past two seasons.

This is another team with the sum of the additions being greater than the departures. Several 2020-21 seniors including Kale Bennett, Brett Van Os, and Lucas Samuelsson have not returned for a fifth year as has goaltender Austin Cain who transferred for the fifth year at Providence College. Newcomers include three defensemen and four forwards.

At forward, the Broncos return their top seven goal scorers including Drew Worrad, Ethen Frank, Paul Wasche, Josh Passolt, Cole Gallant, Jason Polin, and Ty Glover. These players accounted for 50 of the team’s 70 goals and 125 of the team’s 212 total points. Players brought in late in the season from the junior hockey ranks included Jacob Bauer and Tim Wasche who gained valuable experience without wasting a year of eligibility.  Newcomers Dylan Wendt (45 points) and Max Sasson (50 points) were top producers in the USHL and should compete for ice time.

Defense is led by Ronnie Attard, a preseason all-league choice. A future NHLer, Attard finished second on the squad in points with 8 goals and 14 assists including 3 power-play goals. Attard is joined by another offensive defenseman in Michael Joyaux who produced 4 goals and 10 assists last season. They are backed up by a group of sizable defensemen including Aidan Fulp, Scooter Brickey, and Daniel Hilsendger. Newcomer Xan Gurney is a 6’2″ 192-pound defender that will battle for ice time.

Goaltending should be back to form with the return of Brandon Bussi from injury. He was injured in the first game of the Pod last season and did eventually return to play in three games. In 2019-20 Bussi played in 34 games posting a .910 GAA and 2.65 SV%. He’ll be pushed by Alex Aslandis who appeared in 13 games last season and by Freshman, Ross Hawryluk who was another late addition last season but did not see the ice.

Notes: If the Broncos can get solid goaltending from the veteran Bussi combined with the potent offense of a very deep group of veteran forwards, they should be a strong contender for a top-four position in the conference.

Bottom Four (Alphabetical)

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Colorado College Tigers

There’s a lot of excitement in Colorado Springs these days with the completion of Ed Robson Arena, the new on-campus home of Colorado College hockey. The next step is the re-build of the hockey program that has finished in the cellar of the NCHC four times since the 2013-14 season and has never finished higher than tied for fifth place. Step one was replacing seven-year head coach Mike Haviland with former Michigan and Providence assistant Kris Mayotte.

In addition to a change in the coaching staff, the Tigers saw the departure of a number of key players from last year’s team. This included the pro-signing of top scorer Josiah Slavin and the transfer of team captain Grant Cruikshank to the University of Minnesota and second-leading scorer Ben Copeland to Penn State. Another regular, Troy Conzo transferred to Sacred Heart.

With little offense returning, there will be some growing pains as they rely on a number of returning youngsters including Hunter McKown (2-4-6), Jackson Jutting (1-2-3), Patrick Cozzi (1-4-5), and Logan Will (3-1-4) to generate some goal scoring. Beyond that, they are hoping they can squeeze some offense out of transfers Danny Weight (Boston University) and Noah Prokop (Omaha) and newcomers Tommy Middleton, Brett Chorske, and Stanley Cooley.

There is quality on the blue line with captain Bryan Yoon, one of the league’s best, Hugo Blitz, who adds a physical element, Jack Millar, Connor Mayer, and Chase Foley. First-year player, Nate Schweitzer should crack the lineup.

Once again, sophomore Dominic Basse and junior Matt Vernon will battle for the starting position in goal.  At times, Basse was quite impressive yet neither goaltender had numbers under 3.00 GAA and or at least  .90 SV%. Unless these goaltenders get strong support for those playing in front of them, it could be a long season in goal.

Notes: The atmosphere at the new rink will create excitement and may contribute to a couple more wins. However, coach Mayotte has quite a re-build ahead of him and it’s hard to place this team any higher than the last two positions in the standings.

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Denver Pioneers

There probably isn’t a team in college hockey that’s undergone more of a transition from the 2020-21 season than the Denver Pioneers. After finishing 5th in the conference they were bounced out of the 2021 NCHC Frozen Faceoff by North Dakota in overtime. The loss ended their season and a run of 13 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.

The offseason saw the departure of 10 seniors, all with 5th-year eligibility. Of that group, seven opted for that additional year and for various reasons not at Denver University. Familiar faces that transferred elsewhere include Slava Demin (UMass), Bo Hansen (NMU), Griffen Mendel (Quinnipiac), Hank Crone (NMU), Jake Durflinger (Merrimack), Steven Jandric (Merrimack), and Kohen Olischefski (Providence).

But, before you feel sorry for this team take note that this allowed the Pioneers the opportunity to bring in one of the most impressive freshman classes in college hockey in 2021-22. This includes two defensemen, four forwards, and a goaltender including four NHL draft choices and another a top prospect for the 2022 draft. Add to this a fifth-year senior who scored 13 goals for Bowling Green and it’s obvious the Pioneers have re-loaded quite nicely.

The fallout left the team with just three seniors, all forwards including captain Cole Guttman, the team’s leading points producer last season, and Brett Stapley, a 30 point producer in the 2019-20 season but shelved last season after an injury in January of 2021. There’s some serious talent at forward with Carter Savoie who led the team in goals with 13 in his freshman season and Bobby Brink and highly touted freshman Carter Mazur and Massimo Rizzo, both NHL draft choices, and Jack Devine who is a top prospect for the 2022 draft. Cameron Wright, a transfer from Bowling Green posted 13 goals and 16 assists last season and is a fifth-year senior.

The defense is young and without a senior but loaded with talent with sophomores Mike Benning and Antti Tuomisto, junior Justin Lee, and highly-touted second-round NHL draft choices Sean Behrens and Shai Buium.

Magnus Chrona returns to carry the load in goal although he saw his numbers dip last season as he posted a 2.47 GAA and .907 SV%. Backups Matthew Davis and Jack Caruso have a combined one game of collegiate experience.

Notes: This team is loaded with talent but lacks experience with nine first-year players. Top forwards Bobby Brink and Brett Stapley had injury issues last season and only played in 28 games combined. If Chrona can return to his 2019-20 form and the youngsters acclimate quickly, Denver can return to the top four.

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Miami RedHawks

The RedHawks are another squad that has struggled to find traction in the league since its inception in 2013-14. Other than a second-place finish in 2014-15, the RedHawks have finished no higher than fifth place and have finished last in the league standings four times. Head coach Chris Bergeron is a no-nonsense, no-excuses type of guy and transformed a struggling Bowling Green program to becoming a perennial power in the WCHA. Entering his fourth season, in time, he can no doubt do the same for the RedHawks in the NCHC.

Like a number of teams, the RedHawks have used a combination of veteran transfers and first-year players to rebuild after the departure of a number of seniors who could have remained for the fifth season. This included 2020-21 captain Phil Knies (Bentley University), Casey Gilling a 77 point career scorer (UMD), and goaltender Ben Kraws (Arizona State).

Generating offense is a serious priority for the RedHawks. Despite having goal scoring spread over 21 players, they did not have a single player with more than five goals or with 20 points. Leading point producer Matt Barry had 2 goals and 15 assists for 17 points. Leading goal scorer Matthew Barbolini had a nice freshman season with 14 points in 25 games and he’s a player for the team to build off in 2021-22. The offense will also be boosted by the addition of senior, Chase Gresock, a two-time captain and transfer from Merrimack who posted 54 points in 78 games. He was selected to the Hockey East All-Rookie team as a freshman. They’ve also added senior Cornell transfer  Michael Regush who was second in goals with 11 for the Big Red in 2019-20. First-year player, Red Savage joins his brother Ryan on the squad and brings an impressive resume as a 2021 Detroit Red Wings draft choice and alumn of the USA Team Development program.

Captain Derek Daschke leads a defensive unit that needs to improve its defensive play and plus/minus from last season. They’ll rely on returnees Jack Clement, Hampus Ryqvist, and Bray Crowder for improved play in front of goaltender Ludvig Persson. The addition of USHL veteran Nick Donato and Bowling Green transfer Will Cullen should make a difference. Cullen was the 2020-21 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and was selected to the WCHA First All-Star Team and has produced 17 goals and 38 assists for 55 points in 96 games.

In goal, Ludvig Persson was outstanding in his first season and was named to the NCHC All-Conference Second Team. He was also named to the 2021-22 NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team. Departures included Ben Kraws who transferred to Arizona State and senior Grant Valentine. They’ve restocked with UMass Lowell transfer Logan Neaton and freshman Kirk Laursen.

Notes: Miami will be improved but may not be able to generate enough offense to climb out of the bottom four. The goaltending of Persson gives them a chance on any given night and the addition of Will Cullen on defense is a huge bonus.

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Omaha Mavericks

Last but certainly not least is a team that could easily finish in the top four in 2021-22. This is a team that leveraged a strong start on home ice in the Pod to a berth in the NCAA tournament. However, they faltered down the stretch losing five of their last six games including a quarterfinal loss to Denver n the Frozen Faceoff and getting blown out by Minnesota 7-2 in the West Regional NCAA Semifinal. Also, seven of their fourteen wins were against the two teams that finished in the cellar of the NCHC – Colorado College and Miami.

With a lineup virtually intact from last season, strong goaltending, and balanced scoring, this could be the surprise team of the NCHC in 2021-22. The team returns their top fourteen-point producers and a workhorse goaltender in Isaiah Saville. The defense has size and experience and the ability to put up some offense.

The team has the skill, scoring punch, and toughness at forward led by Chase Primeau, Taylor Ward (13 goals), Tyler Weiss, captain Kevin Conley, Jack Randl, Joey Abate, and Matt Miller who netted 8 goals as a rookie. First-year forward Cameron Berg is a 2021 draft choice of the New York Islanders and produced 27-31-58 in 51 games in the USHL. He should make an impact as a first-year player.

The defense is not flashy but solid and consistent in play with senior Jason Smallidge, juniors Kirby Proctor and Brandon Scanlin, and the confidence of North Dakota transfer Jonny Tychonick. 6’3″ 200 pound Victor Mancini and Davis Pennington are first-year recruits out of the USHL that should both see ice time.

In goal, junior Isaiah Saville is firmly entrenched as the starter and carries a 2.93 GAA and .907 SV% in 52 career games. He’ll be backed up by juniors Austin Roden who had a 41 save win over SCSU last season and Jacob Zab.

Notes: This is an experienced team with depth at all positions and balanced scoring. They are in my opinion the most likely team to displace someone in my ranking of the top four.

 

 

 

 

 

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