Thursday, October 09, 2008

CCHA Preview

Notre Dame finds themselves in the same position Michigan State was last year. They come into the season following a fairly average year, ended with a fantastic run in the NCAA tournament. The Irish were one goal--strangely enough, one goal for, not against-- from not making the NCAA tournament last year, before finishing as runner-up in the national tournament. Which team is the real Notre Dame? I think the NCAA tournament-version of the Irish. The Irish lot some of their heart and soul due to graduation, with the loss of Mark VanGilder, but have yet to feel the sting of early pro departures of some of Jeff Jackson’s more talented recruits. This is the most talented team in the CCHA, and they should be able to take home a conference crown.

will have to recover from losing their entire top line of Kevin Porter, Chad Kolarik, and Max Pacioretty. It’s unlikely that any combination of players will replace their amazing goal totals of last year, but Michigan’s large freshmen class of last season is back—minus Pacioretty—and should be even better than last season. On the backend, Mark Mitera is back for his senior season and is a Player of the Year candidate. Billy Sauer’s struggles in the NCAA tournament have been well-documented, but his regular season play last year was very good. Michigan may lack the scoring to seriously compete for a national title, but their record NCAA tournament appearance streak should remain in tact.

This could be a defining year for the Miami program. With the departures of Nathan Davis, Ryan Jones, Alec Martinez and Jeff Zatkoff, Miami will need to prove that they can compete annually with the CCHA’s best, rather than the past few years being the result of a one good group of players. This group should be able to score goals, but their goaltending will have to prove itself for Miami to be a serious contender. The Redhawks have a good chance of sneaking into the NCAA tournament, but unless one of their goalies plays way better than expected, they likely won’t have much success in the tournament again.

Much like Michigan last season, Michigan State’s season will depend on how quickly their freshmen can adapt to college hockey, after a string of departures to the NHL this past summer. The Spartans bring in a lot of forwards that were among the very best in their respective junior leagues last season, but those leagues are less traditional recruiting grounds for top NCAA players. Goalie Jeff Lerg may need to carry this team early in the season while those players adjust for the Spartans to be successful. The Spartans could be on the NCAA tournament bubble, but a slump, either early in the season, or in the second half when the youngsters start to hit a wall, could keep them out of the tournament.

Even diehard college hockey fans would be hard-pressed to name more than a few players on Ferris State’s roster, but the Bulldogs have quietly been one of the better mid-tier CCHA teams, and would have been the near the NCAA tournament bubble last year, if not for a rough stretch in the middle of January. The Bulldogs finished 5th in most every statistical category. Goalie Mitch O’Keefe’s eligibility ran out at the end of last season, so Pat Nagle will need to improve his numbers in goal a little bit, but overall, this looks to be a very tough, gritty team.

Northern Michigan seems to be the trendy pick for surprise team in the CCHA this year, even ending up in the first national poll. But regardless of expectation, the Wildcats always seems finish in the middle of the pack in the CCHA, make a run to Joe Louis for the CCHA tournament, but end up a game or two short of making the NCAA tournament. Mark Olver should keep a family tradition alive by being the Wildcats leading scorer this year. He led the team in scoring as a freshman last year, while older brother Darin led the Wildcats in scoring in his first three seasons, before finishing second in team scoring as a senior. The key for the Wildcats will be the play of Brian Stewart in goal. Stewart’s numbers improved last season, but goaltending still isn’t a strength for this team.

Despite not having a lot of success recently, Bowling Green has managed some pretty decent recruiting classes, which should make them a difficult team to play against. Leading the way is sophomore Jacob Cepis, a leading scorer in the USHL who looks destined for big things. The Falcons have struggled in goal ever since the departure of Jordan Sigalet four years ago, but Nick Eno showed promise last season, and if he can hold Bowling Green in some games, they have a chance to be very successful.

This will be a make-or-break year for Ohio State head coach John Markell. He’ll have to hope for improved chemistry in the locker room, and a huge impact from his freshman and sophomore classes to save his job. Those newcomers will be a welcome addition to a powerplay that was the worst in CCHA play last season. There is a lot of talent on this team, but unfortunately this team is probably a year or two away from really competing.

Nebraska-Omaha has enjoyed enormous amounts of production from their top line recent years thanks to great forwards like Bryan Marshall, Mick Lawrence, Scott Parse, and Bill Thomas. This year’s UNO team will need to rely on a much more balanced offensive approach to be successful. The Mavericks have gone with a goalie-by-committee approach over the past three seasons, with no one ever stepping in and taking the reigns. Jeremie Dupont has the talent to be that goalie they’ve needed, and as a junior, will have to step up.

Dallas Ferguson will start his first season as the third head coach of Alaska in just three years. His team is a little thin on talent, but he’ll have a great first line with the Knelsen brothers and Dustin Sather, and will hope for a big freshmen year from Carlo Finucci. The Nanooks have the advantage of experience in goal with senior Chad Johnson, who could help keep his team in a few more games.

Lake Superior may not be a team with a lot of household names, but they have a very experienced group up front with players like Nathan Perkovich, Zac MacVoy, Troy Schwab, and Josh Sim. It’s not elite level talent, but it also isn’t as bad as things were during the Anzalone 2.0 disaster. Brian Mahoney-Wilson showed promise in goal last year as a freshman, and Lake Superior may need him to help carry the team, the same way LSSU had moderate success with Jeff Jakaitis in goal.

Last year was another abysmal year for Western Michigan and things don’t look to be getting much better. The Broncos had the worst offense in the league last year, averaging less than two goals per game. They were also near the bottom of the league in goals against. The offense may improve, with good scorers like Patrick Galivan and Max Campbell returning, but none of their newcomers look like they will make an immediate impact in the same way Mark Letestu did two years ago, and it’s hard to see much improvement in this year’s WMU team.