NCAA DI Men's Hockey

CCHA Season Preview: Kyle Kukkonen, Eric Pohlkamp Among Players To Watch

CCHA Season Preview: Kyle Kukkonen, Eric Pohlkamp Among Players To Watch

CCHA insider Tim Rappleye examines some of the most intriguing players to watch heading into the 2023-24 season.

Sep 29, 2023 by Tim Rappleye
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September has been the month of Austen Swankler aftershocks in the CCHA, as the pre-season Player of the Year has rocked the league with both a departure (from Bowling Green) and an arrival (to Michigan Tech). 

While he has been the player that has garnered the most headlines, here is a look at some of the other players that could factor into the forthcoming season prominently.

1. Christian Stoever, Junior G, Bowling Green

Christian Stoever is the son of Sergeant Randall Stoever, a New York City cop during 9/11, which explains why Christian is such a natural first responder. Each of the past two seasons Stoever was asked to bail out injured starter Zack Rose, and both times he answered the call, doubling his anticipated work load.  Fielding all that rubber forged him into a star last year, earning him three different CCHA Goaltender-of-the-Week honors and one Goaltender-of-the Month award. 

Now Stoever finds himself in the hot seat once again, as Bowling Green hockey has been rocked by a hazing scandal brought upon by allegations from last year's leading scorer Austen Swankler. In the aftermath of those claims, head coach Ty Eigner is sidelined until the completion of two investigations,  Swankler transferred to rival Michigan Tech, and three Bowling Green players are on indefinite suspension. If there is one position that can stabilize a cratering team, it’s the goaltender.

“We’re very fortunate to have Christian,” said Falcons interim head coach Curtis Carr, in a major understatement. “He’s shown he can be one of the top goaltenders in this league.” 

Stoever will once again be needed to carry his team through troubled waters. Now more than ever.

2. Josh Zinger, Sophomore D, Northern Michigan

 It’s the most coveted position in hockey, yet it’s as rare as a unicorn: a puck-rushing defenseman with vision, wheels and hockey sense. Northern coach Grant Potulny has exactly that in Josh Zinger. “He can pull you out of your seat,” said Potulny, describing Zinger’s offensive derringer-do. 

He was not always such a dynamic player. If not for a position change in his final year of junior hockey, Zinger would be just another plug-and-play forward. Now, with two years seeing the entire ice from the blue line, expect Zinger’s scoring totals to mushroom. “He’s much stronger, he’s got a drive, he’s got a hunger,” Potulney said. 

The 5-foot-11 product of western Canada is more than a mere playmaker—he spent the summer working on his shot, trying to scale the 90 mile-per-hour plateau. Potulny has great expectations for Zinger, and so, apparently, do the CCHA coaches and media. The sophomore has made both pre-season All-League teams. From Potulny’s point of view, the best is yet to come.

3. Kyle Kukkonen, Sophomore F, Michigan Tech (ANA)

He’s the “Rifleman” of the CCHA, with 18 notches in the barrel of his gun as a freshman. Despite racking up 10 goals last season entering the second week of February, Kyle Kukkonen found himself left off the list for the national Rookie of the Year award, a list that featured two other CCHA rivals. A day after the Tim Taylor Award finalists were made public, Kukkonen went on a goal-scoring rampage. The freshman sniper rang up eight goals in his next six games, propelling the Huskies into the NCAA tournament. 

“He certainly learned to be the difference-maker in hockey games,” said coach Joe Shawhan. Kukkonen’s prolific goal streak leapfrogged him over national candidates Joey Larson and Lleyton Roed to win the CCHA Rookie of the Year award. Now on everyone’s All-League team, The Rifleman is impossible to ignore.

4. Harry Roy, Senior F, Lake Superior State

Who would have guessed that one of Lake State’s two captains has an accent thick as Boston chowder? The team from the American Soo is known for its international flavor, but rarely does the roster contain players raised in the land of the bean and the cod. Yet here is Roy, the power play triggerman who has traded in the manic pace of Beantown for the serene beaches of Lake Superior. “Looking back, I couldn’t be happier with my decision,” said Roy, who transferred from Boston College two years ago. Coach Damon Whitten is equally pleased, and not just because of Roy’s hellacious one-timer on the power play. 

“He loves his teammates,” said Whitten. “There’s not many guys that you could ask that you want to be in your wedding, tomorrow, or 10 years from now. A tremendous young man, a great human being.” 

Whitten has refreshed his locker room, conducting a roster overhaul he hopes will translate to addition through subtraction. The big wing from Boston with the “C” on his shoulder is a vital part of that equation.  

5. Sam Morton, Graduate F, Minnesota State

Last November 5, Minnesota State senior Sam Morton was at the zenith of the college hockey world—the leading goal scorer for national powerhouse Minnesota State. Then it all came crashing down after a ferocious check from St. Thomas winger Jake Braccini. Morton lay crumpled on the Mankato ice, his season finished.

Ten months later, he is back in a purple sweater, a man on a mission. “He’s a very passionate guy,” said Mavericks first year coach Luke Strand. “He was on fire, and then got dinged up, done for the year. We’re expecting good things, and not just with the puck on his stick. He’s got a pro way about him, how he approaches every day. He’s a very attractive person for others to follow.”

For the first time in a decade, Minnesota State received no first-place votes in the pre-season coaches poll. If the the Mavericks are going to climb back into contention in the CCHA, comeback kid Sam Morton will be leading the charge.

6. Braidan Simmons-Fischer, Sophomore D, St. Thomas 

It’s rare that a player with only 19 games of college hockey experience gets singled out for pre-season attention, but Braiden Simmons-Fischer is not your typical part-time player. The 6-foot-7 inch defender with reach comparable to Reed Richards (think Fantastic Four stretchy guy) along with world-class blood lines (son of former NHL 1st-round pick Jiri Fischer), Simmons-Fischer became an impact player in the second half of his freshman year for the Tommies. Having such a steep developmental curve should not be a surprise.

“Braidan is just like the rest of us, continuing to grow as he gets comfortable at the Division I level,” said Tommies head coach Rico Blasi. “He’s a big body that can skate. He hasn’t played a lot of defense in the last few years, we moved him back there. I think he’s doing a really good job.”

This unpolished gem with the extra-long stick is a bundle of energy, a great dane puppy growing into its body. Originally destined for Division III hockey, Simmons-Fischer is now bringing NHL scouts into a high school rink in St. Paul. Once Simmons-Fischer learns how to best utilize his enormous frame, coach Blasi will have a premier defender in his quest for home ice in the CCHA playoffs. 

7. Jason Brancheau, Graduate F, Ferris State

As coaches strive for defensive perfection, goals have become few and far between in college hockey. That’s why Ferris coach Bob Daniels smiles like the cat who swallowed the canary when he discusses his veteran sniper Jason Brancheau.

“He is a gifted goal scorer,” said Daniels. “I would not be surprised to see him crack the 20-goal barrier this year.” Brancheau led Ferris with 13 goal last year, none bigger than the overtime wrist-rocket that ended Bowling Green’s season, catapulting the Bulldogs into the CCHA semifinals for the first time since 2016. 

“It’s nice to have a player of his ilk come back, [one] you can count on a number of goals this year. Already, as early as it is in terms of practice and ice time, he looks outstanding.”

8. Eric Pohlkamp, Freshman D, Bemidji State (SJS)

Every year college hockey showcases an elite group of teenagers who wear three hockey hats: the NHL team that drafted them, their college team, and the hat of USA Hockey, the colors they hope to wear at the World Junior Championship over New Years. Bemidji State freshman Eric Pohlkamp is the first such player in the new CCHA, and he’s had a busy summer wearing three different jerseys. 

On July 4, Pohlkamp attended the San Jose Sharks development camp, three weeks later he donned the the red, white and blue at the World Junior Showcase. Now he’s up in Bemidji prepping for his freshman year of NCAA puck. It’s a wonder he’s not dizzy from the competing centrifugal forces. Not to worry, says Beavers bench boss Tom Serratore. 

“He’s got the competitive maturity to blank all that out,” said Serratore, who supports all of Pohlkamp’s myriad opportunities. “He’s already drafted, so you got that in your pocket. He’s got a great chance of making the World Junior team.”

A half season of CCHA hockey will precede the final World Junior tryout in December, making Pohlkamps first semester at Bemidji a de facto audition for the World Juniors. Nevertheless, Serratore is confident Pohlkamp will bleed Bemidji green. “I think his concentration is totally with the Beavers right here. He’s a heck of a player and he’s got that makeup where he’ll be just fine.”

So fine that Pohlkamp earned a clean sweep as the pre-season CCHA Rookie of the Year in both the Coaches and the Media poll. How the freshman manages to compartmentalize the revolving door of agents, NHL scouts and USA Hockey coaches in the stands will be a major challenge for the most heralded freshman in new league history.

9. Austen Swankler, Junior F, Michigan Tech

Shrouded in controversy, the CCHA’s preseason Player of the Year should be seen wearing the black and gold for Michigan Tech at the 2023 Great Lakes Invitational after Christmas. How his persona folds into the Husky locker room remains to be seen. Is he a savior, the league’s most prolific scorer who courageously blew the whistle on hazing at Bowling Green? Or is he a cancerous teammate who blew a gaping hole in a once-proud program? A campus and a police investigation will eventually determine guilty parties at Bowling Green, while success on the ice will determine if Tech’s gamble was stroke of fortune or a Faustian bargain. 

10. Zack Rose, Senior G, Augustana

There’s never been any question about goaltender Zack Rose’s ability to stop pucks. He emerged as a budding star for Bowling Green as a sophomore in 2020-21, coming through with a 7-2 record and a sparkling 1.98 GAA. Then a frustrating string of labrum injuries relegated Rose to part-time performer the next two seasons. They allowed Christian Stoever to leapfrog Rose as a the Falcons #1 goalie, prompting Rose to enter the transfer portal this spring.

Augustana brought in Rose, seeking veteran experience between the pipes.

“He’s played in some big games, he’s had some big wins, he’s dealt with injuries, so I think he’s matured through all that,” said Vikings coach Garrett Raboin. “We have two freshmen goalies joining him, he’s also there to mentor these young guys and give them a look at what college hockey is all about.”

The probability of Augustana posing a threat to Division I opponents in their first year will be dictated by the health of Rose’s torn labrum. The difference between a raw rookie in net compared to a battle-tested veteran cannot be overstated.