Western Collegiate Hockey Association expert and FloHockey correspondent Tim Rappleye brings fans a two-part WCHA preview in which he pinpoints favorites, identifies hot stories headed into the season, and gives you everything you need to know before the puck drops.
No. 1 Minnesota State
Sports eras are best measured in dynasties.
The new-age WCHA (post-Big Ten hockey) will be known as the Minnesota State era. They have won a combined seven regular season and tournament championships in the six years of the revamped WCHA, and they’re the favorite to bag two more in 2019-20. To say they are a boat in 2019-20 is an understatement, having lost but a single player (Max Coatta: 7-8-15) from the NCAA’s winningest team of 2018-19.
Seven incoming freshmen are battling for slivers of ice time, creating an atmosphere of competitive hunger in Mankato.
“They can count,” said associate head coach Todd Knott of the Maverick newbies during their July training. “It’s been a really good five weeks in the weight room. There’s even been a competitiveness to that. That’s a real positive.”
Yet another disappointing NCAA Tournament created a fever pitch in the Mavs offseason workouts, as German senior wunderkinds Marc Michaelis (a second-year captain) and Parker Tuomie (team-leading 1.11 points per game) drove this team to fitness extremes in anticipation of their senior year.
“We know that it’s our last chance,” said Tuomie. “We want to make the most of it.”
The Mavs have stars and studs throughout their lineup, but it’s their unassuming sophomore goalie Dryden McKay who will write their 2020 glory story. It’s not words but numbers that portray his significance: 1.76 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. For the rest of the WCHA, this season is a race for second place.
The WCHA regular season is always a dogfight in which will often trumps skill as the presiding factor. Predicting outcomes six months down the road is dicey at best, but since one position — goaltending — surpassed all others, the blue paint of the crease will be the North Star that guides these picks.
No. 2 Michigan Tech
The Huskies enter the 2019-20 season under the radar, having lost home ice in the WCHA playoffs and ending last season on a downer, as they were swept by Bowling Green to finish six games under .500. That disappointment makes it easy to forget that Tech qualified for the NCAAs twice in the last three years.
With rivals BGSU, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan all losing their mainstays between the pipes, the Huskies’ coach third-year head coach Joe Shawhan is blessed with two returning goaltenders — Robbie Beydoun and Matt Jurusik — who were both invited to NHL development camps this summer. Beydoun’s numbers (.931 SV% and a 1.98 GAA) cross the threshold of greatness, giving Tech the equivalent of a pitching ace in every series.
Shawhan expects his squad to be decided underdogs against the aforementioned power, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
“I think we’ll probably be picked the lowest in the preseason rankings since I’ve been here,” Shawhan said. “But I think we have a good team.”
No. 3 Lake Superior State
It took Damon Whitten five long years to crawl across the desert, but his Lakers checked every box last season: 23 wins, home ice in the WCHA playoffs, winning a postseason series, and capturing the program’s first Great Lakes Invitational Tournament.
“When you have a year like we had, you put some building blocks in place,” Whitten said. “Now it’s our job to sustain it.”
Like several of the other WCHA powers, he has lost a rock in goaltender Nick Kossoff (17-8-2; .918 SV%) but has a tested replacement in Mareks Mittens. The 6-foot-1 Latvian had a 2.42 GAA in 11 games last season. Mittens forced his way into the lineup, much of his playing time coming during a late-season surge.
The Lakers have lost a ton of senior leadership, most notably NCAA goal king Diego Cuglietta, but it appears the culture has changed up in the Sault.
Look for Lakers to hold onto WCHA home ice once again with a top-four finish.
No. 4 Bemidji State
Tom Serratore preaches defense up in Bemidji, and his Beavers work at it . . . like beavers, actually. There are usually three waves of defenders before getting to their net, a cage defended by not one but two stalwart goaltenders: Zach Driscoll and Henry Johnson.
“Our priority is to puck pressure and puck possess,” said assistant coach Travis Winter. “When we don’t have the puck we want to get it back as quickly as possible.”
The Beavers missed home ice by a single notch in the standings last year; look for them to work their way up the pile in 2020.
No. 5 Northern Michigan
The Wildcats lost arguably the best goalie (Atte Tolvanen) and the WCHA’s only All-American (Troy Loggins) to graduation, creating the biggest challenge for Northern’s third-year coach Grant Potulny.
“[Replacing Tolvanen] is almost . . . ‘impossible’ is the wrong word, but it’s going to be very challenging,” said Potulny about his departed netminder, the anchor of his two 20-win seasons.
The Wildcats’ fortunes will weigh heavily on the 5-9 frame of sophomore goalie Kent Nolan, a man with all of two NCAA games worth of experience. With a non-conference schedule that includes Boston University and St. Cloud before Thanksgiving, the beginning of the campaign won’t be easy.
Potulny and staff struggled early last year before a late-season surge carried them to second place. Trying to do the same without Tolvanen between the pipes is too much to ask. For the first time in the Potulny era, the ‘Cats will play a road game in the WCHA’s postseason.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.