Here is the second part of a two-part preview of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s upcoming season, brought to you by FloHockey correspondent Tim Rappleye. You can find Part I here.
No. 6 Bowling Green
After the Falcons’ 29-year climb to the NCAA Tournament was finally rewarded last season, it seems counterintuitive to place them in the WCHA’s second division the very next year. There are a number of reasons why, and we’ll start in goal. Departing goalie Ryan Bednard was the foundation of the Falcons’ NCAA run last year, with a sterling 1.77 goals against average over 32 games, including valiant overtime losses in the WCHA championship game and the NCAA heartbreak to eventual national champions Minnesota Duluth.
The Falcon goaltending fortunes now rest on Eric Dop, the Ohio native who actually had better numbers than Bednard in his nine games last season. There is more to BGSU’s sixth-place prediction than merely goaltending, however. Departing coach Chris Bergeron spent nine years forging his stamp on the Falcons with a heavy hand. He empowered a culture of selfless grinders like Lukas Craggs and Stephen Baylis, guys who extracted a pound of enemy flesh on each shift; they will be missing in 2019-20. You can pencil in 80 points of Falcon offense from Max Johnson, Brandon Kruse, and the hustling Freddie Letourneau, but the big question is, will Bowling Green play with the same edge?
Replacing a head coach with an assistant is never easy. Ty Eigner’s dream job might become nightmarish if he can’t get his troops to play hard in the dirty areas, especially the bloody nose alleys in front of both nets. Eigner was Bowling Green’s elite recruiter for the past nine years, a friend and listening board to the same players he is now asking to make bodily sacrifices. This will be a season of growing pains in southern Ohio.
No. 7 Ferris State
The final four spots in the WCHA will contain a ton of drama, as all four schools will be fighting for their playoff lives. Ferris is projected in the seventh spot because of the ability of “wise elder” coach Bob Daniels to teach his players over the course of the season, and their sophomore goaltender Roni Salmankangas. The slender Finn was pounded throughout much of last season, getting three times as much work as expected due to the failings of departed incumbent Justin Kapelmaster. Salmenkangas had a terrific final six games, did a ton of work in Finland this summer, and returns a man, forged from scraping rock bottom in Division I hockey.
Daniels uses one of hockey’s buzz words when describing his plan to resurrect the program that enjoyed three trips to the NCAA’s this decade: “culture.”
“We lost a little bit of the culture in our locker room, that’s on the coaches,” he said. “Maybe you have some success for a few years, you let things slide that you might not have let slide before.”
Ferris also lost both their high-scoring captain Cory Macklin and the WCHA’s top newcomer Cooper Zech to graduation. Daniels, known as one of the great teachers in the game, will be sorely tested to get his Bulldogs back into the WCHA playoffs. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Daniels enjoys a challenge.
No. 8 Alabama Huntsville
Despite learning that they were abandoned by the seven other WCHA teams in the lower 48 this offseason, Chargers coach Mike Corbett remains undaunted.
“We’re going to punch you in the mouth when we have a chance,” Corbett said. “Our kids are going to compete.”
One player will keep Corbett’s chargers in playoff contention this year: goaltender Mark Sinclair. The former BCHL junior star stole eight games last season for the Chargers, earning them a WCHA playoff spot. That formula should work once again.
No. 9 Alaska (Fairbanks)
College hockey in Alaska is in such crisis mode right now that getting abandoned by the WCHA’s Elite 7 is merely an inconvenience compared to the state’s financial horror show, one that threatened to shut down both of Alaska’s Division I teams this summer. Of the two programs, Fairbanks appears best suited to compete in the 2019-20 WCHA season. Their three leading scorers have returned to campus, as well as Swedish goalie Anton Martinsson, a senior with three career shutouts and a GAA of under 3.00.
Coach Erik Largen has cranked open the Nanooks recruiting pipeline to Latvia, bringing in four freshmen to up their total to five from that former Soviet hockey power. Desperate times require desperate measures.
This group of Nanooks should win a handful of games, to the chagrin of WCHA opponents who will see their critical Pairwise Rankings suffer.
No. 10 Alaska Anchorage
The Seawolves are the reigning cellar dwellers of Division I hockey, 60th out of 60 in the all-important Pairwise Rankings last season. On the positive side for the Seawolves, they have one of the sport’s most dynamic young coaches, Matt Curley, who is on the shortlist of USA Hockey’s best and brightest.
Curley has done a thorough job scouring junior hockey outposts throughout North America and has recruited several character guys to stabilize the program, including two captains from prominent BCHL clubs. They will be plugged in immediately.
Curley spent several weeks with Alabama Huntsville’s Mike Corbett this summer, sharing the coaching duties of a USA Hockey U17 Five Nations squad in Germany. The two spent a lot of late hours in Fussen, drawing up plays on cocktail napkins and talking WCHA puck. The two hockey lifers evolved from acquaintances to friends, even though they will be butting heads four times this season.
“I guess best-case scenario for both of us is to get a split on the year,” said Curley, looking forward to his Seawolves’ two series with Corbett’s Chargers. “That way we both get a couple of wins. It will be fun to see him again in November.”
Early-season matchups like the Chargers and Seawolves may seem meaningless from afar, but upon further review, they represent a desperation battle between good friends, one that has implications not only for a much-needed WCHA playoff spot but quite possibly for program survival as well.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.