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The 2019-20 NCAA season is looming, and as each program prepares for its individual expectations, each faces an impending question on the brink of the season.
Just like last year, the WCHA boasts one extremely strong national title contender in Minnesota State, a few very solid squads who could fight their way into the NCAA Tournament, and then the rest of the pack. But don’t ignore the operative truth for this conference: On any given night any team can win.
So below we look at one question for each team in the conference before the puck drops in the men’s play this weekend.
1. Alabama Huntsville: Will sophomores take the reigns?
With just two double-digit win seasons since 2007-08, the Chargers haven’t worked their way into consistently competitive hockey. Now with the leading scorer and the only double-digit goal-scorer from last season in Hans Gorowksy and second-leading scorer Kurt Gosselin graduating, they’ve got a huge challenge on their hands.
For this team to improve, Bauer Neudecker and Jack Jeffers must build on the freshman campaigns that tied them third in team scoring with 14 points apiece.
2. Alaska: Can improved defense lead to offense?
After one season behind the bench, Erik Largen’s proven track record as a goalie coach showed. Starting goaltender Anton Martinsson saw his save percentage and goals-against average improve, in addition to the team save percentage.
But the finer attention to defense brought a drop in offense from a largely returning cast from the previous season. As Largen gains more experience as a head coach, he’ll need to help the offense develop from a greater focus in the defensive zone.
3. Alaska Anchorage: Where will the wins come from?
Another second-year coach in Alaska, Matt Curley’s Seawolves posted the second-worst record in program history, coming away with just three wins (3-28-3). With leading scorer Nicolas Erb-Ekholm departing, no returning player managed more than three goals or nine points.
A lot will be riding on junior Brody Claeys in the crease, who came away with two of the team’s victories over nine games. Wins are bound to happen over the course of a 34-game season, but on paper where they will stem from is up in the air. This team needs to improve in every aspect.
4. Bemidji State: Will returning cast break mediocrity?
Through 18 seasons Tom Serratore has seen it all, and now entering year 19 behind the Beavers’ bench, his team is stuck in the middle of the pack with 16, 17, 22, 16, and 15 wins over the past five respective seasons.
Perhaps a large returning class including five of the team’s top six scorers and seven of the top 10 scorers will pull the team up the standings in 2019-20. With five freshmen ready to take the next step, Bemidji’s middle bunch could vault this team to the next level.
5: Bowling Green: Can a new coach bring the same results?
The Falcons finally got over the proverbial hump last year, earning their first NCAA Tournament bid in 29 years. It came after five straight seasons of 20-plus victories followed by failed at-large bids and disappointing conference tournaments.
New coach Ty Eigner will face immense pressure to repeat departing coach Chris Bergeron’s success, especially with a large, deep returning roster of hungry players that got a taste of the national tournament. (Bergeron, of course, left Bowling Green for his alma mater, Miami-Ohio.)
Bonus question: Can new starter Eric Dop hold his numbers across an entire season?
6. Ferris State: How will defense shake out?
Defensemen Cooper Zech and Nate Kallen paired up as the team’s top pair on the blue line and finished first and third in team scoring, respectively. They were the only two Bulldogs who played in at least 30 games to finish the season with a positive defensive rating.
Zech signed with the Boston Bruins following his strong freshman season, while two others graduated from the backend. Kallen’s career year should help offset the loss of Zech, but without the savvy puck-mover, the backend’s offensive instinct may dwindle with three fresh faces on the blue line.
7. Lake Superior State: Is there enough to offset the losses?
The Lakers broke out as one of the biggest surprise teams in 2018-19, but for anyone really paying attention, it was no surprise. The team’s 23 wins last year eclipsed the previous two seasons’ totals combined, and there are more to come.
But the losses of Diego Cuglietta, Anthony Nellis, and Gage Torrel mean the team will miss three of their top five scorers and a combined 47 goals and 99 total points. Add in the loss of netminder Nick Kossof, who went 17-8-2 with a .918 SV% and 2.42 GAA, and there’s real reason to doubt a repeat season. However, the pieces are in place for the returning cast to offset the departures with ice time tweaks and a few young guns in Jacob Nordqvist, Ashton Calder, and Mareks Mitens to help lead the team forward.
8. Michigan Tech: Will the youth come through?
After four straight 20-win seasons, the Huskies dropped to 14-20-4 in what should be considered an outlying year. Expect a serious bounce-back this campaign with all five top returning scorers coming off of underclassman years. Three freshmen-turned-sophomores and two sophomores-turned-juniors will help propel a team many are already writing off.
Add in two returning netminders — specifically Robbie Beydoun and his .931SV% and 1.98 GAA — and the offense will have a bail out in the crease on the chance of any off nights.
9. Minnesota State: Is this the year?
The winningest team of 2019-20 faces just one significant departure in Max Coatta, who finished 15th in scoring for the Mavs. It begs the question if 2020 is finally the year the Mavericks can claim it all. Mike Hastings’ team has been among the most impressive in recent seasons, but real success is measured by national success, which has been lacking.
You name it and the Mavericks have it: a deep, dangerous offense; well-rounded defensive efficiency; a goalie who measures up to the best in the league. Senior Marc Michaelis, junior Connor Mackey, and sophomore Dryden McKay lead those roles, respectively as the Mavericks hunt for the national title in 2020.
10. Northern Michigan: Who’s the goalie?
Nolan Kent is the lone returning goalie on the roster. Kent played just over 13 minutes in all of last season, leaving a lot of opportunity for incoming freshmen John Hawthorne and John Roberts to steal the crease.
But the freshmen will have to go through transfer Connor Ryckman, who went 30-0-1 over the course of two seasons with DIII’s Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He led the team to the league title in 2019-20 on the heels of a 1.44 GAA and .933 SV%. Should Ryckman translate to DI competition with little slip-up, the Wildcats could be dangerous.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.