We’re only a couple of days from opening night, and the Old Dog is pulling on his chain, howling away, and anxious to get the season started. To be honest, the Old Dog never thought he’d live this long. When I was a boy in the 1950’s, it seemed like the year 2000 was as far as I could imagine. But we’re here in 2019, and another year of Michigan Tech hockey is about to arrive to keep Mrs. Dog and me totally engaged most weekends through the long but not very cold Texas winter.
So far, I’ve looked at the Huskies’ roster and the first half of the schedule for the 2019-2020 schedule. Now it’s time to take a deeper look at the WCHA and for the Old Dog to rate all of the teams. When you step back, the league this year looks like it’s divided into three tiers.
Alone at the top, with enough talent to contend for the NCAA championship, is Minnesota State. They have most of their team back from last year, and the way the Mavericks always play, with structure, discipline, and solid offensive and defensive balance, it’s very hard to see how anyone else in the WCHA can seriously challenge the Mavericks. I really hate to say this, but anything less than a regular season championship and a playoff championship will seem like a letdown in Mankato. In fact, I’ll be surprised if they lose a single regular season home game.
I hope it doesn’t break this way, but it’s not easy to see the MacNaughton Cup and the Jeff Sauer Trophy leaving MSU’s trophy case. (Just in case you forgot, or tried to forget, both are sitting there right now.) The only things that could get in the Mavs’ way would be a rash of injuries or a major melt down between the pipes.
In the next tier, there are four teams: Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green, and Northern Michigan. As I discussed in my column last week about the early schedule, every one of these teams has a solid nucleus of returning players, both upfront and on the blue line. Only NMU has a question mark in goal; all the other teams are reasonably sound from top to bottom, although none have as many weapons as Minnesota State.
So, how do I think these teams will sort out? Here’s my take on how they will finish in the regular season. However, I’m going to hedge just a bit and say I think these four could end up in any order from 2nd to 5th, and, as I’ll get to in a minute, any one of these squads could fall down to 6th, too.
I think Lake State will end up on top of this bunch and finish in second place. That’s because the Lakers showed us last season that they can play with a level of consistency and discipline game after game, and because they continue to bring in freshman talent from everywhere on the globe. Their roster includes players from Sweden, Latvia, Germany, and Japan. They also have more Canadians than any other WCHA team, and most of these young men are quite accustomed to playing a system-driven team game. Since that’s what we’ve seen in the Soo ever since Damon Whitten left Tech’s staff to take over the Laker program, I think we’ll see more. They also have plenty of proven blueline scoring coming back for this season, which is a big plus. Overall, I think LSSU has the right mix to make these elements work every night.
My third-place guess is Bowling Green. As I pointed out in my column about the Huskies’ schedule, BG has plenty of talent back from last year’s NCAA tournament team. They’ve also added Gavin Gould, who left MTU after it became clear that he didn’t fit into the style of play that Joe Shawhan wants to develop for Tech.
Can Gould fit into a program that takes great pride in going hard to the opposing net and punishing teams that get anywhere near their own crease? Or will the unhappiness he had last year resurface and add something to the locker room that doesn’t quite mesh? Or will he be a scoring demon that will make Tech fans angry that he left? In the end, he may not matter much, but how this plays out will be of great interest to most Tech fans. As we’ve seen over the years, anyone who deserts the Cult of Michigan Tech is bitterly resented, and so Gould will likely be showered with boos (and other epithets) when the Falcons play at the JMac on January 10-11.
I do believe the Huskies can get to the fourth spot and a home playoff slot this year. They’ve got all of the ingredients: experience, solid defenders, goaltending, and depth. Their one potential weakness is scoring, but the Old Dog saw a boatload of potential in last year’s freshman forwards, and I really believe they are on the edge of great things. These Young Dogs might be a year away from becoming a dominant force in their sophomore year. These guys might also have a second year sag, as so many NCAA players seem to suffer. I also think this team might be emotionally fragile. If they can get off to a good start, the Huskies could surprise teams—but if they start slow, things could go downhill, too.
Of the second-tier teams, I think Northern Michigan will have the most difficulty adjusting to their new roster. Last year, the play of goalie Atte Tolvanen hid a multitude of weaknesses, and, once opposing teams got frustrated by his ability to stop their best chances, the Wildcat’s not-inconsiderable offensive abilities could spring up suddenly and take over a game quickly. Since Grant Potulny took over as coach, the Cats modus operandi has been to start the season slowly and then come on strong as the schedule progressed.
Like the other second tier teams, NMU has capable forwards and defensemen back from last year’s dangerous team. It seems to the Old Dog, though, that some of these players may be exposed a bit more than they were last year when they could rely on a brick wall in front of their own net. I also suspect that Potulny’s back-pass offensive system, where they feed the puck back to a trailer as they attack the blue line, which seemed to throw other teams off last year, won’t be a surprise this year. For all of these reasons, I see Northern as the last team in this tier.
The bottom tier includes Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska, Alabama-Huntsville, Ferris State, and Bemidji State. I’ve already reviewed the two Alaska teams, and they will struggle to get points. They will get some, though, much to the chagrin of any team that allows the Nanooks or Seawolves to stay in any game. I’ll pick UAA to finish last and Alaska-Fairbanks to finish next to last.
So, we need to look at the other three teams. Let’s start with Bemidji. To be straight up, Bemidji almost—but not quite, at least in the Old Dog’s view—belongs in the second tier. Like the other second tier teams, the have a band of capable returnees and two goaltenders who are better than average in terms of last year’s statistics. In many ways, they belong in the second tier, and if they play the way the Beavers usually play, they could work their way up to a home ice playoff spot. Nevertheless, I think they are a bit lower in terms of overall talent and just won’t crack the top five.
Ferris State is another wild card and might even be a joker in the WCHA deck. They have, like the rest of the league, a lot of experienced players coming back. They don’t quite have the firepower that second tier teams—or even Bemidji State—have, and they’ve lost their two best scorers from last year. At the same time, they have the advantage of their squirrelly little rink with the undersized ice surface, as well as goalie Roni Salmenkangas. The Finnish sophomore saw more rubber than a tire maker last season and didn’t post great numbers. However, he played well despite facing a barrage of shots most nights and could be a tower of strength for the Bulldogs. Any team, even Minnesota State, that takes FSU lightly, particularly in Big Rapids, could lose critical points. That said, I think Ferris is very likely to make the playoffs and I see them in seventh place when the dust clears.
That leaves just Alabama-Huntsville, a team that I think will finish in the eighth and final spot for the WCHA playoffs. The Chargers have giant chip on their shoulder because the Michigan-Minnesota-Ohio group that has announced they will leave the WCHA in a couple of years, didn’t consult UAH or give them the courtesy of any advance notice when they told the college hockey world about their decision to leave the WCHA.
But the Chargers don’t have much of their scoring returning, and they’ve added 11 freshmen to their roster. The do have goalie Mark Sinclair back in net, and, while his numbers weren’t stellar (2.89 goals against, 0.915 save percentage) last year, he was usually on the downhill side of a tilted rink. As always, if you don’t come to play, the Chargers will try to cut your heart out. They just don’t have a very sharp scalpel, but they are probably going to gain just enough points to finish ahead of the two Alaska teams.
Add it all up and here’s my predicted order of finish for 2019-2020:
- Minnesota State
- Lake Superior State
- Bowling Green State
- Michigan Tech
- Northern Michigan
- Bemidji State
- Ferris State
Editor’s Note: Due to NCAA transfer rules, it is still to be determined whether or not Gavin Gould is eligible to play for BGSU during the 2019-2020 season. An answer could come as soon as this week.