We are going to delve now into the top half of the league. As I get closer to #1, the tougher it goes to determine who will finish where. For example, I'm pretty certain of UAA finishing dead last. However, I'm not certain where any of the top 6 will finish. As usual, the top 5 will be very tightly packed in terms of talent. It would not surprise me at all if my top 6 looks completely different than reality even by week 3 of the season.
University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
2009-2010 Overall Record: 18-19-2 WCHA Record: 12-14-2 (6-5-0 NC Record)
Key Losses: Jordan Schroeder, Nick Leddy, Jay Barriball, Mike Carman, Ryan Flynn, Tony Lucia
Key Returnees: Jacob Cepis, Alex Kangas, Aaron Ness, Cade Fairchild
Key Rookies: Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Max Gardiner(?)
Let's face it, 4 or 5 years ago, if you said Minnesota will end up barely in the top half of the league and have 2 or 3 straight poor seasons where they miss the NCAA playoffs and one where they didn't even make the Final Five, I'd've called you just another blind homer. Well, it's a reality. The Gophers enter into this season facing arguably the most important season in Coach Lucia's career. This season could be it for Lucia in Minnesota if he doesn't produce. And it is a shame, because his biggest fault is his blind loyalty to John Hill. Hill's incompetence is going to cost Lucia his job this year because I don't see the Gophers any higher than #5 with their current defense.
The Gophers, in my view, have been a finesse/puck possession styled team. They're not overly physical. They rely upon forechecking, outlet passing, a dynamic transition game in the neutral zone, and special teams. I argue that they are still a very good passing team. They're still pretty good at finishing if given the opportunity. However, their Team Defense and their Special Teams (especially their PK unit) is a train wreck. They are easily taken off of their game and that often results in goaltender Alex Kangas being left hung out to dry.
Alex Kangas' stats aren't good or great, and they're not accurate as to how well or poorly he's actually played in his time with the U. Kangas is probably the most consistent player the Gophers have. He's actually pretty good. I consider him to be better than just about every goaltender the Gophers have had since Weber left. In fact, though he's a work in progress, Kent Patterson has the potential to pick up the mantle left by Kangas (Kangas is a senior this year) with little drop. However, no one will notice given how, again, atrocious Minnesota is in their own zone.
They added Cepis mid season and he gave them a boost, thanks to an incredible knack for Cepis to manipulate the shoddy officiating the WCHA offers through the use of acting. Like Roe and Earl before that, Cepis has enough talent to be able to succeed without diving, but he chooses again and again to flop to the ice. Too bad. On a positive note, he finished runner up last season in the Louganis Freestyle Diving (Frozen Water Division) Award to SCSU's Garrett Roe. This year, I'm sure he'll use his first full year's eligibility in Minneapolis to pressure Roe to bring the Trophy to Dinkytown.
I don't see there being a lot of room in the upper echelon for the Gophers in their current configuration. Losing Schroeder was expected, but losing Leddy was a big hit. All Eyes will be on DU and UW's goaltending situations (DU's got a new goaltender and UW's goaltender is almost Carey Price-like in terms of Achilles' Heel). If DU falters and UW is exposed (which I predict they will be), Minnesota could finish as high as tied for 4th! Most likely though, they'll finish 6th.
(?) - I heard Max Gardiner is coming in for the departed Nick Leddy, but Heisenberg still lists him as coming in 2011.
Predicted Finish: 6th
University of Wisconsin Badgers
2009-2010 Overall Record: 28-11-4 WCHA Record: 17-8-3 (11-3-1 NC Record)
Key Losses: Blake Geoffrion, Michael Davies, Ryan McDonaugh, Derek Stepan, Brendan Smith, Cody Goloubef
Key Returners: Jake Gardiner, Craig Smith, John Ramage, Jordy Murray, Scott Gudmanson
Key Recruits: Jason Clark, Frank Simonelli, Chase Drake, Mark Zengerle
Truth be told, this team succeeded far beyond what I thought was possible last season and this season they'll be woefully exposed. Why? Gone is their defensive team that was just as good if not better than the defensive crews I watched dominate for the Sioux in the days of Matt Greene and the NC winning Sioux in 2000. They were simply stifling. Now they're pros. And the Badger faithful should worry. No, they'll not be cellar dwellers. Mike Eaves is too good a head coach to allow them to fall that far. However, they will be forced to revert back to the Badgers of the early 2000s: boring, trap/lock based, insomnia-curing hockey. Why? Because Scott Amundson is NOT Bernd Bruckler or Brian Elliott. In fact, he's, at best, mediocre. And when you don't have that team D ahead of you, all you're left is: exposed.
The Badgers went a long way last season, but they will not see the same success this year. They'll surprise a few and they may return to the NCAAs, but they won't win it all.
Predicted Finish: 5th
Denver University Pioneers
2009-2010 Overall Record: 27-10-4 WCHA Record: 19-5-4 (8-5-0 NC Record)
Key Losses: Marc Cheverie, Joe Colborne, Rhett Rakshani, Tyler Ruegsegger, Patrick Wiercioch
Key Returners: Adam Murray, Matt Donovan, Anthony Maiani, William Wrenn, Drew Shore, Kyle Ostrow
Key Recruits: Sam Brittain, Beau Bennett, Nick Shore, Jason Zucker
Interesting this: Denver loses as much talent, including arguably the best goaltender in the NCAA last season and I have them finishing ahead of the returning DI Hockey runner ups. Why? Because defensively, Denver is still more sound than Wisconsin. Adam Murray and Sam Brittain have more potential than Gudmanson and Bennett. And Gwozdecky, as deplorable he is to Sioux fans, always seems to get the most out of his players.
Sam Brittain has turned heads both in juniors and at the Combine. He's a big guy at 6'3" 190: something you usually use to describe defensemen. Beau Bennett seems to have an innate ability to score. I don't think DU is going to have much trouble in scoring and in Team D. The major question marks this season lies in consistency and goaltending. Murray looked shakey in spot duty last year, but this year is always different. Not every goaltender can tear the league apart like Cheverie did over his 2 years and 1 game he played in Colorado.
DU is going to beatable this year, but it won't be a cakewalk.
Predicted Finish: 4th