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Roundtable: NCAA preseason predictions and thoughts

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2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Photo by Justin Berl/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Another NCAA season is upon us again! TIG’s college hockey writers put their heads together to answer the most pressing questions and make some predictions going into the season.

Who is your pick to win the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award?

Anne Tokarski: Well, Aerin Frankel is coming back for her fifth year...just kidding (mostly)! I’m going to take a wild guess and say Kiara Zanon, Penn State’s sophomore phenom, is gunning for the award this season. Zanon was tied for third in scoring as a freshman last year, and though there’s a bit of a bias against College Hockey America and the programs within that conference, I think she has a really good shot at nabbing that scoring title from Daryl Watts this season.

Nathan Vaughan: I am obligated to say Aerin Frankel (people might hurt me if I say otherwise). But if not her I could see Alina Müller taking it home if she is healthy and doesn’t miss too much time at the Olympics. Plus Frankel would need to break her own records for voters to even look her way. The burden of proof for a goalie to win it is high; to win it two years running, I think a single goal allowed all season would eliminate her from winning unfortunately.

Gabs Fundaro: I would love to say Alina Müller, but I think she’ll be missing too much time to truly win it. I’ll go with a bold pick: her teammate, Skylar Fontaine. She’s excellent as an offensive defender and should be plenty motivated this year after a centralization snub from USA Hockey. Fontaine may also have a slight edge over past defenders for this award: it’s an Olympic year, which narrows the pool of elite players a bit.

Who do you predict to win the 2022 national championship?

Gabs Fundaro: If I say Northeastern every year, I have to be right at least once, right? I have long been a fan of the core of this Northeastern team, and they’re all back this year. They also picked up valuable experience last season with a run to the national championship game. But they’ll be missing Müller for significant chunks of time this season due to Olympic prep and the Games in February. Chloé Aurard will also join Team France for qualifiers. It can be difficult to keep momentum up with big players missing for so many stretches, but the Huskies should have all the pieces in place by the end of February to make a serious run again.

Anne Tokarski: Can Wisconsin go for a three-peat? I feel like, realistically, they could...but where’s the fun in that? My guess is a Hockey East school finally breaks through and my (second) guess is that it’s definitely Northeastern. I know that’s a boring, stereotypical answer, but Northeastern consistently attracts some of the best players and with Skylar Fontaine and Aerin Frankel (amongst others!) all returning for their fifth year, the Huskies are going to be absolutely lethal...again. And they’re going into it all with a chip on their shoulder from last season’s national championship game! That adds drama and spice and everything you want out of a competitor.

Nathan Vaughan: Again certain obligations make me say Northeastern, this one however should be the correct pick. The Huskies return everyone and add some huge talent in Maddie Mills. Northeastern was one fortuitous bounce away from winning before the rather unlucky Watts goal in OT in Erie.

Who is your dark horse pick this season?

Gabs Fundaro: Quinnipiac. I am a big, big fan of the way Cass Turner and co. have built this team and the pieces they’ve added. They retain some key veteran scoring in Taylor House, Lexie Adzija, and Renee Saltness, and they add a transfer with good potential in sophomore Jess Schryver. I think Zoe Boyd and Kendall Cooper have what it takes to be a cornerstone D at this level, and the group around them on the blue line projects to be very good, too.

First-year forwards Maya Labad and Ann-Frédérik Naud are blue chippers and will make an immediate impact. The Bobcats have some strong options in net with the pick-up of fifth-year transfer Corinne Schroeder from BU. There are no obvious holes on their roster and a lot of potential. It’s easily their best chance to compete for hardware since winning the ECAC title in 2016.

Anne Tokarski: My dark horse pick is Penn State. I think they’re going to be scary good in what will amount to being Josie Bothun and Kiara Zanon’s first full (aka non-COVID) season. Despite winning their first ever CHA title, the Nittany Lions had a heartbreaking end to their 2020-21 season after missing out on the CHA championship game and, subsequently, a trip to the national tournament. Also, who doesn’t love an underdog from College Hockey America?

Nathan Vaughan: Is a team that has won multiple titles in the past a dark horse? Minnesota-Duluth should not have made last year’s tournament. While there they made the most of their opportunity and took a talented NU team to the brink. Women’s hockey is not a sport where dark horses usually win but if I have to pick one maybe it’s the Bulldogs.

Who is your breakout pick this season (player or team)?

Anne Tokarski: I’m going to hazard a guess and say that Wisconsin’s Casey O’Brien is going to have an absolutely stellar year. The sophomore forward had just ten points last season (two goals and eight assists), but the absences of Britta Curl and Lacey Eden due to Olympic centralization should give O’Brien the opportunity she needs to shine even brighter for the Badgers.

Gabs Fundaro: I’ll toss in a couple of Clarkson players here. Nicole Gosling was solid as a rookie during the very weird 2020-21 ECAC season and I think she’ll take a step ahead this year. I feel the same about Anne Cherkowski, a sophomore who’s transferring in from Minnesota. She comes with a lot of potential and should build off her scoring as a rookie (six points in 13 games for the Gophers).

What is the biggest question to be answered going into the year?

Gabs Fundaro: If you told me the top six ECAC teams were going to compete in a Super Smash Bros Battle Royale, I think I’d stand a better chance of correctly guessing the tournament winner than correctly picking who wins the conference this year. The race is wide open, and while there are some very, very good teams in the mix, to me there’s no clear front-runner to start the season.

Anne Tokarski: How will centralization/the Olympics affect the quality of play that we see from international and North American players?

Nathan Vaughan: Can a team not from the big three conferences (HEA, WCHA, ECAC) actually make a mark? Mercyhurst used to be a team that was a force to be reckoned with but lately the CHA has been the team the top seed beats up in the tournament. Penn State seemed to make some waves last year, can they do something? Can a NEWHA team shock the world?

Name a first-year player (or a bunch) who you’re pumped to see play.

Gabs Fundaro: Sarah Paul. I’ve heard really good things about Canadian Sarahs who play for Princeton. It sounds like she had a great camp this summer with Hockey Canada and will be coming in with a wicked shot/scoring instincts.

Anne Tokarski: Incoming Minnesota freshman Skylar Vetter. While we didn’t get the chance to see her compete at the (canceled) 2021 U18 World Championship, her performance at the 2020 tournament is more than enough to guarantee that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the ice this year — and that’s saying something, considering the Gophers already have pretty solid goaltending depth. It remains to be seen how Brad Frost will divvy up the game load between Lauren Bench, Makayla Pahl, and Vetter, but I think Vetter is going to put on a show in the WCHA.

Who do you think won this offseason’s Transfer-lympics?

Anne Tokarski: Listen, we all know that I’m biased, but Ohio State had a bevy of newcomers — including three from Robert Morris alone — and I think that automatically gives them the title Transfer-lympic Champions. Like, imagine a world where you get Raygan Kirk, Teagan Grant, Lexi Templeman, Kenzie Hauswirth, Clair DeGeorge, Hadley Hartmetz, Lauren Bernard, and Emily Curlett on your team...in addition to the already stacked roster? It’s an easy choice.

Nathan Vaughan: The addition of Maddie Mills to the Northeastern roster is undeniably big. It sets up Coach Flint for a second line that would likely be top line almost anywhere else in the country. What he will do with the combo of Mueller-Aurard-Mills-Murphy is going to be interesting to watch. The transfer gives them another former Kaz finalist which might cost any NU players in that respect.