WCHA preview: Minnesota, Wisconsin are still the favorites

Sleeper Minnesota-Duluth putting Conference on alert

The WCHA sent two teams, including the eventual champion, to the Frozen Four last season. What can be expected this year from the conference that is often called the best in the NCAA?

The upcoming season will find Minnesota looking to add another championship, with border rival Wisconsin at their heels. North Dakota will be working hard to improve on their decent 2015-16 season, and Minnesota-Duluth will be continuing to build their program in hopes of being a bigger factor in the conference. The women in the WCHA will also be playing under new leadership, as this summer it was announced that Katie Million will be the new Vice President and Women's League Commissioner in the WCHA. Million has extensive experience from years as an executive with the New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority, and her passion and drive will undoubtedly bring about more growth to an already well-established power in women’s hockey.

There also has been a major coaching shakeup, with Ohio State losing head coach Jenny Potter after just one season due to many NCAA violations. The school hired former Minnesota Golden Gophers assistant coach Nadine Muzerall to replace her. Will Muzerall’s winning attitude and experience turn around a struggling Buckeyes program? It’s possible.

Many notable seniors graduated after last season, and because of this, the WCHA will look considerably different than in previous years. It is anyone’s game, and all teams will be bringing out their best in hopes of advancing to the Frozen Four.

Wisconsin Badgers

According to the WCHA coaches’ poll, the Wisconsin Badgers are the team to beat in the 2016-17 season. The Badgers finished first in the conference last season with a 35-4-1 record, but lost to Minnesota in a heartbreaking Frozen Four playoff game.

Focal players for the Badgers last season include goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens and forward Sarah Nurse. Desbiens was a top-3 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award in 2016 after posting a .76 goals against average and a 33-4-1 season record. U.S. College Hockey Online picked her as the WCHA player of 2016, and she set the NCAA record for consecutive shutout minutes at 543:53. Desbiens was massively important in getting the Badgers to the Frozen Four, and if she continues to play her best, she might just get her team in the playoffs once again. Sarah Nurse was the top scorer for the Badgers last year, tallying 25 goals and 13 assists for 38 points. She’ll certainly be looking to make a splash in her last NCAA season.

The Badgers are lucky compared to other WCHA teams in that most of their best players of 2016 are returning as rising seniors. However, they are losing their former captain, defensemen Courtney Burke. Last season, Burke led WCHA defensemen in points. She finished the year with a career-best 35 points (five goals, 30 assists) and a +46 plus/minus rating. Her leadership and defensive prowess will be missed by Wisconsin.

Wisconsin added several freshmen to their roster this year, and one to watch is Wisconsin native Maddie Rowe. Rowe is a 5’11” defenseman who had 67 points in 26 games with the St. Croix Valley Fusion last season. If she can continue to find the back of the net in college, she may be able to fill the void left by Courtney Burke.

Wisconsin is looking to dominate this year, but given the results of last season, their multiple series against Minnesota will be tough and emotional, and it would be massive for team morale if the Badgers could establish a winning record against the Gophers.

Badgers head coach Mark Johnson isn’t letting the hype from last season and the coaches’ poll rankings get to him; recently he said, “We’re excited about what the year might look like, but you still have to perform and you have to be consistent, and it’s a long season.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers

All eyes are on Minnesota, as last season they sealed their dynasty with their third championship win in five years. They finished second in the WCHA with an overall record of 35-4-1. The Gophers ranked second in this year’s WCHA coaches’ poll for the upcoming season.

Two of the key players for the Gophers in the 2015-2016 season are also notable departures: Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel. Brandt had been a powerhouse for the Gophers throughout her collegiate career, finishing her season season with 64 points (25 goals and 39 assists). She was a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award in all four of her years with the Gophers. She had amazing chemistry with teammate Amanda Kessel, who returned to the Gophers to play 13 games after being sidelined for years by a concussion. Brandt and Kessel were difference makers throughout the season and in the Frozen Four games, with Kessel scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game. The Gophers will hurt without them.

However, newly named captain and rising senior Dani Cameranesi was also a stand out last season. Like Brandt, she was a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. Her 33 goals and 35 assists were a career best, and Cameranesi will more than likely step up to the challenge of filling the void that Brandt and Kessel leave behind.

The Gophers added six new players to their roster, including USA Hockey’s Patti Marshall and Hockey Canada’s Lindsay Agnew. Marshall, a right handed defenseman, played high school hockey at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn. She also was a member of the gold medal-winning USA U18 teams in 2015 and 2016. Agnew, a left handed forward, played 131 games with the Mississauga Jr. Chiefs while she was in high school, and she totaled 150 points. Agnew and Marshall are just two in a really talented incoming freshman class for Minnesota.

Minnesota should feel pretty confident coming into this season; however, ­their series against Wisconsin will be a tough matchup. The two border rivals always play very competitively against each other, and Wisconsin will be looking for revenge after losing to the Gophers in the Frozen Four playoffs last season.

Coach Brad Frost mentioned in a preseason press conference that he feels this year will be a good one for the Gophers. He also acknowledged the challenge that replacing Brandt and Kessel brings, saying, “It’s not going to be about one person picking up the slack. It will really be about committee this year.”

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

North Dakota finished fourth in WCHA last season with a record of 18-12-5. They showed a lot of improvement throughout the year, and the coaches’ poll picked them as number three.

Like the Gophers, last season’s focal players for the Fighting Hawks are also notable departures. Goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie finished her senior season having set every goaltending record in the history of the program, with 22 career shutouts, 67 wins, a .929 save percentage and 1.69 goals-against average. Clearly, she will be missed in the upcoming season. North Dakota’s two alternates also graduated after last season — forward Layla Marvin and defenseman Tanja Eisenschmid. While neither Marvin nor Eisenschmid were setting school records like Amsley-Benzie, their leadership was important to the Fighting Hawks. In total, eight players graduated after last season, which means that the upcoming year will be one of rebuilding.

North Dakota added eight freshmen to their roster to take the place of the standout seniors of last year, and it is an impressive incoming class. Forward Ryleigh Houston totaled 83 goals and 73 assists in her four years playing in the Junior Women’s Hockey League. Forward Emma Nuutinen played for Finland at the Olympic Games in Sochi, scoring a goal in the quarterfinal game. Another forward, Annelise Rice, played four years at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minn. She was team captain in 2015-16, and she helped get her team to a state championship in 2013 and a second-place finish in 2015. This isn’t even half of the incoming freshman class. Fighting Hawks fans have a lot to be excited about for this season and beyond.

Like Wisconsin, North Dakota’s series against Minnesota will be tricky and emotional; it was Minnesota who ended North Dakota’s season in the WCHA Final Face-Off.

Head coach Brian Idalski expects returning players to step up in the wake of losing eight seniors, mentioning at a recent press conference: “We’re going to be a young club, we had a big senior class last year, so we’re just looking forward to acclimating some of our younger players and developing some of our returning players to step into some of the spots that are available this year.”

Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

With a record of 15-21-1, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs finished last season sixth in the WCHA. However, the Bulldogs are expected to show promise this year. The WCHA coaches’ poll ranked them as fourth for the upcoming season.

Goaltender Kayla Black and forward Lara Stalder were focal players last season, and they also both received WCHA Player of the Week honors in the same week. With the help of Black and Stalder, the Bulldogs were able to advance to the WCHA Final Face-Off. Black is also a notable departure for the upcoming season. Throughout her time with Minnesota-Duluth, she had a 56-45-16 record, and .923 goals against average. Stalder, on the other hand, is returning to the team as a senior. She was a top scorer for the Bulldogs last year, with 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points. She and last season’s top scorer Ashleigh Brykaliuk (18 goals, 29 assists, 47 points) will be expected to continue their excellent play and be leaders in this upcoming season.

The Bulldogs added five freshmen to their roster for the 2016-17 season. A player to watch is forward Sydney Brodt. She was a three-year captain at her high school in Mounds View, Minn. She also has national team experience; she won gold with the USA U18 team at the IIHF World Championships this year. Brodt has a record for being an all-around great athlete, and she should fit in well with the experienced upperclassmen.

Minnesota-Duluth has a tough schedule in general, but their first series of the season is against Boston College, who finished second in the Frozen Four playoffs. This will be a difficult matchup for the Bulldogs, and it will put their returning players to the test very quickly.

Head coach Maura Crowell thinks her players are more than ready for the new season, recently stating, “Our team has been working their butts off getting themselves in shape, getting stronger and getting prepared for what everybody knows is a long and grueling WCHA schedule.”

Minnesota State Mavericks

The Mavericks finished last in the WCHA year with a 3-29-4 record, not winning a single conference game, but pushing teams like North Dakota, Bemidji State and even Minnesota to the limit.

Last year, Katie Johnson was the main source of offense for Minnesota State with 21 points on the season. Hannah Davidson was the leader in goals with 8. Johnson was the only senior on the entire roster in 2015-16, but Minnesota State did lose underclassmen Elin Johansson and Megan Berg following the season. Anna Keys handled the offensive load from the back end, and Brianna Quade made over 1,000 saves on the year. German national team defenseman Anna Fiegert is the new captain. The Mavericks’ top returning scorer is junior Hannah Davidson, who put up an 8G-9A-17P line in 34 games.

Forward Demi Gardner was identified by coach John Harrington as someone who should have an impact in her first season in Mankato. Fellow freshmen McKenzie Sederberg and Jordan Jackson should improve the defense.

Any game for a team that went winless in conference play last year is tough, but going into Madison in late January, to face what is now the top team in the country and try to play the role of spoiler, should be their biggest test.

“The WCHA is tremendous… the talent keeps getting better. We will do what we can to compete the best we can.” — Coach John Harrington

St. Cloud State Huskies

The Huskies had a 13-18-4 record last year, good for fifth in the conference, but suffered two losses at the hands of North Dakota in the conference playoffs.

In 2015-16, Molly Illikainen took scoring matters into her own hands, with 17 goals and 15 assists for 32 total points on the year. Julia Tylke had a strong freshman campaign, putting up 24 points. Brittney Anderson had 20 points, including a team-leading 16 assists, from the blue line. Katie Fitzgerald posted a .906 save percentage, starting all but one game.

St. Cloud State had five seniors on their team last year, including Illikainen and Slattery. Neither are easily replaced, but Swiss national team member Janine Alder will be given a chance to start in goal, and there are four freshman forwards on the roster, including Canada U18 team member Kayla Friesen. The top returning scorer for the Huskies is Tylke, now a sophomore who went 9G-15A-24P in 34 games as a freshman.

Having already lost two to Wisconsin at home this past weekend, they will take on the Badgers at LaBahn Arena on January 13 and 14.

“We are excited about where we are as a program… I think the attitudes are strong and we are excited to build off that.” — Coach Eric Rud

Bemidji State Beavers

The Beavers had a 22-11-3 record that earned them third place in the conference during the regular season, but a two-game sweep at the hands of Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the WCHA playoffs left them on the outside of the NCAA tournament.

Bemidji State had four 20-point scorers, led by Kaitlyn Tougas, who put up 29. Kristin Huber and Stephanie Anderson each paced the team with 11 goals. WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Ivana Bilic was second on the team in both assists and points, while Brittni Mowat gave the Beavers a chance to win many games with a .938 save percentage.

Huber, Tougas, Anderson and Bilic are all gone, as is captain Hanna Moher. BSU brings in seven freshmen, all from the Minnesota high school system, to replace them — notably defenseman Briana Jorde and forwards Kiki Radke and Jacqueline Kaasa.

The team lost a lot of their scoring after last year, but returns one of their 20-point scorers: junior defenseman Alexis Joyce, who scored exactly 20 (8 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games.

The most interesting games on Bemidji’s schedule are their home-and-home against North Dakota on January 27 and 29 that could decide the battle for third in the conference.

“All our returnees had fantastic offseasons, and the freshman have pushed. We’re looking forward to starting.” — Coach Jim Scanlan

Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State went 10-25-1 last year, only ahead of Minnesota State in the WCHA, but the big news for the Buckeyes happened after the season.

Claudia Kepler led the Buckeyes in scoring with 14 goals and 25 points in 2015-16, while Kendall Curtis and Dani Sadek tied for second on the team with 22 points. Defenseman Lauren Boyle paced the freshmen with 17 points.

The biggest departure for the Buckeyes was their head coach, Jenny Potter, who was fired amid recruiting scandals. Coaching changes typically cause a large shakeup on the roster, and in addition to the six seniors, five non-seniors left the team — most notably Kepler, who transferred to Wisconsin. OSU has seven freshman coming in —plus, hopefully we get to see a healthy Jincy Dunne, who was one of the best players in the country before her concussion issues.

With Kepler transferring and Curtis graduating, the team’s leading returning scorer is junior defenseman Dani Sadek, who had 4 goals and 18 assists in 36 games.

The series Buckeye fans should be circling on the calendar is a trip to Minnesota on January 20 and 21 to face off against the defending champions. The Gophers ended Ohio State’s season last year, and they will be looking for revenge with their new lineup.

“What our team has gone through will only make them stronger. We’ll be very competitive when we get going together.” — Assistant Coach Jess Koizumi