Originally published by College Hockey News on Oct. 8, 2014
As the 2014-15 season gets underway, the WCHA continues its task of re-establishing and stabilizing itself in the new college hockey landscape conference re-alignment created. Its “first” season a year ago was certainly entertaining, as teams battled until the final weekend for position in the standings, including at the top, where Ferris State edged Minnesota State by a single point before the Mavericks got their revenge in the Final Five title game.
This season, Minnesota State comes in as the undisputed class of the league, with Ferris State not far behind. After that, though, the picture becomes a bit murkier. Michigan Tech, Alaska, Bowling Green and Alaska-Anchorage will all be in the mix for home ice advantage in the WCHA Playoffs, while the rest of the conference has questions it will have to answer before those teams can be competitive.
The conference is entering year two of its new era and does so under the leadership of a new commissioner that is seeking to increase the WCHA’s exposure, re-build its brand and put itself back into the conversation of the college hockey’s best conference’s. One way of doing that is by putting more teams in the NCAA Tournament, which the league believes it has the depth and talent to accomplish this season.
5 Things to Watch
1. Dawn of a New Era
For the first time in 20 years, and just the third time since 1984, the WCHA will have a new leader. Bill Robertson steps in as the conference’s new commissioner this season, taking over for Bruce McLeod, who retired in June.
Robertson brings a wealth of public relations and promotions experience with him to the WCHA, something the league badly needs. Prior to joining the conference, Robertson served as Vice President of Communications and Broadcasting for the Minnesota Wild. He’s held similar positions in professional sports with the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Minnesota Timberwolves.
“My job is to lift [the WCHA] to higher levels,” Robertson said. “I know with my work in the promotional area, I hope it will help enhance those efforts.”
Robertson has set three “concrete” goals for his first year at the helm of the WCHA: to stabilize the league, increase revenue through sponsorships and increased exposure for and build the league’s brand.
“I want to make sure we keep the WCHA a premier conference in college hockey,” he said.
It won’t be easy. Conference re-alignment knocked the WCHA off its perch as arguably the most powerful conference in the sport to a band of 10 programs that had nowhere else to go. Keeping those teams together, while simultaneously growing the league, will be no easy task.
Since Robertson took over, the WCHA has announced a new TV contract with Fox Sports North, which will see the network broadcast this season’s Final Five in St. Paul and select non-conference matchups featuring WCHA teams. The league has also announced a streaming package through America One Sports, as well as an upgraded social media presence, all with the goal of increasing exposure and accessibility for the WCHA.
2. Ferris State and Minnesota State Set to Lock Horns Again
Minnesota State, the defending Broadmoor Trophy winners, and Ferris State, last season’s MacNaughton Cup winners, come into the season as the heavy favorites to walk away with WCHA hardware again this season.
Picked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in both WCHA preseason polls, the Mavericks and Bulldogs seem destined to battle to the wire again this season as both teams return key parts from last season’s title-winning squads.
Ferris State, which boasted the WCHA’s stingiest defense a year ago, bring back all but one of their defensemen — as well as First Team All-WCHA goalie C.J. Motte — this season. The Bulldogs’ questions are at forward, where they’ll have to replace three of their top four scorers from last season.
The Mavericks return two career 100-point players at forward in seniors Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine, as well as all-league defenseman Zach Palmquist to anchor a strong blue line and sophomore goaltender Cole Huggins — who surprised everyone last year by overtaking Stephon Williams and posting a sterling .926 save percentage and league-leading 1.88 goals against average.
“They’re going to be a tough team to reel in,” Daniels said of the Mavericks. Minnesota State will have to avoid what has become an annual slow start under head coach Mike Hastings. The Mavericks got hot down the stretch, going 10-0-1 down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough to catch the Bulldogs for the regular season title.
Ferris State-Minnesota State is growing into the WCHA’s best rivalry, as evidenced by their three tough and physical games last season, including the Final Five title game. With the two teams set to lock horns once again this season as the clear WCHA favorites, those flames will only burn brighter.
3. Is This the Year For Michigan Tech?
After a fifth-place finish a season ago – the Huskies’ best conference finish in 22 years – Michigan Tech, backed by a strong group of returning upperclassmen forwards and an exciting group on defense, was picked by both the WCHA coaches and media to improve on that finish this year.
“I feel this is the best team that we’ve put on the ice since I’ve been here,” fourth-year head coach Mel Pearson said.
Up front, Michigan Tech returns nine of its top-10 scorers from last year’s team, including junior forward Alex Petan and senior Blake Pietila, who paced the Huskies with 28 points apiece a season ago. Seniors Tanner Kero and David Johnstone and sophomore Reid Sturos also return after topping the 20 point mark.
“It all starts there for our team,” Pearson said of his forward group. “We’ll go as they go.”
Senior Riley Sweeney will anchor the Huskies’ blueliners, and Peterson is excited to see what Shane Hanna can do in his sophomore season, after leading all WCHA defensemen in scoring in league play.
“He is one of the most exciting defensemen, offensively, that I’ve been associated with in college hockey,” Peterson said of Hanna.
The questions for Michigan Tech are in goal, and, for now, it will be up to junior Jamie Phillips to answer them. Phillips, a 2012 seventh round selection of the Winnipeg Jets, steps in for the departed Phoenix Copley. In 22 appearances over his two-year career in Houghton, Phillips is 6-8-1 with a 2.69 goals against average and a .897 save percentage.
4. Whitten Takes Over at Lake Superior State
Lake Superior State, coming off a season that saw it miss the WCHA playoffs by one point, heads into this year with a new leader behind the bench — former Michigan Tech assistant Damon Whitten — after deciding not to renew Jim Roque’s contract.
Whitten inherits a program that hasn’t finished better than seventh in its conference over the past five years, has just four winning season in the past 17 years and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 1995-96 season. This season, the Lakers will have to find new sources of offense after losing three of their top four scorers from last season, as well as replace their strong goalie duo of Kevin Kapalka and Kevin Murdock.
Whitten does come in with a good understanding of the Lake Superior State program, having played under program founder Ron Mason during his four-year career (1997-01) at Michigan State and having worked for Mason’s successor, Rick Comley, on two separate occasions in East Lansing.
In fact, if Whitten had his way coming out of high school, he would have played for the Lakers. He was recruited by former head coach Jeff Jackson, but never received an offer.
“I was kind of hoping to play here. I was almost a Laker a long time ago,” Whitten said. “It probably took about 15 to 18 years longer than I wanted, but I’m excited to be here and for the opportunity.”
Whitten cites both Mason and Comley as two of his biggest coaching inspirations and mentors and is determined to restore Lake Super State to the heights it achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Lakers captured three NCAA crowns in seven years.
“We’ve got a great responsibility to live up to the foundation that has been set,” Whitten said. “The work starts immediately to build this program and restore that pride and that history.”
As will be the case in the NHL this season, diving and embellishment will be points of emphasis for WCHA referees this season.
While WCHA Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd said that he doesn’t believe diving is a huge problem in the conference, it does happen and he will work with coaches to eliminate it from the league. Part of that, he said, will come by calling just the one diving penalty on a play that involves embellishment, rather than calling a trip and a dive, a hook and a dive, etc.
“As officials, we have to do a better job of targeting those players,” Shepherd said. “We have to do a better job of calling diving and putting the person in the penalty box.”
5 Players to Watch
1. Matt Leitner, Senior, Forward, Minnesota State
After a slow start that saw him score just three points through his first eight games played, Leitner turned it on and finished the season as the league’s leading scorer, helping Minnesota State to its first Broadmoor Trophy and earning himself First Team All-WCHA honors.
Leitner heads into the 2014-15 seasons as the media’s pick for WCHA Preseason Player of the Year and, along with the rest of the team’s high-powered returning forwards, is expected to lead the conference favorite Mavericks this season and build on last year’s first round NCAA exit.
“Hopefully Matt can pick up where he left off,” Hastings said. “I thought he was playing his best hockey at the most important time.”
It’d be hard to argue that. After his tough start, Leitner averaged better than a point per game in the season’s final 31 games, bagging 42 points (12+30). He is one of the nation’s top returning offensive threats, having scored 121 points (40+81) through the first three seasons of his college career.
2. C.J. Motte, Senior, Goaltender, Ferris State
Ferris State will go as far as its back end can take it this season, led by returning Hobey Baker top-10 finalist CJ Motte, who his head coach calls “as good a goaltender as there is in the nation.”
“We’re in really good hands with C.J.,” Daniels said. “(He’s) going to be worth an awful lot to our team.”
Motte’s 2.17 goals against average and league-leading .928 save percentage last year helped fuel the stingiest defense in the WCHA last season, and the Bulldogs will be relying on that group yet again this season as they sort out where their offensive production is going to come from.
3. Colton Parayko, Junior, Defenseman, Alaska
Parayko has developed into one of the top defensemen in the country during his three years in Fairbanks, evidenced by winning the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Award and being named First Team All-WCHA and a Second Team All-American.
He’s an all-around defender, utilizing his size – 6-foot-5”, 218 lbs. – and a good stick to get positioning and angles and make himself tough to play against.
“He’s a special player,” Nanooks head coach Dallas Ferguson said. “He’s a big, athletic hockey player. He’s not just a big guy that takes up space.
Ferguson added that, three years ago when Parayko came to Fairbanks, he wouldn’t have described him as an offensive defenseman, but Parayko’s relentless work ethic has helped to develop that part of his game and become an offensive threat from the blue line. The St. Albert, Alberta, native led all WCHA rear guards with 26 points (7+19) last season and was part of an Alaska power play that ranked third in the conference.
4. Alex Globke, Sophomore, Forward, Lake Superior State
Globke, last season’s WCHA Rookie of the Year, led all conference freshmen in overall points last season (12+19=31), but will have to adjust to new surroundings this season to build on that success.
He will be thrust into a much more prominent role this season as the Lakers seek to replace a large chunk of last year’s offense, including both of Globke’s line mates, Colin Campbell and Dan Radke. Suddenly, teams will be keying in on Globke – who is no longer an unknown commodity – and how he responds will go a long way towards determining if Lake Superior State can grab a playoff spot.
“He’s going to be a targeted player this year,” Whitten said. “He’ll get a little bit more attention and we’ll have to help him handle that situation.”
5. Mark Friedman, Freshman, Defenseman, Bowling Green
Friedman, the WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year, was the highest pick among WCHA players in this summer’s NHL Draft, going in the third round, 86th overall, to the Philadelphia Flyers. Though a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, Friedman will play a big role on defense right away for the Falcons this season, who have some holes to fill on the back end this season.
“I don’t want to put the weight of the world on his shoulders, because he doesn’t need that,” Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron cautioned. “He’s a good hockey player and I think he’ll help us fill some of those losses.”
Friedman is known for his smart play and offensive prowess from the blue line, racking up 40 points (10+30) for the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks last season — good for fourth in the league among defensemen. Despite his size, Friedman also plays a physical defensive style and was described as “tenacious” by his Waterloo coaches.