The Big Ten features some of the stiffest competition in college hockey.
In the preseason United States College Hockey Online (USCHO) poll, five teams, including Michigan, were ranked in the top 20. With the Big Ten opting for a conference-only season (plus each team playing four games against Arizona State), the Wolverines will get quite familiar with their opponents this year. Here’s how their competition stacks up.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The defending Big Ten regular season champs face a lot of questions heading into this season. Last year, their offense paced the conference as their 3.56 goals per game led the league by a significant margin. However, much of their scoring came from forwards Nate Sucece and Evan Barratt. Those two scored 38 and 34 points, respectively, good enough for first and third in the Big Ten, but both have now departed with entry-level NHL contracts.
The Nittany Lions’ top defenseman Cole Hultz chose to forgo his senior year and sign an entry-level deal with the Los Angeles Kings. Hultz was the Big Ten Player of the Year last season and led all defensemen with 30 points. Replacing that production will be difficult, and Penn State may take a step back this season. They will be relying on senior forward Alex Limoges to pick up the slack. He was sixth in the conference with 32 points and was named to the preseason All-Big Ten first team.
They’re a well-coached team and still came in 9th in the initial USCHO rankings, but the losses on offense may be too great to overcome this season.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State finished last season second in the Big Ten and were all set to square off with Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals before COVID-19 shut down the season. Eight months later, the Buckeyes return to action missing two key contributors.
Their two leading goal-scorers — Tyler Laczynski and Carson Meyer — both graduated. They were a huge reason why Ohio State had the number one power play unit, converting 27.6% of their opportunities. Their offense will rely on junior forwards Gustaf Westlund and Quinn Preston to lead them. Both skaters scored 26 points last year and are now taking on an even bigger role. The Buckeyes will also lean on senior goaltender Tommy Napier, whose 2.04 goals against average was second in the league last season. Napier was named to the preseason All-Big Ten second team.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota enters this season as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten and it was picked to finish first in the Big Ten preseason poll. The Golden Gophers ranked in the middle of the pack offensively, finishing fourth in the standings. The biggest thing working for them is returning talent. They boast the No. 1 recruiting class from 2018 and No. 3 from 2019 and with many of those players now well adapted to the college level, this could finally be the year they put it all together.
They’re led by junior forward Sammy Walker. A seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017, Walker was a breakout star for Minnesota last year as his 30 points were good enough for ninth in the Big Ten and earned him preseason All-Big Ten first team honors. In fact, the Golden Gophers have four players on the All-Big Ten team — tied for the most with Michigan.
All the components are there for Minnesota to have a special season, but the question remains of whether all the talent on paper can translate to success on the ice.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame came in third in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll and is definitely one of the more intriguing teams this season. The Fighting Irish struggled to find scoring last season and were the second-worst offense in the Big Ten, averaging just 2.54 goals per game.
The strength of this team was its defense, and it returns two key defensemen: senior Matt Hellickson and junior Spencer Stasney. Stasney put up a respectable 20 points last season, fourth among Big Ten defenders. Notre Dame is a solid team but lacks the firepower that some other teams have. While many of their opponents feature first-round NHL talent, the Fighting Irish have no notable prospects heading for the league. But as the old saying goes, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. How Notre Dame stacks up to its competition may not be clear until games have been played.
Michigan State Spartans
When asked if he could face any team to open the season, Michigan coach Mel Pearson said Michigan State without hesitation, emphasizing the rivalry aspect. Unfortunately, the Wolverines will have to wait until after the New Year for that matchup to take place.
Their in-state rivals may be in for a rebuilding year. Last season, the Spartans finished with the second-worst record in the Big Ten and the worst scoring offense — averaging just 2.22 goals per game. Unfortunately for Michigan State, no help is coming. Patrick Khodorenko, whose 33 points led the team and was fifth in the conference, graduated and the Spartans did not have any other players in the top 25 for scoring last season.
One bright spot is junior defenseman Dennis Cesana. While he stands at just 5-foot-9, he packs a punch and was third in points among all defenders with 22. This performance earned him a spot on the All-Big Ten first team. Michigan State has its work cut out and will have to hope that some of its returning players take a leap with their production this season. If not, it could be a long year for the Spartans.
Last season was a disaster for Wisconsin. Expectations were high as they added a top-five recruiting class that featured two first-round picks in the 2019 NHL Draft. But the infusion of elite talent did not lead to wins. The Badgers finished dead last — winning just seven of their 24 conference games. The Wolverines will be hoping that with their talented recruiting class, they won’t face a similar fate.
Wisconsin allowed the most goals per game, committed the most penalties and had the worst penalty kill in the league. But despite all this, there may be reason for optimism. Sophomore forward Cole Caulfield racked up 19 goals, the most in the Big Ten, and earned the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. Goaltending was an obvious issue for the Badgers last season, but all three of their goaltenders are no longer with the program. They added Michigan Tech grad transfer Robbie Beydoun, who has a career 2.28 goals against average.
Wisconsin still lacks the talent to compete with the top of the Big Ten but after last year’s trainwreck of a season, it’s only up from here.
Arizona State Sun Devils*
*Games against Arizona State will be counted as non-conference games
Arizona State may play hockey in the desert but don’t underestimate their abilities. Despite becoming a Division I program just five years ago, the Sun Devils are quickly becoming one the best teams in college hockey and were on track to make the NCAA Tournament last season before the shutdown. Being an independent team, Arizona State worked out a deal with the Big Ten to be the de facto eighth team in the conference and avoid any teams having to deal with bye weeks. While they won’t be eligible for the Big Ten tournament, the Sun Devils will get to see how their roster stacks up against the conference with four games against each team.
Arizona State is an offensive juggernaut and had the ninth-best scoring offense in the country last season at 3.36 goals per game. They return their top two scorers as well: senior forwards James Sanchez and Johnny Walker. Sanchez led the team with 40 points while Walker was just behind with 38. Both of them had enough to be the leading point scorer in the Big Ten last year. Michigan will be the first team to take on the Sun Devils as it opens the season with a two-game series on Saturday and Sunday. Arizona State is ready to prove it belongs among the heavyweights of college hockey. The question is if the Big Ten is ready for them.
Playing a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a lot of unique circumstances teams must adapt to: How will they handle playing without fans, travelling by bus and, most importantly, trying to stay healthy. Every team has reasons to like its chances to compete in the Big Ten this year, and after a long hiatus, it’s time to see how these rosters look in action.
Let the games begin.
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