If the Michigan hockey team hopes to rebound from prior struggles, it must fare better in the Big Ten. The Wolverines finished second to last in the conference standings last season and got bounced in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Early next month, Michigan kicks off conference play. A quick glance shows that Penn State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin appear to lead the pack, but it’s hard to measure the separation.
To get outside perspectives, The Daily reached out to a few alumni from around the conference. In particular, we talked to Paul Caponigri, Jake Evans and Mike Ferrantino.
Caponigri played for Ohio State through the 2003-04 season and now covers hockey for Big Ten Network. Evans played on the Notre Dame team that went to the 2018 National Championship game and now plays in the AHL for the Laval Rockets. Ferrantino played for Michigan State from 2012 to 2016.
No. 8 Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have dominated since the moment they joined the conference two years ago. Last season, they claimed their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament title and finished runner-up in the conference standings. They also played in the last four NCAA Tournaments and appear primed for another berth.
With goaltender Cale Morris back for his senior year, Notre Dame has stability between the pipes. Morris was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore, and last season finished eighth in the nation with a 0.93 save percentage. A few other proven players returned for their final years, most notably forward Cal Burke. His 12 goals in 2018-19 tied for most on the team with sophomore forward Michael Graham.
The departures of defensemen Bobby Nardella and Andrew Peeke, as well as forward Dylan Malmquist, leave big holes, though. The trio generated much of the offensive production last year, leading the team in assists. An increased role for the sophomore class could help fill that void. Evans mentioned the speed of that class stood out to him the most.
“I think the freshmen played a big part last year,” Evans said. “So I think if they take that next step, I think they’re going to be a really good team.”
No. 12 Ohio State
The key question for the Buckeyes this season will be filling in all of its lost production. They topped the conference by a wide margin last year and also made the Tournament, but lost a crucial piece in forward Mason Jobst headed into this season. He led his team in scoring and was a Hobey Baker finalist.
“When you lose a player like a Mason Jobst, who was just a really good leader, you just have to wonder where do you fill that in,” Caponigri said. “ … He carried a lot of minutes for them, so who’s going to step up?”
Ohio State lost two additional contributors in forwards Dakota Joshua and Freddy Gerard. The duo combined for 44 points. Forward Tanner Laczynski and goaltender Tommy Nappier are back, though. Laczynski was a major part of the offense alongside Jobst, while Nappier boasted an outstanding .934 save percentage. If the two are as good as last year and can help others get more involved, the Buckeyes should be competitive.
“I think that their biggest strength is probably their structure,” Caponigri said. “They can put anybody — not anybody in there — but, you know, you can lose some high-end players, which they have, but they have a really good structure.”
No. 13 Penn State
Last season, the Nittany Lions wildly underperformed. They got hot in the conference tournament and reached the championship game, but that wasn’t enough. Penn State started out ranked fifth in the nation, yet finished below .500 in conference play and failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
Heading into this season, the expectations are high once again. The Big Ten preseason poll predicts the Nittany Lions will win the conference. They return their top-five scorers from last year’s squad that led the nation with 4.54 goals per game.
Also, forward Aarne Talvitie could help add to that production. Talvitie notched five goals in 17 games for Penn State before sustaining a season-ending injury at the World Junior Championships while leading the Finnish team to a gold medal.
“I think they got it right in terms of first place,” Caponigri said. “Penn State, on paper right now, because you haven’t seen any games or anything, they have probably the most talent.”
Whether the team meets expectations will depend largely on the defense. The Nittany Lions finished 56th out of 60 teams in average goals allowed last season, undermining all the offensive glamour.
No. 16 Wisconsin
Now in his fourth season as head coach, Tony Granato looks to bring the Badgers back to the spotlight. Wisconsin has a remarkable program, historically speaking, but the last five years have taken a different path.
The Badgers secured just 12 combined victories the two seasons before Granato took over. They finished second in the conference during his first year, but then slumped back to mediocrity. Last season, Wisconsin finished fifth in the conference and tallied just 14 wins.
The team should be much better this time around, though. Out of the seven players who garnered the most points last year, six return. The Badgers brought in a talented freshman class of seven, too. Four of them were NHL draft picks — including forwards Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield, who were chosen at No. 5 and No. 15 overall. Last season’s Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year and projected first-round NHL draft pick Dylan Holloway is also part of the loaded class, at forward.
But there’s more. Forward Ty Pelton-Byce could play a major role, too. After sitting out last season upon transferring from Harvard, Pelton-Byce is ready to rock. He excelled in his sophomore campaign with the Crimson, tallying 25 points. If Pelton-Byce and the other newcomers live up to the hype — and if goaltending improves — Granato could revive the program.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the Golden Gophers. Last season, their power play efficiency ranked eighth best in the nation and helped them finish third in the conference.
That said, Minnesota is without forwards Rem Pitlick, Tyler Sheehy and Brent Gates Jr., who combined for 46 goals and 117 points last season. And goaltender Mat Robson — who had a stellar .921 save percentage last season — left for the Minnesota Wild.
Out of the 27 players on the current roster, 19 are underclassmen — including a freshman class of 11. Four of the newcomers were draft picks and should contribute early, especially defenders Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe. Johnson was selected No. 31 overall, while LaCombe was taken in the second round. For the Golden Gophers to succeed, the youngsters need to step up.
“Minnesota is very young — I think they’re the youngest team in the country,” Caponigri said. “And a lot of times with that, that can be exciting, but you don’t know what you’re going to get from the guys that are coming in, you know, how they’re gonna react with a new level of hockey.”
Danton Cole enters his third season at the helm of the Spartans’ program. Those first two runs were bumpy, with the team finishing last in the conference both times.
The team returns many pieces from last season, seeing only three seniors graduate. The key gap comes from star forward Taro Hirose, who forwent his senior year to join the Detroit Red Wings. Before leaving, he tied for the most points in the nation, won Big Ten Player of the Year and was a Hobey Baker Finalist.
Filling that void will be very tough. Players like forward Sam Saliba will need to carry more of the load. That said, Ferrantino believes the overall limited turnover heading into this season could help bring stability in the program. He also thinks that since the new coach has had time to settle in, the only way to go is up.
“Obviously, you have a lot of turnover, a lot of changes of ideas, philosophies,” Ferrantino said of the coaching change. “So it’s tough as a player because you gotta adjust, and especially the guys that have been there for two or three years. … And I think you’ll see that over time here, they’ll be able to kind of turn things around and get going the right direction.”