On Sept. 28, the No. 11 Michigan hockey team was picked to take the Big Ten title in a preseason coaches’ poll. With many pundits having a similar opinion, it seems that the Big Ten crown will be the Wolverines’ to lose.
But the real question is whether the Big Ten can make the jump to an elite college hockey conference after losing nine of its top 12 scorers from last season.
With the league slate kicking off on Dec. 4, when all six teams begin conference play, the Daily breaks down Michigan’s competition in the Big Ten.
1. Minnesota (No. 9)
A first-round exit in the 2015 NCAA Tournament to in-state foe Minnesota-Duluth started a tough offseason for Don Lucia’s squad. Gone from the team are its top three point-scorers from a year ago in Mike Reilly, Kyle Rau and Travis Boyd, who have all moved on to the National Hockey League. In their absence, two Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch, forwards Justin Kloos and Hudson Fasching, will need to ramp up their production.
But perhaps the most important offseason loss was goaltender Adam Wilcox, a Mike Richter Award nominee last season. Wilcox also bolted for the NHL a year early and leaves behind a huge hole between the pipes. The Golden Gophers will look to freshman netminder Eric Schierhorn, the reigning USHL and USA Hockey Goaltender of the Year, to fill the void.
After a season-opening loss to Vermont — Minnesota’s first season-opening loss in six seasons — things will not get easier, as the Golden Gophers will face a tough nonconference slate that includes No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth, No. 12 St. Cloud State and No. 14 Minnesota State before the Big Ten opener against Ohio State.
2. Michigan State
With goaltender Jake Hildebrand in net for his senior season, the Spartans will be competitive in just about every single game. The reigning Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year will look to continue from an impressive 2014-2015 campaign that saw him post six shutouts, good for second in the NCAA.
But the big question for the Spartans will center on the players in front of Hildebrand. After losing its top scorer, Matt Berry, to graduation, Michigan State will rely on forward Mackenzie MacEachern to improve on his career-high 26 points from a season ago.
On the other side of the ice, defenseman Travis Lynch will lead a defense that will try to improve on an impressive season in which the unit gave up just 80 goals.
After opening their season with a draw against Maine and a 4-1 victory over Lake Superior State, the Spartans will have three tough games on the road — two at No. 5 Denver and another at No. 4 Boston College. They will also open their Big Ten slate on the road at Penn State.
3. Penn State
In just its third season as a Division I team, Guy Gadowsky’s squad is on the rise and gunning for a top-three finish in the Big Ten.
That jump in prestige, though, is going to have to come without forwards Casey Bailey and Taylor Holmstrom — the Nittany Lions’ top two scorers in their short history — as well as defenseman and former captain Patrick Koudys.
But there is not a lack of talent in the offense, and it starts with David Goodwin and Eric Schneid. The duo combined for 63 points last season and will need to pick up the pace if Penn State is to make any noise this season.
Between the pipes, Matt Skoff and Eamon McAdam will likely continue to split time as the Nittany Lions search for consistency. Freshman Chris Funkey, who led the United States Premier Hockey League in goals-against average for two straight years, may push for playing time, but it looks like the duo of Skoff and McAdam will have to carry Penn State.
4. Ohio State
Of all the teams in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes probably lost the least amount of talent this offseason. But after a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten last season, Ohio State will still need to improve is to climb further up the conference standings.
Most of the offense will run through forwards Anthony Greco and Nick Schilkey, while forward Matthew Weis will look to improve upon a strong second half of the season that saw him score 14 of his 22 points.
In goal, the Buckeyes will stick with the tandem of Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins while Craig Dalrymple, the only senior on the blue line, will be relied upon to lead the young defensive unit that has just three upperclassmen.
After finishing the 2014-15 campaign with just four wins, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves cleaned house, firing two assistant coaches and bringing in two new ones, as he looks to lift his team out of the Big Ten cellar.
But that won’t be easy, as the Badgers lost goaltender Joel Rumpel, who ranked third in career save percentage in program history. Senior goaltender Adam Miller will be trusted to fill the huge gap between the pipes.
And to add to Wisconsin’s misery, four seniors who all played significant minutes are gone, as well as the third-leading scorer from last season, Morgan Zulinick, and defenseman Jack Dougherty, who left for the NHL.
On the bright side, Grant Besse, the Badgers’ leading scorer from last season, will return. But he will need help, and a lot of it.
The Badgers’ schedule doesn’t do them any favors either, as they will have matchups against No. 1 North Dakota, No. 4 Boston College, No. 5 Denver and No. 6 Boston University before opening up a grueling Big Ten schedule at Yost Ice Arena against Michigan.