The CCHA released its preseason poll a couple of weeks ago. The USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine released theirs last week. This can only mean one thing: It’s time for The Michigan Daily to weigh in on the subject.
Michigan State: According to Bursley Residence Hall T-shirts, size matters.
But Michigan State sophomore goalie Jeff Lerg proves that it really doesn’t. The 5-foot-6, 155-pound Lerg led the Spartans to their first Mason Cup championship since 2001 Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Miller stood between the pipes. Lerg also had the second lowest goals against average in the CCHA and tied for the highest save percentage in 2005-06.
Michigan State coach Rick Comley could put a high school team in front of Lerg, and the Spartans might still finish in the top half of the conference. Michigan State has talent at all positions, with preseason All-CCHA second-teamer Tyler Howells anchoring the blue line and Bryan Lerg, Jeff’s cousin, and sophomore Tim Crowder up front.
If Lerg can stay healthy, the Spartans could be national-championship contenders.
Miami (OH): Although this season marks a new era in RedHawk hockey with the opening of Steve Cady Arena, expect more of the same from the defending CCHA regular-season champions. Miami lost All-American defenseman Andy Greene, but it returns two of the top three goalies in the CCHA in Charlie Effinger and Jeff Zatkoff and seven of its top nine scorers.
Whether or not Miami can repeat depends on how it responds to losing Greene, last year’s CCHA offensive and defensive player of the year.
You would need a DeLorean with a flux capacitor to find out where these teams finish:
Northern Michigan: Wildcat fans will spend more than a few games learning the new names on the roster. Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle brought in 12 freshmen to replace the eight departing seniors.
“We still have eight seniors, and we’re banking a lot of what we hope can be a successful season on their ability to rise in and fill the roles of the people that left prior to them,” Kyle said.
What this team lacks in experience, it makes up for in talent. Nine current Wildcats have been drafted by NHL teams, a total second only to Michigan in the CCHA.
Combining this talent with Kyle’s winning history – he has reached the CCHA Super Six in each of his first four years in Marquette – the Wildcats should return to both the CCHA and NCAA Tournaments.
Ohio State: After opening last season as the preseason pick to win the CCHA, the Buckeyes finished 10th, missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. For Ohio State to return to its form of two years ago (when it finished second in the conference), junior Tom Fritsche will have to find the magic that earned him CCHA Rookie of the Year honors that season. Fritsche scored 45 points his first season but just 30 last year.
The Buckeyes are the only CCHA team without an experienced goalie. Freshmen Nick Filion and Joseph Palmer will split time in goal to start.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks are the only CCHA team that boasts a returning All-American, with forward Scott Parse coming back for his senior campaign. He’s already the program’s all-time leader in points, and he has been named the team MVP in each of his first three years.
Coming off the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament, a return trip will depend on how respond to losing Parse’s former line mate, Bill Thomas, to the NHL.
It’s been quite a year for Maverick goalie Jerad Kaufman. Last October, he was a third-string walk-on. By March, he was starting every game for the tournament-bound Mavericks. Now he enters the season as the incumbent starter with dreams of reaching the tournament once again.
Ferris State: “I guarantee there will be a couple of teams that emerge and surprise some people,” said Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels of the CCHA’s unpredictability.
Maybe he was talking about his own team.
The Bulldogs return nine of their top 10 scorers from last season, defenseman Adam Welch is back for his second year as the captain and goalie Mitch O’Keefe will stand in net for his second year.
However, the conference schedule does the Bulldogs no favors. Although they have CCHA preseason doormat Western Michigan in their cluster and play them four times, they also have four games against both the Spartans and Wolverines.
Alaska: After eliminating Fairbanks from the end of its name, the Nanooks will also try to get rid of their offensive woes this season. They scored the second fewest goals of any team in the CCHA.
“Up front, it’s no secret: We’ve struggled to score goals,” Alaska coach Tavis MacMillan said. “It’s something we need to get better at, and we feel we have the right kids, and better yet, we feel we can put them in better places to succeed this year.”
When he said “kids,” he chose that word carefully. He hopes that highly touted 17-year-old freshman Dion Knelsen will help solve Alaska’s offensive issues.
Notre Dame: The Irish posted the second-largest point improvement (+15) of any team in the CCHA last year and moved up four spots in the league rankings. With their top four scorers returning and goalie David Brown back for his senior year, another jump in the CCHA standings wouldn’t be out of the question. With a two-time NCAA championship winning coach Jeff Jackson behind the bench as well, a Notre Dame team near the top of the CCHA wouldn’t be due to simple Irish luck.
Better luck next year:
Lake Superior State: The Lakers featured one of the best defensive corps in the conference last year – posting the second lowest goals against average (2.31). And that shouldn’t change this year.
Although it returns four of its top six blue liners from a year ago, the key to Lake Superior State’s defense is between the pipes. All-CCHA Conference first-team goalie Jeff Jakaitis returns for his senior season.
While the defense was stingy last year, the offense made opposing teams’ defense look just as stingy. The Lakers found the net just 93 times last season, the third-lowest total in the conference. If the team is going to rise above its preseason ranking of 10th in the CCHA, it has to find a way to turn on the red light more often.
Bowling Green: There is nowhere to go but up for the Falcons. They finished at the bottom of the CCHA after losing standout goalie Jordan Sigalet following the 2004-05 season. With 19 underclassmen on the roster, a dramatic rise to the top of the conference is unlikely.
“We scored a lot of goals last year, but we couldn’t keep them out of our net,” Bowling Green coach Scott Paluch said. “That’s our biggest challenge as we enter the new season.”
The Falcons scored 124 goals a year ago but allowed a conference-worst 147.
Although the defense should be stronger with six returning blue liners, the team is young and at least a year away from being in the top half of the conference.
Western Michigan: Goalie Daniel Bellissimo led the NCAA in saves, which says something about the team’s defense. And he didn’t finish in the top 10 of the CCHA in goals against, which says something about his goalkeeping. The Broncos finished last in the league in defense and second to last in the overall standings last year.
The Broncos ended the season on a high note, though, upsetting Lake Superior State in the first round of the CCHA Tournament. Judging by where the coaches and media picked Western Michigan to finish this year (12th in both polls), winning a series in the first round of the CCHA playoff might be the Broncos’ only momentum heading into next season.