Note: We have been made aware of an error in BGSU’s returning players. We will update the article when we get a chance to correct this mistake.
Now that Tim has previewed our Huskies in detail for this upcoming season, let’s take a look around the league. Since realignment, the WCHA has not fared well in non-conference play, and it’s reasonable to expect that trend to continue, although early returns in non-conference play have been enough for cautious optimism. Since the conference lacks the overall strength to get more than two teams into the big dance, the road to making the national playoffs will be through winning the WCHA. Now let’s take a look at what we’re up against.
Below is a chart of what I call the “returning strength” of each WCHA team. It begins with the final KRACH ratings from the previous season, and then adjusts them based on the +/- rating and number of games played of each returning player. The goal here is to quantify how much experience and talent each team returns this season. Note that this does NOT take into account incoming freshmen, transfers, or coaches. It looks solely at returning vs departing players.
First, let’s take look at the big picture. There are a few clear divisions. Minnesota State is in a league of its own, and so is Alaska-Anchorage (although in a much less pleasant way). Ferris State, Alabama-Huntsville, Lake Superior State and Alaska should be pretty indistinguishable. Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Bemidji State provide a smooth ramp down to the basement. It looks like Minnesota State should be the clear favorite, with Northern and Bowling Green providing some competition. Tech will look like they’re in it at times, but ultimately won’t be a serious contender for the MacNaughton. Bemidji State will contend for home ice as well, but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to.
Minnesota State should be just as good as last year. The chart shows a slight drop, but that’s probably negligible. They will be the team to beat. They do lose two goaltenders, but bring in transfer Mathias Israelsson from Northern. They also lose their top three players by +/- (Knutson, Lewis and Suess), but return Marc Michaelis, their second leading scorer last year. He will be a junior and ready to take on a big role. This feels more like reloading than rebuilding.
Bowling Green should be much improved this season. Although they lost seven players in the offseason (a very average number), all of their departures had +/- ratings near even. They return their top 6(!) players by +/- and their top 3 players by value (+/- weighted by games played). This will be an experienced, cohesive group that’s extremely dangerous. Couple that with the weakest strength-of-schedule in WCHA play, and they should be a strong contender for the MacNaughton.
Northern will improve this season. Not only do they return good pieces such as Tolvanen and Beaulieu, it will be the second year under a new head coach and in a new style of hockey. Northern should be a clear cut above Tech this year for the first time since Jamie Russell. And let’s not talk any more about that.
We all know the story of Michigan Tech: strong forwards, inexperienced and unproven defense, shaky goaltending. This is reinforced by the numbers. The Huskies return two of their top three by +/- (Lucchini, Jackson) and two of their top four by value (Lucchini, Gould). It’s going to be a mixed bag of a season, although if things start to gel going into the second-weakest strength-of-schedule in the league, special things could happen.
Bemidji State, for the last six years or so, has been that team that always plays the big boys close but never seems to gain any momentum in the wins column (except for 2016-17). Unfortunately, that will now come to an end. They lose perpetually frustrating goaltender Bitzer, as well as the Fitzgerald triplets. Those four players have powered Bemidji’s recent almost-success, and there don’t seem to be any immediate replacements. This team, more than any other, will regress severely this year.
The chart doesn’t show a serious challenge or significant changes from the rest of the league. They should all stay pretty much as good as they were last year. However, don’t be surprised to see some reshuffling among Ferris State, Alabama-Huntsville, Lake Superior State, and Alaska, as they are all roughly equivalent to each other. Alaska-Anchorage will, unfortunately, be terrible once again, and will of course somehow split their series with Tech.
Michigan Tech will have an uphill battle to the MacNaughton this year. Even with the natural improvement that comes with the second year of a new coach, they will likely feel a step slower than the top three of Minnesota State, Northern, and Bowling Green. Bemidji State may provide a home-ice scare simply because they are well-coached, but there are no other real contenders. Expect to see exciting hockey whenever the Mavericks, Wildcats, and Falcons play each other, but Tech will likely not join that club until their youth has time to develop and gel, which could happen just in time for another run to the Jeff Sauer.
The bottom half of the conference will not improve significantly. There will be another race among the foursome of Ferris State, Alabama-Huntsville, Lake Superior State and Alaska to avoid sitting out the postseason with Alaska-Anchorage again, but that will be all the excitement those teams bring.
Cover photo credit Will Sterrett.
Will Weaver is a 2016 graduate of Michigan Tech with a major in Computer Engineering and a minor in Music Composition. While at Tech he was involved in Pep Band and Cru. His passion for sports analytics began with an IRHC Broomball ranking website and has since expanded to college hockey. He currently lives in Grand Rapids with his wife (Civil Engineering, 2014).