In five seasons with the current roster of teams, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association has been “dominated by one team,” Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny said.
The Mavericks have won the MacNaughton Cup outright twice in that span, including last season, and shared it once with Michigan Tech. Minnesota State has also captured the Broadmoor Trophy (now, the Jeff Sauer Trophy) twice as the conference’s playoff champion.
It hasn’t been complete dominance, though. There’s been stiff competition.
Ferris State and Bemidji State have won the MacNaughton Cup, and Ferris State also has a playoff championship. Michigan Tech has won the last two postseason titles, knocking out Minnesota State in three games in the semifinals each time.
“It’s a hard league,” said Tech coach Joe Shawhan, who is entering his second season with the Huskies. “We beat ourselves up in a lot of ways.”
Bowling Green has been on the brink of winning both titles more than once, only to come up just short.
“We feel it’s time to kick the door down,” coach Chris Bergeron said.
But the competition is even thicker this year, with Northern Michigan elbowing its way into the upper-half mix last season with a second-place finish in Potulny’s first year.
League coaches voted Minnesota State as the preseason favorite, based on recent history and with what the Mavericks have coming back at forward and defense. However, Northern Michigan, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech (voted second, third and fourth, respectively) look to be the teams most loaded with returners — at all three positions.
“We were voted sixth (behind Bemidji State), and I feel like we’re a better team than that,” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said. “But looking at the list, it’s hard to argue. Who are we going to climb over?”
Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten, whose team was picked seventh, echoed that statement.
“The league is as tight as it’s ever been,” Hastings said. “Whoever comes out of our league and makes it to the NCAA tournament is going to be battle-tested.”
Here’s a look at this year’s league with Free Press hockey writer Shane Frederick’s predicted order of finish:
1. Northern Michigan
There’s no sneaking up on anyone this year. With high-scoring forwards Tory Loggins and Adam Rockwood, defenseman Philip Beaulieu and the WCHA’s best goaltender, Atte Tolvanen, all back, the Wildcats should be fully loaded for coach Grant Potulny’s second season at Marquette. Last season’s finish: Second, 61 points.
2. Minnesota State
No one’s weeping for Mike Hastings and the Mavericks, who lost some big names from last season’s league-championship team. That’s because a strong core, led by forwards Marc Michaelis and Jake Jarmeko, remains. If a goaltender emerges, MSU will compete for another MacNaughton Cup. Last season’s finish: First, 67 points.
3. Bowling Green
Coach Chris Bergeron says this year’s team is the deepest he’s had at all three positions. Will this be the year the Falcons finally win the WCHA? Alec Rauhauser, the league’s top defenseman last year, returns, as do forward Brandon Kruse and goalie Ryan Bednard. Last season’s finish: Third, 58 points.
4. Michigan Tech
After making a change at Mankato, the Huskies got hot in goal during the WCHA playoffs last March and went on to win the first Jeff Sauer Trophy. Jake Luccini and Gavin Gould lead a strong group of returning forwards for coach Joe Shawhan’s team. Last season’s finish: Fifth, 43 points.
5. Ferris State
A rough second half spoiled last season for the Bulldogs, coach Bob Daniels’ 26th in Big Rapids. For his 27th, forward Corey Mackin and defenseman Ryker Killins are back, while D-man Cooper Zech is projected to be the WCHA’s top incoming freshman. Last season’s finish: Sixth, 34 points.
6. Lake Superior State
The Lakers graduated leading point producer J.T. Henke, but with their next eight scorers back, as well as a pair of solid goaltenders in Nick Kossoff and Mareks Mitens, this could be the year coach Damon Whitten’s team competes for home ice. Last season’s finish: Ninth, 27 points.
7. Bemidji State
No team lost as much talent as Tom Serratore’s Beavers, who graduated star goalie Michael Bitzer (138 games in four years) along with forwards Gerry Fitzgerald (and his fellow triplets) and Kyle Bauman. They also lost defenseman Zach Whitecloud early to the NHL. Last season’s finish: Fourth, 49 points.
Erik Largen takes over as coach of the Nanooks, who suffered some key losses on defense with Zach Frye and Justin Woods graduating. Frye was the team’s only double-digit goal scorer a season ago, however, it does return its top five scoring forwards. Last season’s finish: Eighth, 30 points.
9. Alabama Huntsville
Gone is oft-suspended WCHA bad boy Brennan Saulnier (351 penalty minutes in four years). That’s the good news for Mike Corbett’s team. The bad news for the Chargers is leading scorer Josh Kestner and top goalie Jordan Uhelski have also moved on. Last season’s finish: Seventh, 33 points.
10. Alaska Anchorage
New coach Matt Curley has a lot of work to do. Not only did he inherit a last-place team but one that graduated a star goalie, Olivier Mantha, and four of the top six scorers from a roster that managed just 65 goals and four wins. Last season’s finish: 10th, 18 points.