Welcome back to part 3 of our Michigan Hockey season preview. We have previously examined the roster, first looking at forwards and then at defense/goalies. Today we delve into a (very long) Big Ten Preview:
Penn State Nittany Lions: 22-15-2
There is no more infuriating team in college hockey than Penn State and their cocaine high style of play. They throw pucks at the net like it’s nobody’s business and play at a breakneck pace, ceding goals left-and-right, but also scoring them at the best clip in the country. PSU under Guy Gadowsky is consistently one of the nation’s worst defensive teams but best offenses, finishing #1 in goals for last season. Anyway, this style of play has been effective in the sense that they have had a winning record in each of the last five seasons, impressive for a program that only became D1 in 2012. But, while this style has produced a winning team, it has confined the Lions to a small box of results, finishing the last five seasons with 18, 21, 25, 18, and 22 wins. The 25 win season was one in which they won the B1G Tournament and got to play for a trip to the Frozen Four, a season in which they spent time at #1. Otherwise, they have been good-but-not-great under Gadowsky and seem to be stuck there.
If there was a year to break out of that and replicate 2017, it would be this one. Penn State loses just 15% of its goals from last season and they return 7 of their top 8 point producers, including the top 5. Given that 6 of their top 9 returning point producers are seniors, and two of the other 3 non-seniors are likely to be snatched up by the NHL after the season, this is The Year if there ever was one in Happy Valley for the hockey program. It’s a veteran team filled with explosive offensive talent that can light up the scoreboard against almost anyone and they just barely missed the tourney last year. This starts with Alex Limoges, who had 50 points last season, which was tied for the NCAA lead. He’s a Hobey Baker candidate entering his junior campaign. Then there’s Evan Barratt, Liam Folkes, Brandon Biro, and Nate Sucese, one junior and three seniors who all notched 37+ points last season. They are all skilled offensive players who can burn you in anyway possible and comprise a top six of death. This is going to be the best offensive team in college hockey again and it won’t be close (again).
Still, there is a downside and the question for PSU is whether they can be a bit better defensively than last year. They will never be good, or even mediocre, as long as they play the style that they do, but incremental improvement from 57th (which was last year) to say, 48th, could be important in the long run. They return Senior Peyton Jones to be their netminder, and you might as well call him a piece of laundry because of how often he is hung out to dry by his defense. But that’s okay, and he does well enough for the team to win games. Does he have an extra gear to find as a senior? The defense provides more offense than defense to be honest, but again, there are veterans in this group. Can the Nittany Lions get more stellar play on that end? To be determined.
PSU adds a small freshman class of just 6 guys, only one of which was drafted, which adds to the team’s status as a veteran team. PSU in 2019-20 will look a lot like in 2018-19, but probably a little better due to maturation of nearly everyone coming back. Being on the fence of the tourney last year, this should be towards the top of the B1G and firmly in the NCAA picture, but I question how deep in a tourney they can go playing that style of hockey.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: 23-14-3
Welcome to System Hockey University, where Notre Dame churns out the same style of team year after year, with varying results (but mostly success). Jeff Jackson is entering his 15th season behind the bench for the Irish and he is one of college hockey’s best coaches, plain and simple. Still searching for that elusive first title in South Bend (he won two at Lake Superior St.), Jackson puts the same product out there year in and year out. Notre Dame plays close games and they try and prevent goals, with strong penalty killing and an effective power-play, trying to capitalize on opportunities when they get them.
Notre Dame lost some considerable pieces going into last season and they regressed from their near national championship in 2017-18 to a solid bubble team for most of the year until they got hot in the B1G Tournament, winning some important games to seal their tourney bid, and then solidifying that it would happen anyway by winning the tourney and nabbing the autobid. They then won a game in the NCAA’s before falling short of a third-straight Frozen Four appearance. This year the Irish return a lot more, losing just 28% of goals, though they do lose 41% of assists, mostly off the backs of their playmaking defenders Bobby Nardella and Andrew Peeke. Those two constituted the top pair for Notre Dame and played a large role in the attack, directing pucks on net and commanding the power play unit. While the rest of the defense corps returns, there will be a void to fill in playmaking at the blue line.
However, the Irish get almost every forward back (only losing Adam Malmquist among impact forwards) and so I would expect offensive improvement from this group. Last year the forwards lacked identity and a leader, and I would look to top-line center Cal Burke for that after finishing with 30 points in 36 games a year ago. Of course, we can’t discuss Notre Dame without bringing up star goalie Cale Morris, who has been an anchor of stability for the Irish in his time in South Bend and if Notre Dame is to reach another Frozen Four, it may need to be off the back of Morris. He’s a goalie who is better than your author gave him credit for last offseason, and he is capable of stealing a game when needed.
The Irish don’t add a whole lot talent-wise (just one drafted player), though there are a lot of bodies incoming. This isn’t much cause for concern since Jeff Jackson’s system just requires players who can fit it, as opposed to relying on raw talent the way other programs do. Trevor Janicke was a 5th round pick, but other than that, there aren’t many big names. But again that’s fine. This is a pretty veteran team with a star goalie and a coach with a track record of success. I think they’ll improve marginally over last year and should be in the tournament again.
Wisconsin Badgers: 14-18-5
Following the 2016-17 season that saw Wisconsin go from 8 wins to 20 wins in Tony Granato’s first season, the college hockey world was ready to crown the Badgers as an up-and-coming program. But two years later, they still have not made the NCAA Tournament, and while Granato hasn’t yet had His Guys, the lack of a winning record in either of the last two years is very concerning, especially given the solid talent on the roster. In some ways they have seemed like a dollar store version of Boston University, a program with tons of talent but who never seem well coached and consistently underachieve. The seat under Granato’s rear may well be heating up and the pressure is on to make something happen as he now brings in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Can it all come together in Madison?
The good news is that he has most all of his team back, losing just 27% of goals from last season and returning both goalies. The bad news is that this was a team very much lacking identity and will need to find a way to generate that identity. They had just one player (Sean Dhooghe) score double-digit goals, with 8 players scoring between 7 and 9 goals. They had 6 players finish with 20+ points, but none with more than 26. It was a team made up of a lot of guys, none of whom were really standouts that could be leaned on in big moments, and the defense was bad. They finished 52nd in goals against last season (that’s right near the bottom) and have a lot to clean up. Wisconsin finished 4 games under .500 and had a goal differential of -17. Even if they improve, it will need to be significant improvement to be in true tournament contention.
However, Wisconsin is adding some serious dudes in the form of a star studded recruiting class. Most notably, they are nabbing two of the top 15 players from this past year’s draft in Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield. Turcotte is a tremendous two-way center who was picked #5 overall by the LA Kings and Caufield is the greatest goal scorer in US NTDP history. He doesn’t do much other than score, but he really, really scores. Both guys are probably one-and-dones, but they could both be two of the five best players in the conference as freshmen.. They are elite NHL prospects and should make an instant impact. Then there’s forward Dylan Holloway, who just missed the cutoff for the ‘19 draft, and is ranked as a consensus top 15 prospect in the ‘20 draft. Finally, Wisconsin adds Owen Lindmark and Ryder Donovan as two mid-round NHL draft picks, and the majority of their starting lineup are drafted players. This is one of the country’s most talented teams and the B1G’s most talented team, and it’s not really close. With 2018 1st round pick K’Andre Miller as your #1 defenseman, they should be a contender. But they have a lot of work to do compared to last year and Granato has not been the best at squeezing the most out of his team. That will need to change this year or else he could be out of a job. Overall, I think Wisconsin makes the tourney, but they’re very hard to project, with a ton of talent, but a long way to go compared to 2018-19. They could feasibly be anywhere from a huge disappointment to the nation’s best team. And I haven’t the slightest idea how it finishes.
Ohio State Buckeyes: 20-11-5
Ohio State entered last season as my Big Ten title favorite and they did win the conference regular season championship (which is arguably the best test of a program’s success given the insanity of college hockey’s postseason) but it’s worth noting that it was a down year for the B1G overall and for all intents and purposes, it was a failed season for Ohio State. They faltered in the B1G Tournament and did not earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament as I expected, being pitted against Denver in the 2/3 matchup where they were shut out on the offensive end by Red Wings prospect Filip Larsson, ending their season in an ugly 2-0 loss, which spawned delicious takes from the OSU media like this one.
Still, this is a program that has made the NCAA Tournament three straight years and is very healthy under Steve Rohilik, who I highly respect as a coach. All of this said, I think they probably take a step back this season after losing 48% of their goals from a year ago. Ohio State returns Tanner Lacyznski who must’ve murdered someone in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, because it baffles me that he was not signed this offseason. Laczynski has been one of the best players in the B1G the last two seasons, although he disappointed to some extent last year after getting injured and finishing with 30 points in 27 games (compared to 47 in 41 games in 2017-18). He is going to be The Guy for Ohio State, even more so than in recent years since they lose the other two of their top three scorers in Dakota Joshua and Mason Jobst. They also lose valued top six wingers John Wiitala and Freddy Gerard, who scored a combined 16 goals last year. All things considered, they lose 5 of their top 8 goal scorers from a year ago, as well as their top defensive pairing of Sasha Larocque (the captain) and Tommy Parran. The latter may be reason for concern since they were both shutdown defenders who offered little offensively, and defense was the main strength of the team. If both offense and defense regress, this may not be a tournament team after finishing 8th in pairwise a year ago.
Reasons for optimism include the return of Lacyznski who is among the conference’s best players, and goalie Tommy Nappier. Nappier surprisingly Wally Pipp’d the previous goalie, Sean Romeo (who graduated), last season en route to a very strong statistical season. Nappier had some issues with crease discipline last year and was shaky against Michigan, but he dominated nearly everyone else on the schedule, and there’s nothing like having a hot goalie. Still, Nappier only split duties with the veteran Romeo last year and it remains to be seen if he can carry over those strong numbers to an entire season. OSU also returns their 2nd and 3rd defensive pairs, and their bottom 6 wingers, so there is a decently high floor for this team.
That said, I’m not sure how high the ceiling is because they are not adding a monstrous recruiting class. Defenseman Layton Ahac was picked in the third round by the Vegas Knights and he should be able to help on the blue line right away, as should Michael Gildon with the forwards, as he was a solid bottom 6 player on the USNTDP (although not drafted). They provide reinforcements but this is still a veteran team. I think they regress a decent bit compared to last year by virtue of leading such an important part of their offense, and will thus find themselves on the bubble.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: 18-16-4
Minnesota should be college hockey’s Alabama football or Duke basketball. This should be the nation’s premier college hockey program (though you can make the case for Michigan) by virtue of being the premier athletic institution in the nation’s richest state for hockey talent. However, they have not been that since the early 2000s and have not been anywhere close to that in the past half-decade. The Gophers poached Bob Motzko from in-state rival St. Cloud State last offseason, which was an objectively great hire. However, as Michigan has learned from Mel Pearson, other than flipping a few guys late in the recruiting process, new coaches don’t make their mark in college hockey until 3-4 years down the line due to how early recruiting happens. So, this is still a program in flux, and the trajectory of Minnesota feels much like Michigan under Pearson. Similarly to how Pearson walked in with a talented and veteran top line and was able to ride that to a successful first season, Motzko was able to do the same. Let’s be clear, Motzko narrowly missing the tournament in Year 1 is nowhere close to Pearson coming one goal from the National Title Game in Year 1, but Motzko did put up a winning record on the backs of that top line. Unfortunately, much the way that Dancs-Marody-Calderone left after Pearson’s Year 1, Motzko’s top line is doing the same.
That line consisted of Rem Pitlick, Tyler Sheehy, and Brent Gates Jr., the former two put up 40+ point seasons and Gates finished with a not-too-shabby 31 points. They are all gone now and those three made up a huge amount of Minnesota’s offense. It also doesn’t help that Tommy Novak and Jack Sadek, who were 5th and 8th in points, respectively, are also gone, leaving this Minnesota team having to replace 59% of goals from a year ago, highest in the B1G. Another issue is that they lose starting goaltender Matt Robson, who was pretty important since he finished in the top 20 in save percentage, but the team was bottom half of college hockey in goals against (read: his defense wasn’t helping him much). With Robson gone, there is a big reason for concern that more pucks will go in the net without a goalie to cover up those deficiencies. As a result, Minnesota in year 2 of Motzko feels like a rebuilding project, and they do add some real talent.
Ryan Johnson was a late first round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres and he joins the defense, as does Jackson LaCombe, who was picked 8 spots later in the early second round by the Ducks. Those two players should provide an instant impact for the Gophers and form the core of Motzko’s future teams. Bryce Brodzinksi was picked in the 7th round by Philadelphia and should add some wing scoring. Altogether, this is a large recruiting class because they have a lot of holes to fill. It’s just hard for me to picture a team that was firmly mediocre last year, then loses 59% of its goals without adding any true blue chippers (like an Eichel, Turcotte, etc) and then making the tournament. Thus, I see the Gophers treading water in Year 2 of Motzko (much like Year 2 of Mel at Michigan), before the program begins to take off.
Michigan State Spartans: 12-19-5
Danton Cole came into East Lansing after the resignation of Tom Anastos with a lot of work to do. The program had become the laughingstock of the B1G under Anastos and after winning just 7 games in 2016-17, Cole got them to 12 wins in Year 1. Last season, they won the same amount but were by all accounts a better squad, losing fewer games in regulation and upping their pairwise ranking to a more respectable 31st nationally. They were no longer clearly the worst team in the B1G, although they were still in the cellar. Cole enters year 3 returning 66% of his goals from last season, although there is one massive loss that he will have to endure.
Last season’s team was anchored by a line similar to Minnesota’s top line in its dominance relative to the rest of the team offensively. That was the KHL line of Patrick Khodorenko-Mitchell Lewandowski-Taro Hirose. The Spartans should be delighted that 2 of those 3 players return. However, the one who doesn’t, Taro Hirose, was obviously the best player of the three. Hirose tied for the NCAA lead in points thanks to a creative, playmaking style and after the season, signed with the Detroit Red Wings and has made the roster out of training camp for this season. What I’m trying to say is that Hirose was very, very good, and losing a bona fide NHL player from a team that already was last in the conference is not going to be easy. While Lewandowski and Khodorenko are fine players, Hirose was the straw that stirred the drink, finishing with 13 more points than either of the other two. Losing him could be huge and whether those two can drive play without Hirose is a question to consider.
Outside of the big one though, Michigan State returns most of the other players on the team and the 2019-20 squad should seem similar. They have some stability on defense and also bring back goaltender Drew DeRidder who was excellent last year. That said, they don’t add much, bringing in just 3 freshmen (!), though one of them, Josh Nodler, was a 5th round pick, so at least that’s some tangible talent. If MSU is essentially just last year’s team minus Hirose, but counting offseason maturity and development, then the team should be pretty close to the same. Cole seems to have the program on the right track by all accounts, but this is probably still a year or so away from real B1G contention and I have the Spartans pegged for another last place finish.
B1G Hockey Power Rankings 2019-20: