Despite all the coverage on this blog about Michigan Hockey, there are other teams that exist in college hockey. There are even other teams in Michigan’s conference! It’s time to break them down, starting with the B1G and then a few national teams.
B1G Foes: Last year, there was a clear big three within the Big Ten with Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. It was thus not surprising that those three all made it to the Frozen Four. The Big Ten was a loaded hockey conference a year ago, putting 4 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the most of any conference, and they had two squads that were just left out of the bracket (Minnesota and Wisconsin). It figures to be that way again, but it seems like the two teams that are the conference favorites are the old rivals, Michigan and Ohio State. We’ve talked a lot about Michigan, but what about the Buckeyes?
TIER I: Bona Fide National Title Contender
Ohio State: OSU was 14-8-2 in the Big Ten last season and was arguably the best team in the conference after Notre Dame’s early season tear cooled off. Led by excellent head coach Steve Rohlik, they were stellar in every facet of the game. They were top 10 in offense (3.20 GPG, 10th overall) and #3 in defense (2.07 GAPG). They were also tremendous on special teams, with a 23.9% power play percentage (#3 overall) and an 89.44% penalty kill percentage (#1 overall). There really was no weakness with the Buckeyes, though Michigan was generally the better team at even strength when the teams matched up in March during the B1G Hockey Semifinals. If there is a year for Ohio State to win the national title, it’s probably this year, as they have an extremely senior-laden roster.
They return 5 of their 6 highest scorers from last year, as well as their star goalie. All 6 of those guys are probably in their last year in Columbus, with 4 of the scorers and the goalie being seniors, and the one other returning scorer likely to head to the NHL after the season. The goaltender is Sean Romeo, a transfer who caught fire for OSU last season, and he is entering his RS Senior year. Despite all the talk of Notre Dame’s Cale Morris, I think Romeo is the best goalie in the Big Ten. The biggest name on offense is Tanner Laczynski, who is a real contender for the Hobey Baker after scoring 47 points in 41 games a year ago. The junior was a draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, and assuming he has another big year, he will go the route of Cooper Marody and head to the NHL after the season. The Buckeyes also bring back impact forwards Mason Jobst, Dakota Joshua, Freddy Gerard, and John Witala, all seniors. This should be a national title or bust season for Ohio State, given the talent on the roster, and the drop off that will probably come after this season.
TIER II: NCAA Tourney team, but are the elite?
Notre Dame: Last year was Notre Dame’s “year”, as they returned a Frozen Four squad with title aspirations. After a meteoric start that saw them rocket to #1, they slowed down and began to slump. Their monster start to the year meant the Big Ten title was in the bag but there was a while where it really wasn’t clear if ND was truly a threat anymore. But then they got some luck of the Irish, winning 5 straight postseason games by one goal, all of them either in overtime or on goals scored in the final 35 seconds of regulation, something Michigan fans remember quite painfully. The luck ran out against Minnesota-Duluth in the National Championship Game, losing to the Bulldogs and ending their season.
ND plays system hockey. They don’t allow quality chances, locking down even strength and having an elite penalty kill. They don’t score many goals and rely on stout defense and strong goaltending. While they return their star (and perhaps overrated) goalie Cale Morris, which is a plus, they lose their top three scorers from last season, Jake Evans, Andrew Oglevie, and Jordan Gross. On a team that isn’t known for scoring goals, losing that kind of scoring punch could be very problematic. That, combined with my skepticism on how good Notre Dame actually was by the end of last year, means I’m not quite sure if the Fighting Irish are a true B1G title contender and are on the same playing field as Michigan and Ohio State.
Penn State: Think of Notre Dame’s system. Then think of the exact opposite. That’s Penn State. They are straight out of the 1980s NHL, trying to beat you by a 7-6 margin. They do so by taking a zillion shots a game, just throwing everything at the opposing net and hoping something goes in. They were the nation’s 3rd highest scoring team last year (3.63 GPG), but their defensive deficiencies caused them problems and for awhile, it seemed like they were going to be left out of the NCAA Tournament. Then they swept Minnesota four straight games (2 regular season, 2 B1G tourney), knocking the Gophers off the bubble, and inserting themselves into the field. They were a 3 seed facing Denver and got annihilated by the Pioneers ending their season. PSU is an incredibly annoying team to face, but they are good. They return nearly every major contributor from a year ago, as well as their goaltender Peyton Jones. Their inability to defend makes me skeptical of their upside as a Big Ten contender, but I think they are a strong enough side that they will make the NCAA Tournament field for a third straight season.
TIER III: Talented with NCAA Tourney potential, but a lot of questions last season
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers had the most disappointing season of any Big Ten team a year ago, starting as preseason #3 but failing to make the NCAA Tournament after collapsing down the stretch against Penn State. That was unacceptable to one of college hockey’s biggest brands and longtime Head Coach Don Lucia resigned after the season. Bob Motzko of St. Cloud State was brought in, an excellent signing, and he’s got a lot of talent to work with. The Gophers return leading scorer Rem Pitlick, as well as three of their next four high scorers. They also get back goaltender Eric Schierhorn, with star Casey Mittelstadt being the only big loss. Minnesota adds forward Blake McLaughlin, a third round pick, as part of a solid freshmen class. It’s a team that based on their talent, probably should make the NCAA Tournament and I think they will. But it was a tough year a year ago, and with a new coach, I’m not willing to say they’re a Tier II squad yet. It’s a prove it type of year in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin: Speaking of disappointment, Wisconsin. The Badgers had a big first year under Coach Tony Granato in 2016-17, falling just short of the NCAA Tourney, but they expected to get there last year. Instead, they regressed, going 14-19-4 and were swept up by Michigan in the B1G Tourney to end their season. There’re reasons to believe that the Badgers will be better in 2018-19 and also reasons to believe they will not be better unfortunately. The bad news for Wisconsin is that they lost a lot of guys off a team that wasn’t very good to begin with. That includes their two highest scorers (Trent Frederic and Ryan Wagner) and their goaltender, Kyle Hayton. The good news for Wisconsin is they have a talented recruiting class coming in. That starts with defenseman K’Andre Miller, a 1st round NHL Draft pick, who could be a possession driver from the blue line. They also have 3rd round picks Sampo Ranta (F) and Ty Emberson (D) and 4th round pick Jack Gorniak (F). That gives Wisconsin 4 dudes taken in the top 4 round of the NHL Draft as part of their freshman class, which is a ton for a college hockey team. The talent is there, but in a brutally tough and experienced conference, I have to see the Badger youth perform before I buy in that this is a contending side.
TIER IV: Michigan State
Michigan St: Poor MSU. In another conference, they may have a shot, but it’s hard to see the Spartans with a serious shot to do anything this year. Success for the green and white in 2018-19 is probably just signs of serious improvement. That happened last year, with MSU going from 7-24-2 in their last year under Tom Anastos to 12-22-4 last season, Danton Cole’s first as HC. An improving record in a tough conference would be a sign that Cole has this team back on the right track and it seems like they’re in position for that to be the case. They were a very young team a year ago and they return almost all of their playmakers, as well as adding a couple dudes who were drafted (the Kyrgier twins). They’re not ready for the big time yet, but there may be some hope on the horizon at Munn.
Other National Contenders to note
- Minnesota Duluth: They are the preseason #1 for a reason. The Bulldogs caught fire late last season and beat OSU and Notre Dame to win the National Championship, their second this decade. They bring back a lot of the dudes from that team including the vast majority of its loaded blue line, starting with Scott Perunovich. Goaltender Hunter Shepard also returns. Will get an idea of just how good this team is early in the season as they play a stacked non-conference slate including Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Minnesota State
- Cornell: The Big Red are a Notre Dame doppelganger. They don’t allow anyone to score and they don’t score on anyone. They won the ECAC title last year and were the #3 overall team in the NCAA Tournament (1 seed). Though they came up short in the first round against a very talented Boston U team, Cornell is the clear favorite to win the ECAC again and expect to see them in the top 10 of most polls throughout the season.
- St. Cloud State: Last year’s #1 overall seed didn’t even make the Frozen Four, falling in the first round to Air Force. Still, don’t overlook what they did and even if their coach got poached by Minnesota, there is a lot of talent on this roster. They play in the stacked NCHC and won’t be the favorite to win it with Duluth in the conference, but they are likely going to be a top 10 team still.
- Whoever emerges from the Hockey East (BC/BU/Providence): The Hockey East has a top triumvirate and those are likely to be the teams it puts in the NCAA Tournament. BU loses talent off of last year’s team, and they lose their coach, but the endless stream of recruiting will keep them in the mix. Boston College are coming off a disappointing season, but they are the preseason pick to be the conference champion, while Providence was a 2 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament and figure to be squarely in the hunt.