Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The BG News' CCHA preseason rankings

It's almost that time of the season again: hockey season.

While hockey fans may be robbed of NHL hockey for the time being due to (another) lockout, college hockey will not be affected, and the Falcons open their season Saturday, Oct. 6 at Niagara. BG opens at home the next night with an exhibition game against Ontario Institute of Technology.

With the opener now inside of three weeks, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association has begun tallying votes for both its preseason media and coaches polls. While these polls ultimately mean nothing in the big-picture, they are a fun way to see how your team is predicted to do this season.

I am fortunate enough to receive a vote in this poll, which I have shared with you below. Please note that this is my poll only, and not the collective preseason media poll, which will released within the next two weeks.

1. Michigan: Plain and simple, the Wolverines return a ton of talent. Led by reigning Rookie of the Year Alex Guptill, Michigan brings back 20 letterwinners from last season's second place finish. However, a huge question mark for this team is goaltending following Shawn Hunwick's graduation. Compounding this problem have been recent decommitments by Jack Campbell and John Gibson to the OHL. Junior Adam Janecyk was the only other goalie to see game action last year, playing in five games — one start — with a 3.17 goals-against average and a .897 save percent. Struggles at this position are the only thing that can hold Michigan back this season.

2. Ferris State: Coming off it's first National Championship game appearance in school history, the Bulldogs appear poised to be one of the conference's best teams again. Like Michigan, Ferris loses its starting goalie in Taylor Nelson. Unlike Michigan, Ferris has an established goalie to succeed him in C.J. Motte, who posted a 1.98 GAA in 12 starts last season. Coach Bob Daniels was the conference Coach of the Year last season. Entering his 21st season, he is the longest tenured coach in the CCHA, ironically, behind Michigan's Red Berenson. Despite losing Nelson, Ferris returns 18 players this year, including 12 forwards, on a team that scored the second most goals in the league last year.

3. Western Michigan: There is tremendous parity atop the CCHA this year, with four or five teams who could legitimately win the league title this year. Why I mention this in this post is because Western was your CCHA Tournament champion last season, defeating Miami and Michigan in Detroit. While Western may not be the most talented team in the league, I feel that they have the best chance of unseating Michigan at the No. 1 seed (yes, despite the fact I have them third). Western has perhaps the best goaltending duo in the league in Frank Slubowski (2.03 GAA, .911 SV%) and Nick Pisellini (2.41 GAA, .903 SV%). Chase Balisy might also be the best player in the league this season following a 37 point campaign last season.

4. Miami: Call this one an ode to past successes, but I could see Miami easily falling out of the top five (i.e.: first round bye territory) this season. The goalie problems Michigan has? Miami has it a bit worse. The three goalies who played a game for the RedHawks last season, including CCHA Goalie of the Year Connor Knapp, have graduated. Of the three goalies on the roster, two are freshman and none have any college experience. Also gone is captain Reilly Smith. The talent is still there, but if they don't get their goaltending figured out, they could fall quickly.

5. Notre Dame: I have the Irish a bit low here, mostly because if its late-season collapse still fresh in my mind, but don't be surprised to see the them challenge for the No. 1 seed. ND loses two pretty important forwards in Billy Maday and Riley Sheahan, but return 20 players, including outstanding forwards T.J. Tynan and Andres Lee. Goalies Mike Johnson and Steven Summerhays had mediocres years last year: as a team, the Irish had only a .893 save percent last season. If those two can improve, the Irish will be tough to beat.

6. Northern Michigan: The Wildcats have finished in this spot each of the last two seasons, and will once again likely fall in the middle of the back. Justin Florek (36 points) is the team's biggest loss, but the Wildcats return 18 players from last season, including all six defenseman and starting goalie Jared Coreau (2.22 GAA, .928 SV%). As long as they don't have to face BG in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season, I'm sure they won't mind where they finish.

7. Bowling Green: In all honesty, this is a tough one to predict. I would not be surprised to see BG crank out a top-5 seed and earn a first round tournament bye, and at the same time I would not be surprised to see the Falcons finish bottom two again should something go wrong (meaning an injury to a key player, namely Andrew Hammond). The talent level on this team has grown significantly the past two seasons, and the team now has the experience to match that skill. One thing is for sure, no one will be sleeping on the Falcons this season, and the Falcons won't be afraid of playing anyone.

8. Michigan State: Beneath the record, the Spartans were good, not great, last season, despite a top-5 seed. Michigan State only had a +8 goal differential last season, which was significantly worse than any of the other top-5 seeds. While the Spartans bring back some strong players in Lee Reimer (31 points) and Greg Wolfe (26 points), they lose a lot as well. The team only brings back 12 players, and lose the Conference Player of the Year in defenseman Torey Krug (34 points).

9. Lake Superior: While the Lakers do return 20 players this season, they lose a large part of the nucleus of the team in forwards Fred Cassiani  (22 points) and Kyle Jean (24 points) and defensemen Kyle Haines (23 points) and Zach Trotman (21 points). That beings said, they do return their three leading scorers for last season. Goalie Kevin Kapalka (2.67 GAA .916 SV%) will need to step up his game to help pick up the slack.

10. Ohio State: This isn't as much as the Buckeyes being worse than last season (they finished tied for eighth in the conference with Notre Dame), I just don't see them as being better than last season. Most notably, they lose goalie Cal Heeter, who started 30 games last season. That role will not fall to senior Brady Hjelle, was was good in a limited role last season, posting a 2.53 GAA and .922 SV%. His success will likely determine where Ohio State ultimately falls in the standings this season.

 11. Alaska: The Nanooks round out my poll, after finishing 10th in the league last season. The great news for Alaska is they return leading scorers Cody Kunyk (32 points), Andy Taranto (26 points) and Colton Beck (25 points). The bad news for them is, like several other teams in the league, they enter the season with goalie questions.  Gone is starter Scott Greenham (2.47 GAA, .905 SV%). The heir apparent to the starting role is senior Steve Thompson, who posted a 2.92 GAA and .866 save percent in three starts last season. Those numbers do not bode well for a team that carried a -13 goal differential in CCHA games last season.