Don’t call it a preview. The NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey slate technically kicked off in the last weekend of September with the beginning of the annual set of exhibition games between American schools and Canadian ones as Simon Fraser (the only Canadian school to hand out athletic scholarships) went up to Alaska to play one each against Fairbanks and Anchorage.
In 36 total exhibition games played between NCAA schools and their north-of-the-border equivalents, mostly stocked with CHL graduates, the American schools only lost four times, with one draw, coming out victorious 31 times.
There are currently 60 schools participating in Division I Men’s Ice Hockey, and the majority have taken their first few tentative steps toward a hopeful berth in the year ending Frozen Four, this year set to take place in Buffalo, New York, after four regionals in Providence, Rhode Island, Manchester, New Hampshire, Fargo, North Dakota, and Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The clearest way to run through the level is conference by conference, of which there are six, but in fairness, a word should be spared for the sole independent school, Arizona State, which has not been able to find a suitable conference home since joining the top flight of the collegiate ranks in time for the 2015-16 season. In three seasons, the Sun Devils have won 23 games out of the 95 they played. As impressive as their four wins in their first six games of the new season is, they have come against Alaska-Fairbanks and Alabama-Huntsville, not exactly powerhouses in their own rights either. To their credit, they played well in losing a set against Ohio State, and goaltender Joel D’Accord, an Ottawa draft pick has been spectacular, with a .956 save percentage playing every minute. ASU may be improved but they are still far from a regional threat.
The A10 is both the only conference to have started inter-conference games in earnest, and the only conference that can be generally overlooked from a scouting perspective, at least as far as future NHLers are concerned. Of the 194 NHL drafted players currently suiting up for NCAA teams, only three play for A10 schools and there is a good chance that none of the three ever signs an NHL contract. Robert Morris is usually a good bet to compete for the conference’s automatic NCAA entry, but Mercyhurst is worth a look this year, if their early-season, non-conference games are any indications, as they include an exciting 6-6 tie against powerhouse Notre Dame, as well as a victory over Ferris State. If there is a dark horse candidate to have NHL teams sniffing around, keep tabs on Dylan McLaughlin, a senior center with Canisius. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award last year after putting up 48 points in 37 games and has six in his first four games of the new season.
Western Collegiate Hockey Association
Although not quite as overlooked as the A10, the WCHA is no longer a collegiate powerhouse conference, as the formation of the NCHC has left the once-feared conference lacking in world beaters. The conference is currently home to only seven NHL drafted players, but there are usually a few more every year who garner NHL interest and a number of others who wind up playing on AHL deals after graduation. Of the ten teams in the WCHA, we can almost dismiss out of hand the two Alaskan members, as Fairbanks and Anchorage are hamstrung by insane travel schedules and lack much in the way of impact talent. We can also skip over Alabama-Huntsville, which has not had a winning season since 2005-06 and has lost its top two scorers from last year to graduation.
In the uninspiring middle, we find schools such as Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Northern Michigan, and Bemidji State. LSS has fallen a long way from the near dynasty that claimed three NCAA titles between 1988-1994 and has been among the weakest teams in the country over the last four years. They will need big years from Latvian netminder Mareks Mitens and senior forward Diego Cuglietta to have a chance. Ferris State has been known to have the odd big year of late, and have a few interesting players on the roster, including Boston draft pick Cam Clarke, and captain Corey Mackin, an undersized point producer. Northern Michigan rarely gets much press, but they quietly put up a very good year last year and have some impact forwards returning, including Darien Craighead and Adam Rockwood. Keep an eye on tiny freshman Griffin Loughran, who was a key contributor with USHL champions Fargo last year. Bemidji State is similarly unheralded, although with a veteran roster including returns from three of their top five scorers from last year, could be strong, even without any NHL prospects of note.
Michigan Tech was a surprise NCAA tournament team last year and could make noise again. They start a pair of senior forwards in Jake Jackson and Jake Lucchini, the former of which is a Sharks draft pick. Minnesota State (Mankato) was the top team in the conference last year, but have lost two of their better players to the NHL. There are still a number of good college players on the roster who should keep the Mavericks competitive, including Parker Tuomie, Marc Michaelis, Reggie Lutz, Jake Jaremko, and others. With decent goaltending, they could top the conference once again. That said, the favorite going into the year should be Bowling Green State. The only team in the WCHA with more than one drafted player, the Falcons have three, between start netminder Ryan Bednard (Florida), defenseman Adam Smith (Nashville) and winger Brandon Kruse (Vegas). Sophomore Max Johnson also seems primed for a big year. The team has youth and offensive depth to challenge any team in the conference.
Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference
As is typical, the ECAC lets the rest of the college hockey world get started before they drop the puck, with murmurs of academic integrity among the conference’s Ivy League schools the typical explanation. Only five of the 12 schools have played regular season games so far. Let us hand wave away the chances of RPI and St. Lawrence, the former of which has won only 14 games combined over the past two years. Their most interesting player is Penguins’ draft pick Will Reilly, an offensive defenseman. St. Lawrence has been good in the recent past, but the bottom fell out last year (8-27-2) and they seem to lack the horses to turn that around too much. Blueliner Bo Hanson earned some attention in his USHL days, and 6-8” Keenan Suthers struggled to assert himself in his time in the USNTDP or as a freshman, but has started strong this year. Dartmouth could be mildly interesting, if not a true contender, what with most of their top scorers returning. I am most curious to see if big Will Graber could take the team on his broad shoulders. He will be supported by Shane Sellar and Quin Foreman. Another Ivy League dark horse is Brown, which has not surpassed eight wins in a season since 2013-14. They have some interesting recruits arriving for the 2019-20 season, but for now will be reliant on co-captains Tom Marchin, and Max Gottlieb to spearhead the attack. The back half of the conference should be completed with Colgate and Yale. Colgate was a surprise competitor last season behind the goaltending of Colton Point, but he is now in the Dallas system. AJHL alumnus Mitchel Benson is the new netminder in town and the offense seems to have a “by-committee” construct. Yale has a lot of talent on the team, including four drafted players, but lacks much in the way of offensive experience after returning leading scorer Joe Snively. Between Phil Kemp (Edmonton) and Jack St. Ivany (Philadelphia), their blueline will be worth watching.
Despite losing top defenders Terence Amorosa and Kelly Summers to graduation and speedy forward Sheldon Rempal early to LA, Clarkson returns enough talent to threaten in the ECAC again. Netminder Jake Kielly has been a workhorse since first stepping foot on campus. The offensive attack will be led by the returning trio of captain Devin Brosseau, tiny sophomore Jack Jacome, and big German Nico Sturm. Among the prized newcomers are included Nick Campoli (Vegas) and big Josh Dunne, whose game I liked in the USHL. Union shocked the hockey world by winning the NCAA title in 2013-14, led by Shayne Gostisbehere, Daniel Carr, Mike Vecchione, and others. Those days are long gone, but this team still attracts a fine standard of player. Cole Maier has matured into a leading player, while fellow senior Brett Supinski has been a top scorer since first stepping foot on campus. San Jose draft pick Jake Kupsky seems ready for his big chance to take over in goal and Detroit pick Jack Adams could take a step forward.
Princeton surprisingly won the ECAC postseason tournament last year, and despite losing Eric Robinson to Columbus, top scorers Max Veronneau, Ryan Kuffner, Jackson Cressey, and Josh Teves eschewed the pros for another kick at the can. Netminder Ryan Ferland needs to take another step forward to convince me that they can return to the dance. Quinnipiac struggled somewhat last season, looking little like the team that made the NCAA finals twice in a four year span earlier in the decade. With big netminder Keith Petruzzelli (Detroit) looking like he has put a disappointing freshman season behind him, they could be returning to the former heights. There is proven talent up and down the roster, led by blueliners Chase Priskie (Washington), Karlis Cukste (San Jose) and Brandon Fortunato and forwards William Fallstrom, Craig Martin, Odeen Tufto, and the speedy Wyatt Bongiovanni.
That leaves us with two serious contenders for the conference crown. Cornell lost its top three scorers, but returns a ton more and should prove to be very strong at the back. Netminder Matthew Galajda was sensational as a freshman. The blueline is talented and deep, featuring Yanni Kaldis, Alex Green (Tampa Bay), Alec McCrea, Cody Haiskanen, and the hope that Edmonton pick Matthew Cairns can stay healthy and show some of the talent that he displayed two years ago. Rangers pick Morgan Barron, along with returning contributors Brenden Locke, Jeff Malott, and Mitchell Vanderlaan should lead the offensive attack. Freshman Maxim Andreyev is also one to watch. The stacked roster in Ithaca aside, the team to beat in the ECAC should be Harvard. This is a team with six drafted players on the roster, all of whom are legit prospects, as opposed to the late round fliers that we sometimes see on NCAA rosters. The strength of this team is on the blueline, starring Adam Fox (Carolina), Reilly Walsh (New Jersey), John Marino (Edmonton) and freshman Jack Rathbone (Vancouver). All play two-way games, and Fox and Walsh are both particularly dynamic talents, on the small side, mobile and skilled with the puck. There is less up front, but captain Lewis Zerter-Gossage was a big contributor last season, Anaheim draft pick Jack Badini should increase his production as a sophomore and freshman Jack Drury (Carolina), Baker Shore, and Casey Dornbach were all big point producers in the USHL. The main question the Crimson will have to answer is who will replace Merrick Madsen in net. Big Michael Lackey probably gets first dibs, but keep an eye on freshman Derek Schaedig, who also has ideal size and has had success in his time in the NAHL and USHL.