Big Ten Hockey Preview

Story posted September 19, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Ross Insana

A lot of buildup and excitement has been in store for the inaugural season of the Big Ten Hockey conference, primarily because of the talent level fans will get to see each game.

“They’re going to know where to go to find college hockey now,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves from Big Ten Media Day, in regards to the game-by-game talent the Big Ten will offer to fans.

The Badgers were chosen by the coaches as the conference preseason favorite and were followed in order by: Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and lastly, Penn State. *Later, a Penn State preview will be released by itself.

Each team is broken down in order of their preseason coaches ranking, with at least one freshman per team to keep an eye on during the season.

Wisconsin Badgers

2012 Record: 22-13-7 (13-8-7 WCHA)

This season will arrive full of expectations for the Badgers. Not only because they were just ranked no. 3 by College Hockey News in its preseason top ten, but they were also one of two Big Ten teams (along with Minnesota) to finish last season with a winning record. Additionally, they have the most players on the Big Ten “Players to Watch” list including forwards Nic Kerdiles, Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle, plus defenseman Jake McCabe.

“I think the reason we were picked in that position is because you take a look at our lineup and we’re an upperclassmen team,” said Eaves. “It’s almost a natural thing to happen because of the fact that we are an upperclassmen team.”

All of that holds true for Eaves’ team, as he returns 21 players from last season, which is the most of any team in the Big Ten. Those 21 bring with them a 91-goal season from last year, that included the lethal scoring touch of Mersch, who finished third in the country in goals with 23. Kerdiles finished in the top five in freshman scoring with the likes of big names like Miami’s Riley Barber and North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi.

With an embarrassment of riches, the Badgers were able to pluck one of Minnesota’s best high school talents in Grant Beese away from the Golden Gophers. Beese finished his career as one of the most prolific goal-scorers in recent Minnesota high school hockey memory with 163 goals.

Even with his high pedigree coming into his freshman season with Wisconsin, he won’t necessarily have to step up in a big way right from the start with all of the veteran leadership this Badgers team possesses. Then again it doesn’t hurt to cut loose a young forward that has the knack of finding the net.

Throw in a solid goaltending tandem of Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson in front of a blue line with all returning starters and the offensive depth Wisconsin...you end up with a recipe of a preseason top ten team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2012 Record: 26-9-5 (16-7-5 WCHA)

Season after season, the Golden Gophers consistently churn out competitive teams and this year’s version will probably look no different. After losing in an upset at the hands of eventual NCAA Champion Yale in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, they’ll look for a vengeance with an experienced team with 19 returnees from last season, a team that finished sixth in the post NCAA tournament USCHO poll.

Despite that, they did still lose four of their top five scorers from last season to the NHL with the biggest loss being senior assistant captain and leading scorer Erik Haula to the Minnesota Wild. Haula finished second in all of college hockey with 35 assists and tied for fourth in the country in points with 51.

Third leading scorer Nick Bjustad chose to leave after his junior year to pursue a career with Florida Panthers. On the other hand, they do return newly anointed co-captain Kyle Rau after he put together a 15-goal, 40-point season in 2012/2013. Rau was the lone unanimous selection on the Big Ten “Players to Watch” list. Rau and fellow co-captain Nate Condon will combine with freshman sensations and former Waterloo Black Hawks teammates, Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos, to lead the offensive charge.

"We have the makings of more offensive depth than we had a year ago," said head coach Don Lucia on Big Ten Media Day. "That hurt us after last year we didn't get much scoring after the two lines."

The most important backbone to a successful team starts between the pipes. Lucky for the Golden Gophers they also return one of college hockey’s best netminders in Adam Wilcox, who set a new single-season program record with a 1.88 goals against average last season.

The defensive corps did take a hit earlier in the week as freshman defenseman Tommy Vannelli elected to leave the program. That will open up an opportunity for freshmen defensemen, Jake Bischoff and Michael Brodzinski, who will compete to crack the lineup.

Michigan Wolverines:

2012 Record 18-19-3 (10-15-3 CCHA)

After breaking their 22-year streak of making the NCAA tournament, Michigan head coach Red Berenson and company will look to forget last year and regain their spot amongst the elite programs.

They were going to lose star defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Winnipeg Jets sooner rather than later, but after only one season with the Wolverines he’ll be passing the torch over to a strong recruiting class. The Wolverines will welcome in 10 incoming freshman to their roster this season, which is the most in the Big Ten.

The biggest is arguably JT Compher, a 2013 second-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, . Compher showcased his talents for the United States 18 and Under National Development Team last season and will be a rising star.

Compher also came to Penn State for a two-game series and stood out as a man amongst boys, but only managed to register one goal in the pair of games. He finished last season with 18 goals and 32 assists. Compher’s U.S. teammates and fellow freshman forwards, Tyler Motte and Evan Allen, will have to step up and chip in offensively if the Wolverines will look to return back to the NCAA tournament.

Senior defensemen Mac Bennett and Kevin Claire will have the responsibility of stepping up to try and fill the giant void left behind by Trouba on defense. Steve Racine will take the reigns as the starting goalie for Berenson squad in his second season after going 12-6-3 with a 2.65 goals against average.

Michigan State Spartans:

2012 Record: 14-26-3 (9-18-1 CCHA)

This Spartans team is notable for being the team that might be known more for three names on the back of the sweaters rather than the logo on the front. That would be none other than forward David Bondra, the son of former five-time NHL All-Star Peter Bondra, and brothers Dean and Jake Chelios, whose father is three-time Norris Trophy winner Chris Chelios.

After having an  “off year” where the Spartans were weak offensively with only 81 team goals and finishing dead last in the CCHA, with a 14-26-3 record overall and a 9-18-1 in conference, it will be an uphill batle for head coach Tom Anastos’ team. Up front, they will look for big things out of juniors, Matt Berry and Tanner Sorenson. Barry led the Spartans in all major offensive categories last season with 15 goals and 16 assists while Sorenson was second to Barry in each statistic.

In terms of newcomers to the Spartans lineup, keep a close eye on former Michigan prep hockey standout MacKenzie MacEachern and the Swede Villiam Haag.

Haag will be the most interesting to watch not only because he brings with him a European brand of hockey, but played last season an elite program in the Frolunda Indians of the Swedish Elite League that has produced the likes of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Red Wings Daniel Alfredsson. Haag’s 29 goals last season led the Swedish Elite League.

Jake Hildebrand, a former Sioux City Musketeers teammate of Penn State goalie Matt Skoff, will be the go-to guy in net for Anastos. Hillenbrand posted a  2.35 goals against average last season and won Team MVP, despite posting a 9-17-2 record. For a team that will have a combined 17 freshman and sophomores that will contribute, having a goaltender Anastos can rely will take a little bit of burden off his shoulders.

Ohio State Buckeyes

2012 Record: 16-17-7 (15-11-5 CCHA)

This season will be the ‘Ryan Dzingel Show’ in Columbus, as he’ll be the main offensive cog and leader for the Buckeyes. The gifted forward, a seventh-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in the 2011 Draft, made his presence felt with a hat trick in the Buckeyes 5-4 upset loss against Penn State on December 29 in the Three Rivers Classic .

Dzingel will join fellow juniors, Tanner Fritz and Max McCormick, to form a formidable veteran-led and talented go-to trio, that combined for 42 goals; nearly half of the team total last season. Having those three to contribute both offensively leadership-wise will be important for newly anointed head coach Steve Rohlik.

"It's certainly been a lot easier with the people around me," said Rohlik on his transition to head coach. "The staff, the players and the foundation has been laid there and it's my job just to keep moving forward."

Rohlik had been serving as associate head coach for the Buckeyes for the last three seasons before being hired as head coach in April to replace former head coach Mark Osiecki.

They did lose a workhorse in net to graduation in All-CCHA selection Brady Hjelle, who started 33 of the Buckeyes 40 total games last season and finished sixth in all of Division I hockey with a .935 save percentage. What will make his presence in goal difficult to replace, is his durability. He was one of only a few goalies who logged 2000 minutes or more in addition to saving over 900 shots.

Nevertheless, new freshman goalie Matt Tomkins, who will most likely back up the returning Collin Olson, looks the part of a future star between the pipes. Senior captain Curtis Gedig will be a stable and familiar face on the Buckeyes blue line.

Ross Insana is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email rxi5007@psu.edu.