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WCHA Predictions: SB Nation Minnesota's preseason awards

Before the 2012-2013 college hockey season kicks off, SB Nation Minnesota tries to predict what happens to all 12 WCHA teams and the top players in the league.

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Gophers Look Golden In WCHA

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Finishing the countdown is last year's MacNaughton Cup winner - the University of Minnesota.

The Gophers will need to replace the departed Kent Patterson with either Mike Shibrowski and/or Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) but it is who else the team brings back which makes them worthy of the top spot.

Besides 25 goal scorer Bjugstad passing up a contract with the Florida Panthers to return for his junior year, Minnesota returns 7 of their top 9 scorers and four who scored 40 points or more. This is a very potent offense - the Gophers led the nation last year with 3.6 goals per game - and has the speed and ability to control the game in their opponents' zone.

However, it is the defense which keeps Minnesota on top. All six defensemen from last year's MacNaughton Cup-winning team return alongside heralded freshmen Brady Skjei (2012 first round pick of the New York Rangers) and Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets). With all eight battling for playing time, there is a sense of stability with just a hint of competition to keep things from getting complacent. The Gophers' blue line has big bodies like Mark Alt (Carolina Hurricanes) who are capable of keeping offenses at bay and with that make it easier for Shibrowski and Wilcox.

Simply put, this is a good team that on paper can be a national title contender.

SB Nation Minnesota's WCHA Predictions (order of finish):

1. Minnesota

2. North Dakota

3. Wisconsin

4. Denver

5. Minnesota-Duluth

6. St. Cloud State

7. Michigan Tech

8. Minnesota State-Mankato

9. Nebraska-Omaha

10. Colorado College

11. Bemidji State

12. Alaska-Anchorage

Tiers:

1 - Minnesota, North Dakota

2 - Wisconsin, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth

3 - St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato, Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College

4 - Bemidji State, Alaska-Anchorage

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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North Dakota continues to keep its talent

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. The Broadmoor Trophy winners of the last three seasons, North Dakota, are second.

Although North Dakota lost 28 goal scorer Brock Nelson after he signed a pro contract with the New York Islanders, the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux retain enough talent to make a run for the final MacNaughton Cup.

At the forefront are senior forward Danny Kristo (Montreal Canadiens), who scored 45 points last year, and junior defenseman Derek Forbort (Los Angeles Kings). Forbort ended the season as one of the top defensemen in the league and could be primed for a big year.

In addition to those two, Dave Hakstol's team gets back redshirt freshman Rocco Grimaldi (Panthers) and brings in a trio of top recruits in goalie Zane Gothberg (Boston Bruins), defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (St. Louis Blues first round pick in 2012) and forward Drake Caggiula. The highly hyped Grimaldi only played in four games last season before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. He brings an explosive first step and speed to the UND lineup alongside players like seniors Corban Knight (Panthers) and Carter Rowney that could replace Nelson if he stays healthy.

Gothberg, meanwhile, will compete with University of Alabama-Huntsville transfer Clarke Saunders to replace Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness (who both left after last year) in net. It's the only question mark North Dakota has other than eight players (including all four captains and alternates) being suspended for part or all of next weekend's opening series.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey coverage, check out Western College Hockey. You can also go to SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Can the Badgers surprise in 2012?

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Third place is Wisconsin, a team that struggled last year but have plenty of upside in 2012-2013.

I might be higher on the Badgers than most but their finish last year reminded me a lot about the Gophers in 2010-2011. Even though Wisconsin finished tenth in the WCHA last year, they won five of their final eight games and took Denver to overtime in Game 3 of their first round series before losing 3-2. It was a young team, including two freshmen goalies in Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson, that will benefit from being a year older.

Losing WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Justin Schultz, who signed with Edmonton as a free agent, stings but the Badger blue line is still strong with Jake McCabe (Buffalo Sabres), Frankie Simonelli and captain John Ramage (Calgary Flames). They may be even stronger up front where 50 point scorer Mark Zengerle returns for his junior season along with Michael Mersch (30 points) and Tyler Barnes (26 points).

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, they may be without heralded freshman Nic Kerdiles as he is currently appealing a one-year suspension for his relationship with an agent. However, the balance between the offense and defense coupled with a solid year from Rumpel could be enough to return Wisconsin up to the next level.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more University of Wisconsin coverage, check out Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Denver reload in the offseason

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Fourth this year is Denver, a team who finished third in WCHA last year and made the NCAA Tournament.

Every year the Pioneers seem to reload rather than rebuild and this year's team is no different. While Drew Shore (Panthers), Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) and Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh Penguins) all left school with eligibility remaining, DU return plenty of firepower.

Drew's brother Nick Shore (Los Angeles Kings) is the leading returning scorer with 41 points last season along with defenseman Joey LaLeggia (Edmonton Oilers) and Ty Loney. Shawn Ostrow is a two-way forward who still chipped in 21 points last year while a third Shore brother Quentin should complement them well as a freshman.

(Drew signing early leaves the Reillys of Minnesota as the lone WCHA brother trio.)

Along with the scorers, Denver have three goalies capable of starting in the WCHA between Sam Brittain (Panthers), Adam Murray and Juho Olkinuora. Each played more than ten games last year although Brittain should receive more of the load after recovering from knee surgery last year.Throw in LaLeggia, who might be the best defenseman in the WCHA, with Scott Mayfield and David Markowski on defense and the Pioneers can win on both ends of the ice.

It will be a challenge for them to keep home ice after losing Drew Shore, Zucker and Bennett but the pieces are in place to do so.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more Denver hockey coverage, check out SB Nation Denver. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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UMD once again surviving losses up front

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Fifth is the 2011 national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, who returned to the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Boston College in the Northeast Region final.

If there is any team that could finish anywhere in the standings, it is the Bulldogs. Coach Scott Sandelin has brought a certain confidence (not to mention a championship) to the Twin Ports which can't be denied. It went a long way last year as Duluth's high powered offense finished the regular season in sole possession of second place and a 17 game unbeaten streak between October and January.

At the same time, however, that high powered offense loses 160 points between Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk (who both graduated) and J.T. Brown (who signed as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay). The Bulldogs have overcome turnover in the past - last year's team built upon the departures of Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine - and this year's team should get a boost from sophomore Caleb Herbert.

Their strength, meanwhile, lies on the blue line where freshman Andy Welinski (Anaheim Ducks) joins seniors Wade Bergman and Drew Olson (Columbus Blue Jackets) as a formidable corps.

In net, UMD is replacing 2011 national championship hero Kenny Reiter with junior Aaron Crandall and freshmen Alex Fons and Matt McNeely. It's the biggest question mark of many for Duluth. While there are signs that the Bulldogs can challenge for a MacNaughton Cup, with departures and new faces they still need a few things to go right for that to happen.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey coverage, check out Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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St. Cloud State surviving injury scares

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Sneaking in with home ice is the St. Cloud State Huskies, who finished in the same spot last yaer.

The (other) Huskies have one of the feel-good stories in the league this year as fifth-year senior Drew LeBlanc comes back from a devastating leg injury suffered last season. LeBlanc was averaging more than a point per game before the injury and his return coupled with senior captain Ben Hanowski (Penguins) and his 23 goals give St. Cloud State a solid one-two scoring threat.

St. Cloud, however, will be looking for more secondary scoring. The Huskies lost points with Travis Novak and Jared Fester graduating and David Eddy signing a pro contract.

In goal the Huskies lose Mike Lee but Ryan Faragher, who played well during the three month stretch Lee was out, and Finnish import Rasmus Reijola (who was just cleared Wednesday) are more than capable to replace him. They'll also have the help of a mature defensive corps led by Nick Jensen (Detroit Red Wings) and Andrew Procho.

One thing that seems to hurt St. Cloud almost annually are injuries to key players and unfortunately for the Huskies, the M*A*S*H* unit claimed its first victim when heralded freshman Joey Benik broke his leg in practice last week. It is unknown how long he will be out but should not require surgery.

For a team looking for secondary scoring, getting Benik, who scored 114 points last year with the Canadian Junior "A" champion Penticton (BCHL), back can't hurt.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey coverage, check out Western College Hockey. You can also go to SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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What can Michigan Tech do for an encore?

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Seventh is the Michigan Tech Huskies, who were eighth in the WCHA last season.

The Huskies were the surprise of the WCHA last year when they ended the season in the Final Five after multiple appearances in the bottom-two. It's safe to say second-year coach Mel Pearson won't be able to take the league by surprise this time but that might not matter. Michigan Tech returns 7 of their top 10 scorers, including David Johnstone, Steven Seigo and every defensemen.

However, they do lose leading scorer Brett Olson and senior goalie Josh Robinson to graduation. The latter might be the team's biggest issue with freshman Pheonix Copley and senior Kevin Genoe trying to replace Robinson's play.

Youth will be a key for the Huskies year and was something that Pearson touched upon during a recent conference call. Michigan Tech only plans on playing a few seniors each night and players like the Johnstones (David and Jacob) and Blake Pietilla (one of three on the team) need to step up and bring the grinding play that got the Huskies as far as they went last year.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey coverage, check out Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Minnesota State rising on strength of new "Coach"

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Eighth this year is Minnesota State, who have undergone changes

The (other) Mavericks are the only WCHA team to have a new head coach and honestly, there is plenty to like about the team.

After Troy Jutting was reassigned (he eventually found his way down to Omaha as one of Dean Blais' assistants), Minnesota State-Mankato hired UNO (and former Gopher) assistant Mike Hastings to be the new boss behind the bench. Hastings might be a first-time college head coach but he brings with him nearly 20 years of junior and college coaching experience.

He also gets to work with a young, talented team.

Although the Mavericks lost Justin Jokinen and Michael Dorr to graduation last year, a trio of underclassmen in Matt Leitner, JP LaFontaine and Teddy Blueger (Pittsburgh Penguins) will lead up front. Zach Palmquist turned heads as a freshman defenseman last season and with another solid recruiting class on the horizon, they likely won't be alone soon.

Minnesota State-Mankato does have upperclassmen leadership. Senior Phil Cook returns in net and co-captain Eriah Hayes always seems to be one of those players who flies under the radar. This is a team that challenge for home ice after finishing 11th in the WCHA last year but at the same time, there are depth issues with both the forwards and defense. Hastings should get them to play better but the Mavericks need to stay healthy as well.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey coverage, check out Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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For Nebraska-Omaha, size is everything on D

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. In ninth place are the Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha, who finished seventh and just missed out on home ice last year.

It's tough to count out a Dean Blais-coached team and those might be words to live by in Nebraska-Omaha's third and final WCHA season. The Mavericks made the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and put themselves in contention in 2012 with lesser-known players but unfortunately for them, that raised the interest of NHL teams.

Incoming sophomore Jayson Megna, who scored 31 points, created a bidding war for himself over the summer and signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins while Terry Broadhurst (36 points) signed a pro deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. A third loss, Terry's brother Alex, didn't make it to Omaha - instead signing with the London Knights of the OHL - while goalie Ryan Massa is taking the season off.

One who did stay despite offers was 6'8" defenseman Andrej Sustr, a giant who uses his size to take away space for opponents. He is not the only blue liner with size - only freshman Brian Cooper is under six feet with Jaycob Megna listed at 6'7" and Tony Turgeon at 6'4" - and the defensive corps (including Minnesota Wild draft pick and freshman Nick Seeler) is the strong point.

Seeler is one part of a solid recruiting class that includes Cooper and Philadelphia Flyers pick Anthony Stolarz, who should challenge John Faulkner for playing time in net. The Mavericks do return leading scorer Matt White and Ryan Walters up front but Blais and company will have to overcome the lack of depth with Megna and both Broadhursts gone.

But if anyone is up for the job, it's Dean Blais.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Who will score for Colorado College?

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Coming in at tenth is a team that had home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs last year after finishing fifth, Colorado College.

It's odd having the Tigers as low as tenth in the WCHA given their run of success but one team seems to underachieve every year and (as much as I hope to be wrong) I see Colorado College being that team. Ending the season going 3-7 in their last ten games - including being swept at home by Michigan Tech - doesn't help matters but it is who CC lost which hurts more. Leading point scorer Jaden Schwartz signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues after his sophomore year while Nick Dineen and Gabe Guentzel graduated.

The Tigers do get back the elder Schwartz, senior and 23 goal scorer Rylan, to lead an offense which lost nearly 40% of its scoring with Alexander Krushelynski (20 points) and William Rapuzzi (15 points). Mike Boivin leads a defense which returns everyone besides Guenzel and the Tigers have two strong goalies in Josh Thorimbert and Joe Howe. They will have to lead things early in a conference full of offensive talent as CC searches for secondary scoring to emerge like freshman Hunter Fejes (Phoenix Coyotes).

One thing that may help Colorado College in the WCHA is the fact they don't have their first conference game until November 2nd against Wisconsin. They will be tested against three NCAA tournament teams from last year in Air Force, Cornell and UMass-Lowell but the experience gained against those three and Clarkson could help the Tigers when conference games begin.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more Colorado College coverage, check out SB Nation Denver. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Bemidji State recovering from departures

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Coming in at 11th is Bemidji State, who finished ninth in the league last season.

In 2009 Bemidji State shocked the college hockey world by making it to the Frozen Four as a fourth seed team from the (now defunct) CHA. The Beavers haven't replicated that yet since joining the WCHA and with major losses to replace this year, it will take another magical run to pull that off.

The last remaining remnants of the Frozen Four team, including Shea Walters (26 points last season), Ben Kinne (22 points) and top scoring defenseman in program history Brad Hunt, have departed and will need to be replaced. Leading scorer Jordan George (31 points) does return along with fifth-year senior captain Ben Kinne but others like freshmen Phil Brewer and sophomore Danny Matson will have to play major minutes to replace those who left up front.

Bemidji also needs to find a new goalie with three-year starter Dan Bakala graduating. Sophomore Andrew Walsh appears to have the upper hand over senior Mathieu Dugas after starting 11 games last season but Bakala, who kept the Beavers in many games last year, is tough to replace.

With all the holes and departures, it's hard to place Bemidji State higher than eleventh.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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Alaska-Anchorage look to improve on cellar finish

A week ago I took part in the 3rd Annual WCHA Blogger & Website Preseason Poll as one of 18 participants and thought it would be a good idea to break down my own picks for the final year of the conference as we know it going from 12 to 1. Kicking off the list is the University of Alaska-Anchorage, who finished last a season ago.

Someone has to be twelfth in the WCHA and unfortunately for the Seawolves odds are it will be them. Alaska-Anchorage does return goalie duo Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal (of "Gopher killer during the WCHA first round" fame) along with Matt Bailey but they don't have much else.

The Seawolves struggled to score last year averaging two and a half goals per game and losing three of their top four scorers from last season (only Bailey, who led the team with a grand total of 17 points, returns) will not do anything to help that. Dave Shyiak's squad could really use a player like Eric Scheid, who left the team last season after his freshman year to return to the USHL, continuing to develop but as it is Anchorage will be a good mix of underclassmen and seniors.

Throw in a tough schedule that includes four games against Wisconsin and Minnesota with road games in Denver and Grand Forks and Alaska-Anchorage could struggle to reach last year's 11 points.

Agree with the picks? Disagree? Sound off below.

For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher. You can also read up on the WCHA and college hockey at Western College Hockey and SB Nation's NHL hub.

You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.

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