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WCHA Predictions: #1 - University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

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.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.