Wide open – The chase for the 2011-12 national title seems wide open, as seven teams earned at least one first-place vote in the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason polls. Defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth was one of those, but ranked no higher than eighth in either poll.
New leaders – It was a summer of unprecedented change behind college hockey’s benches as nine teams named new head coaches (10 if you include Penn State, which will begin Division I play in 2012-13). The newcomers:
– Clarkson hired former Cornell assistant Casey Jones
– UMass Lowell hired former Hamilton head coach Norm Bazin
– Michigan State hired former CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos
– Michigan Tech hired former Michigan assistant Mel Pearson
– Northeastern hired former NU administrator and Pittsburgh Penguins scout Jim Madigan
– Princeton hired former St. Lawrence assistant coach Bob Prier
– Providence hired former Union head coach Nate Leaman
– Union promoted former assistant coach Rick Bennett
– Western Michigan hired former NHL coach Andy Murray
Year of the d-man? – The return of Boston College’s Brian Dumoulin and Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz – arguably the two best defensemen in college hockey last season – for their junior years leads the way in what might be a larger trend. College hockey boasts a wealth of extremely talented defensemen in 2011-12. Twelve current college defensemen are listed among NHL teams’ top 10 prospects by The Hockey News, including Dumoulin (4th for Carolina), Schultz (3rd for Anaheim), Michigan’s Jon Merrill (2nd for New Jersey) and North Dakota’s Derek Forbort (2nd for Los Angeles).
Big stages – College hockey takes to some of the sport’s biggest stages, as usual, in 2011-12, with games scheduled for eight NHL arenas and two Major League Baseball parks. Annual events like the Beanpot in Boston and the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul highlight the schedule, as well as a return to Madison Square Garden for an inter-league meeting between Boston University and Cornell. Six teams will play outdoors this year, with a doubleheader set for Fenway Park and a single game at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. North Dakota will head over the border to host Clarkson in Winnipeg as well.
Staying power – Teams like Merrimack and Union held down spots in the top 10 of national polls last season and others – like Nebraska-Omaha and Western Michigan – weren’t far behind. Can those rising programs build on those performances? What will be the impact of new coaches at Union and WMU?
Age before beauty – Eighteen of the top 21 scorers in the nation last season in points per game were juniors or seniors, demonstrating the importance of experience in college hockey. What’s more, many of those players have either graduated or signed pro contracts, opening opportunities for underclassmen to step up and become the game’s offensive leaders. Contenders to emerge include rising sophomores T.J. Tynan (Notre Dame), Jaden Schwartz (Colorado College), Jason Zucker (Denver), Kenny Agostino (Yale) and Greg Carey (St. Lawrence).
Great goaltending – While many of the top offensive performers from last season are gone, eight of the top 11 goaltenders in save percentage last year are back in college hockey. Leading the way, perhaps, is fifth-year senior Shawn Hunwick of Michigan, a former walk-on who led the Wolverines to the national championship game in April.
Impact freshmen – College hockey welcomes several dynamic newcomers into the fold this fall. The highest-touted freshmen include elite NHL draft picks like Rocco Grimaldi (North Dakota), Tyler Biggs (Miami) and Scott Mayfield (Denver). Junior stars like last year’s USHL Player of the Year (Blake Coleman, Miami) and Rookie of the Year (John Gaudreau, Boston College) will test their skills at the next level as well.
Repeat performance? – Minnesota Duluth hopes to join fellow WCHA programs Minnesota (2002, 2003) and Denver (2004, 2005) as the only repeat national champions since 1973. Leading scorer Jack Connolly, Frozen Four MVP J.T. Brown and goaltender Kenny Reiter are back for the Bulldogs, although two-thirds of last season’s top line moved on to NHL contracts.
World stage – Nebraska-Omaha head coach Dean Blais will lead the U.S. National Junior Team in pursuit of the gold medal at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Alberta this January with a roster that figures to be heavy on college hockey talent. Blais coached the 2010 U.S. team that won gold in the World Junior Championship and had 28 college players attend the evaluation camp for the 2012 team this summer.
Road to Tampa – The Frozen Four makes its southern-most stop in its 64-year history this April, heading to Tampa Bay’s St. Pete Times Forum. The event has drawn sellout crowds each of the past 12 years (except when it attracted 30,000+ at Detroit’s Ford Field), but this will mark the furthest it has ventured from college hockey’s traditional footprint since it was in Anaheim in 1999. Tampa is a popular hockey market with former college stars Martin St. Louis and Dwayne Roloson leading the Lightning – and an attractive end-of-winter destination for cold-weather hockey fans.
300 level? – After reaching a new high with 294 alumni skating in the NHL last season, can college hockey’s representation at the top level of the game continue to grow? Some elite former collegians have hung up the skates, like Chris Drury, but with first-year pros like Andy Miele (Miami/Phoenix), Matt Frattin (North Dakota/Toronto) and Gustav Nyquist (Maine/Detroit) challenging for NHL playing time, college hockey could make up more than 30% of the NHL.
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