Opinion: Expand the NCAA Tournament to 20 teams

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Fans of the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks Men’s Hockey team will remember the old WCHA, the fanbase waxes poetically about it often then moving on to needle the attendance and postseason problems that the members of the current Big 10 Hockey Conference have (these problems have some grounding in truth are sometimes exaggerated). One thing in that Final Five is the chance for a team to win three games in three days to make the NCAA Tournament. If you won your first round series, and had either of the worst two remaining regular season records, you had to play an extra game to advance. Teams that were able to win those three games then got the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, regardless of their regular season success, or lack thereof. No one questioned the win of the five seed on the few times it did happen.

This past, pairwise free (it existed, but was not used as we know it due to a lack of significant interconference play) hockey and subjective selection proceedings have left fans of many eastern hockey teams, and a few western powerhouses like Denver, feeling left out.

Now, none of the teams left out did enough to make the 16 team tournament.

With that argument noted, what we are proposing is this.

In future years, when the next cycle of regionals are awarded, standardize the starting dates, and expand the tournament by four teams.

On Friday, you have opening round games between the four and five seed in each regional with the winner earning the right to face one of the four best teams in the country.

On Saturday, you have the first round staggered across the country (for maximum TV ratings of course) play out and make an already great day even better. Instead of six games (two finals, four first round games) we would have eight games take place on one day, and then play the championships on Sunday.

Why?

Well we have a few reasons.

First, for this game to grow, and get more programs in it, expanding the tournament by four teams makes attaining it slightly more reasonable, without having to dilute the value of the regular season. If the tournament expands, more fans and schools can get involved in the greatest part of this game, its postseason.

Second, after hearing arguments about top seeds getting rested enough or not, we would like to note the value of the top seed playing a team that had played the previous day. The coaching staff gets to watch that team play in person, and that team could very well be tired, and in theory should give the top seed an easier path to the regional final.

Third, it adds value to the full season for everyone. Now, teams play to move up or down in the pairwise (all of this is being written for a normal non pandemic-marred season), but the reality is, the top 12 or 13 teams are usually safe every year, while the last two or three worry about conference tournament champions stealing their spot.

This eliminates some of that concern.

If teams 1-13 are locks, the proposal ensures that teams 14-16 all will make it. It would require five teams outside of the top 20 to win their conference championship to hurt the top 16, and ensure that the bottom eight teams would all have to play in the first game. This provides more meaning to what teams 10-12 are doing as the season ends, and ensures every game has more of an impact. If you are playing to get an opening round bye, that adds stakes to your late season play.

Use 2012-2013 as an example, when Niagara finished at the number 10 spot in the pairwise, and Canisius won their postseason tournament, that meant Atlantic Hockey would earn two bids to the tournament. What it also meant was that a 19 win Western Michigan team would miss the tournament. In this system, the only team that would have missed the tournament is number 20 ranked Brown. Atlantic Hockey would have had three teams representing it, and three more programs would have had the chance to compete for a national championship.

We understand that this change would have to wait until the next round of regionals are awarded, and there needs to be buy-ins from coaches, hosts, athletics departments and more all around the country.

Our argument comes down to this.

If this sport is to add more programs over time, something we all want to see, expanding the tournament by four teams now is a way to encourage more schools to potentially join. In addition, for all of those teams just wishing they could have made the tournament this year, this would have let them in. In the future, it will also allow Atlantic Hockey to get at least two deserving representatives into the tournament without harming another team’s chances. Finally, it ensures that the top seeds in each region get to play an opponent who could be tired. If the game is to grow, its tournament needs to do so as well.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

The Bridgeport Regional: Four undrafted free agents to watch

Photo Credit-Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Like in the Fargo Regional, we will highlight one undrafted free agent per team in this competitive regional to watch. Each team has some talent not selected in the NHL draft with a chance of playing in the NHL very soon.

Lake Superior State Lakers

Mareks Mitens

The Ventspils, Latvia native is one of the best goaltenders in the country, and played against several other top flight goaltenders in the WCHA this year. The Latvian netminder is one of the most athletic goalies left in this tournament, and has the ability to make saves look easy and keep the game calm. When the Lakers’ offense has gone dormant this year, he has kept them in games. His strong hockey sense, combined with getting feedback over the course of the two NHL development camps he has attended ( Islanders, Blackhawks) has helped improve his play to the point where the goaltender not many new about before he represented Latvia in the 2016 World Under 18 Championship in Grand Forks now projects to get multiple offers at the next level. If he can keep the Lakers in it early against a very offensively gifted Massachusetts team then they could have a chance to move on, beyond that if his improved defense can limit the grade-a looks that he sees, Mitens could help his team make it to the Frozen Four.

Bemidji State Beavers

Zach Driscoll

He has the athletic ability of Mitens, and calmness to match. The Beavers’ netminder also has a team in front of him with not as much offensive upside as the Lakers have. Despite that, he got his team into the tournament through playing well against the best competition in the league, Minnesota State. In every game he has played in this year, he has shown calmness in net, and the ability to make tough saves look easy while benefiting from the defense-first system that the Beavers play. When they took on Alabama Huntsville, the Chargers had moments of a surge, but Driscoll kept them at bay. For his team to defeat the high-flying Badgers of Wisconsin, he will have to do more of the same.

Wisconsin Badgers

Ty-Belton Pice

To play on a line with Cole Caufield, you need to have physicality, and the ability to get him the puck, along with some shooting prowess of your own. Luckily he has all three of those things. The senior center has 29 points in 23 games, and is a big reason for Caulfield’s likely Hobey Baker Award that he will win in a few weeks. The way he plays the game to lead his Badgers involves a lot of physicality, and he is also one of the smarter players on-ice that they have. While the spotlight will rightly be on Caufield, look for Pice’s role to matter just as much in determining how far the Badgers will go this postseason. After this year, given the success of his line, NHL teams may want to chat with one of the better assist-generating centers in the country who help set up the best goal scorer in the country. He can earn his way to the NHL in a few years if he keeps his work ethic where it is, and shows scouts that his abilities translate to the next level.

Massachusetts Minutemen

Olivier Chau

If you think Odeen Tufto of Quinnipiac will get a lot of attention by NHL teams after this year for his superb playmaking ability, you are correct. Chau’s numbers while not as gaudy suggest his ability to put up assists in a similar manor at the next level. Along with being incredibly disciplined (one penalty taken for a mere two minutes this season), he can distribute the puck at a high level. He has 17 assists in 25 games on a team that has speed and scoring up and down its lineup, and on a group that has had to win tough defensive battles in a strong Hockey East only schedule this year. Chau’s skill and discipline will most likely appeal to any NHL team looking for a responsible playmaker who can make their top goal scorers at the AHL level better, while being able to play a third or second line role in the NHL one day soon.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

What to watch for: UAH-LSSU

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Based on our conversation with Alabama Huntsville Hockey Head Coach Lance West, here are some things to watch this weekend as the Chargers look to compete against a very offensively skilled Laker Superior State team.

Cut the motion down

One of the biggest concepts in the Lakers’ game that West took the time to bring up was the motion at the point the Lakers play with. They do this with skilled forwards, combined with defenders like Will Riedell and Mitchell Oliver among others. The Lakers use this motion to counter teams that play through the middle so well and gum it up like Bemidji State often does. How the Chargers can break that down will go a long way in determining a winner for this series. For this to go well, look at some of the breakaways caused by the Chargers’ defense on poor lateral passes from Bemidji State, when this team is active in its own end and can shorten the zone time of its opponent, they can earn chances going the other way.

Score first

Easier said than done of course, especially against one of the best goaltenders in the country, Mareks Mitens. When the Chargers score first, they have been able to play to their system better. When this team scored first against Bowling Green on their Senior Day, for a little bit they were able to push the pace and takes some more opportunities for themselves. The Lakers have one of the better offenses in the WCHA, and know how to close down games in their own end when they score first, if West’s group can push the pace early on, they may have more of a chance if they can get the Lakers out of sorts.

Simple is best

Against Bemidji State, we saw something in person that we have seen via Flo Hockey all year, this team, at times is trying too hard not to score, but to make an extra pass when it is not always needed. The effort in this group is great, and more consistent than the group we saw last January at Ralph Engelstad Arena. That is not what this is about, but rather concentrating efforts of the group to get to the net a little simpler. As Peyton Francis has condensed his game to channel his speed more towards the net, compared to going east-west, this team is well served to do the same. This team has not beaten Mitens cleanly on any of the goals he has conceded against the Chargers all year. They need rebounds and weird bounces to go their way, and focusing on the initial shot compared to making an extra pass is one way to take on this Lake Superior State team.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

PHOTOS: Game two BSU 4 UAH 0

Photo credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Check out Kelsey’s photos from game two of Alabama Huntsville taking on Bemidji State. All photos, to credit, should be listed as Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography. For the full gallery , click the below link.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Where we started… and what comes next

I don’t think we have ever hold the story of why Seamore Sports exists, here is that story.

Seamore Sports started in 2016 following the conclusion of U18 tournament in Grand Forks, ND. I love goaltending. The skill, focus and poise that it takes to play that position. We attended the Latvia vs Sweden game, when we noticed the confidence of Latvian net minder Mareks Mitens in facing 47 shots. I just loved his level of compete and the international game itself. It opened my eyes to all of the great hockey around us that we did not take the time to see and talk about.Players with stories just like Mitens’ are all around the world, and very abundant in college hockey. My love for the game of hockey just grew and grew with the more I learned and watched. It truly is a beautiful game.

I have a complicated medical condition, called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) and when Oliver and I met, I was just starting to come to terms with my diagnosis. I was struggling with the realization that is was a life long condition and quality of life I was looking at. The disease was first called the suicide disease when it was discovered around the Civil War for its high consistent pain that it inflicted on soldiers, who years later, some committed suicide to escape the endless pain my condition gives me. With this in mind, I badly needed a distraction. Seamore Sports became that distraction and has sense evolved into our shared passion.

Earlier in the year, Oliver had introduced me to hockey by taking me to a UND vs UMD series, which still is one of the most memorable games I have ever been too. Many of you know what game I am referring to without giving details. For everyone else, it was the over time penalty shot winner from Austin Poganski. For the first time in over two years, my pain melted away and I knew the rink was my home.

Over the last five years, Seamore Sports has turned into everything I didn’t think it ever could. However, it hasn’t always been an easy thing. Towards the end of the 2019-2020 season, I was done. I was struggling with the lack of success and my passion was failing. I had even told Oliver, that it was going to be my last season and I was done. One night in Friday January, someone who I had never met walked in the media room on ice level while I was getting my computer and camera set up for the University of North Dakota (UND) vs University of Alabama- Huntsville (UAH) and asked to sit down. We had a conversation about hockey realignment and talked for a solid 45 minutes, at the end of the conversation, I introduced myself and asked if he was UAH’s Sports Information Director, he smiled and laughed, “Nope, I am head coach Mike Corbett.” Over the course of the weekend, we spent time watching and talking with UAH coaching staff and players. If you are a fan of Alabama Huntsville, and you read our work at all, thank Mike Corbett for encouraging us to start with that first conversation at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

During this time, I fell back in love with hockey. I had renewed hope that the mission of Seamore Sports was ready to change. Now, we are the voice of the Division One College Hockey underdogs, and all those who work to help them shine. Our goal is to work and talk with as many teams, players and coaches that make up this great game. We will be talking with junior hockey players, writing about so many stories that, just like Mitens, deserve a higher level of attention than the media structure in this game is set to provide. In addition, we hope to work with schools over coming years to help train interns to get into writing about more underdogs in this game and creating a network of passionate people to cover the sport we all love.

I, and this independent outlet would not be standing here today, with Oliver by my side helping me to grow this, and taking photos professionally without the people below. If you are not on this list but we have talked to you, know that you matter and are a part of this as well. Also, if you are not on this list, but are involved with this sport at any level from potential commit, to alumnae, to coach or general manager at any level, or any other of the many categories, know that we want to talk to you. Oliver writes many of his recaps with the title of “Beyond the box score” because this game is so much more than a contest to see who scores the most. It is a stage in and of itself, and overtime, its actors depart and new ones try to fill their shoes, and grow, and move to the next level. We want to highlight all those on their path to the stage, and talk about the good done by them as they leave it, and their mentors along the way.

I cannot thank the following people enough (in no particular order):

Eric Lang: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us in 2019 at the Fargo regional following the win against number one St.Cloud. Not only that, but almost 2 years later you remembered us, but not only that you remembered our son, over a phone call. It’s also nice to have a candid conversation with a coach. This game needs more coaches like you in it, and this world needs more good humans like yourself in it. This was the first regional we had covered since I gave birth to our two year old, Henrik (who loves to play floor hockey, and is enthralled with zambonis he sees during intermission), and your encouragement, along the kindness shown to us by you, Seth,and every AIC-associated person that weekend will not ever be forgotten.

Damon Whitten: You remembered our faces after about a year when Bemidji State won that first game by more than a little. You took time to help coordinate media interviews with Mareks and Yuki Miura. In addition, you, like the other coaches in this article are straight up and honest about everything. We appreciate that, and know that as the Lakers progress this year, we will work to cover you with the same verve a national outlet covers the many bigger schools you play (this goes for all teams we cover).

Seth Dussault: You, my friend, have been such a support during our transition. You where the first media relations person to really believe in our mission.Within an hour of seeing you on the day where the non upset happened, I heard you promoting AIC to Oliver, talking about one of your most famous alumnae, Congressman Richard Neal. You are always there to provide feedback on our ideas and articles, and you are one of many people we are fortunate to have in our corner

Mike Corbett: Corbs, thank you for helping me find that spark and fire again. It’s always a joy to have you on the phone and just talk hockey. Our conversations could go on for days and I love how blunt and honest you are. It is much appreciated, the realness that you bring to the table is a rare and beautiful thing. The effort you put into this game, and have put into it for the many decades you have been a part of it, is a thing we hope to more fully chronicle one day.

Brian Riley: I will never forget the fact that you reached out to us on Twitter, my jaw hit the floor and I was on cloud nine for days leading up to our first conversation.Not often does any coach reach out to us, let alone one with your background (its ok to celebrate it a bit as its extensive). Now, it’s like talking to an old friend. You have helped us understand things in the bigger picture of life, and remind us of the simple joy of this game every time we talk. As we agree that College Hockey is a big family, thanks to you, and all whom you work with for making us feel more welcomed at the ever growing table this game provides us all. The joy that you get from coaching the future leaders of armed forces is contagious. I will never understand how Army West Point is forgotten about on the national conversation year after year.

Thank you to every one who has ever read anything that we put out, and to everyone in this game for allowing an independent outlet from Fargo North Dakota to provide you unique stories on so many teams. We have only just begun, and are excited, indeed, for what comes next.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Undrafted Free Agent Watch: Lake Superior State Goaltender Mareks Mitens

Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Mareks Mitens is one of the most reserved people in this game of College Hockey, at least in public. On the ice, he is one of its fiercest competitors, and has quietly put together a resume that goes beyond his top-line numbers at an improving Lake Superior State program. Every year since he came to Sault Saint Marie, he has taken on a bit more responsibility, until last year when he had the starting job full time for Damon Whitten’s Lakers.

How did he get to Lake Superior State?

Well, he parlayed a superb performance at the 2016 U18 World Championship into a superb season of NAHL Hockey, leading the Aston Rebels to the Robertson Cup, and nearly to a title. While there, Whitten and his staff saw him, and outworked several other schools to get him to commit to the Lakers program. Along with getting Yuki Miura on campus, securing Mitens’ help were the first two major recruiting battles involving non North American players that Whitten won.

Since coming to campus, despite not being drafted, it is clear that he has the attention of the NHL. He has been to two development camps as a Laker, first with the New York Islanders, and then two years later with the Chicago Blackhawks. At that second camp in Chicago, he worked with Peter Aubry, his former goaltending coach at Lake Superior State. From there, Mitens learned some valuable tips to make his game better.

On his time there he said of what he learned, and on his progression since then ” I guess one of the biggest things was to slow my game down and understanding the space I fill up from different angles. I think I have improved a lot in those areas.”

On that, we see the noticeable progression in his game from year to year. When he first became a Laker, Mitens was the backup in a platoon scenario. In this, he had to play games where his team was getting outshot every single night. One of the highlights of that season for him was a 36 save effort against a particularly skilled Bemidji State side to earn a shutout. That game in February of 2018 showed how good Mitens can be at this level, and since then he has lived up to it.

For teams looking for a ready made goaltender able to compete for a backup job at the big level, or a number one AHL netminder, Mitens is the ideal candidate for this job already for a few reasons. First, his game is incredibly quiet. He moves in his crease with an efficiency that some goaltenders at the top level do not ever have. Second, his intelligence on ice is exceptional. That is, when he is on his game he will not make a lot of “great” saves, not because he cannot, but because he is well positioned on the vast majority of the shots taken against him. This positioning, and the delayed start to the NHL Playoffs also should have him being considered for a spot representing his country, Lavia, at the 2021 World Championships this spring.

Mitens’ .932 save percentage is the best of any Latvian goalie playing in non domestic competition, beyond the juniors level, this season to this point. Arguably he will have more wins on his resume when his Lakers can get some more goal support to him. The Lakers only average 2.05 goals per game, and Mitens still has four wins on the season (4-3-3). Those are numbers indicative of the team needing to provide him more support. He is steady in his net, does not give up many “bad” goals, and motivates the team in front of him.

If the Lakers can string together some goal scoring soon, then Mitens arguably should be considered in the Mike Richter Award (best goalie in college hockey) conversation, and perhaps even in Hobey Baker Memorial Award (best player) talks.

When his season ends, and his time as a Laker is done, the professional hockey world will get to see what we saw in Grand Forks, what Aston Rebels saw in the NAHL, and what Lake Superior State fans are seeing now. That is, they will see an underrated goaltender quietly put up gaudy numbers and keep his team in every game through superior positioning and sound quickness.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

Yuki Miura: Always Working

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

When Lake Superior State Head Coach Damon Whitten and his staff went to a USHL showcase a few years ago, they saw many good players at that event as they do every year. More than that, they saw, in Yuki Miura, a player that exudes continuous effort to get better, and to grow the game in Japan, his homeland. It was then that Whitten and his staff decided to recruit Miura.

Whitten and his staff at Lake Superior State won their first major recruiting battle getting Miura to come to the Upper Peninsula. Since then, things have not always been linear for Yuki. First, he had to deal with some eligibility issues which he has gotten resolved. Then, he sat out most of his nexr season due to dealing with a broken leg. After that, he slowly worked his way into the lineup, but when he was on the ice, he was noticeable. The first thing most people notice about him is his superb speed.

If you have not seen Miura play, we will note that he models his game after Tomas Plekanec. Miura is a tenacious player, who went from a playmaker with Waterloo, to one of the better penalty killers in College Hockey, with that same playmaking ability. When you stop your assistant coach’s power play continuously in practice to the point of good frustration, that is pretty indicative of what he does in games. As shown in the photo, Yuki goes all out to block shots in games, and this effort is consistent across all phases of his game.

The penalty killing was an adaptation for Yuki, that is he had to learn how to get better at that skill to see more time on the ice, and it has paid off for him. Now, in his senior season as a Laker, he is one of the better penalty killing forwards in the WCHA if not the country. To play more, Yuki had to evolve his game and be able to win more puck battles along the walls, and add some truculence to the speed and finesse he already has. Becuase of the staff at Lake Superior State, and his will and tenacity, he is in position to earn a professional contract as an undrafted free agent in North America next season. As an institution, Yuki is what personifies college hockey at its best.

Why is that? Well, not only is Yuki working dilligently to help his Lakers as they head to face Michigan Tech this weekend, but he is also already giving back and has a superb outlook on life.

First, regarding the attitude he has, Yuki was cut from Japan’s Olympic Qualifying Roster for the 2022 Winter Olympics, depriving him of the chance to play in the games, like his dad Takayuki did in the 1998 Nagano Games for his home country. That has not stopped Yuki from developing, and he is using the cut as motivation this season, to fuel his already strong drive. The next time the full World Championship Program is held, he wants to be competing for his country once again, and the effort and speed he has developed will go a long way to making that happen.

Regarding his giving back, Yuki is an active journalist for all of those in Japan considering playing college hockey, and more. He routinely blogs about his experiences and overcoming adversity. In addition to that, he makes videos showing how he works on improving elements of his game, like picking a puck up along the boards. In terms of advocates for college hockey in Japan Yuki is one of its greatest ambassadors and is at the forefront of Japanese players coming to play College Hockey.

All of Yuki’s work, in leaving his home to play in the Kladno program in the Czech Republic before coming to Waterloo, to adding elements to his game, and being a mentor for others in Japan wanting to play the game, combined with his incredibly upbeat personality showcase a player ready for the next level. We have oten referred to him as the happiest man in Division One Hockey, and we stand by it. After a 7-1 loss to Bemidji State last year, Yuki came out with ice bags on his legs from blocking so many shots and talked to us happily about the evening never being negative. For all of the opportunities he has been given, Yuki expalined that he was just so incredibly thankful for everything and everyone who has been and is a part of his journey in this game.

Well, we will close with simply saying this, the sport of College Hockey is better off with Yuki in it, and advocating for it. As to his work ethic on blogging and communicating, Mareks Mitens, the starting goaltender for this team quipped that when the rest of the team is home, they look on social media and see that Yuki made another video at the rink, long after practice has ended. His effort, humility, and tenacity to get better are evident through his rise to Lake Superior State, and highlight the endless promise his feature holds.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

The WCHA will get at least three teams into the NCAA Tournament: Here’s why

The WCHA, in its final season in its current form, and most likely its final season on the men’s side of things, is having themselves a superb year. Alabama Huntsville is playing the underdog role with 13 freshmen and dramatically improved results from returning players. Ferris State has a World Juniors Champion . Bowling Green is one of the most complete teams in the country with multiple stars on it. Lake Superior State has one of of the top goalies in the country in Mareks Mitens leading a veteran team. Also, Michigan Tech has one of the best goalies in the country, a really tough system to scheme against, and is in a good spot as well. Minnesota State still is in pole position for the McNaughton Cup with its sterling start to its WCHA season despite losing a lot of scoring up front.

All of the top six teams in this league are playing good enough hockey, that the “eye test” should actually benefit this league this year without normal factors of consideration being used. In its final year, the WCHA may have more influence over the final field than realized.

Why write about this?

Well, the WCHA is being looked on by some as an after thought. Every year, like Atlantic Hockey, it seems like the leagues is talked about as an afterthought. Given that the ECAC only has four teams participating this year, and both independents do not look to be candidates for an at large bids, the other five conferences will get to compete for some extra at-large spots.

In addition, defensively, the WCHA is a league built on being able to play close games, like those which are commonplace in postseason hockey. Six teams are within the top 22 of fewest goals allowed, and all of those teams, arguably are fighting for a postseason spot in the league. Given the non-use of the pairwise, all of these teams still have some claim to being under consideration, as long as they finish at .500 or better of course. That style plays better in the postseason when games are typically tight checking, low scoring affairs throughout.

Not many leagues play consistently defensive hockey as well as the WCHA has. Given its top goaltenders, and opportunistic offense, they, like Atlantic Hockey, will have more teams representing them in the NCAA Tournament this year, and deservedly so.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

Building Success: Damon Whitten on two important pieces to Lake Superior State’s strong start

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

The Lake Superior State Lakers are a case study in high offense guiding play. That is, whether last year with Max Humitz, or in years before with Diego Cuglietta, Damon Whitten’s teams have always played with speed and skill to provide goal scoring in bunches.

Now, Whitten’s patience has paid off again, as he has his team competing for an at large spot in the tournament as they competed for two years ago. This week, the Lakers are nationally ranked, and heading into a series of the week candidate against the high-flying Mavericks of Minnesota State. This weekend is one of the biggest in recent Laker Hockey history, because it can stake the Lakers to a good path in the WCHA, and because given their prestige in the league, any team that can beat the Mavericks is looked upon favorably by many in this game.

A big part of the Lakers’ success beyond the continued goal scoring of Ashton Calder, and the speed of the Lakers goes to their defense.

Two of the leaders for this team on defense are Mareks Mitens, their starting goaltender, and Yuki Miura, one of the most consistently strong defensive forwards in this league. Both are undrafted free agents, and both, according to Whitten, have a shot to get to professional hockey after this season.

How did they both get to where they are now?

Well Whitten and his staff made their first concerted efforts to get non North American players to Sault Ste. Marie, and it paid off. He and his staff followed Mitens during his NAHL season where he posted a 92.5 percent save percentage for the Aston Rebels. While there, Whitten talked to Head Coach Joe Coombs, and learned how talented Mitens was in net. Throughout the year the staff kept tabs on his performance, and to the team’s credit, they were able to win a battle against many other colleges, including at least one NCHC school to make Mitens a Laker.

Whitten is glad he did that because now, he has a Hobey Baker Candidate in his net as a senior. Thanks to the help of both Zack Cisek, and Pete Aubry before him, the Lakers have a professional-ready goaltender who has been able to participate in two NHL development camps (Islanders, and the Blackhawks where Aubry is now the Development Coach for goaltenders in their system). Through his first two seasons, Mitens played as a backup and used that time to get acclimated to the college game. Now, he is ready for the next level. He displays the same quickness we have seen since he burst onto the scene at the Under 18 World Championship for Latvia in 2016, but now, he has a consistent and more complete defense in front of him. Combine that with Mitens’ size and superb hockey intellect, and its fair to think that he could get a chance to play at the next level, or even for his home country during the World Championship being held in Latvia this year, given how late North American professional hockey will go, he could be the best Latvian goaltender available to play on what, to this point, would be the biggest stage of his career.

In addition, looking at Yuki Miura, Whitten had nothing but good to say about his growth and development. When Yuki came to campus, he did not kill penalties much, if at all when he was able to play. He had to sit out because of some eligibility issues, and he then dealt with a broken leg, followed by slow integration into the lineup.

Now Whitten noted that Miura on the penalty kill is so good that he stymies assistant coach, Mike York’s Power Play unit in practice with some regularity. Shot blocking is the biggest help Miura brings . Miura is a leader who is smart enough and wise enough at this level to anticipate the next move. In the professional ranks, the ability to kill penalties is paramount for rookies to play a lot early on. Yuki has all of that experiennce in spades, and he is one of the fastest players in this sport this year.

Both Mitens and Miura have brought a lot to the Lakers, according to Whitten. They are still pushing to get better each day, but thanks to Whitten, and his staff’s ability to work with these two players on their journey, they have inevitably extended the time both get to play hockey, and hopefully the celings for both at the next level.

As for these Lakers, their speed is matched by their suffocating defense, especially through the neutral zone. The forward group of this team is quite active in finding quick turnovers to score, and playing Mankato, we should expect the same. How these Lakers do in their WCHA opener, will tell the world of College Hockey a bit more about the ceiling of this team.

On recruiting, to find the next player like Miura or Mitens, especially relating to the ability to score goals , Whitten had this to say, “a lot of people think you have to go to North Dakota Denver or Michigan to be high scoring [when] you can come to Lake State and showcase yourself.” Given the track records of Mitens and Miura, that assertion is by no means limited to goal scorers, of which this program has had many come through it. The Lakers are a team with three NCAA titles, and one of the stronger traditions in all of College Hockey. They, like the rest of the WCHA, according to Whitten, deserve more of a look at the national level.

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