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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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Mike Snee is the Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. This is an organization integral to helping grow the game, and in placing new teams across America to showcase a game loved by many in areas where there is not a hockey presence that there is now. His organization helps move the process forward to find new teams at interested schools with the capacity to fund them, and works to market the game to perspective players before they commit to a path to play hockey beyond their youth team.
Those presentations around America are a big part of the daily mission to grow the game for all, and Snee’s team has had to adapt to the pandemic-marred world we are all living in. As a result, his organization now has the capacity to present to any group in the world about a game with unrivaled passion and fan support across the country. If more Americans are choosing to play the game, that means these presentations are working, and 33 percent of players on NHL roster have now played college hockey. In addition to that, Snee strongly believes that because of the increase in interest towards Division One Men’s College Hockey, more worldwide interest has dovetailed with that. For instance, last season, 116 Europeans played college hokckey, a vast increase from the time Snee stepped in to run the organization.
As a leader of College Hockey Inc, Snee cares about all Division One Men’s Ice Hockey programs. As such, he took his time focusing on developing a plan to call new schools after the Pegulas pouted a lot of their money into making their Penn State program viable and competitive in the Big Ten Conference. In terms of how he structures to call teams to maximum affect, he has devised his pretty simple way of doing it. First, the team needs money, and a lot of it.It also needs Money is not the only concern for teams have the hay too adress. They need school, alumni support, an ice rink or two, and some fans willing to come. He noted that the success of his group has given them two different templates of creation to pursue going forward.
College Hockey Inc. has two roles. First, its job is to market the game to Americans better than it had done before its formation. On that note, this organization has done a good job in promoting the exploits of its American-brown alumnae at the NHL level and beyond. Throughout this interview that having more players like Cale Makar come to college helps them all around the world as they look to raise the profile of this great game.
“Every single program matters.”
Snee said this specifically when talking about Alabama Huntsville’s future. He credits the tremendous steps the Advisory Board has taken to help UAH Hockey move back into the game, and is now working moving to a new conference. As to their sweep this past weekend, he noted that sweeps like this help build the very lore that the Chargers are doing things right. He called that, as Head Coach Lance West did, a “program win.”
In addition, he notes a theme we have been seeing with other’s perception of the value of the UAH program. That is, this program is indispensable to the sport in order to grow it in its least capitalized market, the southeast.
Despite having a large role in expanding the game, through connecting folks who want to give money with schools willing to have Division One Men’s Ice Hockey, Snee credits the programs in this sport for everyone’s success. Although he does have a point in general on the day-to-day of running and promoting stores, we think the role of College Hockey Inc. is much more. They have their own process and list of calls ro make towards new schools after the pandemic abates. Given that his staff is so small, they spend a lot of time making presentations, and finding new ways to stay up-to-date on things around this great game. We had discussions about other areas of possible expansion as well. Snee and his small group are passionate advocates for every school in this great game, and their efforts show.
How the game continues to grow will not solely be on Snee and his group created with funds from the NHL and USA Hockey. It will grow or not by the efforts all of us take to promote it on our own communities and how we value the sport within its context. That is, if we see hockey at the college level as itself a perpetual interest generator in playing this great game, more people can be encouraged to help fund future teams. Perhaps one day, in a not too distant future, Purdue and Indiana could be doing battle on the ice for the Old Oaken Bucket Cup given to the winner of that series every year , should they make the jump to Division One. If Snee has his way, that example could become reality one day.
As Snee said, “every single program matters.” His group fights to help all of its members, and work to bring in new ones on a daily basis. College Hockey Inc. does their best to live up to that four word saying, and it shows.
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This week, major news regarding the future of Alabama Huntsville’s only Division One offering, Men’s Hockey was announced. It involved getting a fund for this program of 17 million over the next decade to give this team a sound institutional commitment to not only funding the program, but funding it at a level that will allow the Chargers to fight at the highest echelons of the Division One level. That means 1.7 million dollars per year is the base level of support this team will have, a marked increase from previous seasons.
Why does this matter?
Well, for years this program has had to make due with less. Now, with the advisory group formed, lead by alums Sheldon Wolitski and Taso Sofikitis, things are changing. They helped marshal the initial investment needed to get this team on the ice for this year, and are now working to get them a long-term conference home. The two conferences most realistic for UAH to apply to join are Atlantic Hockey, and the CCHA. Both of these conferences require that foundation of institutional backing, which the board has helped secure. The next step for the board and team is to get a new home beyond this year.
Now, what does this donation mean to some of the players on the roster?
Well, as one would expect, quite a lot, but we will let two skaters tell their tales. Keep in mind, these players could have left during the period where the aforementioned alums and those in the hockey world were raising money to reinstate it, but they did not. The Chargers drop the puck one week from today against Robert Morris.
First, we bring you the thoughts of Peyton Francis, a sophomore center who plays a fast, two way game, and hopes to add a lot more to the scoring ledger in his second season in the Rocket City. We reached out to these players and both responded on the day of this momentous announcement, November 11.
“The news today is phenomenal. It is awesome to know that people are as committed to us and the UAH program as we are to the team and university. It is great to know that we have so much support in growing the game of hockey in south. We have been working hard to lead the program in a new direction and the fact that the staff, alumni and hockey community is working along with us adds that much more fuel to our fire. The team is extremely excited for the season to get started and we look forward to paving the way for the upcoming generation of UAH hockey!”
Next is one of the juniors tasked to help lead this team, Tyr Thompson. He is a pass-first, defense oriented forward that, like Peyton, wants to see his production grow. Tyr plays a truculent game and routinely outworks players on many situations per each event.
“The very generous financial commitment by our alumni and the following commitment by the university is exciting news. Knowing we have people supporting us behind the scenes is going to make me and my teammates put our best foot forward every day. We want this team to be elite for years to come and now we have the framework in place to do that. Being the only Division I team in the southeast we’ve been given a great opportunity to keep growing the greatest game in the world in a non-traditional market. Now it’s up to the guys in the locker room to build on the ice and I can’t wait to tackle this challenge head on.”
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, 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: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.
Unlike the NCHC, you will not find as many drafted players here. The WCHA is heading into its final year in its current form before all schools not from Alaska or Alabama resurrect the CCHA with new Division One School, St. Thomas, joining the fray next season. With that said, this league, this year will be fun to watch. It presents a more defensive style across the board, save one or two teams, and gives a lot of undrafted free agents a chance to make a name for themselves. Nonconference play starts on November 20. Most teams will simply play some conference-mates for an extra few games that do not count towards their conference record. With all of this said, we have our predicted order of finish with some players to keep an eye on for each team as we move forward this year.
Minnesota State Mankato
The Mavericks last season achieved a rare feat They were one of only three teams to defeat a Fighting Hawks’ squad stocked with NHL ready talent and did so with the best team in this conference. Like many teams in this conference, they play defense well, but unlike teams further down these rankings, they have scoring up front that should have them competing for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament whenever this season starts. Dryden McKay is a stalwart netminder that will lead them from the back end, and up front, players like Julian Napravnik look to continue the strong offensive game that alum Marc Michaelis (Vancouver) brought to bear.
For this team, it has to be Dryden McKay. The reigning WCHA Goaltender of the Year plays bigger than his 5’ 11” frame. His lateral movement and calm positioning make him tough to beat when the squad in front of him is rolling, as they often are. Look for him to get some NHL offers after this season, especially if the Mavericks reach their goal.
Top Drafted Prospect
For a team with this pedigree to have only one drafted prospect speaks to both the market inefficiencies of the NHL draft overlooking players that may need more time to develop, and the strong development pedigree of Head Coach Mike Hastings and his staff. Anyway, the only drafted prospect on this team is Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Nathan Smith. The 6’0” forward had one of his best weekends against the Fighting Hawks, adding four points on the weekend where his team did not lose (tie, win). For Smith to take the next step, he will have to help replace the contribution of Michaelis. He finished his rookie season with 27 points (9G,18A) to his credit, and often sets up as a past first player who can win draws when needed (finished last season with only 52 shots on net).
2. Bemidji State
Zach Driscoll is back in net for the Beavers, if not for McKay slightly overshadowing him, Driscoll would be the best goalie in this league. Like many teams in this league, when they score first they are hard to beat. When they come from behind life gets a bit more tough for them. Head Coach Tom Serratore has a veteran group with only six freshman coming in. This large group of upper classman will be asked to lead the way for the only complete team that can challenge the Mavericks. Defensively, the Beavers play a more trap-style game through the neutral zone and focus on quality shots to win most off their games. This team does not need to dominate possession to win, just frustrate the skilled players they are facing through the neutral zone.
Zach Driscoll in net should get some looks at the next level. He plays a relatively calm game and benefits from playing behind a structurally sound defense. Tom Serratore’s system has elevated Driscoll to one of the better netminders in the nation, this year Driscoll will have one more chance to show why he deserves a look at the next level. If Bemidji State goes far on their relatively low amount of goals scored per game, he will have a contract from an NHL team next spring with a team needing a strong third goalie who can step up if needed.
No drafted prospects
3. Michigan Tech
The team with one of the best cheering sections in the country, Mitch’s Misfits, should have a lot to cheer about this year. Alabama Huntsville netminder Mark Sinclair transferred to Houghton after the Chargers faced an uncertain fate. Thankfully the program was saved this year and Sinclair should be the starter for a Huskies team that likes to play a bit faster than some of its competitors in this league, but still employs the same annoying defensive structure to earn looks.
Mark Sinclair, from our time covering multiple Huntsville games last year, like many Huntsville goalies before him, had to face high shot volumes nearly every single night. He shined in the Chargers’ series loss to the Fighting Hawks with his athleticism and ability to remain calm despite facing 74 shots in two games. Sinclair’s ability to stay calm and fight off rebounds should serve him well on a Michigan Tech side that projects to do a little bit better at shot suppression than his former side. For a pro potential projection, he plays a similar style to former Charger, Cam Talbot, calm and steady in net with the ability to perform the high-wire save as needed
Top Drafted Prospect
Carson Bantle (Arizona) taken in the fifth round of this year’s draft is the only drafted prospect on this team. In two years for the Madison Capitals in the USHL, Bantle put up 69 points in 111 games. He is a quick forward with a 6’4” frame and an ability to create his own offense on a dime. That said, how Bantle is used by Head Coach, Joe Shawhan, should be interesting to keep an eye on. In those same two years he was -34. While plus minus is not the holy grail for a forward, we expect Bantle to get a little bit better in his own end playing in Tech’s system.
4. Bowling Green
The Falcons play a style of hockey similar to the Mavericks, lacking some of the Mavericks’ shot suppressing skill in their own end. That said, this team is always interesting to watch. Every year the Falcons utilize arguably a faster lineup than the Mavericks, and do well, yet, recently every year seem to come short of their ultimate goal. Senior Eric Dop will lead the way for this team in net. The senior netminder will start the majority of games for a Falcons squad looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Eric Dop will determine how far this team goes. The 5’10” netminder came onto the scene strong in his junior season last year. In his first year of full time starting work he went 19-11-3 with a .902 save percentage in his first full year of starting. While those stats could be built on, Dop looks to build on his game. His athleticism is his biggest strength, and having time to develop the mental side of his game for two full years before taking the net should help him out this season. If Dop can improve on his 2019-2020 campaign he could get a look from a team willing to take a chance on a developing goalie. As Dop’s season went on, he grew into the role, and we expect a further progression this season.
Top Drafted Prospect
Brandon Kruse (Vegas) is the player to watch for this team. A senior leader who has put up 108 points in 120 games for the Falcons, Kruse will play a lot of the big minutes for a group looking to get to the next level once again. Kruse is a 5’9” winger who plays in all situations for his head coach, Ty Egner. If Kruse keeps his pace up, either the Golden Knights will sign him, or he will start in the top six in the AHL next season.
5. Lake Superior State
The Lakers are a speedy team. Up front they will need to replace the scoring contributions of graduated forward Max Humitz and a big senior class that left the Upper Peninsula. The Lakers are a Jekyll and Hyde squad. When this team is rolling, they are able to minimize high danger chances and clear pucks to their fast forwards to maximize high danger looks. When it is not, well, the other team can and often takes up residence in the Lakers’ own end. For evidence of how up and down this team can be, watch the returning players’ play in their first round loss to Bemidji State. When this team can score first, as they did in their Saturday win, their speed builds and makes it hard for a lot of the defense-first teams in this league to adjust. In their Friday and Sunday loses, they got scored on first and had to catch up. It is a cliché to say that scoring first in hockey makes life easier, but this team under coach Damon Whitten is emblematic of that.
Mareks Mitens, Yuki Miura
These two have developed every year and in Mitens’ case has had some looks at the next level with two stints in development camps (Islanders,Blackhawks). Miura has gone from a healthy scratch to a defensive stalwart for the Lakers and has some of the best speed and skating ability in the WCHA. Miura has blossomed into a key contributor in all phases for this team, and should get a look at least in the ECHL, if not the AHL next season. Both can get to the next level with some time in the minors and both are going to be leaders for this team this season. If Miura can add a few more goals to his tally, especially first goals, than Mitens’ job will be easier. For Mitens, if he has to see a few less pucks this year, we expect scouts to take note of his skill moving side to side and stopping more of them. Its’ easier to scout a goalie when they face an average amount of shots per game, compared to the wildly inflated shot totals Mitens has faced in his time with the Lakers so far.
Top drafted prospect
Arvid Henrikson (Montreal)
The Habs’ draft pick has some more work to do on the back end. He will be called on to play a bigger role for the team this year as he will play an important role in the needed shot suppression this team needs to have in order to rise above their station. The 6’5” defender also needs to increase his two points In 37 games to get a look from any NHL squad in any form. Henrikson has to chip in some offense to compliment the physically brusing game he brings in his own end.
6. Northern Michigan
The Wildcats have a lot of unknowns coming into this season. A team that finished third in this conference last year, lead by a lot of senior leaders, has to find replacements for them, and fast. This team has only three seniors, and one of them, Joseph Nardi, has been with the program for four years. The other two are transfers looking for new homes after coming from different schools. Can the Wildcats finish in the top half of this league again? Sure, but they have a lot of leadership to replace to do so.
If the Wildcats want to do anything of note this year, Griffin Loughran has to continue his success up front for this team. He is a 5’7” forward who plays with a bit of snarl to his game to compliment his offensive skill. In two years, he has 53 points in 72 games played, a respectable number for the West Seneca, New York Native. If he wants to make it to the NHL, he needs to chanel his snarl more productively, as in those same 72 games, he has 163 penalty minutes, which works out to him spending at least four minutes in the box on average for most of those games. A team in need of leaders, cannot have one of them frequenting the penalty box. If Loughran can hem that PIM number in a bit, the Wildcats will get more out of one of their key players.
No drafted prospect
7. Alaska Fairbanks
The Nanooks have an interesting team to watch this year, if you can stay up late enough to see their games. Mitens’ platoon mate at the 2016 IIHF U18 World Championships, Gustavs Grigals is a good goalie in his own rite and the Nanooks seem to have a way with developing players over the years to reach the next level, as Colton Parayko and his development path would indicate. While the Nanooks need to find a new conference situation after this season, this year could set up quite well for them if Grigals can handle the net, and if we see development in the large junior class that they have.
Grigals needs to take the next step and own the net, similar to what Mitens did for the Lakers in his first year of starting, for the Nanooks to have a chance to succeed. While we expect Mads Emil Gransoe, to get some work this year, the net is Grigals’ to lose heading into this campaign. Grigals is a 6’2” goalie with a flexibility in his game similar to Mitens. Grigals frame allows him to play a more conservative style than some of his peers in this conference, but Grigals confidence in net regardless of score is a big asset. Assuming there are development camps next summer, he will get a chance to show his stuff to a few NHL teams this next summer if he can command the net this season.
No drafted prospect
8. Alabama Huntsville
Like their Alaska breatheren, the Chargers need to find a new conference after this season. With that said, the Chargers have had themselves an offseason with a lot more activity than one would normally want. First, right before Memorial Day, their program was discontinued, before being allowed to raise over 700,000 dollars to reinstate it for this year as they look to find a new conference. In all of this, only one of the original recruits from the class now departed head coach Mike Corbett signed stayed with the program (Ayo Adinye), and new head coach and program alum, Lance West had to sign a vast recruiting class pretty quickly. This team also lost its starting goalie, and a few of its top players to other programs as well. With all of that being said all of those players that West has brought in, combined with returners, have some promise to establish Charger Hockey this fall.
Top UDFA to watch
Connor Wood is a senior leader for this team who will need to step up to provide a bit more offense than he as in previous years. He is defensively the best forward the Chargers have coming into this season and needs to improve offensively. That being said, we expect him to earn a minor league deal to try and work his way up the ladder.
9. Ferris State
The Bulldogs are a young team, like the Chargers, and like Alabama Huntsville, have a lot of questions to answer coming into this season. Roni Salmenkangas leads this team in net, and will have to face a lot of high shot games to have a chance to get the Bulldogs into the postseason.
Salmenkangas is another good goalie in this league, and could set himself up to earn a development camp look this upcoming summer. While looking at his stats from the past year, keep in mind that like Sinclair and others, he had to face high volume games with regularity and did not have much help in his own end. His style and frame, combined with his high hockey sense make him a developmental prospect to watch if he can help the Bulldogs rise up the standings this year.
No drafted prospect
10. Alaska Anchorage
The Seawolves are currently trying to save their program beyond this season, and facing a similar lack of funding issue that the Chargers did. With that said, the Seawolves finished last in the conference last season, and will have some work to do.
Joe Sofo will be a key piece for this team. Like Wood with Alabama-Huntsville, Sofo is a defensively sound forward and a senior leader. If the Seawolves want to move up the standings, he will have to chip in more offense than he has in previous seasons for that to have a chance.