This weekend, the Chargers of Alabama Huntsville head north to Houghton Michigan to take on the Huskies of Michigan Tech. Head Coach Joe Shawhan’s team is one similar to Tech teams past. They defend really well, make you go through them to win, and get great goaltending. Blake Pietila, is looking to earn the full time job, but former Charger Mark Sinclair hopes to earn some of the net back. So far, from watching both play, Pietila has been markedly better, but Sinclair has a veteran pedigree and the ability to keep his team in games despite long stretches of being outshot, as Chargers fans would be the first to let you know.
One wrinkle these Huskies do have is their addition of RPI center Tristian Ashbrook. He has not been on a campus this year to practice with anyone because his now former school has been all remote, and he has had to train elsewhere. Shawhan mentioned that his conditioning is good so far, and that Huskies fans could see him take on the Chargers this weekend.
What does he bring to Houghton?
Simply the thing that this program has been in perpetual need of, goal scoring ability. Ashbrook’s speed and desire to camp out in the dangerous areas are a true addition to a Huskies team already plenty skilled at puck possesion and gap control.
How players like Coyotes’ draft pick Carson Bantle match up against the speed of the Chargers is what we will be watching for this weekend. The Huskies, on paper, have the better pedigree, but also have never faced a vast portion of this team. Of the returners, all of them have taken some step to get better, head among them being Bauer Neudecker, The speedy winger has helped the first line of the Chargers drive play forward, and has already put home two goals in four games to start this campaign. In addition, the team play of this group makes them much harder to defend than last year’s iteration of these Chargers. How Shawhan deploys his lines against this team will be an indication of how good he thinks each line is to some degree. For instance, if Bantle’s line draws Bronte’s line, then it will be clear that Shawhan thinks Bantle and company can shutdown the speed of Bronte and his wingers to turn play the other way. Deployment is a good test to see how coaches view their team, not just line chart locations.
A good show of improvement at the individual level is Neudecker’s work. Last year in 31 games played did not find the back of the net. In addition, playing on the line centered by Tyrone Bronte has given him the benefit of not being the fastest player on the ice for the Chargers. The biggest issue that the two opponents of UAH have faced in defending this team is dealing with its speed. That is the one area that the Chargers have an advantage on paper against this Michigan Tech side.
With that said, the Huskies have scored in waves this year when they have found twine and, like the Chargers tend to score by committee. For offense this is a four line team that the Chargers will face with defenders who can stay at home and keep the play going. On defense, these Chargers, to some degree or another know Sinclair’s tendencies as the returners have all practiced with him. Regarding Pietila, he has been the main person for these Huskies so far. When he is dialed in behind this defense, most teams in college hockey, regardless of their station will have to up their game to score. Expect no different for these Chargers. Reflexes are his best skill, and these Chargers will have to find ways to continue their improvement in net-front presence goals to generate more rebound looks.
Finally, if these Huskies can knock off a strong Bemidji State team, and an even better Minnesota State Mankato squad, then they are not to be taken lightly. This is a big series for these Chargers to set the tone for their final season in this WCHA. How they will be remembered in this conference starts with what they do this weekend. Their final chance to rise above their station and shock some people over these next few months all begins in Houghton.
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Given this wild season we find ourselves in, we will go to the eye test for a lot of our argument here, but this article was spurred by the Bowling Green Falcons’ sweep over the 11th ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats on the road in one of the biggest true non conference series that will happen in this pandemic influenced season. The Falcons swept a team with one of the best undrafted free agents in the country in Odeen Tufto, along with an incredibly stout defense. Bowling Green has shown that they will be a threat for the McNaughton Cup. In addition, we see nothing going against the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks or Bemidji State from being in the mix as well. Both teams’ good performances have not been surprising given the play of their returners. The rest of this will focus on some potential up and comers to watch as we slowly inch towards conference play.
That’s just the Falcons, we move to the state of Michigan to note other up and coming teams in the Lakers of Lake Superior State. They have not lost any of their games, and still have some room to improve. The team has not put together a full 60 minute effort against any of their opponents and still has not lost. They have one of the better goalies in the country backstopping them in Mareks Mitens to start with. Ashton Calder’s development into one of the better goal scorers in this league early on has been interesting to see. Following them, we have the Huskies of Michigan Tech. They have the highest retained draftee of the Arizona Coyotes from the Arizona Coyotes on their roster (Carson Bantle, 2020 Fifth round) and a lot more. Blake Pietila in net for them as a Freshman has been a revelation early on this year, and has a sub 1.6 goals against average. They also have a veteran backup in Mark Sinclair to mentor him as well as an always stout defense. If this team gets any scoring throughout the year they could finish higher than predicted.
Finally, we will touch on the Alabama Huntsville Chargers. While this team is unheralded, after talking to their coaches, and a few of their players, they seem to prefer that moniker. Tyron Bronte up front for them is our pick for fastest skater with the puck in the league. In addition, they have a goalie that has not lost for them in David Fessenden, and a developing defense corps that seems to be getting better each week. The Chargers have a lot of things to work on, but they are trending upward for now, and Head Coach Lance West wants to keep it going that way.
The WCHA this year outside of the Mavericks, looks to be underrated again. We only offer one bit of advice to those across this level of men’s college hockey this bit of advice regarding your view of what this conference’s representatives will do in the tournament. Underestimate the WCHA at your own risk.
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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.