NCAA hockey preseason top 20: Near misses

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September 25, 2012 by Casey Hart

The 2012-13 NCAA Division I hockey season is almost upon us. Yay!

Each week over the last five seasons, I had the opportunity to vote in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Like every voter—and every fan at home—I thought my top 20 was the right one, and now I have the chance to tell everyone why.

We start with my preseason top 20 or, more accurately, those who didn’t quite make the cut for the top 20. These are teams that were in the mix last season but appear vulnerable to a slight (or significant) fall due to personnel losses or squads that I think could make the jump to the top 20.

A few words on how I put together my ranking: This list (the whole top 20, not just today’s near misses) is the most subjective of the season. It is an attempt to determine a starting point in ranking teams, a fun guess at which squads should be most successful at the ultimate goal of winning games. I use the last season as a starting point and adjust based on which players are returning and how likely a team seems to compensate for its losses. There will be a few freshmen mentioned, but I generally focus on those players with collegiate experience when trying to evaluate teams.

Once the season begins, last year goes out the window and my ranking tries to objectively evaluate which teams have done the best job of winning (no need for style points) over the course of a season. When a team beats another does not matter (until the postseason), but strength of schedule does. Playing a weak schedule won’t hurt a team, as long as it beats those bad opponents, but defeating a good team is worth more. On the flip side, losing to a team ranked ahead of it won’t hurt a team, but that squad has to prove it can beat somebody. There is no room for sub-.500 teams once the season is a few weeks old.

And now, the teams that didn’t quite make the top 20 (in alphabetical order):

Colgate
2011-12 record: 19-17-3
ECAC Hockey finish: fourth (tie)
ECAC Hockey tournament: fourth

Losing nine players hurts. It hurts even more when two of them notched 50 points. The pain is further intensified when one of those two was the obvious choice for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. (The fact that he somehow didn’t win it isn’t really germane to this conversation, so I’ll save that rant for another day.) Such is the plight of the 2012-13 Colgate Raiders. Despite the losses, they remain a veteran team, with eight seniors and experience in net. Robbie Bourdon (12-9-21) figures to be a top scoring threat, while Jeremy Price (2-21-23), Thomas Larkin (4-10-14) and company will need to tighten things up on the blue line.

Maine
2011-12 record: 23-14-3
NCAA tournament: participant

Hockey East finish: fourth
Hockey East tournament: runner-up

USCHO final rank: 13 • My final rank: 13

The Black Bears are one of just two teams from last season’s NCAA tournament to miss my top 20, thanks to heavy losses suffered by their high-powered offense. Only one of the Maine’s top five scorers is back, but it’s a good one, top goal-scorer Joey Diamond (25-22-47). Among those joining him are three top-six defensemen and goaltender Dan Sullivan (.909, 2.59, 22-11-3).

Merrimack
2011-12 record: 18-12-7
Hockey East finish: fifth
Hockey East tournament: quarterfinalist

USCHO final rank: 17 • My final rank: 16

The Warriors overcame potentially staggering personnel losses to post a second straight strong season in 2011-12, but they face another challenge this time around. All-American Joe Cannata (.925, 2.18, 17-12-7) is gone, as are four of the team’s top five scorers from last year. That leaves Mike Collins (10-15-25) as the only Merrimack player coming back after reaching the 20-point mark or scoring more than seven goals last year. Five players return after skating in 20 or more games on the blue line.

Michigan State
2011-12 record: 21-14-6
NCAA tournament: participant

CCHA finish: fifth
CCHA tournament: quarterfinalist

USCHO final rank: 15 • My final rank: 17

The Spartans put together a solid season in their first campaign under Tom Anastos. Logic would suggest that the second time around might be easier, but one advantage Michigan State had last season was a veteran-laden lineup. This year’s squad will be lighter on experience, having lost 10 players who skated in 19 or more games. Five of those were defensemen, including Hobey Baker finalist Torey Krug (12-22-34), who also led Sparty in scoring. Goaltender Will Yanakeff (.922, 2.50, 13-9-1) and Jake Chelios (2-7-9) are the only returnees who saw defensive action last year, while Lee Reimer (9-21-30) is the top returning scorer.

Niagara
2011-12 record: 17-11-9
Atlantic Hockey: second
Atlantic Hockey tournament: semifinalist

The Purple Eagles finished the season on a 12-3-2 tear and appear poised for continued success after graduating just two skaters and losing one to a pro contract. Niagara’s top five scorers (and 12 of its top 13) return, paced by Giancarlo Iuorio (10-14-24), and only one defenseman graduated. But—and it’s a big “but”—the ultra-consistent Chris Noonan (.944, 1.61, 14-6-5), who led the nation in both save percentage and goals-against average, has earned his management degree and is off managing something other than the NU crease.

LATE ADDITION (Sept. 27): Northeastern
2011-12 record: 13-16-5
Hockey East finish: eighth (tie)

The Huskies didn’t even make their conference tournament, so why go to the trouble to add them to this post two days later? It wasn’t until I was reviewing some of the ranked teams that I remembered something several had in common, losses to Northeastern. The Huskies won at Michigan, Minnesota and Notre Dame and beat Boston University and New Hampshire at home. (Side note that tells us nothing: They also lost four times to eventual national champion Boston College.) Those three marquee road wins all came within an eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) sandwiched between winless skids of seven (0-6-1) and five (0-5-1) games. Three of the top four scorers are back. None scored more than 10 goals last year, though, as Ludvig Karlsson (10-16-26) paced the team in overall scoring. The towering Chris Rawlings (.916, 2.71, 12-14-5) is back, along with three blue-line regulars.

Northern Michigan
2011-12 record: 21-14-6
CCHA finish: sixth
CCHA tournament: participant

USCHO final rank: 20 • My final rank: 19

The good news is the Wildcats lost only three skaters to graduation. The bad news is those three players included their top two scorers, all-leaguers Tyler Gron (17-20-47) and Justin Florek (19-17-36), and accounted for 46 percent of the team’s goals scored. Matt Thurber (11-19-30) is the top returning scorer, and the whole defense is back in front of Jared Coreau (.928, 2.22,12- 7- 2).

Ohio State
2011-12 record: 15-15-5
CCHA finish: eighth (tie)
CCHA tournament: participant

Confession: I almost forgot about the Buckeyes following what might have been the greatest regular-season collapse college hockey has ever seen. Ohio State started out last season 14-4-1, climbing as high as No. 2 in the USCHO.com national poll and earning first-place votes in four straight polls.  The Buckeyes played 16 games after that. They won one (1-11-4). No one was likely happier to hit the reset button and begin 2012-13 than OSU coach Mark Osiecki, and Osiecki has reason for optimism. This is a team that posted wins at Notre Dame, Michigan, Miami and Western Michigan. Ohio State loses reliable goaltender Cal Heeter (.918, 2.45, 13-11-5) but not much else, returning seven of its top eight scorers. Six of those players were freshmen or sophomores last year, including co-scoring leaders Chris Crane (14-10-24) and Ryan Dzingel (7-17-24).

St. Cloud State
2011-12 record: 17-17-5
WCHA finish: sixth
WCHA tournament: semifinalist

The Huskies were .500 overall and in the WCHA last season after finishing on a 7-3-1 spurt that ended with a Final Five loss to North Dakota. Three of the team’s top four scorers are back, including goal machine Ben Hanowski (23-20-43). (Side note: Wondering how tough life in the WCHA can be? Hanowski tallied 18 goals and 30 points in league play and didn’t earn All-WCHA honors.) Mike Lee (.930, 2.23, 8-6-2) left for a Phoenix Coyotes contract, but Ryan Faragher (.915, 2.77, 9-11- 3) started 23 games as a rookie and has back six defensemen who skated in 30 games. That group includes the high-scoring pair of Nick Jensen (6-26-32) Andrew Prochno (5-24-29).

Yale
2011-12 record: 16-16-3
ECAC Hockey finish: sixth (tie)
ECAC Hockey tournament: quarterfinalist

Was 2011-12’s .500 record a return to Earth for the high-flying Elis or just a bump in the road for the newest Ivy League power? Yale lacked the scoring depth that had allowed it to overcome defensive shortcomings in previous seasons and lost All-American Brian O’Neill (21-25- 46) but finished the regular season on a 5-1-1 run in which it averaged nearly five goals per contest. Kenny Agostino (14-20-34) and Antoine Laganierre (19-14-33) were the guys responsible for most of the backbreaking goals in those games. They are both back, along with playmaker Andrew Miller (7-29-36).

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