This year's Western Collegiate Hockey Association media teleconference, held earlier this week, was noteworthy in that journalists were specifically asked to keep their questions pertaining to the 2011-12 season only.
It sounded to me like a bit of an attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It is, after all, basically the only thing the rest of the college hockey world had to discuss over the summer. As a veteran of previous WCHA conference calls, I can tell you that even if realignment questions were allowed, it wouldn't have exactly turned into WWE Tuesday Afternoon Raw.
It is nice to have actual hockey to discuss these days. Ahead of Friday's regular season opener for Michigan Tech against American International. Here's a look at my predictions for the penultimate season of the WCHA as we know it - with the one big question facing each team. Stephen Anderson's media poll ballot is in parentheses.
1 (2). Denver
Is there such a thing as too much talent?
The Pioneers hope not, because they've got it in spades. Up front, Drew Shore and Jason Zucker were All-WCHA second teamers last year. Defensively, they're a little young, but sophomore David Makowski and highly-touted recruits Joey LaLeggia and Scott Mayfield have impressive credentials. One issue is that top goalie Sam Brittain is out for at least half the season after major knee surgery. Still, a ton of firepower.
2 (1). Colorado College
Just how good can the Schwartzes be?
The Tigers are led again by Rylan and Jaden Schwartz - a truly dynamic duo. Jaden, a sophomore, led CC in points last season despite playing only two-thirds of the team's games, while Rylan, a junior, was tied for second in assists and third in points. Further, all of this was accomplished while sister Mandi - a player at Yale - was going through the last months of an unsuccessful battle with leukemia. Gabe Guentzel leads the blue-line unit, which will need to improve after finishing just 10th in goals against last season. A lot of that also has to do with Joe Howe, whose .893 save percentage was not in the league's top 10. Goal prevention is the difference that puts DU on top for me.
3 (3). North Dakota
Weren't they supposed to be down this year?
Normally a team that lost six of its top seven scorers wouldn't be ranked this high in the preseason. However, the Fighting Sioux don't do rebuilding. Corban Knight and Danny Kristo are the leading attackers, while Ben Blood on the blue line might be the league's best pure defenseman (and not to mention name-pun opportunities). In goal, Aaron Dell led the nation in goals-against average (1.79) and his back-up is two-time All-WCHA pick Brad Eidsness. That embarrassment of riches keeps them in the upper tier.
4 (5). Minnesota Duluth
Will there be a championship hangover?
UMD struck a blow for the little guys by winning the national championship in an overtime thriller against Michigan. The loss of Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine off that killer top line will make a difference, as will the loss of three seniors and freshman Justin Faulk, who made the Carolina Hurricanes' roster, on defense.
Senior goalie Kenny Reiter will have to step up like he did down the stretch.
5 (6). Minnesota
How many second chances will they get?
Minnesota is not likely to abide being a non-contender for much longer. The Golden Gophers, who have not had a 20-win season in four years, did lose their top three scorers, but are looking for a big season from a big guy: 6-5 forward Nick Bjugstad, a first round NHL draft pick. Kent Patterson, one of the league's best goalies, will also help. Early success will be vital to build some momentum before a mid-winter stretch in which the Gophers play CC, Denver and North Dakota in a five-week span.
6 (8). St. Cloud?State
What happened to those guys?
After winning the program's first NCAA Tournament game, SCSU fell flat on its face last year in a disappointing ninth-place finish. Drew LeBlanc leads the way back after finishing in the top 10 on the league's scoring chart. Mike Lee is also a good option in net, but team defense will have to improve from a ninth-place ranking last season.
7 (7). Wisconsin
How much coaching is Mike Eaves going to have to do?
The Badger boss has his work cut out for him with a Wisconsin squad that lost three stars and its starting goalie from last season. Justin Schultz, the top-scoring defenseman in the country, is going to be vital, but an offense that lost all but 30 percent of its goals last season is going to struggle early. If I'm Tech, I'm glad I'm seeing them early in the season.
8 (4). Nebraska-Omaha
Were the Mavericks for real?
The WCHA's surprise team for the first half of the season, UNO went just 3-6 after mid-February, getting swept at home by Bemidji St. in the first round of the playoffs and losing in the first round of the NCAAs to Michigan in overtime. Three top scorers and a top defenseman are gone, which means further riding of goalie John Faulkner, who played more minutes than anyone else in the league last season. The loss of assistant coach Mike Guentzel to Minnesota certainly matters, but even more is the fact that no one will be sleeping on the Mavericks this year. Playing a hunch, but I'm sensing a sophomore slump.
9 (11). Bemidji St.
How mad must they be?
After begging and pleading to sit at the cool kids table, Bemidji finally arrives, only for all the cool kids to pick up their trays and leave the league. BSU had a much harder time of it than fellow newcomer UNO, but still knocked off the Mavs in the postseason. Jordan George is going to bear a lot of offensive pressure after the other two-thirds of the top line graduated. The losses were less in the back, where several strong defensemen and goalie Dan Bakala (.915 save percentage) return. Remember that 1-0 Winter Carnival win? They're going to need a lot more of those this year.
10 (9). Michigan Tech
How will we measure progress?
I think anyone who's reading this far into the column knows exactly where Tech hockey was in the past and where it went last year. The clock restarts under Mel Pearson, but just like driving on icy roads, patience can be hard to come by. "We just want to improve every day" is something a lot of coaches will say, but for the Huskies, that's the first goal. The past is now experience and the Huskies will have to build from here. There's promise, but don't expect it to be realized immediately.
11 (10). Alaska-Anchorage
Seriously, they beat Minnesota?
I don't get a lot of predictions right, but I did call that UAA would eliminate the Gophers from the WCHA playoffs, and that's what they did. It remains to be seen if that bright night in the Twin Cities was a false dawn. The losses of Tommy Grant and Craig Parkinson will hurt, plus there were a lot of Seawolves that I think may have been playing over their heads last season (goalies Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson come to mind). Just not sold on this team.
12 (12). Minnesota St.
If not Tech, then who?
The Mavericks lost their top three defensemen and one of their top scorers to graduation, which isn't major until one considers that this was an 8-win team last year. With Tech rebooting, it's time for someone else to man the basement, and that's what MSU will do unless forwards Michael Dorr, Eriah Hayes and goalies Phil Cook and Austin Lee come up big.
Brandon Veale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.