While the Olympics are depriving us of the chance to see some elite individual talent, they also make the conference races intriguing and potentially more competitive than they’ve been in some time. The teams who benefit are those whose biggest contributors are either too young or not quite elite enough to miss time playing on national teams. Today: the WCHA.
The WCHA is a boom and bust conference. The level of overall play is the highest and most physical in the NCAA, but it still tends to be dominated by one team in any given year. This will not be one of those years. The WCHA thoughtfully includes a little pronunciation guide for its players’ names, and lord knows most announcers seem to need it. Oddly, Minnesota has the most players it chooses to identify as pronunciation-challenged. The names we won’t be hearing are Kessel, reigning Kaz winner and all-everything last year, Stecklein, or graduated Bozek. UMN recruited beautifully from the U-18 national ranks, and obviously Hannah Brandt and Rachel Bona will be non-freshmen to watch. But a first-year goaltender in the WCHA? Even at Peters’ level of international experience, that’s a tough sell. I don’t think it will be as easy to win the conference for the Gophers as the coaches’ poll might indicate.
Over at Wisconsin, fans are missing out on the chance to see super-frosh Pankowski in action, but the return of Young Ammerman could spark the moribund offense. This is the year for the juniors to show that last year’s lackluster performance was an aberration and help Packer be the elite player we’re always told she is. They should keep the Bulldogs in third (or fourth according to the coaches’ poll), but I’m expecting surprises from this squad. Lacquette is on Canadian national team duty and Wong and Winberg are gone, but after a few disappointing recruiting years, Shannon Miller is back to her old ways. I mean, for Pete’s sake this team has an Australian. Also Swiss, Finnish, German and Swedish contributions. However the key is that for once Miller has picked up significant American help, AND ONE OF THE PLAYERS IS IN-STATE ALERT THE MEDIA . Minnesotan Morin comes in from the U-18 national team ranks, as does Crossman. Miller also wins awards for most miles traveled between U.S. cast members, from Alaska to Florida with Arizona and Michigan in between. And of course, there will be significant help from young Canadians like Krause and Black, with the onus on McParland on the score sheet.
In the secondary tier, North Dakota will be suffering extreme Lamoureux loss. They will certainly get their share of wins and Karvinen will tally her points, but making up for two of the best players in the country is nearly impossible. They’ve continued on the path of international recruiting, which as Miller’s teams have shown is a crapshoot which on occasion pays off, and picked up some strong Minnesota high school products; they’re basically Warroad Fifth Year at this point. A-B (woman needs a nickname) will have to be pretty spectacular in goal for them to approach the level of competitiveness they need. Teams should not be intimidated by anything they see from perennial middle-dweller Ohio State. They’ve brought in a couple of former Junior-level captains and have some third-year players from the PWHL/JWHL ranks who have yet to make a major mark, but no superstars. Bemidji gets to host the Final Face-Off this year, but the Beavers are far removed from their glory days of great goaltending that provided them with key upsets. Minnesota State opened last season strongly with some shocking results last year but then faded after what seems to have been a demoralizing trip to Mercyhurst. I know this is a blunt and not entirely useful statistic, but they had not a single player in the plus category on the whole roster. That puts quite a bit of pressure on Danielle Butters, who with all that did manage a .913 save percentage last year. Saint Cloud State has remodeled its arena, but the team it puts on the ice will still struggle. Just to choose one metric, its special teams were woeful last year and its overall shooting percentage was .058. Friend, the program’s biggest recruit in years, did not put up elite numbers in goal, although she obviously faced some of the same struggles as Butters with another plus-less player corps. Redshirt frosh Jenna Redford might help in that regard, but it’s hard to go it alone. And the vicious circle is it’s impossible to recruit without some kind of prior success, unless you have a player who is totally dedicated to being a big fish and turning a program around single-handedly, which can be a mixed blessing as a personality trait.
Although we are missing some elite talent, that should be compensated for by the level of competitive parity in the top echelons of the WCHA this year. Anything could happen, and it’s been a long time since that has been true.