Below is how I voted in the 2012-13 WCHA Blogger/Website Preseason Poll, as well as a few details regarding why I voted the way I did:
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Minnesota - Loads of offense back, led by Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, and Kyle Rau, and loads of defense back, led by Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt, will make the Golden Gophers tough to beat. The returnees will be bolstered by a great recruiting class, led by defensemen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly, that will be expected to pay immediate dividends. The only question comes in goal, where either freshman Adam Wilcox or sophomore Michael Shibrowski will be relied upon to take over for the departed Kent Patterson, who is the only Minnesota goaltender to start a game in nearly two years.
2. North Dakota - Danny Kristo and Corban Knight will lead the way offensively following the early departure of Brock Nelson. Carter Rowney, Mark MacMillan, and Michael Parks formed a very dangerous combination down the stretch last season and will look to build on that success this year, while redshirt freshman Rocco Grimaldi could turn out to be the most dynamic player in the league. The defense lost Ben Blood to graduation, but it should still be the backbone of the team with senior captain Andrew MacWilliam leading an experienced group that includes juniors Derek Forbort and Dillon Simpson along with bluechip freshman Jordan Schmaltz. In goal, Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness are gone, but junior transfer Clarke Saunders and freshman Zane Gothberg will look to step in and solidify the goaltending position.
3. Wisconsin - Inexperience led to inconsistency last season in Madison, but down the stretch the Badgers became a team no one wanted to play. Mark Zengerle, the WCHA's leading returning point producer, leads the way upfront for a group that returns all key contributors, including Tyler Barnes, Michael Mersch, and Joe LaBate. Freshman Nic Kerdiles could find a spot on the top-line if his murky eligibility issues are resolved. The biggest loss for Wisco is blueliner Justin Schultz, who was as skilled of a defenseman that college hockey has seen in a number of years. Senior captain John Ramage anchors the Badger blueline, and among those aiding him in his efforts will be Frankie Simonelli and Jake McCabe. The goaltending situation appears set with Joel Rumpel occupying the number one spot, to be spelled on occasion by Landon Peterson.
4. Denver - Denver's strength is on the defensive end of the ice. One of the few teams in the league that does not face uncertainty in net, the Pioneers boast what is perhaps the nation's top goaltending trio in Sam Brittain, Juho Olkinuora, and Adam Murray. Playing in front of them will be a very good group of defensemen led by Joey LaLeggia, Scott Mayfield, and David Makowski. The biggest challenge for the Pioneers will be finding the offense to help offset the loss of Drew Shore, Jason Zucker, Beau Bennett, and Luke Salazar. Nick Shore is one of 11 current WCHA players to have scored 40 or more points last season, but the returning production drops off significantly thereafter. Denver will look to Ty Loney, Shawn Ostrow, and Chris Knowlton for added offense, with newcomer Quentin Shore chipping in as well.
5. St. Cloud State - Much like Denver...and North Dakota...and...(you get the picture), the strength of the Huskies should be in the defensive zone, where a formidable group of defensemen will anchor the SCSU attack. They return five of their six regular d-men from last season, and leading the way will be a pair of slick, skilled puck-movers in Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno, with Kevin Gravel playing more of a stay-at-home role. In goal, SCSU will be without Mike Lee, who opted to sign professionally, leaving sophomore Ryan Faragher to assume the role of number one goaltender. At forward, St. Cloud State losses three of their top four point producers from last year. Drew LeBlanc (who opted to return to school after receiving a medical redshirt), Ben Hanowski, and Nic Dowd will lead the way offensively, but their scoring depth took a hit when promising freshman Joey Benik suffered a broken leg during a preseason practice.
6. Minnesota-Duluth - No team in the conference loses more than the Bulldogs, who wave goodbye to a fantastic trio of forwards in Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly, Travis Oleksuk, and JT Brown. Also parting ways will be defenseman Brady Lamb and goaltender Kenny Reiter. How will the Bulldogs counter these losses? Upfront, sophomore Caleb Herbert, senior Mike Seidel, and junior Joe Basaraba will be the go-to-guys, while freshman Austin Farley should step into a top six role immediately. Defensively the Bulldogs should be fine, led by Wade Bergman, Chris Casto and high-end recruit Andy Welinski. In goal, expect junior Aaron Crandall to be the starter with freshman Matt McNeely backing him up.
7. Minnesota State - The purple Mavericks became a very tough team to play during the second half of last season, ultimately playing .500 hockey over the course of their final 15 regular season games. They return a young and talented group of forwards, including sophomores Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine, who finished 1-2 in scoring for the Mavs last season. Additional skill and scoring will be provided by highly-touted freshmen Teddy Blueger and Bryce Gervais. On defense all but one regular returns from a group led by Evan Mosey and Zach Palmquist. In goal, Phil Cook will be counted upon to replace the graduated Austin Lee, with freshman Stephon Williams challenging for playing time.
8. Nebraska-Omaha - The red Maverick offense suffered a pair of stinging departures when forwards Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna opted to sign professionally. A bit of salt was then rubbed into the wound when prized recruit Alex Broadhurst was declared academically ineligible, leading him to instead opt for the Canadian major junior ranks. But all is not lost for UNO, as leading scorer Matt White returns to lead the way offensively, with Ryan Walters, Josh Archibald, and Brock Montpetit providing support. The Mavs also return a vast majority of their experience on the blueline. Bryce Aneloski and Andej Sustr lead the returnees while freshmen Brian Cooper and Nick Seeler will look to contribute right out of the gates. In goal, Ryan Massa opted to take the season off, but UNO returns John Faulkner and Dayne Belfour, who will be challenged by heralded freshman Anthony Stolarz.
9. Colorado College - Colorado College enters 2012-13 tasked with replacing forward Jaden Schwartz, defenseman Gabe Guentzel, and forward Kevin Dineen, three of its top four point producers from a year ago. On the bright side, Rylan Schwartz opted to return for his senior season, and he will be joined by Scott Winkler and Alex Krushelnyski in leading the offensive charge. Freshman Hunter Fejes should also contribute offensively. In goal, Josh Thorimbert entrenched himself as the starter a year ago, a role he will resume this fall, with Joe Howe serving as his backup. Defensively, the Tigers will be led by Mike Boivin and Eamon McDermott.
10. Michigan Tech - MTU made significant strides last season under first-year head coach Mel Pearson. To build on that success, they will have to find ways to replace Brett Olson and Jordan Baker, two of their top three scorers from last season. David Johnstone and Ryan Furne are the top returning scorers, while freshmen Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan should provide a fresh offensive spark. Defensively the Huskies return fully intact, with seniors Steven Seigo and Carl Nielsen leading a relatively young group. Last year's starting goaltender Josh Robinson is gone, leaving senior Kevin Genoe, who has significant experience as a starter, to battle freshmen Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips for the starting job. Early indications are that Copley may get the initial nod in net.
11. Bemidji State - The Beavers lose two of the top three point producers from a team that scored the second fewest goals in the league last year. Senior Jordan George will lead the way offensively for BSU, while Jake Areshenko and Brady Wacker are among the leading returnees defensively. In goal, Dan Bakala is gone, leaving sophomore Andrew Walsh as the number one goaltender, with freshman Fabian Sivnert and senior Mathieu Dugas serving as backups.
12. Alaska-Anchorage - In order to climb out of the WCHA basement, the Seawolves will need to experience improvements across the board, having finished last in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, and special teams net one year ago. UAA will be led offensively by their leading scorer from a season ago, Matt Bailey. Jordan Kwas will also be expected to increase his offensive production, while freshman Blake Tatchell should add a little extra punch to the Seawolf attack. The defense returns virtually intact, and expect sophomores Austin Coldwell and Derek Docken to lead the way on the backend. In goal, UAA would love for either Chris Kamal or Rob Gunderson to revert back to their form of 2010-11, while freshman Michael Matyas will push for playing time.
F - Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota - He's a "Four S" player: Size, Skill, Smarts, Skating. He will be a load for anyone and everyone this season, could be primed for a monster year.
F - Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin - This well-rounded centerman is a shifty playmaker who can also score. Top returning point producer in the nation.
F - Danny Kristo, North Dakota - The dynamic winger has a motor that never stops. Very elusive and explosive with a great shot.
D - Nate Schmidt, Minnesota - Great offensive instincts, made tremendous strides defensively last season.
D - Joey LaLeggia, Denver - Burst onto the scene as a freshman, expect his defensive play to improve while he continues to produce offensively.
G - Sam Brittain, Denver - Returned from injury last season and proved his freshman season was no fluke. Denver's strong backend starts with him.
Player of the Year:
Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota - See All-Conference Team.
Defenseman of the Year:
Nate Schmidt, Minnesota - See All-Conference Team.
Rookie of the Year:
Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota - Absolutely electric. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Grimaldi will be the most productive North Dakota freshman since Zach Parise in 2002-03.
Breakout Player of the Year:
Michael Parks, North Dakota - The speedy winger is a puckhound who notched 18 of his 22 points over the final 21 games of the season. And only Brock Nelson scored more goals for the Sioux over the season's final 10 games.