Minnesota Hockey Magazine

WCHA Mens Primer: Mavericks Seek Repeat

Featured photo: Minnesota State’s Riese Zmolek. Photo by Jonny Watkins)

Mavericks expected to defend title; Beavers will miss Bitzer

By Shane Frederick

For the better part of the last three years, the MacNaughton Cup, the 105-year-old silver chalice that goes to the WCHA’s regular-season champion, has been housed in Minnesota.

Minnesota State won it three times, and Bemidji State won it once.

The cup currently sits in a trophy case in the Mavericks’ facility inside the Verizon Center in downtown Mankato after Minnesota State won it outright last March. The Mavericks first won it in 2015 and shared it with Michigan Tech in 2016 before Bemidji State claimed it in 2017.

As the 2018-19 season begins, both the Mavericks and Beavers have big holes to fill, graduating several players who played key roles during championship runs, including the conference’s last two players of the year, Minnesota State center C.J. Suess of Forest Lake and Bemidji State goaltender Michael Bitzer of Moorhead.

Minnesota State is the favorite to win the league again, despite the loss of the All-American Suess, and fellow forward Zeb Knutson, who each racked up 43 points last season, along with 2017 All-American defenseman Daniel Brickley and goaltender Connor LaCouvee.

“We’re going to be a different team,” coach Mike Hastings said. “We need some individuals to step up and fill those roles.”

It appears that the other league coaches believe that will happen as they picked the Mavericks to win another MacNaughton Cup. After all, Minnesota State’s 151 victories over Hastings’ six seasons there are more than any other team in college hockey.

“I don’t think any of us know anything other than we all feel strongly that Mankato is going to win the league again,” second-year Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny said, “because history tells you they will.”

The cupboard isn’t bare in Mankato, that’s for certain.

Back on the team are forwards Marc Michaelis and Jake Jaremko, the WCHA’s last two rookies of the year. Michaelis has recorded 76 points in his first two college seasons, and Jaremko, the 2015 Mr. Hockey winner out of Elk River, had 39 points in his rookie campaign.

“We’re going to lean on those guys up front to fill the ice time and the responsibilities of those guys who are no longer with is,” Hastings said.

Defense is also a strength. Blaine High School alum Ian Scheid had 50 points in his first two seasons, while sophomores Connor Mackey and Rochester native Riese Zmolek logged a lot of important minutes as freshmen.

The biggest question for Minnesota State is in goal where three new faces, including two freshmen and Mathias Israelsson, a graduate transfer from Northern Michigan, are competing to replace LaCouvee.

“We’re very unproven back at the goaltending position,” Hastings said, “the most important position that you can have on a team.”

While the Mavericks appear to be reloading, the Beavers might be rebuilding.

“For us, it’s kind of a new year, a different team,” said Tom Serratore, who is entering his 17th season as Bemidji State’s head coach. “Every four years we all have that one cycle where you kind of don’t know where you’re at. That’s probably this year for us.”

Bitzer is the most significant loss. There’s been little to no question over the last four years as to who was going to be in goal for the Beavers. Bitzer, an All-American in 2017, played in 138 games, winning 65 and stopping more than 92 percent of opponents’ shots.

“Take a look at what Bitz accomplished,” Serratore said. “Statistically speaking, he has to be one of top goalies to play college hockey.”

Also gone are the Fitzgerald triplets — Gerry, Miles and Leo — and Kyle Bauman, four forwards who played a total of 527 games.

Bemidji State’s Dillon Eichstadt. Photo by BSU Athletics.

Bemidji State was picked to finish fifth by the WCHA coaches. The team does return experience on defense with three experienced seniors, captains Justin Baudry and Bemidji native Dillon Eichstadt, and Dan Billet and junior Tommy Muck.

Senior Jay Dickman of St. Paul Johnson High School, junior Adam Brady and sophomores Brendan Harris and Charlie Combs are the top returning forwards.

Here’s a look around the rest of the WCHA at the start of the 2018-19 season:

The contenders

There are three teams that should give Minnesota State a run for its money this season: Northern Michigan, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech.

Northern Michigan took second place last season after Potulny arrived from the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, where he was an assistant coach for eight seasons, and has several top players back at each position. Senior Atte Tolvanen was the top goalie in the league last season, while senior forwards Adam Rockwood and Troy Loggins had 48 and 47 points, respectively.

“We are going to rely heavily on our seniors,” Potulny said. “If you look at the history of college hockey and teams that have been successful, most of the time they have seniors and most of the time their seniors have great years.”

Tolvanen, Rockwood, Loggins and junior defenseman Philip Beaulieu were preseason all-conference players, along with Michaelis and Bowling Green junior All-American defenseman Alec Rauhauser.

Bowling Green also has veteran returners at each position. Besides Rauhauser, sophomores Brandon Kruse and Lakeville’s Max Johnson and senior Stephen Baylis were all 30-plus point scorers last season. Both goaltenders, Florida Panthers draft pick Ryan Bednard and WCHA all-rookie selection Eric Dop are back.

In the first five years of the new WCHA, the Falcons have finished third in the standings four times and were the playoff runner-up once.

“As far as expectations go, we feel it’s time,” coach Chris Bergeron said. “We’ve been close, and around here, close isn’t good enough. We feel it’s time for us to kick that door down and really compete for a regular season or playoff championship.”

Michigan Tech has won the last two playoff titles, earning the WCHA’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

Although there are notable losses from last year, Patrick Munson returns in goal after taking the Huskies on their postseason run. His cohorts at the position, Devin Kero and Robbie Beydoun, also are back for second-year coach Joe Shawhan. Senior forward Jake Lucchini is coming off a 39-point season, while senior and Tartan High School grad Jake Jackson and sophomore Gavin Gould give Tech plenty of experience up front.

Middle ground

The top four finishers in the WCHA get home ice for the first round of the playoffs. While the Mavericks, Wildcats, Falcons and Huskies are the favorites, there are a few teams, including Bemidji State, lurking on the outside waiting to pounce.

“This league just seems to get deeper and deeper, tighter,” Hastings said. “I think this is going to be the most-competitive year that we’ve had (over) time that we’ve been together as the new WCHA.”

Besides the Beavers, Ferris State and Lake Superior State could be the league’s sleeper teams.

For the Bulldogs and 27th-year coach Bob Daniels, there are good players back at all three spots, notably senior forward Corey Mackin (76 career points), junior defenseman Ryker Killins and junior goalie Justin Kapelmaster.

Coach Damon Whitten’s Lakers, meanwhile, graduated leading point producer J.T. Henke, but have their next five scorers back, starting with junior Max Humitz and senior Diego Cuglietta, as well as a pair of solid goaltenders in senior Nick Kossoff and sophomore Mareks Mitens. They missed out on the playoffs last year but appear ready to rise up the standings.

Bottom of the order

The ninth- and 10th-place teams in the WCHA don’t get to play in the postseason, and the race to stay out of the cellar could be interesting.

Alabama Huntsville is coming off a seventh-place finish but lost their top two scorers and top goaltender. Coach Mike Corbett’s Chargers have some solid seniors, including forward Hans Gorowsky of Centennial High School and defenseman Kurt Gosselin.

Alaska and Alaska Anchorage, meanwhile, both enter the season with new coaches.

The Nanooks elevated assistant coach Erik Largen to the head job.With Zach Frye and Justin Woods graduating, Alaska not only lost two of its top four scorers but its top two defensemen. Sophomore Steven Jandric and junior Colton Leiter were the team’s top two scoring forwards a season ago.

Going south from Fairbanks, the Seawolves’ Matt Curley has more work to do in Anchorage. Not only did he inherit a four-win team but one that graduated a star goalie, Olivier Mantha, and four of its top six scorers. Senior Nicolas Erb-Ekholm was second on the team in scoring last season.