I wanted to do something big for the end of the WCHA season. I mean, the conference as we know it is almost gone. As Jeffrick likes to say, the last MacNaughton that means anything has already been won. We're a little over a week away from the final Broadmoor that means anything. Plus there are awards and NCAA berths to ponder.
So to wrap it all up I contacted everyone I interviewed for the WCHA Q&A's (and Jeffrick) and asked if they'd be able to participate in a big season wrapup/postseason Q&A. So just who was able to join us?
- TDG's very own Jeffrick (@jeffricktdg)
And with that, let's get to the questions...
The Daily Gopher: What a great finish to the last year of the traditional WCHA than what we just saw happen over the weekend. And no, I don't mean that just because the Gophers won (though it doesn't hurt). There were just so many scenarios that could play out and it was a lot of fun having to keep tabs on so many meaningful games all at once. With only a few games left before we say goodbye to the historic WCHA, tell me your thoughts on this season (both for your favorite team or for the conference as a whole). What players, teams, or finishes surprised you? What were you big disappointments? Do you see any coaches as being on the hot seat? Etc, etc. Consider this a good free for all question to start us out.
Andy Johnson: I respond to this with a bit of a heavy heart, as the WCHA has been a part of my life since I can remember watching hockey. With Wisconsin moving to the Big Ten next season, these last few weeks have been especially tough as it starts to set in that the WCHA as we know it is effectively finished.
I made as many trips as I could this season covering the Badgers, as I knew there were going to be multiple towns that Wisconsin won't be traveling to in the near future. Add in the Badgers' roller-coaster type season, and it's been quite the ride.
Chris Dilks: The story of the season for me has to be St. Cloud winning their first--and last, I guess--ever WCHA title. Coming into the season, I pegged the Huskies as battling it out for home ice in the playoffs because they were so young up front. I don't think anybody could have predicted Kalle Kossila and Jonny Brodzinski each hitting the 30-point mark as rookies, helping give the Huskies an offense that tied Minnesota for most goals scored in the WCHA this year. Minnesota was expected to run away with the league title, and they mostly played up to expectations. St. Cloud keeping pace with them was a pretty remarkable feat.
The other nice story in the league was Minnesota State. I think people expected them to be better, to a degree, since they had a lot of returning talent, and the energy of a new coach, but even the most optimistic likely didn't see them finishing tied for fourth in the league, and looking pretty good for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2003.
On the negative side, Minnesota-Duluth's first season post-Jack Connolly looked a lot like Minnesota-Duluth pre-Jack Connolly, which is to say: not very good. They didn't quite get the goaltending they were hoping they would, which can tank anybody's season, but they felt like they had the talent to be better than they were.
As for coaches on the hot seat, Scott Owens just received a contract extension in December of 2011, so he's probably safe for a while, but his seat has to be getting a little warmer. The Tigers have a pretty consistent pattern of fading away in the second half of the season, which continued again this year. The other name, which might be a bit of a surprise is Dean Blais at Nebraska-Omaha. If UNO loses this weekend, the Mavericks will have one total win in the month of March over the past three years. Blais is certainly a long way from being fired, but he's getting paid a lot of money, and that isn't producing much in the way of late-season results.
And then there's Dave Shyiak at Alaska-Anchorage. I'm not entirely anybody else anybody else could do better, especially given some of the financial constraints UAA would face in attracting a new coach. But I think it has to be time to try something else, if only to get some new blood and hopefully some positive momentum going with their program.
Jack Hittinger: It's not a controversial stance to say that Bemidji State's season was disappointing on almost every level. The Beavers never really got going and their few moments of brilliance were stymied by the fact that they only won one game in 2013. That said, the Beavers didn't play many games where they were completely outclassed - just look at how many one goal games they lost (7) against some very good teams.
As for the conference as a whole, I think Minnesota State was the biggest surprise. Mike Hastings did a great job turning an 11th-place team into one competing for the MacNaughton Cup up until the final two weeks of the regular season.
Jeremy Larson: I thought it was an awesome year in the WCHA and a great year to be a St. Cloud State Husky fan. Most preseason polls had the Huskies finishing in the 5-6 range (I think I picked them to finish 4th). Yet the Huskies won more WCHA conference games than any team in the nation and captured its first MacNaughton Cup. St. Cloud State finishes as my biggest surprise team winning the MacNaughton Cup. Drew LeBlanc (SCSU) coming back from a major injury last year to lead the nation in assists and be top 5 in scoring is my biggest player surprise. I am totally sad that this will be the last year of the WCHA, as it truely was the best league in college hockey.
Donna Carpenter: The standings surprise me in general, although no single team surprises me. I actually thought this season was pretty boring, without any teams really making waves. There are way, way too many ties in the league.
SCSU won their share of the MacNaughton Cup with only one tie, but their non-conference results (3-5-0) are pretty pathetic. UMTC won their share of the league title, but 16 wins and 5 ties is hardly dominant, despite the legions of fans trying to pump their tires and blow their horns to convince people otherwise. Actually dominant Gopher teams of yore would laugh their collective asses off at the notion UMTC is a dominant team.
And UND? 7 ties and a sad little OT loss to Mankato when SCSU left the door wide open for them to claim a share of the league title? Wisconsin is in 4th place? THEY LOST TO PEDO STATE. Denver? Should be better but Gwoz insists on playing Brittain to... I don't know what. Maybe gamblers paid him to throw games. Mankato? Eh, big deal. I know everyone loves their cute little story, but they're just lucky so many other teams suck. UNO setting off a nuclear bomb on their season is so depressing I can't even discuss it. CC is so boring I can't think of a single thing to say about them. tUMD seems to have things figured out, but they wasted precious time.
The mediocrity of the league is the biggest surprise. Some might call it parity, but if this is parity, I'm not interested. There are too many teams in the league, and it's pretty clear that the Buttmidjis of the world have dragged down the entire conference.
Shyiak should probably be fired but won't be, because who else is going to take that job? Eaves is allegedly on the hot seat but I don't think so. UND fans will want to fire Hakstol, it's a certainty like death and taxes. Everyone else is safe.
Jeffrick: Surprises: The WCHA media look pretty smart as they nailed four of the top six teams in their preseason poll, The two everybody missed was St Cloud St (picked 6th) and Mankato (picked 10th!) who had great seasons. I would give COY to Mike Hastings of MSU, but Bob Motzko may get it since he did win a share of SCSU's first ever MacNaughton.
Disappointments/Hot seat: Anytime Duluth finishes 9th that's never a good thing for them, but they had to reload in a big way this season, and looking at their stats they're VERY young, so the result isn't entirely surprising. Wisconsin finished exactly where the media predicted for them in 4th place, but this was far from an idealic season for the Badgers. Mike Eaves' seat was getting pretty toasty as recently as three weeks ago when Becky lost to Penn State and dropped to 28th in the Pairwise. We may or may not have made fun of them at that point (ok, as any good rival would, we totally did), but Eaves' rallied the troops, and suddenly they're in the running for an NCAA tourney at large berth again. Eaves signed an extension last year so it would likely be expensive to fire him even if they wanted to, so he's safe for now but will need a strong finish this year and a better year in the B1G next season to keep BADger hockey fans happy. Well, at least the few that are left.
Nate Wells: I know we're giving a eulogy to a conference that will still be standing next year (which is kind of weird), but this was a great year to go out. 5 teams could have won the WCHA last week and for a "down year," there are still multiple teams who are in the national championship discussion.
- Biggest surprise: Ryan Walters scoring 50 points along with the WCHA having 7 of the top 11 scorers (HM: Minnesota holding on to the MacNaughton to celebrate)
- Biggest disappointment: Michigan Tech going back to reality after last year
- Coaches on the hot seat: Dave Shyiak (although if he does get fired, I'll miss his frankness).
TDG: It is WCHA awards time. If you ruled the world, what would your picks looks like? Feel free to list out the normal awards (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and rookie teams plus POY, ROY, DOY, and COY) and if you're interested you can also take a stab at made up awards like Biggest Underachieving Team, Surprise Team, Goon of the Year, Diver of the Year, Save of the Year, Goal of the Year, Hit of the Year, Fight of the Year, etc.
Andy: I already posted my All-WCHA teams on my blog so I won't re-hash that again, but I'd be glad to chime in on some of the others you threw out there. (ED NOTE: Here's an excerpt of Andy's larger post over at B5Q)
WCHA Player of the Year: Ryan Walters, Nebraska Omaha
The Omaha forward led the WCHA in total points with 40 in 28 league games. Walters also led the league in plus/minus at +21. Walters ranks second nationally with 50 points in 36 games. While some may knock Walters for UNO's late swoon as the Mavericks went 3-7 to finish the season, Walters averaged over a point per game during that stretch and was a +5.
WCHA Rookie of the Year: Stephon Williams, Minnesota State
Williams led all WCHA goaltenders in goals-against average at 1.93. He also led all WCHA goaltenders that played at least half of their team's games in save percentage at .927 percent. Williams' three shutouts also led the WCHA.
WCHA Defenseman of the Year: Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
Jensen was in serious contention for the overall player of the year award. No defenseman in the WCHA changes a game like Jensen can. Jensen's ability to posses the puck and move it up ice in transition is also unparalleled in the WCHA. The SCSU blue-liner plays more minutes than any other player in the conference. While not an overly offensive-minded guy, Jensen still chipped in 23 points in 28 leagues games while playing outstanding defensively.
WCHA Coach of the Year: Bob Motzko, St. Cloud State
St. Cloud caught a break by getting a fifth-year out of Drew LeBlanc, but Motzko deserves a lot of credit for piecing together a WCHA championship club in his 8th season in St. Cloud. The MacNaughton Cup is the first in the history of the program. The Huskies were predicted to finish sixth by league media, and fourth by the WCHA league coaches.
- Underachieving team: Nebraska Omaha
- Surprise team: St. Cloud
- Goon of the year: Tony Turgeon--Nebraska Omaha
- Goal of the year: Michael Mersch after ridiculous Jake McCabe pass
- Save of the year: Juho Olkinuora on Corban Knight
Chris: I posted my choices for all-league awards on Western College Hockey. (ED NOTE: Here's an excerpt:)
Player of the Year: Ryan Walters, Nebraska-Omaha
Rookie of the Year: Stephon Williams, Minnesota State
Coach of the Year: Bob Motzko, St. Cloud
Choosing Motzko over Mike Hastings is probably the only place I differ from the conventional wisdom. Hastings had a great year, and is more than deserving if he wins it. Two factors made me lean Motzko, though. First, I saw quite a few people predict Minnesota State to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack this year; literally nobody picked St. Cloud to win the WCHA. Second, though coach of the year voting doesn't always reflect this, I feel like there's a lot more potential for upward mobility going from the bottom of the league to the middle than there is going from the middle of the league to the very top.
- Goon of the Year: John Ramage
- Diver of the Year: Kyle Rau
- Save of the Year: Juho Olkinuora against North Dakota (ED NOTE: Same play as Andy listed)
- Goal of the Year: Eriah Hayes between the legs pass
Jack: I know this isn't entirely answering the question you asked, but I think Nick Bjugstad was the player that impressed me the most this year. I only got to see him in two games in person but both games he stood out.
As for my favorite YouTube clip of the year, I'd have to nominate Eriah Hayes' no-look, between-the-legs, backward pass to Zach Lehrke from earlier this year for a goal on BSU's Mathieu Dugas. Assist of the Year, perhaps? (ED NOTE: Same play as Chris selected above)
F- Drew LeBlanc (SCSU)
F- Erik Haula (UM)
F- Ryan Walters (UNO)
D- Nick Jensen (SCSU)
D- Nate Schmidt (UMN)
G- Adam Wilcox (UM)
F- Danny Kristo (UND)
F- Nic Dowd (SCSU)
F- Corban Knight (UND)
D- Andrew Prochno (SCSU)
D- Joey LaLeggia (DU)
G- Juho Olkinuora (DU)
F- Ben Hanowski (SCSU)
F- Matt Leitner (MSU)
F- Rylan Schwartz (CC)
D- Mike Boivin (CC)
D- Dillon Simpson (UND)
G- Ryan Faragher (SCSU)
F- Jonny Brodzinski (SCSU)
F- Rocco Grimaldi (UND)
F- Kalle Kossila (SCSU)
D- Ethan Prow (SCSU)
D- Nolan Zajac (DU)
G- Stephon Williams (MSU)
Player of the Year- Drew LeBlanc (SCSU)
Rookie of the Year- Jonny Brodzinski (SCSU)
Defenseman of the Year- Nick Jesnsen (SCSU)
Coach of the Year- Mike Hastings, MSU
Goalie of the Year- Adam Wilcox (UM)
Donna: I do rule the world. I also have no interest in picking the WCHA awards. I usually do a mock ballot of all Bulldogs, and I probably will again this year just to toss up a post, but there is so much ridiculous drama surrounding these awards and the ballots, whether they're real or mock, I don't feel like throwing myself into that firefight.
Plus, people make stupid choices, like picking Bjugstad for player of the year/first team, or Hockey Tebow for the rookie team. Goon of Goon's World is always the Goon of the year; he's the only entrant. Diver of the Year? More like diver of the millennium, Kyle Rau. I have no problem with little guys who like to chirp, but for fuck's sake, don't write checks your diaper-rashed butt can't cash. Mike Connolly was a little guy, too, but he could answer the bell physically. Of course, Kyle Rau isn't worthy of pressing Mike Connolly's suit, so is it really fair for me to compare the two?
Unlike UND, the school that tries to give an "NHL environment" by glorifying dangerous head-hunting hits (hits that would be disciplined at the NHL level), I don't keep track of hits very well. God damn, this is such a boring non-answer. I guess we could talk about how un-dominant Bjugstad is. From what Gopher fans say, one would believe that Bjugstad is leading the league in all statistical categories including GAA and save percentage. 23 (league) points from a supposedly NHL-ready guy is just sad. I know there's more to hockey than scoring (ahem, Eric Vegoe), but when a guy is described as a "man amongst boys," I'm going to expect that man to outscore all those boys.
Anyway the real list is out and it's boring me. Didn't see LeBlanc as POTY coming, but he was coached by Bruce Plante, so it can't be that surprising.
POY: Erik Haula, C Minnesota- I wouldn't argue with Ryan Walters of UNO- well except for the facts that Haula was the best player on the co-WCHA champs, and while he finished with 3 less pts in conference play than Walters, he missed two games and had virtually identical PPG numbers.
- Save of the year: Juho Olkinuora on Corban Knight
- Fight of the year: Juho Olkinuora vs. CC (goalie fight trumps all)
- Goal of the year: Sam Warning putting his "Datsyuk practice" in action (oddly this and the save happened the same night)
- GotY Honorable mention: Alex Petan's goal in week 1
Andy Johnson: To no surprise the biggest chances for upsets come with the 4-9, 5-8, 6-7 match ups. Personally I think that Colorado College has the best chance at moving on from lower division of the WCHA. I'll say St. Cloud, Minnesota, UND, Wisconsin, Minnesota State, and CC advance with Minnesota winning the Broadmoor.
Chris: I think St. Cloud, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Denver all win pretty easily. Minnesota-Duluth strikes me as the bottom six team with the best potential for an upset, because they're coming into the series pretty hot right now. On paper, Minnesota State looks pretty strong playing at home against a scuffling Nebraska-Omaha team, but given their history, it's hard to have a lot of confidence in Minnesota State heading into a playoff series.
Donna: tUMD upsets. CC and UNO could, too, except UNO keeps failing to make the Final Five. tUMD wins the Broadmoor and "accidentally" breaks that fugly paperweight they call a trophy. UND fans get drunk and throw up on themselves in their seats. Not a single fan of a Colorado team shows up. UNO brings that dumb ass tiny zamboni thing even though their team probably won't make it. I get into a physical altercation with someone. This year I am doing a Final Five scavenger hunt with MeanEgirl. That is actually a prediction because we keep intending to and failing.
Jeffrick: The three top seeds will move through to the Final Five, but upsets are definitely possible in the other three. Duluth and Wisconsin met just twice, with UW winning one and tieing the other. It's a possibility but the least likely. CC got their arch rival Denver, and this one definitely goes to three games. CC won and tied DU in their last meeting, but that was at home while DU took the two games in Denver before Christmas. No disrespect to Hastings and Mankato, but UNO has the best chance to pull the upset here, and again we're going to three games for this one too. As for the Broodmoor, the top three look like the clear favorites and SCSU should be able to get to the finals. I will always take The U over UND, and if Minnesota is in the final, might as well pick them to win it. They've never won the MacNaughton, Broodmoor and Natty title all in one season, so why not now?
Nate Wells: Only if we count the "5 vs. 8" or "6 vs. 7" series as an upset. There is always the chance that UMD, who is playing their best hockey right now, goes into Madison and defeats Wisconsin. I don't see it happening, but if there was going to be a true upset it would be that.
Then again, Alaska-Anchorage did beat St. Cloud State earlier in the year...
Broadmoor pick: North Dakota. Although part of me hates saying that, they've won the last 3. They are the favorites until someone beats them.
TDG: The mock brackets I've seen have 5 WCHA teams making the tourney. What do you think? How many teams from the conference make it into the NCAA's, who do you think they will be, etc? If you're a fan of a team who is a lock for the tourney, what are your hopes for the NCAA tourney in terms of performance, seeding, or region? If you're a fan of a bubble or bubble-ish team, same questions plus one: what do you think your squad needs to do to solidify a place in the NCAA's?
Andy Johnson: With the PWR being as fickle as it is, it's really tough to project right now. It would appear that Minnesota, UND, Denver and Mankato are virtual locks for the tournament right now even if they don't advance to the Final Five. I think St. Cloud will virtually clinch if they advance to the Final Five.
Things get a bit trickier for a team like Wisconsin at No. 18. Obviously the Badgers are on the outside looking in right now and have to win more games to move up the rankings. The problem for teams like Wisconsin is if they don't sweep in the first round, and they don't win the Final Five, you have to add two more losses to their overall record. For Wisconsin to get a birth without winning the Final Five, I think they need to sweep UMD and win one game at the Final Five.
Chris: I think those five teams(Minnesota, North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud) all make the NCAA tournament. St. Cloud and Minnesota State are likely in trouble if they lose their first round playoff series. Wisconsin seems to have a shot at it if they can advance to St. Paul and win a game or two, but I get the feeling they end up coming up a win or two short.
Donna: 5 teams make the tourney, 4 on PWR and 1 autobid (tUMD). Maybe 6. There isn't a pairwise predictor up yet that I can find, but SCSU seems like their position isn't 100% stable. The national champ isn't coming out of the WCHA this year. I don't know who it will be though. I'd like it to be a first time team. (ED NOTE: UMD stealing the auto-bid? Now you're just trolling everyone Donna...)
Jeffrick: The WCHA should get four. Five is obviously possible, but a lot can and will happen these next two weeks. As the #2 team in the Pairwise, Minnesota is in the NCAA tourney. If they can handle their business against BSU, then they probably just need to win the Final Five semi and they lock down a #1 seed. Minnesota and UND are locks by just getting to the Final Five, but what's strange is that despite being the top seed in the WCHA, St Cloud is sitting 12th in the Pairwise right now. Pounding UAA won't help their profile a ton as they're below the TUC Line, so if they get upset in the Final Five semi, it could get a little dicey for them. DU is sitting 6th but drew their worst possible first round matchup in CC. I think they beat CC in three, and assuming they do that they may not have to win at the Final Five to get in. Mankato (9th Pairwise) also got a tough draw in UNO, and Wisconsin is lurking just outside the top 14. If they could get to the Final Five semis, that might be enough to get them in, they make the Finals and they're definitely in.
Nate Wells: I think it will be 5 teams. Wisconsin is on the bubble for now but with its standing and CC (whom they swept) being on the TUC bubble, they almost need to win the Broadmoor to get in. St. Cloud State and Minnesota State are not guaranteed either. However, they should be safe with first round series wins and the two play Alaska-Anchorage and Nebraska-Omaha, respectively. (ED NOTE: CHN had a nice primer on how the pairwise might shake out for the various WCHA squads).
TDG: After next weekend the current WCHA will be gone. Consider this a free space to say goodbye, share a favorite WCHA memory, hate on the B1G, dig at a departing rival, rag on the WCHA officials, etc.
Andy Johnson: Well I'll keep this short but this is a bittersweet time. Obviously the playoffs and the Final Five are annual rights of passage that are going to be changed significantly after this season. Really looking forward to covering these last few weeks.
Chris: I don't know if it's a memory, per se, but I'm really going to miss the excitement and intensity of the second half of the WCHA season every year. Maybe that intensity, and those battles for league titles and home ice in the playoffs will continue, but I'm not sure it will quite be the same. Living in Minnesota, I'm also going to miss the regional rivalry aspect of it. There was always this great energy in the building when you'd get two teams from Minnesota playing each other, especially when the Gopher visited another school from the state. Those teams will still all play, but to me, it just doesn't mean as much when you're competing for percentage points on some computer ranking, as opposed to something tangible like points in the league standings.
Jack: I wrote about this in my Q&A session last week, but I do think the league is going to be even better next season, at least as far as parity is concerned. It should be pretty competitive, 1-10. It will be weird seeing all the WCHA stalwarts ply their trades in new leagues.
That said, I don't think the B1G is nearly as dumb of an idea as the NCHC is. I mean, at least the B1G makes sense from a monetary and historical standpoint. Hell, they used to keep B1G standings between the five teams up until the 1980s... so it's not like it's this new conference that is appearing out of nowhere.
I'm obviously in the minority here when it comes to B1G hockey and I cover Bemidji State so you can probably just ignore me.
But I think we can all agree that the NCHC was a stupid idea, right?
Jeffrick: The B1G will take some getting used to, that's for sure. I do like the new conference schedule where they'll get to play everybody home-and-home, but it's not going to be the same without the Minnesota schools, and DU and CC. There's someone else I'm forgetting...Whioux could that be? For one final time (ok fine, I'll keep saying this every time the subject comes up but) I'd like to remind non-Gopher fans that they didn't kill the WCHA, the teams who left to form the NCHC did. Minnesota and Wisconsin were forced to leave- those other schools were not, and had they simply added Miami and Western Michigan, they'd be back to 12 and could have kept sailing along without problem. Instead...well they didn't do that. Anyway, I'm going to enjoy this last WCHA playoffs, hope the Gophers add the Broadmoor to their trophy case to go along with the MacNaughton (or half of it), and can then set their sites on getting to Pittsburgh. So farewell, WCHA. You will be missed, and we'll see most of you in the coming years. Well except that one school- Whioux-ever they may be.
Thanks to Andy, Chris, Jack, Jeremy, Donna, and Jeff for taking part. And thanks to you for reading all the way down here, because this turned into a BEAST of a post. As always, stop back tonight for the hockey OPEN THREAD.