The fifth season of Big Ten hockey is set to begin this Friday in what should be the conference’s most exciting year-to-date.
After beginning play in 2013 the Big Ten has improved with each subsequent year. The 2016-17 campaign saw three teams make the NCAA tournament with Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota all having solid appearances. As Notre Dame joins the conference for this upcoming season, expectations are high that the Big Ten can be the premier conference in all of college hockey.
To accommodate the addition of Notre Dame there are several scheduling changes for this winter. Instead of the customary 20-game conference schedule the teams will now play 24 games, with two home-and-home series against each other team. The Big Ten schedule will also begin much sooner in the season. Ohio State heads to Wisconsin on October 6 to play the conference’s first game.
This season is set to be a good one in the Big Ten. At least five of the seven teams have a legitimate shot at a postseason berth. With lots of roster overhaul from last season I’ve laid out a preview of each team’s key additions and losses, as well as a season outlook.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
2016-17 Record: 23-12-3, 14-5-1 Big Ten
The Gophers have yet another talented group of incoming freshman this season. First-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt (F) is the highlight of the bunch, and he figures to be one of the best freshman in college hockey. The rest of the group includes Minnesota natives Cullen Munson (F), Scott Reedy (F), Sam Rossini (D) and Nate Knoepke (D), in addition to Brannon McManus (F). Expect this class to have an immediate, offensive impact for Don Lucia and the Gophers.
It won’t be easy replacing the dynamic offensive duo of Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri. Combining for 37 G and 43 A last season the pair was among the best in the Big Ten. Regardless of the influx of offensive talent for the squad this year, it’s never easy to replace veterans of this nature. Losing defensive stalwart Jake Bischoff also comes as a major blow. The former captain was a steady presence for the Gophers in an otherwise shaky defensive 2016-17 season.
This Gopher squad has an immensely gifted group of forwards. The return of offensive-minded players Sheehy, Bristedt and Novak to accompany the dangerous freshman class makes this team scary. Eric Schierhorn is far from the best goalie in the Big Ten, but he should be able to just enough to help these Golden Gophers make a deep run this season. Don’t be surprised to see Minnesota at the Frozen Four in St. Paul next April.
2016-17 Record: 20-15-1, 12-8-0 Big Ten
The Badgers have seven fresh faces that look to contribute this season. Wyatt Kalynuk (D), Tyler Inamoto (D), Josh Ess (D) and Linus Weissbach (F) have all been drafted, and Tarek Baker (F), Jason Dhooghe (F) and Sean Dhooghe (F) round out the rest of the group. It appears that Tony Granato is starting to have a serious impact on recruiting, as this class is one of the best Wisconsin has seen in a while. St. Lawrence transfer goalie Kyle Hayton is perhaps the most important addition for the Badgers. The former ECAC goalie of the year is poised to make a huge difference in net for this Wisconsin team that has had sub-par goaltending of late.
The Badgers lose two notable leaders from last year in Luke Kunin and Grant Besse. Kunin was the first sophomore captain in 40 years for the Badgers while Besse was a four-year starter for the program. The pair combined for 66 points last season. Nearly every other starter for the Badgers is back for the 2017-18 season and the team has plenty of potential leaders to fill the gaps left by Kunin and Besse.
Hockey fans are excited in Madison right now, and for good reason. This team has the potential to return to 2006 heights. Granato will likely juggle the top lines early with a plethora of talent including Cameron Hughes, Seamus Malone, Will Johnson and 2016-17 Big Ten Freshman of the year, Trent Frederic. Whatever he settles on is sure to be deadly. The defense should be improved from last year with a nice mix of veteran leadership and freshman star power to protect Kyle Hayton as he adjusts to Big Ten hockey. Don’t overlook Wisconsin in a conference that’s widely predicted to be dominated by Minnesota and Notre Dame.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2016-17 Record:23-12-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East
The Fighting Irish welcome seven freshman to South Bend in hopes of bolstering their star-studded lineup. Dylan St. Cyr (G) and Nick Sanford (G) are tasked with replacing standout goalie Cal Petersen, who departed after a breakout junior season. Pierce Crawford (F), Max Eisenmenger (F) and Colin Theisen (F) are all expected to contribute to an offense that was among the best in college hockey last season. Matt Hellickson (D) will be the only freshman in a defensive unit that has much higher expectations than last year. St. Cyr’s arrival is the most anticipated out of the group, and much of Notre Dame’s success will hinge on his play in net.
Although Anders Bjork was definitely Notre Dame’s best player last winter, losing Cal Petersen to the NHL was the biggest blow. The junior goalie had a stellar .926 save percentage to pair with a 2.22 goals against average while leading the Fighting Irish to a Frozen Four appearance. Replacing him will be much harder than replacing Bjork’s 52 points because this team is absolutely stacked offensively. Along with the Gophers, the Irish have the ability to blow out anyone.
The Fighting Irish are returning so many stars that it only seems fair to lose Bjork and Petersen after their junior seasons. Seven starters return a combined 206 points, lead by Jake Evans (13G, 29A) and Andrew Oglevie (21G, 20A). Scoring will not be an issue. If St. Cyr can play as well as expected then this team has the potential to be dominant. If not, they might struggle. Only time will tell with this Irish squad.
2016-17 Record:13-19-3, 6-12-2 Big Ten
Michigan adds only 5 freshman for the 2017-18 season after retaining nearly all of their notable players. Josh Norris (F) and Michael Pastujov (F) have fans of the Maize and Blue excited after seeing just one double-digit goalscorer last year. Dakota Raabe (F) and Jack Becker (F) might not see as much playing time as Norris and Pastujov right away but there’s potential for them to break into one of the top lines due to the team’s lack of offensive depth. 17-year-old Quinn Hughes (D) is one of the top defensive prospects at his age level and the sky’s the limit for him at Michigan.
Coping with the loss of 33-year head coach Red Berenson will be the biggest obstacle for the Wolverines this year. Luckily they are in good hands with former assistant Mel Pearson. Pearson has experience coaching teams to deep postseason runs, and he’s qualified to take over this Michigan squad. Several seniors have departed including goalie Zach Nagelvoort, but none are notable enough to be a huge loss.
There’s a youth movement in Ann Arbor with the majority of the team being underclassmen. In addition to the new freshmen the Wolverines are loaded with sophomores who already have experience playing at the college level. There’s plenty of potential talent for Pearson to develop. That being said, they just don’t have enough firepower this year to compete with the other offenses in the Big Ten. Michigan is still a year or two away from being a serious threat.
Michigan State Spartans
2016-17 Record:7-24-4, 3-14-3 Big Ten
Last season the Spartans saw only two players score more than 7 goals. With seven incoming freshman forwards it’s clear where the recruiting focus was. Tommy Apap (F), Gianluca Esteves (F), Austin Kamer (F), David Keefer (F), Mitchell Lewandowski (F), Jake Smith (F) and Brody Stevens (F) all head into East Lansing hoping to create a spark for this abysmal Michigan State offense. Head coach Danton Cole is most excited about Lewandowski and Keefer, who both played well in the USHL last year. Tommy Miller (D) will be the lone freshman defenseman this year. Fans are excited about the youngster who saw a lot of success with the U.S. U-18 team that won gold last year.
Michigan State loses perhaps their only offensive threat from last year, Mason Appleton. Appleton lead the team with 31 points and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will step up in his absence. The Spartans also lose a trio of forwards in Ebbing, Haag and Cox, but perhaps this is for the better as it was clear things weren’t clicking offensively in 2016.
Hopefully for Michigan State fans the basketball team will be good this year because the hockey team isn’t going to do much of anything. The Spartans allowed nearly four goals a game last season and it doesn’t appear as though that will be any different this winter. They currently have one player on their roster over the age of 21, making them the youngest team in the Big Ten. It could be a long year for the Green and Silver.
Penn State Nittany Lions
2016-17 Record:25-12-2, 10-9-1 Big Ten
The biggest additions to Penn State’s roster this year are Cole Hults (D) and Evan Barratt (F). Hults is a spectacular defender who head coach Guy Gadowsky hopes can bring stability to the blue line. Barratt joins the team after having a ton of success offensively with the U.S. NTDP for two seasons. Both players have already been drafted. The rest of the freshman class includes Alex Limoges (F), Sam Sternschein (F), Adam Pilewicz (D) and Alex Stevens (D).
Penn State lost one of its best offensive players, David Goodwin, and its best defensive player, Vince Pedrie from last year’s roster. The two combined for 68 points. Luckily for the Nittany Lions they didn’t lose much else heading into the 2017-18 season as they return five of their top six scorers.
Last season Penn State won the first Big Ten championship in school history. The resulting automatic berth in the NCAA tournament was an exciting one as they won their first-round game, only to lose to the eventual champions in the second round. The return of forwards Smirnov, Sturtz, Sucese and Berger makes the Nittany Lions one of the most exciting, young teams in college hockey. Unfortunately for Gadowsky’s squad, however, the rest of the Big Ten is really talented and experienced. Don’t be shocked if this team has a losing record in conference play.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2016-17 Record: 21-12-6, 11-8-1 Big Ten
Ohio State brings in six former-USHLers for the 2017-18 season. Austin Pooley (F) and Eugene Fadyeyev (F) join a run-and-gun Buckeye attack while Michael Rounds (D) and Grant Gabriele (D) arrive to help defensively. The most important additions are goalies Evan Moyse (G) and Tommy Napier (G). They will be tasked with replacing the senior goaltending tandem of Matt Tomkins and Christian Frey from last season.
The Buckeyes are losing 82 points from the departure of Nick Schilkey and David Gust. On top of that they lose their best defender in Josh Healey. As mentioned previously the two netminders, Tomkins and Frey, are also gone. It’s somewhat of a changing of the guard in Columbus this season.
Like a lot of the Big Ten teams this year, Ohio State is going to be able to trade punches with other top offenses. Mason Jobst is one of the best players in college hockey and he’ll benefit from Dakota Joshua and Tanner Laczynski tossing pucks his way all winter long. The part that’s worrisome about these Buckeyes is the defensive end of things. Losing Josh Healey really hurts, especially when there are freshman goalies to defend. The rest of the Big Ten is going to be too good for Ohio State to make any sort of substantial tournament push this year.