NCAA Predictions: NCHC

With classes in full swing, it means the 2018-19 season is on the horizon. The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) could be the best conference out there with their recent success, most notably with the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs winning the NCAA tournament last season.

But Duluth wasn’t the only storyline out of that conference. St. Cloud State and Denver battled for the top spot in the country all season with the likes of Troy Terry and Robby Jackson on their rosters. But as college sports go, there’s a quick turnover in players with considerable pressure to make their four years (or less) count.

The tides are changing in the NCHC and the power dynamics in the conference are shifting. How much so? A lot is still up in the air but here is a list of predictions for all the teams in the NCHC based on what we do know.

Minnesota Duluth

2017-18 Finish: no. 3

2018-19 Prediction: no. 1

It’s not often you see a team, especially in college, win a national championship and start the following season with such a small roster turnover, but Minnesota-Duluth did. Because of that, as well as other factors, Duluth could jump two spots in the conference.

Karson Kuhlman Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs Bruins
Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs forward Karson Kuhlman celebrates in the first period against Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the 2018 Frozen Four. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

You can blame their no. 3 ranking last season on bad luck; they ran into injuries and absences at all the wrong times. In December and January, they were down six players who were selected and allowed to go to the World Junior Championships. That alone shows how talented UMD.

UMD, when healthy, were good enough to win it all. With most of that roster intact, they’re good enough to win the conference this season at the very least.

My player to watch for their upcoming season is Scott Perunovich. I can’t say enough about him; he has all the tools to be an elite offensive defenseman. Usually, I like to watch an entire team’s system but when I watched UMD, I couldn’t help but notice how dynamic Perunovich was. His skating was crisp and his movement was fluid, invaluable traits in a defenseman.

Just as he did last year, don’t be surprised to see the St. Louis Blues draft pick lead the team in scoring.

St. Cloud State

2017-18 Finish: no. 1

2018-19 Prediction: no. 2

Last season it was basically a competition between SCSU and Denver as to who would remain in the no. 1 ranking. But the window to remain on top and win a national championship is closing rapidly. All of their top five scorers are going to be juniors or seniors – one junior, four seniors. Beyond that, nine other players are going to be upperclassmen, so the time to win is now, or as they say in USA Hockey, it’s do or die.

Robby Jackson is a real gem after going from an 18-point freshman to a 42-point junior season. He’s in his farewell season, so he has to find his next level of play if his Huskies want to win.

As for goaltending, David Hrenak (freshman) and Jeff Smith (junior) were a 1a/1b tandem last season. For them to be successful, it would be ideal to have one man carry the burden. Historically, that’s how it goes. But when SCSU had two talented men sharing the net, they were reliable enough for the team’s skaters to go all-in on offense, a system that made a phenomenon in 2017-18.

Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with SCSU for the 2018-19 season. In seasons following, that’s where the problems will come in as a good chunk of their team (and big-name talent) is graduating. That’s a big reason why SCSU should be good enough to rank second in the division this year; the older players will want to win and need to win, they don’t have any more chances left.

Even with the departure of Bob Motzko, I don’t think there’s going to be enough of the culture or hockey sense lost for the Huskies to drop any lower.


2017-18 Finish: no. 5

2018-19 Prediction: no. 3

I know, how can I possibly be putting Omaha above five other teams in this conference, including last year’s national no. 1, Denver? Well, I did it and it’s for good reason.

Omaha will likely be average as the oldest team on this list with ten seniors on their roster. In college sports more than any other level, seniority (no pun intended) and experience are vital to success. If you don’t have players who can “walk the walk” and show younger players how to do the same, you’re going to run into major growing pains; like the Arizona Coyotes but worse. Not to mention, these seniors are also pretty good.

One of those seniors is Mason Morelli, the newly named captain that lost half of last season to a knee injury. It’s speculated that his absence was a key to the team’s no. 5 finish and they’re not wrong. Before ending his season just 14 games in, Morelli was on pace to score 35 points, which would have been second-best on the team. Had he stayed, his and his teammates point totals would have gone up. But there’s no use in dwelling on last season when he’ll be up to the challenge this time around.

Last year, they also had a remarkably high shooting percentage at 11.1 percent, third best in the league. Combine that with their bottom-of-the-pack team save percentage and you have a PDO of 99.7. PDO, a measurement of puck luck, at that number indicates that Omaha was slightly unlucky or, as I view it, performed slightly under their potential.

This seems true when you see they had one of the most effective power plays in the league. They also had a poor penalty kill. Combine those two factors, though not entirely metric based, indicates that Omaha didn’t live up to their potential.

After all this, it should be understandable why I think Omaha will rank third in the conference. Between their leadership, scoring and somewhat easily improvable stats, Omaha is in a position to soar.


2017-18 Finish: no. 2

2018-19 Prediction: no. 4

Denver will likely look like a shell of its former self. Maybe not that bad but still very bad compared to years prior.

When they became National Champions, their top 5 scorers were Troy Terry, Henrik Borgström, Dylan Gambrell, Will Butcher and Jarid Lukosevichius. Only one of those players is returning for the 2018-19 season. While the player returning, Lukosevicius, is the one who scored a hat trick in the championship game to win it, there’s a lot of offense lost here; two-thirds of their 2017-18 top line is gone. While their offense is down, they still have defense and goaltending to look forward to.

Denver University locker room
Denver Pioneers’ locker room at the United Center before their game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Apr. 6, 2017. (Shannon Valerio/Denver University Athletics).

Six of their nine defensemen from last year’s no. 1 ranked team are returning. Still, the workhorse Terry became after his time at the WJC is going to be hard to replace. It’s also not just him, their two leading scorers are now gone and those are some big shoes for the young guys to fill.

Not only are they losing big names in scoring but they also lost head coach Jim Montgomery to the Dallas Stars. He was an NHL caliber coach with Denver, and that’s another hard thing to replace. However, they’re in good hands with David Carle, a DU graduate and former student assistant coach of the Pioneers.

Still, there are too many question marks for Denver to be ranked any higher.

North Dakota

2017-18 Finish: no. 4

2018-19 Prediction: no. 5

North Dakota is in a tight position for one major reason: their system. There’s always one team that refuses to play systems like everyone else and somehow, they get away with it. The Fighting Hawks are that team that can fight and win with a dump-and-chase game.

With teams like St. Cloud State and Duluth, that can push the pace of the game and skate as skillfully as the best of them, in-conference, it’s out-dated and a near death sentence to continue playing a stop-and-go style like going in on the forecheck.

I remember watching a game between SCSU and UND. The scoreboard didn’t say it, a one-goal contest through most of the game, but the Huskies were skating circles around the Hawks. You could hold your breath in awe of how skilled the Huskies were while the Hawks looked flat. Ultimately, UND lost that game and it’s a perfect example of how a system can make or break a team. This season, they won’t be made or broken by it but they’ll fall to an unpleasant, but not horrible, no. 5 position.

As the season plays out, Grant Mismash is a key player to keep an eye on. The sophomore forward will likely be at the WJC in December after being named to the Summer Showcase. Mismash, a Nashville Predators prospect, describes himself as a gritty forward with a shoot-first mentality.

Grant Mismash
Grant Mismash (courtesy United States Hockey League)

Western Michigan

2017-18 Finish: no. 6

2018-19 Prediction: no. 6

Between Michigan, Western Michigan, Michigan Tech and Michigan State there’s enough Michigan hockey to go around, but only one falls in the NCHC. The Broncos will be just two years removed from a 22-13-5 season. At the same time, they’re only three years removed from an 8-25-3 season.

Unfortunately, the Broncos are in this position thanks to a less than stellar team history. Despite being around for 45 years, you can almost count their number of tournament appearances on one hand (six). Overall, the talent coming in isn’t the best, though they still had three players taken in the 2018 NHL Draft, which swings some things in their favor for this season. If they can get more high-level talent, they’d be in a better position.

What they really need is goaltending. They had the fourth-lowest team save percentage with a middle-of-the-pack 1065 shots against, so it wasn’t just that they were allowing an inordinate amount of shots. Their offense wasn’t stellar either with a 10.6 percent shooting percentage on only 1081 shots. While their shot rate going in was great, they could have benefited from more SOG. Some of the best in their conference fired over 1300 shots.

Western Michigan is in a weird spot with only a few technical problems that can be fixed with video sessions and in practice, but still, they haven’t moved in the standings. It comes down to the fact that they don’t have enough elite-level personnel to help them get there. St. Cloud State was able to pull it off because they had Bob Motzko who was a recruiting All-Star. The Broncos don’t have that, so it’s going to be another no. 6 finish this year.


2017-18 Finish: no. 8

2018-19 Prediction: no. 7

From 2006 to 2013, the RedHawks made it to the NCAA tournament every year. They missed out on 2014 but came back the following year. What happened? Miami’s seasons have gotten worse since their last postseason appearance. They went from a 15-18-3 record to 9-20-7 to 12-20-5. It seemed as though the team plummeted out of nowhere. Whatever was going on, it caused the assistant coaching staff and four players to be dismissed.

A point of concern heading into the season is the loss of forward, Carson Meyer. He scored 26 points (10-16) as a freshman before a 25-inch tapeworm wreaked havoc on him during the 2017-18 season. During his freshman year, his totals were good enough for fourth on the team. By now, who knows how high his ceiling is.

That’s the major downside to it all; they don’t know what they’re missing. Meyer is a transfer at Ohio State now and will be a Buckeye for this season after being waived by the NCAA to avoid the limbo year that transfers usually face. While they’re not in-conference rivals, it’s a bummer to have such a bright young star, and Blue Jackets draft pick, leave for another university.

The team is also losing their captain and WJC alumni Louie Belpedio to graduation and the NHL. He was consistently in the top 10 in team scoring and broke 30 points last season with a playing style he models after Kris Letang. On the bright side, four of Miami’s top 5 scorers from last season are staying.

Miami is only no. 7 on this list because they are on a better track then Colorado College. Miami is only a couple years and star recruits away from being competitive in the conference again.

Colorado College

2017-18 Finish: no. 7

2018-19 Prediction: no. 8

Colorado has been historically bad. Since 2014, they’ve finished last in the NCHC, a streak that was ended by Miami’s dismal performance in 2018-19.

Their goaltending is better with freshman Alec Calvaruso looking to transition from backup to starter. This could be a pleasant turn of events after starter Calvaruso placed outside the top 40 in save percentage and outside the top 60 in goals-against average.

Aside from goaltending, there’s nothing really wrong with the Tigers except for their poor results over the past several seasons and better players have gone to better programs. It’s rough for college sports that no one is obligated to play for you; there’s no draft, players commit and sign as they please.

CC hasn’t made the national tournament since 2011, which was the last year they had a winning record in the regular season. It’s hard for top-end or any commits to buy into that. The multi-year extension of head coach Mike Haviland might be a step in the right direction. Besides posting a 35-96-13 record so far with the Tigers, he’s a Stanley Cup champion who’s willing to stick it out and rebuild a winning culture. Better that than a revolving door of coaches and no consistent system.

Mike Haviland
Former Hershey Bears head coach Mike Haviland (Annie Erling Gofus/The Hockey Writers)

There’s no cure-all for a team that hasn’t been productive for nearly eight years; they’re not getting better any time soon. This season will be another rough one but remember Broncos fans, Rome wasn’t built in a day.