Big Ten Hockey Season Preview
The Big Ten is one of the emerging conferences in all of college hockey. Even though the conference only started sponsoring hockey prior to the 2013-14 season, the conference has sent at least one team to the NCAA Tournament in every season since they have formed. While the conference continues to make efforts to emerge as a top conference, things could get interesting heading into this season. A year ago, it was the Minnesota Golden Gophers who finished first in the regular season, but it was Michigan who made the tournament, losing to eventual champion North Dakota. Heading into the 2016-17 season, the conference is wide open for any team to take the title and possibly a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota is picked to finish first, and many agree that they return the most experienced team in the conference. Freshman forward Rem Pitlick was named USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. Returning to the team is Justin Kloos, who had 43 points to lead the Gophers last year, and while they are probably the deepest team in the Big Ten, they struggled last season with consistency as they missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 season. The outlook on the Gophers is pretty high heading into the season, with many expecting head coach Don Lucia and company to take the next steps and take the Big Ten championship.
Wisconsin is projected to finish second, as many are predicting that a change of scenery will turn things around in Madison. Over the offseason, head coach Mike Eaves and his entire staff were fired, ushering in the Tony Granato era. The talent is there for the Badgers to make an impact in the Big Ten, but the consistency will have to be as well if Wisconsin wants be back in contention.
It could be a tough campaign approaching the Michigan Wolverines this season. With their defense serving as a major weakness last season, their offense takes a decline as well with the notorious “CCM Line” (Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte) going pro. Defensemen Zach Werenski and Michael Downing won’t be patrolling the blue line either, leaving five major absences for head coach Red Berenson to navigate around. The team returns just one of their top seven scorers in Alex Kile, and while they have 11 freshman playing this season, they could be in for growing pains early. Needless to say, it will be an uphill battle if the Wolverines hope to have the success they enjoyed last year.
In Happy Valley, Penn State hopes to continue progressing this season, as they continue to take steps forward in their fourth season playing in the Big Ten for hockey. Guy Gadowsky will have his hands full, particularly in the back end as Goaltender Eamon McAdam signed with the NY Islanders, while leaders like Luke Juha and David Glen graduated. However, they return many of their major goal-scorers from a year ago in David Goodwin and Andrew Sturtz, who combined for 65 points last season and represent two of the major leaders on the team. Overall, they could continue to surprise people this season as they have improved their win total each year since they made the jump to Division I in 2012.
The Buckeyes finished fourth in the Big Ten last season and Ohio State will look to leap back into contention this season. They could run into trouble though, with only five freshman coming in this recruiting class. They do have a talented offense that kept them in games last year, as they return all four top scorers, but their deficiencies lie on the back end as the Buckeyes allowed 3.47 goals per game, one of the worst marks in the country. Their goaltending could be a problem as well, which has been the case in the past. Overall, they were picked to finish fifth in the conference, still falling short of the top tier.
As much as Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos is ready for him to take their game to the next level, as the Spartans play Denver and North Dakota in their non-conference schedule early in the season, it might break his team instead of make them. While Michigan State may have lost their leading scorer to the NHL in Mackenzie MacEachern and their starting goaltender Jake Hildebrand to graduation, they did bring in a 10-man recruiting class, a few of whom are expected to contribute offensively this season. Overall though, this team is expected to struggle this season as they’ve lost major pieces and have yet to prove that players like MacEachern and Hildebrand can be replaced. Hence, the Spartans were picked in the preseason poll to finish sixth in the conference.
Zach Kaplan is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.