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Minnesota looks golden in NHL.com NCAA Top 10

by Michael Blinn / NHL.com

NHL.com's college preview presents its Top 10 teams.

This is a landmark season for NCAA hockey.

There will be new beginnings (Penn State) and final goodbyes (the CCHA's last league games) during 2012-13. With the Big 10 and new looks for the WCHA and Hockey East on the horizon, 59 teams will be clamoring for a shot at NCAA glory, making it impossible to say how any single weekend will turn out.

2012-13 NHL.com NCAA Top 10 Rankings


(Photo Credit: University of Minnesota Athletics)

1. University of Minnesota
2. Boston College
3. University of North Dakota
4. University of Michigan
5. Union College
6. University of Notre Dame
7. Cornell University
8. UMass-Lowell
9. University of Denver
10. Western Michigan University

Can perennial power Boston College win its fourth national championship in six years? How far can the new-look Minnesota Golden Gophers go? Is Western Michigan ready to assert itself as an elite team? Finally having a full, healthy roster, how much damage can North Dakota really do? Will Denver find enough offense to match its defensive skill?

With those questions and many more in mind, here's our thoughts on the top 10 teams in the country coming into the season, plus one up-and-coming team from each league:

1. University of Minnesota

It was a return to glory on the national stage for the Golden Gophers in 2011-12, and the WCHA power is poised for even bigger things this time around. They return the majority of their roster, with juniors Nick Bjugstad, Zach Budish, Erik Haula and Nate Condon having tasted success, along with sophomores Kyle Rau and Seth Ambroz. Helping to focus their sights on a national-championship run is freshman Ryan Reilly, who should have an immediate impact after he excelled with Penticton of the BCHL. Despite its offensive depth, Minnesota will miss Reilly's twin brother, Connor, who will sit out the season due to a knee injury.

While the offensive zone should be covered, the defense -- which sees the entire corps return -- will have their work cut out for them, even with the addition of freshmen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly (the youngest of the three brothers). Mark Alt, Seth Hegelson, Nate Schmidt and Justin Holl will have to be on top of their game as Kent Patterson's graduation leaves some big pads to fill in net. Newcomer Adam Wilcox comes in with a strong pedigree, but he will need to adjust quickly for Minnesota to get a jump start on its title hopes under coach Don Lucia.

2. Boston College

Coach Jerry York doesn't rebuild, he simply reloads, and this season shouldn't be any different. Though the Eagles lost a lot of talent -- Chris Kreider, Paul Carey and Brian Dumoulin, to name a few -- they return plenty of firepower and will be in the national-championship mix.

Johnny Gaudreau lived up to his billing and then some as a freshman, and should run rampant across Hockey East as a sophomore. He'll be aided by seniors Steven Whitney and Pat Mullane, and junior Bill Arnold will find more minutes in the spotlight. Look for junior Kevin Hayes and sophomore Destry Straight to find a groove, as well, and give BC four full lines that can hurt opponents in the box score.

Defensively, the Eagles will be anchored by seniors Patrick Wey and Patch Alber, and junior Isaac MacLeod, who have proven themselves smart and capable. They'll need to be -- they're joined by four freshmen competing for blue-line spots, including Mike Matheson, who should take over power-play duties immediately, and Colin Sullivan, who will challenge for time right away.

Goalies Brian Billet and Parker Milner will go head-to-head for playing time for a second straight season, with each having proved he can be the go-to guy. Milner, a senior, will have the inside track to start the season, but sophomore Billet will challenge as the season progresses.

3. University of North Dakota

POTENTIAL NCAA SLEEPERS



Connecticut (AHA sleeper)

There are a lot of reasons to keep an eye on Huskies this season: 15, in fact. With UConn set to join Hockey East in two seasons, there's an eye toward the future, and it's obvious with the super-sized freshman class. There will be plenty of time for any number of them to start making a statement for coach Bruce Marshall, and one has to think they're itching to get to it.

Junior Brant Harris will be the go-to guy for scoring and a power-play specialist, while classmates Billy Latta and Jordan Sims look to join him on the production front. Another season for senior Sean Ambrosie means an additional consistent scoring threat, and senior defenseman Alex Gerke will anchor a blue line that will add plenty of size with incoming freshmen Kyle Huson (6-foot-5, 201 pounds) and Joe Schmitz (6-foot-3, 210 pounds).

Senior Garrett Bartus will again assume the reins in net, looking to carry Connecticut for a third straight season. Matt Grogan will most likely keep his backup role; however, sophomores Tom Comunale and Bobby Segin are primed and ready to begin their push to take over the cage in Storrs.

Lake Superior State (CCHA sleeper)

Lake Superior is ready to reclaim its stature from the early 1990s. Coach Jim Roque's club has shown plenty of promise and skill in the past few seasons and is poised to cash in on it. Junior Kevin Kapalka has refined his game and should be among the top goalies in the NCAA this season, and he'll get plenty of offensive support from seniors Domenic Monardo and Nick McParland. Junior Colin Campbell turned in an impressive second season and is more than ready to step things up a notch. Freshmen Austin McKay and Matt Johnson will add some size upfront as well as chipping in on offense.

The Lakers' defense took a big hit after last season, with Zack Trotman and Kyle Haines leaving big holes on the blue line. New faces Zach Loesch and Eric Drapluk will make immediate impacts, adding size, speed and offensive abilities, while junior Matt Bruneteau and sophomore Kevin Czuczman will set the tone with solid defense and expanded roles.

Harvard (ECAC sleeper)

Despite an 8-5-9 finish in ECAC play last season, Harvard's 11 ties overall smashed the previous team record of six, helping them climb all the way up to third in the league standings. Their taste for playing in tight games, coupled with the NCAA's most-effective power-play unit (which fired at 27.3 percent last season) has them ready to pounce on all those extra points. Leading the charge up front will be the senior duo of Marshall Everson and Alex Fallstrom, each of whom saw a major increase in offensive production across the board as juniors. Sophomore Colin Blackwell chipped in plenty as a freshman, and with a full season under his belt, he should contribute even more. Having a full, healthy season from senior Conor Morrison adds another offensive weapon to the arsenal, and some big things are expected from sophomore Petr Placek and freshmen Jimmy Vesey and Brian Hart.

There's plenty of offense to go around on the blue line, as well. Senior Danny Biega led the Crimson in scoring last season, proving to be an especially dangerous power-play quarterback. He'll get help from sophomore Patrick McNally and junior Dan Ford, who can pitch in with offensive numbers, and sophomore Max Everson's steady play in his own zone will give the team a deep group of defenseman that can rival -- and frustrate -- anyone in the ECAC.

As a freshman, goalie Steve Michalek wowed everyone with his early play, though junior Raphael Girard stole the show down the stretch. With both returning for another season, there's no need to for further inspiration -- they'll battle for playing time all season and give coach Ted Donato the chance to play the hot hand.

Northeastern (Hockey East sleeper)

With the late addition of Kevin Roy, the term "sleeper" might not apply to the Huskies. Roy, a freshman, becomes the elite talent among a cast of solid, steady performers that includes seniors Garrett Vermesserch, Justin Daniels and Vinny Saponari, and juniors Cody Ferriero and Brian Pimm. Sophomore Ludwig Karlsson is a prime candidate to take the leap and be a top-notch running mate for Roy.

Coach Jim Madigan has a deep set of defensemen, and with 10 on the roster, there will be plenty jostling to make their mark. Sophomore Josh Manson will look to emerge as the offensive leader on the blue line, and sophomore transfer Dax Lauwers, who played with Roy in Lincoln of the United States Hockey League last season, will be an imposing presence.

While the defense sorts itself out, Chris Rawlings returns as a stalwart in goal for the Huskies. The 6-foot-5 netminder has been the go-to guy since arriving on campus, and he's poised for his best season yet as a senior. He'll be the backbone of a team looking to make the NCAAs for the first time since 2009.

Nebraska-Omaha (WCHA sleeper)

Though losing Terry Boradhurst and Jayson Megna to pro contracts will hurt the Mavericks, there is plenty for the UNO faithful to be excited about. Junior Matt White emerged as an offensive force last season, and sophomore Josh Archibald should see dividends after a full season playing under coach Dean Blais. Senior Brent Gwidt is a veteran leader, ready to play whatever role is asked of him at both ends of the ice.

On the back end is where everyone should expect Nebraska-Omaha to excel. Senior Bryce Aneloski is a standout who can contribute offensively while being a steady influence in his own zone. He'll be a perfect mentor to freshmen Nick Seeler and Brian Cooper, who should each step right into the lineup and eat minutes while producing results. In net, senior John Faulkner comes in as the incumbent with sophomore Ryan Massa sitting out the season. He'll be pushed by incoming freshman Anthony Stolarz, a 6-foot-5 behemoth who is ready and able should Faulkner falter."

-- Michael Blinn

Last season, coach Dave Hakstol rode a roster that was decimated by injuries all the way to a WCHA tournament championship and an NCAA regional. With a healthy group this season, the sky is the limit in Grand Forks.

The senior trio of Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Carter Rowney will lead the troops on offense, with Rowney looking to follow up his explosive junior season. A full season from sophomore Rocco Grimaldi, who played four games as a freshman before a knee injury, will help to replace the production void left by Brock Nelson's departure.

With Aaron Dell gone, junior transfer Clarke Saunders will have a chance to battle it out with highly touted freshman Zane Gothberg for a shot at starting. It's too early to tell if experience will win out over raw promise, but rest assured, they'll push one another. Playing in front of them is a talented set of defensemen, headlined by Derek Forbort, Nick Mattson and Joe Gleason. Newcomer Jordan Schmaltz should turn heads, and fellow first-year man Paul Ladue will challenge for minutes.

4. University of Michigan

The Wolverines' hopes will depend on their defense, in more ways than one. Jon Merrill returns for a full season and will form one of the highest-scoring defensive groups in the country with Lee Moffie and Mac Bennett. The addition of blue-chip freshman Jacob Trouba will only enhance their CCHA profile.

Up front, sophomores Alex Guptill and Phil Di Guiseppe look to build on strong first-year campaigns, and incoming freshman Cristoval Nieves hopes to replicate their success and become a go-to scorer. Junior Luke Moffatt and seniors A.J. Treais and Kevin Lynch will provide steady veteran hands, chipping in with secondary scoring and solid leadership for coach Red Berenson.

Michigan will miss the stability of Shawn Hunwick, who leaves the crease to NTDP product Jared Rutledge, who has the inside track to start as a freshman. Junior Adam Janecyk is the only goalie on the roster with any experience, with a career total of six games.

5. Union College

All the right pieces are in place for Union to replicate its Frozen Four success from last season, poised to do even more damage this time around.

Troy Grosenick stepped into the starter's role as a sophomore and had a breakout party in net. With a team in front of him that tasted success under coach Rick Bennett and is hungry for more, his junior season could be even better. Senior Greg Coburn, junior Mat Bodie and sophomore Shayne Gostisbehere anchor a defensive unit that's strong at both ends of the ice, and first-year blueliner Tim Boyle is ready to eat plenty of minutes and add his mark to the ECAC.

Up front, there will be a struggle to replace prototypical power forward Jeremy Welsh's contributions, but junior Daniel Carr is ready to improve on a standout second season. Seniors Wayne Simpson and Kyle Bodie will help to set the tone with their offensive stability, and Josh Jooris is on the cusp of a breakout season after two strong campaigns to start his collegiate career.

6. University of Notre Dame

A lack of consistency hurt Notre Dame's chances down the stretch, but it's a problem it shouldn't have to fear again. Both T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee return for another season to wreak havoc on opposing goalies -- the juniors have led the team in scoring since arriving on campus and will continue to be the focal points. Sophomore Austin Wuthrich is ready to build on a strong freshman campaign, and Jeff Costello will continue to punish opponents in the corners and on the scoreboard. Losing freshman Mario Lucia to a broken leg for at least the first month of the season leaves a hole in the roster, but classmates Steven Fogarty, Vincent Hinoztra and Thomas DiPauli will give the squad a well-rounded four lines that can contribute in the CCHA.

Defensively, the Fighting Irish bring back the same crew, led by junior Stephen Johns. The oversized blueliner (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) sets the tone at both ends of the ice, and junior Sam Calabrese and sophomore Robbie Russo provide heavy doses of offense. In net, senior Mike Johnson and junior Steven Summerhays will continue to push one another for a second straight season, giving coach Jeff Jackson the choice to ride whichever hand is hotter.

7. Cornell University

The Big Red came up just short in their quest last season, something that has to be still fresh in their minds when the puck drops this time around.

Junior goalie Andy Iles placed himself among the elite NCAA goalies in 2011-12, playing every minute in net for Cornell as a sophomore. He should continue to thrive, especially with stalwart senior defensemen Nick D'Agostino and Braden Birch in front of him. Joakim Ryan's freshman season proved his worth on the blue line, and he should see more ice this coming season. Expect Reece Willcox to step right into the mix in his first season; the big defenseman (6-foot-4, 193 pounds) can help fill the void left by Sean Whitney's graduation.

In the offensive zone, the Big Red will see big things from the sophomore trio of Brian Ferlin, Joel Lowry and John McCarron, who impressed as freshmen and will grow to be a force in the ECAC. Dustin Mowrey took a big step forward in his second season; more improvement this time will provide the team with a second consistent scorer alongside senior Greg Miller. Incoming freshmen Teemu Tiitinen, John Knisley and Christian Hilbrich will have their chance to show they can step it up to the next level for coach Mike Schafer.

8. UMass-Lowell

How will the River Hawks follow up their surprising 2011-12 season? With the return of the core of a roster that finished with 24 wins, the team's best total since 1995-96.

Scott Wilson returns for his sophomore season after an explosive debut in which he earned league Rookie of the Year honors; he'll team with senior Riley Wetmore to run amok in Hockey East. Junior Derek Arnold almost tripled his freshman-year output in his second go-round and can certify himself as a bona fide threat with another strong showing. Mike Colatone will insert himself into the conversation as a freshman, and classmate Logan Johnston should be a contributor for coach Norm Bazin off the bat.

Junior Chad Ruhwendel showed his quarterbacking capabilities on the blue line; he'll lead a solid, strong set of defensemen that will improve with redshirt freshman Dimitry Sinitsyn joining the crew. The big Russian (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) has scored ably at every level he's played at and figures to be a big cog in the Lowell wheel. While Sinitsyn hones his defensive game, Doug Carr will be back as a heralded starter for his junior season, set to prove his coming-out party was no fluke.

9. University of Denver

The Pioneers lost a lot of offense when Jason Zucker and Drew Shore hit the road after last season, but there's plenty to be optimistic about the 2012-13 edition.

A talented sophomore class has enough power -- and now seasoning -- to keep Denver in the WCHA fast lane. Defenseman Joey LaLeggia was a standout as a freshman, totaling the third-highest point total of all rearguards in the NCAA. Scott Mayfield is a big blueliner (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) who is solid in his own zone and will be a vital piece of the power play. Up front, Troy Loney put together a respectable first season and will be looked toward to continue blooming offensively.

Junior Nick Shore returns as the team's leading scorer and will have plenty of time in the spotlight. Seniors Shawn Ostrow and Chris Knowlton took big steps in their third years and should continue to progress. Sam Brittain has established himself as George Gwozdecky's top goaltender through his first two seasons, though senior Adam Murray and sophomore Juho Olkinuora proved themselves capable and will fight for playing time under coach George Gwozdecky.

10. Western Michigan University

The Broncos have been building for two seasons now, and it looks like it's time for the CCHA team to mark its arrival. Western Michigan's biggest offseason addition is the return of junior defenseman Danny Dekeyser, who many believed would bolt for the pros. Instead, he'll be a big piece of possibly the most underrated set of blueliners in the NCAA.

With Matt Tennyson gone, Dekeyser will have to add more offense to his game while classmate Dennis Brown shoulders some of the load. Also helping to ease the loss will be sophomore Garrett Haar, who's expected to step up after a solid freshman effort. Frank Slubowski returns for his sophomore season after running away with the starter's role. He'll get an extra push from senior Nick Pisellini, who will fight to get back into the crease.

Up front, the junior tandem of Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach will lead the troops, though the sophomore trio of Will Kessel, David Kilip and Robert Francis will be looked at to provide some of the early-season magic they produced as freshmen for coach Andy Murray. Newcomer Colton Hargrove will look to make an immediate impact, adding a physical presence and chipping in on offense.

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