MINNEAPOLIS — If you’re trying to get a handle on just how good and just how competitive the first season of the NCHC is expected to be, maybe Colorado College coach Scott Owens boiled it down best.
“When you’ve got an Omaha and what it has returning offensively, Colorado College and the way it finished at the end of last season, and a Minnesota-Duluth with the talent it has … and those are the bottom three teams in the league,” Owens said. “That tells you the quality.”
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference held its inaugural media day Thursday at the Target Center, with all eight league coaches and one of their star players reporting to the site where they hope to return with their entire teams come March for the league’s semifinal and championship rounds.
Miami, North Dakota and St. Cloud State emerged as the clear top three in the preseason poll of 16 media members, while Denver and Western Michigan formed the consensus middle of the pack. The aforementioned bottom three were also clear.
But no one is sure that how the regular season plays out will be all that obvious.
“I don’t think those predictions mean a whole lot,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “I would tag Miami as a team that should have a great opportunity to lead our conference with the returning roster it has, and then I look at the other seven and I wonder how you can ever go about ranking them.”
UNO was picked to finish last, though the 41 poll points the Mavericks generated were one fewer than seventh-place Colorado College and two fewer than sixth-place Minnesota-Duluth.
“That’s (like the difference of) one win,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “One win you go from eighth to sixth. A couple more wins and you’ve got home ice (for the first round of the playoffs, as a top four team). It’s going to be that close.”
Still, Blais and the Mavs aren’t content with being picked to finish last, no matter how good the new league is expected to be.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially with the team that we have,” said senior forward Ryan Walters, the All-American and Hobey Baker Award candidate. “I wasn’t expecting that outcome.”
You can figure Walters and his teammates will hear the preseason projection more than just occasionally over the next six months.
“You can’t say it doesn’t mean anything — it means a lot,” Blais said. “It means there’s a chink in our armor somewhere. Is it goaltending? Is it depth? Is it other circumstances? Is it schedule? We’ll see.”
The NCHC is finally set for its first season of play following college hockey’s version of realignment. Penn State launched a hockey program in 2012-13, giving the Big Ten the required minimum of six teams that allowed them to break away from their two leagues and play for their own automatic qualifier starting this season.
Eight of, arguably, the top nine programs — in terms of market size, revenue stream, tradition and long-term potential — then formed the NCHC: UNO and five other schools moved from the WCHA, while Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan signed on from the CCHA.
Miami, which has played in eight straight NCAA tournaments and won the CCHA last year while going 25-12-5 overall, was chosen as the initial league favorite.
“We’re honored that the media thinks we have a decent team,” RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi said. “But there’s seven other teams that could’ve been put in that spot and it would probably still be a good decision.”
North Dakota, the 19-time Frozen Four participant and seven-time national champion, was picked second after going 22-13-7 and reaching the national quarterfinals. St. Cloud State, which went 25-16-1 and reached the Frozen Four, was picked third.
“(Regardless of the poll) every team is still good, and every night you’ve got to be ready,” Denver goalie Sam Brittain said. “There’s no gap from 1 to 8. If you don’t show up one night, you’re going to get beat and beat bad. … And that’s only going to help down the road, especially as you get ready for the playoffs.”
Like North Dakota, Denver has won seven national titles. Fourteen-time Frozen Four qualifiers who have made six straight national tournament appearances, the Pioneers were picked to finish fourth.
Western Michigan, 19-11-8 last year and third in the CCHA, has made just five NCAA tournament appearances. The Broncos were picked fifth.
Minnesota-Duluth was just 14-19-5 last season, but won a national championship in 2011 and played in the NCAA tournament the following year. Colorado College — 10-time Frozen Four qualifiers with two national championships — was just 18-19-5 and finished eighth in the WCHA last year, but the Tigers managed to reach the WCHA championship game before their magical postseason run ended.
And then there are the Mavs, who had a second straight late-season fade that knocked them out of NCAA tournament contention. They finished 19-18-2 and are still looking for a third postseason appearance.
“You can look at that poll, and three months from now it may not mean a thing,” Owens said. “It may not mean a thing in March. Because everybody is so close.
“… I think there will be some surprises. There will be players who emerge that we’re not even talking about right now.”
Said Hakstol: “The (final) league standings are going to be based on who plays the best hockey on the most consistent basis. That’s a great challenge that’s in front of all of us.”