NCHC team-by-team breakdown and predictions

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Fighting Hawks goaltender Peter Thome carries the NCHC Penrose Cup following UND's 2-1 overtime home victory against Western Michigan on Saturday, February 29. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Each team in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference is set to play a 26-game schedule beginning with 10 games in the NCHC's Pod setup in Omaha from Dec. 1-21.

Here's a breakdown of all eight teams in the league.

North Dakota

Coach: Brad Berry (sixth season).

Last year: 26-5-4 (first place).

Penrose Cups: 3 (2015, 2016, 2020).


Herald predicted finish: 1st.

NCHC media predicted finish: 1st.

Best player: Sr. F Jordan Kawaguchi. The senior from Abbotsford, B.C., is the first Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist to return to college hockey since Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey in 2015. Vesey won the Hobey the following year.

Breakout player: Soph. F Judd Caulfield. The power forward from Grand Forks Central had a strong rookie year, earning a spot on the right wing of UND’s second line. Caulfield has terrific skill for a player of his size. You’ll see it more this season.

Top newcomer: Fr. D Jake Sanderson. The smooth-skating defenseman from Montana is the highest-drafted player in college hockey this season. Sanderson can do a bit of everything -- play shutdown defense and add offense.

Outlook: There will be big expectations for UND, which brings back five of its top six forwards and perhaps the two best defensemen in the league, Matt Kiersted and Jacob Bernard-Docker. The Fighting Hawks also have both of their goalies, Peter Thome and Adam Scheel, back in the fold. If UND can play with the same edge and chip on its shoulder as last season, it will be the favorite to win a fourth Penrose Cup.

Coach Berry says: "We have to try to have a focus again, try to reset right away here. There's no dipping our toe in the water here. Usually, you start out with a Canadian college team, an exhibition game, then you play some nonconference games. Then, you get into the hard, heavy gauntlet of the NCHC. It's going from zero to 100 miles per hour right away here. I know everybody is going to be on the same playing field or level situation where execution is going to be probably a little bit not sharp early on and hopefully get better as we go. It's an obscure year. We're just thankful our guys are getting the chance to play."


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UND's Jordan Kawaguchi protects the puck from Miami defenseman Jack Clement (5) deep in the Redhawks' zone in a November 2019 home hockey game. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald


Coach: David Carle (third season).

Last year: 21-9-6 (third place).

Penrose Cups: 1 (2017).

Herald predicted finish: 2nd.

NCHC media predicted finish: 2nd.

Best player: Soph. F Bobby Brink. Last season, Brink fell just short of winning the league’s rookie of the year award. An injury that forced him to miss eight games didn’t help. But he showed his gamebreaking ability when he was in the lineup.

Breakout player: Jr. D Slava Demin. Last season, Ian Mitchell had 18 power-play points for Denver. The rest of its defensemen combined for four. Mitchell is gone and the Pios need others to step up the offense this season from the back end.


Top newcomer: Sr. F Steven Jandric. Denver may have scored the biggest transfer prize of the offseason by landing Jandric, who played three seasons at Alaska (Fairbanks). Jandric led the Nanooks in goals and points each of the last two seasons.

Outlook: The second-most complete team in the league is Denver. The Pioneers have a loaded group of forwards led by Brink, Cole Guttman and Brett Stapley. They’ve got goalie Magnus Chrona back, too. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Denver’s team is the graduate transfers they’ve brought in -- Jandric up front and Bo Hanson from St. Lawrence on defense.

Coach Carle says: "I really like our group. We added three grad transfers -- one at each position. We really like the guys we added out of our freshman group. The pace at which we do things has been the most impressive: how we can get up and down the ice and take away time and space has been most impressive thing. It's the style of play we like to play. I like our depth at all three positions and we're a confident bunch. We feel like we can play against anybody."

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Denver forward Bobby Brink. Photo by Justin Tafoya/Clarkson Creative

Minnesota Duluth

Coach: Scott Sandelin (21st season)

Last year: 22-10-2 (second place).

Penrose Cups: None.


Herald predicted finish: 3rd.

NCHC media predicted finish: 3rd.

Best player: Jr. F Cole Koepke. The Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick had a breakout sophomore season, piling up a team-high 16 goals and 33 points. Koepke landed as a second-team All-American and will be part of a loaded forward group for the Bulldogs.

Breakout player: Soph. F Quinn Olson. The Boston Bruins draft pick was good enough by the end of the season to play in Minnesota Duluth’s top six alongside All-Americans. With another year under his belt, he should up his production quite a bit.

Top newcomer: Fr. D Wyatt Kaiser. The Bulldogs lost their top three minute-eating defensemen in Scott Perunovich, Dylan Samberg and Nick Wolff. They’ll be looking to find a new power-play threat, and Kaiser could be just that early in his career.

Outlook: The last two seasons, Minnesota Duluth has been anchored by a terrific defensive core and goaltender Hunter Shepard, who started 115-straight games in net. The question was whether the forwards could produce enough offense. The tables are now turned. The Bulldogs have an excellent group of forwards, led by Koepke, the Cates brothers and Nick Swaney. But they have to replace four defensemen, including Hobey winner Scott Perunovich and Shepard in net.

Coach Sandelin says: "You always lose key players off your team. The two biggest ones are Shep in goal -- and I'm probably going to screw up and call his name, because I called it 115 times as far as who is starting -- and obviously Scotty is a difference-maker. He was a difference-maker on blue line. You always miss those guys but I like our group. I like our leadership group. I like the guys we have coming back. They've won before. They know what it takes to win. It's a reason I brought in some young freshmen right now, because I want them to learn from those guys who know what it takes to win in this league and in college hockey. That group that's here has done that. It doesn't guarantee anything but it's great leadership to learn from those guys."


Minnesota Duluth freshman wing Quinn Olson (15). Duluth News Tribune file photo.

St. Cloud State

Coach: Brett Larson (third season).

Last year: 13-15-6 (fifth place).

Penrose Cups: 3 (2014, 2018, 2019).

Herald predicted finish: 4th.

NCHC media predicted finish: 4th.

Best player: Sr. F Easton Brodzinski. It’s tough to find natural goal-scorers these days, but the Huskies have one with Brodzinski, who has hit double digits in goals in each of his first three seasons. The last Husky player to do it in all four years was Garrett Roe (2007-11).

Breakout player: Soph. F Zach Okabe. As a freshman, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward had zero points in his first 13 games. He finished the year with nine points in his last 17. Okabe seemed to find his stride and could carry that over to 2020-21.


Top newcomer: Fr. F Veeti Miettinen. St. Cloud State has frequently gone to Finland to find prospects and Miettinen might be their best since Kalle Kossila, who went on to play in the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks.

Outlook: With the Poehling brothers and standout defenseman Jack Ahcan gone, St. Cloud State will need some returning players to step up. Two candidates are Nolan Walker, who went from 27 points as a freshman to 12 as a sophomore, and Kevin Fitzgerald, who had a 10-goal sophomore year and a five-goal junior year. If Walker and Fitzgerald can regain their form, the Huskies could be sneaky good this season.

Coach Larson says: "It's been an interesting ride. My first year, I come in here, I walk in and I have the best team in the country in my opinion, and I thought, 'Wow, this coaching stuff is easy at this head-coaching level. These guys are pretty good.' And then we lose 12 of them and we've got 16 freshmen and sophomores last year. To see the growth and development when things looked pretty bleak early on -- getting swept at home early and losing some games we probably had a chance to win -- to see them win games against top-five teams in the country down the stretch, see the improvement. . . it was two totally polar opposite years. I feel as a two-year head coach, I've learned a lot because I've had to deal with two totally different situations. Now, this year is going to be a mix of both. Expectations will be a little different, a little higher than last year. . . maybe not quite the expectations we had two years ago, but we're moving back up that ladder. We see ourselves as maybe not the top team in the league right now or top two teams, but a team that wants to chase those two or three teams and try to pass them."

St. Cloud State’s Easton Brodzinski watches a puck during a 2019 NCAA regional game in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / The Rink Live


Coach: Mike Gabinet (fourth season).

Last year: 14-17-5 (sixth place).

Penrose Cups: None.

Herald predicted finish: 5th.

NCHC media predicted finish: 6th.

Best player: Jr. F Tyler Weiss. The Colorado Avalanche draft pick had 11 points as a freshman and 22 as a sophomore. Expect that number to increase again as he hits his junior season. Weiss was more of a setup man last season, but watch for him to increase his goal total this year.

Breakout player: Soph. F Nolan Sullivan. The Eden Prairie, Minn., product is 5-foot-11, 198 pounds but plays a lot bigger than that. He could center Omaha’s top line this season and points will come with that.

Top newcomer: Jr. D Jonny Tychonick. The Ottawa Senators second-round pick never got big minutes or power-play time on a stacked UND D-core. Omaha, which lost its top two defensemen to graduation, will have plenty of opportunities for Tychonick.

Outlook: The Mavericks return nearly their entire roster from last season. Their biggest losses were defensemen Dean Stewart and Ryan Jones, but they’re bringing in Tychonick to address those losses. Vegas Golden Knights draft pick Isaiah Saville should give Omaha stability in net. A big positive? The Mavericks get to play 18 of 26 games at home. A big negative? The Mavs have to play 12 of 26 against UND or Denver.

Coach Gabinet on Omaha hosting the Pod: "I think it's good. We know the city, obviously. For me, most important is it's exciting for the community. The Aksarben Village is one of the nicest spots anywhere. There's a lot of restaurants and hotels and everything right there. It's great just to see all those local business owners get an opportunity to host teams for those three weeks. We know our rink, and I know it wasn't built to house eight teams, but the staff is doing a great job trying to accommodate everyone and make it an enjoyable experience for all the coaches and athletes that are going to participate."

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UND's Shane Pinto and Omaha forward Nolan Sullivan (11) wait for the puck to be dropped during Friday's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Western Michigan

Coach: Andy Murray (10th season).

Last year: 18-13-5 (fourth place).

Penrose Cups: None.

Herald predicted finish: 6th.

NCHC media predicted finish: 5th.

Best player: Soph. D Ronnie Attard. Western Michigan lost four of its regular defensemen in the offseason. It will call upon Attard, the Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, to do some heavy lifting. Attard has special offensive abilities and the Broncos will need them.

Breakout player: Sr. F Josh Passolt. Offensive production totals were down last year for Passolt, but he has some high-end offensive abilities. There will be big-minute spots open in the lineup and Passolt should fill one of them.

Top newcomer: Fr. F Chad Hillebrand. The former Green Bay Gamblers forward is a prototypical Andy Murray player. He’s big at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he’s an excellent skater and had two solid years in the USHL.

Outlook: The Broncos lost their top four forwards in Hugh McGing (St. Louis), Wade Allison (Philadelphia), Dawson DiPietro (Buffalo), Austin Rueschhoff (N.Y. Rangers). They also lost four regular defensemen including the dynamic Cam Lee (Pittsburgh) and second-round draft pick Mattias Samuelsson (Buffalo). They’ll need Paul Washe, Ethen Frank, Rhett Kingston, Drew Worrad, Cole Gallant and Passolt to raise their level.

Coach Murray says: "We like the characteristics of our young players. They've come to work. Every job is open. Everyone talks about our team last year. We were a candidate. We would have loved to get to Frozen Faceoff in St. Paul. Obviously, we wanted to play in the Frozen Four, because that was in Detroit and we would have had 18,500 Bronco fans. But we dropped that season and we're onto this one. We like the look of our group. The unfortunate thing we have is we play in the best league in college hockey, so the other teams are pretty darn good too. We like our group. They've come in and worked hard. They have a real good grasp about what our culture is all about."

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Western Michigan defenseman Ronnie Attard. Photo by WMU athletics.

Colorado College

Coach: Mike Haviland (seventh season).

Last year: 11-20-3 (eighth place).

Penrose Cups: None.

Herald predicted finish: 7th.

NCHC media predicted finish: 7th.

Best player: Jr. D Bryan Yoon. The top career point-scorer on Colorado College’s roster this season is a defenseman who has only been in college hockey for two years. Yoon gives the Tigers one of the NCHC’s best offensive threads from the back end.

Breakout player: Soph. F Josiah Slavin. The younger brother of former Tiger men’s defender Jaccob Slavin and former UND women’s defender Jordan Slavin is due for a breakout sophomore season.

Top newcomer: Fr. D Jack Millar. Colorado College is rebuilding its team through some quality defenders from the USHL. Millar, the former alternate captain of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, has size (6-5, 215) and skill.

Outlook: Colorado College’s offense went through Chris Wilkie and Nick Halloran last season. Those two accounted for 40 percent of CC’s goals in league games. While the Tigers should have an improved defensive core, the big question will be whether they can score. Their top threats will be captain Grant Cruikshank, junior Ben Copeland and Slavin.

Coach Haviland says: "I think our defense is deeper. That's something we needed to address. I think I look at our team and it's going to be a team that has to do things by committee. I know everyone is questioning everything with losing (Chris) Wilkie and Hally (Nick Halloran) and all the goals we had there. How are we gonna score? I think we have guys. I just feel like we're a workman's type of team. That was kind of what we went after. I think we're going to have to score by committee. We're going to need that. We've made our defense better in our minds as a staff. Now, I think we have a lot of guys that just play the game hard and play the right way. We're going to be known as a hard workman's type of team and we'll be structured."

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Colorado College's Bryan Yoon (4) defends SCSU forward Nick Perbix. Jason Wachter/The Rink Live


Coach: Chris Bergeron (second season).

Last year: 8-21-5 (seventh place).

Penrose Cups: None.

Herald predicted finish: 8th.

NCHC media predicted finish: 8th.

Best player: Jr. D Derek Daschke. Only six defensemen in all of college hockey scored double-digit goals last season, and just two are back in school this season: Hobey Baker Award finalist David Farrance at Boston University and Daschke at Miami.

Breakout player: Jr. F Matt Barry. The former USHL star became eligible at Christmastime last season after transferring from Holy Cross. He had 11 points in 17 games, numbers that will jump during his first full collegiate season.

Top newcomer: Fr. D Hampus Rydqvist. St. Cloud State has the Finns and Miami has the Swedes. Rydqvist, 5-foot-9, 191 pounds, was the top-scoring defenseman in the NAHL last season with 41 points in 52 games.

Outlook: Miami leaned heavily on its top line last season for offense. Two of those three players -- Karch Bachman and Gordie Green -- are gone. Casey Gilling is left, but the RedHawks need their other players to produce far more. Miami brings in a strong recruiting class led by the Swedes -- Rydqvist on defense and Ludvig Persson in net -- but how much can be expected of them as rookies?

Coach Bergeron says: "We need to improve on everything, but in particular, keeping pucks out of our net, either five-on-five or four-on-five. Our five-on-five overall team defense was poor. Our penalty kill was below poor. It was worse than that. The one thing we want to build off of from last year is our power play. Special teams win games -- in a pod, exhibition, playoffs, middle of the year. It doesn't matter, special teams wins games. We need to improve our penalty kill. We need to keep pucks out of our net five-on-five. That has been our focus. The NCHC is a league that exposes you if you're not on same page with your defending plan."

Miami's Derek Daschke. Photo by Miami University athletics.
Miami's Derek Daschke. Photo by Miami University athletics.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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