WCHA 2015-16 Season Preview
Eight talented teams prepare to drop the puck on a new season
photo
Bemidji State junior goaltender Brittni Mowat

BEMIDJI STATE

Coach: Jim Scanlan, 2nd season Last season: 21-17-1, set school record for victories, finished in fifth place (13-14-1-1, 41 pts.) and was WCHA playoff runner-up

Key losses: Kristine Grenier had 18 points (3g-15a).

Key returnees: 21 players from last year's team, which led the nation in shots blocked. Junior goalie Brittni Mowat, who was first-team All-WCHA last season and garnered first-team All-America honors, is back, as are as top defenders Ivana Bilic (fresh off a stint with Hockey Canada's National Women's Development Team), Alexis Joyce and Madison Hutchinson. The team's top two scorers return in Stephanie Anderson (14g-10a=24pts), who participated this summer at USA Hockey's Women's National Festival, and Kaitlyn Tougas (13g-14a=27pts).

Top newcomers: Forwards Emily Bergland and Sylvia Marolt had high school success at Thief River Falls, Minn. and are among five freshmen who will try to crack the veteran lineup.

Outlook: Ranked No. 9 nationally in the preseason USCHO.com poll, expectations are high at Bemidji State. "There's a lot of excitement around the program after the year we had last year," Scanlan said. "But the ladies realize none of that means anything when the puck drops. You still have to get out there and play the game."


photo
Minnesota senior forward Hannah Brandt

MINNESOTA

Coach: Brad Frost, 9th season

Last season: 34-3-4, won third national championship in last four years and won WCHA regular season title (22-2-4-2, 72 pts.)

Key losses: All American defenseman Rachel Ramsey and forward Rachael Bona were among four graduated seniors who won 147 games and three national titles.

Key returnees: Minnesota senior forward Hannah Brandt (34g-40a=74pts), the two-time defending WCHA Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a top-3 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, was picked by league coaches as the Preseason Player of the Year. Brandt, along with second-team All-American (and U.S. teammate from the 2015 World Championships) Dani Cameranesi (23g-42a=65pts) join with WCHA All-Rookie team selection Kelly Pannek (14g-30a=44pts) to give the Gophers some of the league's most dynamic scorers. Amanda Leveille, who last year ranked second nationally with a .946 save percentage and has spent time this summer with the Canadian National Team, is a veteran presence in goal. Lee Stecklein, a second-team All-American last year and veteran of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, anchors a blue line corps which also includes Milica McMillen and Sydney Baldwin.

Top newcomers: Freshman forward Sarah Potomak received the most coaches' votes for WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year, while Frost said he expects defenseman Sophie Skarzynski and forward Taylor Williamson to contribute as well in their rookie seasons.

Outlook: The Gophers are the preseason coaches' choice to win another WCHA title and go into the season ranked No. 1 in the country by USCHO.com.


photo
Minnesota Duluth junior forward Ashleigh Brykaliuk

MINNESOTA DULUTH

Coach: Maura Crowell, 1st season

Last season: 20-12-5, finished in fourth place in the WCHA (14-10-14-2, 48 pts.)

Key losses: Forward Zoe Hickel (19g-13a=32pts) and defenseman Brigette Lacquette (7g-18a-25pts), both second-team All-WCHA players, graduated, as did career 100-point scorer Jenna McParland.

Key returnees: Ashleigh Brykaliuk scored 16 goals last season (14a=30pts), senior forward Lara Stalder scored 10 (19a=29pts) before competing for Switzerland at the 2015 World Championships and Michelle Löwenhielm – who played for Sweden during the 2015 Worlds– contributed 12 points (3g-9a) as a freshman. Sidney Morin and Jessica Healey (fresh off a stint with Canada's National Development Team), lead the defense in front of senior goalie Kayla Black, who owns UMD's all-time record with 19 career shutouts.

Top newcomers: Maddie Rooney is potentially the next great UMD netminder. Rooney led Andover to the state girls prep title in Minnesota as a junior and then played boys hockey last year at Andover and was named honorable mention all-conference.

Outlook: The Bulldogs will bond with their new coach quickly as they have only four home games before Thanksgiving, but Crowell likes what she has seen from a team picked to finish in fifth place. "We take to the road early, but it is a great opportunity to build team camaraderie,'' said Crowell. "We are excited to see what we have. They are a very mature group who has been through more than any other college program has been through. They are anxious to get going. There is obviously a little apprehension. They don't know what the new expectations are and what it's going to be like, but as we've been implementing those philosophies, they've been meeting them with open arms."


photo
Minnesota State sophomore forward Elin Johansson

MINNESOTA STATE

Coach: John Harrington, 1st season

Last season: 3-32-1, finished in eighth place in WCHA (1-26-1, 4 pts.)

Key losses: Nicole Schammel, leading scorer as a freshman (11g-11a=22pts), transferred

Key returnees: Sophomore forward Elin Johansson has experience with the Swedish National team, Hannah Davidson is a sophomore forward who showed offensive potential last year (6g-9a=15pts) and forward Katie Johnson is the lone senior. Goalie Briana Quade is one of three juniors on the young roster.

Key newcomers: Forwards Steph Keryluk and Emily Antony are among the many rookies who will get a lot of ice time for the Mavericks.

Outlook: The Mavericks won three games last season, lost more than half of its goal scoring due to graduation and transfer and has 10 freshmen among its 25-player roster, so this is a classic rebuilding year. The new coach will have four non-conference games to familiarize himself with his roster before league play starts. "It's going to be a big challenge," Harrington said. "I think attitude is going to be important. I think we're going to have a lot of enthusiasm. It's been said that the enthusiasm of youth might be more important than the nonchalance of experience. I hope that's true."


photo
North Dakota senior goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie

NORTH DAKOTA

Coach: Brian Idalski, 9th season

Last season: 22-12-3, finished in third place (16-9-3-1, 61 pts.) and qualified for WCHA Final Face-Off

Key losses: Graduated Josefine Jakobsen (16g-11a=27pts) and Andrea Dalen (11g-15a=26pts), who both were double-digit goal scorers.

Key returnees: Shelby Amsley-Benzie shared all-league goalie honors with Mowat and was a second-team All-American last year after leading the country with a .952 save percentage. UND will have veterans Gracen Hirschy and Halli Krzyzaniak, a second-team All-WCHA defender and veteran of the Canadian National Team that competed at the 2015 Worlds, are back to anchor a stout blue line. Senior Meghan Dufault (11g-20a=31pts), and juniors Becca Kohler (11g-19a=30pts) and Amy Menke (15g-13a=28pts) are proven scorers.

Top newcomers: Defenseman Anna Kilponen and forward Vilma Tanskanen played on the Finnish National Team. That pair and forward Rebekah Kolstad are expected to contribute right away, said Idalski.

Outlook: Ranked No. 6 in the country in the USCHO.com preseason poll and predicted to finish third in the WCHA preseason coaches' poll. UND has been a fixture in the first division in the last five years and, with an enticing mix of veteran talent and exciting newcomers, should be a contender again.


photo
Ohio State junior forward Claudia Kepler

OHIO STATE

Coach: Jenny Potter, 1st season

Last season: 17-16-3, finished sixth in WCHA (12-13-3-1, 40 pts.)

Key losses: Twin defensemen Kari and Sara Schmitt were blue line stalwarts over the last four years, while Taylor Kuehl (10g-14a=24pts) tied for the team scoring lead last season.

Key returnees: The Buckeyes have a solid duo returning between the pipes. Kassidy Sauve was the top rookie goalie in the WCHA last year, posting an overall 1.98 goals against average and six shutouts. Redshirt senior Stacy Danczak finished 8-5-3 with a 1.77 GAA (1.79 in WCHA contests). Claudia Kepler led the team in goals with 12 (11a=23pts) and Julia McKinnon is a feisty forward who had 17 points (9g-8a) last season.

Top newcomers: Defenseman Jincy Dunne is one of the nation's most heralded rookies in a strong class of freshmen.

Outlook: The Buckeyes are picked by coaches to repeat their sixth place finish. "Going into the year, I have stressed to the players that it is a clean slate for everyone," said Potter. "I hope the freshman have an impact. I would love to see the freshmen step up and take a leadership role, but I would love for everyone else to do the same. You always have to coach to the skill level of the players on your team. I am still trying to find out what kind of players I have."


photo
St. Cloud State senior forward Molly Illikainen

ST. CLOUD STATE

Coach: Eric Rud, 2nd season

Last season: 8-28-1, finished in seventh place in WCHA (5-22-1-1, 17 pts.)

Key losses: Audrey Hanmer was a four-year contributor on defense and goalie Julie Friend played a lot of minutes throughout her SCSU career.

Key returnees: Senior goalie Katie Fitzgerald split time with Friend last season and Molly Illikainen was the Huskies' leading scorer with 19 points (10g-9a). Senior Lexi Slattery returns on the blue line, while junior forwards Payge Pena and Lauren Hespenheide are also back up front.

Top newcomers: Chicago Young American teammates Jordan Stewart and Ivy Dynek are among six new forwards, and Taylor Crosby, the sister of Pittsburgh Penguins' star Sidney, is competing with Fitzgerald for a spot in goal.

Outlook: St. Cloud is picked to finish seventh in the WCHA again in the preseason coaches' poll and is the first opponent ever for Merrimack in the season opener Oct. 2. "We have an experienced defensive corps and a senior goalie, who showed she can be difference maker," said Rud. "We will have to rely on them."


photo
Wisconsin sophomore forward Annie Pankowski

WISCONSIN

Coach: Mark Johnson, 12th season

Last season: 29-7-4, qualified for NCAA Frozen Four, was WCHA Final Face-Off playoff champion and second place during regular season (19-6-3-1, 61 pts)

Key losses: A quartet of double-digit goal scorers all graduated in first-team All-WCHA forward Blayre Turnbull (15g-21a=36pts), Hockey Humanitarian Award Winner and second-team all-league performer Brittany Ammerman (13g-24a=37pts), third-team All-WCHA forward Karley Sylvester (13g-25a=38pts) and Katy Josephs (10g-15a=25pts).

Key returnees: Forward Annie Pankowski (21g-22a=43pts) was the national Rookie of the Year and played with Team USA at the 2015 World Championships. She now heads a deep group of forwards, which includes Final Face-Off Most Outstanding Player Sarah Nurse (15g-10a=25pts), All-Rookie honoree Emily Clark (12g-15a=27pts) – both of whom have logged time with the Canadian National Team – and Sydney McKibbon (10g-16a=26pts). Ann Renée Desbiens, herself a Team Canada veteran from the 2015 Worlds, is the latest in a line of elite Badger goalies. Inaugural NWHL draft selection Courtney Burke is the Badgers' captain and a veteran defenseman for a team that allowed the fewest goals per game in the country last season.

Top newcomers: Wisconsin has only three freshmen, but defenseman Mikaela Gardner and forward Sophia Shaver each got votes from coaches as possible Preseason Rookie of the Year.

Outlook: Ranked No. 3 in the preseason USCHO.com poll and also received two first place votes in the WCHA coaches' poll, which placed them as runners-up to preseason league pick Minnesota. The results of this year's Border Battle may once again determine the league champion, while the Badgers' potentially explosive offense and stingy defense has them eyeing a return trip to the Frozen Four.