With one final go-around in the current iteration of the WCHA, Michigan Tech seems poised to compete at the top level of the nation's toughest league. The Huskies finished 16-19-4 overall a year ago including an 11-13-4 slate in league play which put them in eighth place.
Tech was just one win away from home ice in the WCHA playoffs, and that's something fans in Houghton haven't seen in 20 years.
Taking the next step will be challenging, however. The WCHA is full of tough teams looking to be the last to win a league title before many leave for other conferences.
Head coach Mel Pearson believes he has the pieces in place to have a successful season. With a good group of returning players and a very strong freshman class, Tech looks to continue its upward movement in the WCHA.
The strength of Michigan Tech's unit in 2012-13 should be its defensive corps. The Huskies return eight blueliners to the roster including three seniors.
Captain Carl Nielsen and assistant captain Steven Seigo headline the group. Nielsen turned in a strong 2011-12 season. The 6-4, 225-pound stay-at-home defenseman chipped in on offense with a goal and six assists in 37 games. Seigo, who ranked among the WCHA's top-scoring defensemen each of the past two seasons, seems ready to continue his production in 2012-13.
Tommy Brown is the other senior. The Prince Albert, Sask., native, who played in just three games a year ago while battling injuries, is 100 percent heading into his final campaign.
Among the other returning defensemen is Brad Stebner, who put together an impressive sophomore campaign a year ago. The junior assistant captain led Tech in plus-minus rating last season with a plus-12.
Junior Daniel Sova returned to Tech in great shape looking to improve upon his sophomore season, where he put up three goals and 10 assists. The 6-4, 225-pound Sova is a mainstay on the power play, where he tallied 2-3=5 a year ago.
Sophomores Justin Fillion, Riley Sweeney and Jimmy Davis all gained valuable experience a year ago and should be more prepared for playing against the top players in college hockey.
Freshman Walker Hyland could add some offensive ability to the Huskies' back end. The Woodbury, Minn., native put up 44 points in 53 games a year ago with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the BCHL.
Tech graduated some very talented players from its team a year ago including captain Brett Olson (10-20=30) and assistant captain Jordan Baker (10-18=28) who finished first and third on the team in scoring, respectively.
That said, the Black and Gold return an exciting cast of skilled forwards.
The top two goal scorers from a year ago will be back on the ice for the Huskies in Ryan Furne and David Johnstone. Furne, who possesses one of the most accurate shots on the team, posted 12 goals to go with 12 assists last year. The junior scored on 15.2 percent of his shots on goal in 2011-12.
Johnstone totaled 11-18=29 during his rookie campaign including 5-3=8 on the power play. His tip-in goal in overtime at Colorado College in the WCHA Playoffs sent the Huskies to the Final Five for the first time in five years.
Michigan Tech had an extremely balanced lineup last year as nine players had eight goals or more—the only team in the nation with that many.
Joining Furne and David Johnstone as returning members of that eight-goal group are Blake Pietila (10 goals), Jacob Johnstone (nine), Tanner Kero (nine) and Milos Gordic (eight). Pietila took part in USA Hockey's Junior Evaluation Camp over the summer and has a chance to represent Team USA at the World Juniors in December. The New Jersey Devils draft pick has the size and skill to be a top player in the WCHA.
Coach Pearson is counting on bigger years offensively from the entire group, especially Gordic, who played with nagging injuries throughout most of 2011-12 and still put up 8-7=15 in just 29 games.
Center Dennis Rix established himself as a regular in the lineup a year ago with his ability to play on both ends of the ice. Daniel Holmberg, Chad Pietila, Aaron Pietila, Mikael Lickteig and Blake Hietala have all made strides in the offseason and will vie for spots in the lineup.
As good as Tech's freshman class was a year ago (84 points and 28 percent of the team's goals), it may be better this year.
Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan both ranked in the top 10 in the BCHL in scoring a year ago. Khaira tallied 79 points with the Prince George Spruce Kings before being taken in the third round (63rd overall) of the NHL Draft. The 6-3, 195-pound Khaira should make an immediate impact for the Huskies with his size and ability. Petan posted 88 points in just 55 games with the Coquitlam Express to finish sixth in the BCHL scoring race a year ago. The Huskies will look forward to having his puck-handling skill on the ice.
C.J. Eick, Malcolm Gould and Patrick Anderson are all very talented and capable of cracking the lineup. Eick, who won the Clark Cup with the Green Bay Gamblers a year ago, possesses tremendous speed. Gould averaged more than a point per game in 2011-12 for the Chilliwack Chiefs (BCHL). Anderson is a former North Dakota Mr. Hockey Runner-Up (2009) who spent the last two seasons with the New Mexico Mustangs of the NAHL.
Coach Pearson expects a wide open race for the position between the pipes, and there are three goaltenders on the rosters looking to take the top spot.
Kevin Genoe is the only one with collegiate experience. The 5-11, 165-pound senior has appeared in 58 career games with a .893 save percentage and 3.65 goals against average. He played in just seven games a year ago behind a highly successful senior in Josh Robinson, and is looking to finish his career in the starting role.
Earning and keeping the job will be challenging with freshmen Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips fighting for time. They are big in stature (both are listed at 6-3, 175) and athletic. Copley finished last season with a .909 save percentage and 3.09 goals against average while playing for Tri-City (USHL). Phillips, a 2012 Winnipeg Jets draft pick (seventh round, 190th overall), tallied a .917 saves percentage and 3.11 GAA with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens (OJHL).
The Huskies open their 2012-13 season with a home exhibition vs. Brock, a Canadian University, on Oct. 6 and an intrasquad game in Calumet Oct. 7. The regular season begins the following week with a home-and-home vs. Lake Superior State Oct. 11 and 13 before jumping into WCHA play against likely preseason favorite Minnesota Oct. 19-20. Other highlights of the schedule include: midweek games at rival Northern Michigan (Dec. 4) and vs. NMU (Feb. 12); the 47th annual Great Lakes Invitational Dec. 27-28, which is to be played outdoors at Comerica Park in Detroit; and Winter Carnival Feb. 8-9 vs. Alaska Anchorage.