The revamping of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the renewal of some old rivalries and the return of a potent lineup make the upcoming Michigan Tech hockey season one of the most anticipated in recent memory.
The Huskies will play a challenging non-conference schedule including road series at Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame and Michigan and a pair of games at home vs. Michigan State. The other non-conference games will be a pair of outdoor games at Comerica Park in Detroit for the 49th annual Great Lakes Invitational.
The league slate will be tough as well, with 10 teams all setting their sights becoming the first to hoist the MacNaughton Cup in the remixed conference. Among them are Tech's Upper Peninsula rivals Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State, who the Huskies will play four times each.
Winning the WCHA and having home ice for the league playoffs will be goals of the 2013-14 squad. The roster features a number of talented players all the way around the ice, and with several potential impact freshmen joining in, the Huskies are primed to achieve their goals.
The strength of the 2013-14 squad should be up front, where nearly everyone returns. Tech forwards combined for 222 points a year ago and 78 percent that offense is back. The Black and Gold also have a nice mix of scoring, penalty killers and two-way players.
The senior class will be relied upon for leadership and output with three players who have combined for 331 games of collegiate experience. Ryan Furne and Jacob Johnstone will both look to finish their careers on a high note. Furne is a former team scoring leader with 65 career points (30g, 35a). Johnstone owns 44 career points with 19 of those coming as a freshman. Dennis Rix will serve as an assistant captain this year after amassing 11 of his 27 career points last season.
Blake Pietila headlines a super group of juniors. The 2012-13 team MVP showed his versatility in playing in all situations and posting 14-10=24 as a sophomore. A gold medalist with Team USA at last winter's World Junior Championship, Pietila will serve as co-captain and no doubt log a ton of ice time again this year.
David Johnstone and Tanner Kero made strides from their first year to their second, and Tech fans can only hope they continue that track. Johnstone has put up 58 career points in 71 games over the last two seasons. Kero amassed 24 points in 2012-13 after a 16-point rookie campaign.
The sophomore group includes last year's team leading scorer and a WCHA All-Rookie Team selection in Alex Petan. The right wing led WCHA freshmen in scoring with 29 points in 28 league games and had 15-19=34 in 37 total games. He has been named preseason All-WCHA for 2013-14.
Malcolm Gould, who had 3-6=9 in 27 games a year ago, will look to take the next step in his contributions. Fellow sophomore C.J. Eick became a crowd favorite with his speed. He posted 3-4=7 in 36 games and was a key to the Huskies penalty kill.
Several rookies should make an immediate impact on the ice. Brent Baltus was the Interior MVP of the British Columbia Hockey League in 2013 after putting up 24 goals and 52 total points. Mike Neville, who was team captain of the 2012-13 Ontario Junior Hockey League Champion St. Michael's Buzzers, posted 51 points in 44 games. Tyler Heinonen is coming off a 48-point season in the United States Hockey League in 2012-13. Reid Sturos had a successful season with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL, being named team MVP with 25-32=57 in 56 games.
While it will be difficult to replace veterans Steven Seigo and Carl Nielsen on the blue line, Michigan Tech has a good corps of players who will compete for time in the defensive zone.
Brad Stebner and Dan Sova are both seniors with plenty of experience. Stebner will serve as team co-captain in 2013-14. He had 1-10=11 in 35 games a year ago and has played in 102 career games with 4-18=22. Sova put up 22 points while playing in every game his first two seasons. An injury hampered his production a year ago as a junior.
Riley Sweeney is a proven college hockey player with 76 games of experience and 23 points (2g, 21a). Fellow juniors Jimmy Davis and Justin Fillion will also battle for roles.
Sophomore Walker Hyland developed into one of the Huskies' top blue liners last year after a slow start. The Woodbury, Minn., native posted 2-6=8 in just 23 games, and he's expected to take another step forward and help solidify the back end in 2013-14.
Even with the number of solid returnees, freshmen will be relied on heavily right away.
Cliff Watson is a San Jose Sharks draft choice who played the last two seasons with Sioux City of the USHL. The 6-2, 200-pound Watson tallied 11 points and a plus-10 rating in 62 games with the Musketeers.
Shane Hanna and Chris Leibinger are also freshmen defensemen for the Huskies. Hanna was the highest-scoring blue liner in the BCHL last season when he posted 12-39=51 for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. The BCHL Interior First Team All-Star is expected to make immediate contributions on Tech's power play. Leibinger is a veteran of the USHL. He started last season with Muskegon and finished in Waterloo.
Both Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips were thrown into the fire last year as freshman, and they gained valuable experience.
Copley saw the most action with 24 appearances. He posted a 3.22 goals against average and .900 save percentage on the season including marks of 2.78 and .917 after Christmas with three shutouts.
Phillips appeared in nine contests in 2012-13 with four starts. He played to a 2.20 goals against average and .907 save percentage with one shutout victory.
The two give the Huskies a strong presence in net, but they'll be challenged by incoming freshman Matt Wintjes. The Holland Landing, Ont., native played the last four seasons for Newmarket of the OJHL. He appeared in 35 games in 2012-13 with a 2.31 goals against average and .915 save percentage, helping his team to game seven of the OJHL finals.