INCH previews 2007's top story lines

We're only a few weeks removed from the 2006 national championship game, but here at Inside College Hockey we can't resist casting our gaze toward the future. A lot can change between now and the drop of the puck in October, but that doesn't stop our 10 For '07 feature.

We already took an early look at the top 10 teams and the top 10 Hobey contenders headed into next season. Now we take a look at the big questions entering the 2006-07 season.

What is to become of the CHA? Will the big leagues absorb those teams if it dissolves? Or will they play as independents? Or fold?

Umm ... all of the above?

We'll likely know the fate of the CHA sometime this week, as coaches from the league's five remaining teams meet in Florida in conjunction with the American Hockey Coaches Association's annual convention. Since Air Force announced last year it was bolting for Atlantic Hockey -- creating the most geographically mismatched league name since the East Coast Hockey League expanded to include teams in San Diego and Alaska -- the death watch has been on.

There are a few factors to consider here. First, there are no candidates on the horizon willing to fill the CHA's sixth slot. The league unsuccessfully wooed current Division I programs and courted Kennesaw State, the Georgia school which talked of adding varsity hockey before abandoning the effort. Second, there doesn't appear to be any room for growth in the four established leagues -- they're all at tidy even numbers. Third, the league best suited to handle expansion, Atlantic Hockey, limits its teams to 11 scholarships, whereas the CHA allows its members to offer the NCAA-maximum 18 full rides. Good luck getting a Niagara or a Bemidji State whack seven scholarships.

If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's that the movers and shakers recognize that this is a college hockey problem, not just a CHA problem.

What's the status of new rinks on the college hockey landscape, and what will they mean?

The status is mixed -- Miami's new Goggin Arena will open in the fall, Quinnipiac's new multi-sport Athletics Center is set for a January 2007 unveiling and the proposed new DECC at UMD is still on the drawing board.

What they mean, though, is more consistent across the board -- good things. In the arms race of college hockey recruiting, facilities rank right alongside coaching in importance. For Miami and Quinnipiac, the new rinks come at a perfect time, as the programs are already on an upswing. The RedHawks claimed the CCHA regular-season title last season and despite the loss of Andy Greene, have a solid group around which to build. The Bobcats, meanwhile, made their ECACHL debut last season and not only had the league's rookie of the year (Brian Leitch), but arguably the conference's best recruiting class overall.

Can Denver get back after losing the best player in the game and their best forward -- but no one else?

Will the Pioneers miss Matt Carle? Certainly, but show us a club in the country that wouldn't miss a defenseman who finds himself on the top power-play unit for an NHL playoff team less than a month after playing his last game as a collegian. That doesn't mean the cupboard is bare on the Denver blueline, however. Chris Butler had a fine freshman campaign and he, along with classmate T.J. Fast and junior-to-be Andrew Thomas, will continue to improve. The wild card may be recruit Keith Seabrook, the brother of promising Chicago Blackhawk rearguard Brent Seabrook. Initially expected to join the Pioneers in the fall of 2007, will he be on the ice when George Gwozdecky's charges take the ice for their first practice this September?

Denver loses its best forward in historical terms -- the graduated Gabe Gauthier scored 155 career points and won two national championships. That said, Paul Stastny was the Pioneers' best forward last season, winning the WCHA conference scoring title with 44 points in 28 league matches and tying Carle for fourth in the circuit in scoring in all games with 53 points. Stastny will again benefit by riding shotgun with Ryan Dingle (27 goals) next season. The entire team will benefit if DU can get a full season out of forward Brock Trotter, who scored five points in five games before a freak Achilles tendon tear ended his freshman campaign prematurely.

Will Michigan find (or rediscover) a goalie?

Let's not write off Billy Sauer just yet, people. He struggled at times this season, to be sure, but remember that (a) he was rushed into Ann Arbor as a 17-year-old after Al Montoya signed with the Rangers in July and (b) the Wolverines weren't too terribly staunch on defense. And before you counter by saying Montoya won 30 games as a 17-year-old freshman in 2002-03, that team boasted a gaggle of quality two-way forwards (Jed Ortmeyer and Eric Nystrom among them) and a steadier blueline corps. By the way, did you know Sauer's .898 save percentage last season was better than the .895 save percentage Montoya posted during his last go-round in Ann Arbor?

He's still a highly regarded goaltender -- the NHL Central Scouting Service ranks Sauer 13th among North American netminders eligible for June's entry draft -- and he'll be a more confident, more mature player as a sophomore. With the firepower the Wolverines have at their disposal year after year, their goalies aren't asked to win games single-handedly. More important is making the simple play and minimizing mistakes.

What will next year's officiating initiative be? Will checking from behind still be a focus?

If you can believe both the Internet and the NCAA -- has there ever been a more trustworthy combination? -- then two points of emphasis are on deck for the 2006-07 season. According to a short video on the NCAA Web site entitled "End of Season Ice Hockey Officiating Video for AHCA Discussion," checking from behind and players in the crease are the touchstones for the year to come.

On a mostly unrelated topic, humor us and watch the video. Does it appear to you that most of the dirty play takes place in the WCHA and Hockey East, while the CCHA is chock full of Lady Byng candidates? Should we assume the by-product of gentlemanly play is a combined 1-4 record in the NCAA Tournament and no title game appearances since Bill Muckalt's senior year?

Where do RIT and Air Force fit in Atlantic Hockey?

Neither team can expect to challenge for the conference title in the new 10-team Atlantic Hockey, but they shouldn't finish dead last either. That means even more competition for a league that saw a middle-of-the-pack club -- Bentley, which was under .500 in league play -- advance to its conference championship game.

Both teams bring back significant experience, as each loses only three regulars to graduation. Neither was particularly successful against Atlantic Hockey last year (Air Force was 0-3-0, RIT was 2-3-0), but most of those games were on the road. With solid leadership and the boost of energy that comes with new surroundings, it wouldn't be surprising to see either team finish in the top half of the standings.

We've already seen a few people bolt early for the NHL. With the lockout seemingly out of our memory, how many more will jump to the pros, and how much different will the NCAA look next year as a result?

The offseason defections aren't over, and even some of those who have professed their intentions to stay -- hello, Jack Johnson and Brian Boyle -- could be cashing checks by September. That's nothing new to college hockey fans, who learn to get attached to the guys on the ice between periods -- like Bucky and Bananas -- moreso than those out there during the game.

The bigger question, however, is whether the post-lockout NHL will lure a greater number of underclassmen out of the college ranks each year. With ninth-round picks (UNH's Daniel Winnik) and relatively unknown free agents (Ferris State's Matt Stefanishion) jumping ship, it appears, at first glance, that college hockey may lose a few more players early than it has been accustomed to.

What is the future of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo at North Dakota?

The university's "final" appeal is currently under review by the NCAA. But our hunch is that you could have resolve who killed JFK before this is said and done.

Neither side has shown any inkling of backing down in the standoff. That hints of a compromise at some point, although what form it would take is anyone's guess. Most likely, the Sioux would be prevented from hosting future regionals at Ralph Engelstad Arena, which would be a shame after this season's regionals were well-attended at the world's most beautiful hockey rink.

Which coaches are on the hot seat?

A scant few. With all the turnover that's taken place over the past few seasons, most coaches are either in the midst of their so-called grace period or just completed that phase and enter the "show me" mode in 2006-07 -- of the 59 NCAA Division I head coaches, 24 have been behind the bench of their current teams for four seasons or less.

It's not all pink lemonade and teddy bears, however. Western Michigan's Jim Culhane and UMass Lowell's Blaise MacDonald are the two coaches who appear to have the most riding on the coming season. MacDonald led UML to a fourth-place finish in the Hockey East standings in his first year behind the RiverHawk bench -- in the ensuing four seasons, his teams have finished in an eighth-place tie, sixth, fifth and seventh. Culhane, meanwhile, has been at Western for eight seasons and his Broncos have placed in the lower half of the CCHA standings in six of them. He had never won a postseason series until last season, when WMU swept Lake Superior State in the first round of an expanded CCHA playoff format.

Coaches who may find themselves on the hot seat a year from now with a poor showing if 2006-07 include Don Cahoon at UMass, Brown's Roger Grillo, Bowling Green's Scott Paluch, George Roll at Clarkson, and Minnesota Duluth's Scott Sandelin.

Can anyone outside the WCHA win a national championship?

National championship? Why stop there? Let's throw the Hobey Baker Award in the mix as well. It's been six seasons since either honor has been spotted anywhere east of Wisconsin. It could be time to turn everyone outside the WCHA into Division I-AA.

Then again, the West's stranglehold on our sport has actually been fairly tenuous. Think back to Denver killing off a 6-on-3, or even that post BC hit with less than two seconds remaining this season. It would be one thing if the WCHA was racking up Globetrotter vs. Generals decisive victories -- this stretch is almost more impressive since the league has been so close to defeat at different times along the way.

A bounce here or there and the answer to this question is most definitely yes, with Boston College and Michigan State entering 2006-07 as the best candidates to dethrone the WCHA. But with five straight titles -- and Hobeys -- to its credit, someone from the WCHA has to be considered the favorite.

Check out insidecollegehockey.com for more college hockey information.