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Colorado College, Denver among early favorites

You think there's uncertainty for NHL fans heading into next fall?

Take a look at college hockey.

Most of college hockey's best players are scheduled to be back on campus this fall — only five of the 18 Inside College Hockey All-Americans, for example, are seniors. If the NHL lockout remains in place, preventing underclassmen from leaving for the big money, 2005-06 could be the sport's best season in years.

But what happens if the NHL comes back, either with a new deal or replacement players? Will Patrick Eaves, Matt Carle, David McKee and the rest flee, like the rush of players leaving Denver's bench after the title game? Then there's the uncertainty of when the NHL will make up its mind, which could be late enough to prevent colleges from bringing in freshmen in time to start fall semester. Finally, there's the added wrinkle of this being an Olympic year — if NHLers can't play in Torino, some of the best college players could be headed to the Italian Alps.

As a result, college hockey fans can look forward to next season the way Red Sox fans used to spend their winters — with optimism, but with a healthy dose of wariness mixed in.

Always stocked with half-full types, INCH takes an early look at a possible top 10 with the expectation that all underclassmen will return to campus. And even with the uncertainty surrounding personnel, this much is certain: The balance of power in college hockey should remain in the West. What's more, we expect first-year players to make a big impact, and none of them (except, perhaps, Olympian Phil Kessel?) are threats to disappear before the fall.

Here's an early look at what to expect in 2006:

1. Colorado College

CCThe Tigers lose one forward (gritty Scott Polaski), one defenseman (gritty Richard Petiot) and one goaltender (All-American Curtis McElhinny). Plenty of talent returns, however, led by Hobey Hat Trick finalists Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling and All-American defenseman Mark Stuart. In goal, Los Angeles Kings draft pick Matt Zaba is a capable replacement for McElhinney.

2. Denver Pioneers

DUWe downplayed the Pioneers after they won the 2004 title, and look where it got us. The defending champs' losses are significant, but national coach of the year George Gwozdecky welcomes back no fewer than five All-America candidates and two likely Hobey Baker Award finalists, forward Gabe Gauthier and defenseman Matt Carle.

3. Cornell Big Red

CornellForty-five years after the original M & M Boys ran roughshod over the American League, the Big Red tandem of Matt Moulson and David McKee will key Cornell's bid to win the ECACHL regular-season and postseason championships for the second straight year. Of the five seniors the Big Red graduate, defenseman Charlie Cook will be the toughest to replace.

4. Minnesota Golden Gophers

MinnesotaIt's not as much about what the Gophers lose from this year's team as it is about what they'll bring into the fold in the fall. Goaltender Jeff Frazee, forwards Peter Mueller and Blake Wheeler, and incomparable Kessel — possibly the best U.S.-born player ever — join Danny Irmen, Ryan Potulny, Kris Chucko and Co. in the maroon and gold.

5. Wisconsin Badgers

WisconsinEveryone's back for the Badgers, save goaltender Bernd Bruckler. Of course, Bruckler saved the Badgers on many occasions. Returnee Brian Elliot and newcomer Shane Connelly are the candidates to fill the net. Speaking of filling the net, shouldn't a team that has Robbie Earl, Joe Pavelski, Ryan MacMurchy and Jake Dowell average more than 3.10 goals per game?

6. New Hampshire Wildcats

UNHThe Wildcats' biggest weapon, year after year, is the improvement they see in their returning players. This year, it was Jacob Micflikier, Brett Hemingway and Daniel Winnik stepping forward to make UNH the most dangerous offensive team in the East. Kevin Regan proved to be among the nation's best freshman goaltenders, and you can expect the likes of Mike Radja, Matt Fornataro and Craig Switzer to improve and help fill the shoes of the departing seniors.

7. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio StateThe Buckeyes have made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and that string will likely grow to four in 2006. In fact, next year's squad could be the best in coach John Markell's 11-year tenure in Columbus. Nine OSU skaters scored 20 or more points last season; eight of them return, as does underrated goaltender Dave Caruso.

8. North Dakota Fighting Sioux

North DakotaPerhaps the most encouraging sign of the Fighting Sioux's run to the NCAA championship game was the emergence of the team's topflight young talent. Forwards Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford and Rastislav Spirko and goaltender Jordan Parise were brilliant down the stretch. With a healthy Brady Murray and the addition of newcomers such as U.S Junior National Team member Brian Lee, North Dakota shouldn't skip a beat despite the loss of leading scorer Colby Genoway and some muscle in Matt Jones and Andy Schneider.

9. UMass Lowell River Hawks

UMass LowellYes, we thought the River Hawks would be around this spot in 2004-05. And no, they didn't make it this far, although they were a team to be reckoned with in the second half. Assuming they have learned how to win — and all evidence outside of Orono, Maine, suggests that they have — this team, which loses only one regular, will challenge for the Hockey East title. Forwards Elias Godoy and Ben Walter, along with defenseman Cleve Kinley, are All-America candidates.

10. Michigan Wolverines

MichiganSure, the Wolverines lose 10 seniors from a team that won the CCHA's regular-season and playoff championships. And while that's a lot of bodies to replace, none of 'em are named Hensick, Hunwick, Montoya or Tambellini. Throw in guys who would star on lesser teams (Andrew Ebbett, Chad Kolarik, Kevin Porter) and heralded newcomers such as forward Andrew Cogliano and defenseman Jack Johnson ... the Wolves will be fine.

Check out insidecollegehockey.com for more college hockey information.