North Dakota, Wisconsin among early favorites

After witnessing an all-WCHA Frozen Four in 2005, Eastern college hockey enjoyed a bit of a Renaissance in 2006, accounting for half the participants in Milwaukee and sending Boston College to the championship game.

Don't expect that to lead to parades through the streets of Boston, however. It's now been five straight seasons that the national champion has come from the WCHA, and upon first glance, there's no reason to think that will change when the Frozen Four visits St. Louis -- the Gateway to the West -- next April.

North Dakota and Wisconsin return the most formidable lineups, not coincidentally including the two best goaltenders likely to be wearing college sweaters in the fall. Those WCHA clubs, who trailed Minnesota in the conference standings this year, appear to be the early favorites for next season.

Defections to pro hockey are as much a part of college hockey's summer as barbecues and replays on ESPNU, so as we glance toward 2006-07, a lot can still change. But with that caveat, we provide this early look at the top contenders for next year's national title.

1. North Dakota Fighting Sioux

North DakotaThe Fighting Sioux have a number of candidates who could potentially bolt for the pros, led by forward Drew Stafford. Even if Stafford leaves, they'll welcome back all but two players in the lineup for this month's Frozen Four loss against Boston College, including forwards T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews and Travis Zajac, defenseman Brian Lee and goaltender Jordan Parise.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

WisconsinThree of the team's top five scorers, including All-American defenseman Tom Gilbert, graduate. Forward Jack Skille will be counted on to improve on the 21 points he scored during his freshman season. Hobey Baker Award finalist Brian Elliott should be back, and among the team's incoming recruits is 6-foot-4 blueliner Nigel Williams, a potential top-10 pick in June's NHL entry draft.

3. Michigan State

Michigan StateOnly North Dakota's freshmen were better than Michigan State's down the stretch, and with goaltender Jeff Lerg leading the way for the Spartans, even that distinction is debatable. What impressed us most about MSU at the East Regional was the all-rookie line, led by Tim Crowder, that head coach Rick Comley sent over the boards seemingly every other shift. What had been a tumultuous tenure for Comley now seems to have some stability, and with only a handful of contributors graduating (defenseman Corey Potter being the best of them), the Spartans may take a big stride next year.

4. Boston College

Boston CollegeBoston College was blessed with the youngest team in the nation as it made its unlikely run to the NCAA championship game in Milwaukee. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the best players on that team -- Chris Collins, Brian Boyle, Cory Schneider and Peter Harrold -- are all either graduating or are prime candidates to sign with NHL teams. Head coach Jerry York will look to players like Benn Ferriero, Dan Bertram and Brock Bradford to make a leap in productivity similar to the one Collins made this season. If Boyle or Schneider decide to return, it will be a big boost for a club that welcomes back five of its six defensemen.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers

MinnesotaWhat do you make of a team that waltzed through the second half of the season on the way to a WCHA title, only to lose to Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament? Uncertainty remains as we gaze to the future for the Gophers, who could field three top-five NHL draft picks, but still be picked third -- or lower -- in their ultra-competitive conference. The losses of Ryan Potulny (Philadelphia Flyers) and Danny Irmen (Minnesota Wild) certainly hurt, but with the talent that the Gophers return, with or without potential No. 1 pick Phil Kessel, they will have the opportunity to challenge for a Frozen Four berth.

6. Miami (Ohio)

Miami (Ohio)If the goaltending duo of Charlie Effinger and Jeff Zatkoff repeat this season's performance, and forwards Matt Christie and Marty Guerin regain the form that allowed them to combine for 138 points as freshmen and sophomores -- they totaled just 40 points last season -- the RedHawks won't skip a beat despite the loss of defenseman Andy Greene.

7. Michigan Wolverines

MichiganBarring offseason defections, the Wolverines -- led by forwards T.J. Hensick and Andrew Cogliano and defensemen Jack Johnson and Matt Hunwick -- will boast a group of skaters as talented as any team in the nation, save North Dakota. But can anyone stop the puck? Despite an 11-6-4 record, goalie Billy Sauer had a rough freshman season (3.04 GAA, .898 save percentage).

8. New Hampshire Wildcats

UNHThe Wildcats will score goals, despite the loss of Daniel Winnik (Phoenix Coyotes) and the potential departure of Brett Hemingway (a Colorado draft pick). What will concern New Hampshire fans next season will be preventing opponents from scoring. Will Kevin Regan assume the full-time goaltending mantle for the first time? If he fits easily into that role -- and he was a national champion at the junior level for the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks -- he'll have a relatively experienced group of defensemen supporting him.

9. Denver Pioneers

DULosing Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Carle is huge, and centerman Gabe Gauthier also graduates. But everyone else is back, including goaltenders Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino and high-scoring forwards Paul Stastny and Ryan Dingle. The Pioneers will also regain the services of wing Brock Trotter, who had five points in five games before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in late October.

10. Harvard

HarvardHarvard flew under the radar a little bit in the 2005-06 season, but won't have that luxury in the fall. After winning the ECACHL playoff title, people expect bigger things from the Crimson and a returning group of players, which will include the team's leading scorer in Kevin Du and standout defenseman Dylan Reese. If there's a question mark, then it's probably in the goal, but Justin Tobe played well in spot duty behind John Daigneau last year.

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