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Bulldogs enter 2022-23 season stacked, but so is the rest of the WCHA

Minnesota Duluth is among a handful of WCHA teams welcoming back a plethora of fifth-year seniors, an Olympic medalist and a Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award top-three finalist, making it hard to discern who truly is the top team heading into the 2022-23 season.

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Ashton Bell and Emma Maltais of Canada are seen during a team photo session on Feb. 2, 2022, ar Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing, China, prior to the start of the 2022 Olympic women's hockey tournament. Bell and Maltais won gold with Canada in Beijing last winter and are now both back in the WCHA. Bell returns to Minnesota Duluth and Maltais is with Ohio State.
David W. Cerny / File / Reuters

DULUTH — With nine fifth-year seniors, four players who just returned from the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Denmark, a returning Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award top-three finalist in Gabbie Hughes and an Olympic gold medalist from Canada in Ashton Bell, the 2021-22 national runners up from Minnesota Duluth should be one of the favorites to win the WCHA in 2022-23, right?

Not this year, and not in what is an extremely loaded WCHA this season. The league will feature eight Olympic medalists from the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, scattered across five of the eight teams. The league is also stacked with notable fifth-year players, including the top three finalists for last year’s Patty Kaz.

“I think this is going to be one of the best years in all of college women’s hockey,” UMD coach Maura Crowell said Wednesday during a WCHA Media Day Zoom call with reporters. Her team was picked to finish fourth in the WCHA, and ranked fifth nationally. “Frankly, some of the rosters people have put together for this season are incredible and I think the fans are in for a real treat.”

“Challenging,” “formidable” and “daunting” were the words Bemidji State coach Jim Scanlan used to describe a league schedule this season where it is difficult to pinpoint who is the team to beat in the WCHA in 2022-23.

You’ll likely get a different answer, depending on who you ask.

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Minnesota, the defending WCHA regular season champions, took the top spot in the coaches poll that was released this week. The Gophers also have nine fifth-year seniors on their roster — including former UMD defenseman Lizi Norton — three Olympic medalists from the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing and the reigning Patty Kazmaier winner in Taylor Heise.

Despite all that on the roster, the Gophers only received three out of eight first-place votes in the WCHA coaches poll this year, and they failed to pick up the No. 1 ranking in either of the national preseason polls released this week — coming in at No. 2 in the USCHO poll with two first-place votes and No. 3 in the USA Hockey poll, getting no first-place votes.

Minnesota Duluth's Gabbie Hughes and Ashton Bell are among a group of players who were either top-three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award a year ago, or Olympic gold medalists from Beijing.

Echoing Crowell, Gophers coach Brad Frost said 2022-23 might be the most talented group of teams the WCHA has ever had. That being said, Frost indicated he expects things in the WCHA to play out like any other year.

“There's top rated teams, there's nationally ranked teams — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, whatever,” Frost said. “Obviously, there's the fifth-year group, there's athletes coming back from the Olympics — so maybe each team is a little more stacked. But all-in-all, it's just like any other year in the WCHA.”

The No. 1 team nationally is the defending NCAA champions from Ohio State. The Buckeyes have five fifth-year players, a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist in Sophie Jacques and an Olympic gold medalist from Canada in Emma Maltais.

OSU, which is also the defending WCHA postseason champ, received 17 first-place votes from USCHO and 16 from USA Hockey in the national polls. But in the WCHA coaches poll, the Buckeyes finished a point back of the Gophers while also garnering three first-place votes.

Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team faces  Ohio State for national championship
Ohio State players celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating Minnesota Duluth 3-2 at the Women’s Frozen Four National Championship on Sunday, March 20, 2022, at Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Like Frost, Buckeyes coach Nadine Muzerall said this season will be a grind, just like every other in the WCHA.

“It will be a unique year … with players coming back from the Olympics and players coming back from centralization,” Muzerall said. “It’s nothing different in the sense of it happens every four years within our league, and we’re really excited to take on that challenge.”

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Wisconsin nabbed the other two first-place votes from the league’s coaches to finish third, just two points back of the Gophers. The Badgers received one first-place vote in the USCHO poll to come in at No. 3 and three in the USA Hockey version to come in at No. 2 nationally.

Wisconsin has four fifth-year players on its roster, plus two Olympic silver medalists from the United States in freshman defenseman Caroline Harvey, the WCHA Preseason Player of the Year, and fifth-year senior forward Jesse Compher, a transfer from Boston University. Harvey, Compher and teammate Lacey Eden also won silver medals with Team USA at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship that just wrapped up this month.

Mark Johnson, who is entering his 20th season as coach of the Badgers, said the 2022-23 season is the strongest the WCHA has been since he’s been around, noting the number of Olympians — among other star players — who are back for fifth seasons due to the COVID-19 exemption granted in 2020-21.

“The preseason poll, it’s interesting,” Johnson said. “You look at each team's roster, top-to-bottom, from 1-8 this year, every game is going to be extremely competitive, and it's going to be fun to be a part of that.”

The Badgers are the first WCHA team to take the ice, Sept. 22-23 at Penn State. Bemidji State hosts Lindenwood and UMD travels to Long Island on Sept. 24-25 while St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and St. Thomas play exhibitions that weekend.

MORE BULLDOGS HOCKEY COVERAGE:
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Related Topics: MINNESOTA DULUTH BULLDOGS
Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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