A new champion is expected to skate away with the Northwest Hockey Conference White Division title for the third straight season.
Perrysburg unseated four-time defending champion Bedford last year. But Central Catholic, which has plenty of offense back along with solid goaltending, has been tabbed as the preseason favorite.
"Offensively we should be very strong returning our top four scorers," Central Catholic coach Steve Nowak said. "Putting the puck in the net should not be an issue. We should be right in the thick of things at the end of the season if we can keep our egos in check, stay disciplined, and buy into systems."
Bedford, which dominated the White before finishing second last year, is picked to finish runner-up again. Yet the Mules have requested to move up to the upper-tier NHC Red Division next year.
"It will be extremely important to prove to ourselves and to the league that we are worthy of moving up," Mules coach Randy Menchaca said. "There is a good player pool of Bedford students for future years, so we have to continue building the quality of our program."
Maumee has six seniors back, including goalie Austin Tubbs, and also is expected to contend.
Perrysburg went 11-1-0 to win it last year but the Yellow Jackets lost prolific scorers Matt White and Ben Lopez to graduation. Central was the only team to defeat Perrysburg.
The White Division has grown to eight teams with the addition of Southview which moved down from the Red Division this year. The division has been split into two conferences this season, the National and American. The teams will play a 10-game league schedule with two games against conference foes and one against nonconference opponents. The top four teams in each conference will then play in a postseason tournament to determine the division title.
"The White Division is filled with great teams and great coaches," Whitmer coach Mark Waddell said. "Each team has a phenomenal chance to win the division. We look forward to competing in a very talented division this season."
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Central Catholic (24-8-2 overall, 8-2-2 White Division) finished third in the division under third-year coach Steve Nowak.
The Irish return 12 letter winners along with nine seniors on the 13-player roster. The Irish are already off to a 2-0 start in league play.
Senior forward Ricky Shaffer earned All-NHC first team honors, while senior forward Justin Bain was all-league honorable mention.
Other seniors back include forward Cody Goldstein and defensemen Tyler Toska and Chris Morris.
Goalie Luke Bell, a 6-4 and 200 pound senior, was named All-NHC honorable mention.
"Shaffer, Goldstein, and Bain should be tough to contain, but we will need some secondary scoring from Thomas Smith, Mike Bell, and Brandon Troup," Nowak said.
Possible pitfalls include the loss of three of four top defensemen.
"That will be a big hurdle to overcome," Nowak said. "We will rely heavily on Toska, and Morris to help replace some big shoes. Freshman Pat Nicholson will also need to play like an upperclassman if we plan to contend for a title."
Bedford (12-13-1, 9-2-1) had captured four straight titles under Menchaca, who enters his seventh season with a record of 89-55- 6.
The Mules have good experience among their 20 players -- seven seniors, three returning starters, and 11 letter winners back.
Senior Jared Kujawa (6-foot-1, 195 pounds), a forward, earned All-NHC first team last year after finishing with 41 points (24G, 17 A).
Senior forward Blake Podgorski tallied 25 points (10 G, 15 A) to earn honorable mention. Also returning are sophomore forwards Grant McCormack (3 G, 8 A) and Brett Podgorski (6G, 8A). Defenseman Kyle Kuhr is in his first year with the program and is joined by senior Mike Miller along the blue line.
"Our first two forward lines are veterans with good scoring ability," Menchaca said. "Our first two defensive lines will be able to keep the puck out of our end. We are carrying three goalkeepers, so they will be competing for playing time, hopefully making all of them better as the season goes on."
However, nine new players will have to quickly get used to high school hockey. And of those, five are defensemen.
"We also must improve on our performance against Michigan teams in our nine Southeastern Conference games," Menchaca said.
Maumee (15-15-0, 6-6-0) has only nine varsity players, but all nine started last year.
Tubbs is one of the league's top netminders. The 6-1, 160-pound goaltender earned All-NHC second team.
Other top returning players for the Panthers are senior defenseman Conner Stanford, junior forward Jake Schneider, and sophomore defenseman Matt Young. Standford and Young earned all-league honorable mention. Schneider was a dual threat quarterback on the Maumee football team that reached the second round of the playoffs.
Six seniors are back for coach Scott Young who cites goaltending as a strength and a small bench as a weakness.
"It should be a good close division with any team winning on any given night," Young said.
Anthony Wayne (5-7-0) Derek Helmke takes over where the Generals had moved up last year after dominating the Blue Division.
Helmke inherits 17 players, including 12 seniors, 10 returning starters and 11 returning letter winners.
Senior forward Zach Ulrich, senior defenseman Jake Smith, and senior center Chris Watkins are tri-captains. Junior winger Aaron Podbielniak also returns along with senior defensemen John Vollmar and Nick Zielinski.
Whitmer (9-21-0, 1-11-0) finished last in the division under first-year coach Mark Waddell. But the season was filled with close games both in the league and nonconference.
"We have great team leadership and a great supporting class, both willing to follow team goals as we look to improve this season," Waddell said.
He will be counting on six seniors, 13 returning letter winners and 19 total players to improve upon that mark.
Senior goalie Austyn Roudebush was the division's first-team netminder. Senior forward Devin Crosser tallied 32 points (20 G, 12 A) and was a plus-8 last year.
Senior forward Nick Gilmore and senior F/D Rob Daunhauer earned All-NHC honorable mention. Daunhauer had 9 goals and 13 assists. Senior forward Kyle Measles (4 G, 10 A) and junior Jake Duggan (8 G, 11 A) also earned league honorable mention.
"We look to put the puck in the net much more this season with a matured offense," Waddell said. "We also retain key players on the defensive side of the puck. We have the potential to be in every game. The players have committed to working hard and improving. Our biggest challenge this year is playing to our potential and being able to close out big games."
Perrysburg (23-9-0, 11-1-0) is led by fifth-year coach Jeff LaCourse, who has a career record of 100-25-4.
The Yellow Jackets have 14 on the varsity, including four seniors and 11 returning starters.
Senior Tony Kayser is a stay-at-home defenseman who is a big hitter. Juniors Pat Sarni and Dustin Kains are the top forwards.
"They should do some scoring," LaCourse said.
Junior forward Cody Clark also returns. Sophomore goalie Cam Studer started as a freshman and earned All-NHC honorable mention.
Southview (14-12-0, 1-9-0) lost 10 players to graduation. Coach Wayne Collins has just six forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie.
Collins, who is in his ninth season, has four seniors and four returning starters.
"Right now it's a matter of keeping the program together with our numbers," Collins said. "If we stayed in the Red Division it would have been ugly. I won't say we will stay in this division forever. We do have some kids coming through the junior highs."
Senior captain Justin Napierala, a defenseman, is the backbone of the team. Senior Joran Shaffer has switched from forward to defense. Junior forward Ryan Finch is an assistant captain, while junior Josh Fulecky is a proven forward.
"We have a big heart. They work hard every day," Collins said.
Clay (5-13-0, 2-10-0) is led by returning senior goalie Josh Utter who is off to a very nice start after earning all-league honorable mention last year.
"I expect him to be one of the top goaltenders in our division," coach Mike Heck said.
The Eagles have 22 total players, nine seniors, five returning starters and 13 letter winners back.
Senior defenseman Devon Eckman earned all-league first team honors and was the division's sportsman of the year. Senior Mike Ruedy also is back along the blue line with junior Hudson Sabin.
Senior forwards Kahl McCrory and Mike Korb, and junior forwards Logan Myers and A.J. Burns should provide the offense.
"I expect [the letter winners] to step up and lead this team to a division championship," Heck said. "These boys work well together and play with a lot of heart, they never give up."
But the Eagles have 11 new players who have never played high school hockey.
-- Mark Monroe