There aren't any returning All-WIAC players. The three forwards that formed the top line a season ago -- league player of the year Patrick Moore, Adam Knochenmus and Garret Clement -- are gone. So is goaltender Jay Deo as well as defenseman Bryan Sinz, an all-conference performer.

Yet the UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team, by now one of the most consistent programs in the country, isn't expected to miss a beat.

How? With plenty of depth in all three position groups and a defense-first attitude.

"We're not changing anything with the systems," co-captain and defenseman Tyler Hart said. "Just work hard and try to keep the puck out of our net first and foremost."

The Blugolds, who open up the season on Friday at Milwaukee School of Engineering, have big expectations once again this winter.

After sitting on the bubble of the NCAA tournament the past four seasons and not being in the field since winning the Division III national title in 2013, coach Matt Loen has made it a mission to get back there.

He's got 19 returning letterwinners, a plethora of talented freshmen and two transfers to complete the mission.

With eight defensemen, 17 forwards and three goaltenders, there's competition at every spot.

That's led to some quality preseason practices with strong pace.

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"I think we are a little bit ahead of where we were last year at this time, and that's a good thing," Loen said.

UW-Eau Claire is coming off an 18-7-3 regular season and runner-up finish in the WIAC to UW-Stevens Point.

The league office announced last week the Blugolds were the preseason favorites, as voted on by league head coaches and sports information directors.

But that means little for a program that's won 18 games five of the last six seasons, a pair of conference titles since 2014 and that oh-so-sweet national title banner from half a decade ago.

"I think being the best of the teams in our conference is obviously a goal we have every year," co-captain Jake Hopfner said. "We still have to go out there and prove it."

Colton Wolter is the top returning point-getter after notching 24 a season ago. Todd Koritzinsky, a physical forward who can make plays at the net, had 19 and also is back. They are the top two returners in terms of points.

A pair of sophomore defensemen should get plenty of attention in scouting reports and have to be a boost for a team that won't have an experienced goaltender in net.

Logan Von Ruden and Adam Kleven both saw a lot of ice time last season and are big, physical presences. Von Ruden is all of his listed 6-foot-3 frame. Kleven, a plus-15 skater last year, stands at 6-foot-1.

Add them to sophomore Scott Munro, 6-foot-3 senior Lucas Kohls, freshmen USHL products Austin Reders and Adam Parsells along with American International College transfer Johnny Mueller and it's a loaded position. Hart is the glue guy back there who can block shots. Braden Mitchell rounds out the defense that could certainly take the pressure off losing three line-one forwards and a starting goalie.

"It's fun to have options," Loen said, noting there is a good combination of physical and grittiness protecting the zone.

UW-Eau Claire will have to replace Jay Deo, who played in 64 career games with a .918 save percentage over four years.

Sophomore David Johnson is back with competition from freshmen Cameron Haugenoe and Zach Dyment. Like the other position groups, the competition has been beneficial. No starter has been named yet.

"I think all three are comparable," Loen said. "It will be good for them to push each other, and may the best man win there."

There isn't a long road trip this season as games are exclusively in the Midwest. The Blugolds went to Arizona State two years ago and out to New York at Oswego State last winter.

It's different, but the Blugolds have seven games this season that don't occur on a Friday or Saturday night. Add that in with the lack of a super lengthy road trip, and Loen thinks that could save some legs come crunch time.

"We have kind of a goofy schedule this year with some weekday games," Loen said. "On the flip side, that means we're not playing back to back, which could be a competitive advantage for us to have a day of rest or two between our next games."

Later in the summer, the Blugolds will commemorate their 2013 national title team with some sort of celebration.

By the time those plans come to fruition, Loen hopes that isn't the last team Blugolds team to play in the NCAA tournament.

"We've been a bubble team the last four years," he said. "We want to try and get over that hump and get another opportunity to take a crack at a national championship."

This article is written by Nick Erickson from The Leader-Telegram and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.