Ladies and gentlemen, college hockey is BACK. After a long, boring, hockey-less summer, our Pioneers are about to hit the ice in Colorado Springs to get the best season in sports going. Magness Arena is about to get rocking again and the NCHC is poised to have another dominating season after putting 6 teams in the NCAA tournament last year.
As exciting as it is that DU is about to show its fans what is has in store to follow up its impressive 2014-15 campaign that ended with a loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament to eventual National Champion, Providence, there are definitely some specific things to watch for this year.
Here is the LetsGoDU 2015-16 hockey preview starting with a general overview of what this year's team is going to look like followed by a detailed preview of this year's team, starting from the back of the team (goalies) and moving to the front (forwards) before giving a prediction for this year:
The Pioneers have become a younger team this year. There were 7 (!) seniors on last year's squad that ate up a bulk of the 2014-15 minutes. Replacing the leadership and talent of players like Danny Doremus, Josiah Didier, and of course Hobey Baker semifinalist Joey LaLeggia, is a tough task. On any given night, these seniors played key minutes on both sides of special teams and full strength.
As difficult as it will be for Coach Montgomery to fill those minutes and find the right rotation early on in the season, this team is loaded with talent. This team returns the likes of 2014-15 NCHC rookie scoring leader Danton Heinen, team-leading goal scorer Trevor Moore, and two talented goalies in Evan Cowley and Tanner Jaillet who combined for an excellent .920 SV% and 2.26 GAA.
So, while it may be a challenge for Coach Monty to fill the void left by such a talented graduating class, he will have plenty of talent to experiment with to find an effective line combination and rotation. In addition to the talented corps of returning players, the Pios have one of the most underrated incoming freshman classes in the country. Led by players like Troy Terry, who tallied 19 G 25 A for 44 points in 66 games with the US National Development Team last year, and Dylan Gambrell, who put up 16 G and 22 A for 38 points in 54 games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, this year's freshmen should look to make a big contribution on the ice this year.
Every major national college hockey media outlet or personality has put DU in the top 5 or 6 in their preseason national rankings. Specifically, USCHO has Denver at #5 and College Hockey News has DU at #2. John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor and noted college hockey fan/expert ranked DU at #1:
BucciMane #cawlidgehawkey Top 10 1 Denver 2 BU 3 BC 4 Minn-Duluth 5 North Dakota 6 Minn. State 7 Neb-Omaha 8 Harvard 9 Minnesota 10 Miami— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) October 5, 2015
What does this all mean?
It means that expectations in Denver are high for the local college hockey team. It is almost a foregone conclusion, even this early, that the Pioneers will compete for the NCHC title and make a run in the NCAA tournament. As dangerous as such expectations can be, it is an exciting time to be a Pioneers hockey fan.
The Pios have one of the best goalie situations in the country this year as both junior Evan Cowley (9-6-2, 2.16 GAA, .924 SV% in 2014-15) and sophomore Tanner Jaillet (15-8-0, 2.35 GAA, .917 SV%). Last year, both of these players were a major reason why the Pios made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament for just the second time since the 2005 National Championship run (2011 was the other time).
A team cannot make a run in any tournament, conference or national, without a solid goaltender or goaltenders. Yes, that is a blanket statement, but it rings true every single year. It's extremely rare to see a successful team with a shaky goaltending situation. In fact, in 2012, when DU's run to the WCHA championship game would not have been possible without Sam Brittain's brilliant 67 save, double-overtime performance against Minnesota-Duluth in the semi-final.
If a team has a hot goalie, anything can happen (just ask Providence). The hope is that both goalies can provide that needed spark at the end of the season and spur a tournament run in both the NCHC and NCAA Tournaments.
Coach Montgomery explained during his appearance on The Crimson & Gold Show that he is very pleased with how both Cowley and Jaillet have performed during the preseason and into the exhibition game against Calgary.
Look to see a platoon situation with the two goalies, at least to begin the year. If one goalie or the other gets hot and begins to play really well, that might change as the season goes along, but DU fans should feel very fortunate to have two top-tier Division I goaltenders.
Ahh the clear strength of the 2014-15 squad...and the part of the 2015-16 corps that probably needs to address the most question marks.
How will the team replace Didier and LaLeggia, two of the best defensemen on last year's squad? Will this group of blueliners effectively and consistently keep both Cowley and Jaillet out of stressful scoring chances for the opposition? How will the team replace the scoring from one of the nation's highest scoring defensemen from a year ago?
All of these questions and more will begin to be answered one way or another as soon as the puck drops at Clune Arena Friday night.
Replacing players like Didier and LaLeggia just doesn't happen. Didier played a physical brand of defense that struck fear into the hearts of opposing forwards. LaLeggia was the best two-way defenseman in the country. Teams just don't replace talent like that.
However, the current corps of blueliners, led by returning Nolan Zajac and NHL draftee Will Butcher (Colorado Avalanche) look to add to the recent trend of top-notch blue-line play at Magness Arena. These two will lead a talented, though inexperienced group of defensemen that will feature fellow returnees Nick Neville, Adam Plant, Matt VanVoorhis, and Tariq Hammond, all of whom played decent minutes, though their play was limited in some situations.
On top of that great returning group, there is a pair of newcomers to the defense: Sean Mostrom and Blake Hillman, both of whom should figure into what figures to be a fluid situation at this position.
The good news is, there is some depth to the squad of blueliners, so at least early, before the inevitable injuries begin to occur, Coach Montgomery will be able to experiment with different pairings on the blue line.
In limited exposure against Calgary University in the exhibition game, the defensemen looked very solid in front of both Jaillet and Cowley.
Defense hasn't had to bail out their goalies much tonight, but when they've needed to, they have. Good to see. #DUGameDay— Nick Tremaroli (@NickTrem_17) October 5, 2015
There will likely be a number of questions asked about the defense, at least early on. But if Coach Montgomery has proven anything in his first two years as DU's head coach, it's that he has made things work, even in the face of what seems like impossible circumstances.
If the goaltending situation isn't the Pioneers' biggest strength, the depth of top-notch scoring talent they have up front certainly is. Danton Heinen, Trevor Moore, Gabe Levin, Emil Romig, Grant Arnold, and Quentin Shore, all return this year to lead what looks to be a very high scoring offense.
Further, Coach Monty probably did the most damage in the recruiting world with his recruitment of this year's freshman forwards: Troy Terry, Dylan Gambrell, Jared Lukosevicious, and Colin Staub will contribute significant minutes to this fast-paced offense.
It is all but a foregone conclusion that Heinen will lead this offense in scoring. Though look for Moore to challenge him again as they finished the 2014-15 season with 45 and 44 points, respectively. During the exhibition game against Calgary, Heinen looked even more comfortable on the ice than he did last year and took a more active role in controlling the game in the offensive zone. Look to see more of that as the season wears on because with the schedule DU has in front of itself, the team will need it.
Terry is already one of the rising stars on this team. He may still be a bit unpolished as a freshman, but he certainly has the ability to dazzle fans with his stick-handling and the scoring talent to draw the opposition's best defensive pairing off of their assignment. It may not be a stretch to suggest that the 5th round pick of the Anaheim Ducks might remind some of a young Beau Bennett.
In all, the Pioneers' offensive attack is going to be extremely fun to watch. The lamp is going to be lit a number of times weekend-in, weekend-out. The only question that faces this corps is who is going to be the leading scorer, and that, ladies and gentlemen is a mighty fine question to watch be answered.
On top of the already seemingly impossible task of playing in the NCHC (for you new readers it's like playing an SEC football schedule, but harder), DU has scheduled perennially good programs like Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin on top of a Halloween weekend trip to Boston to play USCHO preseason #1 Boston College and #3 Boston University. There are no nights off for this year's squad and there figure to be a number of weekend splits on the card throughout the season. When Colorado College might be the weakest opponent scheduled, that's when it's obvious that a team is playing a very difficult schedule.
That being said, this team is going to be good. No one is going attempt to pick the eventual national champion this early, but there is no reason the Pios shouldn't at least be in that conversation. In fact Buccigross released his pick for the Frozen Four on Twitter at about the same time he released his top 10:
Denver, BU, BC, Duluth. https://t.co/zvs1d2lFzW— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) October 1, 2015
Before going any further, admit it. That is a dream Frozen Four. Watching those perennial powers duke it out on the biggest stage in college hockey? You would be hard-pressed to see many true college hockey fans miss out on that experience in Tampa.
Now, will the Pios make that far? It's hard to say. A number of things must go perfectly for that to happen. However, the same thing can be said for BU, BC, and Duluth as well.
So Nick, just get to it already!! What's your prediction?!?!
Yes, you're certainly thinking exactly that. Word for word.
As far as the result in the NCHC goes, I believe DU will finish second in the regular season, behind Duluth...just like everyone else believes. I'm not really rocking many boats with that. However, in the NCHC tournament, DU will benefit from playing CC or Western Michigan at home in the first round and make a run to win the tournament for the second time in three years.
Yes. I predict DU will win the NCHC tournament this year.
Now, for the tournament that matters, the NCAA Tournament, I will only go so far as to predict that our beloved Pioneers will make it to the Frozen Four. Once a team is there, anything can happen. The Pios might win the natty and they might get bounced in the national semifinal. I just think they'll be there.
The 2015-16 NCAA hockey season is here, ready or not. The ice at Magness is frozen, Coors Field is eagerly awaiting the Pioneers' arrival, and the stage is set for one heck of a season for Denver.
Get ready, Pios.
Hockey. Is. Back.