April 27, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

CHN's Super Early Top 10 For 2017-18

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

It was just a couple weeks ago that Denver capped the 2016-17 season with a 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth to claim an eighth national championship. The Pioneers were every bit the best team in the country, emerging quickly as a national favorite and going to wire to wire to claim the highest honor.

There's no reason not to look ahead to next season, though. Already, we've seen a number of coaching changes and early departures that altered many of the expectations for the 2017-18 season, which is set to begin in Duluth, Minn., on Oct. 6.

We've seen players who starred in the NCAA tournament play in the NHL playoffs already, while others merely took the first step to promising professional careers. Plenty more will happen and we'll update our list as it does.

Some of the players on teams in our top 10 need may sign professional contracts. More coaches may come and go even still. However, there are some pretty clear favorites emerging for next season, so why not take a look?

1. Denver

A few weeks after winning a national championship, turns out the Pioneers may return more of their national championship squad than expected. Losing Will Butcher and an important assortment of depth forwards won't be easy for DU. However, Troy Terry (22-23—45), Henrik Borgstrom (22-21—43) and Dylan Gambrell (13-29—42) all look likely to return. Goaltender Tanner Jaillet is expected to be back for his senior year as well.

The recovery of Tariq Hammond from a dislocated ankle suffered in the national champion will be important for DU in the early season. The Pioneers also welcome in a typically strong freshman class, highlighted by defensemen Ian Mitchell and Griffin Mendel.

However, the most important bit of personnel news for the Pioneers, though, will be the fate of Jim Montgomery. The head coach entering his fifth season as the leader at DU has interviewed for the vacant Florida Panthers job. Should he leave, it's likely some of his blue-chip players will follow.

2. Notre Dame

The last time we saw Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish were being run off the ice by Denver in a national semifinal. UND lost, 6-1, and it seemed like they were going to do some more losing in the offseason. Anders Bjork and Cal Petersen seemed certain to forgo their senior seasons for professional contracts. They may still leave, however, it seems increasingly likely both will return.

If they do, Notre Dame, which loses almost nothing else from last year's team, will have everything it needs to compete for championships. In its first year in the Big Ten, the Fighting Irish should be favorites to win that league's championship and compete for even more. A talented recruiting class will arrive in South Bend next fall to add to the already deep team.

Should either Petersen or Bjork leave, expectations will change. For now, the Fighting Irish look like a serious contender.

Notably, our No. 1 and No. 2 teams here open the season against each other in October, helping start the season with a bang.

3. Providence

The Friars were already graduating three defensemen before Jake Walman opted to leave before his senior season. The move was expected, however, and PC is in good shape to absorb the loss and keep moving. PC brings back three of its top four scorers and nine players who had at least 12 points in 2016-17. Replacing the four defensemen who either graduated or left early will likely come with some growing pains. But nothing more than any other team will face.

The emergence of Hayden Hawkey in the second half of last season should go a long way to help PC. Hawkey was hardly dominant in his first season as PC's No. 1. He improved as year went over, however, posting a .913 for the season and a .920 in the season's second half. During the latter stage, PC was 15-6-2 to recover from a difficult start to the year. With so much offense coming back, a reliable goaltender and a strong freshman class, PC could in line for a title run.

4. Boston University

There were always going to be early departures for the Terriers this spring. The only problem was a few more trophies were supposed to come first. BU and its absurdly-talented roster managed only a share of a Hockey East regular-season title, losing on the Beanpot, Hockey East tournament and falling to Minnesota-Duluth in a regional final. For many, the Terriers' season would've been a success. It's hard to view 2016-17 as such for BU.

Among the early departures thus far are sophomore defenseman Charlie McAvoy, sophomore center Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and freshman center Clayton Keller — all three of whom made their NHL debuts. More departures may be on the horizon for the Terriers. There is plenty more talent coming for BU coach Dave Quinn, though, including forward Shane Bowers out of the USHL.

The likely driving force behind any BU championships in 2017-18 will likely be sophomore goaltender Jake Oettinger. As a freshman, he posted a .927 save percentage. Oettinger is likely to be a high draft pick in this summer's NHL Draft, but he is one underclassmen certain to return to Commonwealth Avenue.

5. Penn State

The 2016-17 season was a year of firsts for Penn State. A first Big Ten tournament championship and first NCAA tournament berth and win were nearly joined by a first trip to the Frozen Four. Penn State ran into the buzzsaw that was Denver on the way.

PSU loses three pieces of the core that drove it to such heights in 2016-17. Seniors David Goodwin and Dylan Richard will be missed up front. The lone early departure thus far was sophomore defenseman Vince Pedrie, who signed with the New York Rangers after a 30-point season. It looks like big-time prospects Denis Smirnov and Nikita Pavlychev will be back for their sophomore seasons.

The Nittany Lions return the second-most goals in the country and nearly 75 percent of their total offense from last season, and the recruiting class is top-notch too. There is one major question mark, though, and it comes in the form of sophomore goaltender Peyton Jones. A .904 save percentage was enough to get the Nittany Lions into the NCAA tournament last season thanks to a dominant record against a weak non-conference slate. It won't be the case in 2017-18. However, at the rate PSU will likely keep scoring, an even average season from Jones will send the Nittany Lions even higher.

6. Massachusetts-Lowell

UMass-Lowell saw more than 37 percent of its goals and shots on goal leave through either graduation or early departure. The River Hawks lost their top two defensemen as well.

Here's the thing: Norm Bazin is still the head coach. Most have learned their lesson after yet another season of success in Lowell. UML won a share of the Hockey East regular-season title, the postseason tournament and fell just one game short of the Frozen Four — losing to Notre Dame in overtime in a regional final. As long as Bazin is running things in Lowell, the River Hawks will be a force. The roster will never be loaded with first-round draft picks. And it won't matter.

The coaching opening at Michigan Tech may be an interesting problem for UML. Assistant coach Cam Ellsworth, the River Hawks' chief recruiter, is said to be a favorite. His departure could prove more problematic than any players in the future.

7. Wisconsin

Luke Kunin's departure was expected, but it still hurt an awful lot for a Wisconsin team that nearly won a Big Ten championsip a year after winning only eight games.

Replacing Kunin's 22 goals won't be easy. Not much else left Madison, though, and a second year under Tony Granato should see another bit of improvement. The biggest problem for the Badgers last year was goaltending. Neither Jack Berry nor Matt Jurusik played especially well, and there are no goaltenders included in Wisconsin's recruiting class. The Badgers won 20 games despite bad goaltending. Even a marginal improvement should see Wisconsin emerge as a power in the suddenly strong Big Ten.

8. Minnesota

The only regular-season champion the Big Ten has ever known will be typically strong next season even after some tough losses. Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri, Jake Bischoff and Taylor Cammarata all graduated, and Ryan Collins left after a strong sophomore season.

Thankfully for the Gophers, what's coming back and what's coming in are plenty strong. Minnesota boasts one of the nation's top recruits in Casey Mittelstadt. The surefire first-round pick scored 94 points in 49 games between high school and the USHL a season ago. He should fill some of the void and then some. Minnesota also adds a top forward from the U.S. NTDP in Scott Reedy.

Like most other seasons, Minnesota is talented enough to win a championship and well-coached enough to beat anyone in the country. It's all going to come together again for Don Lucia again one of these days. It'll take some improvements throughout the rink for 2017-18 to be the year for Minnesota.

9. St. Cloud State

St. Cloud State was an all right team caught up in a deep NCHC last season. Heading into 2017-18, the Huskies return almost everything and should see some major steps forward throughout their lineup.

Dennis Cholowski's decision to leave St. Cloud State for the NHL leaves a hole on the blue line. But there's plenty else coming back to help Bob Motzko's club through the transition. Jeff Smith wasn't brilliant as a freshman. His .906 save percentage won't be enough for SCSU next season either. The Huskies welcome goaltender David Hrenak next season. He posted a .923 save percentage in 33 games with the Green Bay Gamblers last year and could easily challenge Smith for time in the fall.

10. Quinnipiac

It's a good sign for a program when it misses the NCAA tournament and everyone wonders what exactly went wrong. The Bobcats won 23 games last season but picked up just two wins against NCAA tournament teams in seven tries. If a few of those results flip, the Bobcats likely see their run of NCAA tournament appearances grow to five straight.

The Bobcats bring back 89 goals from last year's team, losing only Tim Clifton from their top scorers. The departures of Connor Clifton, Derek Smith and others from a successful senior class won't be easy to replace. However, QU has a become a program that reloads, rather than rebuilding.

Brandon Fortunato will join the Bobcats after transferring from Boston University and sitting out last season. John Furgele is also a Hockey East transfer, after leaving New Hampshire for Hamden last summer. He will be eligible when the 2017-18 season begings. Overall, the Bobcats have a large and deep recruiting class, the headliner of which is Keith Petruzzelli, a highly-regarded goaltender who spent last season with Muskegon of the USHL. He adds to a positon of strength for the Bobcats. Andrew Shortridge was a .920 goaltender in 26 appearances for QU last season.

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