September 26, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

CHN Preseason Top 10: A New Look

It's still Denver's to lose in 2017-18. (photo: Todd Pavlack)

It's still Denver's to lose in 2017-18. (photo: Todd Pavlack)

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

It's always a fun exerise. One season ends, and, immediately, the focus shifts to the next. It breeds the kind of hypotheticals we all love and hate. "If the season started today, ..."

Well, "today" in this instance was April 27, 2017. Just after Denver won its eigth national championship. Long before a few dozen early departures, a few specifically in South Bend, Ind., deemed everything we thought we knew wrong.

Except in one instance.

The national champions are still intact. Entirely. The Pioneers enter the season as the presumptive favorite to reclaim a second consecutive national championship — a feat no team has accomplished since the last time Denver did it in 2003-04.

Before we get into the CHN Preseason Top 10, let's look at what we thought this list would look like before the offseason began, last April.

1. Denver
2. Notre Dame
3. Providence
4. Boston University
5. Penn State
6. Massachusetts-Lowell
7. Wisconsin
8. Minnesota
9. St. Cloud State
10. Quinnipiac

For the 10 teams listed, only two experienced significant changes. Notre Dame's status as a favorite in the Big Ten and nationally was largely dependent upon the returns of forward Anders Bjork and goaltender Cal Petersen. The overwhelmingly likelihood was that both came returned or neither returned. The latter came to fruition. Bjork signed an entry-level deal with the Boston Bruins; Petersen did the same with the Los Angeles Kings. The Fighting Irish remain a top-third team nationally, but the departures of Bjork and Petersen raise serious questions about who's scoring the goals and who's stopping them for Jeff Jackson's team.

The other big move came in the form of an unexpected arrival. All-American goaltender Kyle Hayton completed his undergraduate studies at St. Lawrence over the summer and enrolled at Wisconsin as a graduate student. He is immediately eligible and turns a position of serious weakness into a strength for the Badgers.

For the most part, the rest of the nation's best teams return most of what they thought. Expectations have shifted a bit, though, so here's the updated College Hockey News Preseason Top 10:

1. Denver

Not much needs to be said here. The Pioneers emerged as a clear frontrunner for a national championship after about three months last season, and they never looked back. DU brings back 76 percent of its goals from a year ago and 72 percent of its shots. Even senior goaltender Tanner Jaillet opted to return for one more year of college hockey. He brings his pedigree and .929 save percentage with him. The Pioneers lost only five regulars from last year's lineup. That includes Hobey winner Will Butcher, but given what most top tier teams lose, and what Denver gained by having no early departures, that's a loss that can be overcome. All roads lead to St. Paul.

2. Providence

Jake Walman's early departure was a tough start to the offseason for the Friars. However, Providence brings back far more than it lost from last season's team. A deep, talented forward group, led by senior Brian Pinho and junior Erik Foley, is enough to help a defensive group navigate some early growing pains. The biggest question mark for PC is junior Hayden Hawkey. In his first year as PC's full-time starter, Hawkey stuggled through October and November with an .884 save percentage before posting a .925 for the rest of the season.

3. Penn State

The Nittany Lions won their first Big Ten championship last season and fell a game short of the Frozen Four before running into Jim Montgomery's buzzsaw in a regional final. The departure of Vince Pedrie will take some work to replace. However, PSU is more than capable of overcoming the loss. Denis Smirnov and his 47 points are back, like most of the Nittany Lions scoring. Sophomore goaltender Peyton Jones wasn't great last year. The crease appears to be his once again.

4. Wisconsin

Luke Kunin's decision to turn pro cost Wisconsin 22 goals. Hayton's decision to move to Madison could make up the difference. The Badgers were terrible in goal last season. Johan Blomquist, Jack Berry and Matt Jurusik combined for an .885 save percentage. Hayton was .929 last year. The last few seasons of the Mike Eaves era made many wonder if the Badgers could ever return to glory. It took Tony Granato 18 months. Wisconsin is back.

5. Lowell

Norm Bazin. 

As long as Bazin is running the show at his alma mater, the River Hawks will be a contender for everything. The league. The cup. The national title. The River Hawks are ready, once again, to have a say in all of them.

6. Minnesota

Sure, the Gophers lost a lot. They're the Gophers. Even more is coming in, though. Don Lucia's team welcomes two of the top freshmen in the country in forwards Casey Mittelstadt and Scott Reedy. The pair headlines a typically strong recruiting class.

The Big Ten is as deep as its ever been in its five years. Minnesota will certainly be challenged. They're well-prepared for it, though. Nothing will ever be enough for Gopher fans, but they'll certainly have a strong team to complain about all year long.

7. Boston University

Last season was as disappointing a season can get that ends a goal short of the Frozen Four. Dave Quinn's recruiting model brings the most talented players to Commonwealth Avenue. It also guarantees roster turnover and a lengthy breaking-in process during the season.

Three players from last year's BU team have already played in the NHL. They've been replaced by a freshman class that features five NHL draft picks. The sky is limit for BU once again. We'll see if Quinn and company can guide the Terriers there. One potential pitfall is navigating that likelihood that a couple of his players could leave for the Olympics in February, though they would presumably return for the postseason.

8. North Dakota

North Dakota looked likely to land outside the top 10 when the offseason began. However, the departures weren't as harsh on the Fighting Hawks as many anticipated. Losing Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost to pro deals was expected — Tucker Poolman less so. However, no one else took the NHL bait.

Like so many other great teams, it comes down to goaltending for UND this season. And the penalty kill. Johnson was mostly fine at evens, amassing a .916 percentage. His .855 on the penalty kill reveals the big issue for UND. The penalty kill got better at times and UND nearly won an NCHC title because of it. Overall, it just needs to be better, though. Boeser and Jost leaving means goals may be hard to find in the season's early going. UND needs Johnson to play well enough to overcome that.

9. St. Cloud State

The Huskies were under-.500 in a deep NCHC last year. The main culprit was subpar goaltending. Jeff Smith's .906 wasn't good enough to help the Huskies compete. He's back this year, along with highly-regarded Slovakian David Hrenak, who spent last year in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers. The two will likely share time until one emerges as a clear No. 1.

Losing Dennis Cholowski after a strong freshman season is a difficult loss to absorb. But everything else is coming back. The Huskies return 96.2 percent of their scoring and 84.5 percent of their shots. They also return sophomore Ryan Poehling, who scored seven goals as the youngest player in college hockey this season.

10. Quinnipiac

The Bobcats missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since the 2011-12 season. QU likely won't be without late-March hockey for a second straight year. A couple bad losses and a general lack of quality wins dampened the chances of a pretty good team. Andrew Shortridge was great as a freshman, posting a .920 save percentage. The arrival of Keith Petruzzeli, one of the best regarded freshman goalies, gives QU one of the best goaltending tandems in the country.

The Bobcats start their season with five straight games against Hockey East teams. They'll need some good wins to overcome what's likely to be a weaker ECAC in 2017-18.

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