September 28, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Denver Seems Destined to Repeat

 (photo: Joe Koshollok)

(photo: Joe Koshollok)

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

Every year, there's a favorite. 

One team that just seems a bit better than everyone else. Compare every detail about every team in every scenario and one group just seems to emerge.

Sometimes it's not terribly overwhelming, or you gotta squint really hard to see the one defining trait. Other times, it's obvious from the second the previous season ends.

This year is a case of the latter.

And the team that so plainly stands out from the rest is the same one that emerged last April as the best college hockey had to offer — Denver.

The Pioneers are on one tier, and 59 other teams are below trying to distinguish themselves and prove worthy of the prize fight currently scheduled for next April 7 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. 

Sure, the Pioneers have a lot to prove along the way, but nothing short of injury seems likely to stop them.

A season ago, DU proved itself every bit the juggernaut we're expecting to see this season. It just took about four months for everyone to notice. After a weekend of bad results in Providence, the Pioneers seemed to take things personally. They'd lose just three times the rest of the way, claiming their eighth national championship in Chicago's United Center.

Once the wins started to pile up, all the indicators that usually suggest success were plain to see. 

DU always had the puck — the Pioneers were sixth in CF% (55.9 percent). Its power play was reliable (21.3 percent), its penalty kill mostly fine (83.5 percent). And coach Jim Montgomery and his players always knew they could rely on their netminder. Tanner Jaillet finished the season with a .929 save percentage — it was .935 after the calendar turned.

Off the ice, DU was just as impressive. It's nearly impossible to keep a team consistently moving in the right direction over the course of six-and-a-half months. Montgomery did that last year. Their goofy "Trust the Proscess" t-shirts said it all. The players were focused on each moment, knowing they added up to something special. Every coach strives for that kind of cohesion. 

Jim Montgomery achieved it.

The departure of No. 1 defenseman, team captain and generally perfect college hockey player Will Butcher, along with a couple other players who graduated, means Montgomery has some work to do in grooming a new minutes-eater on the blue line and top lieutenants in the locker room. 

Tariq Hammond, who suffered a major ankle injury in the national title game, appears ready to move into Butcher's role off the ice. Hammond and the other defensemen, bolstered by the arrival of Ian Mitchell — a Chicago Blackhawks second-round pick — should be able to fill the production void by committee.

Aside from the players that graduated, you know who else left?

Packy Munson. 

That's it. A goalie who wasn't even eligible last season. Why'd he leave, you ask? Because Jaillet came back. The reigning Mike Richter Award winner who has improved each year of his collegiate career.

He's not alone either.

Henrik Borgstrom and his 22 goals came back. 

So did Troy Terry (22-23—45), Dylan Gambrell (13-29—42) and everyone else who had a choice. That includes Montgomery. The fifth-year coach interviewed for the Florida Panthers job and appears destined for an NHL gig at one point or another. But he's back for now, and the all-business attitude he demands will surely have the Pioneers ready for another run.

Overall, eight of DU's top 10 scorers and four of its regular defensemen return. The Pioneers bring back 76 percent of the goals they scored from last year and 72 percent of the shots. Notre Dame and Air Force are the only other NCAA tournament teams returning at least 70 percent of each. Each of them, however, lost all-American-caliber goaltending through early departure.

On paper, absolutely everything has lined up for the Pioneers to repeat as national champions. 

The arguments against have less to do with DU than they do with math and the realities of high-level sports. The combined likelihood of someone other than Denver winning a national title is greater than Denver's own odds.

What's more, the contenders are all more than capable.

Penn State can score with anyone. Wisconsin added an all-American goaltender. Providence brings back its entire forward group. Boston University has all the talent in world. Again.

The problem is each of those teams has even more questions to answer than Denver. 

Penn State's goaltending is bad. Wisconsin has a lot of offense to replace. Providence isn't exactly a stranger to scoring issues. BU always has all the talent and doesn't look capable of putting it all together just yet.

Name another team. 

Minnesota, North Dakota, Quinnipiac, UMass-Lowell. 

Denver is better than them too. 

And even beyond any of the statements about players or systems or depth or dynasties, there is Montgomery — the stern, direct general forcefully guiding and pulling his team his way. The right way. The way that leads to St. Paul, a third straight Frozen Four and a second consecutive national championship.

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