October 5, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCHC Team Capsule Previews

 (photo: Scott Pierson)

(photo: Scott Pierson)

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer (@AvashKalra)

Each of the past three seasons, the NCHC has sent two teams to the NCAA Frozen Four, and of course, league members boast back-to-back national titles after North Dakota's triumph in 2016 and Denver's eighth title in program history just six months ago in Chicago.

The nation's premier college hockey conference for the past two seasons, the NCHC should be competitive again in 2017-18 — though this time around, likely more unpredictable than in the recent past. Denver was the unanimous preseason No. 1 in the league's media poll, while a hard-hit Minnesota-Duluth squad is the returning conference tournament champion, after the Bulldogs toppled North Dakota, 4-3, in March's title game at the Target Center.

In order of predicted finish based on the league's preseason media poll:

Denver

Head coach: Jim Montgomery 
2016-17 record: 33-7-4 overall, 18-3-3-2 NCHC (1st)

Changes: Montgomery's disciplined system has allowed the Pioneers to overcome offseason losses in each of his four years at the helm in Denver — from Joey LaLeggia's departure after the 2014-15 season to notable early signings prior to last season (forwards Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore). In contrast, the 2017 summer was notable perhaps most of all for the lack of changes — with Montgomery returning, alongside a trio of star forwards who chose not to simply take the money and run (centers Dylan Gambrell and Henrik Borgstrom, along with right wing and World Juniors hero Troy Terry). 

Terry, Gambrell, and Borgstrom — choosing to return to Denver for a chance to win back-to-back titles — combined for 130 points last season.

Still, even the Pioneers weren't immune to turnover, and the most notable change in this year's team is the graduation over the summer of last year's Hobey Baker Award winner, defenseman Will Butcher. Butcher was the unquestioned leader of the Pioneers' championship team, and the backbone of a blueline that never lost a game when leading a game at the end of two periods. 

Butcher also quarterbacked the power play and chipped in a career-high 30 assists before signing with the New Jersey Devils after the season. Faceoff specialist Matt Marcinew — whom Montgomery described as the "toughest guy on the team" prior to the last year's Frozen Four — also graduated. 

Rookie defenseman Ian Mitchell — a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks — highlights the incoming freshman class. Mitchell looked impressive in last weekend's exhibition win over Lethbridge and seems destined for a top four pairing, as well as an opportunity to play on the power play. Meanwhile, the Pioneers welcome five rookie forwards, including Finnish prospect Jaakko Heikkinen and playmaker Kohen Olischefski (who amassed 76 points for the BCHL's Chilliwack Chiefs last season).

Strength: There's plenty to choose from here — the Pioneers' staunch and ever-improving head coach in Montgomery, the almost unprecedented (for a defending national champion) depth at the forward position, the experience of essentially a wire-to-wire title run last season, and the list goes on. But Denver's greatest strength on the ice may be its quietest — often taken for granted, the reliable nightly goaltending from senior Tanner Jaillet (28-5-4 last season with a 1.84 goals-against average and .929 save percentage). 

The Red Deer, Alb., native is as dependable as any goaltender in college hockey, and the league's reigning Goaltender of the Year was predictably selected to the Preseason All-Conference Team.

Weakness: Not so much a weakness as a challenge, Denver will play every night with a target on its back, and that's one new experience to which the players and coaches will have to adjust — especially in the first three months of the season, which includes a series of games that look to be a 'revenge tour' of sorts.

The Pioneers start the season with a pair of games at Notre Dame, a rematch of April's national semifinal (a 6-1 Denver win in Chicago), and in the ensuing weeks, Denver takes on Boston University at Agganis Arena (after the Pioneers swept the Terriers in Denver last year), North Dakota (in a matchup of the last two national champions), and Minnesota-Duluth (Dec. 1-2 in Duluth, in a rematch of April's national title game).

The second half schedule will offer challenges too, with at least Terry (USA) and Borgstrom (Finland) — if not others — likely to be playing for their national teams at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

2017-18 Outlook: The sky is the limit for Denver this season, the clear favorites to win both the league title and the national title. Montgomery confirmed that he will start the season with the same top line with which he ended last season — Dylan Gambrell centering Jarod Lukosevicius and Troy Terry. On his second line, Henrik Borgstrom will be paired with classmate Liam Finlay, with the left wing position on that line still to be determined.

"Our journey is just about to start here, and it's about how good we can become," said Montgomery. "I think the biggest question mark we have is how hard are we going to be to play against. I think this is clearly the most explosive and offensively gifted team during my tenure here at Denver, and I give all the credit to my assistants — the talent that they've brought in, the character kids."

"But last year, we won because we were so hard to play against every night. And if we can attain that goal, I think we're going to have a fun ride."

St. Cloud State

Head coach: Bob Motzko
2016-17 record: 16-19-1 overall, 10-13-1 NCHC (6th)

Changes: Like Denver, St. Cloud State's preseason expectations are rooted in its returnees — in the Huskies' case, bringing back players who scored a remarkable 100 of the team's 105 goals scored last season, including the team's top 12 scorers from a year ago. St. Cloud's most notable offseason loss was the early departure of defenseman Dennis Cholowski, a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, who signed with an NHL deal with Detroit at the end of last season.

Motzko adds new depth to the returning experience this season, with an incoming 7-man freshman class highlighted by forwards Blake Lizotte (named to the All-USHL second team last year after a dominant 65-point season in 56 games with the Fargo Force) and Easton Brodzinski (younger brother of recent Huskies star Jonny Brodzinski). 

Experienced defensemen Mika Ilvonen (senior) and Clark Kuster (junior) also return to the roster after redshirt seasons last year.

Strength: Yes, the Huskies boast experience with their returning players (particularly NHL prospects Judd Peterson, Mikey Eyssimont, and Ryan Poehling), and proven discipline that kept teams off the power play last season — averaging less than nine penalty minutes per game, the fewest in college hockey. 

But on paper, the strength for this St. Cloud team should be its defense, led by junior Will Borgen (a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2015), sophomore Jack Ahcan (21 points as a rookie last year), and junior Jimmy Schuldt (the Huskies' captain). As a unit, the team allowed an average of 3.03 goals per game last season and look primed to improve on that effort this winter.

Said Peterson, "I have a full 100 percent trust in our D-corps, that they're going to get the job done, and save us from our mistakes that we create on the front end."

Weakness: Goaltender Jeff Smith, a former Mass.-Lowell transfer, struggled to stay consistent during his freshman campaign last season, and though he was often victimized by defensive breakdowns in front of him, goaltending is one of the biggest question marks heading into the 2017-18 season for St. Cloud. Nevertheless, the Maple Ridge, B.C., native has the tools to improve this season, and he'll be challenged by classmate Zach Driscoll, as well as incoming Slovakian netminder David Hrenak. 

2017-18 Outlook: St. Cloud's struggles last season were somewhat expected given the massive turnover it experienced in the summer of 2016. Now that Motzko brings back a deep group of both forwards and defensemen, the Huskies seem primed to be Denver's top challenger in league play as the new season gets underway.

"It was out with the old, and in with the new, and we were really new last year," said Motzko, who will return as head coach of Team USA at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championships this winter (in Buffalo). "We were just a young, young hockey team. But I truly enjoyed last year's team. That was the [second least] amount of wins we've had in my 12 years, but when the season was over, I knew this was the team we're going to win with. The experience we've gained last year, watching that group grow. 

"When you're coaching a young player and you're sitting on the bench, a play will happen, and it doesn't go the way you want — you just go, 'It will next year.' When they're a little stronger, a little quicker, a little faster, a little more experienced. That play's going to connect."

North Dakota

Head coach: Brad Berry
2016-17 record: 21-16-3 overall, 11-12-1 NCHC (4th)

Changes: The Fighting Hawks followed up their 2016 national championship with another 20-plus win season, but fell short of title wins in the spring — falling to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCHC tournament final, then coming up short in a grueling double overtime contest against Boston University in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The offseason in Grand Forks was most notable for the expected departures of star forwards Brock Boeser (now with the Vancouver Canucks) and Tyson Jost (Colorado Avalanche). Boeser and Jost each scored 16 goals last season, tied for second most on the team. Of course, UND has been through this before, and the Fighting Hawks reload with a talented freshman class featuring Grant Mismash, who was selected by the Nashville Predators in the second round of June's NHL Entry Draft.

Another incoming player to watch is junior transfer Nick Jones, a talented forward who played for Ohio State in 2014-15 before leaving for the Penticton Vees (BCHL) during his sophomore season, where as captain last season he helped lead the Vees to a league championship.

Strength: Losing Jost in the offseason — the first North Dakota player to leave after his freshman campaign since 1987 (Ed Belfour) — suggests that, on paper, the Fighting Hawks may be stretched thin at the center ice position. But UND has blue collar depth down the middle, and returning players Rhett Gardner and Ludvig Hoff will be among Berry's choices to fill top minutes at the center position. 

Indeed, Berry's squad has more depth than perhaps it's been given credit for, with a strong supporting cast likely to complement higher end talent like returning forward and last season's leading scorer, Shane Gersich.

"He's a smart player," said Berry of Hoff after UND's 6-2 exhibition win over Manitoba last weekend. "He sees the ice very well. And as a center, he touches the puck a little bit more. We lost some players last year, obviously Tyson Jost being one of them, a good playmaking centerman. We always want to try and have a good player in the middle making plays with other good players — and that's what he is."

Weakness: Senior defenseman and captain Gage Ausmus graduated in May, while fellow blueliner and would-be senior Tucker Poolman decided to sign with the Winnipeg Jets in the offseason. As a result, the UND defense in front of netminder Cam Johnson may undergo some early season growing pains.

Berry alluded to this potential weakness last weekend.

"That's one area where we've got to make sure we're a lot tighter," said the third-year head coach. "Hopefully the chemistry between the lines, we've got to get to that, and make sure everyone's on the same page defending in front of our house. That doesn't come overnight. Those are things we have to instill over and over again in the first month."

2017-18 Outlook: With Boeser and Jost departed, UND has quietly gone about its business in the preseason, with minimal fanfare and lowered expectations compared to most recent years. It would be foolish to overlook the Fighting Hawks though, returning a 21-goal scorer (Gersich) and a goaltender in Johnson who backstopped UND to the national title just two seasons ago. 

Beyond the expected grueling league schedule, North Dakota has big nonconference games in the first month of the season against one-time conference foes Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a strong showing in those games will undoubtedly bolster the Fighting Hawks' NCAA hopes.

Minnesota-Duluth

Head coach: Scott Sandelin
2016-17 record: 28-7-7 overall, 15-5-4-2 NCHC (2nd)

Changes: The Bulldogs lost to Denver, 3-1, in April's national championship game, but a return trip to the NCAA Frozen Four will be challenging after an offseason that decimated its potential 2017-18 roster. UMD was the hardest-hit team in the nation in terms of early signings — compounded by losing top forwards Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterberg, and Alex Iafallo to graduation.

Sophomore forward Adam Johnson (Pittsburgh Penguins), freshman goaltender Hunter Miska (Arizona Coyotes), and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk (New York Rangers) all departed Duluth over the summer, too, so Sandelin's squad will have an entirely new look when it hits the ice for its season opener this week against in-state rival Minnesota. 

Ten rookies, including Minnesota Wild draft pick Nick Swaney and forward Justin Richards (son of current Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards), plus 6-foot-4 defenseman Dylan Samberg, join the fold this fall, as does Alaska transfer Peter Krieger. The junior sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, and will be a big plus to plug in at center this year, where the team is otherwise thinned out.

Strength: Leadership. Sandelin is the second-longest tenured head coach in the league, having backed UMD for 18 seasons. He's seen it all, has won a national title (2011), and has been through this type of massive team turnover before. He'll also rely on senior co-captain Karson Kuhlman, who registered a career-high 22 points last season, for on-ice leadership. 

Kuhlman has never missed a game at Minnesota-Duluth, playing in 122 consecutive games — tied for the longest streak in the nation with Quinnipiac's Landon Smith.

"Karson Kuhlman — If I could have 25 of him — he's a tremendous leader," said Sandelin, who described Kuhlman as a 'natural leader.' "He's very detailed, he's very disciplined, he's a very good hockey player, and obviously plays in a lot of situations for us."

Weakness: After losing so much offense from last season — 85 of the Bulldogs' 140 goals last season were scored by players who graduated or left over the offseason — UMD will likely find itself involved in low-scoring games as the season gets underway. A challenge in this regard will be an inexperienced back line that brings in five rookie defensemen to the mix. 

Asked what he expects to see from the young group early in the season, Sandelin was straightforward.

"Probably some mistakes."

2017-18 Outlook: Minnesota-Duluth — fresh off its fewest regular season losses (6) in program history last year — will need to navigate all of their losses from the offseason, but given their pedigree as reigning NCHC champions, and a tremendously-talented freshman class, expect the Bulldogs to still challenge for a home ice spot in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. 

An impressive streak will also be put to the test early in the year — UMD has 13 combined consecutive victories over Minnesota and North Dakota. The Bulldogs face the Gophers in their season opener on Friday night.

Said Sandelin, "You're going to see a team that's going to continue to hopefully be hard to play against — play the team with a lot of speed. Hopefully we have those guys adjust to college hockey quickly and be contributors."

Miami

Head coach: Enrico Blasi
2016-17 record: 9-20-7 overall, 5-14-5-1 (7th)

Changes: Miami brings back most of its team from last season, the most notable exception being leading scorer Anthony Louis, who graduated after signing with the Chicago Blackhawks in March. Four forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender join The Brotherhood's roster this fall.

Co-captain Louie Belpedio — named to the Preseason All-Conference Team — is among the senior leaders tasked with shaping the rookies' success.

Said Blasi, "That's part of what our culture is all about — making sure that we bring the freshmen along, and that they know the standard that they have to meet on a day to day basis, on and off the ice. Our upperclassmen have done a great job with making sure that our young guys understand that, that they work towards that, that they feel good about being part of the Brotherhood and part of our program. It really will pay off dividends here in the near future."

Strength: Last season's weakness — youth — may turn into this season's strength. Indeed, at this time last year, the RedHawks welcomed a league high 14 freshmen to the team, and there were some expected growing pains. Winning just once in its final 15 games of the season, Miami's nine wins for the season were the lowest for the program since 1990-91, when a George Gwozdecky coached squad won only five.

"We had a lot of youth in our lineup," said Blasi of a freshman class last year that included forwards Carson Meyer and Goldie Green, and goaltender Ryan Larkin. "This year, they're a little bit older. But the energy has been good. The attitude is great. I'm looking forward to seeing what our young team an accomplish with some experience now — a great deal of energy and closeness, they've kind of become a very tight knit group. It'll be interesting to see."

Weakness: Miami will need to avoid slow starts to games — a theme that plagued them late in the season last year, often allowing the first goal of the game within the first 10 minutes — forcing them to press, overcommit, and leave goaltender Ryan Larkin vulnerable. A more consistent effort from the opening puck drop will be critical for a team that has the tools on paper to make a move up the standings this season.

"You've got to be consistent," said Blasi. "You've got to make sure, that during the week with your preparation, that your level of focus, your level of detail, is right up there. You don't want to go into a weekend not ready to go.

"To me, it's about controlling your emotions and making sure you play your strengths."

2017-18 Outlook: Blasi has a proven track record in Oxford, and it would be reasonable to expect improvements in all facets of the RedHawks' game this season. Miami will be in the hunt for a top four position in the league, and the current seniors — who won the NCHC tournament title as freshmen — will be motivated to put last year in the rear view mirror.

"I hope to be in the Xcel Energy Center [for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff] and hope to play in the national tournament," said Blasi, beginning his 19th year as head coach at his alma mater. "That's what everyone plays for. But you have to focus on the week to week games, and the things that you can control, and that's being your best every day. That's really all we can shoot for at this point. 

"Once today is over, we have to focus on tomorrow, and be the best version of ourselves. Once that's done, then we'll worry about the next day. And hopefully that'll prepare us well enough."

Western Michigan

Head coach: Andy Murray
2016-17 record: 22-13-5 overall, 13-9-2-1 NCHC (3rd)

Changes: Much like Minnesota-Duluth, the Broncos — an NCAA tournament team last year — were hit hard in the offseason. 

Sophomores and leading scorers Matheson Iacopelli and Griffen Molino each signed NHL deals, while senior Sheldon Dries graduated. Western Michigan now looks to replace the 99 points produced last season by that trio. Junior Fredrik Tiffels, who scored nine goals last season, also chose to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins rather than returning to Kalamazoo for his senior campaign.

As a result, seven forwards are among the Broncos's nine-man freshman class, including the tallest player now in the NCHC, 6-foot-7 rookie Austin Rueschhoff from the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Strength: Expect sophomore goaltender Ben Blacker to keep Western Michigan in many games this season. Blacker emerged as the Broncos' starter last December and helped propel his team to a top five position in the Pairwise. But Blacker, and perhaps more notably the defense in front of him, seemed to tire as the season progressed, and they weren't at their best in a 5-4 loss to Air Force in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

Still, other than Denver's Tanner Jaillet, Blacker may be the most talented returning netminder in the league. And he'll need to keep games close in the early part of the season as the Broncos' offense gets up to speed.

Weakness: The offense will be a work in progress for Western Michigan this season. Murray — the reigning NCHC Coach of the Year — is well-equipped to extract the maximum out of each of his players, but expect a struggle in the early going as the Broncos look for productive line combinations to match the offensive output of last year's team.

2017-18 Outlook: This young Western Michigan team is likely to experience a rebuilding year, but a favorable schedule will allow the Broncos to play 11 of their first 15 games inside Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo. Getting off to a strong start at home, in front of a characteristically rabid fan base, will be critical.

"I don't think there should be a problem getting young players motivated," said Murray. "You prepare to win, you prepare to be successful, and then when it comes to the weekend, it's up to the players. Coaches do their job in practice, and players play the games. I like to call ourselves facilitators of performers as coaches, and the players are the performers. 

"We're just trying to provide them with the right path to be successful."

Nebraska-Omaha

Head coach: Mike Gabinet
2016-17 record: 17-17-5 overall, 9-13-2 NCHC (6th)

Changes: The now-graduated Austin Ortega — a 20-goal scorer in each of his final three seasons — is no longer around to torment NCHC opponents, and the Mavericks also lost a pair of talented offensive defensemen in the offseason, senior Ian Brady (graduated) and junior Luc Snuggerud (signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in March).

But of course the most notable change for UNO is behind the bench. After legendary two-time national champion Dean Blais stepped down as head coach in March, the Mavericks tabbed 35-year old Mike Gabinet as his successor. Gabinet, an alumnus (2004) and recent assistant, is now the youngest head coach in Division I men's college hockey. 

Prior to serving as associate head coach last season, Gabinet was the head coach of the Northern Albert Institute of Technology in 2015-16, when he led the Ooks to an undefeated 36-0 record.

Strength: Some key pieces may be gone, but if the Mavericks stick with similar systems to last season, their power play could prove to be a strength once again. Last season, Nebraska-Omaha boasted the sixth-best power play unit in the country, converting over 23 percent of the time. And only Ohio State, Northeastern, and Lowell scored more power play goals than the Mavericks last season.

Look for returning senior captain Tyler Vesel — second in points on the team last season (35) and the leader in power play goals (8) — to play a key special teams role this season.

Weakness: Over the past two seasons, UNO has benefited greatly from the puck-moving skills offered by Brady and Snuggerud, who both liked to jump into the offensive zone. 

Whether the Mavericks can transition as well now that they're gone remains to be seen. Anticipate sophomores Ryan Jones and Dean Stewart — both NHL draft picks — to be given increased opportunity in that regard.

2017-18 Outlook: Gabinet may be a first-time head coach at this level, but he's already had a strong track record. Picked to finish seventh in the conference by the media, this still-talented UNO squad may be drastically undervalued at that position.

That said, the Mavericks' early season schedule is grueling — playing 8 of its first 10 games on the road, including nonconference series at Lowell and Notre Dame.

"We're going to take it one day at a time right now," said Gabinet. "The guys have been working extremely hard, and they've been very attentive to what we're trying to establish."

Colorado College

Head coach: Mike Haviland
2016-17 record: 8-24-4 overall, 4-16-4 NCHC (8th)

Changes: CC has won only 27 games in three years under head coach Mike Haviland, but why be pessimistic? The Tigers did lose four of their six double-digit point scorers from last season — three to graduation, and one (defenseman Teemu Kivihalme) to an offseason departure to Finland — but CC still brings back the core of its team.

That includes Mason Bergh, a 14-goal scorer last season, and the Tigers add depth at all positions with an under-the-radar incoming class that includes Nick Olczyk, son of U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Eddie Olczyk.
 
Strength: It would be easy, after losing 79 games over three seasons, to dwell on the negatives. But that isn't Haviland's personality, and his persistent — even defiant — positive outlook is really what is necessary for this program as it struggles through arguably its toughest period since the early 1960s. 

Said Haviland, "We've got to take the positives, and the belief that we can [beat any team]. I think our guys have done an amazing job in the offseason. We're in the best shape we've ever been in since I've been here. They blew the skating and the fitness in the weight room out of the water. It's just a confidence level, and a belief in each other that we can do it."

Indeed, last season, CC showed flashes of what it can do — toppling Cornell in overtime to win the Florida College Classic, and later notching wins over Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State.

Weakness: Improved goaltending is surely a priority for the 2017-18 Tigers, but Haviland admits his primary concern is improving his special teams. Last season, scoring just 11 percent of the time on the man-advantage, CC's power play was fourth-worst in the nation, with only Alabama-Huntsville, Massachusetts, Alaska-Anchorage, and Brown more futile.

On the penalty kill, the Tigers were successful less than 79 percent of the time.

2017-18 Outlook: CC looks to avoid finishing in last place for the fourth consecutive season.

At the NCHC's Media Day last month, Haviland outlined his goals for the year.

"Our special teams need to be better," said Haviland. "That's one of our goals. Another one of our goals is to move up the standings and try to compete for a home ice spot. Another goal is to get here to St. Paul [for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff]. 

"You have to set goals, you have to have some lofty goals, and you have to hold each other accountable."
 

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