October 5, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCHC Watch List, 2017-18

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer (@AvashKalra)

The 2017-18 NCHC season will culminate this March at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. — the new home for the league's conference tournament, after NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton announced the move (from nearby Target Center in Minneapolis) last month. 

The NCHC Board of Directors signed a five-year contract to play the NCHC Frozen Faceoff — the tournament's semifinals and finals — at 'the X,' the home arena of the NHL's Minnesota Wild which will also host the NCAA Frozen Four in April.

Until then, there are plenty of storylines — and players — to watch in the NCHC.

5 Things to Watch

Out With the Old; In With the New

Turnover is commonplace and thus expected throughout college hockey, but so much of the early season storylines in the league will be dominated by which teams struggle to overcome offseason losses — and which enjoy the arrival of breakout stars.

Denver lost its Hobey winner in defenseman Will Butcher, who made the opening night roster for the New Jersey Devils this week, but across the league, Minnesota-Duluth, Western Michigan, and North Dakota were the hardest hit teams during the offseason. 

In Duluth, fresh off an NCHC tournament title and an appearance in last season's national title game, top forwards Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterberg, and Alex Iafallo graduated, while additional key players on last year's team — sophomore forward Adam Johnson (Pittsburgh Penguins), freshman goaltender Hunter Miska (Arizona Coyotes), and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk (New York Rangers) — signed NHL deals. 

The Fighting Hawks and Broncos also lost a pair of notable contributors to the pros — UND's Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost, and Western Michigan's Matheson Iacopelli and Griffen Molino.

Of course, the positive side to the turnover is that incoming players are, in many cases, given early opportunities to shine rather than waiting their turn on the bench. Just who will be this year's Henrik Borgstrom or Joey Anderson as the league's next breakout star?

Potential candidates include rookies Nick Swaney (Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota Wild prospect), Grant Mismash (North Dakota; see below), Blake Lizotte (St. Cloud State and no relation to junior Jon Lizotte), and Ian Mitchell (the Denver defenseman and Chicago BlackHawks second rounder).

Challenging Denver

Last season, Denver lost its first two games, to Ohio State and Boston College, but after that, didn't look back in a mostly wire-to-wire affair en route to the eighth national championship in program history.

No team has repeated as national champions since Denver (2004-05) followed Minnesota's back-to-back feat (2003-04) over a decade ago. So much has to happen — and go right — for a team to translate its potential into the ultimate goal of winning the season's final game.

No doubt, Denver — despite its lofty preseason expectations — is still a favorite to do so, and certainly to repeat as Penrose Cup winners (NCHC regular season champions). But the only constant in the NCHC's four-year history thus far is that nothing can be taken for granted in the long, grueling winter of conference games.

It remains to be seen if the league can produce a legitimate challenger to the Pioneers' crown, but remember that North Dakota won the national title two seasons ago, Minnesota-Duluth came within a game of that feat six months ago, and St. Cloud State — perhaps the most promising of challengers, on paper — returns players who scored 100 of the team's 105 goals scored last season. 

The St. Cloud Defense

The reasonably high expectations for the Huskies, picked to finish second in the league by the media in the NCHC's preseason poll, may be justified. After all, most will first point to the fact that Bob Motzko's team returns its top 12 scorers from last season — including NHL prospects [[Judd Peterson]], Mikey Eyssimont, and Ryan Poehling.

The Huskies also feature the highest scoring defenseman among returning players in Jack Ahcan. But the key story to watch here is whether the St. Cloud defense — anchored by Ahcan, senior captain Jimmy Schuldt, and junior Will Borgen (a Buffalo Sabres draft pick) — improves from last season, when the Huskies allowed 109 goals in 36 games.

Hobey Watch

Last season, Denver's Will Butcher — the anchor of the Pioneers' title-winning defense, which was the statistical best in the nation — became the first defenseman to the win the Hobey since 2009 (Matt Gilroy, Boston University). The now-graduated Butcher — last season's NCHC Player of the Year — was also the first Hobey winner from the NCHC in the league's four year history.

Can the NCHC produce back-to-back Hobey winners? Anything can happen between now and April, but a potential short list includes North Dakota's Shane Gersich, Denver's trio of star forwards (Dylan Gambrell, Troy Terry, Henrik Borgstrom), and even the aforementioned defensemen for St. Cloud State (all of whom are talented enough to produce a similar campaign to Butcher's last season).

Gabinet in Omaha

Over the summer, Division I men's college hockey saw its most turnover in terms of offseason head coaching changes since 2011. Nine out of the nation's 60 teams have new head coaches as the 2017-18 season gets underway.

And one of those new coaches is Nebraska-Omaha's Mike Gabinet, who fills the role vacated by the departure of legendary head coach — and former two-time national champion with North Dakota — Dean Blais. The 35-year old Gabinet is now the youngest head coach in Division I men's college hockey and will have the opportunity to lead his alma mater after a disappointing sixth-place finish last season.

Gabinet will be tested early — coaching the Mavericks away from home on a regular basis over the next few weeks. UNO plays eight of its first 10 games away from Baxter Arena.

5 Players to Watch

Caveat: This is meant to focus beyond players who have already garnered their share of preseason attention with all-league accolades, etc.

Michael Davies, D, Denver (So.)

As a freshman last season, Davies entered the Frozen Four leading not only Denver but also all NCAA freshman in plus-minus. It likely helped that, on all road trips, he roomed with eventual Hobey winner Will Butcher. Typically playing with now-captain Tariq Hammond, who will return soon from injury, Davies has all the tools to be the Pioneers' most dominant defenseman this season.

The St. Louis product also chipped in with three goals and 14 assists last year, and in his first game action of the season — last weekend's 3-1 exhibition win over Lethbridge University — Davies turned heads.

"I thought Mike Davies looked like Ray Bourque out there tonight," said head coach Jim Montgomery after the game. "I mean, he let five one-timers go, you know? He was just breaking up plays all over the place."

Kiefer Sherwood, F, Miami (Jr.)

There are a handful of double digit goal scorers from last season worth mentioning — Minnesota-Duluth's Joey Anderson (12 goals as a breakout rookie last year), Denver's Jarod Lukosevicius (who scored 16 goals last season including a historic hat-trick in the national title game) and Colorado College's Mason Bergh (14 goals last season), to name a few.

But few have more produced as consistently as Sherwood — almost quietly with 11 goals as a freshman and 14 goals last season as a sophomore — over the past two seasons. 

The Columbus, Ohio, native had a 20 point increase in scoring from his freshman to sophomore campaigns, and on a RedHawks team that returns almost its entire lineup from last year, Sherwood could prove to be the integral part of an offense that should have Miami challenging for a top-4 spot in the conference.

Grant Mismash, F, North Dakota (Fr.)

Mismash — yes, arguably the best name of any incoming freshman in the league — is also primed to be one of the most talented rookies in the NCHC. 

After scoring 61 points in 65 games in his draft-eligible season with the U.S. National Team Development Program last year, the Edina, Minn., native was drafted in the second round by the Nashville Predators.

The hard-skating rookie forward has all the tools to succeed as a top-six forward for Brad Berry and North Dakota.

Mikey Eyssimont, F, St. Cloud State (Jr.)

Eyssimont, a Los Angeles Kings prospect, has produced two solid seasons for the Huskies thus far — back-to-back 14-goal campaigns. The junior forward, part of an offensively gifted junior class for head coach Bob Motzko, also led St. Cloud last year with 30 points.

The Littleton, Colo., native also has a knack for producing in two important situations — on the power play (where he scored six of his 14 goals) and in road games (nine goals last season).

He will need to continue to produce for St. Cloud if the Huskies are to meet preseason expectations as a potential NCAA tournament contender. 

Ben Blacker, G, Western Michigan (So.)

Blacker was one of many freshman goaltenders to emerge on the national scene last season, though the grind of the long winter caught up to the Broncos late in the year. Still, Blacker impressed, with 17 wins, a 2.55 goals-against average, and three shutouts during the season.

The Broncos like to play a tight-checking, physical brand, and they may need to rely on that approach even more this season while tinkering with an offense that lost a lot over the summer. Blacker will be critical in those low-scoring games and could be pivotal to the team's success once again.

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