October 6, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Things to Watch, 2017-18

Changes, Storylines, and More on the Road to St. Paul

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer (@AvashKalra)

To fans of any sport, it's a refrain as old as the sport itself.

"There's always next year." 

That promise of a clean slate arrives every October in college hockey, and at long last — six months after the Denver Pioneers capped a dominant run to an eighth national title in program history — "next year" is finally here.

The busy season itself tends to pass much more quickly than the plodding offseason, and in seemingly no time, the culmination of this 2017-18 season — the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn. — will arrive. Until then, here are just a few of the storylines to watch in what's destined to be another thrilling, surprising, dizzying winter in campus rinks across the country.

1. Seriously, Can They Be Stopped?

Denver heads into its championship defense campaign as the most captivating defending champion in recent memory — and for good reason, with the well-documented returns of Pioneers' head coach Jim Montgomery, along with their trio of star forwards (juniors Troy Terry and Dylan Gambrell, and sophomore Henrik Borgstrom). All four postponed opportunities over the summer to leave the college ranks for the NHL.

Instead, Denver returns eight of its top 10 scorers from last season, not to mention a wealth of experience from two consecutive Frozen Fours, and beyond it all, a confident swagger that, even in the preseason, is hard to overlook.

"It's a selfless environment where we think 'team first,'" said Montgomery last week. "That's 'Denver hockey.'"

Still, no team has repeated as champions since, well, Denver in 2005. In fact, no team since the 2005 Pioneers has even reached the NCAA Frozen Four the year after winning the national title. It's simply hard to do. So even though the Pioneers may be the best team on paper on this day in October, there's a long road — and likely countless unforeseen plot twists — until any potential coronation in St. Paul this April. In addition, the loss of the Pioneers' unquestioned leader, and last season's Hobey Baker winner, the now-graduated defenseman Will Butcher, should not be so quickly dismissed as irrelevant to the new title campaign.

Notre Dame once looked to top the list of contenders to dethrone the Pioneers, but the departures of goaltender Cal Petersen and Hobey finalist forward Anders Bjork may be too much to overcome immediately. So at this time, looking first at nonconference foes, some potential candidates to challenge Denver — though in no particular order — include Boston University, Wisconsin, Mass.-Lowell, Harvard, Minnesota, Providence, Penn State, and Quinnipiac. 

Each of these teams shares the critical common denominator of a top-tier head coach, and while each squad is looking to overcome major offseason losses — for instance, forward Luke Kunin at Wisconsin, defenseman Jake Walman at Providence — they'll be battle-tested by March. Look for some these teams to emerge as a legitimate title contender in the spring. 

Of course, the reality of college hockey is that, if a team can advance to the NCAA tournament, a four-game run for the ages (see: Yale, 2013) is what's required to bring home the national championship — no small feat, but a hot goaltender, or simply a single bounce of the puck, could propel or end title chances. Denver's NCHC foes, including St. Cloud State and North Dakota, will have seen the Pioneers multiple times during the season, and each of the last two NCAA tourneys showed the kind of advantage that familiarity, come tournament-time, can provide. 

Meanwhile, look for Minnesota State (WCHA) and Air Force (Atlantic Hockey) as potential breakout candidates this winter, each of whom could make a surprising run once in the national tournament if they're able to meet expectations in their respective conferences.

2. The Olympic Games

In April, the NHL confirmed that it would not send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, ending a stretch of five Winter Games featuring NHL stars. As a result, when the ice hockey portion of the Games begins in Gangneung, South Korea, in February, current college players are destined to be involved.

Last week at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah, U.S. men's (and current Wisconsin) head coach Tony Granato was joined by Denver junior Troy Terry and Boston University sophomore Jordan Greenway, each of whom are expected to be part of Team USA's plans in South Korea. Terry's teammate, Henrik Borgstrom, is also likely to play for Team Finland.

In August, Granato told CHN that he — along with assistant coach Chris Chelios, three-time Stanley Cup winner and former Wisconsin defenseman — anticipates picking the "base" of the U.S. team during a mid-November trip to the Deutschland Cup competition in Germany, where the coaching staff will have the opportunity to evaluate some of the best European-based American pros in action. 

As for the just how many college players will make the trip to South Korea?

"If I had to guess, there will be multiple players," Granato told CHN. "It could be five, it could be more. There's a lot of guys where, if we had a full season to put a team together to practice and play, and had a schedule like that, there would probably be more. But we have a lot of guys [in Europe] that come from college now. And there's a lot of guys close to having breakout years in college hockey that will give themselves the chance, and if they emerge and have great years and we have multiple players that step up, it could go from five to eight or 10. But I'd say there will be a great representation from college hockey on that team."

As the first few weeks of the season progress, we'll likely learn more about which college players are on Granato's early "watch list." Expect Harvard forward Ryan Donato, Ohio State forward Mason Jobst (a CHN Preseason First Team selection), and Minnesota State defenseman Daniel Brickley to be among the names that come up. 

Another layer to this story is that, most likely, many of the players tabbed to play in the Olympics will miss games during their college teams' pivotal stretch runs. And furthermore, many of them may miss out on opportunities at a key time during the season to make their case for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. 

3. Big Ten Emergence?

Of all the conferences in college hockey, the Big Ten — on paper, anyhow — figures to take a major step forward in the 2017-18 season. First, there are plenty of storylines within the league — two new coaches (see below), the addition of a perennial contender (Notre Dame), and a new tournament format that, like the WCHA's, will take place entirely on campus sites rather than neutral venues.

But nationally, while traditional powerhouses Michigan and Michigan State continue rebuilding efforts with new head coaches, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Minnesota in particular are expected to emerge. The Gophers — winners of the regular season crown in each of the league's four years of existence — bring back the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in Tyler Sheehy (and add NHL first round pick Casey Mittlestadt), while Penn State brings back top-scorer Denis Smirnov and goaltender Peyton Jones from a team that fell a game short of last season's Frozen Four. 

As for the Badgers? They won 20 games a year ago, after managing just eight victories the year prior, and add senior goaltender Kyle Hayton, who compiled 54 wins at St. Lawrence prior to his transfer. Last season, Hayton was the ECAC Goaltender of the Year.

Of course, Notre Dame will be strong again, too. Simply a stronger conference top-to-bottom, which will in turn produce important Pairwise implications, the Big Ten will be in position to send at least three teams to the NCAA tournament this year.

4. Coaching Changes

Fifteen percent (9 out of 60) of Division I college teams have new head coaches as the 2017-18 season gets underway. In fact, it was the most offseason coaching changes since 2011 (10), and though it remains to be seen which of the new coaches will enjoy the most success, several already have the tools — and the pedigree — to do so. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy coaching change, Mel Pearson takes over behind the bench for Michigan, following the retirement of Red Berenson, who ended his legendary 33 year career with the Wolverines as one of only four head coaches in the history of college hockey to win over 800 games. Pearson is no stranger to Michigan, though, as the Flin Flon, Manitoba, native served as Berenson's assistant for 23 years before leaving in 2011 to become head coach at his alma mater, Michigan Tech. Look for Pearson — who steered the Huskies to two NCAA tournaments, including last year after winning the WCHA tournament title — to bring some much-needed energy, as well as an improved defense, to the Wolverines.

Pearson's void at Michigan Tech will be filled by first-time head coach Joe Shawhan, who served as an assistant under Pearson for the past three seasons.

Elsewhere, Nebraska-Omaha also looks to replace another legend, as 66-year old two-time national champion Dean Blais stepped down as head coach in March. His successor is 35-year old Mike Gabinet, an alumnus and recent assistant, and now the youngest head coach in Division I men's college hockey.

Like Gabinet, Danton Cole returns to his alma mater, taking the reigns at Michigan State. Cole, a freshman on the Spartans' 1986 national title team and a former head coach for Alabama-Huntsville, returns to college hockey after spending the last seven seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Cole takes over a team that won only 17 games over the past two seasons combined.

Grant Potulny, too, won a national championship as a player (twice, with Minnesota, in 2003 and 2004), and already known as a top recruiter as an assistant coach of the Gophers, Potulny now takes over as head coach at Northern Michigan. A proven leader, Potulny as a player was the first three-time captain at Minnesota in over 50 years, and looks to turn around a WIldcats team that has finished with an under-.500 record each of the past five seasons.

Three more coaching changes all occurred in upstate New York: Dave Smith leaving Canisius (after winning an Atlantic Hockey regular season crown and 21 games last season) for Rensselaer, Trevor Large promoted from assistant to head coach to take Smith's place at the helm for the Golden Griffins, and Jason Lammers (head coach and general manager of the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL the past two seasons) taking over as head coach at Niagara. 

Remember, current Denver head coach Jim Montgomery served as head coach at Dubuque prior to his dominant four-year run — 102 wins and counting — thus far in the Mile High City.

Finally, Alaska promoted Lance West from assistant to head coach after Dallas Ferguson left in July to become head coach of Calgary in the WHL. Much like the experience of many of the aforementioned new head coaches, West served as a longtime assistant first — in fact, as an assistant during Ferguson's entire tenure in Alaska, starting in 2008.

5. Recovering From Offseason Departures

Last season in this space, we highlighted the offseason departures of Boston College (who at the time had seven underclassmen sign offseason NHL deals) and Michigan (who in the 2016 offseason lost its entire top line to the pros). Neither team was able to make the NCAA tournament this past spring.

Among the hardest hit teams in the nation this offseason were Minnesota-Duluth, Boston University, Notre Dame, and Union, and a storyline to watch will be which of these teams adapts quickly to a new-look roster.

Fresh off a trip to the national title game in Chicago, where the Bulldogs fell, 3-1, to league rival Denver, Minnesota-Duluth may face the biggest challenges in its attempts to compensate for the losses of the core group that led the team to the Frozen Four.

Yes, five key seniors — including top forwards Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo — graduated, but those losses were compounded by early departures to NHL signings by sophomore forward Adam Johnson (Pittsburgh Penguins), freshman goaltender Hunter Miska (Arizona Coyotes), and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk (New York Rangers).

Notre Dame, ready for a move from Hockey East to the Big Ten, also once looked prime to be a top five team this season, but that prognostication was thrown into question following two notable departures — juniors Anders Bjork (Boston Bruins) and Cal Petersen (LA Kings). Bjork, a top 10 Hobey finalist, tallied 51 points last season, while Petersen finished tied for the nation's lead in shutouts (6). Meanwhile, the Union Dutchmen knew they'd be without the graduating Mike Vecchione this season, but also lost Spencer Foo to the Calgary Flames.

Boston University also suffered its expected share of offseason departures, including Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, and Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson. But unlike the aforementioned teams, the Terriers reload quickly with an outstanding incoming freshman class that features five NHL draft picks. Expect BU to remain a top 10 team this season.

Other teams to lose notable underclassmen to the pros during the offseason include Air Force (goaltender Shane Starrett), Boston College (forward Colin White), UConn (sophomore forward Tage Thompson), Michigan Tech (goaltender Angus Redmond), Wisconsin (sophomore Luke Kunin), and North Dakota (freshman forward Tyson Jost, sophomore forward Brock Boeser and junior defenseman Tucker Poolman).  

6. Points Of Emphasis

As part of the NCAA's two-year rules cycle, there are no new rules changes implemented for the 2017-18 season, although several points of emphasis and rules adjustments are effective immediately.

In last season's NCAA tournament, a would-be overtime game-winner by North Dakota (vs. Boston University) was overturned after video replay showed that UND had been offside when entering the offensive zone. The Terriers went on to win the game in double overtime.

A rules adjustment for this season states that such a play is not reviewable if the goal is scored after a stoppage of play (including a faceoff), or if the defensive team gains possession, or control, of the puck prior to the goal being scored. Had this rule been in effect during last year's NCAA tourney, North Dakota's goal would actually have counted, as BU gained possession of the puck prior to UND's Dixon Bowen beating BU goaltender Jake Oettinger. 

Deflections and rebounds — as one would expect — do not constitute possession.

In addition, the NCAA — using a video featuring an example of a dive by Minnesota senior Leon Bristedt against Penn State — has also encouraged its officials to call embellishment and diving when recognized on the ice, and for conferences to consider supplemental discipline for such infractions, as well. Look for this to be a point of emphasis especially early in the season.

7. Games To Watch

Don't be offended if your team or favorite matchup isn't on this list, as there isn't a college hockey game that's not worth watching. These are just a few — mostly nonconference games and notable rematches from last season — with intriguing storylines, worth circling on the calendar:

North Dakota vs. Minnesota, Oct. 20-21: UND and the Gophers played every season between 1948 and 2013 before a hiatus that finally ended last year. In their first regular season game in three years, the teams put on a show in a memorable 5-5 tie that six third period goals (three apiece) and 62 minutes of penalties. The next night, Minnesota won, 2-0. This month, the series resumes in Grand Forks, in a notable early season test for two members of college hockey's royalty.

Bemidji State vs. Air Force, Oct. 20-21: Nonconference wins are critical for WCHA and Atlantic Hockey teams, and this series will be no different — except for the fact that the teams' head coaches are brothers. Frank Serratore's Falcons travel to Bemidji to take on Tom Serratore's Beavers. It'll be the first head coaching matchup between the brothers since 2009.

Boston University vs. Denver, Oct. 27: Last season, the Pioneers and Terriers played a classic two-game October series at Denver, which Denver swept. It set the tone for the Pioneers' title campaign. This time, the scene shifts to Agganis Arena in Boston, in a game featuring plenty of future NHL talent and two teams vying for early season bragging rights. BU will be out for revenge against Denver, much like Notre Dame will be, two weeks earlier (Oct. 13-14). The Pioneers beat the Irish, 6-1, in the national semifinals last season.

Wisconsin vs. St. Lawrence, Oct. 27-28: Wisconsin has the tools to forge a successful season this year, but in this home series against the Saints, the story will center on Badgers goaltender Kyle Hayton, who will play against his former team. Hayton played three seasons for the Saints before transferring to Wisconsin. The Denver, Colo., native won his first start for the Badgers in a 3-2 opening night win over Michigan Tech last weekend.

Penn State vs. Michigan, Oct. 27-28: The Nittany Lions host the Wolverines in their home conference opener this weekend. These will also be the first conference games for new Michigan head coach Mel Pearson.

Michigan Tech vs. Bowling Green, Nov. 3-4: This series will be the first rematch of last season's terrific WCHA title game, which Michigan Tech won at a raucous MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton, Mich., earning an NCAA tourney bid on a dramatic double-overtime game winner from the now-graduated Shane Hanna.

Minnesota vs. Harvard, Nov. 17-18: Harvard is coming off an NCAA Frozen Four appearance, falling in the semifinal round to eventual runner-up Minnesota Duluth. The Crimson lost its top three scorers from last year's squad, and this trip to Mariucci will be an early season test for Ted Donato's team.

Cornell vs. Boston University, Nov. 25: Always a spectacle when these age-old rivals meet, the atmosphere will be amplified as the Big Red and Terriers return to Madison Square Garden in New York, renewing a series that — over the past decade — has been both profitable and exciting for both programs' fan bases. For Cornell, this is also the highlight of an otherwise weak (by comparison) nonconference schedule.

Minnesota-Duluth vs. Denver, Dec. 1-2: This will be the first meeting between the NCHC rivals since April's national championship game at Chicago's United Center. The Pioneers capped off a dominant season with a 3-1 win, on the strength of a second-period hat-trick for Jarod Lukosevicus. Confirmed by head coach Jim Montgomery last weekend, the junior will start the season playing on Denver's top line, alongside center Dylan Gambrell and roommate Troy Terry.

Mass.-Lowell vs Boston College, Jan. 27-28: A home-and-home series between the River Hawks and Eagles, this will be the first meeting between the teams since their Hockey East tournament finals clash last March, which Lowell won, 4-3. As the stretch run begins in earnest, this is likely to be a critical weekend for both teams.

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