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The Top 11 College Hockey Preseason Team Storylines (Part 1)

Looking at the best preseason storylines in college hockey and ranking teams by answering a single question: Which schools would make for the best showcase on HBO's "Hard Knocks?"

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Every year in late August and September I get a little obsessed with HBO's "Hard Knocks." Obsessed might be nice. The show sucks me in like a moth to light. It's a storyteller's dream and honestly after four weeks I spent the past three Tuesday nights disappointed there wasn't a new episode.

It's nearly week 4 and I'm still disappointed there isn't a new episode.

The show, which features an all-access look inside a NFL team's training camp, consistently is one of best programs on television.  This year's version covered the Houston Texans. Few are able to mix the mundane, humor (see: Vince Wilfork playing basketball, going to a BBQ joint, wearing overalls, or basically doing anything) and important details in an entertaining story while giving both meaning.

"Hard Knocks" turns nameless numbers in helmets into human beings, painting the field with their stories.

To consistently do so with a turnaround of only a week is even more remarkable. Chronicling the journey of stars flying in private jets to journeymen trying to make a team in their seventh attempt, there is no shortage of stories in the NFL. Every one tugs at an emotion.

By the end of the four weeks, it is hard to not feel like you know the players and share the pain of the ones whose dreams are shattered. Last week's finale tested the latter as one bubble player after another - the ones showcased in the little on-field action HBO showed - learning their doomed fate from Houston head coach Bill O'Brien. Epilogues showing a couple being signed didn't help change the mood. Jobs aren't safe. That's the nature of the NFL before Week 1.

And none of this changes the fact I don't cheer for or even plan on watching the Texans this season. So far I've yet to see a moment of action in the opening 3 weeks.

The same thing about "Hard Knocks" selling the NFL season can be said about 24/7, which chronicles big boxing matches as well as previously covering the two teams playing in the NHL's Winter Classic. (Well except for that full all-access part given both teams kicked out cameras at different points during the last road to the Winter Classic.) Even David Clarkson taking the train to games or Phil Kessel playing pool was interesting.

Of course there's no college hockey version, or anything close. Several teams do have team-specific video series (LINK), but team-created content is not quite the same.

It's not stopping my obsession, however. I'm still thinking about "Hard Knocks" as college hockey practices began officially an the season pokes its head out of the shadows, coming back around after a six month slumber. Teams are hitting the points where "Hard Knocks" would chronicle before the season.

So I've been thinking what teams would make for a good college version. Would it be defending champion Providence, looking to return to the top and be the first men's hockey team to repeat in a decade? How about runners-up Boston University; or a smaller team with a good story and measure of success (hello RIT)? Or maybe a school like CC, which has been down on its luck lately but trying to build back to respectability?

Each of the 60 teams could make compelling television in the hands of HBO.

This would only cover the immediate run up to the season. Unlike the NFL, there are no cuts or departures in September. (Any further over the summer and hello, welcome to this list Wisconsin and Notre Dame. Sorry about the camera person who captured everything.) It also means that several top teams from a year ago just missed making, or are a year too far (also sorry Michigan Tech - can still see explaining all the all the Pietilas and Hietalas and Johnstones).

Even though I make no bones about something like this actually happening on the small screen, the intriguing storylines which people should pay attention remain throughout college hockey. They should be paid more attention. Some are well known, some, like on "Hard Knocks," fly under the radar and can quickly grab attention.

With that in mind, here are my top 11 teams whose preseason stories and paths would make for the best "Hard Knocks" series split into two parts.

Part 1 - teams 11-6 - runs today. Part 2 - teams 5-1 - will run either Thursday or Friday.

11. Arizona State

Arizona State is in a position only two schools - Penn State and Robert Morris - have been in this century. The Sun Devils, college hockey's 60th Division 1 team, will be beginning Year 1 this season with a hybrid schedule of club and D1 teams. It is literally new territory seeing how a school builds a program from scratch. While the Sun Devils bring in a mixture of new recruits, transfers and players from its club hockey team, head coach Greg Powers and company have a job ahead of them to transition into their new home.

There is an incentive to see how ASU and hockey in the southwest grow in Year 1. There is plenty in Tempe to capture off the ice as well. At the same time, seeing mistakes and positive steps learned through practice and first-time games at this level raise questions. I'd watch, but it also feels like something which should be figured out without any cameras.

Other schools in this line of thinking are the Nittany Lions, no longer the new kids on the block and possibly in sync with one another, and Connecticut. The Huskies enter season 2 in Hockey East with raised expectations and, as our Jeff Cox notes, one of the better recruiting classes in the conference to match one of the better goal songs (Brass Bonanza).

10. RPI/Union

I'm cheating a little bit by having two schools doing one show, but it's hard to separate the two rivals and the history of hockey in the Capital Region of New York. Thematically RPI and Union, separated by about 15 miles, share some similarities and contrasts which would make for a good show. Neither likes the other. RPI, which in recent years has been closer to the middle or bottom (the Engineers are picked to finish tenth in this year's ECAC poll), do get back goalie Jason Kasdorf (at the expense of successor Alec Dillon going to the WHL).

Union, meanwhile, finished tenth in ECAC in 2014-15. Any year where a bottom-three league finish happens is disappointing. To have it come off the Dutchmen's national championship season, and to finish one place below RPI makes 2015-16 a season where there is nowhere to go but up.

Plus between Union head coach Rick Bennett and RPI head coach Seth Appert talking about hockey and one another there will be entertainment value.

9. Air Force

Speaking of characters, there is no one like Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. No way an Air Force "Hard Knocks" show ends without him stealing the spotlight. None.

In addition, showing the day-to-day life of student-athletes at a service academy balancing school, sports and training would make for interesting story telling possibilities. Colorado Springs-based Air Force is an outlier in Atlantic Hockey, but remains one of the most consistent teams over the past decade with 5 NCAA appearances. However, the Falcons have missed each of the past three tournaments with last season being the team's first sub-.500 season since 2005-06. To get back to the top Serratore will have to replace the team's top 3 scorers.

(s/t Eric Vegoe)

8. Boston University

With high expectations and high-profile departures, there are several paths the national runners-up can take from the disappointment which comes from being national runners-up. That's true for any team finishing second. The Terriers lost in heartbreaking fashion, falling 4-3 [Note: Skip to the following paragraph if you're a BU fan. You know how this ends. You'll thank me later.] after a pop up got past goaltender Matt O'Connor .

Now the Terriers - having won the Beanpot, Hockey East regular season and conference tournaments, and the only Boston school to reach the hometown Frozen Four - has plenty of local competition in one of college hockey's major cities if BU wants to remain top dogs of Boston. Boston College, named the #1 team to start the year over Minnesota-Duluth and BU, has one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Harvard has high expectations in ECAC, returning Hobey Baker finalist Jimmy Vesey, among others.

Boston University head coach David Quinn brings in a high-end freshmen class of his own including Jordan Greenway, Bobo Carpenter and top 2016 Draft D Charlie McAvoy. The Terriers retain Danny O'Regan and A.J. Greer among others - albeit captain Matt Grzelcyk will be out to start the year - but the team's path back to the title game and "Hard Knocks" entertainment value will be due in part to who can step up and replace lost production. BU will be without O'Connor, who signed with the Ottawa Senators, and the two top scorers in college hockey in Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues each signing with the Buffalo Sabres.

We'll always have the year of Eichel. He leaves college hockey as the most-discussed one-and-done player since Phil Kessel. So much attention was focused on the 2015 #2 overall pick where if the lights are dimmed on the Terriers this time around, it will not be the worst thing for Quinn and BU despite entertaining 2015-16 storylines or not.

7. Alaska

Only 2 schools finished 2014-15 with a victory. One was national champion Providence. The other? Alaska, which defeated Alaska-Anchorage 3-2 on March 7th for an 8 game season-ending unbeaten streak.

Despite finishing fourth in the WCHA and earning home ice, the Nanooks were unable to participate in conference playoffs or the NCAA Tournament. Alaska's program previously had been handed a one-year postseason ban thanks to absolutely nothing done by the players on the ice. Regardless, Dallas Ferguson's team responded well on the ice to adversity.

This season there is the playoffs to play for, along with several other stories. The Nanooks have to replace the two top defensemen, including the best in the conference in Colton Parayko (who signed with St. Louis after his junior season), and find help in other positions. There's plenty of returning talent up front, led by senior center Tyler Morley. The biggest returnee, however, may be defenseman Justin Woods, who missed 2014-15 after undergoing treatment for Ewing's Sarcoma (bone cancer).

Throw in the Alaskan scenery as a backdrop along with the greatest entrance known to man and I'm set.

6. Michigan

It has been three years since Michigan has made the NCAA Tournament after a record 22 consecutive appearances. Three years is a lifetime in a sport where players are allotted four. Three years is a long time for fans to wait.

For as long and far away as the NCAA Tournament has been for the Wolverines, the tournament remains within grasp. Michigan has been close. Very close. Change the results of three games and head coach Red Berenson's streak is at 25 years.

(To make matters worse is the growing matter in recent years of any team that gets into the NCAA Tournament has a chance to win. The last at-large bid has won the national championship two of the past three seasons. Providence doesn't claim a national title or NCAA Tournament appearance if Michigan defeats Minnesota in the 2015 Big Ten championship game.)

Following a run to the CCHA championship game in 2012-13 and crushing double OT loss to Penn State in the 2014 Big Ten conference tournament where a win would have insured a berth, the third consecutive miss came with one of college hockey's most entertaining teams for all the wrong reasons.

The only consistency was that there was none. Sometimes Michigan looked like a top-five team. Sometimes Red Berenson's hair would turn white from his team's poor play if it wasn't already.

No team scored more than the Wolverines in 2014-15. At the same time, Michigan allowed nearly three goals a game and played in several high-scoring contests which would fit into the 1980s. The talent up front - even without leading scorer Zach Hyman (graduated) and Big Ten freshman of the year Dylan Larkin (signed with the Detroit Red Wings) - is there.

Along with some redemption stories, a search for consistency in net with junior Zach Nagelvoort, the most high-profile freshmen class in the Big Ten (led by 2015 first round pick Kyle Connor), and another 2015 first round pick in sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski, the Wolverines remain entertaining.

6a. As an aside to any "Hard Knocks" show, I would watch a roundtable show where legendary coaches like Berenson, Jerry York, Jack Parker, Don Lucia, etc talk coaching and hockey.  Someone make that happen.

Once again, Part 2 - featuring Teams 5-1 - will be up tomorrow or Friday.


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --