Last season was a difficult one for Denver. The Pioneers came into the sason with a new head coach in Jim Montgomery after long-time head coach Geoge Gwozdecky was fired over a contract dispute. But more importantly, some key departures to the NHL left the Pioneers very young and thin on talent. They pulled things together with a great four-game run at the end of the season that saw them win the first ever NCHC playoff title, maintain their streak of 20-win seasons, and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. But in all, it was a down season by the program's lofty standards.
That relatively average season may cause some to overlook Denver heading into this season, but the Pioneers could be on the verge of a rebound back into the top half of the league. All that youth last year means that they return a huge percentage of last year’s team, and with an extra year of experience and maturity, they should be better-equipped to compete against the NCHC’s best.
|Trevor Moore, SO
|Daniel Doremus, SR
|Ty Loney, SR
|Zac Larraza, SR
|Gabe Levin, JR
|Quentin Shore, JR
|Danten Heinen, FR
|Matt Tabrum, SR
|Brad Hawkinson, rFR
|Evan Janssen, SO
|Matt Marcinew, SO
|Grant Arnold, JR
|Evan Ritt, SO
|Emil Romig, SO
|Larkin Jacobson, SR
|Rudy Junda, FR
|Will Butcher, SO
|Nolan Zajac, JR
|Josiah Didier, SR
|Nick Neville, SO
|Adam Plant, FR
|Evan Cowley, SO
|Greg Ogard, SO
NHL draft picks: Didier(MTL), Heinen(BOS), LaLeggia(EDM), Cowley(FLA), Butcher(COL), Shore(OTT), Larraza(ARI)
Potential free agent targets: Loney, Zajac, Doremus, Moore
The good news is that every forward that played in last year’s run through the NCHC playoffs is back, plus the return of Brad Hawkinson, who was expected to play a sizable role before missing all but two games due to a shoulder injury, plus the addition of a talented, smooth scoring threat in freshman Danten Heinen. The bad news is that all of those returning players only averaged 2.67 goals per game last year, with 32% of their goals coming from defensemen.
Leading the way on offense will be one of the more underrated first lines in college hockey. Waterbug forward Trevor Moore was the second-highest scoring freshman in the NCHC last season. Ty Loney was fantastic at the end of last season as a big, grinding power forward with some offensive touch.
The Pioneers are a bit lacking in quality forwards up the middle of the ice, but should have a strong supporting cast on the wings with players like NTDP alums Zac Larraza and Quentin Shore. Heinen will be the real wildcard for the Pioneers offensive. He is extremely skilled, but still very skinny. It make take him a year to build some muscle before he can really show off his abilities, similar to former Pioneer Beau Bennett, but he has the potential to do big things for Denver.
Like last season, an extremely mobile, and offensive-minded blueline should help pick up a lot of the slack left from the offense. The Pioneers got a huge boost when Joey LaLeggia, who was second in the country among defensemen in goals scored last year, and has cracked double digits in goals scored in each of three prior seasons, announced he would be returning for his senior season rather than signing with the Edmonton Oilers.
Behind LaLeggia are Nolan Zajac and Will Butcher, two smaller, offensive-minded defensemen that would be the top power play quarterback on nearly any other team in the country. Senior defenseman Josiah Didier isn’t overly physical, but does bring some size to an otherwise tiny blue line. Sophomore Matt VanVoorhis will compete with a trio of freshman for the final two spot on the blue line.
The big question mark will be in goal. Sam Brittain graduated after playing just over 90% of the minutes in goal for Denver last season. The reins will likely be handed over to sophomore goalie Evan Cowley. Cowley is considered a tremendous talent. He was selected in the 4th round of the 2013 NHL Draft by Florida, and has impressed at Florida’s prospect camps. He also performed well, albeit in slight and sheltered minutes last season. But barring the emergence of Chase Perry at Colorado College, Cowley will still be the regular goalie in the NCHC by a year and a half, and is just over two years removed from playing high school hockey in Colorado. That’s a lot of responsibility for a goalie that is relatively unproven at this level.
If Cowley struggles, the Pioneers have a pretty solid insurance policy in freshman Tanner Jaillet. Jaillet comes to Denver out of Alberta, where he put up three straight very strong statistical seasons for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the AJHL.
Pair a proven goalie with this group of skaters and I think you're looking at a team that isn't necessarily the favorite, but one of a small handful of teams you could consider legitimate challengers for the NCHC title. Goal tending will be the huge wild card. There's no doubt the Pioneers have talent at the position, but talent doesn't always equate to being strong in goal.
Scoring might be a bit of a concern at times, but the defense should score enough to make up for whatever the offense lacks, albeit sometimes coming at the expense of the defensive end of the ice, putting all the more pressure on their unproven goaltenders.
Overall, I don't think the Pioneers are quite strong enough to stay in contention for the league title in the second half of the season. But I do think they will be much improved from last year, and finish solidly in the top half of the league, while being somewhere in the 14-18 range nationally, which should put them right on the NCAA tournament bubble.