ST. PAUL – It’s nearly time to drop the puck on another season of college hockey.
And the NCHC, which has been represented in the Frozen Four every year of its existence, looks to represent well again this season.
The Denver Pioneers, expected to begin with the No. 1 overall ranking in both the USCHO and College Hockey News polls, returns most of last year’s national championship team and was a unanimous pick to win the Spencer Penrose Cup, which is awarded to the NCHC regular season champion.
Let’s take a look at each team in the NCHC, going in predicted order of finish in the conference media poll:
Denver Pioneers (2016-17 record: 33-7-4, 18-3-3-2 NCHC)
Key returning players: sophomore F Henrik Borgstrom, sophomore F Jarid Lukosevicius, junior F Troy Terry, junior F Dylan Gambrell, senior D Tariq Hammond, senior D Adam Plant, senior G Tanner Jaillet
Key losses: D Will Butcher, F Matt Marcinew, F Evan Janssen, D Matt VanVoorhis, D Evan Cowley
Key additions: F Ryan Barrow, F Jack Doremus, F Jake Durflinger, D Griffen Mendel, D Ian Mitchell, F Kohen Olischefski, F Jaakko Heikkinen
The Pioneers had four players named to the NCHC Preseason All-Conference team, including their top three scorers from a season ago: Henrik Borgstrom (22 goals, 21 assists), Troy Terry (22 G,23 A) and Dylan Gambrell (13 G, 29 A).. Tanner Jaillet was the other Pioneer named to the all-conference team, and his statistics from a year ago were simply outstanding as he went 28-5-4, allowing just 1.84 goals per game and recording a .929 save percentage, earning himself the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender.
Defenseman Will Butcher, who won last year’s Hobey Baker award and was fourth on the team in scoring, is gone now, but that won’t worry head coach Jim Montgomery.
“No question losing Will is going to be tough for us,” Montgomery said. “But hopefully having had Will Butcher and the captains that we’ve had the last two years is gonna help the regime.”
Defenseman Tariq Hammond, who suffered a major injury in the national championship game back in April, is back skating on the ice and should be good to go for the regular season, according to Montgomery.
St. Cloud State Huskies (2016-17 record: 16-19-1, 10-13-1-0 NCHC)
Key returning players: Junior F Mikey Eyssimont, senior F Blake Winiecki, junior F Patrick Newell, junior F Jacob Benson, sophomore F Ryan Poehling, sophomore F Nick Poehling, sophomore F Jack Poehling, junior D Jon Lizotte, junior D Jimmy Schuldt, senior D Mika Ilvonen
Key losses: D Dennis Cholowski, D Niklas Nevalainen, F Daniel Tedesco, F Ryan Papa, F Ben Storm
Key additions: F Easton Brodzinski, D Luke Jaycox, F Will Hammer, F Kevin Fitzgerald, F Blake Lizotte, G, David Zevnik, G David Hrenak
SCSU is coming off a rough season, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011-12. But the Huskies return their top 12 scorers from last year, and with a younger group getting a year of experience under their belts, head coach Bob Motzko believes he has himself one of his deepest teams.
“We’ve got 90% of our offense coming back. Our defensive core is as solid as I’ve had in my 12 years,” Motzko said. “[In net], Jeff Smith played [with] a .92 save percentage.
“We have a little more firepower in all three areas of our game. Great leadership.”
Obviously, with team depth you also have some young players. Motzko sees great things coming from his incoming freshmen.
“(Blake) Lizotte’s looked outstanding. He really appears to be one of those freshmen that could be special,” Motzko said. “Brodzinski is a Brodzinski; he shoots the puck as hard as any human can shoot it.
“We really like Will Hammer and Fitzgerald as well. Two veteran North American Hockey League players; they’re versatile and we’re encouraged by the depth they’re gonna give us. They’re guys we can play; we can play them right away.”
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (2016-17 record: 21-16-3, 11-12-1-1 NCHC)
Key returning players: sophomore F Shane Gersich, junior F Rhett Gardner, junior F Joel Janatuinen, senior F Austin Poganski, senior F Trevor Olson, senior F Johnny Simonson, junior D Christian Wolanin, sophomore D Colton Poolman, senior G Cam Johnson
Key losses: F Tyson Jost, F Brock Boeser, D Tucker Poolman, D Gage Ausmus
Key additions: F Peter Thome, D Gabe Bast, F Grant Mismash, D Matt Kiersted, F Zach Yon, F Collin Adams, D Josh Rieger
North Dakota made the NCAA Tournament for the 15th season in a row, but lost both their second and third leading scorers, Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost, to early exits. Head coach Brad Berry knows that replacing players of their caliber won’t be an easy task, but he also knows that the players he has are more than capable of keeping the Fighting Hawks in relevance as usual, starting with the return of the team’s leading scorer, Shane Gersich.
“Consistency on a nightly basis of scoring goals,” Berry said when asked about what level Gersich needs to be at for the season. “For him coming into this year, we’d like to see that consistent production again.”
Cam Johnson returns for UND in net after going 20-13-3 last season with a 2.38 GAA and a .903 save percentage. How he does will be crucial to the team’s success, as will the play in front of him.
“He had a strong year,” Berry said. “Our group in front of him was a little bit inconsistent probably midway through the year.
“I thought our group played our best hockey probably the last 12 games of the season rolling into the NCAA Tournament. [Johnson] was a big part of getting our season going again.”
Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (2016-17 record: 28-7-7, 15-5-4-3 NCHC)
Key returning players: Sophomore F Riley Tufte, sophomore F Joey Anderson, junior F Parker Mackay, senior F Karson Kuhlman, senior F Avery Peterson, senior F Blake Young, senior D Nick McCormack
Key losses: F Alex Iafallo, D Neal Pionk, F Dominic Toninato, F Kyle Osterberg, D Willie Raskob, D Carson Soucy, D Brenden Kotyk, D Dan Molenaar, G Hunter Miska
Key additions: D Mikey Anderson, D Dylan Samberg, D Louie Roehl, D Scott Perunovich, F Kobe Roth, D Matt Anderson, G Ben Patt
UMD finished second in the NCHC regular season, claimed the NCHC Frozen Faceoff crown and made it all the way to the national championship game, losing 3-2 to archrival Denver. To repeat last season’s success, they’ll have to overcome losing much of their scoring to graduation and early departures.
Among those early departures, however, was outstanding freshman goaltender Hunter Miska. Miska went 27-5-5 with a 2.19 GAA average and a .920 save percentage. Replacing him won’t be easy, and not even head coach Scott Sandelin knows who will start in net for the Bulldogs when the season begins.
“I haven’t watched them that closely,” Sandelin said. “I’m going off last year, what I saw with [Hunter] Shepard and [Nick] Deery. Those two guys are probably 1-2 just because they’ve played some games.”
Sandelin later added that incoming freshman goaltender Ben Patt has been getting some reps as well.
Miami RedHawks (2016-17 record: 9-20-7, 5-14-5-3 NCHC)
Key returning players: Senior D Louie Belpedio, sophomore G Ryan Larkin, junior F Kiefer Sherwood, junior F Josh Melnick, sophomore F Carson Meyer, sophomore F Gordie Green, senior D Scott Dornbrock
Key losses: F Anthony Louis, F Justin Greenberg, D Colin Sullivan
Key additions: D Alec Mahalak, F Ben Lown, F Casey Gilling
The RedHawks went through some growing pains last year with 14 freshmen, and you could bet that head coach Enrico Blasi felt that sting.
“Last year we knew we were gonna go through a process-a learning curve, if you will,” Blasi said. “The growth of the young team, the experience they had going through some of the things that they did. All of a sudden, you get spring workouts in, you get summer workouts in-now you come back and now it’s a different feeling.”
Louie Belpedio gives Miami a huge boost by returning for his senior season, and Blasi believes it gives the RedHawks defensive depth with Scott Dornbrock returning as well.
“When you have a senior that comes back that’s as high-end as Louie Belpedio, it gives your team that added credibility,” Blasi said. “If he would’ve left, then we have another hole that we have to fill and we have to develop somebody else.”
Leading scorer Anthony Louis is gone, but the next two leading scorers from last season, Kiefer Sherwood and Josh Melnick, return for Miami.
Western Michigan (2016-17 record: 22-13-5, 13-9-2-1 NCHC)
Key returning players: Junior F Colt Conrad, junior F Jade McMullen, sophomore G Ben Blacker. junior D Corey Schueneman, senior F Aidan Muir, senior D Paul Stoykewych, senior D Neal Goff, senior D Scott Moldenhauer
Key losses: F Sheldon Dries, D Taylor Fleming, F Frederik Tiffels, F Matheson Iacopelli, F Griffen Molino
Key additions: D Carson Vance, G Austin Cain, F Brett Van Os, F Lukas Samuelsson, F Josh Passolt, F Cam Orchard
The Broncos are coming off an outstanding season, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for just the sixth time in program history. But with the bulk of last season’s scoring production-including top three scorers Matheson Iacopelli, Griffen Molino and Sheldon Dries-now gone, head coach Andy Murray realizes the task ahead. It’s something he’s dealt with before.
“We’d had a very difficult year the year before [last]. We lost a number of guys early, as we’re gonna experience this year again,” Murray said. “Last year we had a very focused group. I was really proud of the leadership of our senior group last year.”
Ben Blacker returns in net for Western Michigan. Blacker was 17-8-2 last season with a 2.55 GAA and a .915 save percentage.
Omaha (2016-17 record: 17-17-5, 9-13-2-0 NCHC)
Key returning players: Senior D Joel Messner, junior D Lukas Buchta junior G Evan Weninger, senior F Tyler Vesel, senior F Jake Randolph, junior F Mason Morelli, senior F Luke Nogard, senior D Grant Gallo, junior F Steven Spinner
Key losses: F Austin Ortega, D Luc Snuggerud, D Ian Brady, F Justin Parizek
Key additions: F Martin Sundberg, F Cole Pickup, D Lawson McDonald
No team in the NCHC probably had more of a change of scenery in the offseason more than the Mavericks. First, impact players Austin Ortega, Ian Brady, Luc Snuggerud and Justin Parizek left. Then Dean Blais retired and the job was given to Mike Gabinet. For a coach to succeed, you’ve got to do your own thing, and Gabinet certainly believes that.
“I think it’s good as a head coach to always be yourself. I’m a big culture guy, just kinda want to establish the culture that I believe in,” Gabinet said.
With many key players gone, Gabinet sees a big chance for his younger players to develop.
“Those guys put up a lot of points for us. They’ll be tough to replace, but it’s also an opportunity for younger guys to play a bigger role,” he said.
Colorado College (2016-17 record: 8-24-4, 4-16-4-1 NCHC)
Key returning players: Junior F Mason Bergh, sophomore F Alex Berardinelli, sophomore F Nick Halloran, sophomore G Alex Leclerc, junior F Tanner Ockey, junior F Chris Wilkie
Key losses: F Luc Gerdes, F Matt Hansen, F, Sam Rothstein, D Teemu Kivihalme
Key additions: F Chrstiano Versich, D Zach Berzolla, F Troy Conzo
One of the youngest teams in college hockey, the Tigers don’t feature any seniors on their roster this season. However, for the first time in four years, they have a veteran goaltender in net in Alex Leclerc, and head coach Mike Haviland likes what he sees in him.
“[Last year], he really came on in the second half. He won games for us,” Haviland said.
Despite the youth CC has, Haviland believes there’s a different feel in the locker room this season.
“It’s the best shape that our guys have come back [in],” he said. “That was a major part that I was really going after with them; to give ourselves a chance to win, you have to be in the best shape.”