With about a month left until the puck drops on the 2016-17 college hockey season, anticipation is starting to build, teams are starting to round into form, and apparently three weeks ago was the right time to issue the preseason top 10 (looking at you, Bucci). While the official team previews are still being worked on and kicked around, it’s about time to start looking at the upcoming season and how the 2016-17 University of Denver Pioneers are going to look.
That process, of course, starts with looking at the young, fresh faces that will don the Crimson and Gold for the first time in their lives. I’m talking obviously about the incoming freshman class of Pioneers. Entering his fourth year behind Denver’s bench, this year will be head coach Jim Montgomery’s third full recruiting class (his first year’s class was comprised of mostly Gwozdecky-recruited players).
As such, Montgomery is starting to make his own mark on the storied tradition of the University of Denver hockey program and this year’s class appears to be another step in the right direction. After a heartbreaking loss to archrival North Dakota in the Frozen Four, the pressure was on to replace the void left by an extremely important senior class and the early departures of Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore.
This year’s class appears to have what it takes to both fill that void and begin to address one of the major weaknesses of last year’s team: size along the blue line. By bringing in five forwards and two defensemen, one of whom is rather large, Montgomery is looking to continue his tradition of relentless Pioneer hockey.
F Kevin Conley, Wausau, Wisconsin
Conley, a 6′ 0″, 190 lbs forward will add some size and depth to a talented group of DU forwards. In two years with the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, he tallied 23 points in 106 games. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, what does jump out is all the penalty minutes he took. In those two years, he amassed 217 PIM for the Phantoms.
Conley may not have the scoring touch that other forwards on the current roster boast, but what he does have is a certain toughness, a certain grit that you really can’t teach or coach. He appears to be a good defensive forward who plays well in his own end and is more than willing to get into and win puck battles along the boards.
With his size and defensive tendencies, it would not be shocking if Montgomery and his staff decide to try to convert him to a defenseman over his first couple of years in the Crimson and Gold. Of course, that’s pure speculation and there is certainly something to be said for having someone like Conley on the fourth line to provide a much-needed spark at strategic times of games (Grant Arnold, anyone?). Look for Conley to get some playing time this year, but at the moment, it appears that he likely won’t be an everyday player.
D Michael Davies, St. Louis, Missouri
At just 5′ 8″ and 155lbs, Davies doesn’t exactly fit the large defensive defenseman mold that the Pioneers seem to be lacking at the moment. Don’t let that fool you, though. Davies is a talented hockey player and he’ll add to the scoring touch of the current group of blueliners on the Pios’ roster.
For the last two years, Davies has been playing at the USHL level for the Waterloo Black Hawks and the Dubuque Fighting Saints (that should sound familiar). In his two USHL years, Davies tallied 48 points in 111 games while racking up 37 assists in the process. The Pioneers’ offensive attack is built around high-scoring forwards and talented two-way defensemen and Davies should fit into a Joey LaLeggia or Nolan Zajac type role almost immediately.
His lack of size will definitely be a concern at first and there is a good chance that he’ll lose some defensive battles in his own end early in his collegiate career, but his offensive awareness should more than make up for that. Over time, as he builds some size, his defensive game should improve and might become an integral top-4 defenseman for the Pios.
D Erich Fear, Winnetka, Illinois
If Michael Davies is the heir-apparent to Nolan Zajac and Joey LaLeggia, the 6′ 5″, 220 lbs Fear is the heir-apparent to Josiah Didier. Simply put, Fear is not an offensive defenseman. In one year with the NAHL’s Springfield Jr. Blues, Fear notched just 12 points, 10 of which were assists. But that’s not what makes Fear such a valuable asset.
What makes Fear such a valuable hockey player is just that, fear (sorry). With his size, he will be able to overpower smaller forwards and easily win many puck battles both in open ice and along the boards. Simply put, almost any forward that tries to beat him in the physical game is going to lose.
The Pioneers’ lack of size along the blue line was an obvious issue throughout the year last year. At times, the Pios just got overpowered by larger forwards and could do nothing to stop the deep talent in the NCHC. Fear’s arrival should give the DU a different defensive dimension that the opposition never saw last year. While it will take some time for him to develop, Fear should figure to be another regular top-four blueliner at least by the end of the 2016-17 campaign.
F Liam Finlay, Kelowna, B.C., Canada
Finlay is one of the two most prized incoming freshmen for the 2016-17 Pioneers. And there is good reason for that. In all of his years playing hockey, Finlay has averaged no less than 1.05 points per game, and that came at the highest level he’s played in his young career. In the last two years with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees and Vernon Vipers, Finlay amassed 114 points in 109 games.
Finlay not only knows how to find the back of the net, but he also has a great passing touch. Of those 114 points, just 40 of them were goals while the other 74 were assists. His offensive awareness will serve him well immediately in the college game. At just 5′ 7″ and 154 lbs, he may get overpowered at times (a la Troy Terry in the first half last year), but his skating skills and awareness should bail him out more times than not.
There is a good chance that Finlay is going to be thrown into the fire immediately now that both Trevor Moore and Danton Heinen have left for the professional ranks. Prior to Moore’s departure, the thought was that Finlay would start the year as a 2nd line winger, but it now appears that he will be put on the top line with Dylan Gambrell and Troy Terry, at least to start the year. If he can overcome his size disadvantage, Finlay could immediately be a difference-maker on the Pios’ top line.
F Justin Cole, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania
If there is one significant unknown when it comes to this year’s incoming class, it’s the 6′ 3″ 198 lbs Justin Cole. Cole was a late addition to the class when Moore signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Cole’s production with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders wasn’t stellar, but it wasn’t terrible either. In 59 games last year, Cole tallied 25 points. 12 were goals and 13 were assists.
Cole’s game appears to be a balanced forward. He won’t dazzle you with highlight reel caliber goals, but he’ll consistently get the job done. The Pioneers clearly had their eyes on him for a while prior to Moore’s decision to sign with Toronto as Cole was added to the roster very soon after.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how Cole will fit into the 2016-17 roster. At first glance it appears that he could be a solid 2nd or 3rd line type player for Montgomery, but with his size he could end up being a more physical presence on the fourth line. Cole is probably one of the more intriguing incoming freshmen simply because of all of the unknowns associated with him. One thing is for sure, with his size, there is a good chance that he’ll be given the opportunity to contribute immediately.
F Tyson McLellan, San Jose, California
McLellan, son of current Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, is another smaller forward in this class. At 5’9″ and 165 lbs, McLellan managed to tally 46 points over the past three years with the Madison Capitals and Waterloo Black Hawks. He hasn’t lit up the scoreboard by any means, but in each year, his yearly scoring totals went from 9 to 12 and then to 25.
In the right offensive scheme, McLellan can be a major source of production on the second or third line for the Pioneers. Coming from a good hockey background, McLellan understands the game and his awareness is excellent. With the talent already on this roster, as long as he uses his assets to his advantage, he’ll continue to grow and light up the scoreboard.
With the Pioneers, McLellan may not play everyday this year. He may figure to be a Jarid Lukosevicius-type player early on. While he won’t see the ice everyday, he’ll certainly get his chances to prove his worth to the Pioneers. If he can produce when he’s on the line chart, his name will start to get tabbed as a starter more and more as the season wears on.
F Henrik Borgström, Helsinki, Finland
Ah the prized recruit of the 2016-17 class (yes, placing him last was strategic. Sue me). What is there really to say that hasn’t already been said about the Florida Panthers’ first-round pick in this year’s draft? Well, before I continue, just watch this:
Oh my, Borgström 😳🇫🇮https://t.co/aZsFrCS2B0
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) July 15, 2016
In case you were wondering, Henrik Borgström is really good at hockey. His on-ice presence is second to none and his scoring touch is…well…just rewatch that Vine. At every level he’s played at in Finland, Borgström has averaged no less than 1.12 points per game. Last year, he tallied 55 points in just 40 games. He has top line caliber talent. If there’s a true weakness in his game, I have yet to see it.
Before you begin to get carried away about how amazing a year he’s going to have, keep in mind he’ll likely start the year centering the second line behind top line center Dylan Gambrell. Borgström may end up seeing top line minutes by the end of the year, but at least to start the year, the bulk of his time will be replacing Quentin Shore on the 2nd line.
Only time will tell if Montgomery’s third full recruiting class is a “home run,” but the early indications are that this freshman class has a very good chance at starting to fill the voids left by last year’s graduating seniors and early departures. No matter what, if the Pioneers are going to earn a trip back to the Frozen Four, most of these seven freshmen will need to make major contributions.
Now, go watch that Vine of Borgström again and get excited for the 2016-17 season.