With the 2016-17 college hockey season getting underway this weekend (it marks just about a year since LetsGoDU came back!), polls are dominating conversation (dumb) and pundits are making their season predictions (dumb, but fun!). Of course, it also means that it’s time to break out the annual LetsGoDU hockey preview.
Coming off a heartbreaking loss to North Dakota at the Frozen Four in Tampa just five months ago, the #3 University of Denver Pioneers are gearing up to prove that last year wasn’t just a “flash in the pan.” They’re out to show the college hockey world that DU is back and ready to compete for a national title each and every year.
While last year ended just one game earlier than every Pioneer wish it had, it’d be tough to characterize the 2015-16 season as anything but a smashing success. For the first time in over a decade, the Pioneers returned to the Frozen Four and on top of it all, they won 20 games for an NCAA-best 15th straight year.
Sure, the Pios lost 2/3 of the top line, appropriately dubbed the Pacific Rim Line, as Danton Heinen signed with the Boston Bruins and Trevor Moore signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but expectations are still extremely high for this year. And believe it or not, those expectations are absolutely warranted.
Of course, head coach Jim Montgomery won’t outright acknowledge that winning the 2017 National Championship is the goal saying, “My expectations are getting better everyday, and see how quickly we can become a really hard team to play against.”
It’s easy to say the right things, but the bottom line is this team wants to win a championship. After coming so close and nearly completing the comeback victory against the eventual national champions, this team is hungry. They also know hunger alone isn’t going to get them to Chicago.
Replacing the Pacific Rim Line
Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore accounted for 92 points last year. If you’re new to college hockey, that’s a lot of points for two players. For the most part in 2015-16, Moore, Heinen, and Pacific Rim Line centerman Dylan Gambrell led the way on offense. Another way to put it: without the production of the top line, the Pioneers likely don’t even sniff the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
This is not to say that Denver needs to replace all 92 points lost with Heinen’s and Moore’s departures. A very good argument could be made that the Pios relied TOO heavily on the top line’s production last year…whether that argument is true is irrelevant.
“Those guys (Moore and Heinen) obviously were the source of most of our production last year,” sophomore forward Troy Terry said. “The biggest thing that we need is to chip in offensively and be reliable on both ends and make sure we’re coming through in big moments.”
Terry is expected to be a key replacement on the top line this year. Coming into 2015-16, he was touted as one of the top recruits in the nation, but the success wasn’t there early in his freshman campaign. In his first 20 games last year, he tallied just 7 points, 4 of which were goals.
However, in the second half, especially late in the year, Terry found his scoring touch. Over the last 21 games of the season, the Denver native notched 15 points, including 5 assists against Boston University and Ferris State in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“I think towards the beginning I was pressing too hard and just nervous and clutching my stick almost,” Terry said reflecting on last season. “Towards the end, our team started to do so well because we were all buying into the system. And it really helped everyone calm down and not stress about scoring, which really benefitted me once I relaxed and played my game that I know.”
Terry can’t shoulder the load of replacing Heinen and Moore alone, though. There are two incoming freshmen that should see significant minutes this year: Henrik Borgström and Liam Finlay. By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Borgström, the first round pick of the Florida Pathers, but you’d be forgiven if you said that you haven’t heard of Finlay yet.
Borgström, though young, is somewhat a known quantity. He’s a fast, skilled skater with hands of silk. In short, he’s going to score and he expects to: “I have to keep scoring, that’s the way I can replace [Heinen and Moore]!” he explained in his soon-to-be-patented Finnish accent.
Despite the high expectations for the latest European Pioneer, it’s likely that he’ll see most of his minutes this year centering the second line. It’s a well-known fact that most successful hockey teams are strong in the middle, and making sure Borgström sees the bulk of his minutes at center will be a key for the 2016-17 Pioneers.
Finlay, on the other hand, might be the least well-known potential difference-maker for the Pioneers (we did profile him right here). During his time in the BCHL, Finlay did nothing but score. In his three years in the Canadian league, he averaged 1.05 points per game. in fact, he’s averaged at least a point per game at every level he’s played in his young career.
Montgomery wraps up the offensive situation better than I could, though: “I think Troy Terry is ready to take off. Besides that, we have some freshman like Henrik Borgström to produce. We need Finlay to contribute offensively. After that, it’s ‘Who’s going to take advantage of the opportunities when they get to play with the Gambrells, Terrys, and Borgströms?'”
As disappointing as it was for DU fans to watch Heinen and Moore say goodbye to the program, the offense is in a good place right now. While it may take a few weeks for these players to get used to playing hockey with each other, once again the sky is the limit for another talented group of Pioneer forwards.
Defense the biggest strength?
The Pioneers have one of, if not THE top returning defensive corps this year. Led by newly appointed captain Will Butcher, play along the blue line will be one of this team’s consistent bright spots. Let me say that again. DU’s defense, while solid in previous years, will be one of the 2016-17 squad’s biggest strengths.
This is not to say that last year’s corps of blueliners was bad. Quite the opposite. Led by Nolan Zajac and Butcher, play at the back gave a huge boost to an already talented team. Their offensive production was once again among the best in the country and they had no problems seamlessly transitioning into a defensive mindset in their own zone.
If there was one drawback to last year’s group of defensemen, it was an overwhelming lack of size. As a result, the defense was often overpowered by larger forwards when they entered the zone. By the end of the season, they found effective ways of playing good defense in their own zone, but it was still frustrating for a number of fans watching the inability of DU’s defensemen to stand up opposing forwards at zone-entry.
This year, however, that’s going to start to change. With the addition of freshman Erich Fear (6′ 5″, 218 lbs) and the emergence of sophomore Blake Hillman (6′ 1″, 188 lbs) and junior Tariq Hammond (6′ 2″, 195 lbs), the Pioneers will be able to play a more physical brand of defense, especially in the open ice. Even if it means a slower defense on the whole, Montgomery won’t let this group play anything less than his trademarked “relentless” style of hockey.
“I think it’ll help a little more defensively,” Butcher said of the added size along the blue line. “Especially with some different lines and matchups in the NCHC. When you have lines that are just a bit bigger and you can throw those guys out against them, that’ll be an advantage.”
It’s tough to visualize a defensive-minded group of Pioneer defensemen, though. Jumping into the play offensively has been a trademark of DU hockey even before Montgomery took the reins of the program. The good news is, there won’t be a need to visualize that. The Pios’ defensemen will contribute to the offense just like normal.
“We’re going to focus on shooting and shooting pucks through traffic to try and score or create more scoring opportunities,” Butcher explained.
This may be difficult to believe, but Denver’s defense is going to be better than the great defense from a year ago. With the added size and developing scoring touch of Butcher, Hillman, and Matt VanVoorhis, this could (probably should) be a banner year along the blue line for the Pioneers.
No starting goalie controversy
Unlike last year, Denver will have a singular starting goalie to begin the 2016-17 campaign: Tanner Jaillet. After a stellar 2015-16 season, especially in the second half, it was almost a no-brainer to pencil him in as the starter. Almost.
In limited action, Evan Cowley played extremely well between the pipes in the second half. After losing out to Jaillet for the starting job last year, Cowley filled in as the backup a few times after the New Year and did an excellent job in that role.
“I think Tanner Jaillet has earned the right, through his play in the second half of the year last year, to see if he can continue with that consistent high level,” Montgomery explained. He wouldn’t rule out playing Cowley if he earns the time, though saying, “Again, who’s the best guy in practice, who’s making the best stops, and who’s communicating the best to his defenseman and forwards in front of him [will play].”
With it being his senior season, it would be reasonable to assume that Cowley will still see some significant ice time. But at least to start the season, the crease will be Jaillet’s.
As a reminder, Vermont transfer Packy Munson will not be available to play this year because of the NCAA’s transfer rules. His eligibility will resume at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Jaillet’s senior season.
Last year, I predicted that the Pioneers would make a run to the Frozen Four…and I was right. Don’t believe me? Read it and weep.
I don’t see many scenarios where the Pioneers don’t make it back to the Frozen Four this year. Barring any serious injuries, DU is going to be one of the country’s top teams all year long. They’re going to be a hard team to play against and even with the loss of Heinen and Moore, the 2016-17 Pioneers have gotten better. The 2015-16 run to the Frozen Four wasn’t a fluke. That team was good. This team will be better.
Whatever happens in the NCHC Tournament is kind of irrelevant. Of course the Pios want to hoist the Penrose Cup and win the NCHC Tournament, but the bottom line is they want to win a national title. Montgomery wouldn’t come out and say it immediately, but he doesn’t have to. This team is hungry to make up for the heartbreak in Tampa last season.
Hoisting a trophy in Chicago in April is the goal this year and there is no reason the Pios can’t accomplish it.
I don’t make a habit of picking a national champion at the beginning of the season because so many different things could happen at the Frozen Four, but the bottom line is this: I’ll be shocked if DU is not one of the four college hockey teams playing hockey in Chicago in early April.
I hope you’re ready, Pios. College hockey is back.