Photo courtesy John Leyba, The Denver Post
The 2017-18 college hockey season is back. While much of the rest of the country started their seasons over the past two weekends, the University of Denver Pioneers have to wait until this weekend, the 13th and 14th to open their season at Notre Dame in a Frozen Four rematch. While the wait has been excruciating, it has only added to the anticipation for a season that the Pioneers hope ends with another trophy presentation after an incredible run to their 8th national title in Chicago this past April.
Heading into the season last year, there was little agreement about what the Pioneers would do. Some thought they’d make another run to the Frozen Four while others thought they’d fall off after losing Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore to NHL contracts. Instead, all the Pioneers did was reel off a 33-7-4 national championship-winning season that was arguably the best in program history.
This year, thanks to another very good incoming freshman class and the fact that Troy Terry, Henrik Borgström, and Dylan Gambrell are all returning, the Pioneers are overwhelming favorites to repeat as national champions. In fact, 48 of the 50 voters in the USCHO poll and all 34 voters in the USA Today/USA Hockey poll picked the Pioneers to repeat on their preseason ballots.
With high expectations comes incredible pressure. Last year, the Pioneers were fueled by motivation following Frozen Four heartbreak in Tampa. There wasn’t much external pressure on the Pios last year. This year is almost the exact opposite. There is probably more external pressure on this team than there’s been in the past five years, combined.
Replacing what was lost
Unlike much of the rest of the NCHC, the Pioneers have relatively little to replace. The Pioneers return almost 70% of their points and nearly 75% of their goals from a year ago. Contrast that with teams like last year’s national runner-up Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, and even Western Michigan who were decimated by graduation and early departures to the NHL. The Pioneers dodged a major bullet on paper thanks to the returns of all three of last year’s top scorers.
However, that’s not to say that DU didn’t lose anything important. Everyone knows what the Pioneers lost in Will Butcher, to start. One of the best captains in DU history, power play quarterback, and reigning Hobey Baker Award winner to boot, the Pioneers lost a great one to graduation in Will Butcher. No matter what happens this year, they’re going to miss everything about Will Butcher. The New Jersey Devils have quickly found out what kind of on-ice asset he can be.
However, the Pioneers’ losses go deeper than just Butcher himself. Denver lost one of the most important senior classes in program history to graduation. After the National Championship in April, Jim Montgomery said of his seniors, “I feel like I’m graduating with them…their commitment has been unreal to the program, especially in the last 18 months. And what they learned from Grant Arnold, who was an incredible captain for two years, it helped me change the culture into a selfless one and about the team first and not about individuals.”
In last year’s senior class, what the 2017-18 Pioneers didn’t necessarily lose in scoring, they lost in heart and soul. Players like Evan Janssen, Matt VanVoorhis, Matt Marcinew, Emil Romig, and Evan Ritt gave the Pioneers a dimension that very few other teams had last year. While they weren’t flashy as Henrik Borgström or as gifted as Troy Terry, they made up for it in their dedication, their preparation, and their drive to make the Pioneers better. It was just as much because of them as the talented top line that the Pioneers won the national title.
It’s a gross oversimplification to say that the Pioneers only need to replace the Butcher’s production. Replacing such an important senior class is going to be the biggest challenge the Pioneers face on their quest to repeat. But, they have the pieces in place to do so. Players like new captain Tariq Hammond, Colin Staub, Adam Plant, Logan O’Connor, and of course Jarid Lukosevicius should be able to seamlessly transition into this integral role vacated by that senior class.
It won’t be an easy transition and there will probably be a number of bumps in the road, especially early in the year, but come late February and into March and April, if these players can jell like they did last year, DU fans could be in for another special run.
Targets on their backs and other fitting clichés
Simply put, this year the Pioneers will have targets on their backs. The hunters will become the hunted. After all, the only thing harder than winning a championship is defending one.
Get the point?
Things have changed for the 2017-18 Pioneers. Last year, they were just another top-five team. They hadn’t won anything. They hadn’t earned anything. There wasn’t that extra motivation to beat them. Sure, teams wanted to beat a top-ranked team, but it wouldn’t feel any different than beating a team like Harvard or UMD.
This year is different. Beating the Pioneers means beating those guys. It means beating the reigning best team in the country. Their mere presence is going to give their opponents all the motivation they need to give them their best. Night in, night out, DU is going to have to play the best version of their opponents. That’s not an easy task in any situation, least of all when you play in the NCHC.
Repeating as national champion is hard in any sport, but it might be hardest in hockey. After all, it hasn’t happened since Denver did it in 2004 and 2005. Rising to play against every opponent’s best is an underrated and underappreciated challenge along any program’s quest to repeat. And it’s something DU will have to adapt to immediately when they open against the very team they obliterated in last year’s Frozen Four, Notre Dame.
There’s no question that the Pioneers have the talent to go all the way and return to college hockey’s promised land, but do not underestimate this challenge that DU must face every game. No matter if it’s a resurgent St. Cloud State or a lowly Colorado College, the Pioneers have large targets on their backs. Every single one of their opponents have their sights set on derailing the Pios’ dream of title number nine.
Annual Season Prediction
If you recall, over the past two years, I’ve been relatively spot-on with my season predictions. Prior to the 2015-16 season, I predicted that DU would make a run to the Frozen Four. In April of 2016, the Pioneers lost to eventual national champion North Dakota in the national semifinal in heartbreaking fashion, 4-2. Then last year, I picked the Pios to return the Frozen Four in Chicago (as a reminder, I don’t pick the results of the Frozen Four in October) and the next thing we knew, we were watching the Pioneers skate around the United Center celebrating National Championship number eight.
So, in keeping with tradition, I have an extremely hard time seeing this year’s DU Hockey team fail to make the trip to St. Paul in April for the 2018 Frozen Four. This team is as talented and as well-coached as any that I’ve seen since I started closely following DU nearly 15 years ago. Montgomery has this program in the best place it’s been since the prime of George Gwozdecky’s tenure in the mid-2000s.
At least early on, it’s Denver, a wide gap, and then the next 59 teams. On paper, DU is just head and shoulders better than any other team in the country. But the game isn’t played on paper and any number of things could go wrong from injuries to a sophomore slump from Henrik Borgström to a poorly timed Olympic Break for DU’s top scorers.
However, I don’t see this team getting derailed by anything. Montgomery knows how to get through to his team and despite losing Butcher to graduation and the NHL, the Pios have strong leadership in Hammond (who should be ready for this weekend’s series at Notre Dame) and the entire group of upperclassmen. The transition from last year to this year should be seamless.
It shouldn’t shock anyone if Denver goes wire-to-wire as the favorite to win the national title. This team is just that good. Given the talent they have returning and the leadership both on the ice and behind the bench, the Pioneers are poised to do something that has happened three other times in their history: repeat as national champions.
College hockey is finally back and everyone in Denver is ready to drop that damn puck. 2017-18 is here and the Pioneers are ready to defend what’s already rightfully theirs.