No. 1 Denver Pioneers hockey hosts No. 2 Minnesota Duluth at Magness Arena

Logan O’Connor has signed with the Colorado Avalanche/Denver Post Photo

National Hockey League teams have feasted on the excellence of the Denver Pioneers hockey program this off-season, taking three of DU’s top forwards (Henrik Borgstrom, Dylan Gambrell and Troy Terry) before graduation, a top defenseman (Blake Hillman) early, its head coach (Jim Montgomery), and now, DU’s captain-to-be.

Logan O’Connor, an undrafted forward from Calgary, Alberta who was slated to become DU’s captain as a senior this season, signed a two-year NHL entry-level contract as a free agent with the Colorado Avalanche on July 23, thus ending his college career a year early. 

“Logan is a hard-working player who brings leadership, energy and speed every night,” Avalanche Executive Vice President and General Manager Joe Sakic said in a press release. “His game has continued to develop each season, and we are excited that he has decided to pursue his professional career with the Avalanche organization.”

DU fans who watched O’Connor play in Denver for the last three seasons will remember his north-south speed, high-motor tenacity and relentless work ethic, as well as his proactive leadership, character, eloquence and general goodness as a human being that led to his selection as DU’s incoming captain. O’Connor, who scored 43 points in 108 DU games, is the son of former Michigan captain and all-American Myles O’Connor.  Myles, a defenseman, had a long professional career, including over 40 NHL games with New Jersey and Anaheim.

“Logan has earned this opportunity with Colorado,” DU Head Coach David Carle said in DU’s press release. “He represents everything a Pioneer student-athlete strives to be. He has put himself in this position with his tireless work ethic the last three years and leaves Denver with a National Championship, NHL contract and degree in sight. We couldn’t be more proud of him and we are excited to watch him at the next level.”

The Avalanche certainly saw those same things in “OC”, but they also saw just how well DU was able to develop the undrafted, somewhat raw O’Connor into one of college hockey’s best penalty killers. At 6-0 and 179 pounds, his speed, tenacity and puck skills really stuck out in the Avs’ summer pro development camp, where the 21-year old was just as (or more) productive as the younger high-level draft picks on the Avs’ depth chart. The Avs’ expectation seems to be that O’Connor would likely start the year in the Colorado Eagles in Loveland, Colo., the Avalanche’s new AHL affiliate. If he were to get an NHL shot, it would likely be as a bottom-six penalty killer and energy forward.

O’Connor also told the Magness Mayhem blog in a July 23rd podcast that it was the “hardest decision of (his) life” and that the current DU coaching staff, former DU coach Jim Montgomery, pro hockey people and his family advisor were all consulted.

Additionally, his NHL-alumnus father Myles, “was supportive” of O’Connor’s decision, but balanced his support with his experienced advice that “pro hockey is a business” and made Logan (a perennial NCHC all-Academic team member) promise to “finish his (DU) degree over the next couple of summers.”

While DU fans (and O’Connor) should be thrilled that his hard work and development at DU has enabled him to take advantage of a professional contract opportunity, the downside for DU is yet another major hit to the already depleted Pioneer roster.  O’Connor is the school-record fifth DU player this year to sign an NHL contract before his college eligibility was over. Add in the DU players lost to graduation and transfer, and DU is left with a hyper-young rebuilding roster of at least 20 freshmen and sophomores. 

With O’Connor’s departure, I would expect DU to fill the spot by reaching into its deep pool of waiting verbally-committed recruits to sign another forward for this season. The two forward prospects that DU would likely choose from are Ryan O’Reilly, a fourth-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings from Texas or Brendan Budy, a high scoring left winger from British Columbia.  O’Reilly, who is slated to play in the USHL this season, is a big power forward at 6-2 and 200 lbs., but is somewhat raw in his skill set. Budy, a 5-10, 180 pound playmaker, is a proven producer in the BCHL, with 56 points in 49 games last season as a 17-year old captain with the Langley (B.C.) Rivermen. Budy’s father, Tim, was a forward with DU rival Colorado College back in the late 1980s.

We also expect that DU may want to name a new team captain to replace O’Connor from either (or both) seniors-to-be Jarid Lukosevicius or Colin Staub, and perhaps elevate either defensemen Michael Davies and/or Ian Mitchell to become alternate captains.

As for the Pios’ prognosis this season, DU fan expectations should be tempered. Fans here in Denver will need to be very patient with one of the youngest rosters in the country and the youngest head coach in the country in David Carle. Given that the NCHC is the toughest league in the nation, the young Pioneers will likely take their lumps this season. There is a very good chance that the Pios will struggle to be a .500 team, and that the familiar 20+ win DU season, NCAA tournament appearance and yearly Gold Pan success will not happen for this young group. Indeed, all programs can have relative down seasons as they rebuild, just as North Dakota and Boston College did last season. DU will likely become better as the new players acclimate to college hockey and experienced players assume new roles as the season progresses. And who knows? They could surprise us and over-achieve. After all, Minnesota-Duluth won the NCAA championship with a young team last year. 

That said, you also might want to buy DU basketball season tickets this season, as the Pio hoopers have the potential to nab that elusive first NCAA tournament appearance this season.

Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.