Photo credit: Matt Dewkett, SBN College Hockey
We’ve reached the end of September and college hockey returns in less than two weeks. That means we’re less than two weeks away from the beginning of a new era of Denver Hockey. In a little more than a week, first-year head coach David Carle, who replaced Jim Montgomery who took the head job with the Dallas Stars, will lead the Pioneers back onto the ice at Magness Arena in their exhibition game against the University of Alberta to kick off one of the more intriguing seasons in recent memory. Not only do the Pioneers have to replace one of the best coaches in program history, but they must also replace some of the most talented players they’ve ever had.
The Pioneers have a steep hill to climb this year and playing in college hockey’s best conference, it probably feels like a true ‘rebuilding year.’ In addition to replacing Montgomery, the Pioneers have the monumental task of replacing three of the sport’s best players in Troy Terry, Henrik Borgström, and Dylan Gambrell. Every program faces the task of replacing players every year but it’s rare that a program must replace three players of their caliber in a single year. That’s where the Pioneers are right now, though. No one feels bad for a program that won the 2017 national title and has been to two of the last three Frozen Fours. Sure, the hill is steep, but it’s not like the crimson and gold cupboard is bare.
This will be one of the most-talked-about narratives of the season for good reason. Replacing a national-title winning head coach is difficult for any program but replacing him with a 28-year-old with no head coaching experience at any level raised more than a few eyebrows outside of the program. Shouldn’t the Pios let David Carle, who received a head coaching offer from his hometown University of Alaska Anchorage before Montgomery signed with the Stars, get some head coaching experience? Isn’t it too big a risk to let someone like Carle take the reins of one of the best programs in college hockey history? These were all valid questions raised but after Montgomery left for the Stars, I wrote that there was just one person who should replace him: David Carle.
Tabbing Carle as Monty’s replacement was a no-brainer. Outside of Montgomery, no one knows this program better. After having to give up his playing career due to a life-threatening medical condition a decade ago, Carle spent his formative coaching years with DU and spent just a year and a half away from the program since. While he hasn’t had any head coaching experience to this point, he already has eight and a half years of coaching experience with the Pioneers under two of the best coaches in program history in George Gwozdecky and Jim Montgomery.
He’s been part of one of the best eras in DU hockey history, but Carle’s resume is built primarily on the intangibles that fans don’t get to see. It’s understandably difficult for some to view the fact that Carle has played a key role in recruiting and took on a significant role in the day-to-day operations of the program while on Montgomery’s staff as enough of a reason to give him the head job. The jury will be out on Carle for some time for a number of Denver fans but someone had to replace Montgomery and if Denver wasn’t going to take a chance on Carle, another program was going to. Carle is ready to be a head coach and even though he has big shoes to fill, this season is going to give fans at least a glimpse of why this is going to be the first great hire of new Athletic Director Karlton Creech’s tenure.
Since being named head coach, Carle retained the services of fellow Montgomery assistant Tavis MacMillan and hired former Alaska Fairbanks head coach Dallas Ferguson to be his other assistant. Ferguson led the Nanooks to their only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010. Then, Carle brought in Olympic medal-winning and former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens and Stanley Cup champion Steven Reinprecht into the mix as team manager and volunteer assistant coach, respectively. Looking at these hiring decisions, you begin to see that Carle is doing his best to make up for his lack of experience by simply hiring experience.
Don’t expect much to change on the ice under Carle and Co, though. He learned much of what he knows from Montgomery and already in glimpses of practices, the Montgomery mentality remains. The Pioneers will continue to play “relentless, 200-foot hockey” and make themselves difficult to play against. These were the hallmarks of Montgomery’s tenure at Denver and, well, it worked. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken, right? Carle is ready and able to take over this program and don’t be surprised if the coaching transition seems mostly seamless.
Professional hockey gutted the Pioneers after the 2017-18 season. It was no surprise that Terry, Borgström, and Gambrell decided to forgo the rest of their college eligibility to sign with the NHL teams that drafted them (Ducks, Panthers, and Sharks, respectively). They were three of the best players in all of college hockey while they were in Denver and it didn’t make sense for them to stay in college any longer.
Defenseman Blake Hillman’s departure for the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t very surprising either, but captain-to-be Logan O’Connor’s decision to sign with the Colorado Avalanche sent shockwaves through DU circles. From these early departures alone, before even taking into account the graduated seniors, the Pioneers need to find a way to replace 176 points from a year ago. Not only that, but Denver needs to replace the leadership and intensity, especially on the forecheck and penalty kill, that O’Connor brought to the Pioneers.
Long story short, the 2018-19 Pioneers are going to look a hell of a lot different than they did in 2017-18. But don’t for a minute think they won’t be able to successfully replace what’s gone. Sure, there are 11 incoming freshmen on this roster but they have some great talent in that class, including forward Cole Guttman – who was at the center of a recruiting controversy while St. Cloud State was in Denver last year – and Emilio Pettersen whose playing style and hands might quickly remind you a bit of one Henrik Borgström.
But beyond the incoming freshmen, the stage is set for returners like Jarid Lukosevicius, Colin Staub, Jaakko Heikkinen, and Tyson McLellan to have break-out seasons and lead the way up front. Along the blue line, Ian Mitchell will have a chance to take another step forward and continue to develop into a Will Butcher-type defenseman. Between Michael Davies, Griffin Mendel, and highly-touted incoming freshman Slava Demin, the pieces are on the roster to replace Hillman’s productivity in all three zones.
The Pioneers are in an unenviable position having to replace the talent that they lost from a year ago. They lost players that were worth the price of admission every single night and made them national contenders with their mere presence on the line chart. But the pieces are in place to successfully replace that production that they lost. All they have to do is go out and execute under a familiar system. Simple, right?
Overall Season Outlook
The cards are stacked against the Pios this year. On paper, they shouldn’t have much success and probably are a middling team that will flirt with the top 10 here and there throughout the year. Maybe they’ll make the NCAA Tournament, maybe they won’t. Don’t tell the Pioneers what the paper has to say, though.
All they need to do is look at another team in their conference for a blueprint to success this year. UMD entered 2017-18 in virtually the same exact situation as Denver. They had to replace incredible talent that left early for the NHL and depend on young talent, mostly freshmen, to carry them through the season. All they did was stay within striking distance and get hot at the right time to win the unlikeliest of national titles.
Now, don’t get carried away and immediately think that because UMD did it, DU is going to follow suit and go win a national title in Carle’s first year. Sure, anything is possible and Carle will continue to insist that the season’s goal is nothing short of bringing home Denver’s ninth national title, but success this year, at least for fans, should be measured less by championships and more by incremental progress and visible growth as the season wears on.
The Pioneers are likely going to struggle early on as they get used to a new-look roster and find the line combinations that best utilize this team’s strengths. There are going to be some ugly moments and situations that make you scratch your head. For the first time in years, the Pios are going to have to get used to playing in front of a goalie not named Tanner Jaillet. Fortunately, they have a freshman phenom goalie in Filip Larsson who appears more than capable of taking the reins in the crease.
But as the season continues, look for the Pioneers to continue to look more and more comfortable on the ice with each other. More wins will come with that increased comfort level. Watch for more selfless play from the talent up front and more team-focused play that emphasizes finding the best scoring opportunities. Without an obvious “star” on the ice, Denver is going to have to look at multiple sources for their scoring this year.
The Pioneers aren’t a favorite to win the NCHC (picked to finish 5th by the NCHC media) or the national title, nor should they be. Denver will likely finish somewhere in the middle of the conference, hopefully in the top half, and give themselves a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year and to keep the Tenzer Streak – the Pioneers have the longest active streak of winning 20+ games – alive.
Denver doesn’t have rebuilding years, they have reloading years. Sure, they aren’t entering the season as national favorites but don’t sleep on the Pioneers. They have plenty of talent to make a run and make the 2018-19 season a whole hell of a lot of fun. This is a good, underrated team. Trust me, you don’t want to miss any of this season.