Here we are, entering LetsGoDU‘s fifth year in its current form and the University of Denver hockey team is embarking upon a season looking to earn its fourth Frozen Four berth and win its second national title in that span. Now, it’s important to remember that there is a huge difference between correlation and causation but try, for a moment, to simply appreciate the incredible run that the Pioneers have been on over the past five years. Pretty great, huh?
(If you’re one of the North Dakota fans who so kindly gave us your hate-click, feel free to abstain from that activity. We’ll understand.)
Five seasons ago, under current Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s leadership, the Pioneers took the logical next step by earning a Frozen Four berth after making it one round deeper into the NCAA Tournament in each of the previous two years. It was DU’s first Frozen Four appearance since winning back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005. As soon as Denver earned its trip to Tampa with a win over Ferris State – the Bulldogs upset second overall seed St. Cloud State in the first round – there was a collective sigh of relief across Pioneer Nation. Denver had finally broken through and returned to hockey’s biggest stage after so many near misses in the past decade.
Then, of course, after losing to eventual champion North Dakota in the national semifinal, Denver skipped a step and won the whole dang thing in 2017 after running through the second half and NCAA Tournament like a buzzsaw. The season culminated with an instant-classic national championship game victory over UMD thanks to a hat trick from Jarid Lukosevicius.
Now, this season, history has a chance of repeating itself after a loss to UMass-Amherst in the 2019 Frozen Four. A year ago, under first-year head coach David Carle – at 29, he was and still is the youngest head coach in college hockey – Denver proved the proverbial ‘them’ wrong and made an improbable run back to the Frozen Four (with a little help from AIC topping top overall seed St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament…sound familiar?), a little bit like the 2015-16 team did. No one is sitting here guaranteeing that Denver is going to repeat that history and win the 2020 national title (or am I??), but with the pieces that Denver is adding and retaining this season, the Pioneers are a favorite to at the very least be one of the last four teams standing next April.
Departed: Filip Larsson (signed with DET)
Incoming: Magnus Chrona (2018 5th round pick, TBL)
Outlook: Goalie has been a position of great strength for the Pioneers in each of the last five years. From Evan Cowley and Tanner Jaillet to Filip Larsson and Devin Cooley, the Pioneers have not lacked stability or talent in the crease. While it was a surprise to most to see Larsson leave the program after just one year in college to sign with the Red Wings after Denver’s loss to UMass-Amherst in April, the Pioneers immediately filled his roster spot with another Swedish NHL draftee in 6’6″, 216 lbs. Magnus Chrona. Between Chrona and Cooley – a former walk-on who broke out in a big way last year – the Pioneers will have the luxury of continuity, fresh talent, and the best name in college hockey.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) March 10, 2019
In 20 games last year, Cooley went 11-6-2 with a 0.934 SV% and a stellar 1.85 GAA. An at-times anemic offense forced Cooley to stand on his head to maintain slim leads in low-scoring games and he succeeded with flying colors. If Cooley can put up similar numbers with an increased workload and Chrona can live up to expectations as another large goalie, this should be a position of strength once again, especially with what figures to be a solid corps of defensemen.
Keep an eye on: well, both of them. They’re both likely going to play a lot this year and will provide the Pioneers with a great foundation at the back. And heck, who doesn’t love watching heart-stopping, acrobatic saves?
Departed: Les Lancaster (graduation), Ryan Orgel
Incoming: Lane Krenzen, Justin Lee
Maybe Nate Wells with College Hockey Inc. put it best in the Denver entry of his 60 Days. 60 Teams. 600 Words (or Less) series when he called the Pioneers’ retaining First-Team Preseason All-CHN honoree Ian Mitchell a ‘major coup.’ One of the things that has set the country’s two premier programs – Denver and Minnesota Duluth, for the uninitiated – aside from the rest of the pack, is the cultivation of an environment that inspires drafted players want to stay longer than most would have expected them to. From Will Butcher staying for his senior year – though there were mitigating factors involved with the Avs – to Henrik Borgström staying for his sophomore year and Troy Terry staying for his junior year after both had won a national title and now to Mitchell staying for his own junior year, even with two different coaches in the past five years, Denver has found a way to retain its top talent. And that’s no small feat considering the culture under George Gwozdecky when it seemed Denver was losing multiple early departures every single year.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) November 17, 2018
For more than a decade, including the Gwoz era, the Pios’ blue line has been a position of great strength and with team captain Mitchell anchoring this year’s group of defensemen and the top power play unit, this year will be no different. Not only have the Pioneers been able to generate consistent offensive production from its defensemen, but they’ve also played responsibly in their own end. The blueliners have given DU’s goalies the kind of support they need to backstop a national championship-caliber team.
The Pioneers only lose one defenseman who played regularly last year in Les Lancaster. With that kind of continuity and anticipated year-over-year individual improvement from Erich Fear, Griffin Mendel, Vegas Golden Knights draftee Slava Demin, and alternate captain Michael Davies, Denver should once again have one of the country’s best blue lines.
Keep an eye on: Erich Fear. After some lackluster appearances in his first two years with the program, it seemed the 6’4″, 213 lbs senior found his identity as a large, in-your-face, physical defenseman. Fear instilled his own last name in his opponents and was a formidable presence along the blue line when the Pios needed physicality on the back end. Look for the Winnetka, Ill. native to take another step forward and continue to be a big, important presence for this group of defensemen.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) February 2, 2019
Departed: Jarid Lukosevicius (graduation), Colin Staub (graduation)
Incoming: Jay Feiwell, Bobby Brink (2019 2nd round pick, PHI), Brett Edwards, Hank Crone
Outlook: Sure, the Pioneers only lost two key forwards from last year but those two forwards were the heart and soul of the 2018-19 team. After all, everyone only gets four years of eligibility and alternate captain Lukosevicius and senior captain Staub were both eventually going to graduate. But what the Pioneers lost in Lukosevicius and Staub, it seems the team has gained in the form of young potential in newcomers Edwards, Crone, and, of course, Brink who has dominated most, if not all of Denver’s offseason recruiting headlines. And it’s well-deserved for the 2018-19 USHL Forward of the Year. Brink’s 1.29 points per game for the Sioux City Musketeers was better than players like Jack Eichel (1.23), Casey Mittelstadt (1.23), Andrei Svechnikov (1.21), and Johnny Gaudreau (1.17). The Minnetonka, Minn. native is a great passer with excellent vision and an elite shot. Scouts have questioned his skating ability but under the tutelage of Denver’s coaching staff, not only will he be able to improve that part of his game, he likely will have the opportunity to provide the Pioneers with some scoring punch at the top of the line chart.
Beyond Brink, look to Edwards and Crone to add significant offensive support in the middle of a deep line chart that will feature returning forwards looking for breakout years like Kohen Olischefski, Jaakko Heikkinen, and Ryan Barrow. Add in the talents of Liam Finlay – who led the Pioneers with 36 points a year ago – Tyson McLellan (13 points), Brett Stapley (19), Cole Guttman (26), and Emilio Pettersen (30), Denver’s forward group figures to bounce back with a balanced, lethal offensive attack after an inconsistent, though just effective enough, 2018-19 campaign.
Keep an eye on: Brett Edwards and Hank Crone. As mentioned, Brink has commanded most of the attention in this incoming freshman class but Edwards, who put up 54 points on 29 goals and 25 assists in 49 games for the AJHL’s Drumheller Dragons, and Crone, with 65 points on 19 goals and 46 assists in 60 games for the USHL’s Fargo Force, will play major roles for a deep, talented forward group. Both first-year Pios are talented enough to make a splash in the top half of the line chart or providing Carle with valuable secondary scoring options on the third or fourth line.
What are your thoughts? How do you think the Pioneers will fare this year? Is it National Champions or bust? Comment with your thoughts below!
Oh, and one more, just for good measure: UMass-Amherst.