If it seems that this annual preseason preview piece is coming at an odd time, you’d be absolutely right. It’s December 1st and the NCHC is officially kicking off its season – Omaha and Minnesota Duluth hit the ice this afternoon at 2:35 pm MT – that no one was totally sure was even going to happen a month ago in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s been a weird, brutal, and altogether taxing year. Nearly nine months after the 2019-2020 season was abruptly canceled in one of the most surreal weeks of our lives, we’re sitting back down and thinking about what’s to come over the next four months of college hockey. But as rough as this year has been and may continue to be in certain ways, there is a bright spot: college hockey is finally back and the puck drops on Denver Hockey’s 71st season in a little more than 24 hours.
So now, after 264 days of waiting since the NCHC canceled its postseason tournament and the NCAA did the same to the national tournament, here we are, getting ready for a season unlike any other. Will there be fans in the stands? What will the atmosphere be like? Will you be able to watch all the games you want to watch? Will the season even be completed as scheduled? Will DU win its ninth national title? There are so many unanswered, important questions on your mind that only time will answer.
But, for now, we know three things: we know Denver’s schedule, Denver’s roster, and that the Pioneers are currently in Omaha preparing for their first 10 games in the NCHC’s pod, or bubble if you prefer the NHL’s terminology. Oh, and let’s not forget that Denver has already see-sawed from #5 to #4 to #5 and finally back to #4 in the USCHO poll all before they’ve even hit the ice to play a game. Polls! What that does show, however, is that Denver is, once again, a solid pick as a favorite to make it back to the Frozen Four with a chance to tie Michigan for the most-ever national titles at nine. Sure, there are plenty of unknowns with the Pios, namely finding a way to replace the production of an extraordinarily talented departing class of NHL draftees and graduated seniors that included the likes of former captain Ian Mitchell, Emilio Pettersen, Liam Finlay, and even Devin Cooley who signed an NHL entry-level deal with the Nashville Predators in October.
So where does that leave Denver entering the weirdest season in recent memory? Well, in short, the Pios are fine. The cupboard isn’t bare. If anything, DU might be better positioned this year to win national title number nine than they were a season ago and, quite frankly, they should contend at least for the NCHC regular season and postseason titles. How do we figure that? Well, let’s dive in!
Departed: Tyson McLellan (graduation), Liam Finlay (graduation), Jay Feiwell, Tyler Ward (transfer)
Incoming: McKade Webster (2019 7th round pick, TBL), Carter Savoie (2020 4th round pick, EDM), Steven Jandric (graduate transfer, UAF), Connor Caponi
Outlook: In recent years, Denver’s forward group has kind of taken a backseat to the elite defensemen that the Pioneers have had. This year, the tables may turn a bit on that front. Between the returning talent of players like sophomore Bobby Brink, juniors Cole Guttman and Brett Stapley, and seniors Jaakko Heikkinen and Ryan Barrow, Denver was already looking at a deep forward group. Then add in a couple of drafted incoming freshmen in Webster and Savoie – Savoie may be the singular freshman to watch on this year’s roster – and an Alaska Fairbanks transfer in Jandric, the Pios’ forward group is loaded with talent and depth.
Losing Tyler Ward in addition to the graduation of McLellan and Finlay was a bit of a gut punch for this group but head coach David Carle and his staff went above and beyond to replace their production. Ward was a candidate to break out this year as a top-six forward after showing flashes of brilliance a year ago, including a first-period hat trick against Miami. But according to sources close to the program, Ward still felt that greener pastures could be found elsewhere and decided to transfer to New Hampshire. Losing Ward is tough but that’s just the nature of collegiate athletics in 2020 with the prevalence of the Transfer Portal.
But where the transfer portal taketh away, it also giveth (pardon the paraphrase of the popular idiom) in the form of Jandric. The UAF transfer and Prince George, B.C. native tallied 33 points on 13 goals and 20 assists in 35 games for the Nanooks a year ago. He should figure in as a second or third-line winger who has top-line potential for Carle’s Pioneers this year. In short, with his experience playing key minutes in the WCHA, Jandric will no doubt get the same treatment in the NCHC this year.
Keep an eye on: The freshmen. Yes, keep an eye on Brink but he’ll force you to do that anyway as he surely anchors the top line. But it’s the freshmen in Savoie, Webster, and Caponi that you should watch out for. Savoie has an eye-catching game with the ability to pour in goals and tally points as fast as he can skate while Webster may offer another point-per-game option for the Pios as he notched 23 points on 7 goals and 16 assists in 24 games as captain for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers in a pandemic-shortened season a year ago. While Caponi may not be able to keep up the scoring pace with his fellow freshmen, he’ll no doubt follow in Jake Durflinger’s footsteps as an agitator, a role that’s massively important when playing against the likes of North Dakota and Colorado College. Caponi, in his last two years with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks, added 65 and 84 penalty minutes to his 21 and 14 points, in respective years.
Departed: Ian Mitchell (NHL Entry-Level Contract, CHI), Erich Fear (graduation), Michael Davies (graduation)
Incoming: Antti Tuomisto (2019 2nd round pick, DET), Bo Hanson (graduate transfer, St. Lawrence), Mike Benning (2020 4th round pick, FLA), Reid Irwin
Outlook: Where the blue line has been a source of experienced depth in years past for the Pios, it’s going to be the source of inexperienced, high-ceiling talent this year. Losing Mitchell was expected as was the loss of Fear and Davies. But you could easily make the argument that the Pios completely reloaded and then some with their defenseman group. With another two drafted players in highly touted Tuomisto and Carter Savoie’s best friend and long-time teammate Mike Benning, the Pioneers are loaded with potential with their defensemen. Then, add in the big-bodied St. Lawrence graduate transfer in Hanson, the Pioneers have successfully added some much-needed size and defensive depth at the back.
Denver has apparently become Sherwood Park South by adding Savoie, Benning, and Irwin to the roster. All three played together for the BCHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders for the past two years. While Savoie and Benning have understandably received much of the coverage, it shouldn’t be lost on you, dear reader, that the Pioneers have added three multi-year teammates to their roster. Chemistry can be a defining program characteristic on the ice and the Pioneers won’t lack that at all this year thanks, in part, to these additions.
Keep an eye on: Antti Tuomisto. This is the obvious choice but that’s for a reason. The Finnish defenseman may as well be a bigger-bodied Ian Mitchell as Tuomisto has the ability to run the point and has an absolute cannon of a shot. Combine his shot with his 6′ 5″, 205 lbs frame and you have a potentially elite, unstoppable blueliner who can go up against UND’s own elite freshman defenseman Jake Sanderson with ease.
Departed: Devin Cooley (NHL Entry-Level Contract, NSH), Michael Corson (transfer)
Incoming: Jack Caruso, Corbin Kaczperski (graduate transfer, Yale)
Outlook: The headline-grabber in this group was obviously Cooley signing with Nashville. Cooley came to DU as a walk-on who turned himself into a starting-caliber goaltender who could ably perform in tandem with NHL-draftees Filip Larsson and Magnus Chrona. Then, the dream came true for Cooley when the Predators came calling and signed him to an entry-level deal. Losing Cooley to the NHL may take some adjusting for the Pios but Chrona was named to the preseason All-NCHC team for a reason. The Swedish netminder was admirable as a freshman a year ago posting a .920 SV%, 2.15 GAA, and 2 shutouts en route to a 16-6-4 record in 27 games. And he’s poised to improve on those numbers this year.
Keep an eye on: Corbin Kaczperski (that took me four tries to type, no big deal). You can add the graduate transfer to the growing list of transfers from Yale to Denver in recent months. Bill Tierney added Lucas Cotler and Jackson Morrill, both Yale standouts in 2020 before the season ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, Kaczperski is the third former Bulldog to make the trip west to what’s now apparently the Yale of the West. The China Township, Michigan native goaltender figures to fill the tandem role vacated by Cooley this year. A year ago, Kaczperski earned a .903 SV% to go along with his 2.77 GAA and two shutouts on his way to a 14-13-2 record. By the time he left Yale, he ranked third all-time at Yale for GAA and save percentage.
The Pioneers are poised to be a contender from start to finish this year. They will have a well-balanced attack with a strong, responsible defensive presence in their own end. In other words, this is a fairly normal, talented Denver team. Carle’s incoming freshman class may be the best he’s had since he became head coach two seasons ago and if they live up to their potential right away, Denver will likely come home from Pittsburgh with their ninth national title in hand.
Maybe this year more than any other, Denver’s ranking throughout the year will have a lot to do with whether their competition over or underperforms. In other words, how North Dakota does will have a lot of bearing on how the Pios are seen by the national voters which may actually matter in the end since the Pairwise can’t be used this year.
In terms of how Denver will fare in the NCHC, I caused a bit of a stir among North Dakota fans when I revealed that I was the lone voter who picked DU to finish at the top of the NCHC. There were 28 voters and I was the only one who picked DU to finish in first. Full disclosure, I nearly picked North Dakota – it’s not every year when a program has the luxury of a returning Hobey Baker finalist to go along with a loaded incoming freshman class – but I picked Denver because I do truly believe Denver will win the NCHC. As discussed above in the positional breakdown, the Pios have plenty of talent to compete with anyone in the country and they may end up with the most well-balanced attack when all is said and done.
North Dakota has understandably gotten most of the headlines and all of the early votes – they’ve been #1 in each of the first four USCHO polls – but when all is said and done, the college hockey world may be surprised to see the Crimson and Gold back on top of the world. But one thing is for sure, we may get a glimpse back into the good ol’ days when Denver and North Dakota duked it out together at the top.
No matter what happens, though, NCHC hockey is back today and Pioneers hockey will finally return to our lives tomorrow night against UMD at 6:35 pm MT. Every single DU pod game will be televised on Altitude this month. If you’re a Comcast subscriber, though, you can still subscribe to NCHC.tv and all 38 pod games will be shown there, including each of Denver’s 10 games.
Top photo of the Pioneers taking the ice at Magness Arena courtesy of Denver Athletics