It’s no secret that Denver looks for smart and talented hockey players that fit head coach David Carle’s style of high speed, high-skill transition hockey. For many years now (pre-dating Carle’s tenure), DU has often featured small, fast, and shifty offensive players who can move and control the puck on the rush, through the neutral zone, and down low below the face-off dots. These speedsters are usually backed by a very mobile puck-moving defensive corps who can jump into the offensive zone and contribute on the scoresheet. It’s a system that typically works well for the Pioneers, as that speed and skill can create both open spaces and skill mismatches that can often compensate for a lack of size.
Smaller players also tend to stay longer in college, and are often undrafted by the NHL, allowing a program such as DU to skate a more experienced lineup vs. teams who consistently lose talent early to pro contracts.
But when DU is matched against some of the bigger, heavier teams in the NCHC, the Pioneers can get worn down by the physical disadvantage, losing corner and net-front battles, especially late in games when players tire. Bigger players also generally hold up better over a long season while helping create space for the skilled forwards by tying-up opponents and winning those half-wall, corner, and net-front battles with strength and size.
This year, DU (10-13-1) took some lumps against bigger teams, going 7-13-1 against teams with a larger average weight than the Pioneers. Denver was the second lightest of the eight teams in the NCHC last year with an average weight of 184.3 lbs, and only Colorado College was lighter at 176.8 lbs. Additionally, the Pioneers ranked #46 nationally out of 61 teams nationally in average weight, in the bottom NCAA D-I quartile.
Western Michigan led the NCHC (and the nation) last year as the heaviest team in the country, at an average weight of 198.1 lbs., while North Dakota was second in the league (and fourth nationally) in average weight at 190.2 lbs.. Other heavier NCHC teams also won more games than Denver — Omaha had an average weight of 188.6 lbs., Minnesota Duluth weighed 187.8, and St. Cloud State weighed186.86.
Height-wise, DU was also among the shortest average teams in the nation, ranking a lowly #56 out of 61 NCAA teams at an average of 5 feet,11.46 inches, just ahead of the NCHC’s shortest team, CC, at 5 feet-11.23 inches. And while height isn’t as big a factor in hockey as it is in basketball, when you add it to DU’s average weight disparity, it doesn’t help. All the other teams in the NCHC were taller than DU, (save for last-place CC), with WMU once again leading the nation at 6 feet, 1.57 inches on average.
While last year’s roster reveals last year’s DU size gap, the future for increasing Denver’s size does not appear to look promising, either, for a couple of reasons.
First, the Pioneers are losing some of their larger players on the roster, including three of their four 200+ pound skaters. DU’s departing big body seniors Griffin Mendel (6-4, 220 lbs), Steven Jandric (5-10, 203 lbs.), and Bo Hanson (6-1, 203 lbs.) are already in the transfer portal, despite an additional year of eligibility afforded to all players. They were likely told that there is no more scholarship money available to keep them in Denver for another season. And also now in the transfer portal are a couple of 6-foot-1 forwards (but under 200 pounds) in former captain Kohen Olischefski (6-1, 187 lbs.) and Jack Doremus (6-1, 178 lbs). Thus, the heaviest forwards currently coming back for Denver will be rising sophomore Carter Savoie and rising junior Brett Edwards, both of whom were listed at 190 lbs. last year, both respectable hockey weights, but certainly not heavyweights on almost any other team.
Secondly, the future young recruits in the Pioneer pipeline aren’t appearing to offer much relief in terms of size. According to the height/weight statistics at Chris Heisenberg’s recruiting website, there are no young forwards slated to come to Denver heavier than 181 lbs., although it’s not known how often the sizes of these growing players are updated.
Additionally, there doesn’t appear too much height in the pipeline either, with no forwards taller than winger Samu Salminen (6-2, 170 lbs.), who is not slated to arrive from Finland until 2022. DU does have a pair of decently-sized defenseman targeted for 2023 arrival — Shai Buium (already 6-2, 223 lbs.) and Kent Anderson (6-2, 190 lbs.), but they likely won’t help DU in 2021-2022, unless those players were to arrive in Denver earlier.
Given the current lack of size on the roster and the 2021-22 Pioneer team now projecting to be even smaller than last year (as it stands today), Carle does have the option of dipping into the transfer portal, where there are certainly some players of size and experience who would love to come to a team like Denver.
Unfortunately, most of these transfers would likely need scholarship money that is perhaps already committed to DU’s incoming recruits. But when comparing portal additions to recruited additions, a lost hard-earned recruit is a potential four-year loss for DU, while most incoming transfers would be for a shorter DU duration, many of them only for one season. There is also the team chemistry issue to think about, as each incoming transfer is not only more competition for the existing and freshmen players working their way up the depth chart, but does not have the existing emotional bonds with players already there.
College transfers are tricky in any sport. Sometimes they really work out well. Mercyhurst transfer Les Lancaster was an important piece on the 2018-19 DU Hockey roster that returned to the Frozen Four in Buffalo. Then there’s the Yale transfer trio of Jackson Morrill, TD Ierlan, and Lucas Cotler being seamless difference-makers right now for the DU men’s lacrosse team and helping turn them into legitimate national title contenders this year.
Other times, transfers can be disastrous, as we saw in DU basketball in 2018 when highly-heralded transfers Ronnie Harrell from Creighton and Tory Miller-Stewart from CU never really jelled with the existing DU basketball team, destroying fragile team chemistry and crumbling much of the future foundation for then-coach Rodney Billups’ head coaching career at Denver.
Finally, DU’s experience with its own three senior hockey transfers who came in last season was underwhelming, to say the least. Alaska-Fairbanks transfer wing Steven Jandric was the biggest disappointment, starting on the top line and only scoring one goal in 20 games, eventually losing his lineup spot altogether. He will reportedly play at Merrimack next season.
Additionally, defenseman Bo Hanson from St. Lawrence also lost his lineup spot on the DU blue line as the season wore on. And when DU’s forward lineup got shortened due to Covid in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, to his credit, Hanson was inserted at forward and did score a very helpful OT game-winner vs. Omaha for his only Denver goal. Nevertheless, Hanson was very likely told there would not be scholarship money for him to stay at Denver next season.
Finally, there was Yale goalie transfer Corbin Kaczperski, who ranked third all-time in career wins and saves percentage for the Bulldogs before coming to DU. He soon found that his ECAC numbers don’t always translate to the more rugged and talented NCHC. As the Pioneers’ backup goalie last year, Kaczperski posted a poor saves percentage of .868 in 11 games as he backed up Denver’s starting goalie Magnus Chrona (who had an uncharacteristically subpar season himself).
So Carle and his staff have some decisions to make for next season. Do they risk DU shrinking to an even smaller roster and trying to move up in a heavy league? (thus keeping their recruiting pipeline intact), or do they park (and risk losing) an incoming player or two for another year in juniors in order to free-up some scholarship money for some much-needed size from the portal? Or do they bring in some size via big walk-ons or with partial scholarship transfers?
We’ll have to wait and see.
Photo: Carter Savoie (#8 in Crimson above) is currently one of the two heaviest returning forwards for DU next season at only 190 pounds, along with Brett Edwards at the same weight. NCHC Photo by Mark Kuhlmann.
Puck Swami is is the internet moniker of a long-time Denver fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.