A bit over six months after the Denver Pioneers’ 2020-2021 season was ended by archrival North Dakota in an exhausting overtime loss in the NCHC Tournament semifinal – just two days after the shorthanded Pios dispatched the Omaha Mavericks in a first-round thriller – hope springs eternal at Magness Arena. The Pioneers failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades, but it’s September once again, less than two weeks away from the puck dropping on the 2021-2022 season and the disappointment of the Covid-19 addled season is in the rearview mirror. Heck, just by virtue of the fact that the NCHC’s national championship streak ended, we may as well slap an asterisk on 2020-2021 and forget about it (ducks from the flying objects thrown from the Amherst metropolitan area).
A year (well, more like 10 months) ago, the key questions surrounding the Denver Pioneers were dripping with optimism. Would Denver win their 9th national title? If not, how deep would they go into the NCAA Tournament after participating in three of the past five Frozen Fours? Instead, the Pioneers skidded to a 3-6-1 record in the Omaha Pod to open the season and limped to a 10-13-1 overall record after winning their first-round game in the NCHC Tournament.
So now, the questions are much more measured ahead of the 2021-2022 campaign. How will Denver rebound after a disappointing year? What changes should we expect from head coach David Carle? Can the Pioneers figure out how to score more goals after averaging fewer than three goals per game last season? Will DU return to the NCAA Tournament and prove that last year was nothing more than an aberration caused at least in part by the uncertainty associated with Covid-19?
If there’s one thing that’s clear at this point, though, the Pioneers will once again have the on-ice personnel capable of answering all of those questions in a way that should make you, Denver Hockey fans, happy. Now, to be fair, we said the same thing last December, before the Omaha Pod started. But it’s September. A normal season with fans back in the stands is staring us all in the face. Slates have been wiped clean across the country. Every team is 0-0-0. So, let’s jump in and see what the Pios might have in store for fans of the Crimson & Gold this year.
Departed: Jack Doremus (Signed – ECHL Tulsa), Jaakko Heikkinen (Signed – Liiga Kouvolan Kiekko-65), Steven Jandric (transfer), Kohen Olischefski (transfer), Jake Durflinger (transfer), Hank Crone (transfer)
Incoming: Jack Devine (2022 Draft-Eligible), Carter Mazur (2021 3rd round pick, DET), Owen Ozar, Massimo Rizzo (2019 7th round pick, CAR), Cameron Wright (graduate transfer, Bowling Green)
Outlook: It’s no surprise to see major roster turnover in the forward group after the 2020-2021 squad struggled to score goals, especially gritty ones that the best Pioneer teams of the last decade prided themselves on. But as the Pioneers lose six forwards, they add tons of potential in Devine, who projects to be a first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, two more NHL draftees in Mazur & Rizzo, and Cameron Wright, who was one of Bowling Green’s four career 100-point scorers on its 2020-2021 roster.
This year’s freshman forward group should complement last year’s crop which included the likes of McKade Webster, Connor Caponi, and, of course, Carter Savoie, really well. There is no shortage of potential with this group. Jack Devine has been about a point-per-game type of player from all the way back in his U14 days to his recent seasons with the USNTDP U17 and U18 teams. Last year, he scored 9 goals and tallied 11 assists in 30 games with the U18 team, and earned a roster spot on the U18 World Junior Championships last Spring in Frisco, Texas.
Carter Mazur was the third of the three picks in the Pioneers’ historic 2021 NHL Draft – it was the first time in program history that three Pioneers were picked inside the first three rounds of the same draft. But don’t let the fact that Mazur was the third of the three taken do the talking. Let this video do it instead:
.@Carter_Mazur lit the lamp at the World Junior Summer Showcase this afternoon.
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) July 30, 2021
Mazur’s story as a Red Wings draft pick is a cool one but his ability to score is even cooler. Last year, wearing the ‘C’ for the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, the Detroit native scored 20 goals and tallied 24 assists for 44 points in 47 games. If you’re already beginning to daydream of a top line that might eventually feature Carter Savoie, Cole Guttman, and Mazur, rest assured, you’re not the only one.
Rounding out the incoming freshman forward class is Owen Ozar and college hockey name of the year candidate and 2019 Carolina Hurricanes draftee Massimo Rizzo. Ozar, a Prince Albert, Saskatchewan native, will be a college hockey classic 21-year old freshman. A year ago, with the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks, he scored 34 points on 15 goals and 19 assists in 52 games. Rizzo, just a year younger than Ozar at 20, scored 30 goals and 54 assists in 79 games for the Penticton Vees and Coquitlam Express in the BCHL over the past two seasons – the 2020-2021 BCHL season was canceled due to Covid-19.
Keep an eye on: the slot. Denver’s scoring problem a year ago started with their inability to fight and scrape their way to the net front. One of the reasons the Pioneers had so much success from 2015 to 2019 was their effort (and success) at creating a net-front presence, taking away the opposing goalie’s eyes, and being in the right place at the right time to tip in shots from the point or clean up rebounds. This is precisely the reason why Jarid Lukosevicius was so successful for the Pioneers. There was nary a time when he was on the ice and he wasn’t planted in the slot, right in front of the goaltender. Since ‘Luko’ graduated, the Pios have struggled to replicate that part of their game.
Enter Cameron Wright. Wright is a similar type of player to Lukosevicius. He loves to fight for position in the slot, prides himself on winning 50/50 battles in tough areas, and, most importantly, his bread and butter is scoring on tip-ins and rebounds. Sound familiar? Those qualities were the key reasons why when Luko graduated in 2019, he did so holding the program record for game-winning goals (20). Wright himself won’t be enough to solve the scoring problem that plagued the Pios a year ago, but his presence in the slot, right in front of the opposition’s goalie, should at least help DU find the back of the net at least a bit more often.
Departed: Griffin Mendel (transfer), Bo Hanson (transfer), Slava Demin (transfer)
Incoming: Sean Behrens (2021 2nd-round pick, COL), Shai Buium (2021 2nd-round pick, DET)
Outlook: Contrast the turnover in the forward group to the relatively normal degree of turnover with the Pios’ blueliner group. Denver loses three players to the transfer portal, two of whom – Mendel & Hanson – would have graduated if not for the NCAA’s Covid-19-related transfer & 5th year of eligibility waivers. Demin’s transfer came as a surprise to some when it happened, but if nothing else, it opened the door for more playing time for both of Denver’s incoming freshman wunderkinder, Behrens & Buium, both second-round picks in this summer’s NHL Draft and the other two draftees that made up the three Pios picked in the first three rounds. Add these two to a group of defensemen that already featured Antti Tuomisto (2019 2nd-round pick, DET) and Mike Benning (2020 4th-round pick, FLA) and the Pios should have one of the best top 4 defensemen in the country.
But what will Behrens and Buium really add to a group that has consistently been Denver’s biggest strength over the past decade? Well, allow this Behrens highlight from the World Junior Summer Showcase to show you:
Sean Behrens (COL) nearly with the highlight-reel assist. pic.twitter.com/wWDDrbh7ue
— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) July 30, 2021
Or maybe this one of Buium:
— IcehockeyGifs (@IcehockeyG) July 27, 2021
In Behrens and Buium, the Pios get two players who are strong with the puck, have no problem playing physically, and have strong 200-foot games. That’s not something that the Pioneers have necessarily lacked in the past decade but you can never have too many players like that and now the Pios have four of them potentially occupying their top two D-pairings.
2021-2022 will really be no different than any other recent year on defense. The blue line will once again be Denver’s biggest strength and source of stability throughout the year so be sure to watch this group closely to see how this group leads the team all over the ice.
Keep an eye on: Reid Irwin. The top 4 is a fairly known quantity. They’re going to be very good. But Irwin, a sophomore this year, is an under-the-radar type defenseman who showed a lot of value in very little playing time, appearing in just 12 of Denver’s 24 games last year. Irwin was a strong defender who got better as he earned more playing time and should factor in as more than just a depth piece this year. If you’ll remember, Irwin made his presence in the NCHC known with a two-goal effort – his first two goals as a collegiate player – against Colorado College in the Pios’ second game out of the Pod before scoring again two weeks later in a 4-1 win over North Dakota. Irwin won’t get the kind of press and attention that the rest of the defensemen will throughout the year but he’s definitely worth paying attention to.
Departed: Corbin Kaczperski (graduation)
Incoming: Matt Davis
Outlook: Lack of scoring was Denver’s biggest problem a year ago but close behind at #2 was goaltending inconsistency led by an uncharacteristically poor year from Magnus Chrona and a disappointing effort from then-graduate transfer Corbin Kaczperski. Last year, Chrona and Kaczperski combined for a 10-13-1 record, .890 SV%, and 2.75 GAA. Those numbers are Not Good™. Chrona did lead the way with a .907 SV% and 2.47 GAA thanks in large part to a stronger second-half performance but his performance certainly wasn’t good enough to make up for the scoring problems at the other end of the ice.
But, again, it’s a new season. Everyone is 0-0-0 and there is still reason for optimism. And remember, Chrona was named to the 2019-20 NCHC All-Rookie Team after posting a 16-6-4 record with a .920 SV% and 2.15 GAA. His 2020-2021 was a far cry from his freshman performance but there is plenty of reason to believe that he’ll rebound and play a lot more like his freshman self this year (plus, we already put an asterisk on last season, didn’t we?). No one is going to put more pressure on Chrona to do that than Chrona himself. Between an improved forward group that should better sustain possessions, an elite defensive core, and his own determination to improve on last year, Chrona should once again be a great netminder for the Pios.
Keep an eye on: Freshman goalie Matt Davis. Chrona will, of course, be the starter when the puck drops in a couple of weeks, but Chrona won’t play every minute of every game. The backup goalie responsibilities will likely fall on the shoulders of freshman Matt Davis, a 6’0″, 198 lbs goalie from Calgary. He was teammates with Mike Benning and Carter Savoie at Spruce Grove in the AJHL before spending last year with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. Though his numbers slipped a bit when he transitioned from the AJHL to the USHL, he has shown great potential and consistent numbers throughout his career. In his two years with the Saints, he went 55-16-3 with a .908 SV% and 2.24 GAA. Playing behind Chrona, he’ll have the ability to develop and get up to speed at the Division I level before being thrown into a starting role, possibly as early as next season if Chrona signs with the Sharks after this season.
It’s no secret that the Pioneers have a tough road ahead to prove that last year was nothing more than a disappointing flash in the pan. You could very easily make the argument that Denver was a very good team that simply didn’t play up to their potential last year but as they say, you are what your record says you are. At 10-13-1, the Pioneers were not a very good team. But that gives the 2021-2022 squad nowhere to go but up and boy, do they have the roster to make some noise this year.
Denver’s expectation year in and year out is to contend for the national title. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, and fans are, to put it kindly, concerned after last year. That sentiment is hard to blame. The Pioneers fell out of the USCHO Top 20 poll, a poll that is often meaningless though still a good barometer of success over time, for the first time since December 2013. However, they landed at #13 in the 2021-2022 preseason poll with one voter even ranking them #1 (it wasn’t us, we don’t even have a vote). Denver’s path back to contention, though, isn’t an easy one as they will play #2 St. Cloud State, #6 Minnesota Duluth, #7 Boston College, #8 North Dakota, #12 Providence, and #17 Omaha this year. That doesn’t even include Western Michigan and Arizona State, both of whom received votes and will certainly be ranked at some point this season.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism on the ice at the corner of University and Buchtel. No, Denver may not win their ninth national title this year (then again…maybe?) but the good news is the pieces appear to be in place to rebound and contend on a national scale once again, as they did for the five years preceding last year’s asterisk.
But if Denver isn’t going to win the 2022 national title, what are some reasonable expectations for the Pios? What are some things that they can do to consider this year a success?
First off, they can score more than three goals per game, something they failed to do last year. The logic here, which I hope won’t surprise you, is that generally when you score more goals, you win more games. Eclipsing the three goals per game mark is a great place to start.
But beyond stats, in terms of how the season ends, what would constitute a successful season? For starters, finishing in the top half of the conference and hosting the first round of the NCHC Tournament is the bare minimum. Since the NCHC’s inception, the Pioneers have failed to finish in the top half of the conference just twice and that is one key reason why they have never lost in the first round…which brings us to the next barometer of success. The Pios have made it to the NCHC semifinals in each of the conference’s seven years. Failing to make it that far for the first time, especially after advancing to the semifinal last year, would be a great disappointment.
And finally, the Pioneers need to return to the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Tournament and the Denver Pioneers go together better than Woody & Buzz or Bonnie & Clyde. One without the other just feels…wrong and empty. Should the Pioneers return to the NCAA Tournament, and there are no reasons why we shouldn’t expect them to, you can consider it a reasonably successful season, if only because of last year’s disappointment.
Are your expectations higher? Do you see things unfolding differently this year? Are there any other players you’re planning to keep an eye on? Sound off in the comments and then we’ll see you back at Magness Arena this Saturday as the Pioneers play Lindenwood University in an exhibition game (tickets)!
Top photo of the Miller Hockey Complex courtesy of the University of Denver