Last week in this space, I talked about how the current NCAA champion Denver Pioneers should be considered the favorite to repeat the feat once again in April.
However, there are a handful of other teams that likewise have a decent enough chance to make a claim to Denver’s title. As mentioned in brief last week, all those teams have much bigger question marks than Denver, but they’re worth exploring in depth before the season really gets going here (there were three games this past weekend, with half the playing teams entering the weekend nationally ranked).
The team currently considered to be the biggest threat to Denver’s dominance is, reasonably, Boston University, which entered the weekend No. 2 in the country and seemed to dispatch No. 16 Union with relative ease in a 4-1 win.
It was a little more difficult than the scoreline suggests — two BU goals were empty-netters and no one scored at 5-on-5 — but if you watched the game, you saw plenty of reason for the Terriers to be ranked so highly again, as well as the reason skeptics might be concerned about their reliability.
Jake Oettinger, occupying the BU crease, will almost certainly be asked to carry a bigger load than anyone, not just on his own team, but probably in the entire country.
For all its skill, BU only scored a little more than three goals a game last season, and less than that in conference play. There was a little more scoring the year before that, but not by a whole lot. So you have to reasonably ask: Is this the trend for the Terriers in the wake of Jack Eichel leaving school after his freshman season?
If so, Oettinger will not only be expected to replicate last season’s excellent .927 in about 90 percent of all BU’s minutes, but he might need to boost his usage rate (if the goaltending in Sunday’s exhibition are any indication) and keep up that same level of performance. BU finished plus-33 in goal difference last year, and if Oettinger had been merely .920, BU probably drops about a win and a half in the standings. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to matter for this team come tournament time.
It also goes without saying that BU doesn’t really have a Clayton Keller or Charlie McAvoy propping up their talent elsewhere. One might expect the high-danger chances both for and against to pull a little closer together.
Coach David Quinn has guys who look ready to take a step or two — Patrick Harper and Jordan Greenway up front, Dante Fabbro and Chad Krys at the back — and another host of talented freshmen including likely top-10 pick Brady Tkachuk and 2017 first-rounder Shane Bowers. But until they can prove capable of making up what the team shed in the offseason, well, we’re just letting them get by on their pedigree. And college hockey fans know how Quinn feels about that.
North Dakota is another team that always proves pesky come tournament time, and that’s a trend you can expect to continue this year as well. However, their question marks are even bigger than BU’s, if a bit similar. Likewise, the Fighting Hawks bring back a goaltender who is supposed to be great; Cam Johnson was dynamite in winning a national title as a freshman but took a step back last season mainly because the UND penalty kill couldn’t get anything done in front of him.
They also have to replace scoring from Brock Boeser and Tyson Jost, as well as No. 1 defenseman Tucker Poolman. It’s not easy, and if Johnson can’t improve on his awful .903 from last season (even if he doesn’t get back to the .935 he posted his freshman year) then it could be a long season in Grand Forks, even with the commensurate wealth of talent the team brings in annually and the roster of very good returning players – including Shayne Gersich.
UMass Lowell, too, will probably be a thorn in someone’s side all season long, despite losing two 50-point forwards and both of their top-pair defensemen. They win because they have the best coach in the country, bar none, and will continue to do so for the same reason. At this point you can basically set your watch to the River Hawks winning 21 games or more, making the tournament, and at least appearing in the Hockey East title game. It’s uncanny.
However, their ludicrous goal margin (plus-56) will be more than a little thinned-out with those offensive losses, and there are probably no good answers in terms of who’s going to even approach 40 points (maybe if we’re being a little generous, we can say Ryan Lohin), let alone 50, so it’s up to Rangers draft pick Tyler Wall, who went a respectable but not world-beating .918 last season, to step up his performance.
Minnesota, too, has itself well-positioned to walk into the NCAA tournament regardless of how it does in the Big Ten playoffs, but that’s a weird conference this year. The Gophers always have a lot of high-talent players and above-average goaltending, but the entire conference has been shaken up by the addition of a strong Notre Dame team and Penn State continuing its growth into a potential national power (their goal difference last year was plus-52, but their shot difference was plus-645!).
For that reason, Penn State should likewise be considered a potential national spoiler but one imagines you’d like to see a little more show-me from the all guys who finished shooting above 10 percent. Not that they can’t make up the issue on volume, but it’s worth a sideways look for now.
But what really shakes up the Big Ten this year is Wisconsin getting former St. Lawrence goaltender Kyle Hayton (career .932) to transfer in. The Badgers’ goaltending last year was horrid at .885, and even as the Big Ten is consistently the worst goaltending conference in the country, that was a number that shouldn’t have gotten it done most nights. But the roster was so talented, and the coaching so good last year they still won 20 games and just missed the tournament.
Now, Hayton doesn’t have to be electrifying to improve on .885; in the Badgers’ first game of the year, he stopped 20 of 22, which is .909 and only-okay as a national number. But in the Big Ten that’s such a huge difference-maker. And obviously we can probably expect that number to keep going up.
The one team I think is really worth talking about here, though, is Providence College, which won the national title in 2015. They turned over nothing but their top four defensemen, and while that’s a lot of D to lose, they’re also on-boarding a talented group focused on moving the puck with a little more efficiency. They didn’t score a ton of goals last year and they’ll need to improve on that, but like Lowell, Providence has an elite-level coach who’s going to ensure the Friars play within their system and all that.
Their biggest question mark could be in net, but I doubt it. Hayden Hawkey had an awful start last year for a few reasons, going .899 in his first 15 games. But once things got a little settled, he went .922 in the final 24 contests. Given what Providence goalies usually do (.920-plus, and they typically clear it by a good margin), it’s reasonable to expect he’ll deliver. Moreover, they seem to really like backup Gabriel Mollot-Hill, who’s already 20 and 6-foot-4, to push for more minutes than the Friars could give to last year’s backups when Hawkey struggled.
Realistically, only one team can lift the NCAA championship trophy at the end of the year, and right now the favorite is Denver, but this group of several other teams wouldn’t need a whole lot of help to at least push the Pios more than anyone could last year come tournament time.
Nonetheless, they should all be considered “trailing the leader” until proven otherwise.