The University of Denver Pioneers were one of the two or three best teams in the country for the entirety of the 2016-17 season.
Soon after the start of last season, they ripped off a 14-game unbeaten streak. They closed the season winning five straight, and 18 of 19, and outscored opponents in the NCAA tournament by a combined score of 20-8. In those four games, against some of the best teams in the country, they never trailed, and were tied for less than 30 minutes out of the 160 they played.
And here’s the bad news for the rest of the college hockey landscape:
They bring almost everybody back.
The notable loss, the one that stings the most, is obviously that of Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, a senior defenseman who signed with the Devils and was probably the best defenseman in the country in each of the past two seasons. They suffered no early departures, and only two forwards who cleared 20 points last season graduated.
These are important losses, though Butcher will be nearly impossible to replace, but it could have — hell, probably should have — been a lot worse.
Many expected Troy Terry, who led the team in scoring as a sophomore and was drafted by Anaheim in 2015, to leave early. The same is true of 2016 Florida first-rounder Henrik Borgström, who was just two points behind Terry as a freshman. And also 2016 Sharks second-rounder Dylan Gambrell, who was a point back of Borgström. Or maybe undrafted junior goaltender Tanner Jaillet, who went .929 last season and played the vast majority of Denver’s minutes.
All four of those players were selected to the NCHC All-Conference team, which is understandable. They’re very much known quantities, and the quantities of goals both scored and saved they provide this year will likely be considerable.
And hell, there were even rumors their brilliant coach, Jim Montgomery, would bolt for the NHL. He was specifically mentioned, often, in connection with the Florida job, but the Panthers went in a different direction.
Oh, and they are largely considered to have one of the better recruiting classes in the country once again this year.
So while there are plenty of teams nationwide we can reasonably expect to be very good this year — Boston University, North Dakota, Providence College, Minnesota-Duluth, UMass Lowell, etc. — they all have to reasonably fall short of the Pioneers.
“I think on paper this is the most talented team I’ve had at Denver, but it’s teams that win championships,” Montgomery said at NCHC’s media day. “Every year you have to grow your team as the players have to grow. You have new leaders…how they keep each other accountable that’s the stuff.. and then how do people on ice fit together…that’s the fun part, but the nuts and bolts of how you win championships is how you become a real good team that communicates well and trusts each other”
Not to give this sort of thing too much credence, but in the nation’s first preseason poll, Denver was picked as the top team in the country by 48 of the 50 voters, and frankly the two who picked Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth should be tested for a concussion or something.
Both did, however, have Denver second, so the brain trauma can’t have been too severe.
A few weeks ago I came up with a very simple predictive model that spit out results for what teams had coming back versus the national average, across goals, save percentage and shot differential, then adjusts for quality of the conference. The results were mostly what I might have expected to be a pretty good national top-10 (even if the model couldn’t account for the talent of incoming players or how much last year’s backups will probably play). The model rated Denver and Penn State — where University Park has become the shot-volume capitol of college hockey, and they bring back a ton of talent — well above anyone else even in the top 10. Denver’s rating in this regard was also more than double the next-closest team in their conference, the nails-tough NCHC.
The riches the Pioneers bring back for another go-round are borderline embarrassing. More than 76 percent of their goals, and 73 percent of their shots on goal come back. Jaillet was the goalie of record in 85 percent of their wins. And with a coach who has a basically perfect system in place — Denver outshot opponents by 9.8 shots per game last year, despite leading in the vast majority of their total TOI — there’s little reason to expect a drop-off in performance.
The only qualifiers here are these: First, it’s back-to-back-or-bust for Denver, at least insofar as that’s a reasonable expectation for a national championship that brings back so much. It’s hard to win a national title even if you’re the best team in the country.
Also, senior defenseman Tariq Hammond, who will be counted on to carry a heavy load in Butcher’s absence, might not be ready to start the season, having broken his ankle in the third period of the national championship game. He’s skating and is expected to be ready starting with the regular season, which for Denver begins on Oct. 13 against a solid Notre Dame team in South Bend.
Again, replacing Butcher will be next to impossible, and will therefore have to be done by committee (though with that having been said, while it’s impossible to replace the best player in the country, it should be said that he, fortunately, just one man.)
“I think how hard we are going to be to play against is going to be our biggest challenge,” Montgomery said. “Besides Will Butcher, we had five seniors that played every night, that understood their role, embraced it and were incredibly consistent in how hard they were to play against. Getting our third and fourth lines to do the same things they did last year is going to be the work in progress.”
All of which is to say Denver has a very small number of question marks. The question marks for other teams, even those considered at or near the top of the country, are many.
Take, for example, the fact that Harvard — currently polling at fourth in the country and one of the other two teams to get a first-place vote — returns less than half its goalscoring from last season. Duluth — ranked sixth — returns less than 40 percent of its goals, and also saw its goalie leave school early. Both those teams will likely be fine, at a minimum, in terms of making the NCAA tournament, but the fact remains, it’s impossible to see how they can be considered on Denver’s level.
No. 7 North Dakota has to replace the quality of Brock Boeser, Tyson Jost, and Tucker Poolman, all of whom were vital to their dangerous offense, as well as a solid defenseman in Gage Ausmus. No. 2 BU lost its top two centers, No. 1 defenseman, and an improving top-six winger. No. 5 Lowell saw its two best forwards and top two defensemen leave as well. The various abilities of coaches or other players to make up for those losses should be there, but to what extent, we don’t know. And can’t.
And Denver is more than prepared to take on the ups and downs of the season as they come.
“We’re going to try to tweak a couple areas to be even more aggressive with our puck pressure,” Montgomery said. “With the puck, we’re just going to try to evolve from where we were last year. I think by the end of the year last year we were a well-oiled machine and the last two years we’ve scored at least a goal and a half per game more post-Christmas than we have pre-Christmas, so I hopefully we continue to get better throughout the year offensively.”
Everything is, of course, unknown, but if Denver doesn’t follow up last year’s “one-of-the-three-best-teams-in-the-country” performance from last year with an encore, it would be a big surprise and bigger disappointment.