Perhaps my favorite thing about men’s college hockey is the unpredictability. There are surprises every year. That’s why trying to predict how any season will end is pretty much a fool’s errand. Well, dear reader, this fool is ready to run this errand.
There is just about one thing that appears to have most everyone in agreement at this early stage of the year. The defending national champion Denver Pioneers are heavily favored to repeat. They’re No. 1 in both major polls, and a lot of the chatter around social media has the ol’ Pios a head above the rest of the country.
That Denver will raise the trophy again at the end of the season is nowhere close to a foregone conclusion, though. While I agree with the consensus that it is likely, I’m fascinated by what this season will hold. Not only that, but no team has won back-to-back national championships since Denver in 2004 and 2005. Once you get to the tournament anything can happen.
It’s a long road to even get to that point, though. So before we get into our “never too early” bracketology that is most certainly too early, here are a few thoughts on the season ahead:
Denver is going to be a fun team to watch. Even after losing Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, the Pioneers have a boatload of skill. DU returns all three of its top scorers from a season ago, including Troy Terry, Henrik Borgstrom and Dylan Gambrell. Last year’s Mike Richter Award winner, Tanner Jaillet, is also back for his senior season. Coach Jim Montgomery should be able to build on his impressive .665 winning percentage in his fifth year at the helm.
Boston University once again has a star-studded, but young team. The offense will be led by sophomore Patrick Harper and a pair of exciting freshmen – Brady Tkachuk, a projected top-five pick for the upcoming NHL Draft, and Ottawa Senators first-rounder Shane Bowers. Sophomore goalie Jake Oettinger is also back after being selected in the first round by the Dallas Stars, as is junior Jordan Greenway, who is expected to push for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
Which brings me to one of the interesting twists to this season. While we’re used to seeing a few college stars leave their teams around the holidays for the World Junior Championship, some veteran players will be tabbed for the Olympics as well. Terry and Greenway are among the most likely for the U.S., while Borgstrom looks like a strong candidate for Finland. Losing top players in February isn’t ideal, but now that the NHL is not participating in the Olympics, the door is open for NCAA stars to get a truly incredible opportunity.
RELATED: Players of the Week
The Olympics could have some interesting implications, depending on how many players leave. But it should only contribute more to what is expected to be a wide-open year behind the projected No. 1 Denver.
There will be a lot of exciting new talents like the aforementioned Tkachuk and Bowers, and other recent first-rounders like Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota/Buffalo Sabres), Josh Norris (Michigan/San Jose Sharks). St. Cloud State sophomore Ryan Poehling was also selected in the first round last June. Michigan freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes is another player getting big buzz ahead of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
We’ll also be watching how Notre Dame fares as the newest member of the Big Ten in hockey, and if Penn State can build off of its historic 2016-17 campaign. Can Northeastern turn their tremendous offensive attack into an NCAA tournament berth? Will Boston College and Michigan bounce back after disappointing 2016-17 campaigns? How will Minnesota Duluth respond to falling just short of the national title last year? Who will we see in St. Paul for the Frozen Four?
At this time of year, the questions go on and on and on. And we’ve got a whole season to answer them. But before we get to that, here’s my best guess as to what the tournament will look like with our “never too early” (definitely too early) bracketology.
Before we get started, it may help to understand how the committee makes its selections for the national tournament. That is explained in detail here.
1. Denver (NCHC)
2. Boston University (HEA)
3. Minnesota (B1G)
5. Minnesota Duluth
6. Harvard (ECAC)
7. Notre Dame
8. St. Cloud State
9. North Dakota
15. Michigan Tech (WCHA)
16. Air Force (Atlantic)
Others to watch: Minnesota State, Penn State, Clarkson, Boston College, Robert Morris
West – Sioux Falls, S.D.
1. DU vs. Air Force
Notre Dame vs. North Dakota
Explanation: The Pios are still tops and would be kept out west if at all possible. North Dakota is hosting this regional, so they’re automatically placed here. In order to avoid the in-conference matchup with St. Cloud in the first round, new Big Ten member Notre Dame slides in. I’m picking the Air Force Academy to win Atlantic hockey and secure the right to play the top overall seed.
Northeast – Worcester, Mass.
2. BU vs. Michigan Tech
Harvard vs. Providence
Explanation: Assuming BU can secure that No. 2 spot, it makes sense to keep them close to home. With the jumble caused in Fargo because of moving St. Cloud, Harvard and Providence move in here which helps for attendance. It stretches bracket integrity a little bit to make it happen, but I think it’s a move worth making. Meanwhile, I’ve got Michigan Tech as the WCHA winner over Minnesota State to take the second to last spot.
Midwest – Allentown, Pa.
3. Minnesota vs. Cornell
UMD vs. Northeastern
Explanation: I think Minnesota has a very strong roster this season and should be able to win the Big Ten and put up a pretty nice record to slide into a top-seed. Allentown wouldn’t be a terribly far drive for Cornell Big Red fans as an added bonus. Meanwhile, I shuffled things a little bit again to help attendance in Bridgeport. There wasn’t really anywhere convenient to put UMD and Northeastern without really throwing the bracket out of whack. Also, I have Penn State just on the outside looking in, but that was among my most agonizing decisions. If they’re in, they’re automatically in Allentown as regional hosts.
East – Bridgeport, Conn.
4. UMass-Lowell vs. Wisconsin
St. Cloud vs. Quinnipiac
Explanation: The rest of this just kind of fits. Though Quinnipiac is a three-seed on my bracket and not hosting the regional in their home state, there’s not a better place to put them. UMass-Lowell won’t have terribly far to travel. Meanwhile, St. Cloud had to be moved from its natural position to avoid the first-round matchup with conference foe North Dakota.