Last year’s college hockey season was weird.
Fans were forced to watch most games from home due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Some teams missed considerable amounts of time due to COVID outbreaks while others had their seasons cancelled altogether. For everyone, the season started later than normal.
But there’s reason for optimism this season. Fans will, like old times, return to college hockey arenas around the nation.
What didn’t change last season was the wide array of on-ice storylines throughout college hockey. That projects to be similar this year. Here are the five biggest storylines to watch.
1. Can UMass repeat?
Ah, yes. The age-old question: Can the team who won the championship last year do it again this year?
UMass doesn’t have a star-studded roster. The names don’t jump off the page like other highly ranked schools, although Josh Lopina is a budding star, Matthew Kessel appears to be next up to take a huge leap forward as a top, right-shot defenseman in college hockey and Bobby Trivigno is still a force to be reckoned with.
But the program being built by head coach Greg Carvel is one that’s proven to be sustainable. Under his five-year watch, UMass has substantially improved every single year.
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The question then becomes what’s next?
On defense, UMass lost two elite left-shot defensemen in Zac Jones and Marc Del Gaizo. The Minutemen also lost star goalie Filip Lindberg. In net, they’ll have fifth year Matt Murray, and according to Carvel, there will be lots of competition to fill spots on defense.
2. How good will Michigan actually be?
If there's ever been a super team in college hockey, this would be it.
The Wolverines have several players who will be dawning NHL sweaters within the next three to four years. Four of the first five picks from this past summer’s NHL draft will suit up for Michigan this season. The team boasts seven first-round picks and a total of 13 NHL draft picks.
The Wolverines didn’t even get to play Minnesota Duluth in the first round of regionals last spring due to COVID issues, so they’re ready to get back there next spring.
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What’s even scarier for opposing teams is Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson and Thomas Bordeleau are all entering their sophomore years, which has become the year that elite NHL prospects make a massive jump in college hockey. Cale Makar and Cole Caufield are the two most recent ones to do so.
This storyline leads perfectly into the next one…
3. The battle of Michigan and Minnesota
Having these two schools in the same conference is going to be very fun this season.
The preseason USCHO poll has Michigan ranked No. 3 and Minnesota at No. 4. The Big Ten preseason coaches poll picks Minnesota as the winner with Michigan coming in second.
In that Big Ten coaches poll, the first team consists of only players from Michigan and Minnesota — four Golden Gophers and two Wolverines. Even though Michigan has the NHL prospect firepower listed above, Minnesota has players like Ben Meyers, Sammy Walker and Jackson LaCombe who can always be counted on to make an impact when their skates hit the ice. Goaltender Jack LaFontaine projects to once again be one of the best puck-stoppers in college hockey.
Both schools had disappointing finishes in last year’s national tournament, which means both teams will be out for revenge in 2021-22.
4. Games of the year
The previous storyline leads nicely into this one. Michigan and Minnesota play each other four times this year. The two teams will first face off in Ann Arbor Dec. 3 and 4. The battle continues over a month later on Jan. 21 and 22 in Minneapolis. All are sure to be must-watch.
On Oct. 2 and 3, UMass will raise the national championship banner and open the season against No. 5 Minnesota State, who also snagged a spot in last spring’s Frozen Four.
What looks to end up being the two biggest games of the year will take place Jan. 8 and 9 when the national champs travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan. That will be a measuring stick game for both programs.
No. 2 St. Cloud State opens its season with a tough stretch. After two games against St. Thomas, the Huskies have two with No. 5 Minnesota State (Oct. 8 and 9), two with No. 4 Minnesota (Oct. 15 and 16) and then two with No. 11 Wisconsin (Oct. 22 and 23). All of those will be tests for the Huskies, but that first date with the Mavericks will be especially big.
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Keep an eye on when No. 6 Minnesota Duluth goes on the road to face No. 8 North Dakota on Nov. 19 and 20. Last time those two squads faced off was in the regional final last spring when it took five overtimes before the Bulldogs finally won.
Another team to watch in the early going is No. 9 Quinnipiac. The Bobcats play No. 7 Boston College in their second game and then open their home schedule with North Dakota. That won't be easy but if they perform well, it'll set the tone for a consistent top-10 rank throughout the season.
5. Hobey Baker candidates
Out of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists from last year, only two remain in college hockey — Dryden McKay of Minnesota State and LaFontaine. Both goalies project to be back on this list come spring 2022.
Power, Bordeleau, Beniers and Johnson, all sophomores at Michigan, are good bets to vie for Hobey Baker consideration this season. Yes, get ready to hear their names a lot this year.
Other sophomores who could have their names in the mix are defenseman Jake Sanderson of North Dakota and forward Veeti Miettinen of St. Cloud State. A junior who could also be in the mix is Meyers from Minnesota.
Trivigno from UMass and forward Brandon Kruse, a grad transfer from Bowling Green to Boston College, were both the highest-scoring players from last year who are still in college hockey. With Trivigno trying to get UMass to repeat and Kruse in a strong offensive unit with the Eagles, both should be solid candidates to get some Hobey Baker attention.
Some other names to watch are forward Jonny Evans of UConn, forward Will Calverley of RIT, defenseman Jordan Harris of Northeastern and forward Parker Ford of Providence.